W.C. Fields (1880—1946) was a colorful actor, comedian, and all-around smart-aleck who amused America throughout the early 1900s. He is remembered for such one-liners as “I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday” and “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.” He was an unabashed atheist.
But as his health declined, it is said that an attendant came into his room one day and discovered him propped up in bed with an open Bible. “Mr. Fields!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing with that book?”
Ever the wise guy, he replied in his trademark mumble, “Lookin’ for a loophole.”
I confess there are times that I—a committed, every-Sunday Christian—feel the temptation while reading certain portions of Scripture. Do I really have to take this verse at face value? I wonder. Isn’t there a different angle to look at? Or maybe I could find a more palatable translation….
The Bible, as you may have noticed, is not entirely sweetness and comfort. It has a way of stepping on our toes sometimes. That bit about “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) … really? Sounds extreme, impractical, over-the-top. Can’t I just skip on to the next paragraph? Maybe Jesus was only exaggerating to make a point.
Yet there it stands, from the mouth of the Savior himself—in red letters, no less.
Moments such as these call into question what we say we affirm about the Bible as the one-of-a-kind, authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God. It was given to us to guide us, instruct us, shape our foundational values, and even correct us. We do not get to sit in judgment of it; rather, it sits in judgment of us. We get no ballot to vote on whether it’s true, anymore than we get to vote on which direction is north, or whether the moon loops around our earth. It is what it is, like it or not.
Here are a few topics on which the Bible makes Christians squirm today:
Consistent Self-Control. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:5) … “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). Good goals to shoot for, I suppose—but “always”? “Evident to all”? C’mon—what’s so bad about a little clever sarcasm now and then? And in our pugnacious society, aren’t we allowed to speak up forcefully sometimes, so the loudmouths don’t run over us?
Submission—not submission to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you understand … but submission to those who are divinely installed as leaders in the church and the Christian home. What if they, being human, make mistakes, or aren’t fully worthy of respect? Doesn’t that give the rest of us an “out”? Quickly we can slide over to the cultural stance of “Don’t tell me what to do—my opinion is every bit as valid as yours.” We need to stand up for ourselves, questioning hierarchy in any form, don’t you think?
Divorce—now there’s a touchy subject in today’s Christian environment if there ever was one. I raise the matter not to cause additional pain to those whose marriages have already come apart, but rather to address currently married people who are contemplating the option. Were Jesus and the apostle Paul serious when they spoke to this question in several places, putting it out of bounds for believers? It may be argued that Scripture includes two exceptions (“loopholes,” if you will): adultery (Matt. 5:32), and abandonment by the unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:10-11). But surely there must be other grounds to split up—God wouldn’t want us to be unhappy, would he?
The Possibility of Living above Sin. Salvation brings us initial forgiveness of sin, as we know. But what about thereafter? Is the “sin nature” embedded so deeply within us that it persists for the rest of our earthly lives?
Some churches say yes, pointing to such verses as “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2); thus they build standardized recitals of confession into their liturgies, to be repeated every seven days. But others draw attention to what the apostle John wrote: “No one who lives in [Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him…. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them” (1 John 3:6, 9). Is that too idealistic? Is it quite out of reach for mere mortals?
Homosexuality. The public discourse across Western culture has now firmly attached LGBTQ+ issues to the larger realm of civil rights. Laws have been changed in response. “Pride” symbols and celebrations are widely welcomed. The disapprovals of Scripture—not just the infamous Leviticus 18 statement but half a dozen others even in the New Testament—are brushed aside as outmoded, prejudiced, bigoted, even “hateful.” Do we have to pay attention to what the Creator of sexuality has said on the subject, however unpopular it may be?
I raise these five examples (more could be added) not to try to resolve any of them in this small space. I simply challenge myself to take God’s Word seriously rather than searching for loopholes that will let me avoid personal change or discomfort. God intentionally said what he said—even the unpopular parts—for good reason. He is the Supreme Authority, not me.
Those who have ears to hear, let [us] hear.