The missionary movement stands on the deck of the Great Commission ship sailing in a violent ocean of strategies, theories, and approaches. Wave after wave of uncountable interpretations of the Bible strike this fragile vessel. I wonder how long this ship will resist before it is shipwrecked!
As I travel and interact with various missionaries, particularly in Muslim lands, I am amazed at the chaos, confusion and divisiveness produced by opposing missiological models. Understandably, each individual or team tends to interpret certain biblical texts in a manner that supports the position of their agency or denomination. Does that mean that everyone is right?
Thanks to the German Protestant Reformation in early 16th Century, the Bible is still viewed by evangelicals as the only revealed inspired and infallible Word of the Living God. It carries the only divine authority on all matters of life and doctrine.
The principal player in this Reformation was Martin Luther (1483-1546) who protested against the historic view of the church as the final authority. He rejected the Catholic church doctrine that elevates the writings of the church fathers to the same level of authority as the Bible. Luther declared “sola scriptura” Latin for the scriptures only. Biblical authority became the heart of the evangelical doctrine.
Affirming biblical authority is not about quoting the scriptures to support one’s preconceived positions. All cults base their heretical interpretations on verses from the Bible and accept its authority along with their own books. Mormons often hold the Bible in one hand and the book of Mormon in the other. The Unification Church (Moonies) quote the Bible and promote the “Wolli Kangron” or the Divine Principle at the same time. Is Islam any different? Theoretically Muslims claim to accept the Bible but they hold the Quran as the final revelation.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses on the other hand have no other book but the Bible. Their literature is filled with verses from the scriptures that support their doctrines. This aught to be a warning to us that quoting the Bible can be misleading.
Handling the Word of God Correctly
The problem of false teaching and misquoting the Bible is not new. The Apostle Paul had to deal frequently with false teaching and divisiveness within the church. He pleaded with the churches to seek unity in the Spirit. (Ephesians 4: 3) In effect Paul is telling us that when we all draw from one source of the truth, then we will no longer be “...tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming?” (Ephesians 4:14)
If 1st century Christianity struggled with “every wind of teaching,” are we any better off now after 20 centuries of heresies that continue to divide us?
In fact, heresy and false teachings are endemic in the missiological community. In a post modern atmosphere, many pastors and even theologians are hesitant to judge other people’s interpretations. Fear of being viewed as judgmental has silenced those “entrusted with the secret things of God.” (I Corinthians 4:1) Silence is irresponsible and though it may show compassion, it gives the wrong impression that any interpretation is as good as any other, thus allowing heresy to spread on their watch.
Let us heed Apostle Paul’s words when he exhorted Timothy to “handle the word of truth correctly” (II Tim 2:15) And he added: “… we do not use deception, nor do we distort the Word of God.” (II Corinthians 4:2)
Yes there is deception and there are distortions of the Word of God and yes we are tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine.
It is not so simple
Admittedly the task of handling the Word of God correctly is not that simple. The richness of the Bible and the vast gamut of topics and issues it covers causes many people to be lost in its ocean. With the lack of a central authority for evangelicals, missionaries are left to battle among themselves about the rightness or wrongness of their methods based on their various interpretations.
One interesting observation is that certain methods and approaches are associated with certain seminaries or agencies. This is proof that ideological bias is responsible for much of the confusion. Handling the Word of God correctly is an immense task that requires much discipline and humility. I have had to fight against being sucked into the trends followed by my own mentors and teachers who have taught me to be faithful to the Word of God and God’s calling. The temptation to be liked and therefore go with the flow is very strong. It took a lot of guts to stand up to some highly regarded teachers whose followers do not even question them on whether their teachings are consistent with the eternal and authoritative Word of the Lord.
There are right and wrong ways to interpret the Bible. Knowing which is which is difficult to determine. Otherwise this article would not have to be written. Is there hope? Is there a way of knowing what is right or wrong? Are there standards of interpretation to aid us in our search for God’s heart and mind for missions? How do we affirm biblical authority in this missiological quagmire?
Biblical Starting Point
Lesslie Newbigin stressed the importance of biblical authority by affirming that what is needed in our day is a new starting point for thought and that starting point is to be found in the Bible.
Every biblical scholar, teacher, pastor, evangelist or missionary must make the Bible the starting point for every thought and action. The Apostle Paul wrote, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (II Corinthians 10:5)
Interpreting a biblical text based on a biblical starting point requires a systematic understanding of a certain teaching in the Bible. Only normative teachings and practices recorded in scripture can provide the correct interpretation. Good biblical exegesis and hermeneutics are necessary to differentiate between teaching that is biblically based and teaching that is merely supported by some biblical texts.
When we consider the teachings of Jesus on a certain topic for instance, we must not limit ourselves to a particular passage. Rather we need to look at all the instances Jesus speaks about that particular issue. Even this is not enough. We also need to compare the particular teaching with the patterns of behavior or actions of Jesus. For instance, how did Jesus treat the Pharisees? We can only know the answer when we compare what Jesus said about them in his teachings with what he said to them directly.
Exegetically right, Hermeneutically wrong
One passage that has been misinterpreted by some is Matthew chapter 10. Jesus instructed his disciples to go only to the Jews and not to the Gentiles or Samaritans? Exegeting this passage by itself can be misleading. One can conclude that Jesus cared only for the Jews not for the gentiles.
Matthew 10:5,6 “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Taken on its own this text contradicts the great commission to disciple all nations. A missiology based on this passage alone can render most missionary efforts around the world disobedient. This goes to demonstrate that any passage, whether it is teaching or a story, cannot stand on its own. Hermeneutics comes to our aid by comparing the particular text to the immediate context as well as to the broader context of the entire Bible. Every teaching of Jesus must be compared with his normative teachings and more importantly with the way he conducted his own ministry.
Interpreting the Bible or applying proper Biblical Hermeneutics is possible only when Biblical authority is affirmed. We must discover the heart of the Bible and seek to understand the revelation of God’s mind, heart and purpose concerning all aspects of life and ministry. Biblical authority starts with the Bible and ends with the Bible. Exegesis and Hermeneutics need to come together to help us understand each text in light of its immediate as well as broader context of the entire Bible.