Scripture, Liberals and Nitpicks

Several years ago I was accused of being a lawless liberal and a legalistic nitpick in the same day.  How on earth does this happen?  The topic of discussion for a Wednesday night youth group bible study had shifted to the concept of alcohol.  As always, I reinforced that it was a sin to get drunk as stated from scripture [1] and that it was definitely a sin for the youth to drink, because they would be breaking the law (i.e. sinning) due to the state law against underage drinking. [2]  I also stated that scripture was silent on issues of responsible alcohol consumption for those of age.  Furthermore, I shared that even if one wanted to condemn someone of responsible alcohol consumption, that it would be very difficult to do this on the basis of scripture.  What followed was a long conversation where I was accused by several youth of being a tight Biblical nitpick.  Frankly, I could see this coming and was prepared to stand my ground on the basis of clear Bible passages.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the subtle and somewhat shaming push back of being labeled a loose Biblical liberal.  Think about this for a moment.  I was accused of being a Biblical nitpick because I spoke scripture towards an ethical issue; however, I was accused of being a Biblical liberal for not speaking towards an ethical issue due to the silence of scripture.  Quite frankly this story has more to do with the role of scripture and less to do about me as a pastor.  It raises questions like:   
  • What are the implications of holding to scripture as the final authority on faith and conduct?
  • What are the implications of someone not believing that scripture is the final and/or complete authority on faith and conduct?
  • What are the implications when one dismisses statements of scripture?  
  • What are the implications when one speaks with Christian authority in places where scripture is silent?
According to John R. Muether in a recent article in Modern Reformation he states that,
"The temptation to impose non-biblical demands derived from 'bold and curious' reasoning is not limited to theological liberals.  Some conservative churches have constructed a 'catalog of sins,' highlighting particular 'bar-room vices' that comprise a legalistic picture of the Christian life."[3]
According to Muether, the implications of this are… that when a church or person constructs and adds moralistic tenets to the Bible in order to legislate and limit conduct, they are in essence harming and undercutting the belief that the Bible is the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.  In adding to the Word, one is appealing to another authority thus becoming just as much in error as any liberal who subtracts from the Word.[4] 

Muether goes on to say,
“Of course, none of the advocates of abstinence were consciously challenging the authority of the Bible as the church’s standard of conduct.  But the effect of their crusade was to deny the sufficiency of Scripture and ultimately the authority as well.  If it is denied that the Bible provides principles that serve as infallible guides to the Christian in all matters of conduct, then additional authorities must enter the picture.  The addition of such manmade rules to the Scriptures is as harmful as any subtraction to the Word.”[5]
In the battle to preserve the final authoritative place of scripture against subtractionalists[6], the perception many times is that one is a good Biblicist when he/she stands upon the Reformation cry of ‘Sola Scriptura.’  However, when one battles to preserve the final authoritative place of scripture against additionalists[7], the perception many times is that the individual is a bad or liberal Biblicist who is opposed to personal holiness and in favor of a license to sin.  This was clearly illustrated in the story above.

In matters where the Bible has pronounced judgment, one must make sure not to ignore the proclamation, thus subtracting from the authority of the Word.  For this subtraction undercuts the sufficiency of ‘Sola Scriptura.’  Equally as harmful is when one imposes moralities and duties upon the Bible where no judgment has been pronounced.  For these additions also undercut the belief that scripture is the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.  The additions appeal to another authority which inadvertently weakens the sufficiency and belief of ‘Sola Scriptura.’ 

In conclusion, because we hold to 'Sola Scriptura' we speak scripture without a negative or a plus sign.  May we continually embrace scripture as the final authoritative guide for our faith and conduct, and in doing so may we gladly bear the title of “Liberal Nitpicks!” 

Sola Scriptura…

[1] See Ephesians 5:18
[2] Romans 13:1-ff calls for citizens to obey the governing authorities.  For a youth to drink under age they would be breaking the law of the land, thus not submitting to the authorities as commanded in this Romans text.
[3] John R. Muether, The Magna Carta of Christian Liberty, (Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec of 2010), 15.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Subtractionalist:  those that diminish the claims and authority of scripture as a norm for faith and conduct.
[7] Additionalists:  those that add conduct rules and morality to the final norms and authority of scripture.