We don’t hear much about doctrine today. I’m not sure I heard much about doctrine when I was growing up. We knew we were Baptists and thought we knew what that meant but didn’t. We learned our doctrine from our hymns. We knew about propitiation from “Washed in the Blood” and “Nothing but the Blood”. We knew about the sacrificial death of Jesus from “The Old Rugged Cross”. We knew about forgiveness from “Just As I Am” and about grace from “Amazing Grace”. In their defense the influence of those songs has lasted for a lifetime. I’ve heard thousands of sermons and Sunday School lessons but it’s “It Is Well With My Soul” that has gotten me through tough times. It is “The Church’s One Foundation” that helps me stay focused on the fundamentals. We sang our doctrines every Sunday but never studied them. We never really knew what distinguished us from others – except our practices. We didn’t drink, smoke, dance or go to movies on Sunday. We thought we knew what we believed but we didn’t.
That’s one of the two extremes I want to talk about this morning in the hope that our look at Scripture can keep us in the middle ground between two extremes. The first extreme is fundamentalism. That can be Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, liberal or conservative fundamentalism or even unbelieving fundamentalism. Fundamentalism defines itself by its practices more than its beliefs. You adhere to rules that define you – not beliefs. I heard this week that Rick Warren has said anyone becomes a fundamentalist when they stop listening. It doesn’t mean changing your beliefs but it means listening to other opinions. In some sense, doctrine is dangerous to fundamentalism because doctrine is about what you thoughtfully believe and not just what you practice. My father told me years ago that fundamentalist religion is simply organized hostility and I think he is right. It gives angry people an excuse and a covering from God.
The second extreme is not liberalism but individualistic beliefs that have no outside authority or constraints. The best example of this is something Robert Bellah discovered in his research for his book “Habits of the Heart”.
“We interviewed, in the research for Habits of the Heart, one young woman who has named her religion after herself. Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.” Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points.
I am glad that Sheila does have at least a second point besides taking care of herself and loving others and I suspect that that is a remnant of something she learned somewhere else earlier on. But the case of Sheila is not confined to people who haven’t been to church in a long time. On the basis of our interviews, and a great deal of other data, I think we can say that many people sitting in the pews of Protestant and even Catholic churches are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition. We quote in Habits of the Heart a recent Gallup poll, which indicated that 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” Now, again, that isn’t the way it really happens. But just the notion that religious belief ought to be a purely internal thing, and then you go to the church or synagogue of your choice, shows how deeply ingrained a kind of religious privatism is, which turns the church into something like the Kiwanis Club or some other kind of voluntary association that you go to or not if you feel comfortable with it-but which has no organic claim upon you.”
Doctrine is whatever I want it to be and there is no outside reference point. I concoct my own. Those two extremes are good reasons for our study of the role of Scripture this morning. One of the phrases we use frequently is “the priesthood of all believers” and, unfortunately, we often misuse it to justify our doing exactly what Bellah describes. We retain the right to determine our own interpretations of Scripture and say that we are all priests. That’s not the meaning of the phrase. It refers to there being no other mediator between God and us other than Christ. However, we have twisted it around to mean no one can tell us what to believe or what is orthodox and true. We are the ultimate authority…and that’s dangerous.
One of the primary findings of the most recent Pew Research on Millennials is summed up this way. “They are connected but not committed. They are the first generation in the history of America to have as little interest in the institutional church and formal religion as they do.” While that is a reflection of their identifying the church with too much emphasis on the culture wars and the church being angry and politicized, it also means they will not be as active in and committed to local congregations as they age. They will find other options and that’s not a good thing in the long term.
One of the things you discover in trying to lose weight is there are differences in mirrors. Some mirrors make us look better than others – and we quickly find the ones that seem to flatter us or confirm our own image. We all know where they are in the house and we favor it and avoid the others. As well, we have other kinds of mirrors in our lives.
Media mirrors: We look great compared to some of the people we see on television or in the movies. Larry Ross, who for years was Billy Graham’s publicist, told me he was part of a panel on film producers and the question was asked, “Why do people make movies?” The first response was “to make money” or “express themselves” or to “create art through a story.” The answer that drew the most response was the director who said he did it to make himself feel good about himself and to make his life seem normal. His life was a wreck and he wanted to portray that as normal and to make other lives like his the standard against which everything else could be judged.
Social circle mirrors: We look normal with our friends. We are fitting in. We have a tribe to which we belong. Charlie Myers was telling me something interesting. As some of you know, he worked for Marathon, the world’s largest luxury motorcoach converter and dealer. Many of their customers are people who have been more successful financially than their local friends and belonging to a community of other owners has given them a set of friends with common experiences and circumstances. In fact, some of them have developed their closest friends in life after the age of 55. It’s built into us. We want a circle of friends that make us feel we fit and we’ll go to great lengths to find them.
Career mirrors: We tend to make friends with those who are in similar circumstances in life and their progress pretty much reflects ours. Why else would we have organizations and affiliations that put people together who have achieved certain levels of career success? One of our closest friends is a member of a group of Christian CEO’s who get together four times a year and he tells me that group of men and women all say it is the only group in their lives where they can openly share the pressures, successes and failures of their professional life. They are all peers. They understand each other.
Family mirrors: We all measure ourselves against our families. Sometimes we don’t measure up but I suspect many of us feel we have fewer issues than many of the people in our families. That seems to be a common reaction in driving away from family reunions. “Well, at least we don’t have to deal with that!”
Religion mirrors: While all our needs are not being met by the church we are pretty much as regular as the people we see in church. We go to church about as much as our friends and we have found a Sunday School or small group of people “like us”. We are not fanatics or backsliders. We are always aware that we are not Mother Teresa and unlikely to be but we are for the most part living up to the expectations of church in our lives.
However, we don’t have a spiritual mirror in our lives – except in Scripture. That is the only accurate mirror to reflect the state of our soul. Turn to 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and we’re going to look at the spiritual mirror for our lives.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
First, Scripture is God-breathed. It’s the same word used for God’s breathing the breath of life into Adam in the Creation. God’s breath makes it alive and capable of breathing into us. It’s a fact of life that we are surrounded by carbon monoxides. How does carbon monoxide work? It puts us to sleep first and the only anti-dote is oxygen. Unfortunately, it is often too late by the time we realize we are being poisoned. The symptoms are so subtle that we do not recognize them in time. Basically, carbon monoxide prevents the body from getting oxygen. It’s bonding power to the hemoglobin is 200 times stronger than oxygen and it forms a barrier to prevent what would save us. It does not attack the body. It simply prevents it from getting what it needs. It’s called hypoxia. We die from being disconnected from what gives us life.
Only Scripture contains this kind of oxygen. It is the only source and without it we die slowly and without many signs until it is irreversible. Too many of us fill our minds with monoxides that have strong bonding power – common sense books and worldly wisdom – but they are spiritual monoxides on their own. We need the oxygen of Scripture.
So much of Western Civilization is built on references to Scripture and concepts based in Scripture. Compared to the Bible, even the collected works of Shakespeare are in second place. In fact, it is impossible to understand Shakespeare without some biblical knowledge. Certainly, there are many misinterpretations and outright distortions but without some basic knowledge of Scripture it is almost impossible to understand the foundations of our culture. As we lose that familiarity with Biblical words, phrases, stories, and characters we also lose some of the moorings of civilization. And, sadly, we are losing that. We use phrases like “handwriting on the wall”, “drop in the bucket”, “labor of love”, “my brother’s keeper”, and so many others without knowing the context. Soon they take on a life of their own like “an eye for an eye” and “the truth shall make you free” and lead to extremes because they have lost their context. “If a man will not work neither shall he eat” becomes a harsh social policy and “Welcome the stranger in your midst” becomes a rallying cry for open borders.
There are other isms that replace oxygen – nationalism, socialism, capitalism, extreme patriotism, etc. All of these become substitutes for oxygen in our lives and gradually suffocate us because, like carbon monoxide, they have far stronger bonding power than Scripture. They are easier to believe. They support what we already believe. They fill the void.
But we do not need pure oxygen. That is hyperoxia. We need oxygen mixed with other things. We function on 21% oxygen and not 100%. We need wise voices, history, literature, etc. While it is true that biblical illiteracy is increasing, we do not need to overreact. We do not need to force the Bible (or phrases we think are biblical) on others when our own numbers on biblical literacy are declining. We don’t need a Bible that has been run through the grid of a particular political or economic system and then presented as Scripture. In God We Trust (which replaced E Pluribus Unum – out of many one – as the national motto) is a good phrase but it is a man made phrase lifted in 1812 from Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” as is One Nation Under God” added by President Eisenhower in 1954 to the original pledge of 1892. Oxygen is good when mixed but that does not mean calling those other things oxygen.
Second, Scripture has the ability to literally make you wise. It has the power to undistort your image and change you. It is not merely a passive reflection. It acts when you look into it. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” What if your mirror at home had the power not just to reflect but to make changes in your face and figure. Scripture has that power. As we look into it, it works a change in our lives – to remake us into what we were created to be and to conform us to the image of Christ.
Third, Scripture is useful for instruction. The word is “ophelia” and it means that Scripture has a built-in advantage over any other teaching. Only Scripture can teach the whole truth for which we were designed. We feed on great books and common wisdom but only Scripture can work its way into the tiniest crevices of our souls to bring health and life. “It is the soul’s first language.”
But instruction is not just learning. It is habits. It is the ability to lean on the everlasting arms in times of darkness and discouragement. It reminds us of God’s unfailing love. Scientists talk about “neural pathways” that are the brain’s way of building roads for information.
That is what God’s Word does. It keeps those roads clear and unblocked.
Fourth, Scripture is useful for reproof. This does not mean fault-finding or finger pointing. It is more along the line of helping someone re-think their confusion and find clearness of mind. The Quakers have something called the Clearness Committee. It is a group of five to seven individuals who come around a person who is sorting through a decision or wanting to figure out a direction. They cannot direct or prescribe. They can only ask insightful questions that the person uses to come to their own understanding of their choices. Scripture does not teach quick and easy lessons. It has a process. Picture someone patiently untangling a knot in a string. That is what this word means. There are knots in our lives that need untangling and they do not need anger or blame but a patient hand. Scripture has that kind of power.
In our study of Romans we talked about a particular type of kindness. Look at Romans 2:4 where Paul uses the same word. “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” The intended result of God’s kindness is to lead us to change our heart and life. It is kindness that does not leave us where we are. Scripture is the same.
Fifth, Scripture is good for correction. This does not mean shame or anger – it is more like a constant series of course corrections or nudges. It is something like being surrounded by tiny tugboats in our lives that bump and nudge us in the right direction. I’ve been told sailboats are off course 85% of the time and they need constant small course corrections. They drift – and so do we. We have a tendency to drift – and that word means “slip away unnoticed.” It’s not visible for a while. I’ve found that people who drift have been doing so for years. Not many people swerve or make hard turns. They drift. People don’t fall as much as they get off course and away from those things that nudge them back.
But the same word means “to alter”. We alter things when they change – like clothes. In some ways, Scripture has the ability to keep us flexible. To let us out or take us in at times in our lives. It keeps us from becoming rigid or doctrinaire. It helps us respond to changes in our lives and not lock up.
Sixth, Scripture’s intent is not just salvation or wisdom or untangling or course correction but it is to make us fit for good works. As Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Scripture prepares us to do the works God has prepared for us. The word for instruction or training/preparation is “paideia” and it was used for the tutor who began teaching a boy when he was young and stayed until he became a man. The image here is one of lifelong training and tutoring – not just for a year. Today, we have many teachers but no long term tutor – someone who is with us for years to bring us to maturity. Scripture is that tutor to move us from salvation to maturity.
As long as we stay away from Scripture on a regular basis our lives will never be as full of wisdom, direction, clarity, flexibility and energy as they are designed to be. We’ll be saved but little else. Again, we are surrounded by monoxides in our lives that have extraordinary bonding power. We need to stay connected to the great source of the life giving breath of God to keep us from drifting away or succumbing to the slow poisons that distract us. Let’s not slip away unnoticed or fall asleep. Let’s be fully alive.