Along the Way: What About the Bible?

A review of Church history reveals that when critical issues emerge in the Church, alongside the particular topic is the larger matter of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. [1] Some groups claim they are “biblical” and allege others are “unbiblical.” But a closer look reveals that claim is bogus.

Nevertheless, this “straw man” tactic has continued to be used to create false and deceptive right/wrong thinking. We find ourselves once again in such a season. In the midst of controversy over human sexuality, conservatives are alleging that they are the biblical ones, with others being less so—or not at all.

Their recruitment mantra is, ‘Come with us. We are the ones who believe the Bible.” And taken at face value, who wouldn’t want to do that? Problem is, the “we are the biblical ones and they are not” is a lie. It is a lie that is fueling the fire of divisiveness in the nation and in the Church. [2] I write to show that this is so. I begin with a testimony, so there is no doubt what kind of Christian I am, and where I stand relative to the Bible.

I believe in the inspiration and authority as much as any conservative you will ever meet. I do not hesitate to say with John Wesley that “I am a man of one book,” standing for Scriptural Christianity as much as anyone you might know or meet. Here I stand. And many others do as well, despite being caricatured and maligned under a false pretense of being unbiblical.

Three key false allegations allow the biblical/unbiblical lie to stand and to be promulgated. It is happening in the larger conservative Christian community [3] but I am most familiar with the three manifestations in the United Methodist Church.

The first one is using individual variations to justify denominational indictment. In my denomination the conservatives have lied in saying that the denomination no longer affirms doctrines like the virgin birth or the resurrection. That is not true. Of course, there are individual people who may not affirm some things, but that is a far cry from being able to allege the entire denomination has abandoned orthodoxy. Inflating individual variation to the level of institutional infidelity is ludicrous.

The conservatives have their own Achilles’ heel in this regard. One example suffices. Some in their group affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, while others do not. But individual variation is not sufficient grounds for anyone to say that the whole group has abandoned inerrancy. That is, they would never stand for such a false equation of individualism and institutionalism to be made against them, yet they conflate the two when disparaging the United Methodist Church. The biblical/unbiblical allegation is false because it elevates individual differences to the “straw man” status of denominational indictment.

The second false allegation is that progressives do not believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. But we do—I do, as I said above.

The issue is not inspiration and authority, it is interpretation (hermeneutics). Interestingly, some of my conservative friends have said, “Steve, you are right. It is about differences of interpretation, not revelation.” When I ask them why they are not willing to come clean and admit this, the response has been, “If we acknowledge that a progressive interpretation is biblical, it weakens our position.” And that, of course, is precisely what they are unwilling to do—unwilling to admit there are valid, credible, scholarly interpretations (put forward by equally-devoted Jesus followers) other than theirs. [4] And my jaw drops in disbelief that anyone would hide the truth in order to make their position appear to be the only “biblical” view when they know it is not.

The third false allegation is that the historic Church has been uniform in its theology of Scripture and sub-topics like human sexuality. The fact is, there has been much more diversity in orthodoxy than conservatives allege. In Wesleyan language, conservatives have attempted to claim their position is orthodox (i.e. correct) when it is more nearly a doctrine or (in some cases) an opinion—that is, not the only way to look at it.

These three false allegations bring us to the need to ask, ‘So what is true with regard to the United Methodist Church’s view of Scripture?” The answer is plain and readily available. It is in Part III of the Book of Discipline. You can read it for yourself, and when you do, you will find (among other things) these foundational affirmations…

(1) The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church (in effect since 1784), in which the Bible is declared to be “Holy Scripture” containing “all things necessary to salvation.”

(2) The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (in effect since 1963), in which the Bible is declared to contain all things necessary for salvation, and it is “to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

(3) The Theological Task of the United Methodist Church, which in relation to the Bible is to recognize it is primary (authoritave)—“the living core of the Christian faith.” A long, 12-paragraph section spells this out in detail.

The sum of all is this, United Methodists are biblical, no matter what others may allege. To be led to believe otherwise is deceptive and wrong. It is past time to call out the “straw man” that caricatures the truth.

In our nation and in other denominations right now the same biblical/unbiblical false allegation is being leveled at progressives by conservatives. And while there are things we do not agree on, and over which we disagree vigorously, the belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture is not one of them. It is past the time to name the falsehood and move forward in ways that do not require lies in order to be believed.

[1] I have identified a dozen such issues, and all of them contain claims by one group that they were “biblical” and others “unbiblical.”

[2] My own denomination, The United Methodist Church is in the midst of this controversy, with its episcopacy, agencies, seminaries, and ordination processes alleged to be “unbiblical.” As with the larger, national dynamics, the charge within the UMC is not true.

[3] David Gushee exposes the false allegations in the larger conservative Christian community in his two books, ‘Still Christian’ and ‘Beyond Evangelicalism.’ Diana Butler Bass has recently exposed similar falsehoods in the Christian Fundamentalism movement, with posts on her.”The Cottage” site. Beyond these two people, numerous books about Christian Nationalism uncover the biblical/unbiblical deception used to preserve power and control and advance its “MAGA Jesus” message.

[4] In the “LGBTQ+ Resources” icon on the Oboedire home page I provide a list of books, articles, and resources to validate this claim.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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