By now, many readers will have seen (or even read) the rather brazen op-ed piece in USA Today by retired mainline pastor, Oliver Thomas. In short, the article argues that the American church has been wrong about gay people because they’ve been wrong about something else. The church has been wrong about the Bible.
Turns out the Bible is not true after all.
So, argues Thomas, once we get that pesky Bible out of the picture, we are free to approve homosexuality as right and good. And once we do that, then our churches—which have been bleeding members for years—will finally grow again.
Of course, Thomas is not the first one to try to make Christianity compatible with homosexuality. But, most others try to do it by arguing that we’ve merely misunderstood the Bible. Once we interpret it rightly, it turns out the Bible is actually for homosexuality.
But not Thomas. His argument is more simple: the Bible just got it wrong.
While Thomas’ argument is much more honest (I appreciate the fact that he just admits the Bible does not approve of homosexuality) it also much more brazen. Basically, he’s arguing everyone in the history of the Judeo-Christian movement is wrong: the Bible, all of the history of Judaism, all of the history of Christianity, Moses, Paul, and, yes, even Jesus. All of them are wrong.
He states: “We have learned some things that the ancients — including Moses and Paul — simply did not know. Not even Jesus.”
But now, in the last generation, Thomas finally got it right.
Needless to say, that is a bold argument. And it will take a lot to back it up. So, how does Thomas get there? Basically he has three arguments against the Bible:
Mistakes, Mistakes, Mistakes
Thomas’ main argument against the Bible is a simple one: “[The Scriptures] were written by men, and those men made mistakes.”
In other words, the Bible has errors.
Of course, this is not a new argument at all, but a rather old one. And one that has been answered since the very beginning of the church, and by countless scholars since.
Thomas acknowledges none of the backstory here, but merely trots out three examples of contradictions that he thinks settle the case. It’s almost like the mere mention of a difficult passage will make the Bible’s authority disappear in a vapor. Nothing to see here.
But, the Bible is a bit more resilient than that. And brushing aside its authority is not nearly so neat and easy. Scholars have answered the three objections he raises numerous times over.
For instance, Thomas repeats the stock claim that John and the Synoptics put the crucifixion on different days. But, the evidence for this is rather thin, coming down to a dispute about the word pascha in John 18:28 that by no means proves what Thomas thinks it does. (For a response, see D.A. Carson, John, 589-590).
Unfortunately, such charges are more easy to make than to refute. Those looking for a reason to reject the Bible are rarely eager to explore whether the charges are actually true.
Christians Don’t Follow the Bible Anyway
Thomas’ second argument is that we don’t need to worry about what the Bible says because Christians don’t really follow it anyway.
He states: “We don’t impose the death penalty on adulterers, Sabbath breakers and rebellious children. Nor do we chase women from God’s house because they are menstruating or exclude men because of their physical handicaps.”
It is clear that Thomas is unaware of the fallacious nature of this argument, despite how commonly it is invoked. But, even the most basic Bible teaching highlights the fact that the Bible is in two testaments for a reason. Under the new covenant, Christ has fulfilled and satisfied the purity laws required under the Mosaic economy. Thus we no longer are obligated to do many OT things, such as get circumcised, follow certain food laws, etc.
In addition, the church is not a geo-political nation like Israel. With the inclusion of the Gentiles, it is universal, global in scope. Thus, the church does not, and should not, have the legal/political prerogative to execute anyone. It’s authority is spiritual.
This is just basic stuff—Christian Theology 101, if you will. Either Thomas is unaware of it, or intentionally does not mention it. Neither option is a good one.
The Bible Teaches Morally Objectionable Things
Thomas is quick to pivot from homosexuality to racism, arguing that the Bible advocates slavery (among many other awful things): “But Southerners had Scripture on their side. Slaves were admonished to submit to their masters in the writings of both Peter and Paul. The Hebrew Scriptures likewise considered slavery as part of the divine order.”
Once again, Thomas is quick to utilize arguments that are repeatedly used in popular culture. After all, such arguments make good soundbites. But, the reality is much more complex.
The truth is that the Bible does not condone/promote slavery, as is so often claimed. Thomas takes the word “slave” in the Bible and anachronistically reads back Civil War-era slavery into the text. For a more balanced and nuanced treatment, see this article by Gavin Ortlund.
But, there is a bigger problem here for Thomas. His complaint about the Bible and slavery is a moral one. Essentially, his argument is that the Bible’s teaching is morally defective.
Fair enough, but Thomas must then answer a more foundational question: Where does he get his moral standards from? If the Bible fails to live up to a moral code, then what is this moral code? And why should we think it is absolute?
Of course, Thomas could simply say that the Bible fails to live up to his personal moral code. But that is not an argument. For his argument to work, the Bible has to do more than just fail to please Oliver Thomas. The Bible has to be objectively wrong.
This is a bigger problem than one might first think. After all, the entire op-ed piece engages in a good deal of ethical finger-wagging. Thomas is chiding (quite severely) the church for its moral failures. To make such a claim, you better have some moral code to back it up.
But, what is Thomas left with? He threw the Bible under the bus, along with Moses, Paul, and even Jesus.
One gets the impression that all Thomas is left with is himself for a moral standard. And needless to say, that is not an adequate foundation for the arguments he’s making
In the end, Thomas’ op-ed is high on rhetoric and over-used cultural arguments against the Bible. But, it seems short on deep reflection and engagement with the complex issues.
Ironically, Thomas began his article with a lament: “A sad thing is happening in America. The church is killing itself.”
In this way, Thomas is right. The church is killing itself, if by the “church” one means the mainline denominations who have abandoned biblical authority. Indeed, statistics have shown, plainly and incontrovertibly, that the mainline denominations are dying and the bible-believing ones are growing.
Thomas thinks abandoning biblical authority will fix the problem. On the contrary, it is the past abandonment of biblical authority by the mainline denominations that is the problem.