I’ll admit, that’s a pretty clickbaity title, but bear with me. First of all, what is the point of the Bible? If you asked a Christian, they would probably say something like, “to learn about God and how to live a Christian life.” Probably other things too, it’s a big book.
And that’s the problem: the Bible is a very big, very complex book (66 of them, actually). There is history, Jewish law, poetry, prophesies, letters to people, and more. The Bible also has a lot of R-rated sections, more than even most Christians realize sometimes. One thing I have seen when people attack Christians and the Bible specifically is that they point to a particularly gruesome section and say, “Wow, this is your moral compass?” They also make the charge of hypocrisy since we have a holy book with all these terrible things in it that we don’t actually believe we should do. An example of this might be Judges 11, where the judge Jephthah makes an idiotic vow that if God helps him defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he gets home. What did he think was going to happen? Anyway, it turns out it’s his daughter. He’s trapped by his vow and so he sacrifices her, something neither he, nor God, nor anyone wanted him to do.
That’s a horrific story, but here is where it is important to divide the Bible into two areas: descriptive and prescriptive. Simply put, descriptive means “this happened” and prescriptive means “you should do this.” The majority of the Bible is description, and we know this intuitively. Otherwise, all Christians would build an ark, build a wall around Jerusalem, go on a missionary journey around Turkey and Greece, and so on.
The problem is deciding which parts are which. Here are some principles I think we can use:
- The characters in the Bible are flawed people
The Bible is pretty clear about what is good to do and what isn’t and yet it is also brutally honest about the people in it, even the people we might call heroes of the faith. There are only a few people in it that are covered universally positively and none of these (except Jesus, of course) takes up more than a few verses. Critics of the Bible might point to, say, Abraham (who pretended his wife was his sister because he was afraid for his life), and wonder how we could see him as any sort of an example of how to live. First of all, no one said anyone in the Bible except Jesus is perfect and no one said we should emulate everything they do. Also, that is precisely the point of Christianity, that God uses us despite our flaws and sins. We don’t have to be perfect to be used by God, just willing to trust him and be used by him.
- Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law
The Jewish law (usually considered the first five books of the Bible), which is the majority of the you-should-do-this portion of the Old Testament, is just that: it’s the Jewish law, and so it is not something that Christians have to follow.
“Wait, what about the Ten Commandments?” you’re probably saying, if you’re still reading after that last paragraph. Clearly, we need to follow those. Yes and no, in my opinion. We can’t just forget them, but in the Gospels Jesus reveals the principles behind the commandments that we need to follow.
A lot of Christians probably routinely break the 4th commandment by doing some sort of work on Saturday (or Sunday), but the point behind the commandment is to rest and make time for God and for things besides work. On the other hand, some of the principles are much harder than the commandments: not only is adultery a sin, but also lustful thoughts; not only is murder bad, but also murderous hate for someone (Matthew 5:21-22, 27).
There is obviously value in the Old Testament, which is why it’s there, but it’s not a rule book for Christians to follow. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.
- You have to take verses in the context of the whole Bible
It is very easy to cherry pick verses of the Bible to make a case for one thing or another—so easy, in fact, that people have been doing it since the Bible was a thing, I’m sure. We must remember that the Bible was written to specific groups of people in specific cultures for specific purposes. There are universals in the Bible, but also a lot of things that are cultural for that time.
For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV). It seems pretty clear that Paul doesn’t approve of women teachers and pastors, but I think if you look at the New Testament as a whole, you can see that this is not a universal of the Christian faith, but a cultural point specific to that time and even then, possibly just Paul’s opinion.
At this point, critics could make the charge that we are just revising parts of the Bible that aren’t socially acceptable anymore, to which I would respond: yes, exactly. The central tenets of Christianity do not—and cannot—change: specifically “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27, NIV). That is what we should do and that should never change. How we carry out a lot of the aspects of the religion we call Christianity do change with time and culture.
In conclusion, the Bible has a lot of purposes and Christians are not claiming that every verse is something that we should do. Clearly, we should each study the Bible to see what it really says. There is, of course, a lot of debate on what parts of the Bible Christians today should follow, but this is my take on things. What do you think?