5 terrible ways to treat the Bible

There is a lot of really poor training on how to use the Bible. In fact, if you’ve been in church for a while, chances are you’ve had some exposure to this. I’m here to ask that you please, please stop. These are a few of my least favorite things. They make me very sad.

1. Weaponizing the Bible

westboro-baptist-churchIf you don’t follow any of the rest of my advice, follow this. In the hands of some, the Bible is less sacred text and more bludgeoning instrument. It should seem obvious that we shouldn’t use our religion to hurt others, but many people are blind to the pain they inflict (or worse, they revel in it). Westboro Baptist, depicted to the right, is certainly the textbook example of weaponizing the Bible, but many people use the Bible similarly, only not in such extravagant and destructive ways.

Theology is not an excuse to ignore people; listen to them. It is not an excuse to add to their pain; comfort them. If you think a person is in sin, then let their sin bear its own consequences rather than adding to it with your own judgment and condemnation. I don’t know how many times I have seen people use the Bible to justify treating someone like crap.

The scenario is always this: person A believes or does thing X. Person B believes that X is forbidden/wrong because of verses V. B uses V to justify treating A like subhuman garbage, e.g. shaming, humiliation, condemnation, spiritual threats (i.e. God is going to do such and such to you for this!), and so forth. If you find yourself saying, “I love you, but,” then back up and examine whether or not the thing which follows is loving at all.

Reasons 2-5 of this list are at their worst when used to weaponize the Bible, but they have their own vices. Read on.

2. Prooftexting

Have a problem? Just pull a verse out of context and pretend that you’ve solved it. Need encouragement that you can do the impossible? Just read Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) and charge blindly into whatever it is you wanted to do — even though Phil. 4:13 is about Paul being able to serve Christ both in prison and under more normal circumstances. Want the moral high ground over your friend/neighbor/acquaintance? There’s probably a law or other sort of admonition against something he/she does. Let’s just hope you know the Bible and they don’t.

Prooftexting is a surefire way to be annoying to anyone who doesn’t also prooftext (or have a contradictory prooftext). It lets you shut off your brain and your moral judgment by deferring to something which you perceive to be the final word, even though your selective use of the Bible is really just about your own thoughts and feelings, not God’s.

If you need a new way of approaching the Bible, read my post on how to treat the Bible as an icon.

3. “The Bible says…” (pretending you don’t have interpretive bias)

The Bible doesn’t “say.” You say. That’s not a bad thing at all; it’s just the nature of how books, including the Bible, work. Prior to you coming along and applying some sort of interpretive method, the Bible is just a bunch of squiggly lines on a page. If you don’t believe me, show your Bible to your cat. If you don’t have a cat, find a cat. See if the power of God compels it to do anything but sniff the pages. The cat lacks the power to interpret all the squiggles.

Sometimes, it’s easy to say “the Bible says” as a shorter way of saying “I have read the Bible and interpreted it to say…,” but I oftentimes find it used as an argumentative tactic, as though the person wielding the phrase is trying to smite the unbeliever for believing something that is wrong (how dare they!). This happens most frequently when someone feels morally superior for reading the Bible as a literal historical narrative, not realizing that, in doing so, they have applied their own interpretation to the text. The literal, historical interpretation is not the neutral, objective interpretation.

It’s good for us to be aware of our own biases when approaching the text. We don’t even have to know what they are; we just need to be humble enough to admit in a serious way that we have biases and that they color our interpretation. This goes a long way in fostering healthy discussion. In the process, we may discover that we really were reading something the wrong way.

4. “The Bible says…” (pretending that right interpretations = right answers)

There’s another major problem with saying, “The Bible says…,” which is that the Bible isn’t necessarily right about everything, anyway. So even supposing that we were to come to some objective conclusion that the authors of the Bible intended one very specific meaning for a given passage, we don’t necessarily have to follow that passage exactly.

Case in point (trigger warning: discussion of the Bible and same-sex attraction, skip this point if needed), even though there are lots of scholars who try to make a case that the Bible does not actually talk about same-sex attraction, it would be pretty naive of us to think that in certain cases, the authors of the Bible weren’t specifically thinking about how awful it would be for one guy to have anal sex with another guy.

Take Leviticus 18:22, for example: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” We have come a long way, though, and we realize this sort of relationship can actually be as healthy as any other sort of more “normal” sexual relationship. Also, Romans 1 is pretty clearly wrong in how same sex attraction comes to be (see one of my earlier posts on homosexuality for a longer consideration of the passage).

So not only do you have to be aware of your own interpretive method, as in part one, but you also need to be aware that successfully interpreting the Bible does not necessarily give you the right answer.

5. Threatening judgment to convince people they need Jesus

way_of_the_masterThere are several evangelism training programs that specifically advocate threatening hellfire and damnation with your friends or whomever you are trying to convert. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, I’m looking at you. The basic premise is that you list off a variety of unusual commands which your opponent has likely broken, and then you attempt to shame him or her into accepting the “good news” that Jesus came to save you from all that.

Just imagine a Muslim coming up to you and saying, “You didn’t fast all the way through Ramadan! Allah is displeased. You must repent and serve Allah.” This would be pretty ridiculous, right? Well this sort of strategy is the Christian equivalent.

The Bible is not a tool for beating others into submission (see point 1), and you don’t need to invent problems for Christianity to solve. If Christianity solves anything, then it should solve real problems, not just problems we make up.


Please stop doing these things. I know that for many people, this requires a major paradigm shift requiring them to give up large portions of their faith, especially points 2-4. However, many people have made this shift, myself included, and found their faith stronger (but different) as a result.

About Chris Attaway

Chris Attaway is a Christian philosopher seeking to refine the way we live through reasoning and reflection. Be sure to follow his blog, The Discerning Christian, for challenging articles which offer new perspectives on old problems.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Hermeneutics, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to 5 terrible ways to treat the Bible

  1. Carter says:

    Just to clarify, you do not believe the bible is 100% true?
    If so, do you believe the bible was inspired (breathed in to man by God)?


    • Many people mean many different things by that, and most of them seem incoherent. I treat the Bible as the testament of Christians (and Jews before them) regarding their struggle to understand and love God. In a sense, it is “inspired,” but I do not believe God gave them the exact words or concepts to put into the Bible.

      If you would like to read more in-depth about how I treat the Bible, I would read my “Icons, Idols, and Holy Scripture” post, linked at the end of point 2.

  2. Ken Nichols says:

    Great article, Chris. I made this paradigm shift about a year ago, and have found it very freeing to realize I DON’T know everything, or have to defend all my theological positions. I used to find it very stressful having to defend the Bible (ie. my interpretation of such) to other people (unbelievers and believers, too). Now, I am OK with someone having a different interpretation, but I DO wish they would allow me the same latitude. Unfortunately, that seems pretty rare.

  3. Emily Molloy says:

    I believe in God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the Dead. On the third day he rose from the Dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the father; from there he will come to judge the living and the Dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. I’m indeed Anglican (Church of England, Christianity). I’m transsexual, I’m a female in a male’s body, I do plan to get a sex change someday. I’m also what you would say “gay” considering that I’m psychically a male and I like other males… Even though technically I’m “straight”. Religion itself is often questioned. Only a few passages in the entire Bible reference same-sex sexual activity should not been seen as comprehensive statements concerning homosexuality, but instead should be viewed in the context of what the ancient world that produced the Bible understood about sexual activity. Also, The Story of Sodom in Genesis 19: This understanding is helpful when we read the story of the city of Sodom, Lot, and the visitors (or angels). The men of Sodom want to ‘know’ (yadah- a Hebrew word that can mean sexual intercourse) the foreigners who have come to Lot’s house. In essence they want to rape them in order to show their social and cultural dominance over them. This story is not a condemnation of homosexuality, but is a story about rape and inhospitality. In other biblical texts (Ezekiel 16:49, Luke 12:28-29) Sodom’s “sin” is not identified as homosexuality, rather, their sins were pride, failure to help the poor, and lack of hospitality to foreigners. Leviticus “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22) “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (20:13) These verses are part of the Holiness Code in the Old Testament books of Leviticus (chapters 12-26) that attempted to spell out ways of the people of Israel would act differently tan their Mediterranean neighbours. In light of the previously mentioned sexual practices of Israel’s neighbours, it becomes clear that this prohibition in Leviticus was an attempt to preserve the internal harmony of Jewish made society by not allowing them to participate in anal intercourse as a form of expressing or gaining social and political dominance. These verses in no way prohibit, nor do they even speak, to loving, caring sexual relationships between people of the same gender. You’re committing a hate crime, which could end you up in prison. If anything, you’re the tool of Satan as you’re helping a beautiful and powerful fallen angel, who would like to do nothing more than to lead people into the rebellion against God. Your hatred is unacceptable, but I do forgive you though. If anything, it’s you who will be going to hell. Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.” Gender and sexuality isn’t a choice, God made us this way… http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/23/homosexuality–choice-born-science_n_2003361.html and http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/TS.html

    • Your conclusion here is odd. I’m very much in support of LGBT rights and support loving same-sex couples. Was that unclear from the article? I apologize if so.

    • My issue with Leviticus, by the way, is this: while I agree that the prohibition against male-male intercourse did not consider the idea of positive, loving same-sex relationships, the problem is that they didn’t even consider that to be a thing. That is, it had not entered anyone’s mind that gay men could have a healthy relationship.

      Thus, it is much easier to make a case that the Biblical authors were ignorant and homophobic rather than try to justify their views and pretend their opinions are compatible with modern psychological advancement.

      All that to say that I support LGBT rights from a Christian context, but I don’t think the Bible is as friendly to the concept as some would have it. It is a product of the cultures in which it was written, and it exhibits racism, slavery, misogyny, and homophobia in different places.

      • Rob says:

        Again you failed to mention the source of morality and righteousness if not the bible? It certainly isn’t mankind… As Job in his story “I am Vile” and so is the heart of every human being there is no inherent goodness in any person only through the Holy Spirit does that come. FYI you missed the point of the good samaritan story.

      • Well at the very least, morality preceded the Bible, so I would ask you instead to justify why the Bible is the source of morality when people had morality before it existed.

      • Just to clarify, no, I did not miss the point of the Good Samaritan. The point was that God desires genuine love for your neighbor, not religious participation and adherence to doctrine. The one who loves is more a child of God than is the theologian who does not.

  4. Rob says:

    My thing is… I believe the bible to be inerrant and infallible the moral standing it takes was relevant then and now. The homosexaulity argument is if God found it detestable then as written in the scriptures obviously WE as human beings took it upon ourselves to ignore that and say well we’re advanced now so that doesn’t apply. Also why not do that with giving the thumbs with murder and adultery, “back then” they were lumped together so why not now? If being Gay is the new cool thing then let me be allowed to grab a shotgun and go off a few people I don’t like… No one when presented with this argument brings forth good justification ergo why many in the gay community are atheist because coming to a logical understanding of this nullifies their lifestyle and many of them are left wing because Democrats are the party currently that are Christian haters

    • So your position here is basically the point of my article: you treat the Bible very poorly.

      • Rob says:

        Why because I don’t share the same view as you? Because I don’t see it as just some other book and as holy scripture? Very well and thought out response by the way? Case in point where’s the substance to a rebuttal?

      • Rob says:

        My position is we don’t make up what’s right and what’s wrong what’s sin and not sin as much as many people like yourself would love to

      • If you want to use the Bible to proof-text your way to morality, then you’re going to end up not only as a homophobe but also as a racist, misogynist, and otherwise morally corrupt person. So, go ahead, but don’t expect me to take you seriously.

        The Bible, while the Christian sacred text, is not the source of all morality. In fact, this was part of the point of Christianity’s inclusive message: the good Samaritan, who served other gods and practiced religion differently from the Jews, had true faith, where the priest and the Levite had the right beliefs yet did not know God. It was not the adherence to the sacred texts which granted faith to the good Samaritan; it was his love for his fellow man.

      • Rob says:

        Also I might never agree on the stance of homosexaulity but that by far doesn’t make me a homophobe in any sense and racism is pure stupidity and ignorance. Stop trying to prove a mute point with things that make no sense

      • My point is that the prooftext method for disagreeing with same sex attraction will just as easily support racism as homophobia. Just as you say that racism is stupid, so too is calling gay men sinful.

    • Malissa S says:

      Read Emily Malloy’s reply above, re: historical context of scripture and homosexuality. Educate yourself. Also, I am a Christian Democrat, and do not hate Christians or anybody for that matter. Jesus would likely have also been a “left wing Christian hater” as you put it; if you read the Bible without personal bias or seeking scripture in the name of self righteousness, you would see the messages of love and acceptance more clearly. It is the institution of church that disturbs me, and its’ general alignment with values of greed, self-righteousness, and judgment, not Christianity itself. The sweeping generalities and abuse of the Bible embodied by your comment, surely built in through involvement with the all-knowing church, is the exact reason I am a Christian who does not go to church…and the reason so many others cut themselves off form religion all together….which is exactly the opposite of what the Bible encourages us to do. We are encouraged to live Christ like, to be a light, so that others will follow (and I assume use the Bible to bring ourselves and others closer to God, instead of driving ourselves and others away from God).


  5. Roy Glover says:

    I used to be a devoted Christian. I went to church Sundays and Wednesdays, had bible tutoring on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Raised a Southern Baptist, but tried almost every Christian denomination trying to find a non judgmental church. I’ll skip the story of how I lost my faith but it follows what a lot of you have gone through. This being said I still consider mysel a Christian in the literal since. I believe in his message and try to live by it. The problem I see is to many who claim to be a Christian try to adhere to the old testament. Christ came preaching a different message than his father did in the old testament. To me if you are a Christian your goal is to be Christ like. Now if you want to live your life by picking and choosing the verses from the Bible that best suit you fine, call yourself a King Jamesean. But don’t discrace the message of Christ or the Christian name. Its the terrible acts by these so called Christians that has caused the decline in Christianity and why Wicca is currently the fastest growing religion in the United States today. If things continue Christianity will eventually be phased out and Paganism will once again be the dominant religion.

    • avengah says:

      I think atheism is growing rapidly; much faster than Paganism. Atheism isn’t a religion, of course, but in terms of what people believe, it’s definitely growing.

      • I would definitely agree. On a related note, I owe much to the New Atheist movement for sharpening my faith and challenging me to think about my beliefs in new ways.

  6. Robert says:

    How isn’t Atheism is not a religion?

    • Robert says:

      Please explain how you think Atheism is not a religion?

      • Atheism is the lack of belief in a God or gods. A religion is a belief system, not a lack of belief system.

      • avengah says:

        There is no fundamental, foundational text that all atheists believe in. There are no doctrines, no dogma, no shared beliefs between all, apart from one: there is no credible evidence for a god or gods, so there is no reason to believe in one. You can’t group all atheists together since they may have very different views on other things. The only thing they all have in common is their lack of belief in gods.

      • Mo Taylor says:

        Do you not have to actively “believe” there is no God in order to be an Atheist? I find that most avowed atheists have more of a belief system taken upon blind faith (for example, believing the world and mankind were created by random events) than many nominal Christians. I think you may be thinking more of Agnostics, whom I would describe as people who just couldn’t be bothered enough to believe anything at all.

      • Atheists generally do not find there to be any reason to believe in God or gods, and therefore cannot be said to actively engage in disbelief. Thus, one can hardly call this a religion, since it centers around not believing something. To call atheism a religion would be equivalent to calling non-stamp collecting a hobby.

      • Jeff Charest says:

        I was recently introduced to an idea that perfectly explained what had always troubled me about the believer/atheist debate: Igtheism holds that Atheism asks the wrong question, or answers the wrong question. To state “god does not exist” is meaningless, since there hasn’t been any discussion of what the word ‘god’ signifies. What is the semantic content of the signifier ‘god’? Until its definition has been decided upon, it makes no sense to say you don’t believe in it. I think that when Atheists say they don’t believe that god exists, they really only mean that they don’t agree with a very particular (and, as far as I can tell, poorly-defined even from a Christian perspective) idea of what the word ‘god’ refers to. Sure, it’s very possibly true that the Old Man with the white beard throwing wrathful thunderbolts at us, or the being sitting on a giant throne way up in the heavens, don’t exist. But is that really ‘god’? Isn’t god, even in the Christian tradition, supposed to transcend Thingness and Being as it applies to creation in the first place? And if so, what sense does it make to say it doesn’t exist, when the category of ‘exist/not exist’ doesn’t even apply?
        Just wanted to throw that out there, thought it might be useful in this very interesting (and well-moderated!) discussion. As someone who left the church behind after a nightmarish episode with the fundamentalist brand, but who is still a dedicated student of humanity’s quest to understand what the heck we’re doing here, I appreciate your thoughtful approach to this. Glad I found your blog.

      • Igtheism has some very good points to make and challenges a good portion of Christianity. Now granted that I believe many religious persons have an intuitive understanding of what they mean when they worship yet may lack the academic constructs to discuss it, I believe also many of the (especially more conservative) academic constructs themselves are lacking and/or meaningless.

        For example, to conceive of God beyond or without being is, to me, utter nonsense, and you could say I am an “igtheist” in regard to such concept of God. I tend toward viewing God as the “ground of being” so to speak, where God comprises some fundamental role in existence altogether. Hence, God calls Himself “I am.”

        Glad you’ve found your way here. I, too, have had my own run-ins with the fundamentalists. Check out my “About” for more of my story.

  7. Ken Nichols says:

    Read through the comments here, and have a couple of things to share.

    Regarding morality, I believe we actually DO construct our own moral codes and have since Adam and Eve. Note that after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (ie. defining morality) they suddenly felt guilty for being naked. God asked them “Who told you you were naked?” – which probably could have been asked “Why are you feeling GUILTY about being naked?” They manufactured the “wrongness” and associated guilt of being naked. If it had been “wrong” before that, wouldn’t God have mentioned it before? The morality of nakedness came from the mind of MAN, not from God. God sought to assuage their guilt by clothing them. He never desired us to feel guilt, we did (do) that to OURSELVES.

    Beyond the fundamental “laws” of love God and love your neighbor as yourself, all other moral codes are MAN MADE. God PROVIDED the Israelites with laws because they WANTED laws. They felt lost and without purpose without them. They wanted/needed ways to “prove” to God that they were “worthy”, so He gave them a list of do’s and don’ts. Do we REALLY think God cared how many poles and panels the tabernacle had in it? No, He made it specific and important, because they WANTED something to DO to prove themselves before Him. We continue to do the same thing today, following lists of instructions in order to prove ourselves before God. But our morality continues to evolve and change. We have called things that used to be considered “bad”, “good” and have made things that weren’t formerly bad into illegal activities in order to “protect people”. But proper, godly morality comes not from obeying an external list of do’s and don’ts, but from having a change of HEART. A heart that fully trusts in God and loves with the love that only God can supply will instinctively follow the fundamental laws that God set up (love God and your neighbor).. The rest of the Law (the knowledge of good and evil) is unnecessary when people are loving each other with God’s love.

    As to whether God exists or not, I’m also in the camp that atheist don’t so much believe that GOD does not exist, but that the vision (concept) they have of God cannot exist, because it creates a logical paradox within their minds. In fact many times I have heard, “If God is like THIS (or does THIS), then I cannot believe in Him.” So it’s a matter of logic and perception. I believe if everyone could glimpse what God was REALLY like, they would seek to know Him more. One of the things that believers should do is show God with their lives, so that people “see” God in them, and not in a book, or from a preacher. Hearing about God does not equate to experiencing God. We can help atheists experience God through loving them as God does, which will reawaken their thirst to know Him.

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