Archives For Discipleship

There is no question learning about God involves coming face-to-face with mystery. A Bible in your hand and questions in your head don’t guarantee all the answers you seek will come to light. Indeed, this is the Supreme Being of whom Romans 11:33 declares, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” This probably means, among many things, some of the answers we are seeking from God about God may remain a mystery in this life. I know I’ve bumped up against the mystery of God in my own journey. How does it work with Jesus being fully God and fully man? How does God’s sovereignty work with man’s responsibility in salvation? Why did God allow Bro-country into the world? Mysteries one and all.

However, and this is important to get if you’re serious about matters of faith, you don’t get points for saying something is a mystery in the Scriptures if those Scriptures are clear about that something. Too often I hear people refer to something about God or Christianity as a mystery when the Bible is clear in its answer. Parroting that response is disingenuous to real seekers of truth. It’s as cheap as debating an issue where you’ve only cut-and-paste content from a Google search while acting like you researched the subject thoroughly. Neither is honest or helpful.

Frankly, saying something’s a mystery (when it’s not) could simply be a backhanded way of rebelling against God’s Word because we don’t want to have to deal with the straightforward teaching of Scripture – that it’s either too demanding of us, too against what popular culture embraces, or makes us too different than we’d prefer. That’s no way to seek after God. It only gives the illusion of seriousness when the truth is we don’t want to know or accept the truth.

Let’s be clear for seekers and believers both, don’t be dishonest in searching for answers about God, man, and everything else in the Scripture. You will face mysteries and you will face things that aren’t. So, it’s only mystery when it’s a mystery. If it’s not, then it’s a truth to be embraced.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed
belong to us and to our children forever…

– Deuteronomy 29:29

My last post shared that I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, which tells the story of a young man’s attempt to convince others why they don’t need Christ as their Savior. The novel is rich in many ways, not the least of which is how O’Connor presciently exposes the modern-day consumer approach to Christianity we find today in America. 1 In the story a man named Hoover Shoats, a huckster peddling himself as Onnie Jay Holy, preaches to the public about a brand new kind of Christianity he believes people will want to buy into…literally. 2 Shoats, in his homespun Southern drawl, gives three reasons why the masses “can trust this [new kind of] church“:

#1: It’s a church where there’s no mystery
and you have everything figured out.

 “…you don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.” 3

#2: It’s a church where you get to interpret
the Bible however you feel.

“…It’s based on your own personal interpritation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interprit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interprited. That’s right, just the way Jesus would have done it.” 4

#3: It’s a church where you are the expert
and no one knows better than you.

“…This church is up-to-date! When you’re in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all that cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!5

The desire for Shoats’ new brand of Christianity is alive and well today. I hear it from people every so often, if not with their words, at least in spirit:

  • I want a Christianity where I can figure it all out and nothing troubles me about following Jesus.
  • I want a Christianity that agrees with my moral sensibilities and endorses the things I endorse.
  • I want a Christianity that keeps me where I am spiritually and protects me from others telling me what I should believe or practice.

Fortunately, Shoats has just the church for them. He calls it “the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.”

Did you catch that? It’s pretty straight-forward.

O’Connor wants readers to understand that not only is this type of Christianity one which finds great appeal to our modern, consumerist, Western sensibilities but, more importantly, that it isn’t Christianity. In other words, if this is the kind of Christianity you want, then you don’t really want Christianity. Why? Because Shoats’ brand of faith appeals to people who, ultimately, want what Jesus offers but don’t want Jesus…really. They like the Savior part of who Jesus is but pass on the whole “Lord” thing because it would demand they submit to Christ, link arms with his community (the local church), and willing be led by others (e.g., pastors/shepherds/elders/etc.). But to do this one would have to choose Jesus over his love for individualism, consumerism, and isolationism. He would have to choose the way of repentance and obedience. He would have to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord. Simply put, he would have to embrace Jesus as Jesus.

If he doesn’t want to do that.

  • If he wants to never struggle with the demands of following Jesus…
  • If he wants to embrace certain parts of the Bible because it reinforces his worldview while rejecting (or reinterpreting) the parts of the Scripture that contradict it…
  • If he wants to be free from a community where people can speak into his life, character, and conduct for the sake of personal holiness; or the idea of anyone telling him what to do, period…

…he can go to church, it just won’t be the one where Jesus is.

It will be the church of Christ without Christ.

Notes:

  1. Wise Blood was published more than 60 years ago (1952).
  2. $1 according to Shoats. “Not too much to pay to unlock that little rose of sweetness inside you!” (O’Connor, Wise Blood, 86-87)
  3. Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, ‘Wise Blood’, 86.
  4. Ibid, 86-87.
  5. Ibid, 87.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,
for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:16-17

It was a moment indelibly imprinted in my memory. I was an undergrad student at Baylor and speaking with one of my religion professors about the exclusivity of salvation in Christ. The professor was kind to entertain the dialogue, and it was a friendly, good-spirited encounter. But what stood out in our conversation was a comment he made. In our discussion I referenced a Pauline passage in support of the idea that God saves people solely through the Person and Work of Christ and asked what he thought about that specific biblical text. He simply responded, “Well Yancey, I hope Paul was wrong.” It wasn’t a debate on whether the text in question was genuinely scriptural of whether I might have misinterpreted the passage, my professor simply believed that the apostle was wrong. I was taken back by his frankness but appreciated his honesty.

As an evangelical Christian, I believe the entire corpus of the Bible is inspired by God. The technical definition is verbal-plenary inspiration. In essence, I believe the original writings of the Scriptures (known as the original manuscripts) contain all the words God wanted for them, and none that he didn’t. In short, it’s all the Word of God. My job as a follower of Jesus is to read it faithfully, interpret it soundly, and apply it sincerely. There is no question in our studying the Bible we will encounter difficult to understand passages (cf., 2 Pt. 3:16) or sections which push against our worldview, yet our call is to know what the Bible says as God’s Word and apply it as such. The option followers of Jesus don’t have is to dismiss any Scripture simply because we disagree with it.

That’s why when I hear professing Christians today offer explanations for their rejection of positions or beliefs God’s people have held for literally millennia from reading their Bibles (e.g. sexuality, gender roles, marriage), I hear the echo of my old professor’s voice belying his trust in the total inspiration of Scripture. But culture is a mean mistress, for in order to be embraced by her, she calls followers of Jesus to separate from biblical authority by either deluding them to conjure fantastical if not bizarre exegetical claims of fairly straightforward passages or, as in the case of my professor, to simply deny their inspiration altogether. Consequently, the Bible is treated like the drunk uncle at the family reunion. You have to keep him around because he’s family, but you’re embarrassed by him every now and then for what he says and does. Thus, you’re always either having to tell your friends “what he really means” or just ignore him altogether.

This exposes not the weakness of Scripture, but the one who, in trying to be embraced by the world, seeks to tweak it, silence it, or apologize for it. In their attempt to “dress up” the drunk uncle of Scripture with new interpretations and understandings that no believer in two millennia would ever conclude, they merely display their embarrassment of the Bible. It says things that now might make us persona non grata in the public square, marginalize us in national conversations, or just keep us from being the cool kids anymore. That’s why if we can’t make certain biblical passages disappear, we invent ways to make them more socially palatable, hoping the culture doesn’t shift any further lest our drunk uncle embarrass us even more.

Others take the route of my old professor. Instead of looking silly trying to convince everyone that the Bible doesn’t say what it clearly says, they advocate biblical authors were simply wrong. Recently Rob Bell, the former pastor and current self-help guru for Oprah, when asked what he thought of the church’s refusal to embrace same-sex marriage, replied, “I think culture is already there [with same-sex marriage] and the Church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” 1 The Bible? Listen, the Scriptures are wrong on this. Christians need not look to it as an authority on this issue and follow the culture. At least Bell is honest, the rest give off the idea they’re simply embarrassed.

Neither of these approaches to Scripture cut it. The Bible doesn’t give an easy way out for those who claim to follow Jesus. Passages like 2 Tim. 3:16-17 affirm the totality of the Bible’s inspiration, not to mention Jesus’ own endorsement of Scripture (cf., Mt. 5:18) and its authority. I’m mindful of John 6 where, after Jesus taught some “hard sayings,” verses 66-68 record, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'” Wrestling with what God’s Word says is part-and-parcel of following Jesus, but rewriting or rejecting what it says, isn’t.

It’s only embarrassing.