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
If 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.
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
There 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.