The Church and the Bible
How does the Church relate to the Bible? How do the people of God and the Word of God relate to one another? Did the Church create the Bible or the Bible the Church? Is the Church over the Bible, or is the Church under the Bible? Is it its master or its servant? What precisely is the Christian responsibility with regard to the Bible?
These are important questions and have no small bearing in the way different churches reach decisions, not least the Church of Scotland at General Assembly as it meets later this month.
Among the earliest letters written by the apostle Paul were those he wrote to the church in Thessalonica. In those letters, and especially in 2 Thessalonians 3, we learn a great deal about how believers should relate to the Bible. Essentially, the apostle Paul says two things about the church and the Bible (the Word of God):
1. The Word of God should ‘speed ahead and be honoured’, (2 Thessalonians 3:1). The word should be spread abroad. (this is the burden of 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)
2. Secondly, that the same Word should be honoured and obeyed in the church. (the burden of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
In passing, if you wanted a biblical definition of church growth this would be it. God wants His church to grow extensively, as the Gospel is spread through the world. But God also wants the church to grow intensively, conforming its life and lifestyle to the Word. There is no use spreading the Word through the world if that Word is not obeyed by those doing the spreading. The church must conform to the Word that it is busy spreading.
It is clear that the Apostle Paul sees no distinction between his own teaching and the Word of God:
‘And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers’ 1 Thessalonians 2:13
This is not because Paul was a megalomaniac or a deluded dictator such as Kim Jong-un (the North Korean leader who, reportedly, demands that men imitate his haircut). Paul is not like that. Paul is simply expressing his responsible sense of apostolic authority. This apostolic authority is unique (and so unrepeatable, hence nobody has it today) and restricted to the Apostles whom Christ chose as his eyewitnesses. This was the group who, inspired by the Spirit, articulated the Gospel in the early days and whose teaching remains with us still, having been enshrined in the New Testament. The Apostles therefore still teach us today, through the Bible, for their authority now resides within the Bible.
Paul’s first concern is that the Word of God, his Apostolic teaching, now the New Testament, should be shared. The Bible message should be taught and declared.
‘Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured, as happened among you’ (2 Thessalonians 3:1)
He longs for it to ‘speed ahead and be honoured’ and encourages the believers to pray for that work. This was, after all, Paul’s life’s work - spreading the Word throughout the Roman Empire. He encourages the believers to pray and keep praying for the preaching of the Word. In other words, to have his name on the Board of their prayer meeting and pray regularly for him and the Word-spreading to which he is committed.
Paul uses a lovely picture here of an athlete, perhaps carrying the Olympic torch, running through the world. The Church is under orders to carry the torch of God’s Word to the world in evangelism; in declaring the Word to the world, and praying for that work worldwide.
Paul’s second concern is that the Word of God should also be obeyed by them. Paul progresses from the need to spread the Word in the world on to the need to obey the Word in the church. The lives of believers individually, and collectively, should be shaped and moulded by the Word of God. We are not at liberty to do a ‘scissors job’ on the Bible and remove the bits we don’t like. Neither are we at liberty to say things like ‘Oh that is just Paul, we can ignore that.’ What we find in Paul is the authority bestowed upon him by Christ. After all, Jesus said to his disciples:
The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me. Luke 10:16
The wellbeing of the church depends largely on listening to Jesus Christ and on our obedience to Jesus Christ as His word comes to us.
At the end of 2 Thessalonians, Paul pronounces blessings on the believers:
‘Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.’ V.16-18
The fact is that Paul envisages a church that is committed to spreading the Word, and so committed to sharing the Good news; and equally committed to praying for the wider work of the church (no narrow parochialism, but rather an expansive globalism). Equally, that church should be committed to obeying the word. Such a church will then experience the rich blessings of the peace of Christ, the presence of Christ and the grace of Christ.
Whenever a church loses that desire to share the Word, or fails to engage in the work of prayer for the wider Church, or refuses to conform to the plain teaching of the Word, then it is less able to receive the rich blessings Paul pronounces. It then consigns itself to a dismal second-rate existence, which can ultimately spell its doom.
Yours in Christ