I Survived the Christian Right: Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 2
Beware of Bible Abuse

With some notable exceptions, most evangelicals I know primarily read the Bible devotionally, meaning they read it in a superficial way without regard to the conditions of history, culture, genre, or its own literary context. They also believe it is the infallible Word of God and expect God to speak to them personally through its message. I read the Bible this way for years. But I gradually learned a valuable lesson. Although harmless on occasion, a predominantly devotional approach to Bible study inevitably leads to Bible abuse…handling scripture in a way that the original author did not intend and the original audience would never recognize. Although it is mostly done unintentionally, I find people abuse the Bible in three ways.

Misinterpretation – The most common form is when people take verses or passages out of their literary context, for example, the practice of citing isolated verses to bolster a doctrine. In other words proof-texting without checking the full context. That’s why we should “read the Bible like drinking beer, not sipping wine.”6

Another form of this is practicing poor exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is ascertaining a passage’s original meaning through understanding its historical and cultural background.Hermeneutics is deciding how to apply a passage to our modern circumstances. Without doing the hard work of both of these, it’s easy to misinterpret what the Bible teaches.7 Passages are applied with a wooden literalism, which causes a host of problems, including dogmatic teaching on divorce, tithing, the eminent return of Christ, and sexuality, to name only a few.

Applying Strict Authority – Despite the fact that the Bible does not claim to be inerrant8, fundamentalists and many evangelicals insist it is. When I visited L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1984, I studied this doctrine and concluded there was little evidence to support it. Gradually, I came to believe that the Bible is not a set of timeless maxims to be obeyed to the letter. It never claims to be the Word of God, only that Jesus is the Word come down from God and the Jewish prophets spoke the word of the Lord. When every isolated verse or passage is applied with equal authority, the phenomenon of Bibliolatry results.9

Moreover, the evidence supports the notion that parts of our modern Bible were added by copyists and go beyond the original manuscripts, which we don’t have.10 One example is the controversial passage in I Corinthians 14 often used to justify the suppression of women. It states women should not teach but be silent in church and in full subjection to men. Yet the evidence is strong that Paul did not write these verses but later copyists added them.11 The Jesus Seminar makes this mistake in the opposite direction when it dogmatically concludes portions of Jesus’ sayings are not genuine based on subjective opinion, not on manuscript evidence.12 These discoveries reveal how our modern Bible can still contain divine inspiration…and powerful lessons rooted in godly wisdom…without every part of it being the Word of God or wholly free from human error.13

Mistranslation – There are several places in the New Testament where the English word chosen in most popular translations is almost assuredly not correct. I will cite several of them below. Our modern English translations are not as accurate as we think and should not always be taken at face value.

Read the Bible in its own historical, cultural, and literary context. Don’t worship it.

[6] N.T. Wright

[7] See Fee, Gordon, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

[8] Countryman, William, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?

[9] Bible worship; see Thatcher, Adrian, The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible, page 4.

[10] Erdman, Bart D., Misquoting Jesus

[11] Fee, Gordon, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, and Erdman, Op. cit., page 183.

[12] Wills, Gary, What Jesus Meant, page xxv.

[13] Wills, Gary, What Jesus Meant and Countryman, William, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?