The bible is frequently referred to as God’s Word, God’s Law, or God’s Rule Book—our road map, a light to guide us, a manual for living. These descriptions are very common but gross mischaracterizations of the bible that are used to support a view of God as King/Master/Judge/ and man as subject/slave/criminal defendant.
For the record, I don’t necessarily have a problem with occasional lordship references to God, because properly used, they portray some truth. However, when our view of God is skewed toward His being the Big Boss Up In The Sky, and we His bevy of menial servants, we tend to lose sight of the familial relationship that God desires. The over-portrayal of God as the Ultimate Master of Human Slaves distorts the relationship between man and God by its implication that we have a religious obligation to follow a set of rules in order to earn God’s favor.
Another effect of this mischaracterization of the bible is that it places Christians on a precarious foundation when they attempt to engage the culture. They see some detrimental societal condition or action, and they feel compelled to speak against it, resulting in—nothing. The culture doesn’t change, and the Christian community (and I use the term community very loosely) wonders why it has lost its influence. To remedy this, Christians, in an attempt to force compliance with their moral code, have largely aligned themselves with one of America’s two main political parties. Which is ironic, because Christians claim to have The Answer to society’s problems. Apparently, that answer is only effective if it is legislated into law so that the masses can be forced to comply with it.
Some of the leaders in Christian institutions recognize the futility of this course of action—to a point. They acknowledge that Christians are not making much of an impact on the culture. Their conclusion, though, is that they have been arguing for the need for social morality from a personal preference standpoint rather than an authoritative standpoint. Their solution? Use the phrase “Thus saith the Lord….”
In essence, what they are saying is that Christians, when addressing some socially-acceptable sin, must boldly proclaim that said act is wrong, because God says so in the Bible. (“We must stand on the Word!”) The thought process is that Christians have apparently gotten to a place where they are afraid to cite God as the authority for what is right and wrong, and have instead used the much less impactful term family values to persuade society to adopt Christian mores. They think that Christians have lost their social influence because they are ashamed to attribute their convictions to their belief in God’s Word. Their proclamations have no persuasive power because they are founded on personal preference rather than the solid “authority” of the bible. Their solution is to transfer the Christian worldview from a foundation of personal preference or blind faith to a foundation of religious legalism.
I think we can all agree that human society is in a world of hurt. While we experience much good in society, that goodness is constantly at war with the ever-present problems of violence and greed. But using the bible as God’s Rulebook to guide social behavior only serves to move society from one precarious foundation to another—from relativism to legalism—both of which are incapable of leading humanity out of darkness into light.
Consider the way the story of the fall of humanity is used. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is almost always portrayed by Western Christians as a loyalty test. In other words, God had to give man a choice to love or reject Him, so He dropped a forbidden cookie jar in front of them, giving them an enticing avenue of rebellion. After the fall, the theory goes, God began issuing a host of laws, presumably to guide us out of our sinful state. These laws essentially began with the ten commandments, and ended with some of the more debated instructions the apostles issued in the new testament.
Many people view God as The Lawgiver because they read the bible as if it were a rule book. You see, if the Bible is a rule book, then our purpose in this world is to follow the rules as closely as we can in order to please God. The closer we comply with the rules, the more pleased God is with us. Ultimately, this worldview will lead to either arrogance or despair. We arrive at arrogance if we judge ourselves to be pretty good at keeping the rules—certainly better that the rest of those awful people, anyway. Or we descend into despair as it dawns on us that we can never do enough good deeds to erase the effects of our bad deeds.
While there is much wisdom and insight to be gleaned from the bible, God did not issue us the bible so that we might have a rule book for living. If we view the bible as God law or God’s rule book, then we have completely missed the point of the bible. The bible is not God’s rule book.
When we reduce the bible to a mere rule book, we blind ourselves to the God who wants to be a father to humanity. We completely miss the fact that the relationship He desires has never been contingent on our following a set of rules.
The rule-following approach to appeasing God is the foundation of all human religion and leads to spiritual bondage. This approach was undermined by several of the old testament prophets, and was completely shattered by Jesus.
God did not create humans because He wanted a flock of servants. When we view ourselves as God’s servants, the natural conclusion is that our status is contingent upon our behavior, rather bestowed upon us by the Creator.
If we, as followers of Christ, are to have a positive impact on society, we need to abandon the bible-as-a-rulebook approach to morality and begin modeling the relationship that God desires. Our influence on society would be more impactful and constructive if we approach moral issues with a sense of love and wisdom, rather than a sense of religious legalism or political coercion. Perhaps most importantly, if we stopped focusing on following the rules and started focusing on the Relationship, we would begin to experience the life of fellowship that God has intended from the beginning—and our behavior would naturally reflect the goodness produced by that relationship.