Review: “One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models” by Jonathan Leeman

I’ve occasionally listened to Jonathan Leeman’s Pastors’ Talk podcast, and he seems to be a likable guy (although perhaps given at times to overly provocative rhetoric). And I would agree with many of the author’s concerns about the exegetical assumptions made by some proponents of multisite churches, and the problems with some forms of the multisite model. I, too, am passionate about seeking the most biblical ways of faithfully being the church. One of our church’s core commitments is that we’ll first seek biblical principles of doing church, and then try to determine how best to apply the biblical principles in our context. So I’m intrigued by this kind of book, and somewhat inclined to read it sympathetically.

But, even if I were convinced by Leeman’s arguments, I find the manner in which he has written to be extremely troubling. He doesn’t just describe problems with multiple church services or sites, or explain the reasons why he believes single-location-and-time churches to be healthier and more faithful to scriptural principles. No, Leeman insists that those who don’t except his narrow definition of a church “repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church [emphasis in original].” [I read the ebook version, so I won’t be able to reference specific page numbers.] He doesn’t merely note the unintended danger of pursuing a model of church that may differ from the scriptural design; no, he boldly declares that multisite pastors (and Presbyterian pastors, for that matter) are “picking a fight with Jesus!” I think we should all agree to table this kind of heated rhetoric except for cases where people are knowingly and intentionally defying Christ. We can be more nuanced, and much more humble, about the dangers of unintentionally slipping into unbiblical models of church life. Is Leeman’s argument so convincing that to differ from his conclusions would be to fight Jesus? We’ll see below.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t get around to actually making his case until the second chapter of a three-chapter book. Before getting to where Leeman even attempts to establish his basic premise, we first read through a fairly lengthy introduction and first chapter. And that’s a problem. If the fundamental question is truly a lexical issue (the meaning of the word ekklesia), one would think he would want to get to that discussion as quickly as possible, and then follow with his applications and implications. Instead we’re given extensive criticisms of multisite and multiservice models, and arguments for a single-service-and-location model—all firmly based on a premise the author has yet to establish. What this amounts to is a whole lot of question begging. Leeman is assuming his conclusion before he has made the case for his conclusion. This is classic circular reasoning. It’s like trying to begin the construction of a house before laying the foundation. It can certainly be rhetorically effective, but for all the wrong reasons. This is unfairly stacking the deck, prejudicing the reader toward your conclusion before you’ve actually made your case.

Compounding the problem is the way he describes other models of being the church. Apparently those who would differ with the author view the church primarily as either the building, the Sunday morning performance, or the church leadership. They sever their concept of church from the gathering of the church. He does briefly acknowledge that some of these churches are more biblical than others. But these aren’t the ones he describes. No, he gives us descriptions guaranteed to push the buttons of those of us with misgivings about multisite megachurches: churches that beam video of one rockstar pastor to other locations; churches that adopt church models with little or no theological reflection; churches that emphasize passive access via online streaming and apps at the expense of actually gathering; etc., etc. Why doesn’t he describe multisite churches that have a team of pastor/teachers? Why doesn’t he describe a church much like his own church—except one that has two services on Sunday morning rather than just one—and then show how this sole difference can adversely affect the church? I can’t presume to say. The way he’s written this introduction may certainly be more persuasive to some. It’s also unfair, uncharitable and prejudicial.

So just what exactly is Leeman’s claim? The author’s basic premise is that the word ekklesia (commonly translated “church” in the New Testament) is by definition an “assembly.” And since this meaning of a singular “assembly” is so core to the meaning of ekklesia or church, then that one, single assembly or gathering of believers narrowly defines what constitutes a local church. So a “church” that, for example, has services that meet Sunday mornings at 9:00 and 11:00 would actually constitute two distinct assemblies, or two churches, and it would therefore be inaccurate—even unbiblical—to think of these multiple services or multiple sites as collectively constituting a single local ekklesia or church. So let’s examine the author’s evidence for this claim.

We quickly run into a significant problem for the author because, as he admits, trusted lexicons such as BDAG explicitly contradict his premise! He even shows that this contradictory definition of ekklesia (contradictory to his view, that is) is found in a lexicon from 1794, so this isn’t some new interpretation intended to justify multisite churches. If he can find little or no support from standard lexicons, this should certainly cause one pause before accepting Leeman’s narrow definition of ekklesia.

Leeman also undermines his own argument by acknowledging that the biblical understanding of ekklesia transcends the narrow concept of one specific gathering. When a church body meets together and then leaves the meeting place, they don’t stop being the ekklesia, they don’t stop being a church. If someone gathers regularly with the assembly, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re part of the church; and if someone is unable to gather with the assembly, it doesn’t mean they are no longer part of the ekklesia. In fact, Jack may attend the assembly much more regularly than Jill, and yet Jill be part of the ekklesia and Jack not. This shows that there’s something more primary to the meaning of ekklesia than the physical gathering itself. There’s an essential aspect to what we mean by church that is more fundamental than attending a specific assembly. There is a core criterion for who is part of a church that is more principal than attending an assembly. If this is true, it would be inaccurate for us to make a singular assembly the sine qua non of what it means to be a church the way Leeman is doing.

Now, it is very true that the ekklesia is an assembly that actually assembles or gathers. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with this. But the fact that the church regularly gathers simply does not require that it gather in only one gathering at one place and one time. It doesn’t matter how many times or in how many different ways the author states this; you can state something over and over again, but it doesn’t establish your premise. The word ekklesia undeniably has a much broader and more primary meaning than a single physical assembly or gathering. This is confirmed by the lexicons with which the author struggled. This means there is no lexical basis for insisting that a church can only meet in one place at one time.

Another problem for Leeman is the way the New Testament authors used the word ekklesia. There are too many places where New Testament usage contradicts his narrow definition. In Acts 12:5 we’re told that the church (singular) in Jerusalem was praying for Peter while he was imprisoned. As we read through the following verses, it’s clear that the church was praying for Peter at multiple locations. Peter goes to one location after he’s freed by the angel, he sends a report to James and some others at a different location, and then goes on himself to yet another location. This is the church not only existing, but functioning in ministry simultaneously in different locations.

1 Corinthians 11:18 speaks of when they would gather together or assemble “as a church.” Now if, as Leeman argues, the definition of ekklesia is fundamentally grounded in the idea of one specific, physical gathering of the people, then this sentence becomes so redundant as to be essentially meaningless. It would be saying: “when you assemble as an assembly,” or “when you gather as as a group of people who gather.” But the way Scripture is actually worded—“when you gather together as a church“—shows that there is something much deeper to the meaning of church than merely the idea of assembling, something closer to: “when you gather together as a community of believers.”

We even see this distinction where it’s clear from the text that the whole church is gathering together. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul describes a scenario “if the whole church gathers together.” (See also Acts 14:27.) But to be able to speak of the whole church gathering together means the church has an identity as the church that is independent of any particular gathering. It already exists as the church before it gathers together. Yes, it’s true that the church is to gather regularly. Again, no one disputes this. But we know this because of clear biblical instruction unambiguously telling us to do so (Hebrews 10:25), and because of the consistent model of the New Testament church. We’re not required to base this necessary aspect of the life of the church on an artificially truncated definition of church that isn’t supported by the lexicons or New Testament usage.

Leeman actually admits much of this. But, he insists, the word ekklesia is still inextricably tied to the idea of a single assembly in one place at one time. He seems to be saying, “Yes, ekklesia has a much broader meaning in the New Testament than one specific assembling of people—but it still must always mean one specific assembling of people!” Hopefully he can understand why many of us will find this contradictory and confusing. And, again, he repeats this claim throughout the book but never actually establishes a basis for it lexically or scripturally. But he does take his peculiar understanding of assembly and then use it as a standard by which to evaluate all other churches. So he concludes at different points in the book that a multisite or multi-service church is “an assembly that never assembles.” This is blatantly circular reasoning, assuming his unique definition of assembling to then conclude these churches don’t assemble!

Sadly, there are many other examples of poor reasoning, and even faulty exegesis, in the book. He admits that the classical meaning for ekklesia isn’t directly relevant to the New Testament usage, but strangely continues to inappropriately refer back to it. He badly misconstrues the editors of BDAG, seems to imply the lexicographers who disagree with him do so because of denominational presuppositions, and assumes scholarly support for his case when it is decidedly missing. He speculatively imports the idea of “place” into the meaning of ekklesia, and then uses this as an established fact to support other arguments. (This is like claiming that “place” is intrinsic to the meaning of “family” because families need to live some place!)

Leeman spends a great deal of time in chapter 1 exploring the church assembly as a kind of embassy of the kingdom of heaven, what he calls the “geography” of the kingdom. I don’t know of any church leaders who would disagree with this, but is the church uniquely an embassy of the kingdom? Would not a faithful Christian household also be a manifestation of Christ’s kingdom? Does not faithfully living out a genuine Christ-like life in the workplace, school or neighborhood, proclaiming the gospel of Christ when we have the opportunity, does this not make the rule of Christ visible? I’m not arguing there is nothing special about the gathered church, or that it doesn’t beautifully manifest, enact, and make visible the kingdom. But Leeman seems to be assuming the gathered church—and only the gathered church—does this, but he never gets around to explaining why, or why this would somehow necessitate a church meeting in only place at one time.

A key passage for Leeman is Jesus’ participation in the church discipline process in Matthew 18. Jesus’ presence gives authority to the gathered church to make decisions involving issues such as church discipline. Leeman admits that in a church with multiple services Jesus would also be present in each service and would authorize each service in the same way. But, Leeman asserts, Jesus’ presence and authorization somehow make it an ontological, inescapable reality that these multiple meetings are actually separate churches. And he repeatedly asserts this. Of course, he never actually establishes why this must be so, but he is very confident in his assertions. It’s almost as if saying something over and over again somehow establishes it as a logical conclusion.

This insisted emphasis also leads him to a strangely reductionistic understanding of the church:

A church is a church ultimately because of the authority of Christ and his declaration that he would identify himself with gatherings: “I’m there in the gathering of two or three in my name.” That was his decision, not ours. Consider, therefore, what a church gathering is: it’s a group of people bowed in submission to something. To what? To Christ. Their physical togetherness, then, testifies to his lordship.

Does Leeman really believe this to be an adequate explanation of what constitutes a church? If so, maybe he would agree with those who say periodically hanging out with a few other believers at Starbucks is their church! My guess is Leeman would see much more than this as essential to the church qua church. But then that would mean he’s using an artificially restricted understanding of church to make his point when he knows the reality is actually more complex. Either way, this is a big problem.

The book is loaded with all kinds of strange assertions, far more than I could list in a review. He claims:

You can no more be a multisite church than you can be a multisite body.

But what of the body of Christ? Is not the universal church the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:4, 15-16; Colossians 1:18; etc.), and isn’t the universal body of Christ by necessity a multisite body? And how can we even currently have a universal ekklesia if inherent in the meaning of the word is a one-place-and-time assembly? Leeman seems to think this a spiritual, not literal, assembly of the universal church. If that’s the case, then why can’t this mandatory assembly of the local church also be spiritual and not literal? How can we get away with making one assembly spiritual while demanding the other must be literal? (Ironically, he accuses others of special pleading.)

In another place he writes:

Which brings us back to the multisite and multiservice models. Here’s the biggest problem, as I’ll seek to show in this book: They’re not in the Bible. At all. And that means they work against, not with, Jesus’s disciple-making plan.

Notice he identifies this as “the biggest problem” with these models. They’re not in the Bible. Of course, neither is the children’s ministry check-in desk he mentioned just a few paragraphs before this—or children’s classes, at all, for that matter. Neither is the church usher he mentioned before that. Neither are church platforms or pulpits or youth groups or church choirs, etc., etc. Does that mean when Leeman was taking his daughter to her Sunday School class, he was working against, not with, Jesus’ disciple-making plan? Of course not, and it would be absurd to make such an accusation, just as it is for Leeman to make the accusation he does regarding multisite and multiservice churches. (It’s hard for me to understand how Leeman could not have been aware of just how unfair this rhetoric was, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

But this is even more of a problem. Leeman repeatedly makes a big deal out of an inability to find multisite churches in the New Testament. Fair enough. For the record, I would also challenge the exegetical overreach of those who try. There simply isn’t clear indication in Scripture that any church at that time met regularly in multiple locations in the same town. [I’ve written about this before.] There’s also nothing in Scripture, contra Leeman, precluding such a church model. But here’s the point that Leeman seems to be missing (and probably some multisite proponents, as well): They’re under no pressure to find examples of multisite churches in Scripture, anymore than Leeman has to find biblical references to a children’s ministry check-in desk. As long as they’re not arguing that this model is normative for the church, but simply a faithful way to be the church, they don’t have to find a specific biblical example.

Leeman, on the other hand, is arguing not that these church models are extra-biblical, but that they are unambiguously unbiblical. And this puts the burden of proof on him to show this scripturally. So when he repeatedly makes the snide observation that he doesn’t find any multisite churches in the Bible, not only is this hypocritical, but he is badly turning the issue completely upside down. The accusation is his, and the burden of proof is his to show how their model is incompatible with biblical principles of the church. He either needs to show where Scripture would rule out a multisite (or multiservice) model, or he needs to trace a very clear pattern of the churches obviously and intentionally meeting in only one place at one time. I’m neither endorsing nor defending multisite churches, but this author has simply not made his case.

I know this review is growing quite long, but there’s one more thing I have to mention because I think it’s important. In his third chapter, Leeman describes a problem of a megachurch starting a new campus at a different location without considering the existing churches in that area. This problem is a very real one. Of course, everything he says about multisite churches starting new campuses could also be said of single-service, single-location churches planting new churches. But here’s my point. Leeman is contending for the idea that every service should be a separate church. If you need to start another service, then you should plant another church. Ironically, something else we never see in Scripture is anyone planting a church in a community where a church already exists. Never. Not once. Instead, we see a consistent pattern of there being one church in each city. Regardless of whether they met in one location or multiple house churches—they existed as one church in each city. We never see any deviation from this pattern in Scripture. We never see multiple churches in one city. Leeman fails to acknowledge that it’s the existence of many different churches in each city that create the environment for the very problem he decries. And adding more churches in each town would seem to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. If we could somehow return to what we do see in Scripture—one church in each city—even if this required a multisite church in each city, it would actually solve the problem he rightfully laments.

The author of this book makes some very bold claims about the essential meaning of the word ekklesia (and therefore the meaning of the church), claims that aren’t supported by the lexicons, claims that aren’t consistent with the way the New Testament uses the word, and claims the author fails to conclusively establish logically or theologically. Instead he relies on specious and fallacious arguments while accusing those who disagree of repudiating the Bible and fighting Jesus. This is not just a book with which I disagree. In fact, there are occasional nuggets scattered throughout the book I would strongly affirm. But it is so poorly reasoned and so extreme in its denunciations of anyone who would dare to disagree, I cannot recommend this book.

The search for Jesus

[I originally posted this on July 28 of last year, but I wasn’t able to finish the series at that time. Because this is a vital topic, I’m “rebooting” this series to give it the attention it deserves.]

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to lead a discussion group on the search for the historical Jesus. Who was Jesus? What can we truly know about him? How can we sort through all the different claims and controversies that seem to be popping up everywhere? I originally planned to invite everyone in our community to this study, to encourage the active involvement of not only Christian believers but also seekers and skeptics as well. The timing and logistics for such a group haven’t fallen into place, so I’ve decided—for now—to write a series of blog posts on this topic.

Why is this important?
Beyond merely responding to the amazing amount of books and articles that have been produced in the last few years on the quest for the historical Jesus, these questions have profound significance for anyone interested in discovering what is really true. Christianity has always been an historical faith. By that I don’t mean it’s recorded in history, but that it claims as the basis for its existence an historical event. Christians who subscribe to the historic, orthodox Christian faith claim that Jesus lived, taught specific things (including dramatic claims regarding himself), was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. We believe many other things as well, but the basis for everything we believe comes back to an historical Jesus: his life, teachings, death and—most crucially—his resurrection. Christians believe in this resurrection of Jesus as a literal, space/time event. The Christian apostle Paul, writing to other Christian believers, declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God [1 Corinthians 15:14-15].”

Most Christians today would still echo this sentiment. If the claims in the New Testament are true, they change literally everything and have huge implications for the lives of every single person. If the New Testament accounts are not true, then this calls the entire Christian faith into question, at least in its historic, orthodox form. The stakes in resolving these questions are enormous, and this is why the academic study of these issues has garnered so much attention.

So how do we even approach this kind of subject? Can we know anything at all about the historical Jesus? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in the next few posts. But first, a few ground-rules.

Common courtesy
Unfortunately, courtesy isn’t always that common anymore.  I understand this topic may be very emotional for some people, but be warned now: hostile, insulting or vulgar comments will be deleted. I won’t censor the comments as far as real content—you can make any sincere assertions or challenges you like—but do so with respect and grace. Remember, this isn’t a debate, it’s a discussion. The idea isn’t to win an argument, it’s to seek truth, whatever the truth is and wherever the search may take us.

Stay on topic
This is a very broad-ranging area for discussion, and it will be really easy for the comments to begin losing focus. I’m going to try to cover all of the relevant issues (let me know if you think I’m missing something), but I’m going to post on only a single, specific aspect of this study at a time. So I’m asking you guys to keep your comments focused on the specific, limited issue we’re discussing at that time. For example, one of the questions we’ll examine early on is whether we can know that Jesus even existed. This is an important question we need to explore. When I do post on this issue, feel free to fire away with questions and challenges regarding the existence of Jesus. But don’t respond now to this current post with a diatribe on why Jesus couldn’t have existed (or, conversely, why no one should doubt his existence). We haven’t got there yet! I’m going to be extra vigilant at policing the comments because I don’t want our discussions to become derailed by trying to discuss too much at one time. I appreciate your help in this.

Absolute proof?
One misperception we should dispel right way is the idea that I’m trying to prove the Christian claims regarding Jesus are true. Some people demand proof beyond a shadow of a doubt before they’ll believe. Of course, we can’t absolutely prove anything, and this is especially true when we’re dealing with historical claims and evidence. When we’re examining history, what we’re looking for is more of a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ to borrow a legal term. I can’t absolutely prove when and where I was born. But I can present a fairly compelling case that would likely convince anyone willing to believe. We don’t know absolutely that George Washington was the first U.S. president, that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, or that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. But we’re relatively certain these things occurred. In this discussion, we’re not expecting absolute proof (or at least we shouldn’t be); but we are looking to see if the evidence exists, and whether it’s compelling enough to reach a certain conclusion.

Perfect objectivity?
The philosophical term is ‘presuppositions,’ and we all have them. The idea that we can examine a subject and be completely impartial and objective is simply naive.  Each of us has been raised with, or has accumulated, various perceptions and viewpoints, and these presuppositions (what we naturally assume to be true) color how we think about any subject. We need to just be honest about that. But this doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of our presuppositions, that we can’t temporarily set them aside, and even consider the possibility we’re wrong. If we couldn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to change our minds about anything! As one of my favorite sayings puts it: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it. We have the capability to see past our own viewpoints and fairly consider the claims of others. This is what I’m asking all of us to do in this discussion.

Specifically, for you evangelical believers, I’m asking you to reexamine why you believe what you believe. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined faith is not worth holding. Don’t merely refer back to what the Bible says. We need to be willing to explain why we believe the biblical account. It’s healthy for us to sincerely wrestle with these questions.

For you skeptics, I ask you to consider the possibility the New Testament accounts may be true. You don’t have to be convinced—but are you open to the possibility? Many have professed they were examining the claims regarding Christ in a fair, scholarly manner—but ruled out ahead of time any possibility of the supernatural. This isn’t intellectually honest. The conversation below is just an illustration, but these kinds of exchanges are actually not that uncommon:

skeptic: The miracles in the Bible never happened.

believer: How can you be sure?

skeptic: Because we don’t see miracles happening today.

believer: But what about all the reports of miracles happening today in people’s lives?

skeptic: Those reports aren’t valid.

believer: Why not?

skeptic: Because miracles don’t happen!

The unbelieving person can rely on logic that is just as unsound and reasoning that is just as circular as the person who believes the Bible just because the Bible tells them to believe the Bible. Let’s all of us set aside our presumed conclusions, consider the possibility we may be wrong, and see where the evidence leads us.

Accessible, non-technical language
I confess that I enjoy reading dusty tomes on theology and philosophy. But if we were to carry on this discussion using technical philosophical terminology, a lot of people would get headaches trying to follow us and eventually drop out of the discussion. It’s important and right to challenge each other to think more deeply, but that doesn’t mean we have to use twenty-dollar words to do it. C.S. Lewis once said that if we can’t present our viewpoints in a simple, understandable manner, then we probably don’t really understand them ourselves! If you lapse into technical, philosospeak in the comments section, I may respond in kind for clarity. But let’s try to communicate as simply and clearly as we can so everyone can follow the conversation. We’re not here to impress each other, but to dig deeper for the truth.

In accounts recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus is reported to have asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question we’re seeking to answer. So hang on, ’cause here we go.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus [see above]

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

Our church’s study time is interactive. I often ask for a response from the people, and they can raise their hands and ask questions during the teaching. This past Sunday, the interaction got a little more intense than usual. There was some question as to the interpretation of a particular passage, but the underlying tension seemed to be more about how we view the authority of Scripture. Since this is a vital issue for us as believers, we’re going to explore this topic for the next three weeks.

We begin by making clear our position on the Bible. While we have people attending our church who hold differing viewpoints (whom we love very much), our church is an evangelical Christian church. We believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, and that it is without error. We accept Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith, for our church life and ministry, and for our individual Christian lives. We measure every idea, tradition and action according to the standard of the Scriptures.

So the question for most of us isn’t whether we believe the Bible. We do. We have faith in the Scriptures as God’s Word to his people. But a question we should explore is: What kind of faith do we have in the Bible?

What kind of faith do you have?
There are two different kinds of faith, and we need to know which kind we have:

objective faith

This kind of faith is focused on the object of our faith—who or what we believe in. It’s faith that is justified because the object of our faith is trustworthy. It’s a surprise to many non-Christians that they use faith all the time. When you go to work every morning, you do this because you have faith in your employer. You believe they’ll keep the business operating and pay you at the appropriate time. If you had good reasons to not believe this, you probably wouldn’t keep going to work. This is objective faith. You go outside of town and climb up into a hollow, metal tube, which is controlled by someone you don’t even see, and expect this contraption to take you hundreds or even thousands of miles over sea and land—and even get you to your destination in time to catch another metal tube! Why do we do this? Because we have a sufficient faith in the airlines to transport us from one point to another.

The Christian faith is an historical faith. It’s based on a real, historical person and event. At the heart of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. We make this truth claim and put it out there for anyone to examine and either verify or refute. [For more on this, see In search of Jesus.] If someone suggests it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, we’re quick to point out that the actual, literal truth of the resurrection is the basis for our faith. As the apostle Paul said, if Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless, we are still guilty of our sins and we are to be pitied more than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). If the resurrection is not true, then at best we’re just playing church, believing in a myth. The Christian faith is an objective faith; it’s focused on the truth we believe (not on the mere fact we believe something).

subjective faith

Have you ever heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, just whether you sincerely believe”? This is subjective faith. The emphasis isn’t on the trustworthiness of what we’re placing our faith in. It’s really a faith in faith itself. When a friend or family member patronizingly pats you on the hand and says, “I’m glad your faith works for you,” their understanding of faith is a subjective one. When people speak of a blind leap of faith, they’re referring to this kind of faith.

The problem with subjective faith is clear. If the emphasis is on the faith itself, and if it doesn’t matter if the object of one’s faith is trustworthy or not, then we can just believe any ridiculous thing we want. You want to believe that UFOs are coming to pick you up, or that the rock in your backyard is your god? Go right ahead! As long as you sincerely believe! Subjective faith is irrational faith. People who have this kind of faith aren’t willing for the object of their faith to be examined and verified or refuted. Because the issue for them isn’t whether the object of their faith is trustworthy or not, it’s just that they believe.

What kind of faith do you have in the Bible?
Read the following dialogue and tell me what kind of faith this is:

“Why do you believe the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says it is.”

“But how can you be certain about what it says?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

Do you see how this ends up going round and round in circles? (That’s why it’s called “circular reasoning.”) In this case, the believer isn’t really giving an answer. Their answer is essentially that they believe the Bible because they believe the Bible. It’s a non-answer. What kind of faith is this? This is subjective faith, isn’t it? The focus isn’t really on the trustworthy nature of the Scriptures, but on the individual’s faith. I believe because I believe. Is this the kind of faith we find modeled in Scripture itself? Let’s see:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Luke 1:1-4

This is the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus. Notice that others had already written Gospels. But Luke still takes the time to investigate everything carefully. Why? Why not simply believe? Why not believe the Gospel accounts just because they’re Gospel accounts? Why not tell his friend to believe what he was taught because that’s what he was taught? No, Luke takes the time to be certain of the truth he believes and that he presents to others. He’s actually so bold as to examine the Gospel accounts and verify whether they are indeed trustworthy. Is this a good thing? Absolutely.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Acts 17:10-11

“Aha!” someone might be thinking, “See, they searched the Scriptures.” But let’s think about this. Who were these people? They were Jews. So what Scriptures would they have been searching? The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. As Jews, they already accepted the Old Testament as God’s Word. But what was Paul presenting to them? The New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. And did he insist they believe this gospel based on what the New Testament witness said? No, that would be circular reasoning. It would be irrational. He allowed them to examine his message using the truth they already had.

We see something similar in the way Paul addressed Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He begins by relating to their worship of an unknown God, offering to explain this unknown God to them. He speaks of how there is one God who created everything and everyone, and how this God desires for all people to come into relationship with him. Along the way he quotes from their own writings. He ends by telling them of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. But notice he never once expects the people to believe what he’s telling them because “the Bible says.” Everything he says is very biblical, but he doesn’t appeal to the Scriptures as authoritative. Why not? Because these people have no reason yet to accept the Bible as authoritative!

We need to remember the instructions we receive in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.

A big part of our Christian hope is what the Scriptures tell us, and we need to be prepared to explain to people why we can draw this hope from the Bible, why it’s trustworthy. And we need to offer more than just that it’s the Word of God.

A test case
Imagine you’re having a discussion with a Mormon and a Muslim. Each of you has a different faith and you use different books as your highest, most authoritative guides. So you gently and respectfully challenge your friends as to why they believe in the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an. They each say they believe in their Scriptures because they’re the Word of God. Do you accept their claims? Why not? If you disagree with them only because you believe the Bible is the Word of God, you’re at a stalemate, aren’t you? Each of you believes in your holy book simply because you believe in your holy book.

But let’s say you’re familiar with both religions’ books, and you know of serious problems with these books that would cause a person to doubt whether they are, in fact, God’s Word. So you share your concerns with your friends, right? What are you expecting of them? You want them to listen to your challenge of their holy books. But to really listen to you they must be willing to consider the possibility their holy book is not actually the Word of God. They must be so committed to the truth they’re willing to reexamine their beliefs to make sure they’re truly sound.

Are we willing to do the same thing? Are we willing to not only respect another person enough to hear out their challenge of our Scriptures, are we willing to respect the Bible enough to see whether it stands up to the challenge? If not, what are we afraid of? If the Bible is the Word of God, won’t it be able to withstand any challenge?

In the study of logic, there’s a fallacy known as ‘invincible ignorance.’ This is the attitude that “I already have my mind made up, and I’m not going to listen to anything different.” It’s an adult’s way of plugging their ears and yelling so they can’t hear what you’re saying. Some may act like they’re listening politely to you, but eventually you find they’re not willing to truly hear anything different than what they already believe. This is an irrational, subjective faith. It’s not healthy and it’s not the faith the Bible teaches. We must be prepared to put the Bible through the same rigorous tests we require of the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or any other supposed holy book.

But are we now judging Scripture?
We often emphasize that Scripture tells us when we’re right or wrong; we don’t judge when Scripture is right or wrong. And this is true of the Bible in the same way it’s true of other standards on which we rely. I’ve often compared Scripture to a level, or a scale, or the instruments in an airplane. But do we place automatic, blind faith in these standards just because they’re supposed to be reliable? My father introduced me to the idea of a level. My first trust of a level was as much a trust of him as it was the level. But then he demonstrated the level for me, and I saw for myself how it could show whether a surface was truly level or whether it was slightly off. After using it a few times, I trusted it absolutely. But I was convinced of its trustworthiness.

We may think we trust the Bible just because it’s the Bible, but if we think back to when we came to faith in Christ (or came back to faith in Christ), most of us had some reasons why we began to believe the Scriptures. Now we may have had different reasons. Maybe you believed the Bible is the Word of God because your parents told you this, or a pastor or church leader. Maybe you felt God speaking to you through the words of Scripture. Maybe you were like Luke and the Bereans and you examined the claims of the Bible carefully before placing your faith in the Scriptures. But we all had some reason for our initial belief.

Now, do we ever reevaluate our trust of a standard? What if you stepped on a scale and it said you weighed 43 pounds? Would you start celebrating because your diet is going a lot better than you imagined?! Or would you suspect something is wrong with the scale? If you just filled your car with gas and then the indicator still reads empty, do you go back and fill up all over again out of blind faith in the gas gauge?

Fine, but should we ever reevaluate our beliefs? Yes, if want to have confidence in what we believe. Should such an idea scare us? Only if we’re more committed to our beliefs than we are to the truth. Some Christians have the mistaken idea that if we really have faith we’ll never feel doubt. But faith isn’t never having doubt; it’s being convinced despite our doubts. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, constantly switching back and forth between believing and not believing. But there are times when Christians reexamine what they believe—and this is healthy. Facing our doubts strengthens our faith.

When a believer experiences doubts about the truth of the resurrection, we don’t rebuke them for their doubts or blithely dismiss the challenges they’re facing. No, we help them work through the questions and issues; we show where the truth of the resurrection is so sound it can withstand any of these challenges. Many scholars who are now highly effective at studying the historical evidences for the resurrection began as Christians with serious doubts.

What about the Bible? If we read a passage in Scripture that is deeply troubling to us, is it sinful for us to reconsider our belief in Scripture as the inerrant Word of God? No, it’s simply being intellectually honest. Of course, we shouldn’t immediately reject the Bible as infallible just because we’re struggling with a certain passage. But by reevaluating the nature of Scripture, we’re demonstrating that our faith in the Bible is not a blind, irrational faith, but one based on the trustworthiness of the Bible itself. If this trustworthiness is challenged, we must reevaluate it. We are people of faith, not fanatics who arrogantly refuse to consider the possibility we’re wrong. And by reexamining the trustworthiness of Scripture, we gain a stronger, more mature faith in the divine nature of the Bible.

There once was a man who believed he was dead. His doctor had tried everything to convince him that he was actually alive, but to no avail. Finally, he had the man read books all about blood, and how it works in the human body. The man finally conceded the fact that dead people don’t bleed. So the doctor pricked the man with a needle and showed him the blood trickling down his thumb. To which the man exclaimed, “Oh my goodness—dead people do bleed!”

This is invincible ignorance. It’s the irrational faith of a person who will not even consider the possibility that what they believe may not be true. This is the faith of the cultist, not of the Christian. We seek a mature faith in Christ and the Scriptures, not a childish faith of sticking our fingers in our ears and outshouting any opponents.

Should a Christian ever reevaluate their faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God?

If there is absolutely nothing that could cause you to reconsider whether the Bible is the Word of God then you’re probably more committed to your own personal beliefs than you are to what is actually true. As shocking as it might sound, if the Bible isn’t true, we shouldn’t want to believe in it. Our first commitment must be to truth itself. This helps ensure we’re worshiping the true God rather than our own preferred beliefs.

Thankfully, we have very convincing evidence that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, without error and trustworthy as an infallible, authoritative standard for our faith and lives, leading us to the one true God. What is this evidence? Why do we believe the Bible? We’ll begin exploring this next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible [see above]

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?