Does Right and Wrong Start with You or With God?

wrong is right

Image courtesy of Joel Bez, under Creative Commons

I’m going to say something a lot of people will be uncomfortable with, but it needs to be said for the only reason anything ever needs to be said — because it’s true. I’m speaking here to religious people, Christians in particular.

You, not God, and not the Bible, are the standard of right and wrong in your life. It begins with you.

I know. Sounds sacrilegious, doesn’t it? As a pastor, I often hear comments like these:

“I just want God’s truth and not the opinion of man.”

“Where do you find that in scripture?”

“That sounds like your opinion, not God’s.”

“But scripture says…”

“Yes, scripture says this, but it also says that. You have to have balance.”

“Our pastor teaches the Bible and only the Bible.”

All of these statements are problematic, because they depend on the existence of something that does not exist and never has.

They all depend on one objectively true, universal way of understanding the Bible. What most evangelicals understand as the central message of the Bible (forgiveness of sin through acceptance of Christ as one’s “personal Savior”) comes from an interpretation of scripture that took hold starting around the 1830’s, and worked its way into seminaries and then into the church. Many tenets of evangelical belief, such as the “rapture,” and Biblical inerrancy, come from this relatively recent understanding of the Bible. Certainly there is nothing wrong with our theology growing and changing over time, but we have a problem when our ignorance of history allows us to think that relatively new understandings of Biblical ideas are the only way to think, or even the best way. I believe David Fitch is right when he suggests that evangelicalism is going to have to come up with new ways of thinking or else we’ll soon be worshiping in a post-evangelical world.

Let’s return to my main statement. You, not God, and not the Bible, are the standard of right and wrong in your life. It begins with you.

What does this mean? Since there is no universal way of understanding the Bible, we are left with many ways — thousands of them. You have to choose a way. You have to decide what is right and wrong from your understanding of the Bible and God — an understanding which is bound to be partly right and partly wrong. In fact you probably already have. If this post makes you want to stand up and cheer, it’s because you have chosen a way that accommodates this thinking. If it makes you want to flame me to death, you have chosen a way that condemns it. Either is your choice. Your way didn’t come to you straight from God as the only possible way of seeing things. It came from your comfort zone, your vulnerabilities, your needs, your issues, your biases, your background. It began with you. In fact, not only is your pastor’s teaching his opinion, but it is your opinion that his opinion is valid and makes sense. We want to think we can use the Bible to rule out opinions and give us fact — divinely handed down — but in the final analysis, we have to render a verdict on what the Bible teaches.

“But Dave!” you say. “If each person is the final standard of what the Bible means, on right and wrong, where does that leave us? It’ll be chaos!”

That, of course, is what we fear. We don’t seem to have much of a problem with the chaos that is implied in having over 35,000 Christian denominations, but we’re certainly too afraid to just come out and admit that we are already listening to the opinions of men and women, and it can’t be any other way. Even when we’re talking about the Bible, we still have to decide what is right and wrong.

“But then everyone is his/her own standard.”

Not if you believe that God speaks and seeks out men and women, and that God wants to tell us the truth. Jesus said,

Matthew 7:7-8 (NASB)
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
8 “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.

Now of course you don’t have to believe this either. You can choose to keep swirling around in that endless, “But how do you know Jesus said this” mess. I have chosen to believe it. If you believe it, then it brings confidence. You can have confidence that people who seek the truth find it, even if you don’t understand/agree with what they have found. Caution: People who seek certainties, rules, and structure will find that as well.

What if faith doesn’t start after you have heard inarguable words handed down from the mountain, but at the point where you have to enter into what is heard and use the faculties God has given you to make decisions about what is true?

This does not mean that whatever you decide is right must be always and automatically right. You can always be wrong, and we all will be sometimes. It just means that you do in fact have to decide, and your decision is based on your opinion of something you read, or hear, or determine from your experience.

Question: Do you agree with what I have written here? Why or why not?

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Adam

    I agree with that. It’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while now. I grew up in the Lutheran church, where we had to memorize passages from Luther’s small catechism. Not only that, but we had to memorize all of the “What does this mean?” passages that were basically Luther’s interpretations of the scriptures. It was as if we couldn’t have a thought that disagreed with Martin Luther, as though that was the same as disagreeing with Christ and with God. The look I got one morning in Sunday school when I dared to ask if the six days of creation could have represented millions or billions of years frightened me half to death as a child (although now I find it funny).

    As an adult, I started to read works by Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy, and Desmond Tutu, and I realized that I can’t just accept a faith that has been laid out by another human being. The faith of Martin Luther or C.S. Lewis or St. Augustine is not going to help me. I need to find the path that God has laid out specially for me. The day that really sunk in, I felt this great burden lift off of me and I was overcome with joy. My faith in Christ before had felt foreign and forced, but now my faith truly feels like a part of me.

    Thank you for writing something so encouraging and helping me to feel that I am not the only one having these ideas.

    • I admire and applaud your journey, and am so glad you took a few minutes to share it here on my blog. I know my readers will benefit from reading it. Peace and continued freedom to you!