The Bible in the Public Square

Parliament Building Tour106The Bible continues to be a widely influential book all over the world.  It has been translated into hundreds of languages, inspired billions of people for countless centuries and, despite its Middle Eastern origins, continues to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries as it is embraced by countless people groups.  The libretto for Handel’s Messiah, considered by some (including this writer) as one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization,  is completely based on the text of the King James Bible.  Hollywood, for good or for ill, continues to use the Bible as a source of ideas for various movie and television projects.

Despite it’s vast historical and cultural influence and authority, the Bible has fallen on hard times in the modern/postmodern Western world.  In certain parts of the West, Bible verses have been removed from some public buildings due to court orders.   Bibles are not permitted in many public schools with the odd exception, such as for literary purposes.    Many in academia and in places of high culture consider the Bible to be an anachronism, a throwback to an ignorant age and an embarrassment to modern sensibilities.  

That embarrassment extends to the reading and use of the Bible in the public square.  When issues of faith and morality are discussed in public forums such as radio talk shows, those who start quoting a text from scripture are typically cut off by moderators or shouted down by others.  The rest simply roll their eyes and tune out.  The Bible may be nice for art, literature, music and the odd movie but it is considered bad form to take it seriously when it comes to issues of public import.  To modern minds, the Bible simply has no place in the public square.

What is a Church to Do?

In generations gone by, quoting the Bible in public and quietly listening to it with a respectful attitude was the cultural norm.  Even people who were not regular church goers always held the Bible in high regard, even in the public square.  Hence, it was easy to discuss what the Bible had to say about issues related to morality and faith.  

How has the church in the West adapted to this relatively new cultural environment?  It usually has taken the form of two polar opposites.  At one end of the pole are those who unabashedly and sometime forcefully, speak the word of God in all kinds of public forums and they are not ashamed to do so.  If they are engaged in public or private conversation about a moral issue, they will not hesitate to read or quote a passage from the Bible that addresses it.  

At the other end are those in the church who do not bring up the Bible in any debate regarding faith or morality.  They appeal to logic, to history, to science, to psychology, to anything except the Bible.  In other words, they attempt to defend a Christian world view of things without mentioning the origin of that world view, namely the Bible.  The belief is that any attempt to quote or speak from the Bible will result in the automatic loss of credibility and authority in speaking a Christian world view in public forums.  In order to keep the conservation going and to preserve a place at the table, best not to say “Thus saith the Lord” on the evening newscast.  

Which of these two approaches is the correct one for the church to pursue?  Are they both ineffective?  If so, is there a third way?  This essay will attempt to demonstrate the shortcomings of these two approaches and propose a third way that can be both effective and faithful to the Bible in the public square.  

Old Fashion Bible Thumping

Evangelists of long ago would stand atop a podium in the local marketplace and gather a crowd around themselves while they preached from the Bible on the good news of Jesus.  In many ways, it was a kind of outdoor church service that was open and very public.  Evangelists and preachers were not afraid to read from the Bible and passersby often stopped to give a listen to what was going on.  Today, most people are not interested in listening to someone shouting out John 3:16 while they are on their way to work or running errands.  The typical person would usually keep their head down, avoid eye contact and quickly walk past.  Feelings of embarrassment and resentment usually set in.  

Is it wise to keep on quoting the Bible when it seems to turn off your audience and no one is listening?  In many parts of North America, quoting the Bible in serious public forums is a sure means of being ignored or laughed at.  Reading what the Bible has to say about sexual morality, the nature of God, etc., is a quick way of being labelled the pejorative Bible thumper.  

So why do some people continue to practice this approach of unabashed public Bible quoting?  One reason is that some do so out of an incorrect attitude that the Bible possesses a certain kind of magic.  If you speak verses into the air, they will somehow cast a spell on the unbelievers and they will be struck down with conviction.  However, the Bible is not a magic potion where Christians can unleash its power at their command.   For others, they believe that what is important is the act of quoting verses verbatim into the air regardless of how people react.  Such an attitude misunderstands what really is important.  Is it to speak the Bible into the air or to communicate the word into the hearts of people in a manner where those hearts can understand it?  To do the former with out the latter is equivalent to a missionary reading or teaching the word on a street corner in Ulan Bator in Spanish to a Mongolian audience.  It may make the missionary feeling good of what he has done however, it would leave the  Mongolians confused.  

Avoiding the Bible

The other end of the pole is the philosophy that the Bible should not be used at all in the public square when debating moral, ethical or faith related issues.  In this view, biblical morality and the Christian worldview can be defended in the public square without even mentioning or quoting the Bible as a source of authority.  Logic, science, reason and other tools can be used instead to buttress the biblical cause.  For example, the immorality of sexual practice outside the bounds of marriage can be defend by the medical, social, mental, relational and emotional consequences that such practices have historically produced.  The attending harm sexually immoral practices produce is sufficient warrant to justify and convince secular opponents of the folly and immorality of such practices.  Thus, using the Bible to demonstrate that sexual immorality is wrong, is unnecessary since it can be shown through other means.  

This approach does have strong appeal.  Since it does not directly involve the Bible, a potential stumbling block is removed in the public debate. It  also gives the church new opportunities of defending the Christian world view to an audience that will now listen as long as the Bible is not involved.  It also has a strong logical and pragmatic element that immediately appeals to western sensibilities.  

Despite its attractiveness, a main drawback to this approach is that it attempts to carve out a Christian worldview in the world without referencing its source, the Bible.  The danger lies in producing Christian views on a secular foundation of logic, reason and pragmatism, something that can change over time and that offers no firm basis upon which to be justifiable over the long term.  This approach may be sufficient to direct people in the right direction but suffers from an inability to lead them to the final destination: Jesus Christ.  

A Balanced Approach

The Word of God is the church’s main tool in proclaiming the good news and presenting the Christian worldview.  However, it is not the only  tool that God has given us in relating to the world.  The church would be remiss to neglect the general revelation of God that is available to all.  Even the Bible makes mention of God’s general revelation in Psalm 19.  General revelation would include areas such as the sciences, logic, etc that God uses to declare about Himself (Psalm 19:1).   

This points to another problem in the argument: it has become binary.  Christians frame the issue in a strict word versus logic argument or a battle between special revelation and general revelation.  The thinking goes that the church must use one but not the other but the church does better by employing both special and general revelation, in its relationship to the outside world, to glorify God.  What is important for the church to keep in mind is the relationship between special and general revelation and the characteristics of each.  

The keys to a balanced approach are contained in the Apostle Paul’s speech in the Areopagus of Athens to Greek philosophers as recorded in Acts 17.  Paul’s speech demonstrates that you can lead people to the truth by using general and special revelation at the same time.  In this situation, Paul was dealing with a nonJewish audience who knew nothing of the Torah, the prophets of Israel or even the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  To quote the Old Testament to them would have left them totally confused.  Instead, Paul uses logical observation, their own idol entitled “To An Unknown God” and the writings of two of their own poets in an attempt to direct them to the true God of the Universe.   

But in quoting Greek poets, is Paul is showing us that avoiding the Bible in dialoguing with secular minds is the best practice?  Not quite.  Look at Acts 17: 31.  “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him for the dead.”  Paul concludes his secular apologetic defence by referring to the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  The resurrection is definitely not a secular, scientific or logic argument.  It is unabashedly supernatural and biblical.  Paul did not directly quote a verse but he did address a biblical concept head on.  

And what was the reaction of his pagan audience?  Verse 32 reads, “When they heard about that resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered.”  When they heard the Bible, some of them immediately reacted like many 21st century western secularists would, with derision.  However, the verse also reads, “but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’” Others in his audience had a different reaction and wanted to learn more.  

It would appear that Paul did use that end of the pole that doesn’t use the Bible in defending the Christian world view in the public square.  However, he does not do so exclusively.  Rather, he used secular approaches as a pathway to the special revelation of God.   Paul did use the Bible towards the end of his speech however, he did this without quoting it, showing us that the proclamation of biblical principles is a sound and proper way of communicating the Word in another form.    

It is important to note that before Paul spoke at the Areopagus, he was preaching in the marketplace to Jews and God-fearing Greeks about Jesus and the resurrection. As was Paul’s custom with Jews, he quoted Hebrew scripture.  But some pagans where there and their reaction was “what is this babbler trying to say”?  In other words, they did not understand the Hebrew scriptures or a Messiah.  But when he got to the Areopagus, he changed tactics and started from basic concepts, making way for a more detailed biblical analysis in the future.  Paul started with generalities to whet appetites.

The church must not be embarrassed by the Word of God or hide the Christian faith in the public square.   The church cannot ignore the current environment in the same way that Paul did not ignore the environment of his pagan audience.   The direct quoting of the scriptures many not be the first step in the relationship with the outside world.  The church must exercise wisdom in communicating biblical truth beyond that of picking out a set of proof texts however, she still must communicate biblical truth.  

The church must also move beyond sound arguments of logic and principle.  Such things lay the beginnings of understanding for unbelievers but  the church must then speak more directly about God’s revelation in His word and in His Son.  After Paul’s initial speech at the Areopagus, Acts 17:34 says “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.”  To Paul it was not a binary approach but a holistic one of reaching his pagan audience with the aim of leading hearts to understanding and then to repentance and faith.  The church universal would do well to emulate Paul’s example.  

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

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One thought on “The Bible in the Public Square

  1. What’s funny is outdoor preaching is how evangelicalism got started. Thousands would come out to here men like Whitfield and the Wesleys speak outside. But as you said, we’re not in the time of the Evangelical Revival/Great Awakening! We’re very much in a postmodern, post-Christian culture. Can’t keep hanging out in the past and doing things the way they were done in the past, as our context isn’t the same.

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