The wrong filter

Quick question: What is the most overused question in Bible study settings? Any idea?

When a Sunday School teacher or Bible study leader has read a passage of Scripture they often look up from the text and ask this question…

“What does that mean to you?”

gallery2Note: I don’t have any “hard statistical evidence” to support the claim that this is the “most overused” question in Bible study settings? But it is used a lot.

This question is typically followed with a “discussion time” where each person will answer the question with the phrase, “To me this means (insert your own meaning here).”

Have you ever experienced this kind of class? Many of us have — and it’s a horrible way to study the Bible. That sort of reasoning presupposes a lot of things that are flat-out wrong. It can lead to conclusions that are absolutely contrary to Scripture. Let me give you some examples.

Many people who claim to be evangelical Christians actively campaign for the legitimacy of homosexuality. One group, Soulforce, has been particularly active. Their website is loaded with resources for “Christians” who want to promote homosexuality. In one place you may order an award-winning documentary entitled, “For the Bible Tells Me So.” According to Soulforce this film, “brilliantly reconciles homosexuality and Biblical scripture, and in the process reveals that Church-sanctioned anti-gay bias is based almost solely upon a significant (and often malicious) misinterpretation of the Bible.”

Oprah Winfrey once had a couple of “religious leaders” on her show who proclaimed being gay is a gift from God. Oprah loved it. The audience loved it. No consideration to what Scripture said.

Note: This article is NOT about homosexuality. Homosexuality is merely the example I used to illustrate a point. For the purpose of this article we will assume the Bible clearly defines homosexuality as sinful (which it does). The purpose of this article is to answer the following question…

How do people who claim to be Christians end up with such a skewed view of Scripture? The Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as sinful and yet there are people — who profess to follow Christ — defending something God clearly abhors. Some go so far as to characterize it as a “blessing from God.”

How does this happen?

It happens as a result of that overused question I mentioned earlier and the presuppositions attached to it. It happens as a result of the Oprah-ization of American Christianity. It happens because we use the wrong filter.

Oprah, and many like her, have built huge careers helping people “get in touch with their feelings.” With any given topic we are all asked…

  • “How does this make you feel?”
  • “What does your heart tell you?”
  • “What does this mean to you?”

Let me be perfectly clear. Where God’s standard of right and wrong — righteousness and sin — are concerned our feelings mean precisely squat.

During the time of the Judges Israel was under a curse. The culmination of that curse is summarized in Judges 17:6, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Sounds great, right? Except that when God leaves us to our own devices, when he turns us loose to be subject to our own judgment it is a terrible thing.

Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

bibleYou see, we are fallen creatures. All of us have sinful natures which distort our view of what is righteous. Things that seem right to us will lead us to death. And this is the fatal flaw with the question, “What does this mean to you?” That question presupposes that we have the ability to judge for ourselves what any given passage of Scripture means on the basis of our feelings. Scripture does not mean one thing for one person and something completely different for another. It means what it means. Our job is to determine the right meaning. And our feelings should play no part in finding that meaning.

Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The problem with our modern approach to “Bible study” is we filter the Bible through our feelings to determine its meaning — when what we ought to be doing is filtering our feelings through the Bible to determine their meaning.

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About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

6 Responses to The wrong filter

  1. Richey says:

    who would have thought you could get this level of theological understanding from a red shirt?

  2. Brandon says:

    It’s the difference between exegesis and isegesis. Many people just refuse to let the Bible speak for itself and determine it’s own meaning. You might as well not even call it Bible study if the interpretation is going to come from whatever you think about the Bible.

  3. Ant says:

    Chip, you have raised up some good questions. Maybe we shouldn’t use our feelings to interpret scripture. But then I ask, what can we use to interpret scripture? You quoted Isaiah which states that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. So, we can’t use our thoughts, because we are humans corrupted by this sin. How do we let the Bible speak for itself, when we will always be the one’s interpreting it? I feel pretty helpless as a Christian if I can’t think or feel when reading the Bible.
    It is pretty clear that people translate passages of the Bible very differently. Like you said, there are some Christians who don’t think homosexuality is a sin. By the way, I don’t appreciate the quotation marks around the word Christians. That seems to be a very harsh judgement, which is very clearly unbiblical. Because you judged other Christians I will now refer to you as a “Christian.” I think what we should realize is that as humans, we may never be able to perfectly interpret the Bible. Chip isn’t always right and neither is Ant, but God is. I don’t think any human gets into heaven and gets everything right. But the great thing about God is that getting everything right is not the ticket to eternal salvation.

  4. Chip says:

    Ant,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment. Allow me to try to clarify some points.

    First, I did not say that we should not think or feel when reading Scripture. What I said was we should not bring our predetermined ideas to Scripture and then try to make Scripture conform to ideas we’ve already determined as right or wrong. Instead, we should come to Scripture with the understanding that we will conform our ideas to what Scripture says, even if that means changing our minds about what we have previously thought. This is a hard thing to do, but it is necessary. There have been several occasions in my Christian life when I’ve had to change my mind about certain beliefs because my beliefs were contrary to Scripture. Our feelings about any subject are irrelevant — the only thing that matters is what God says in his Word on the subject. The primary point of this post is this: We don’t use our feelings to interpret Scripture, we use Scripture to interpret our feelings.

    You asked the question: “What can we use to interpret Scripture?” The answer is this: We use Scripture to interpret Scripture. In a lot of cases the Bible could not be more clear. For example, the Bible says “…all have sinned…” That is clear. We have all sinned. My feelings on whether or not all have sinned don’t matter. God has made it clear. However, there are some subjects where the Bible is not quite as clear. In those cases you look for other verses in the Bible that address the same topic. You use other parts of the Bible to help you better understand the passages that aren’t as easily understood. But our feelings are never an appropriate gauge of biblical interpretation.

    Second, When I state that there are some Christians who don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, I did not mean to imply that their point of view had any merit. Quite the contrary, I intended to point out how even Christians can allow their own feelings on something to cloud their judgment, even when Scripture is clear. I put quotation marks around the word “Christians” in a specific context. Go read it again. The group Soul Force is nothing but an advocacy group for homosexuality. Providing a website with resources intended to help “Christians” promote a lifestyle God has clearly condemned as sinful is no different than a website providing resources for “Christians” to promote theft, or murder, or adultery — they are all sins. Promoting them as legitimate is to ignore God’s clear instructions in Scripture and casts some doubt as to whether or not the website is actually Christian in nature or something else.

    There are, no doubt, some actual Christians involved with Soul Force. They are misguided. They have done exactly what this post warns against. But, there are many more people in Soul Force who are not Christians who are seeking only to use the name “Christian” as a means of lending legitimacy to a deviant lifestyle. If a Christian wants a resource for learning about homosexuality I would recommend the Bible. Find out what the Bible says, and then conform your beliefs accordingly.

    Third, you said that by putting quotation marks around the word “Christian” that I made a harsh judgment — one that is “very clearly unbiblical”. The Bible does NOT issue a prohibition on Christians holding other Christians accountable. Quite the contrary is true. We are to hold one another accountable. What the Bible DOES tell us is to not use unbiblical or arbitrary standards when holding another believer to account. My judgment in the above post was not made using a standard I made up. I am using God’s standard, as clearly issued in Scripture, as a means of holding other believers to account. It is the exact same standard I would want other believers to use when holding me to account.

    Finally: We need to reject the modern notion that we can’t know anything for certain and therefore should be accepting of any belief, no matter how unbiblical it may seem. There are things we most certainly CAN know for certain. And when we find those things in Scripture we are to conform our beliefs to them — NOT try to twist the words of Scripture to make it conform to us.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  5. Pingback: The Need for Discernment | Thideology™

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