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.