“The bible says…”

I grew up hearing preachers, pastors, and Sunday school teachers use this phrase: “The bible says…” before directly quoting a verse, loosely quoting an idea, or claiming to refer to an extapolated “biblical principle” as found in the scriptures.

It’s a common phrase among American Christians. I don’t know who coined it. I know evangelist Billy Graham used it constantly; whenever he’d visit the San Francisco Bay Area, local TV stations would broadcast his services, and his sermons would include more “The bible says” in ’em than Raisin Bran has raisins. “Your friends might tell you such-and-so, but the bible says…” and again, sometimes a direct quote, sometimes a general idea, sometimes what he considered a principle.

And sometimes, sometimes, an address. “John 3.16 says for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son….” But it was rare.

In my experience the reason preachers say “The bible says” is because they don’t know those addresses. Or maybe they do, but it’d take ’em a minute to recall them, and they don’t wanna spend a minute on stage, or at the lectern or podium, trying to remember precisely where in the scriptures Jesus or Paul or Isaiah or David said that pull quote.

Or even whether it was Jesus or Paul or Isaiah or David. Plenty of statements of “The bible says” would be, more accurately, “Jesus says.” In fact wouldn’t it be better to state it’s what Jesus says? You realize there are people out there who don’t care what the bible says, but they do generally approve of Jesus, and if you told ’em Jesus said it, they’d perk up and listen.

And that’s most of the reason I’m writing this piece. Using “the bible says” instead of referring to the author, or to the specific scripture address, is generating a lot of missed opportunities. We now live in a world where most people don’t care what the bible says. (Or at least are willing to confess they don’t care; in previous generations they hypocritically pretended to care, but didn’t really.) But they may care about Jesus. Or the apostles and prophets. What they say holds more weight with people… even though the apostles and prophets did write the bible.

“The bible says,” but it doesn’t really.

Some of the problem is the fact people claim “The bible says,” and it doesn’t.

“Biblical principles” are an obvious example. There are plenty of “principles” which conservative Christians claim are in the bible, and they’re not really. I grew up with lots of “Don’t do that, ’cause God doesn’t approve, ’cause the bible says…” and it wasn’t till I was much older that I realized I had to demand chapter and verse from them. And even then I didn’t yet realize I had to make sure they were quoting it in context.

Such people claim the bible says, but ultimately they don’t care what the writers of scripture actually had to say. They only care what they want to promote, and will bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate the scriptures every which way in order to get what they want.

Pagans are fully aware of this. It’s why they’re pretty sure all Christians are hypocrites. Some of ’em believe every single time a Christian says “The bible says” instead of chapter and verse, we’re trying to pull a fast one. To them, “The bible says” means we say.

How do we challenge this attitude? Duh; full disclosure. Tell them where the bible says such a thing. Give ’em chapter and verse. Encourage them to fact-check us: Read it in context, in multiple translations, and see for themselves whether it really means what we claim it means. Make sure we’re not trying to pull a fast one.

Of course you realize this means we’d better not be trying to pull a fast one. Intentionally or not: There are a lot of Christians who think “the bible says” all sorts of things, and we really need to fact-check every single one of them. I have found way too many of the preachers I grew up with, have either been repeating things without fact-checking them, or have been likewise trying to force the bible to support their prejudices.

So part of Christian maturity is making sure we have valid proof texts for everything we believe. And when we find the scriptures actually back the opposite idea—’cause far too often, they do!—we need to willingly ditch our false ideas for valid ones. If we legitimately want to follow God instead of popular Christian culture, this is something we have to do. Have to. It’s not optional.

When skeptics challenge us with “Is that really in the bible?” we should always be able to legitimately show it is. “The bible says” should never be a cop-out; it should never be our shorthand way of saying, “I’m pretty sure this is in the bible somewhere, but I don’t quite know where.” No no; don’t do that. Know where. Point to it. Don’t be yet another ignorant Christian, spreading hearsay instead of truth.

“The Lord says…”

I’m gonna harp on this a bit because I think it’s extremely important: If Jesus says it, know it’s Jesus who says it, and say it’s Jesus who says it. Don’t tell people “The bible says” when you’re directly quoting Jesus. It’s an inferior substitute!

At times when I said this before, I received pushback from people: “What d’you mean it’s an inferior substitute? It’s the bible. It’s the word of God. And Jesus is the Word of God. There’s no difference.” Well yes there is a difference. Jesus is God. The bible is not, and putting bible on the same level as Jesus is bibliolatry. There’s an infinite difference between the person of God who is the Word, and quotes from human beings—even though these humans were infallibly inspired by the person of God who is the Spirit. Same as there’s a difference between Mom telling you to clean your room, and your siblings telling you, “Mom says to clean your room.”

People don’t always realize they’re verging on bibliolatry when they uplift the bible so high. That’s why we gotta spell it out sometimes. We follow Jesus. We read bible because it points to Jesus, but the ultimate authority in our lives is Jesus, y’know.

And again, for pagans who have all sorts of doubts about bible, Jesus is gonna get through to them way more effectively than bible will. “The bible says” might make them shrug—“The bible says all sorts of things; big deal”—but “Jesus says” is gonna make them pay more attention.

Yeah, sometimes they’ll debate whether Jesus really said that. Primarily if they don’t like what he said. They’ll use the usual rubbish excuses: “Jesus didn’t really say that; his apostles put those words in his mouth; Historical Jesus taught this other gnostic thing which I believe.” That’s a whole other level of resistance. But for the most part, pagans don’t know squat about Jesus, or even fake Jesuses, but they do believe he’s a good guy, and are open to most of the things he teaches. Provided they know it’s one of his teachings, and not just some vague thing “the bible says.”