If you’ve been involved with traditional Christian culture long enough, at some point you’ve heard the term “biblical.” This word is used as an adjective, a descriptor of sorts. The point of labeling something as biblical is to let you know that it’s of good Christian quality. No skim milk Christianity over here! It’s the good stuff, chock full of biblical vitamins and minerals from the solid rock that is Christ. (See what I did there?)
In this context, labeling something as biblical works like a seal of approval or some type of quality control. So calling something biblical basically means this:
It’s an assurance of quality and distinction. We don’t just have marriages like everyone else, we have BIBLICAL marriages. We aren’t going to teach our boys how to be men, we’re going to teach them about BIBLICAL manhood. There are also biblical diets, biblical comedy, and biblical styles of clothing. Biblical is the polite way to separate the spiritual stuff from that other, worldly stuff. You know, the sheep from the goats. Biblical is better.
There’s a big problem with this though. Actually, there are several big problems with it, problems that usually go unnoticed. Here are a few.
1. “Biblical” is a Christian code word for Conservative
When the word biblical is used to describe something, it almost always points toward a traditional, conservative interpretation of the text. What’s biblical marriage? Well, that means it’s only one man and one woman. Biblical womanhood? Have a soft, gentle spirit. Biblical stewardship? Tithe your ten percent. It’s used as a retort against more liberal leanings. This is a bit unfair, because it undergirds the connotation that a conservative reading is the only correct reading. That’s…just not accurate.
Also, calling something biblical is an easy way to push conservative politics. It’s a bite-sized word used to deliver a big message.
Instead of saying all of this:
“I’m pro-life, for guns, no gay marriage, no gay rights, no social safety net programs, evolution in science classrooms, and Jesus should be president.”
You can just say this.
“I promote a biblical way of living.”
See? Simple. If you say biblical, everyone knows what you’re talking about. Biblical doesn’t mean “It’s in the book,” but it’s a certain way of reading and understanding the book. A book that even people with conservative leanings read in different ways. You realize that even conservative Christians disagree on some very big stuff: predestination, women in ministry, spiritual gifts, church structure. Those aren’t little issues. Using biblical as an adjective obscures that reality. Which leads us to our next point.
2. Calling one strain of thought “biblical” silences diverse and divergent voices in Scripture
Most people who use the word biblical believe that various humans were inspired by the Spirit of God to write the documents that ended up being the Holy Bible. The belief also dictates that the 66 documents that make up the Bible are all consistent with each other because God guided the writing. The issue with this is simple: using the word biblical creates the assumption that the Bible is a unified book that says exactly the same thing in every place. It does not.
There is change, diversity, and movement in the history of the Israelite people, and even the people of the New Testament. Of course those shifts would be evident in their writings. There view of themselves, of the world, even of God changes. The biggest leap of all is that the God of the Bible somehow changes from an angry, jealous, warlord to a loving God full of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ (many theologians have tried their hand at dealing with that major difference). The term biblical gives a false sense of simplistic unity and harmonious internal consistency, when historically that hasn’t been the case. The debate on why and how certain parts of scripture fit together has been going on for centuries, not by unbelievers, but Christians themselves.
3. “Biblical” = Correct
As much as I love Scripture, it tends to make for horrible discussions because of how the text tends to be used. Let’s say you’re talking about a controversial topic, something that has a multitude of legitimate approaches and understandings. Everyone could share his or her opinions and experiences that lead them to their conclusions. They could disagree and express why.
Or they can say something like this:
“Well, the Bible says…”*
“That’s not a biblical understanding…”
This is a problem as well. The underlying assumption is that “biblical” means correct. Labeling something as biblical is a shorthand way of asserting that this is the only correct opinion to have on a topic that appears, or we assume appears, in scripture. This is certainly true for some topics, but which ones? We would all disagree on those. One of the biggest surprises and well-kept secrets to Christians, especially ones with an evangelical formation, is that there has always been a multitude of ways to look at various theological issues. And if a Christian is aware of them at all, there tends to be wariness about these “other sources” because they usually challenge strongly held assumptions.
But there’s something else a little more insidious about assuming that biblical means correct. Holding that belief shuts down fruitful conversation. No one learns from anyone if the conversation becomes a debate. Anytime someone uses, “The Bible says,” to force a point, it’s kind of like throwing down the draw four card right when someone says, “uno.”
The draw four card in Uno is all but unbeatable. I can cry. I can gripe. I can moan. But the draw four is there. Pick up your four cards, as well as your sorry loser face, and move on. This happens all the time, smacking Bible verses on the table with the assurance of winning the game. It shuts down dialog and sharing. I have to disagree with you, the Bible, and God all at the same time, and all i have in my hand is a red six and a blue skip in my hand. If I dare present something that challenges what you’ve been taught, challenges God’s word, it makes it that much harder to have successful and mutual understanding.
Labeling something as biblical gives you added protection from having your views challenged and cover from the consequences of those views. “I didn’t say it, God did! If you’re mad, take it up with Jesus!” Scripture then becomes definitive statements about everything, and not a starting point.
4. A “Biblical” understanding ignores the text
By now we should’ve grasped that calling things biblical can be extremely problematic because of the connotations. (If not, start of the beginning of this post and read it again until it clicks. Apply liberally.) If the thought is that the Bible says the same thing over and over again, then there’s almost no reason to actually…you know…read it. Because you’ve been told what it says already. Who needs to read closely and critically when you are already know what it means from jump? This is a bad error, because a close reading will at least bring up some important questions to work through.
Trust me, there are many things in the Bible that I don’t think any of use want to take as biblical. AT ALL. Even the most conservative of us would bristle at some of the stuff in here. Personally, my threshold is a bit lower. Not being able to eat cheeseburgers is enough to make me jump ship (see Exodus 23:19).
So, let’s imagine that we take the idea behind “being biblical” to it’s logical conclusions. This is going to be fun. Ready? Let’s play!
Things that are Biblical
“This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)
“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9) (How’s that for pro-life?)
Killing Your Daughter to Honor Your Vows
“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’”(Judges 11:30-1, 34-5)
Things that are not Biblical, and therefore eliminated
(Just pick a woman…or several…and pay for them)
The Water Cycle
(They believed it rained when God opened a window in the dome that held the water back in the sky. Yes, really)
(Slavery was a common part of life, everywhere)
(Unless you’re a prostitute)
(Unless you’re a slave or a prostitute)
Pretty clothes and make-up on women
(It’s called pigskin and you can’t touch it. Can’t be too careful here.)
(Gluttony is a sin, so I guess it’s a sin to be American too)
(One of the words in the sin list of Galatians 5 is where we get our word “pharmacy” from. Throw your Advil away)
I admit, I’m being a little silly with the list. But I want to at least demonstrate what other people think when they hear the term biblical. It’s just not a good look to use the word to describe how to view the Bible or Christian faith. Yes, the text is very important, but its complexity shouldn’t be reduced to pithy buzzwords. So the next time you want to call something biblical, think about why you want to label it as such, and perhaps find a way to be clearer in your description.
*Saying “The Bible says,” is a bit faulty. The Bible doesn’t talk. It needs to be read and interpreted. It’s another way we operate with the assumption that truth and ideas are just waiting to jump off of the page.
**Oh, me and a friend of mine recorded a podcast about this topic. Listen to it here: https://soundcloud.com/dell-and-jess/biblical-smiblical.
Verdell has multiple divinity and religious degrees from Howard Univ and Wesley Theological Seminary. He loves Superman and you can find him in the pulpit 1st Sundays of the month.