Bible Abuse, Part 4:
Re-Discovering the Bible as a Book of Freedom
By Micah Royal
In previous articles, we have looked at what Bible abuse is – the ripping of selected Biblical texts from their intended context, for the purpose of using them to marginalize or oppress select groups of people, such as women, gays, or other minorities. We’ve seen the need to take ownership of our own relationship with the Divine, as well as to build a network of supportive people, to help us find healing from the effects of Bible abuse in our lives.
In this section I want to introduce you to some tools which will enable you to lose your fear of the Bible and begin to use the Bible as it was intended, not as a tool of oppression or source of judgment, but as a tool of healing and wholeness, and a liberating book in your life.
The Bible was intended by God as a book whose words guide us into a full, meaningful, and abiding life. Jesus tells us that “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). He also describes his work this way: “18The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19).
These words describe a God-given purpose of bringing people into the most meaningful life that is possible and helping them be set free from whatever is holding them in bondage. Far from a recipe for abuse and oppression, this is a description of a work of setting free the oppressed. The Scriptures, which testify to Jesus, have this same purpose.
How is it then that the Bible gets used as a tool of oppression? Through quoting its verse out of their intended context in a way that twists its intended message.
One of the best ways to free yourself from the bondage of Bible abuse is in fact to read the Scriptures for yourself, letting them speak for themselves their message of freedom.
for Sorting Through the Message of Scripture
Unfortunately, most of us have been so inundated by false interpretations of the Scriptural message we need some help discerning what Scripture is and is not saying to us today. Like someone might use the tool of a tuner to tune his or her radio so that the lovely music it makes available can be heard over the static, so we must learn to use 5 tools in our Bible reading to help us discover the liberating message within Biblical texts.
These 5 principles can be pictured as parts of a triangle, like so:
These 5 tools, based on the ancient Christian tools of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, can easily be applied to any text or topic in Scripture, to help you determine whether a certain message others claim is taught in Scripture is in fact truly taught there.
Our first tool in understanding what God is saying in Scripture is the Scripture itself.
do you use Scripture to interpret if a Scripture is being misused?
In the movie Shrek, the main character says “Ogres are like onions. Onions have layers, ogres have layers”. In other words, there was more to him than met the eye – and to truly understand him, you had to look more than skin-deep and see who he truly was. The same is true with the Bible, to truly see what God is saying about something we need to take time to really examine the Scriptures on a topic. Folks who mis-use Scripture for their own ends are playing off the fact that many of us only go “skin-deep” in our reading of the Bible. To make sure we are not being misled by Bible abuse, we need to really look at the whole ogre, layer by oniony layer.
Here are some pointers on how to do that:
Read the whole context
Most people, when they quote a verse about homosexuality or about hell or about anything, just lift verses out of the Bible, without paying attention to the story behind the verses. It is like to old joke about the man who was depressed and opened the Bible randomly to a page to see what God would say to him and he came across the verse “And Judas hung himself…” Horrified, he opened the Bible again at random and saw the random phrase, “Go and do likewise”. Dejected, he opened the Bible again one final time and came to the verse, “What you must do, do quickly”.
Now, if he only read those verses out of the context of the story they are in, he would end up in some big trouble -- thinking God wanted him to kill himself.
But if he realizes these were parts of a bigger story and read the verses leading up to these verses and following these verses he would realize that there was a bigger message which gave these verses meaning. And he would realize that God wasn’t really saying “Go kill yourself” at all but saying a very positive, life-affirming message.
One of the things you need to do while you study what the Bible says about a particular topic is trying to figure out how the few verses that could be claimed to talk about that topic fit into the bigger story of the Bible and asking, do they say the same thing if you read them as a part of the big story? Anytime you read the Scriptures, you need to see what the verses preceding and following the Scripture you are studying say, as well as elsewhere in that chapter, that book, that section of Scripture.
Look into the history behind the story
Again, a lot of times we don’t dig deep enough in the text. There is a story behind the story of the Bible that affects how certain things are worded. It was written in a different land and a different time. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to us, but what it means is we need to try and figure out how the time and place of a particular verse in history affects its meaning.
For instance, if someone just moved to America for the first time and was just picking up English and heard the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs”, what would they think is going on? Falling felines and crashing canines from above! But if they studied how that word was used by people in America, they’d find out that the bigger story of American culture and history showed that language was figurative.
When people quote verses to discriminate against others, a lot of times they will quote verses dealing with customs that sound like practices today – until you study what those customs really were in the time the Bible authors wrote about them. Other times, the text will have phrases which may sound like they describe one thing (like homosexual behavior, or like women being less than men) but which didn’t mean that in the culture of the day.
Compare different translations of the verses in question.
Another really big thing is that the Bible was originally written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and not “English, Spanglish, and Bad English”, so what we read is not the original words of the Bible, but a translation. That is why it is important to compare different translations of the Bible and find out what different translations translate things differently (A few good Bible commentaries will help here!).
becomes important in looking at homosexuality because, as we will discuss
more later, in some translations the word “homosexual” is used
to translate the same word other translations use for “male prostitute”
or “paederast” i.e. pedophile). The difference in those translations
means a lot!
The History of Interpretation
Looking at the history of a verse’s interpretation means looking at the question of how have different people understood this verse over time?
First of all, the history of interpretation can show us what a verse or idea has universally been understood as throughout the history of Bible interpretation. For instance, Christians of every stripe and tradition in every age have said that what Jesus taught is the foundation of Christianity and that without him we’d be lost. Because of the fact they all agree on this, we know that someone’s relationship to Jesus is key to what being a Christian is.
So seeing the history of how a verse has been interpreted can show us timeless truths that shed light on how to interpret obscure passages.
Also, it can help give us a check on reading into the text our own modern ideas. For instance, one Greek word often translated by modern Christians who oppose gay rights as “homosexual”, arsekonoites, for the first several centuries of Bible interpretation – when most Christians still read ancient Greek -- was never used to apply to gay relationships, but instead to masturbation, anal sex between a man and a woman, and child molestation. The fact that it is only after Western society began to discriminate more openly against gays when most Christians no longer spoke Biblical Greek that this Greek word got translated as “homosexual” tips us off to the possibility that folks who use it to condemn gay people are reading their own modern ideas into the Bible.
Knowing the history of Bible interpretation also shows us how Christians sometimes get it wrong.
Throughout history, individuals have also misused portions of the Bible, taking verses out of context to support various acts of prejudice and discrimination. For instance, during the time of slavery, people found verses in the Bible where the apostle Paul told Christians stuck in slavery in the Roman Empire to submit to their slave-drivers until and unless they could find their freedom and used those verses to defend keeping African-Americans in slavery forever. In the time of segregation, people quoted verses against Jews marrying people of other nations who did not worship the true God to support their policy of separating people based on race in a way that mistreated minorities. And throughout the ages, men have quoted verses about a wife’s role supporting her husband (while strangely overlooking the verses about a husband’s role supporting his wife!) as a way to keep women out of power and thus oppressed and voiceless.
Though at one point all these were the mainstream interpretation of these verses, most Christians would agree these were wrong uses of Scripture. Over the centuries, as God’s Spirit has led Christians, Christians have begun to understand that these interpretations of Scripture were not God’s intended message, but in fact went against the basic teachings of Christianity’s founder, Jesus. The Holy Spirit has shown that Jesus’ message is one that sets people free, not one that oppresses people.
So, a good second step in Bible interpretation is comparing how Christians throughout the ages have interpreted a particular verse or the verses related to a particular topic.
The next two principles are reason and experience. These principles are based on the idea out that what God is truly saying will make sense in real life. God’s way works, while other ways won’t.
works on a personal level and on a technical level.
On a personal level, if an interpretation of Scripture is true, it will fit your experience of life and will ultimately make sense for how we live.
If someone’s idea of what God is saying about life doesn’t work in real people’s lives, they probably aren’t hearing God, however much they believe it.
you have to experience God yourself and decide for yourself what God is saying
and ultimately responsible for your own beliefs.
So, if it doesn’t work, it probably isn’t true. You have to apply your own common sense and experience to Biblical texts.
There is another way these two principles of interpreting what God is saying fit together and that is in the technical sense that I mentioned earlier. These are the basis of modern science. Scientists observe and thus experience things, record others’ experiences of things, and then apply reason to very earthly facts. Based on their study of how what God made works, they come up with explanations for life.
These two principles stem directly from Scripture, too. Romans 1:19-20 and someone Psalms 19:1-4 show that through what God has made, our experience of it, and our reasoning, God reveals certain truths about himself and our lives.
History has shown how failing to pay attention to this aspect of interpretation has led people to misunderstand God. For instance, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Pope of the time all condemned as heretics people who, after studying the universe through a telescope, decided that the earth circles the sun and not the sun the earth, because the Bible uses language like “the sun sets” and “the sun rises”. They said that the Bible obviously made it clear that the sun circles the earth!
Christians today understand, based on looking at the story behind that story, based on studying the history of how God has revealed himself to people, and based, of course, on applying reason and our experiences from scientific experiments, that “the sun rising” was a figure of speech like “it is raining cats and dogs” and that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the pope were doing the equivalent of claiming that falling felines and crashing canines from heaven were meant by that phrase.
The final and most important principle of understanding what God is saying about a subject through Scripture is using Jesus as your measuring stick for how to interpret Scripture.
Hebrews 1:1-4 says that “1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.”
is God living, speaking, and acting in a human life. Jesus is the perfect
image of God, as this Scripture says. In the New Testament we are told that
he is Lord and his life is a revelation of God’s will for us.
That means that our ultimate authority isn’t select verses from the Bible, but Jesus himself. Whatever God is saying will fit Jesus’ model of living and Jesus’ message. Whatever doesn’t, even if it seems to come from the Bible, isn’t truly God’s message.
So if we think that God is saying x is true from a particular verse and Jesus has said not x, but y, then we know we must have misunderstood God’s point.
A really big example of how this principle is helpful deals with how God views women. For the longest time, women were treated as second class citizens because society had always treated women as second class citizens and there are some verses in the Bible that seem to support that. But, if you look at how Jesus treats women in the Gospels, you find that he treats them in a way that is revolutionary. In a society that says women should not be taught to read, what does Jesus do? He takes on women as students to learn the way of the Kingdom from him. He teaches women as individuals, not just servants of their husbands. He uses a few images for God where God is depicted like a mother or a housewife. He has the first people who proclaim the Easter message that “Jesus is risen!” be women.
There are a lot of other examples like this I could mention, but I think you get the point. Ultimately, Jesus is the perfect image of God, so whatever verses we read about anything -- homosexuality, women, chewing bubble gum -- have to be looked at through the lens of how Jesus lived, what he taught, how he died and rose again.
By taking these keys of Bible interpretation into your own hands and using them in reading & studying Scripture for yourself, deciding for yourself what these texts mean, you move a step closer to overcoming the effects of Bible abuse in your life. You free yourself to see yourself and others through God’s eyes and the liberating life & message of Jesus Christ. These tools are like keys which unlock the shackles spiritual abuse has put on you and enables you to walk away from that abuse a free woman or man.
© 2007 Micah Royal
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