On the Perils of Ascertaining “Biblical Principle”

A great many things can be learned by reading the Bible.  A great many more can be learned by studying the Bible exhaustively and repeatedly.  And further still, such study leads us to come to grips with the incomplete nature of the scriptures in a way we could never realize as mere casual readers.  I must stress, however, that very, very few people ever study at this level.  Instead, most remain quite ignorant of the incomplete nature of the scriptures, even though we may witness that nature by observing the behaviors of those who are ignorant of it.  Let me explain.

Billy will proudly exclaim that “the Bible is sufficient” and that it is “complete” and that “if it’s not in the Bible, we simply must not need to know it.”  This is how it has been framed for Billy by his teachers, and this is the way that Billy frames it for others.  But then, if we watch Billy’s behavior carefully over time, we will see things challenges unfold, such as the following.

  1. Billy teaches that wives are to be submissive to their husbands.  In support for this, he cites a directive from Paul:  Ephesians 5:24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.  In this instance, he boldly quotes this directive and applies it directly to his life and to the lives of those around him.  “Praise God,” he exclaims, “that the Bible meets our exact needs!”
  2. Now, for a completely separate topic, the question comes up one day regarding the name of the Caesar at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Billy can’t remember, so he looks it up and discovers this passage:  Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  “The Bible is so awesome,” he boasts, “that it even gives us the little details!”  Once again, Billy has found a concrete fact in the Bible.
  3. Then Ted asks Billy one day why they must give money weekly to the church corporation; he asks for a directive or an example from scripture that establishes this practice.  Billy thinks it’s an easy question and he offers up this passage:  1 Corinthians 16:2  On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.  Ted points out, however, that this passage was about a special occasion of famine relief, and that this money did not go into the local church treasury, but was collective privately and then given to an apostle upon his visit.  So he asks Billy for some other scriptural support for the practice.  And this is where we finally see Billy play the “Biblical Principle” card.

The “Biblical Principle” Card

What do you do when the Bible does not give the information you want it to give, or that you think you need?  Well, many evoke the notion of “Biblical Principle”.  Let’s watch as Billy attempts to satisfy Ted’s question on the weekly tithe in this fashion:

Billy:  Well, Ted, you’ve got to to understand that giving is a well-established
biblical principle.  Cain and Abel gave sacrifices.  Abraham offered up his son, Isaac.  Even Jesus offered up his very own life as a sacrifice to God.  So giving is simply what believers do.  There’s probably not any biblical principle that’s more established than this one.

Naturally, Billy will find his defense of the tithe to be wholly convincing and satisfactory.  He does not understand that in order to derive this answer, however, he had to resort to a different way of handling the Bible than he did in examples #1 and #2 above.  In those cases, he found either clear directives or clear statements of fact that squarely answered the issues in question.  But in this present case (of the tithe), he resorts to supporting his church’s fiscal habits by going off in search of a “biblical principle”, piecing it together as needed for plausibility.

The fact of the matter, however, is that there is simply not any directive to be found in the New Testament for a great many of the things that modern churches do regularly.  The “tithe” is a great example of this.  Millions practice it, but none can produce a directive for such—and this is for a very good reason; no such directive exists in the texts.  They step backwards from the New Testament and draw their support from the Old, citing Malachi, for example:

Malachi 3:10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

No explanation is given, however, for the facts that this directive is about the no-longer-existing Temple in Jerusalem, and was decreed under the no-longer-existent Law of Moses.  Rather, it is taken as a given that this decree embodied a certain “spirit of giving” that was obviously supposed to make the transition to the New Covenant when the time came.  No, there’s no need to explain how the original tithe mentioned here was to result in “food in my house”, whereas such “tithe” of food has now been supplanted by cash.  No, it’s clear to all (who are not thinking) that this passage is support enough for the modern tithe—and anyone who says otherwise is probably an unspiritual person.

It would have been so easy, however, for an apostle to write in an epistle to one of the congregations that the tithe to the Temple had been supplanted by a tithe to the local 501(c)3 church corporation.    Yet no such passage exists in the scriptures we have left.  Not one.

Billy’s answer, however—were it honest—should be:  “Ted, I don’t think there is such a passage.”  But Billy lacks the honesty to say it so plainly.  In his view, there is no need to open that door, and to do so might present a danger to Ted, who might just walk through it.  Indeed, it could get even worse; if Ted goes around saying that there is no clear biblical authority for the weekly tithe in the church, that could upset a great many things—not the least of which is the revenues of the church—Oops, I mean the faith of the other members.  To Billy, it is obvious that this whole story is an ugly one waiting to unfold.  He is troubled that Ted’s faith is in such a state such that he would even question the matter at all.

Competing Principles

Ted, however, has developed some personal paradigms from other reading he has been doing in the Bible.  Billy is suspicious of Ted’s thinking and of his drive to discover the truth on the tithing issue, but here’s where Ted developed this manner of thinking—from passages such as these:

  • Give careful thought to your ways.  (Haggai 1:5)
  • Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord. (Isaiah 1:18)
  • The first to present his case seems right until another comes along and questions him.  (Proverbs 18:7)
  • Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.  (2 Corinthians 13:5)
  • I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion.  (Proverbs 8:12)
  • Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
  • I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak… (Matthew 12:36)

Ted has embraced these and many other biblical passages, emulating the careful cognition, investigation, and examination they espouse.  His question, about the tithe, therefore, is the natural result of the way he has learned to think by taking the counsel of the scriptures themselves.  Ted, therefore, has a more concrete view of the scriptures, whereas Billy (who thinks he has a concrete view) actually only has a concrete view on certain occasions where it is convenient, and otherwise, holds to a very fluid view that is quite willing to fill in the gaps of fact and directive with “principle” as necessary to  support his existing models of belief and practice.

How It Usually Happens

When people seek to ascertain “biblical principle”, how often do they come up with answers that do not support their existing model of belief and/or practice?

In other words, who ever comes back from a search for “biblical principle” discovering something different from what he expected/wanted to find?

Or, to put it in yet another way:  How is it that under this idea of “sufficiency of scripture”, so very many things must be strung together from bits and pieces, rather than coming as the result of clear statements of fact, or of clear directives?  This ubiquitous habit is a disproof of the very notion of “sufficiency of scripture”.  It is a proof that the Bible simply does not contain enough information from which to emulate the ekklesia (what most call “church”).

Sadly, when people go looking in the Bible for support for some idea or other, it is usually because they do not have any clear instance of such support in the New Testament.  The very fact that they are forced to search for something, therefore, proves that they are already on shaky ground with regard to whatever habit or tradition may be in question.  Interestingly, however, typical results of such “principle” searching are such that the established habit is always supported by whatever is found.

“I don’t know” is simply not an acceptable answer.  “The Bible simply doesn’t seem to say” is not acceptable.  “There is no clear directive for this” just won’t do.  “We’re going to have to make a big assumption in order to keep going with this” is just not going to work.

Instead, far too many people insist on coming back with blurry supports such as “It’s biblical” or “It is scriptural” or, to follow the title of this post, “This teaching is in accord with biblical principle”.

In Ted’s case, however, such a support of a teaching or practice is clearly against a consistent body of language about truth and honesty and reason and wisdom.

The difference, of course, is that Ted’s principles are principles of personal righteousness, where the principles Billy seeks to support are all aimed at defending existing institutional practices—that latter being almost wholly invented, where the former has been established since the Genesis.

Thus do Billy and his sort go about cherry picking whatever “principles” they think are necessary to sufficiently support their habits.  Meanwhile, those like Ted are the sort to figure out quite quickly that a great deal of what goes on in the churches is not supported by clear directive and example at all.

Why can’t we all be honest and admit that:

  • We don’t know how many cups are to be used for the communion.
  • We don’t know how many elders a congregation is to have.
  • We have no apt support for the tithe.
  • We have no apt support for the choir or the teen ministry, and so on.
  • We have no support for the church building.
  • We don’t know what the “Third Heaven” is.
  • We have no idea why Jesus wrote letters to seven churches in Asia, but does not write letters any longer.
  • We have no idea what it meant that the women were to keep their heads covered “because of the angels”—or why it is that the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3) were addressed to angels, and not to men.
  • We don’t know how to appoint an evangelist.
  • We have no idea how many writings of the apostles have been lost.
  • We don’t even have an inspired definition for “Christian” or “Christianity”.

These are all matters of fact, yet you will rarely hear them mentioned in church.  And when you do, you will always find that these facts are immediately discounted by assurances derived from “biblical principle”.

Such behavior belies the reality of the situation, however;  it makes believers into make-believers.

Embracing Reality

The fact of the matter is that the Bible simply does not provide an exhaustive set of directives or examples by which modern churches can insure that their conduct agrees with God’s desires.  This fact alone has huge implications, which I have addressed elsewhere.  Regardless of its implications, however, it provides for us a choice: whether to be honest about it, or to be deny it and pretend otherwise.

Who, claiming Jesus as a mentor, can go about in intellectual dishonesty?

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