How do Christians know if their understanding of what the Bible teaches needs to change?
Although this question is increasingly common, it’s not new. The earliest Christians had to determine what to think about the moral rules they inherited from Judaism (e.g. Acts 15:1–29). What was still valid and what was obsolete? Over the last two thousand years, Christians have continued to wrestle with whether this or that moral teaching or practice based in scripture has changed.
My academic training is not in Old or New Testament studies. Though I’m not an expert, I—like all Christians—am called to understand scripture and how it applies to my life. Most Christians believe the Bible was not written only for the experts or the clergy. While we definitely learn from those who have studied scripture professionally, all are called to read scripture and wrestle with what it means. Some things are too important to be left entirely to the experts!
Here, I offer ten questions we should consider when others claim that this or that understanding of a biblical teaching has to change. Before I begin, I should note a few assumptions that I make.
I assume that scripture does speak to how we should live. We can trust that God speaks clearly in scripture, but also recognize that we need to work hard at understanding it—and that we won’t always agree with each other. Throughout Christian history and to the present day, some believers have misunderstood certain teachings in scripture whose meaning appears to us to be obvious. Scripture is not a comprehensive or exhaustive ethical answer book, providing exact answers to every moral question that arises. But when scripture unequivocally teaches or commands something, because of its authority, we are bound by that instruction.
With those tenets established, let’s move on to the ten questions.
What Are the Terms of Debate?
First, when someone claims that our understanding of a biblical teaching is no longer correct, we should ask what criteria they are using. Do the people discussing the question all agree on those criteria? Imagine two friends arguing about whether boxing or basketball is the best sport. They won’t ever agree if one friend judges excellence in sports by overall physical skill, individual achievement, and tolerance for pain, while the other measures it by running skill, team work, and defeating opposing teams over the course of a full season. In this scenario, there will be no real debate: until they agree on their criteria, the one friend will always prefer boxing and the other basketball. The same thing can be true in a biblical debate.
Second, what exactly is the issue or “thing” that we’re debating? We need to define our terms clearly before we can argue. Is it something we are to believe, like the doctrine of the Trinity or the importance of baptism? Or is it a moral practice, duty, or prohibition, like respecting the Sabbath, tithing, or sexual morality? Think again of our two sports friends. They can’t debate the merits of football if one keeps talking about the pitch, keepers, shoot-outs, and the World Cup, and the other about huddles, concussions, and helmets. They need to be talking about the same thing.
What Is the Relative Importance of the Teaching Compared to Others?
Third, is the teaching or moral practice a positive teaching from God, or is it an accommodation? Positive teachings are what God wants for us as intrinsic to our being human. For instance, we are always called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul. Accommodations are what God sometimes allows, but they are not intrinsically good. When Jesus is asked why Moses allowed for divorce (Matthew 19:3–12), he responds that this was not what God had in mind for all time; rather he allowed it because of humanity’s sins and hardness of heart. It was an accommodation to people’s moral immaturity—hardly a positive endorsement of divorce. If a biblical teaching or practice is an accommodation, then it is more likely that it can change.
Fourth, is the teaching or practice in the primary, central core of biblical teaching, or is it on the edges? The more central the teaching, the higher the bar for concluding that our understanding of it needs to change. I suggest the following three criteria for testing a teaching’s centrality.
- Is the teaching clear or fuzzy? The clearer a teaching is, the greater the burden for those who would challenge it. It seems rather clear we should not worship graven images (Exodus 20:1–6). When it comes to positive commands (to do something), we should consider the clarity of the goal and the means to accomplish it. Scripture clearly exhorts us to help the poor and the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31–46). It does not clearly tell us how to do that, although it mentions different means that have been used, such as leaving gleanings from the harvest for the poor (Leviticus 23:22). On this question, I think, the goal (helping the poor) still obliges us, but the means (leaving out gleanings) can change.
- How widespread is the teaching? Does it appear throughout Scripture? While a lack of continuity in a teaching doesn’t mean it isn’t important (incest is not mentioned throughout all of scripture, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay!), if something is taught continuously, that undermines the case that the teaching should change. For example, the Old and New Testaments continually exhort people to help the poor (e.g. Exodus 23:6, 10–11; Isaiah 3:13–15; Mark 10:21; James 2:1–7). Respecting the Sabbath, on the other hand, is more complicated. In this case, the same goal has been taught continuously—God wants us to remember Him and to rest, which is also good for us—but the means have arguably changed (see Mark 2:23–28).
- How explicitly does scripture prioritize the teaching? The more explicit the teaching is, the higher the bar for judging whether it has changed or no longer applies. All of the Bible is inspired by God and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, etc. (2 Timothy 3:14–17) Yet Scripture includes different kinds of speakers and different kinds of texts, and it gives obvious priority to some things over others. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul offers a teaching in his own voice, distinguishing it from what the Lord says, and then offers a teaching from the Lord directly. Both teachings are in scripture and thus are from the Lord in a fundamental sense, but according to Paul’s own (inspired) language, one teaching has a higher priority than the other. Christ himself distinguishes the “greatest commandment” from the second greatest (Matthew 22:34–40) and speaks of “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23).
Fifth, if a teaching is continuous throughout scripture, does the New Testament heighten or lessen its strictness? If it heightens it, as in the prohibition of lust or thinking hateful thoughts toward one’s brother (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28), that strengthens the teaching’s importance. If it lessens it, the teaching is less important.
What Has the Universal Church Believed?
Sixth, what have Christians taught and practiced for the last two thousand years? Have they disagreed about a particular doctrine or practice based in scripture, or have they been more or less unanimous everywhere and at all times? If across history the Church has spoken with one voice on a particular issue or doctrine, that should weigh heavily against revising it. We moderns are particularly tempted to privilege our own time’s perspective—what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery—on just about everything. But Christians have inherited a tradition from their older brothers and sisters, including those who lived during or not long after the actual life of Christ.
Seventh, what do the various churches around the world teach today? If American Christians want to revisit an important teaching, are African Christians also considering it? Korean Presbyterians? Ethiopian Coptics? Russian Orthodox? Latin American Evangelicals? Or is it primarily a white, middle-to-upper class, elite Western movement? If a teaching is being questioned only by Christians in one specific context, again the burden of proof falls to the revisionists. Just as we ought not privilege our particular time, so we ought not privilege our particular culture or place’s point of view (and American Christians are particularly guilty of this).
Eighth, is the revisionist view aligned with contemporary cultural trends outside the Church? Will those who agree with the change be applauded by the world, or will they suffer for being different? If the world strongly pressures us to change our minds about a teaching; if we risk being called immoral, insensitive, irrational, or bigoted by non-Christians for sticking by it; then we should be on guard. Sometimes the trend of the wider culture does align with Christian ethics, such as the trajectory of America over the last 150 years (with fits and starts, and lots of deplorable things mixed in) toward respecting the sacredness of all human life and rejecting racism. You aren’t likely to lose your job or to be shunned from “polite society” for affirming racial equality, and that is good. Nevertheless, Christians should live not by what others will say, but by what God has said. We must be wary when the world whispers in our ear, “Did God really say?” That question has a very old and disreputable pedigree.
The Burden of Proof Always Lies with Those Who Dispute Tradition
Ninth, in the debate, who is defending the traditional interpretation and who is the innovator? I think that, all things considered, the burden in a debate about a biblical interpretation always lies more on the innovator than the traditionalist. It’s good to let all state their views, but if a certain understanding of the Bible has been the consensus of the Church, we should require a very strong argument to prove that the consensus is wrong. As I show below, scripture itself supports this requirement.
Tenth (and finally), does scripture itself tell us how we know when our understanding of God’s teachings and commands should change? I think it does. The authors of the New Testament note several core teachings of Judaism that changed under the new covenant: the kosher food laws (Mark 7:14–23; Acts 10:9–16); circumcision (Acts 15:1–29); the system of sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1–18); and the strong distinction between Jews and Gentiles (Romans 10:5–15; Ephesians 2:11–22; Matthew 8:5–13). Perhaps the most striking is the matter of requiring circumcision for Gentile believers, debated in Acts 15 and addressed rather forcefully by the Apostle Paul (Galatians 5:7–12). No doubt there are others. These teachings and practices were clearly understood as binding and authoritative before the coming of Christ, yet all were unmistakably overturned or strongly adjusted afterward. How did that happen?
God himself, often in Christ, commanded the changes or gave clear authority for them. He did this through the authority granted to apostles like Paul or the Church council described in Acts 15. God also spoke through extraordinary visions and inspirations to his prophets and Apostles, proving that authority publicly by miracles. Take for instance Christ’s clear statement that what one eats does not defile the person (Mark 7:14–23), or the vision in which God commands Peter to kill and eat non-kosher animals (Acts 10:9–16), and the countless miracles that Christ (e.g. Luke 5:17–26) and his Apostles (e.g. Acts 3:1–10, 5:12–16, 19:11–12) performed. Why did God take such extraordinary measures? Because the innovators had to know, and prove to others for certain, that the changes came from God himself.
The take-away for us is sobering. If God acted so obviously when He changed His requirements in the days of the very early Church, shouldn’t we be very careful before thinking we have discovered some new understanding of those truths two thousand years later? When we do so, what are we saying about our own authority?
None of these considerations by itself can settle any issue. But we should be very wary of changing our minds about a teaching or practice that has been taught clearly, continuously, and authoritatively on the basis of scripture throughout the history and breadth of the Church. These ten considerations aren’t a formula or a magic equation, but they can help us think carefully when friends inside or outside the Church ask us to reconsider what the Bible teaches.