(Juneau Empire file photo)

(Juneau Empire file photo)

Living and Growing: Twisting Scripture to suit themselves

Ever wonder why so many different people say so many different things about what the Bible means? You are not alone, but the problem has been around since New Testament times. Scripture itself tells readers that some would misuse or twist its meanings.

Jesus warned about “false prophets” (Matt 7:15) and cautioned against “rule taught by men” (Matt 15:9). Luke records Paul warning church elders: “Even from among your number men will arise and distort the truth to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Paul also urged readers: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). He also cautioned about those who “do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Tim 1:7). About Paul’s writings, Peter said that they, “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures, to their destruction” (2 Pet 3:16).

One of my favorite sayings about biblical interpretation is “Text without context is a pretext for prooftext.” That means, among other things, that serious readers should check out the above cites in their own Bibles to see if I have misrepresented any of the above quotes. Did I use them out of context? Taking one verse and trying to make a major point out of it is called proof texting.

Another common tactic is called cherry picking, only taking the verse or verses that support your position and ignoring others that cast doubt on your stance or even say the opposite.

The Bible is not a legal reference book where all of God’s guidance is neatly included in one place. That can make trying to figure out its meaning a little complicated. Serious effort to understand a particular verse is called exegesis, but deception often creeps around in the form of eisegesis. That refers to those who read into the text their preconceived notions. Like examples of confirmation bias in other areas, those who go looking only for what they want to find, often find it. That is different from careless readers who inadvertently misconstrue complexities.

Moving away from technical terms, let’s cover some background. The New Testament, written under Greco-Roman cultural influences, requires looking back to better understand that society. Like many people today need to think carefully about understanding how people live in other cultures, so do those who want to look back to biblical times. One common dictum of biblical interpretation is that a passage “can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then” when it was written.

One fallacy about biblical meaning is that the New Testament endorses slavery. Let us review the difference between descriptive (what is) and normative (what should be) text.

Descriptive verses reflect the realities of a slave-based society. At the time, Roman government was cautious about potential uprisings among its millions of slaves. While several verses refer to masters and slaves, that does not mean that the New Testament writers of those passages either condoned slavery or preached rebellion—they were simply writing about their culture.

Normative verses guide both masters and slaves about how to act as believers. Believing masters, for example, did not have to abuse their authority while abuse by unbelieving masters was common. Still, believing slaves were to serve their masters diligently as a reflection of their faith. However, that concept was grossly abused by the “Slave Bible,” an 1807 approach from the British. Its heavily redacted biblical text intended to keep Caribbean slaves in their place.

To summarize, both believing masters and slaves were to behave differently because of their faith. Further, one explicit passage speaks against enslaving others (1 Tim 1:10 condemned “slave traders” NIV or “men-stealers” KJV). Prior to our Civil War, Southern church leaders ignored this verse and others to support a slave-based agrarian economy.

To better understand Scripture, Christians need to apply themselves and pay most attention to passages repeated for emphasis. Do not accept claims about new biblical insights unless supported by careful analysis. Sadly, some people twist meanings to suit themselves so they miss out on the rich, grace-filled messages that occur throughout the New Testament.

• Mike Clemens is working on a book about questionable aspects of Christianity from the perspective of a flawed believer and amateur theologian. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Saturday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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