Why the Church Tends Not to Be on the Cutting Edge of Social Issues
Having grown up in the evangelical community my whole life, I grew up learning two very prominent analogies about the faith that I now find pretty troubling:
1. Referring to the Bible as a human being’s “instruction manual”
2. Putting on the “Armor of God” as noted in Ephesians 6
On the surface, these analogies seemed pretty harmless. After all, I used to sing cute songs on Sunday school about being in the Lord’s Army. (Yessir!) What could be so damaging as using crayons to color pictures of metaphorical soldiers at grade school ages?
Setting sarcasm aside, I’ll give folks the benefit of the doubt by choosing to believe that they truly have the best of intentions. Ingrained within every human being is a desire to be safe and have a sense of belonging within a group. Generally speaking, the church writ large does a pretty good job at this. I don’t think the church has a general desire to be evil.
That said, the church revolves itself around this very tricky book. You might know it as the Bible. I think it’s an understatement to call the Bible the most controversial book of all time. People have done many great things and many terrible things using the Bible as justification.
Why is this the case?
Consider the two analogies I noted at the top of the post. Referring to the Bible as “life’s instruction manual” creates a very static view of God’s Word. I think about the instruction manual for something like my lawn mower, I want that to be static. It’d be a nightmare if it somehow magically changed how to change the oil every year.
The second analogy of the Armor of God paints a literally offensive image of the faith and Bible. If you’re not familiar with this analogy, it’s ripped directly from Ephesians 6 and goes as follows:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Right at the end there, the word of God — which many interpret as the Bible — is referred to as a sword. Now… last time I checked, a sword is really only good for killing people. I don’t know of anybody using a sword to spread jelly on a slice of bread!
Combining these analogies together, you get a very stark, bleak, and largely offensive view of how many people approach the Bible. This is largely where the icky parts of the faith derive. It’s this seeking of a preservation of the Bible (“God’s Word”) that often makes the church one of the last to embrace social change.
Don’t get me wrong: the church eventually does change. I think the most recent issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movements have illustrated that pretty clearly. Most churches I’m aware of have done a very solid job at standing beside our African American brothers and sisters to seek justice for their community.
But unfortunately, it‘s almost always a long time coming. As recent as the Civil Rights Act led by figures like Martin Luther King Jr., many churches stood in opposition to equal rights citing the Bible as a means to promote nasty ideology. Even today, most churches won’t openly accept the LGBT community, again using the Bible as this “sword” against them. (I’m hopeful we’ll also see that tide swing more strongly in the coming decades.)
So I ask the question again: why does the evangelical community tend to use the Bible in these less-than-ideal ways?
Simply put, many view the Bible as a static snapshot instead of understanding it to be a growing, living guide for how the faith continues to evolve across history. Using the Bible as a snapshot to ask what it notes about a social issue is generally a bad idea because you’re going to get the answer that was right for the time but not right for today.
As a snapshot, the Bible states many very troubling things. Early on in the Bible we see records of the Israelites — God’s chosen people — slaughtering their enemies in the name of God. We have constant images painting women as subservient to their male counterparts. And even as late in the Bible as the New Testament, we still have prominent figures seemingly condoning slavery.
Read at a purely surface level, the Bible is a pretty barbaric book. Unfortunately, the Bible is often read at this static surface level, which is why the Church is often one of the last to embrace social change. Does this mean the church should discard the Bible?
Not at all! It’d be far too long to go in depth in this post, but by shifting our view of the Bible from a static snapshot to a fluid evolving form of life, we find a lot of very progressive, very lovely ideas in the Bible.
For example, as boring as Leviticus is, the entire law dictated to the people there was a radically progressive idea in how to live in peace with God when many societies / tribes at the time had very hostile, volatile relationships with their gods. Leviticus shares how to properly sacrifice to God using plants and animals because it was commonplace in other cultures to keep ratcheting up the sacrifice game not knowing how to appease their gods. And what happens when you keeping upping your sacrifices? You eventually get to child sacrifice. So Leviticus is super cutting edge in the sense that there’s no need to sacrifice your child at all.
Reading something like Leviticus with modern eyes paints a negative picture because we look at something like animal sacrifice as barbaric and primitive. But for those people living in those times, it was as progressive as the social issues we face in our own modern society.
(Side note: if you want to better understand the Bible as this living, breathing evolution of society, I would highly recommend the book What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. Additionally, Rob has a great audio series specifically on the book of Leviticus called Blood, Guts, and Fire that I’d also recommend.)
So the good news is that there’s a better way of reading the Bible to promote social issues more quickly and progressively, but the unfortunate news is that we’re probably decades — if not centuries — from the church at large embracing the Bible in this manner. Until we can drop harmful analogies of the Bible being an instruction manual or sword, the church will have a very difficult time being progressive leaders on social issues. As Richard Rohr states, it’s likely the church in coming centuries will look at the first two millennia after Jesus’ time — including today — as “baby Christianity.”
Not to end on a down note there, I do want to reiterate hope here. With the advent of technology to spread information much more quickly, it’s very possible for the church to evolve much more quickly than it has in the past. I think about my own life and how little knowledge I was exposed to as a child, largely because things like the Internet were pretty much nonexistent in the public. (It’s sort of mind boggling to think that my daughters will never grow up not knowing the Internet!) Now, I’m constantly exposed to new ideas about the Bible via social media, podcasts, and more things that didn’t exist even ten years ago.
I’m hopeful then, friends, and I hope I play a small role in helping turn this tide. Even though I lean into some very “woo-woo” ideas these days, I still love the Bible for all the life it promotes. That’s something I hope we never lose as we continue to evolve as a culture and as a people.