“Where does it say that in the Bible?”
When it comes to learning God’s Law, it can be a great question when asked in good faith–when one seeks Scriptural warrant for doctrinal assertions out of curiosity or skepticism or a desire for assurance. When the Bereans did that in response to Paul’s preaching, they were commended for it. Jesus likewise condemned the Pharisees for taking their traditions and elevating them above God’s Word, constantly citing Scripture to demonstrate that they should have known better.
If we never compare our own beliefs and practices to God’s inerrant Word, then we are unlikely to recognize when we have strayed from it. And when we find ourselves in conflict with what Scripture plainly teaches, the Christian has only two choices: repentance or apostasy. The rules and doctrines which God has given us are absolute; we do not get the gainsay Him with our reason or experience. And so we recognize those who have departed from the Faith by rejecting Scripture. Therefore, Christians should ask this question regularly, for sinners like ourselves are prone to wander.
But although it can be a good question, it is by no means a sufficient one when we consider Biblical morality. After all, Scripture does not simply present us with a collection of moral rules. It also teaches us moral wisdom–the practical ability to discern right from wrong and make good judgments in everyday life.
Biblical wisdom is founded on God’s absolute and infallible statutes, but it does not stop with them. As any parent knows, raising a human to maturity is more involved than just programming a computer. We may start with rules, but we cannot end there. We each must learn through reason and experience to recognize the applications and implications of God’s Law in our hearts. That’s why it’s not exactly uncommon for Christ or his apostles to tell people to judge for themselves. That’s why Jesus expects us to know that if it is wrong to commit adultery, it is likewise wrong of us to abandon self-control by lusting after strange women. That’s why the Bible contains the Book of Proverbs, which teaches wisdom through observations, generalizations, and application of God’s statutes, rather than by simply repeating them.
In short, we are to adopt the mind of Christ, not just His rules. For that, we cannot simply ask “where is that in the Bible” and dismiss any answer other than a direct prooftext. We must also ask, “How does the Bible lead you to believe that?”
In this, there is a measure Christian liberty and greater intellectual freedom–not liberty to depart from Scripture but to build upon it. Here we may therefore disagree with one another without necessarily disagreeing with God. We can argue and debate. We can call each other wrong, deceived, or even foolish. We can even decide we need to work separately due to our disagreements, as Paul and Barnabas did. All this can be done without calling each other unbelievers.
And so, as we endeavor to learn from Christ and become wise, Satan does not tempt Christians with a single error, but with a pair. On one hand, one must be careful of taking what wisdom he has acquired and elevating it to the level of Scripture so that it eclipses Scripture. After all, our reasoning may be in error; our experience may be limited; our personal or social prejudices may be projected onto the text; and we’re sinners to boot. This was, for example, Rome’s error during the Reformation, and so Sola Scriptura was used as a corrective–restoring the Bible’s proper posture of judgment over traditional errors, rather than the inverse of using the Magisterium to determine what Scripture is allowed to say.
On the other hand, one must not escape the process of iron sharpening iron–dismissing your wise brothers by accusing them of adding to God’s Word. After all, our goal in reading Scripture is attaining knowledge and understanding, not simply memorization. Sadly, this error is far more common in American evangelicalism where Sola Scriptura is absurdly abused. Eschewing creeds, traditions, and human reason, they likewise oppose wisdom herself, condemning those who learn from Scripture as adding to it.
When we refuse to let God’s Word make us wise, the result is a gradual replacement of Biblical wisdom with worldliness. After all, life still presents us with difficult choices. If we forbid Scripture from preparing us for them, the Spirit of the Age will eagerly take its place and teach us everything it wants us to know.
Take, for example, a question like whether contraception is moral. Scripture makes no explicit statement on the subject. However, if we believe God’s Word when it counts children a blessing, barrenness an affliction, being fruitful the first command to mankind, marriage the human norm, and chastity a moral absolute, it’s hard to avoid recognizing that 99% of the ways in which Westerners use contraception are wicked. We can also look at the fallout from that use in light of Scripture–commoditization of children, the illusion that chastity is outdated, avoidance of marriage, birth-rates low enough to end our civilization–and observe how evil those fruits are.
Yes, there are extreme medical circumstances which make deliberate infertility the best among poor options, just as amputation is sometimes the best medical option. And to be sure, God created us with observable cycles of fertility that tend to space out children. So we cannot really conclude that it’s never okay to space out children with contraception (and yes, to my papist readers, Natural Family Planning is still contraception; it’s just much healthier, organic contraception.) Nevertheless, it is quite appropriate for a Christian to conclude that contraception is sinful as a generalization. It is also quite appropriate for a Christian to teach that wisdom to others.
And yet, because there is no verse, this wisdom was disregarded as “adding to God’s word” in many protestant churches. As a result, the wisdom was lost, and many have suffered the natural consequences of immorality because they had no one to warn them. Now, because this is a matter of moral wisdom rather than moral absolute, I’m not going to claim that everyone who blessed the Pill has departed from the faith and become an unbeliever. I will, however, say that they are wrong, foolish, and deceived. As a result, I would openly dispute with them just as they would openly dispute with me so that more Christians are not caught up in error.
When we short-circuit this process of iron sharpening iron, we all lose out on wisdom. What’s worse, the consequent foolishness does not remain idle. For if we refuse to reason from the Bible, we will inevitably lose our ability to even understand the Bible. For example, a popular way to rationalize away the Bible’s clear prohibition on homosexuality (which is an explicit rule that has clear verses) is to claim that Scripture was only referring to Greek customs of the time, not to the “loving” gay relationships of today. And so they dismiss God’s clear instructions by dressing them up as adding to God’s Word.
Yes, that’s stupid. Yes, no one who truly seeks to learn from Scripture would ever make this mistake. Yes, they might as well say that “You shall not murder” only refers to the blunt and edged weapons of the time and not to modern firearms. But fools find it compelling precisely because they’ve already fallen into the habit of treating even the simplest use of their brains as adding to God’s Word. All that’s left are meanings that are narrow beyond reason. (And to those conservatives who are proud they haven’t fallen into this trap on homosexuality, cultivate some humility quickly because that’s exactly what you fell for with feminism.)
This distinction between moral absolute and moral wisdom is also quite relevant to the LCMS’s ongoing Large Cataclysm controversy. In true corporate fashion, our leadership has attempted to distract us from the grievous errors they packaged alongside our Confessions by recasting it as a controversy about racism. The subsequent retaliatory witch-hunt, which repurposes excommunication as a tool of cancel culture, is in desperate need of Biblical warrant for declaring Christian men to be damned for all eternity over the non-sin of racism. I’ve already written about how the oft-misunderstood sin of partiality is inappropriately used for this task; but another common tactic is to take disagreements about Biblical morality that fall into the category of wisdom, and trump them up into just cause for declaring men eternally damned.
Consider, for example, the charges against Ryan Turnipseed, an intelligent young Lutheran who, as of this writing, has been placed under the lesser ban and thereby barred from the Lord’s Supper. (He made the letter from his church public; read it here.) He has been called to repent of things like:
- Social media posts that were “not made in love.”
- Associating with sinners.
- Other men’s supposed denigration of women. (You read that correctly, the letter actually calls him to repent of other men’s statements.)
- “Divisively” criticizing the Large Catechism. (And to be clear, it’s called divisive specifically because Ryan did so in a forum in which his concerns might actually be heard rather than swept under the rug of process, as other private concerns about that volume already had been. This isn’t unlike what a certain Reformer did 500 years ago. Posting points for debate on Twitter is just as normal today as posting points for debate on a cathedral door was in Luther’s time.)
- Most outrageously of all, “not joyfully submitting” to the authorities who are abusing him in this manner.
Even if one is too detached from cancel culture to recognize these standard tactics of tone-policing, guilt by association, and accusations of racism/sexism, one should still notice something else these points all have in common. They are, at best, matters of wisdom rather than Divine Command.
There are times to minister to tax collectors and prostitutes; there are times when bad company corrupts good character. There are times to rebuke sharply; there are times to speak tenderly. There are times to answer a fool according to his folly; there are times to not answer a fool according to his folly. There are times to submit to earthly authorities; there are times to obey God rather than man. Recognizing the right times is a matter of Biblical wisdom, and all of us must learn to make the best judgments we can whenever those times confront us.
People certainly can and do judge poorly, so Christians ought to hold one-another accountable for that. Iron must sharpen iron. However, correcting such judgments is generally a matter for rebuke and/or instruction in God’s Word. For those in authority, it can also be a matter of removing them from that office if they have proven themselves unfit for it. But it is by no means a matter for the lesser ban, and especially not the acts of excommunication which President Harrison has been encouraging and, perhaps, even demanding.
When the evidence of wrongdoing is sufficient, excommunication can be appropriate in instances of overt transgressions against Biblical absolutes like murder, adultery, heresy, sodomy, and so forth. After all, there is no argument to make against God. Wisdom, however, requires a great deal more patience because wisdom is not gained in a day. If Ryan Turnipseed’s pastor and elders were truly acting in good faith, they would be trying to teach him wisdom over time. They would be enlisting his father to assist in that endeavor rather than demanding that he recuse himself from it. Even if their absurd charges were legitimate, the fact that they are instead trying to shoo him out the door after a few months and a handful of adversarial meetings is absolutely unconscionable.
For the sake of our churches and the souls which they shepherd, we cannot let demands for an explicit verse derail wisdom. We cannot shrug our shoulders at the specific evils assaulting them because God didn’t giftwrap a temporal solution in Scripture. And we certainly cannot let the devil trick us into abusing our laypeople who care more about learning God’s Word than about violating the social taboos foisted upon us by wokeism. There is still time to repent.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5