We recently celebrated the victory of the pro-moral lobby in stopping the proposed DSTV porn channel. Indeed we should praise God for this. But there is a much bigger threat to sexual morality in South Africa which is behind our backs – the loss of faith in the Word of God on morality (especially sexuality). And that attack is coming from professing Christian leaders.
In our grandparents and parent’s generation, the question was whether the Bible is true. In our generation, the big debate is whether its meaning is clear. Two groups seemed to have sadly allied themselves in this attack on the clarity of scripture: Elitists and Postmodernists. Many evangelicals have incorporated Statements of Faith on the Truth of Scripture, but these defences are like the Maginot line, the line of earthen forts France constructed after the First World War to defend against another attack. They were broken in a day by panzer tanks. Most evangelical organisations stand defenceless against this new attack. And even Statements of Faith will not be enough alone because, these two groups will then question their clarity of meaning.
ELITISTS argue that ordinary people cannot be sure what the Bible means when they read it, so they need senior church authorities to interpret its meaning for them. And because ordinary people cannot interpret it for themselves, then they cannot hold church authorities accountable because those authorities decide what is right and wrong. Thus the senior authorities can never be wrong unless they admit being so themselves.
POSTMODERNISTS argue that since our culture is so different to the culture when the Bible was written and all words have embedded cultural meaning, then we cannot be sure that the meaning we give to the words are the same as the meaning the writer gave to the words. It is ‘lost in translation’. At best we are guessing. And if we are not sure what the Bible means, then we have no right to enforce our guesses on everyone else.
So these two groups look very different, but are natural allies - and they are not limited to any particular denomination. Included in the ‘ELITISTS’, are many of the most senior and visible public figures in Christianity in South Africa – including many who speak up publicly for morality. They would be unlikely to express their elitist and authoritarian views in public, but if anyone tries to challenge double standards in their ministries, that how they respond. And so for example, if one pushes them to expose and publicly rebuke a church sex sandal on the basis of 1 Timothy 5:20 (“Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”), then such Elitists will ask who decides what this scripture means. To everyone else the meaning is obvious. Rebuke means Rebuke. Public means public. But to these Elitists, they are the only ones who can decide what it means. On this basis they can then avoid answering what it means and thus avoid obeying it. And they will then rather deal with the scandal quietly behind closed doors instead. Does this matter? Yes it does, and it matters even more than Porn on Television, because when sin is protected among senior leadership, their ungodly behaviour is contagious and spreads through the church. People copy what they do more than what they say. And the Holy Spirit, offended by such compromise, withdraws as he did in the days of Eli (1 Samuel 3). As another example, ELITISTS may give a public appearance of loyalty to scripture, but behind the scenes try to protect false teaching. And if any ordinary church member tries to challenge them, they get the same answer: None of your business – its confidential. Theological debates are for senior leaders only. Shut up and go away.
Most POSTMODERNISTS are younger and without senior positions in any organisational structure. Although few know it, their beliefs derive much from the linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. For example, when asked on their views on homosexuality, many will look at the obvious prohibitions (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:26-27), then they will try and argue that there were cultural issues involved that are no longer relevant. For example, they will argue the real sin problem at Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality, but lack of hospitality. Or they will argue that the Bible is not condemning all homosexuality but only homosexual abuse of minors. Now any ordinary Christian can just open their Bible, read the text and understand plainly what it means, but Postmodernists use intellectual cultural and linguistic gymnastics to try to distort this plain meaning. Others, less radical will still hold a view against homosexuality, but they anchor their belief in our modern Christian culture rather than the scripture. So then if the majority of Christian culture was to follow the radical postmodernists, these people would then follow behind them. They cannot defend truth from the Bible, because their minds are in a confused postmodern fog. Other more moderate postmodernists, will say that they believe the Bible says it is wrong but for the sake of ‘tolerance’ (a principal postmodern virtue), we should allow these people to preach and publish their false teaching alongside truth in Church and Christian publications. Thus they deny the duty Christ gives to good spiritual shepherds to protect the flock from wolves who lead people astray (John 10; Titus 1:9). Postmodernists will also tell us Christians cannot tell non-Christians to repent of their sexual sin, because that would be imposing our culture on them (contrary to Ezekiel 3:18).
Why are these two groups natural allies? Because if one takes the Post-modern assumption that the meaning of scripture is unclear on matters necessary for salvation and the Christian life, then how does one impose order in the Church? Will one not end up with chaos? Won’t it be like allowing people to choose whether to drive on the left hand side of the road or the right? Won’t we get lots of crashes and conflict? The only alternative is that order is imposed arbitrarily from an elite. And there is a church Elite which likes to do that job.
Further if we have an Elite which likes power and doesn’t want to be accountable to anyone below them, then how do they escape accountability to scripture quoted by ordinary members? Answer: By denying the obvious meaning of scripture. And how do they justify that? By borrowing the convenient postmodern argument that scripture is unclear.
Okay, so how do Orthodox Bible believing Christians defend our position on the Clarity of Scripture? Are there not many things that Bible believing theologians don’t agree on. Yes. That is true. The Bible doesn’t make all truths equally clear. Many truths in the Bible are for example veiled behind metaphors (Deuteronomy 29:29; Romans 11:33) and there are minor differences in meaning in individual texts between different Bible translations.
1. The things that are critically important to our moral life and salvation God has stated plainly and repeatedly in many different places in scripture. Furthermore, all of scripture fits together into an interlocking logical whole. Thus even if some translator was to misunderstand the meaning of the original language or culture in one verse, for the issues which are critically important, there are many other verses which will tell us the same thing.
2. Jesus has given the Holy Spirit to help ordinary believers who read the Bible with the intent to obey it, the supernatural help to understand it. He has not offered that to intellectuals who enjoy theological debates, but don’t want to obey it (Matthew 11:25; John 16:13).
3. The Law of Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy follows the format of an ancient constitution imposed by a conquering King on a vassal king. In the ancient world, such treaties were always translated and the conquering King expected the vassal people to obey it even though they were reading a translation in a different language. Likewise, God knew the Bible would be translated into many languages and across many cultures. This is why for example the poetry of the Psalms sounds beautiful in every language. God wrote the Bible in such a way that those things that are necessary for us to know we would be able to understand. Postmodernists should not be allowed to hide behind the ‘lost in translation’ argument.
The Reformers put the Clarity of Scripture in this way in the Westminster Confession of Faith “VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
I argue that the attack on the clear meaning of scripture by ELITISTS and POSTMODERNISTS in the church is a bigger threat to sexual morality than is the spread of pornography on the internet and television. Against these evils, we have the powerful Word of God to fight back, but if we the church accept the devil’s lie that the meaning of scripture is unclear on basic issues of the Christian life, like sexual behaviour, then the devil has disarmed us. He has taken away our sword. We have no weapon to fight back. He will tempt us to try fight with some other worldly weapon like trying to make the Christian faith popular and acceptable. But these worldly weapons are useless toys in spiritual warfare. This was the mistake made by liberal and moderate moralists in the 1920s and 30s. They went on various crusades to clean up society by organising church unity pronouncements on various issues – for example supporting the prohibition on alcohol. They may have done a bit of good, but they lost the battle on scripture – and once this battle was lost, the church itself became corrupt, backslid with the culture and ceased to be salt and light in society. But the Bible is not ‘Lost in translation’ across different cultures and languages.
The Word of God is true and it’s meaning on issues of salvation and morality is clear across cultures and languages. And it is on the basis of this true and clear Word of God that we must spiritually protect ourselves and fearlessly call all men to repentance from sin and holiness of life.