When Quoting Scripture Inflicts Harm

Please note— the contents of this post will elicit one of three responses from you: 1) “What a bunch of misguided garbage;” 2) “Thank you for saying that;” or possibly… 3) “I had never thought of it that way.” Reader’s discretion is advised.
Check this out:

Chris Owens says, “I love to wear sandals in the summer months. There’s something about the freedom of open air on my feet that gives me an extra boost.”

Now, you can isolate that first sentence and make some rather strange, false assumptions:

  • Chris Owens dislikes and condemns closed-toed shoes. (Untrue. I’m wearing some right now, since it’s really cold outside.)
  • Chris Owens prefers summer. (Untrue. In fact, I love snow and changing seasons.)
  • Chris Owens would be happier further south so he could wear sandals more often. (Well, maybe. But choosing to live further south would be for reasons other than living in a more sandal-friendly climate.)

You can see how pulling a statement out of context can lead to some far-out untruths. So consider this…

I have a very dear friend and colleague who recently quoted this verse on social media:

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭19:4-6‬

Reading that passage truly hurt me, and to others I know, it would have been an excruciating gut punch. On the surface, that may sound extreme or even ludicrous. But in this case, context and purpose is everything.
84226A50-58E5-47D8-8855-C5FF5317C601During our agonizing United Methodist Church General Conference session which centered on our 47-year debate over homosexuality, my friend quoted this verse. It’s been bantered around ad nauseam over the years. Knowing my friend, it was used to make an argument that God establishes marriage between only one woman and one man. Therefore, Jesus is upholding traditional marriage, which by proxy condemns homosexuality. Thus, the church should follow Jesus’ teaching and keep our ban on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and self-avowed “practicing” lesbian and gay Christians from ever becoming clergy.

Depending on your views on homosexuality, hearing a scripture quoted like that might rouse you to shout a hearty “Amen, Lord!”

Or, if you’re of a different mind, you might walk away wincing in pain.
So why on earth should a passage like Matthew 19:4-6 elicit a negative response? It’s the Bible, after all. It’s God’s Word! It’s God’s timeless truth! Don’t I believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?

Of course I do. In fact, I have joyfully read this passage while working with almost every couple I have ever married, inviting them to recognize and treasure the sanctity and permanence of their marriage vows.

But let’s take a more careful look at the passage in question. Remember, context is key. Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, the popular religious teachers of the day, whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. There were Jewish laws being codified, based on scripture (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), establishing that a Jewish man could divorce his wife under any circumstance, as long as he issued her a certificate of divorce.

(On a slightly tangential note, I had lunch yesterday with a very good rabbi friend of mine who reminded me that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud which establishes the stipulations and procedures for divorce. He told me this while sharing about an Orthodox Jewish friend of his who is about to be married for the fourth time, all in faithful observance of Torah. But I digress.)

So to the problem of an easy, no-fault divorce, Jesus went all the way back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to remind them that it is God who has created male and female for one another. In the sacred, mystical bond of marriage, God joins them together to make, in effect, a new creation— a man and woman who share in one flesh. Therefore, divorce is the destruction of God’s good creation.

That was Jesus’ point. He was not making an argument against homosexuality. He wasn’t even trying to establish a heteronormative standard for marriage. In the travesty of divorce, Jesus was upholding the holy, divine origin of the marital bond.

That’s why I was so hurt by the usage of this passage. It was being terribly misused to condemn the humanity and the relationships of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And by the way, if you think it’s over-the-top to say that condemning homosexuality is akin to condemning gay and lesbian humanity, then think more deeply about the nature of human sexuality. It is a core aspect of who we are. To condemn somoene’s full embrace of their sexual identity is to condemn a significant part of their personhood, since we are all created by God to love and be loved— sexual intimacy, both emotional and physical, being one of the most profound sharings in God’s wonderful gift of love.

Back to how we quote the Bible… We’ve talked about context. Now let’s mention purpose.

We Christians have a holy obligation to read and share the Bible’s message with profound humility. We must read Scripture in a spirit of self-emptying respect for God, all creation, and ourselves. We faithfully read the Bible with a constant openness of mind and heart, in ready expectation that as we study scripture, it’s for the primary purpose of changing ourselves, even when it hurts, and especially when scripture challenges our tightly-held attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.

Yet if any of us, conservative or progressive, open up the Bible simply to carve out self-justifying talking points or a handy sword to advance our causes, we are well on the road to spiritual blindness and deafness. We shut off the Holy Spirit’s guidance, “…having a form of godliness but denying its power…” (2 Timothy 3:5). At that point, our actions do great harm, especially when laced with our pet Bible verses.

Certainly, the Bible has been used quite prophetically to address evil and injustice. Some of our greatest leaders have lived and taught the scriptures in the heat of their struggles. The Bible has given definition and direction to the cause of life over death. Yet in all these cases, the Bible’s purpose was to bring the good news of liberation, freedom, justice, and righteousness for the greater good of our shared humanity. That’s a far cry from using the Bible to subjugate, exclude, condemn, and repress whole groups of people in the name of tribal, group-think “truth.”

I don’t believe my friend was attempting to harm anyone by quoting scripture. That was never the intent. That said, I think we all have a serious responsibility to pause and ask ourselves a few questions before quoting scripture:

1) Am I truly honoring the context and intended meaning of the verse I am quoting?
2) What kind of impact will I leave on those who hear my message? Will it do good or inflict harm? Will it bear any fruit?
3) How well am I mirroring the presence and love of Christ, even when confronting an evil?
4) What kind of accountability is in place to keep myself from self-deception?

It’s my firm belief that if more of us slowed down, calmed down, and exercised the James 1:29 principle— “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…”— we would do less harm to one another with our words, especially with God’s Word. God has always purposed his Word to be life-giving, not life-taking. That’s the nature of genuine, authentic Truth.

1 Comment

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One Response to When Quoting Scripture Inflicts Harm

  1. We all rail against prooftexting but I have never heard such a clear explanation of it and helpful description of the harm it can do and how to avoid it. This is needed across the theological board because in truth I believe we all have probably done it at some point (or at least I confess I have myself).

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