What do we do when what we think the "Bible clearly says" turns out to be wrong? There are many things in Scripture that we can stand on with confidence - like Jesus, and Jesus is the key to understanding and applying Scripture in life-giving ways. In saying that, very few things make the hair on the back of my neck stand up as when I hear the phrase “The Bible clearly says…” wielded as a weapon. Confession time - There was a time when this was my weapon of choice in a theological discussion, but I now realize this is not always accurate or helpful.
To start, I was floored to learn there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Christian denominations each with a varying degree of agreement on all things God. If the Bible clearly says then why do we need more experts and why on earth would so much debate be necessary? It is at this point many are pounding the pulpit with a hardy "Amen", saying "Yes! and if people would just see it the way I see it it will solve all our problems!"
The Bible contains 31,102 verses, and many contradict each other and many, many could be used to support almost any position. History is awash with examples, in the hands of small, power-hungry leaders, religious and political, the Bible has been misused with horrific consequences. But it's not just “the bad people” who use scripture in unhealthy ways. History is full of well-meaning folks, who were sincerely trying to be faithful followers of God, defending the Bible and their “Biblical Worldview” who have found themselves on the wrong side of history. Yes, and they missed the heart of God as well.
The following are examples of the when the "Bible clearly says..." has gone very wrong.
Holding the belief that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the sun and planets orbited the Earth, Martin Luther criticizing the idea of heliocentric solar system wrote:
People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. (referring to Joshua 10:13, in his series of "Table Talks" (1539))
Captain John Underhill (1637) rationalizing the slaughter of hundreds of the Pequot Tribe by the Puritans:
Why should you be so furious? Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion? Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. Sometimes the case alters, but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.
Rev. Dr. Henry J. Van Dyke preached that the Holy Scriptures clearly establish the right of holding slaves:
When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine. Source: The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder. The Right of Peaceful Secession. Slavery in the Bible. Steam-Power Presses of Evans & Cogswell, Charleston. 1860. pg.:21
In his 1869 work against women having the right vote, Reverend Justin Dewey Fulton said:
The Bible is the revealed will of God, and it declares the God-given sphere of woman. The Bible is, and then, our authority for saying woman must content herself with this sphere…Who demand the ballot for a woman? They are not the lovers of God, nor are they believers in Christ, as a class. There may be exceptions, but the majority prefer an infidel’s cheer to the favour of God and the love of the Christian community. Source: The True Woman: A Series of Discourses, to which is Added Woman Vs. Ballot
Consider Bob Jones Sr. when he wrote "Is Segregation Scriptural?" (1960):
Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South. They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them. They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray. But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.
Credit to: Rachel Held Evans for the historic examples sited above.
Many of us cringe as we reflect on these ideas being espoused in our collective past. We blush with embarrassment but the fact remains that many sincere, God-fearing, pillar-of-the-community, Christian folks have made the declaration the "Bible clearly says ..." that we now see are not so clear in light of new information, context, and understanding of the texts in question. We see that in the broader narrative of Scripture not only have we championed our misunderstandings but in many cases the very opposite of the heart of the Kingdom of God.
Let’s not be so naive as to lump everyone in the same basket. To be sure - many, many followers of Jesus were agents of profoundly positive change and at the forefront of women’s rights, civil rights, other justice issues and care for the poor. To deny this would be to crash into the other ditch. However, history is full of examples that many of the formal institutional forms of Christianity in the West have found themselves on the wrong side of history and the Kingdom of God on far too many occasions. On the issue of slavery, it is documented that nearly half of the treatise defending slavery were by Christian ministers who were citing scripture to defend their position.
Again we find ourselves bumping our heads against a literal, pick & choose approach to the scriptures. A posture of letting the Letter of the Law trump the spirit of it and getting it terribly wrong. It is, for this reason, we need to be very careful when we make such categorical statements and attempt to take the moral high ground with the "Bible clearly says". We can most certainly share our opinion with passionate conviction but in a spirit of love-inspired humility. We must remember that we all see through a glass darkly.
To this end, if we indeed take scripture seriously we must wrestle with it seriously, and this includes not only holding it in context culturally, historically, scientifically but within the framework of the whole story of scripture. This leads us as Christians to the person of Jesus. That in Jesus, the God-man, we have the best hermeneutic. Jesus provides the single best key to not only understanding the nature, character and intention of God but also to the body of scriptures themselves. Jesus is the lens through which we read, interpret and apply scripture. If we as Christians take Jesus and scripture seriously, we must resist the temptation to cherry-pick scriptures to fortify our own cultural positions. We must resist ripping and isolating passages from their historical, cultural context and pigeon-holing God in our bias', instead of letting Jesus free us from them.
The challenge for us is to embrace the truly scandalous spiritual, political and religious implications of the Good News in Christ. We must understand that authentic Kingdom inspired love and mercy are the very cure for the plague that ravages human kind. It is not in the rule keeping, sterile ideas of truth or being litigiously correct that we are healed and set free but in a relationship with the living embodiment of truth and love itself - in Christ.