I’d Rather Be Christlike Than Biblical

A modest proposal: evangelicals should stop using the word biblical as an adjective and intentionally replace it with the word Christlike.

Why? Because if we don’t become more careful with our words, we are in serious danger of “winning a culture war, but losing a generation.” Words have power. The specific words people choose to use in a conversation are packed with the potential to shape the outcome of a certain question or discussion. For instance, consider the difference between calling certain actions torture or enhanced interrogation techniques or the implications that come with labeling something war or genocide. In the case of evangelicalism, I think that choosing our words more carefully might be one way out of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

How will an an adjective-replacement project help evangelicals be faithful to the Gospel? Well, simply imagine how this might have changed the rhetoric surrounding the recent World Vision controversy. As Michael W. Pahl points out in an excellent analysis of the World Vision controversy, much of the disagreement took place between so-called “biblical Christians” and “Jesus Christians.” Bible Christians claimed that World Vision had abandoned biblical principles and that in the name of supporting the Bible as many as 10,000 children in poverty should lose their sponsorship. Jesus Christians made the case that serving the least of these is the hallmark of Christlikeness and that withdrawing support from a child over doctrinal issues could never be considered a Jesus-endorsed action.

This is a clear instance where the urge to “stand with the Bible” led evangelicals off the train-tracks of the Gospel and into the swampy ditches of culture wars. And my generation won’t stand for it. I promise you.

If you really stop to think about it, the word “biblical” is not that great as an adjective anyway. We hurl around terms like “biblical principles” or “biblical values,” often ignorant of the ways that the Bible can, and has, been used to support all kinds of awful things. Being “biblical” does not ensure that we are being faithful Christians. Genocide can, and has, been called biblical – see the conquest narratives in Joshua. Slavery can, and has, been called biblical – see Exodus 21:21. Opposition to interracial marriage can, and has, been called biblical. It’s time to acknowledge that being “biblical” is simply not enough to ensure that one is also being a Christian.

Please don’t mistake my intentions. I’m not a hyper-liberal Christian who doesn’t believe in the authority of the Scriptures. I am a biblical studies guy. I can do the dirty exegetical work. My undergrad degrees were in Biblical Hebrew and Greek. But I am more committed to Jesus than I am to exegesis. Further, I recognize that it is theologically suspect to elevate a commitment to the Bible as the standard of Christian faithfulness. Certain circles of evangelicalism are in serious danger of idolizing the Bible. Jesus, not the Scriptures, is the true Word of God. The Scriptures give witness to the Word of God, but they are not the Word of God. The Bible needs to be interpreted through the lens of Christ (John 5:39) – a truth that can be easily fumbled over when people are holding a fistful of clobber texts in the middle of a culture war.

How might our conversations change if the benchmark of Christian faithfulness wasn’t being “biblical,” but being Christlike? I do my best to be biblical. But at the end of the day, I’d much rather be Christlike.

28 thoughts on “I’d Rather Be Christlike Than Biblical

  1. Well said, Mike. I would like to reemphasize the changing nature of biblical interpretation that you alluded to. What is “acceptable” and “not acceptable” to one generation of Christians is often different for another. Any casual study of the history of Christianity will easily demonstrate this. I often find that many of the legalistic proclamations, what you should and shouldn’t do, are negotiable and open to debate and not central to the Gospel message.This is why I think Jesus told us what the greatest commandment is, as well as the one that follows. He knew that we humans constantly get hung up on do and don’t lists and, in so doing, we often–dare I say usually–miss the big idea. The World Vision flap is a perfect example. Holding poor and hungry children hostage to a doctrinal issue is deplorable and definitely not in keeping with the character of Jesus. I’m not a hyper-liberal person, either. I was raised evangelical, and I still maintain some of those views, though today I’d prefer the term “traditional” or “mostly orthodox.”. I’ve definitely been rethinking a lot of things lately. I appreciate your blog and others I read to help me sort things out.

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  2. I think I agree with your general principle Mike, especially this: “The Bible needs to be interpreted through the lens of Christ (John 5:39) – a truth that can be easily fumbled over when people are holding a fistful of clobber texts in the middle of a culture war.” I think that the adjective “Biblical” can be used appropriately (the vast majority of our access to Christ is, of course, located in the Biblical), but should be used more cautiously and with an awareness of what we’re actually trying to say.

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  3. Very well thought out post. I do get your point, and see its validity. Thanks for sharing this as I often use these terms interchangeably, but can see how a considerable amount of confusion could exist without properly defining what is meant by each. Great thoughts.

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  4. Hello Mike. ” I’m not a hyper-liberal Christian who doesn’t believe in the authority of the Scriptures. ”

    I fear I might be guilty of that label 🙂
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

    According to my own experience, branding the Bible as a coherent document which always ought to be believed leads many people to grave faith crises:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/advice-for-a-struggling-christian/

    “Certain circles of evangelicalism are in serious danger of idolizing the Bible. ”
    I think it is more than a danger, unfortunately.

    Best wishes.

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  5. Well played, Mikey. Though, I would say that we could use the adjective “biblical” if we redefined how we saw the Bible. Maybe something like this:
    Inerrancy — “When the whole Bible is read faithfully by the whole Church, then it (the Bible) will not lead her (the Church) into error.”
    Whole Bible = no proof-texting (Protestant problem 1)
    Faithfully = no blatant misapplication, while accepting a plurality of possible applications, some better than others. (Protestant problem 2)
    Whole Church = not just the egghead academics, and not just the common man. (original Catholic problem – limiting reading capability)
    Seeing the Bible in this light would lead us to being more Christlike, regardless. In that case, biblical and Christlike would be one and the same…

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      1. So you’ve heard it too. That’s good. Very good… glad I’m getting at least some of the same education you got…

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  6. Excellent point, Mike! I fully concur. And re: the WorldVision debuncle, it would have been better handeled with either the organisation having realized the backlash it was causing and stick nevertheless to its decision, or not making that decision in the first place. It seems that the World Vision Board has distanced itself from the major organisations that openly support it. They must have done their studies and analyzes of what this would do. And so suddenly to go back on that decision, it says something else to me… For the record, I think & understand from my studies that the original plan of the Creator was that a marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman. This is the biblical standard. But on the other hand, Jesus sat down with “sinners”, like prostitutes, taxcollectors, and you and me. I know it is easy to say this, but I would have liked them to stick to the original plan.

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  7. Sorry, can’t help to respond….

    “It’s time to acknowledge that being “biblical” is simply not enough to ensure that one is also being a Christian.”

    So much to agree with, however, some need to acknowledge that simply claiming to be “Christlike” is not enough to ensure that one is also being a Christian.

    Furthermore, I never quite understand statements like “But I am more committed to Jesus than I am to exegesis.” Not sure how that works. And I don’t understand how the irony can’t be seen in statements like “The Bible needs to be interpreted through the lens of Christ (John 5:39).” Argument like these are so modern, they beg some levity with a drum roll and a clash of a cymbal. The either or categories seem to always play a part in attempting to sound postmodern or biblical (sorry I mean sound like Jesus). Frankly exchanging “biblical” for “Christlike” and setting up the argument to sound more spiritual, more mature, heck, even to sound more biblical that conservatives who are claiming the desire to be “biblical” is just playing with words and doing the exact same thing as those whom they are trying to chasten. Sorry, I favor exegesis over the opposite; I’d rather be found faithful to the text than anything else so that I might be BOTH biblical and Christlike. Now, let’s argue over what it means to be “Christlike” which is so loaded with bias in the first place.

    Disclaimer….I am one of the first to teach Michael Pahl exegesis!

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  8. Sorry for the second comment, but Ken Sparks did a good piece on this, his most recent work, “Sacred Word, Broken Word.” It gives a more mature perspective on Scripture, I think… and how we can move it away from the … kind of … object of worship it’s become.

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  9. I do get what you’re saying. How would you respond though to someone who responds to, ‘I’d Rather Be Christlike Than Biblical’ with “the only way most people would know about Christ is through the bible”?

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    1. I’d say we can be more specific: “the only way most people would know about Christ is through ** the Gospels ** … ”

      Regardless, I have nothing against the Bible 🙂 . . . My real area of contention is with biblical interpretations that aren’t christocentric (and thus read passages outside of and apart from God’s revelation in Christ).

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