Within the past few months, I’ve seen some particular memes floating around social media. You’ve probably seen them too. Different formats, different background pictures, slightly different wording maybe, but the idea in them is the same — The Bible doesn’t change to fit our culture. or Things change. People change. Culture changes. Society changes. But God’s Word never changes.
I suspect these memes are posted in response to Pride month or news of a church affirming LGBTQ+ people. Or maybe they’re a response to churches ordaining women or calling for equal rights. Or any other hot topic that progressive (or liberal) Christians accept or approve or celebrate that traditional evangelicals don’t. I get it. The younger me would have give those memes a thumbs-up, maybe even a heart emoji.
Even now, at first, I’m inclined to agree — God’s Word doesn’t change. Doesn’t it say that right in the Bible?
- Matthew 5:18 – For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
- Hebrews 13:8 – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
- Isaiah 40:8 – The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
It’s easy to read these verses and create a soundbite theology, a bumper sticker slogan doctrine — God said. I believe it. That settles it.
— Culture is a shifting sand, but the Bible is a solid rock that never changes.
And yes, I agree with the large sweeping concept that God is steadfast and reliable, that God never changes. But I don’t agree with the implied message and warning behind this particular message from traditional evangelicals.
You see, the message here is clear. The warning from traditional American evangelicals is – This is how we interpret scripture, how we’ve interpreted it in this country for a few decades now. And if you read it and decide to interpret it differently, we won’t have that. We’ll call you a heretic who’s trying to change the Bible to suit yourself. And we’ll kick you out of the club.
I have a some major problems with this message. First, this so-called literal and traditional understanding of scripture requires us to actually ignore significant parts of the Bible. Like the parts where Jesus says, You’ve heard it said, but now I say . . . And that whole shift from Stone your rebellious son to the father joyfully running to welcome home the prodigal. Or the transition from Annihilate all those other tribes and definitely don’t intermarry with them to sitting at a well in the middle of a hot day having a spiritual conversation with a mixed woman, a Samaritan, about how the worship of God is changing.
The good news is that we aren’t the first people to wrestle with the idea that God’s rules seem to change a little depending on the time and culture and the people involved. Paul and Peter and the other apostles passionately debated and vehemently argued about these same sorts of things. In Galatians 2, Paul writes,
But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. 12 When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. 13 As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
Those Jewish believers, the friends of James, were traditionalists. Maybe they had God said it; I believe it; that settles it bumper stickers on their chariots. If they had had Twitter, they would have subtweeted Paul with People change. Foods change. Culture changes. But God’s Word never changes. #boycottgentilefood
The reality is that the overarching truths of scripture never change and God’s character never changes, but the specifics of how God works among people in different cultures at different times to reveal love and grace and to draw people into relationship — well, those specifics do certainly change throughout the span of scripture and throughout the many settings and cultures since the Bible was written. The rules and standards did change from culture to culture, generation to generation as God widened the net.
The next problem I have with the very narrow Culture changes, but God’s Word doesn’t argument is that it seems to assume that God’s Word was written in and for our culture. But it wasn’t. And in order to truly understand the Bible, we have to learn about the context in which it was written. We have to remember that, though inspired by God’s Spirit, the Bible was written by different people in different countries across a vast time span.
When I learn about Greco-Roman household codes in the first century, then I read Paul’s words in Ephesians and Colossians differently. Before I knew about Greco-Roman household codes, I interpreted Paul’s writing differently. I assumed that his instructions about family hierarchy were, as I was taught, God’s perfect plan for all families for all time. But when I began to study and learn about how Paul is teaching early Christians to be slightly subversive in their culture, that these teachings actually give women and children and slaves more respect and honor than their society afforded them — well, that changed my understanding and interpretation. It certainly didn’t mean I lowered my view of scripture or that I tossed out the Bible so I could better fit into my culture. No. It’s actually that I respect scripture enough to want to understand it more. And I’m willing to change my own finite understanding of the Bible as I learn more.
See, that’s just the thing. My understanding is finite. And changing my understanding of scripture doesn’t mean I’m abandoning the Bible; it means I’m growing in my faith and deepening my understanding.
God doesn’t fit into a tidy little box or a soundbite or a bumper sticker slogan. I know that makes some people uncomfortable – but honestly, would you want to worship a God who could? I’m pretty sure a God that my finite mind can completely figure out wouldn’t be worth my worship. And an understanding of scripture that doesn’t change at all over the course of 20 years is a stagnant, stunted faith.
NoThankYou. I choose a living, growing, evolving relationship with a God so beyond me that I’ll never figure it all out.