Every once in awhile I realize that I use a word I don’t know the meaning of – like grace or gospel. It usually when one of my kids asks me what it means and I find myself tongue-tied. When I ask around, I discover that no-one else knows what it means either. Yet we toss these words around like we all get it.
The word “biblical” is one of these. I read books and hear preachers and teachers throw around that word and the twin underlying assumptions that we are all supposed to be biblical and that we all know what that looks like.
But we don’t.
As I have grappled with questions about God and the Bible, I have learned what a confusing word “biblical” is. It could mean many different things:
- of or pertaining to the Bible
- found in the Bible
- specifically taught by the Bible
- specifically taught by a certain denomination or a pastor from the Bible (which is always selective – “we do these things, we don’t do those things”)
If you are speaking to people inside your specific religious group, they might understand what you mean when you say “biblical.” But only if you’ve taught them your definition. Outside those narrow confines, people could understand it to mean anything, and your ability to communicate clearly with the word dissolves.
Without carefully defining what we mean when we use the word “biblical,” we can come across as supporting all manner of horrific things.
Here’s what I mean. If someone hears “biblical” and thinks “in the Bible,” they could understand you to mean you justify polygamous marriage, genocide, or slavery of some sort (maybe not the kind of slavery we fought a war over, it could be the slavery of patriarchy — of wives and children). All of those are offensive and repulsive to me, but they are found in the Bible, and not just practiced by God’s enemies. All of these have been practiced at various times throughout history by Christians because they justified them in the Bible.
I use that example to point out the fallacy that Christians often fall into: that “biblical” is simple concept to understand. This is a concept called “perspicuity of Scripture.” Oh the irony to use a word no-one knows for the idea that the Bible is easy to understand (to which I respond, “You have not read Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Revelation!”) An ancient book written in a foreign language to an ancient culture as different from ours as night is from day cannot be simple to understand. If you are reading and applying it at face value, and if you take that to its ultimate end, you could justify being a polygamous slave-owner who commits genocide against those who are different.
To be fair, my conservative friends and family do not believe in polygamy, genocide, or slave-ownership. So what DO they mean, and how did they arrive at it? Who says what is and is not biblical? How do they decide?
When I dug into those questions, I discovered that the process of defining “biblical” turns out to be quite complicated and subject to ongoing debate.
I’m also not so sure this is a worthy endeavor. I think we should stop and ask the question “Is being biblical supposed to be our goal?” What if trying to be biblical is like trying to be Polish – you either are or you aren’t? What if the changes in our lives are done to us and in us by God after we commit to following and serving Him?
One thing Christians agree on is that Jesus and his disciples taught that we are to imitate Jesus. We tend to disagree on what all that entails, but we agree that Jesus lived the perfect life and is therefore our perfect role-model. Even better, people outside individual sects of Christianity understand who Jesus was and what it means to imitate him.
Let’s quit talking about being biblical and instead focus on loving and serving and imitating Jesus.