The Bible is God’s word, right? That means the rules and standards in the Bible are God’s rules and standards, right?
Well… it’s not quite that simple.
The Bible has quite a number of rules and standards in it. For some people, the rules have been their primary experience of the Bible. In fact for some it’s the rules that have become the hurdle to get over.
Do all the rules apply? How can they when some of the rules seem to be in conflict? Does it make sense that rules and standards set up for a different culture thousands of years ago would equally apply today? Aren’t some of these rules just used by people to control others?
These are all fair questions. This is the 2nd entry in my series called, “How to read the Bible when you’ve got really good reasons not to.” This week: How to read the Bible when it seems like just a list of out-of-date rules.
Unfortunately, we were not able to get a video of this presentation, so this week reading is your only option. It’s a huge bummer.
From time to time, you’ll hear some preacher hold forth on the state of our country. He’ll (It’s almost always a man) point out the terrible ills in society and the ever increasing immorality. With waving arms, he’ll decry Biblical illiteracy. He’ll say if only there was more Bible reading, more Bible believing, more following of rules in the Bible, the tide would be reversed. This prescription people like this give, however, it won’t make a difference.
I spent fifteen years working with high school students who had grown up in a conservative Christian church and community. Most of them had been in Bible classes since they could sit still. They had been memorizing scripture their whole lives. I have never met before or since a group of kids with so much exposure to the Bible.
Yet they were generally not any more spiritual than other kids I’ve met. Many of them didn’t have any sense of a relationship with God. As this cohort of students grew up and started their adult lives, I watched a large swath leave the church of their childhood. Quite a number left Christianity altogether. Even though they knew the Bible like the back of their hands!
Or maybe they left, exactly because they knew their Bible so well.
They had been taught the Bible. They had memorized Bible verses. They sat through sermon after sermon. But what they heard, for many of them, didn’t make enough difference for them to stay.
Just The Rules.
We start our kids on the Bible with the stories. Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Noah and the Ark. David and Goliath. Jesus and the children. But slowly, over time, we take our focus off the stories and shift to the rules.
We teach that the Bible is a manual for living, that it is the revelation of God’s will for how we ought to live. Those rules become the guiding standard. Who is in? Who is out? Who will we pat on the back? Who will we correct?
Those kids that I worked with, many of them came to see the Bible much like a religious HR manual, God’s Policy and Procedures Manual. Useful, if you have something to look up, but otherwise, not something you spend a lot of time with.
Worse, as those kids grew up, they started having experiences that the Bible didn’t have easy answers for.
- How do you honor your parents when they are in the middle of a mean-spirited divorce?
- How can the Bible offer guidance for dating, when that wasn’t even a concept in the 1st and 2nd century?
- How do you reconcile seemingly conflicting standards in the Bible? Like the standard to love your neighbor as yourself and the church’s often hurtful and exclusionary stance toward LGBT people?
If the Bible’s mostly rules, that’s not inspiring. If the Bible’s mostly ancient rules from a culture we’re not a part of, that’s not motivating. The result of this thinking is that many of those kids don’t have much of a place in their life for the Bible and its counsel.
Your story may be different from these students, but many people share this same belief about the Bible. They think it’s nothing more than an antiquated book of religious rules meant to govern your behavior.
This isn’t a crazy belief to hold. The Bible certainly does contain its share of rules. The books Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are in many parts a collection of the laws of the ancient nation of Israel. The prophets often condemned people’s behavior. Even in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul left us a handful of lists citing good behaviors and bad ones. There’s no question that there are rules and standards in the Bible. But is that the whole story?
What is the Bible For?
I was raised with the idea that the Bible was God’s Word, God’s complete revelation on what is true and what is right. That meant that if I could know the Bible well, I could have a handle on what was true and what was right. I’d be spiritually secure. I’d be honoring God. I’d have a life that God blessed.
I still think the Bible is vital for a relationship with God. I think that it is a unique and Divine source of truth. However, I want to suggest something that you may find challenging:
The main purpose of the Bible is not to guide our behavior.
(Wait, what?! Did he just say that? Yes. I’ll say it again.)
The main purpose of the Bible is not to guide our behavior. Behavior matters. It’s a crucial part of our lives. But the Bible is much broader than the things we avoid or the things we do. Listen to the claims in the Bible about the purpose of scripture.
We’ve been studying John’s gospel for a while now. At the end of that book, the author gives us insight into why it was written:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name. – John 20:30-31
John’s Gospel was written for a specific purpose: so that you could be engaged by the story of Jesus and moved to believe in Him.
While the context of this verse is specifically about the gospel of John, it points us in an interesting direction for scripture as a whole.
Scripture’s purpose is not primarily to be a collection of God’s will on how you should live and what you should think. It’s purpose is to guide you into a relationship with God that gives life!
In the book of Romans, Paul makes a different statement about scripture’s purpose.
For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures. – Romans 15:4
When Paul says, “whatever was written in the past” he is referring to the Old Testament. Does he say these scriptures were written so that we could know all the rules and behave better? Not at all.
He says that all the scripture written in the past was written so that we might have hope and encouragement. Hope and encouragement! That’s something altogether different than rules and regulations.
God’s purpose is that scripture would lead you to Jesus, give you life and give you hope.
How to see the Bible as more than rules.
Now, there certainly are rules and standards in the Bible. Many of them serve to make life better and help us see clearly how to love God and the people around us. But rules and standards aren’t the point of the Bible. So, if you’ve struggled with this road block — seeing the Bible as nothing more than a rule book, full of anachronistic standards from an out-dated culture — how can you move forward?
1. Get some Perspective.
First, get some perspective. The verses that talk about behavior, rules, and guidelines are a fraction of the what’s in here.
The Bible is made up of something more than 31,000 verses. By the widest possible definition, about 6000 of those verses are instructions or commands. That’s not 6000 separate commands. Most of those are duplication and repetition. The ancient Jewish teachers determined that there were 613 separate rules in the Old Testament. The New Testament adds just a few more.
So, from the broadest viewpoint, less than 3% of the Bible is made up of rules. That means that more than 97% of the Bible is something else. 97%. That seems important. It also means that objectively we have to see the Bible as something more than just a list of rules.
2. Pay attention to context.
Second, when it comes to reading those rules, we must pay attention to context. If you’re quoting the Bible to someone, and you’re not paying attention to the context, then you are making up your own story.
Every passage of scripture falls within a certain context. That means that every rule or standard also exists in a certain context.
- Who wrote the words?
- Who were they were writing to?
- Where do these words fall in the story or argument?
- What book are they in?
- What was the historical circumstance of the author and the audience?
- Where does this passage fall in the over-arching narrative of the whole Bible?
If you’re not paying attention to that stuff, you are not really reading the Bible. Why? Because if you believe in inspiration, then you believe God chose the person, the time and the place for those words to be delivered. The context is part of the inspiration.
When you read rules or standards in the Bible, and you pay attention to the context, you start to discover some interesting things.
Some rules seem to be universal. They are affirmed in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and in the wider culture — like the prohibition against stealing, or incest. But many of the rules in the Bible aren’t universal.
Some were for very specific people in specific circumstances. So, Leviticus 21:10 says that priests are forbidden from disheveling their hair or tearing their clothes. That’s a rule, but it’s only for Jewish priests, so it doesn’t apply to you. There’s a whole lot of those kinds of rules.
Others have been superseded by better standards. Deuteronomy 22 lays out a consequence for rape that today we find horrific. It says that if a man rapes a virgin, he has to pay her father a bride price and then is obligated to marry her.
That rule existed in a deeply patriarchal society where women only had value as property, and culture considered the real victim to be the woman’s father. As crazy as it sounds to us today, that rule also provided a kind of security, in a world where an unmarried woman who was not a virgin would have absolutely no means of support. But we can all happily agree that this rule was culturally specific and isn’t binding on us today. There’s a quite a number of rules like that.
Some of the rules are not things we follow today, and there’s no controversy around it. So, Leviticus 25:37 says that money is not to be lent with interest, and food is not to be sold for profit. We clearly don’t follow those rules, and churches aren’t lined up outside of grocery stores with angry signs protesting the profit that the grocers are making on our vegetables.
It’s always fair to ask if those culturally conditioned commands represent a principle that might apply today. Can interest or profits on food be a tool of exploration? You bet. Would Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves limit the type of interest we might charge or the level of profit we might pursue when selling necessities like food? It probably ought to. There’s something valuable to consider there.
We just have to keep in mind that when we come to rules in the Bible, we can’t quote a single verse in isolation and know that we’re getting at God’s will for us today.
2nd Timothy 3:16 claims that scripture is good for teaching and has authority in our lives. But there’s no verse that claims the Bible is a comprehensive manual governing every choice we have to make. We have to read, we have to think, we have to pay attention to context, and we have to ask God to guide us.
3. Pay attention to Maturity.
Third, we need to pay attention to maturity. Even iron-clad universal rules are about something more important than behavior.
Think of it like this. How do good parents relate to their children when it comes to rules? Parents enforce certain rules strictly for their toddlers. You can’t cross the street. You can’t touch the knives in the kitchen. You may not hit your sister. The rules are black and white and strongly enforced.
As that kid matures, do the parents keep enforcing those rules in the same way? Not in a healthy family. Some rules change. Some rules fall away. Other rules are added. You can cross the street on your own, but you can’t drive the car. You can use the kitchen knives with permission, but you can’t own a gun.
Does that mean the original rules were wrong? No! It would be naive and superficial to make that claim. Behind each of those rules were principles. A good parent wants to see their children healthy and whole. The rules were just a developmentally-appropriate expression of the principle that mattered.
When that kid becomes an adult, the rules will fall by the wayside, but hopefully the principles they expressed will have been embedded deeply in the fabric of their character. In every case, the rule serves a more important governing principle.
When you come across rules in scripture, keep this in mind. What is the principle behind the rule?
Here’s an example. I was raised with the idea that the Ten Commandments are the perfect revelation of God’s character. These ten rules were given by God as a universal standard for us to follow.
I don’t think that anymore. I still think the Ten Commandments matter. I think they came from God.
But I also think the Ten Commandments are a very low standard. They are rules for toddlers. Here’s what I mean. The 8th commandment is “Do not steal.” That’s a basic rule for community. If we’re going to get along, we need to respect each other’s stuff. But that’s not a standard for high quality, loving relationships. It’s a lowest-common-denominator-rule.
How does that rule mature? Paul talks about stealing in Ephesians 4:28. Listen to the difference:
The thief must no longer steal. Instead, he must do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need. – Ephesians 4:28
The thief must no longer steal. That’s an echo of the 8th commandment. Do not steal. But then the rule matures. Instead of stealing, do something else: do honest work. Why? So you can earn your own money. Earn your own money instead of stealing. That’s better, right? But it goes even further. Do honest work, why? “So that he has something to share with anyone in need.”
So, instead of just ruling out theft, Paul pushes further and says, if we’re going to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’re not just going to avoid stealing. Instead, we’re going to become the kind of people who take care of other people’s needs.
Jesus gave us the ultimate rule for life. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is college-level thinking. “Thou shalt not steal” is just a toddler-level application that can help you get on track with what ultimately matters — treating the people around you with love. So, when you come across rules in the Bible, you always have to think of them in light of spiritual maturity.
4. Remember the Big Story.
Finally, remember that every rule or standard falls inside of a much larger story. All the books of the Bible come together to tell this larger story. They come from different cultures and contexts, different authors, but they weave together into a greater tapestry.
The theme of the tapestry is not the rules or your behavior.
The theme is what God has done among a certain family of people that started with Abraham, and how through that, God is inviting you to participate into a relationship.
You already know that I’m a huge fan of The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones. If you’re looking to reinvigorate your experience of the Bible this summer, reading this through would be a great start for you.
The introduction makes a vital point for how we read and experience the Bible.
Some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what [God] has done.
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times, they are downright mean.
No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves…
…There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them. It takes [all the books in the] the whole Bible to tell this story. And at the center of the story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in the puzzle—the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.” – The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones, “The story and the song,” p. 12
If you’re stuck with this derailing belief that the Bible is nothing more than uninspiring and out-of-date rules, it’s time to set that aside. The Bible carries a story for you. A story meant to inspire, motivate and shape you. A story meant to introduce you to God and help you understand yourself and your calling in the world.
There are some instructions, some guidelines, some rules. But those only matter in the context of a relationship with God. Christians, running around telling other people what the Bible says about how they should live, have completely missed the point.
God’s wisdom for living only makes sense in the context of a relationship with God. So, let go of focusing on the rules. Get to know the One who wants to speak to you through these ancient words. Get to know Jesus and Jesus’ heart for you and the world.
I promise that as you do, The Holy Spirit will do something in your heart. The rules that matter will be brought to your attention, and the ones the don’t will fade into the background—and all of it will be a part of your growing relationship with God.