10 min. to read.
If you read comments online, you’ve undoubtedly seen this scenario:
Someone is upset about some behavior or other. They hammer out their comment declaring that such-and-such is PROHIBITED BY THE BIBLE!!! Almost immediately someone else retorts, “So is wearing polyester and eating shell fish!” The argument kicks into high gear and nothing is accomplished apart from bias confirmation.
You’ll hear some claim that it was Christians who invented hospitals, championed abolition, elevated women’s position in society, all from following the Bible’s guidance. Others will argue that Christians also used the Bible to uphold slavery in America, or to keep women from getting the right to vote. (They would be accurate, by the way.)
I still feel that anxious cringe whenever someone on TV starts quoting scripture to justify his teenage wives, or his white supremacy, or justifying another war. It’s not just the crazies. People on both sides of every cultural debate in our country all use the Bible to bolster their arguments, and hopefully draw Christians into their support.
There comes a point when a reasonable person would not be blamed for throwing their hands up in the air and dismissing the whole thing. I mean, if anyone can make the Bible mean anything they want, then what possible good could it do as a source of guidance?
Two ways to tangle up your reading of the Bible.
The reason people think that anything can be proven from the Bible comes from two common mistakes.
1. We prefer bumper-sticker quotes to careful nuanced reading.
Our first obstacle to an honest reading of scripture is that we just hate complexity so much. We love the easy-to-quote lines that work well for mugs, Instagram posts, and arguments.
For example, it’s far easier to quote Paul saying, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man,” than it is to study the context of that passage and learn about the important role of women in the early church across the New Testament.
The famous scripture “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is so empowering. It sounds like a downpayment on all our hopes and dreams. Until we read the full context. If we do that, we discover the Apostle Paul is saying that Christ can strengthen us to bear up under terrible, painful circumstances—like being imprisoned for our faith. That’s a great promise, but one not quite so many people want to cash in on.
Many of us want simple black-and-white bumper-sticker-worthy statements from the Bible. We want them because they’re clear. They sound final and authoritative. Mostly, we want them because we don’t like doing the hard work of living with the Bible, and letting the Spirit teach us through an ongoing engagement with these powerful ancient words.
This unfortunate desire leads to our second mistake.
2. We try to read the Bible like it’s a democracy.
When we quote specific verses in isolation, specifically for the purpose of proving a point, we are relating to the Bible as if is a policy manual, some list of standards and practices. We treat the Bible like it is a democracy, where every verse from cover to cover has exactly equal say and weight. 1 verse. 1 vote! This is a complete misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Bible. Consider these two examples.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does something interesting. He says “You’ve heard it said…” and then quotes an Old Testament scripture. Then he says, “But I say unto you…” and proceeds to give a new and deeper interpretation of those passages.
Do you see what’s happening? Jesus’ words (which are in scripture) supersede the verses he was quoting (which are also in scripture). Biblical commands on adultery, divorce, making oaths, and how we see our enemy all get this treatment, among others. Jesus’ action here shows us not every verse of scripture carries the same weight.
In Acts 10, Peter had a vision. Now, he was a good practicing Jew who had faithfully followed the ceremonial cleanliness laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Violating these laws left a person ceremonially unclean, unable to participate in the life and worship of the community for a time. That included touching or eating with a gentile. Peter believed these were God’s standards expressed in scripture.
Then Peter had this vision where God seems to change things. Food and people that were declared unclean in some parts of the Old Testament were now declared clean. Not only did this change the way Peter saw his food, more importably, it changed how he interacted with people who weren’t Jewish. This vision is how the Spirit pushed Christianity to open its arms to all people everywhere.
The instruction God gave to Peter in Acts 10 superseded the instructions from other scripture. Acts and the rest of the New Testament assume that followers of Jesus will live in alignment with this newer revelation, rather than the previous perspective. This is just two examples. There are many others.
Sometimes selective reading is the most Biblical.
Within the books of the Bible, we find scriptural support for the idea that there is a hierarchy of authority within scripture. Plainly put: Certain verses are more important, binding, or authoritative than others. Sound different than what you learned or thought? Maybe this makes you a little bit uncomfortable. But understand: this is something even the most strict literalists act on already–een when they say they don’t.
For example, Psalms 137:9 literally says that the person who grabs your baby and smashes their head on a rock is happy. No literalist I’ve ever met says that verse is authoritative over your life. Why not?
First, it violates the 6th commandment. Second, it violates Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. Third, it’s poetry, and poetry is read differently than policy. Finally, when you read the whole poem, you see that the “you” in verse 9 is “Daughter Babylon,” not any old “you” you might want to substitute. Reading the verse in its context and through the lens of more authoritative verses gives you the best understanding.
Another example. Deuteronomy 23:1 says that any man with a genital defect isn’t allowed to participate in worship. Now, I have never met any pastor who has a plan for enforcing this in their church. Why? Because nearly every Christian church teaches that these community-defining standards from Leviticus no longer apply.
How can we make this claim? Aren’t we picking and choosing? No! First, Isaiah 56, which comes later chronologically, says that God welcomes eunuchs. Second, this is one of the ritual cleanliness laws that God released the church from in Acts. Third, in case all of this is still unclear, one of the very first converts to Christianity was an Ethiopian Eunuch. He was welcomed into the church on the basis of a short Bible study and baptism. Philip never once asked him about the state of his genitals.
People often claim they just believe the Bible and do what it says. This is never true! Everyone who reads the Bible makes decisions about which texts to give more weight to. We all make the judgement that certain verses, or certain voices within scripture, have higher authority than others.
If you grew up in a more conservative or fundamentalist church and home, that statement probably raises red flags. It may sound like I’m advocating tossing out precious truth and the authority of the Bible. I’m not. Scripture itself tells us that certain verses supersede other verses. Certain verses become the lens through which we see others. We aren’t expected to treat a story about Israel’s military campaign against its enemies with the same weight that we treat Paul’s letters to the church. Even Paul’s writing must always be subservient to and interpreted in light of Jesus’ words and actions.
When we pull individual verses out of their context without any attention to the larger narrative they fall within, we run the risk of trying to prove something that the Bible isn’t ultimately saying. It’s a little bit like assuming that because characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain use racist language, that Mark Twain was advocating and supporting racism. That’s clearly a bad reading of the book, but we read the Bible that way all the time!
Let’s make sure we’re hearing what the Bible is really saying.
The Bible is a book for grown-ups. What I mean is that it requires our engagement and reflection. It requires thought, study and discovery. It challenges us to seek God, and to keep on seeking, even when the “moral of the story” isn’t obvious, or when it makes us uncomfortable.
Now just because we have to make decisions about which parts of scripture to weigh more heavily, doesn’t mean it’s potluck time, where we can all just pick and choose the parts we like. If we recognize that there is a hierarchy of voices in the Bible, we discover something else vital. We don’t have the leeway to determine that hierarchy ourselves. For Christians, the revelation of God in Jesus is the lens that determines how we read the rest of scripture.
We can’t take any old verse and make it mean what we want it to mean. Anyone who says so is ignoring what the Bible says about itself. In order to treat any verse with integrity, we have to read it inside its context. We have to know who said it, when they said it, and who they were saying it to. We have to know where it falls in the overall timeline and narrative of scripture. And then we still have to weigh it in the light of Jesus and with the guidance of the Spirit. Only then will we hear what scripture is really saying.
The Bible does mean something. It does say specific things. And it doesn’t say just anything anyone wants it to say.
If you come across someone who is using the Bible to support some authoritative viewpoint, don’t take their word for it. Read the verses they are quoting in context. Compare their interpretation against the overall narrative of the Bible. Reflect on how Jesus’ life and teaching interact with what you’re reading.
See what you learn. In many cases, scripture itself will clear up the confusion. And in those cases when it doesn’t, simply follow Jesus with your words and actions. If what you say and do is rooted in other-centered co-suffering love, you’re probably on the right track.
This post is part of a series about ways we get in the way of our experience of scripture. The series is called Jumping the Hurdles.
- Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.
- Is the Bible human or divine? The problem is in your either/or question.
- 2 Reasons why using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.
- Has familiarity with the Bible left you bored and jaded?
- New to the Bible? Wandering around confused?
- Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.
- When the Bible has been used to bash, clobber or hurt you.
26 thoughts on “2 Reasons using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.”
The “let me know how it goes” link is broken.
What happens when the Bible clears up the confusion in favor of the crazy/evil/embarrassing view?
Thanks for letting me know about the link. Should be fixed now. You ask a great question. “What happens” has a lot to do with your view of scripture. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that the Bible contains difficult, painful and even evil things. Most of the Bible isn’t meant to be an example to follow or a command to live out. Much of it is simply a record of one particular group of people and their history. Sometimes their actions are Godly, sometimes they aren’t Sometimes the text judges them. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the meaning can only be found in the trajectory. Slavery is a good example. Clearly there is an evolution on the topic of slavery over the course of the Bible. One person can say, “it’s just unconscionable that the New Testament doesn’t come out against slavery!” That’s a fair perspective that I understand. But another person can say, “Well, God seems to work through culture over time, rather than demanding changes. The trajectory of the New Testament is against slavery and in favor of human dignity.” I think that’s also fair. But whether that works for you depends on your view and expectations of scripture.
I enjoyed the lesson. It is easy to quote scripture out of context. Thanks you for making it so clear to understand. God Bless you.
Hey Anette, thanks for leaving a comment. I’m glad you found it helpful!
Anyone that puts their trust in God and pursues their trust will find Him. Calls out to Him or hears His name. Utters the word God. We have all heard His name 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, reading, and leaving a comment. I appreciate you.
This is quite interesting
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I stumbled onto this trying to find an argument in the news that can be argued from both sides of the Bible for schoolwork (I go to a private Christian School) and I find this very interesting and clarifying, It’s pretty cool.
Glad to help, Gary!
Has Attorney General Jeff Sessions read your article? If not, what would you say about the comments offered by him and Sarah?
It’s sadly a perfect example of my point. Romans 13 can only be read in the larger context of 2nd half of Romans, which is a challenge to Christians to stay faithful to Christ’s values.
This is very interesting. I do have a question:
How do you help a person who doesn’t believe in the Bible because there are no evidence has shows no dinosaurs were mentioned in the Bible. ..where is the tablet that God wrote Ten Commandments on and other claims that are not relative to Salvation.
I mean I would like to talk to this person about salvation but I can’t get past some of these as I’m concerned ,silly questions
Hey John, Great question. I suspect that one of the reasons so many people struggle with Christianity is because we have made the Bible out to be something it was never designed to be. The Bible is not a science textbook. It’s not even a history textbook, in the sense we expect today. The Bible is 66 books written by different people over a long time, recording their experience of God’s work among them. Some of us believe that those books and the process of their writing was inspired by God. But that is not something that will be convincing to people who are not already of a mind to accord the Bible with the status of scripture. I think we have done great damage to the gospel by even requiring this viewpoint of people.
The truth is that over the history of Christianity, people have seen the Bible in different ways. Some of the most well known early church theologians saw the Bible as entirely allegorical, and that didn’t undermine their belief in Christ. The idea that we have to “prove” the Bible is a very modernist viewpoint, and I don’t know if it’s helpful.
Here’s where I come from. I believe that the Bible is a witness to the Word of God, and the Word of God is Jesus. So, for me the questions that matter are always about Jesus. Not just what did Jesus do in history, as recorded in the Gospels, but also, what is Jesus doing NOW in the world, and in the lives of the people I work with. So, if your friend had asked me this set of questions, I would respond like this:
“Well, those are interesting questions for sure, and can be fascinating to study, but what I’m more interested in is this. Do you have any sense at all of God working in your life? If you do, tell me about that. See, I believe that Jesus is alive and active in the world through the Holy Spirit. And I also believe that Jesus said that the Spirit would draw all people to God. I take that to mean that anyone who is honestly seeking spiritually, will be given the opportunity to experience Jesus at work in their life. So, let’s talk about that.”
If they have spiritual experiences that they cannot make sense of, I try to help them see those experiences in the light of Christ. I help them map what God is doing in their lives to scriptural truth, and invite them to seek the truth of Jesus (which includes scripture.) If they don’t have this kind of experience to start with, then I invite them to seek Christ—to literally test him, to experiment with seeking Jesus. Not simply as facts in the Bible, but as the active presence of God in this very moment. I teach them how to pray. I encourage them to read the Gospels, not with an intention to prove or disprove, but with a desire to get to know the character of Jesus, so that they can recognize Jesus’ voice when the Spirit speaks to their hearts. And then, I pray like made for them to have a revelation of Jesus.
When I was coming up, apologetics was a big deal. I read all the books. I practiced answering the questions so that I could help prove the Bible. And in more than two decades all I ever saw that do was create argument and entrench people in the sense of being right. I never once saw someone “come to Christ” because of a good argument about the reality of the flood, or the 7 day creation, or the historicity of Jesus. Not once. But I have seen people “come to Christ” because they experienced the Spirit of Christ active and alive in their circumstances. And once you meet Christ in that way, questions about where the tablets of the Ten Commands are fade into the background.
Very good post! I couldn’t agree more.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Can I read for example Psalm 18:39 and insert me in the scripture as though it’s about me and those who are my (human) enemies? Asking sincerely as I have come out of WOF and NAR.
Hey Michelle, that’s a great question. The way we read scripture really changes the tone and meaning of the text, doesn’t it? WOF and NAR have a very particular way of reading for sure. I have a couple suggestions for you when it comes to passages like these.
Firstly, the Psalms are a great way to bring our full self into prayer before God. And our whole self includes things like anger, frustration, desires for vengeance, etc. Using the language of the Psalms in prayer (which the church has done for two thousand years, following the model of our Jewish cousins who did the same before us, and still do), allows us to bring even hard, difficult, or sinful parts of ourself before God. In this case, the desire to see our enemies hurt. I think that desire is a normal human reaction, although sinful. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to bring that feeling before God. To say, with the Psalmist, God — I really WANT YOU to get rid of these folks who feel like enemies. That’s a truthful thing.
HOWEVER…. (segue to my second thought)
I think when we read passages like these, we always have to read them in light of Jesus. Both in terms of what Jesus did and in terms of what Jesus taught us. So, in terms of what Jesus did — Jesus ended death by death on the cross, and destroyed his enemies by forgiving them. So, that’s already done. In terms of what Jesus taught us, he taught us that we don’t have enemies (from our side of things), we have neighbors, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when necessary, turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.
So, Following Jesus, I don’t think we can any longer “claim” Psalms like 18:39 as divine sanction for praying destruction on our enemies. First, because those aren’t our enemies, they are our neighbors. And Second, because Jesus doesn’t destroy his enemies by killing them, but destroys the antagonism itself through death, self-sacrifice, resurrection and ultimately reconciliation.
So… my take? It’s fine, good, and healthy to bring all our feelings, motives, and desires before God in prayer. That’s the only way we can have real intimacy, and find healing. But following Jesus means we are no longer in the revenge or vengeance business.
A very helpful essay. Thanks very much Marc!
Dave in Nottingham, England
I’m so glad to hear it. Thanks for letting me know. Blessings!
Your thoughtfulness comes through even better after reading the article again.
I would credit it to the saving grace by your faith. A sound mind, An easy yoke, to quote ‘ Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord’.
Thanks for your kind encouragement.
Sorry that was long…I love to write XD
I’m not a atheist but i feel all religion is mans way of connecting to a higher power. Jesus saw Judaism and decided to teach it his way which is good but i’m not sure he wanted a religion based solely on reaching God only through him.
So much has been written in his name by others after his death, he was a prophet and wanted others to live a moral life the other stuff i cant speak on.
my only problem is Christians that take everything literally without a second glance. every word as fact,no matter how odd or weird it is.
men living to be 900, walking on water, different languages because the tower of babel, a burning bush meaning more than it does. a person being physically lifted to heaven…etc
i had a convo with someone today and they talked about jews getting more coming to them for the crucifixion..jesus was a jew and you cant blame all jews in perpetuity for a few years ago for egging on jesus being killed.
Hey Jason, thanks for the thoughtful comment. What you refer to is something that is true for a certain sub-set of Christians. I would call the way of reading scripture that you are talking about “Biblicism,” or “Fundamentalist Literalism.” It is more common in American Christianity in the past few generations, but it is by no means the only way (or even the majority way) that Christians read the Bible. But, if you’re not part of the insider-conversations, you might not know that. The folks who read the Bible that way are the most vocal, and the ones that often get the loudest hearing. (Sadly)
Christians as far back as the early church fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries were quite comfortable with a metaphorical reading of many of the stories in the Bible. For many of them, it was their primary way of understandings scripture. And today, with the benefit of textual criticism, and so many other fields of study, almost all branches of Christianity accept that the Bible is written in different genres and that in order to understand it you need to respect the interpretive conventions of each genre.
For example, poetry is not journalism. When a poet uses a metaphor, no smart person takes their words literally. They are using a comparison to talk about something larger than words. So, passages of scripture intentionally written as poetry (Like Genesis 1, all of the Psalms, John 1, and other passages) need to be read with a poetic eye. What is the deeper truth being referred to? The details matter, but the details are not the point. Within the books of the Bible, there are many genres. Poetry, sermon, mythic history, letter, biography, and more. There are parts of the Bible that were written with the intention that they be taken literally (like today’s journalism or letters might be) and parts that were meant to communicate something larger and more significant than the literal words. Reading the Bible without this understanding only leads to problems.
Your last paragraph is a great example of the kind of problem I mean. The person you were talking to seems to have been using the Gospel story of Jesus crucifixion as a cover-up for their own anti-semitism. That’s a big problem. Not only in terms of our society, or in terms of that person being an integrated, compassionate human, but also in terms of scripture. The point of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is being overlooked entirely. Were there Jews involved in the crucifixion? Sure. But the idea that all Jews are culpable is blatant ignorance of the text. The point is that people in power (religious leaders as well as political leaders) were threatened by Jesus and his teaching, and they manipulated the crowds in such a way that they could justify their attempt to legally murder Jesus. And yet, Jesus (who I believe was God) was willing to enter into this dark place of abuse and oppression to show us the true character of God.
So, in my view, anyone who uses the Gospels to support anti-semitism is misreading the text in a number of ways. They are ignoring that many besides Jews were involved. They are ignoring that Jesus chose willingly to enter into his passion. They are ignoring that Jesus, on the cross, verbally forgave everyone involved in his crucifixion, and they are ignoring the rest of the New Testament that teaches that Jesus’ very actions of submitting himself to this dark and terrible experience was showing us that the character of God is other-centered co-suffering love.
I hear your frustration with folks who seem to be blindly using the Bible to avoid dealing with their own hearts, or to cover-up their own prejudices. I feel exactly the same way.