Hit You in the Feels?
Not so long ago, a bit of internet clickbait urged me to view a slideshow of gay marriage proposals guaranteed to 'hit you in the feels' (or something akin to that). That such an appeal could be made at all testifies to the pagan decadence of American culture. But it underlined for me that the persuasiveness of the new sexual revolution has not been in reason or some new enlightenment, as its advocates would have us believe, but in 'feels.' The cultural shift of recent years represents the triumph of emotionalism over reason, of sloganeering over critical thinking, and of self-aggrandizement over wisdom. Hijacking the civil rights narrative, the advocates of change have declared themselves heroes, and prophesied that those who do not join the revolution will suffer the ire of history books to come.
Most problematic is that any number of Christians have been, to greater and lesser degrees, swept along by the emotional and aesthetic persuasive appeals of this revolution. The world has painted wickedness with a rainbow of bright color, and Christians have been moved to agree that it is beautiful. Every now and again we read that another pastor or Christian celebrity has gotten 'woke' and now considers a (growing) selection of sins holy. Christian institutions and denominations turn from Christ to culture. Nor is it only the mainline who fall in line; while the UCC surrendered as a matter of course (surrendered? Perhaps it would be better to say, 'led the charge'), and few will be surprised when the CBF gives in, the Revoice Conference was held at a PCA church. What we see in these situations is not merely the corruption of the broader culture, where emotionalism has overthrown reason; it is something much worse, emotionalism usurping the authority of revelation. I would like to suggest three stages in Christian surrender to pagan culture.
The first and subtlest form of this revolution against revelation is the willingness to be guided by culture and embrace unlikely and idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture that accommodate what one wishes to believe. Christians hear a traditional interpretation challenged by some ostensibly respectable pastor or scholar, who declares that new insight renders the passage irrelevant to the specifics of our context: 'Paul is not talking about homosexuality as we know it,' etc. Lacking the skills to investigate this novel interpretation, or simply because they desire it to be true, they accept it with a sense of palpable relief that Scripture did not contradict the world after all. In such cases it is still possible that careful and patient exegesis will turn the wanderer back when they see the accommodation they hoped for is not tenable; Scripture remains, at least in principle, their ultimate authority.
Next in line is an unresolved tension between the Word and the world. These Christians know, on the one hand, that the biblical sexual ethic is quite clear; on the other hand, their aesthetics and feelings have been affected by the sustained campaign for moral revolution. They feel caught in between, not wanting to reject the teaching of Scripture, but not understanding why something that seems to them perfectly good should be called abominably bad in the Bible. In this tension, the key question is whether they will default to biblical fidelity, even doubting the goodness of God's command (which is bad indeed), or default to the world's standards that snuck in by way of feels (which is worse).
The final and radical form of surrender to secularism is the dominant position of the religious left, a conscious rejection of biblical teaching when it goes against the culture's moral trends. There may be advocacy of implausible interpretations, there may be equivocation or struggle with some lingering respect for Scripture, but in the end biblical authority has been basically jettisoned. The human aspect of biblical authorship is highlighted and the divine authorship diminished. Jesus or the Holy Spirit may be pitted against the Bible. Paul may be cast as an innovative builder onto the Lord's simple teachings. Christians who hold to biblical authority can be accused of hermeneutical naiveté or even bibliolatry, ridiculed for replacing God with a book, surrendering themselves to the false magisterium of a 'paper pope.' At the bottom of all these slanders, secular culture has displaced Scripture as the true authority.
The first of these three stages in the revolution is only indirectly an attack upon Scripture's authority; it is only a predisposition to find the Word supportive of, rather than critical of, the world. The third stage has lost biblical authority all but in name, and could only apply to the far leftward fringe of those who call themselves evangelicals. But the second stage is a very present danger in evangelical Christianity, where sensitive souls are swept from the anchor of God's Word, and churches fall into step with the world.
How should the church prepare to face the world? How do we protect ourselves from being swept away by the aesthetics of a pagan culture? It would surely help to cultivate a Spiritual aesthetic and a sense of true beauty that will aid us to see things for what they are. But the more basic and fundamental response must be to denounce the revolution against revelation. The dike against this flood is that churches must firmly and deliberately maintain the authority of Scripture.
No Christian should doubt that the Bible is utterly authoritative over his life and doctrine. The authority of Scripture is an inescapable implication of divine inspiration. If the Bible has not only numerous human authors but a single underlying divine Author, if these are God's words, then the words of Scripture carry the authority of Scripture's God. God is absolutely authoritative. What He communicates is true, what He commands is obligatory. The good and proper response of a creature to the words of the Creator is "Yes, Lord." If this is so for all creatures indiscriminately, how much more so for the creatures re-created, the redeemed!
This shows the fallacy of all attempts to characterize those who hold to biblical authority as putting the Scriptures above the Spirit or worshipping a book in place of the living God. There is no replacement of God with the Bible in a high view of Scripture, only a proper reverence for the words of the Lord. God breathed these words (2 Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit inspired the authors of holy Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21). The Word of God bears witness to God the Word (Lk. 24:27). Submission to what God has said is submission to God. Anyone who worries that reverence and obedience to the Bible somehow dishonors the Bible's Lord should consult Psalm 119 and see the attitude displayed there to divine teaching. Accusations of bibliolatry are usually nothing more than a smoke screen, an effort to turn the tables by those who have put themselves above God's authority revealed in His Word.
The destructive effect of turning aside from God's Word is nowhere more powerfully shown than in Genesis 3. The Fall is a unique event, but it is also paradigmatic for all sin. The very heart of sin is disobedience to God, and that involves a denial (practically, at least) of the authority of what God has said. Sin says, 'listen to your heart,' and it gives the appeal--'once more, with feels!' Righteousness says, "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Ps. 119:11).
How did the crafty serpent do his work? First he questioned and distorted God's command, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1). When Eve corrected him, pointing out that it was only the one tree which was forbidden (vv.2-3), he proceeded to directly challenge the truthfulness of God's word, "You will not certainly die" (v.4), and then to challenge the goodness of God, "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (v.5).
There was, of course, truth mixed in with falsehood. They did gain knowledge of good and evil, and in that sense become more like God; but in a more important sense they became much less like God, for in coming to know good from evil they passed from good to evil. God's command meant life, and turning from it they found death. Challenging God's commands, challenging His truthfulness and goodness, the serpent turned them from the way of blessing. This is how temptation works.
Genesis 3 is so instructive because it presents sin in its raw and unadorned form, the basic act of disobedience. There is nothing violent or perverse about eating a piece of fruit. God gave no reason why it would be wrong to eat it; He told them not to, and He warned them about the consequences. We may speculate about reasons behind God's command, but the narrative itself only offers this: it was wrong to eat because God told them not to eat. And that is quite enough.
Nor do we have evidence that God spoke this command frequently or in detail. Sometimes challenges to a biblical imperative include mention that the command or topic is only found in a few places in the Bible--as though there were a magic number of times God must repeat something before it becomes obligatory! On the contrary, God need only say something once, and it is utterly authoritative. It is kind of Him to repeat so many of His teachings, it helps them penetrate our thick skulls and stony hearts, but repetition is not a necessary criterion in order for His words to require our obedience.
God has spoken, and what God has spoken is authoritative; His Word is the necessary and decisive element in Christian theological and moral reasoning. It doesn't matter if He has spoken only once about something; once is enough. It doesn't matter if He hasn't explained why He commands something; the fact that He commands it is enough. Scripture is God's Word and bears His authority. As God's Word, it has the last word and trumps the world's word.
It is a tragedy that biblical authority is so lightly cast aside, and that this doctrine needs to be defended as if it were burdensome. It is a sign of how badly our values have been disordered, for the gift of Scripture ought to inspire a most joyful and exuberant obedience from those who love the Lord. God has spoken! This is a wonderful, beautiful truth. When we struggle against the authority of God's Word we struggle against the blessed promise of fellowship with our Maker and Redeemer. The world's approval, which tempts us to turn aside from faithfulness to the Lord, offers nothing worth having. But God's approval is treasure indeed; and He has said:
"These are the ones I look on with favor:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word."
Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.