How To Completely Misuse The Bible In 5 Easy Steps

The Bible is a notoriously difficult book (collection of books, actually) to understand. We’ve been wrestling with the meaning and implication of various texts within the Bible nearly since the moment it was written.

Every generation of Christians has the challenge of not only understanding the Bible, but also has the challenge of contextualizing the message to a specific time and place. However, even though studying the Bible with a heart for understanding the message is difficult, it is the most beautiful journey I’ve ever set out on. The richness found within this text is enough to occupy multiple lifetimes– and is something that I’ve quite honestly, grown addicted to.

On that same note however, with the Bible being so difficult to understand, it is also easy to completely misuse it. Such a misuse, even done unintentionally, distorts the beauty of what actually lies inside. We’ve all seen it. In fact, we’ve all done it.

Ultimately, misusing the Bible is destructive regardless of the intent of the one misusing it. If you and I are going to continue on in this quest of helping our generation find more beautiful and emerging ways of expressing the message of scripture to our culture, we’ll need to break ourselves of this horrible habit.

In order to help out, I– your faithful traveling companion– have put together a handy-dandy list of how you too, can misuse the Bible in just five easy steps:

1. Just start quoting Old Testament rules when you want to govern someone’s behavior.

Who cares if the Mosaic law was given to a nomadic tribe some 3,000 years ago– just pick one of the ancient rules they lived by and quote it whenever you need to win an argument with someone.

I remember when I got my first tattoo– I was just a teenager and somehow was able to get one by showing the old man at the tattoo shop my high school ID and saying “I’m 18, I swear”. (That aspect of what I did was totally wrong, by the way, but just keeping it authentic). Let’s just say, when I sported my new tattoo at Youth Group, the night went south pretty quickly. The youth leaders were totally kind and loving, but one of the other teens had a full on meltdown over it. I literally (not making this up) had to leave early while he chased me to my car, screaming “YOU SHALL NOT TATTOO YOURSELF, I AM THE LORD!!!!” as he waved a Bible at me. He was reaaaaallly angry.

Here’s the deal: the Old Testament is a large collection of books. Some of them are “historic narrative” and are designed to tell us the story of our ancestors. Some contain detailed sets of laws they lived by that cover everything from managing a menstrual cycle to how not to cook a goat. While these texts are some of my favorite in the Bible, this part of the Bible was NOT intended to be used as a rule book for here and now (unless we all want out-of-control sideburns). In fact, the New Testament teaches this very clearly.

It you’re picking an arbitrary rule out of this section of the Bible (especially with the motivation of applying it to “the other”) you are misusing the Bible.

2. Assume the Bible is all about YOU.

Again, who cares if these books (66 of them) were written to multiple different cultures, times, and places– it’s a book that’s all about you, right?

Not so much. Yes, it is a book that God has provided for us, and I do believe it is inspired, but that doesn’t mean we can just lift things out of context and blindly assume they were written all about us. As Americans, we do this every graduation season when we go to buy a graduation card for our beloved graduate. Which verse is on almost EVERY one of those cards? I don’t even have to tell you, because I think you already know– Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It’s a beautiful verse. The problem? It wasn’t written for graduation cards as a promise to give fine young Americans a bright career, but was a promise that God would bring Israel out of their captivity. Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t believe God has “good” plans– I remind my daughter constantly that God has a plan for her life. What it does mean however, is that as with the first principle, we can’t simply lift things from the Old Testament and use them in isolation. Whether we’re using it to demoralize “the other” or prop ourselves up, it’s still a gross misuse of scripture.

We do this with a lot of verses, and in the case of Revelation, we do it with an entire book. We must remember that this book was written for us, but not always to or about us. To view it as otherwise would be a very self-centered approach to understanding scripture.

3. Attempt to arrive at meaning without first understanding the culture it was written to.

In hermeneutics we often say that the “primary meaning of scripture is whatever it meant to the original audience”. This is a principle we so quickly forget when interpreting both Old and New Testaments. Consider this by way of illustration:

Recently one of my mates moved into an old farmhouse. While he was doing some repair work to a wall, he reached inside and found a box of old letters that were written by a child who lived on the farm during the Great Depression. In order to really dissect and understand the letters, one needs to understand the world they were written in, and the parties involved. There’s an overarching culture, a specific family, even a specific town, all of which gives the text context… there are endless factors to consider in order to truly understand those letters.

This is the same situation we find ourselves in with the Bible, especially the New Testament which is mostly a collection of letters written by Paul of Tarsus. We cannot even begin to understand what these letters could mean for us until we understand what they actually did mean to Paul who wrote them, and what they meant to the specific recipients who first read them.

We also really blow this one with the book of Revelation. For some strange reason, American Christians think that this was a book written about our time, when the book itself teaches differently. This was a book written to encourage 7 specific churches, so whatever it meant, it was meant primarily for those seven churches. The idea that John would write a letter to 7 specific churches that was exclusively about what would happen 2,000 years later, is pretty poor hermeneutics.

One cannot understand the Bible in true depth, until they understand the people and culture who wrote it, as well as the people and culture who it was written to.

4. Discount the fact that it wasn’t originally written in English.

This is a tricky principle to navigate because you can in fact, understand a vast majority of what the Bible teaches simply by reading it in English. However, one cannot discount the fact that it was not written in English– biblical languages must always play a serious consideration in the development of theology and the interpretation of texts.

Whenever one translates a document from one language to the next, they run into issues of translation. Regarding the New Testament specifically, we run into this issue because not all words or phrases in Greek will translate cleanly into English. Many words in Greek have multiple meanings, each of which carries nuance that can impact how we theologically interpret a given passage. Other times, we encounter idioms that don’t always translate precisely. This is the challenge we encounter in the translation process– translation cannot always express the original thought in the exact same way it was originally expressed.

Where we misuse scripture in this regard, is when we hold hard and fast to a specific interpretation of a specific passage in English without consideration to biblical languages. No, you don’t have to go learn them (trust me, it’s not a pleasant experience) but what it does require is holding our interpretation of a passage in humility, and with an open hand as we consult the original language.

5. Let it point you to anything other than Jesus.

In the book of John, Jesus tells the religious leaders that although they know scripture cold, they’ve missed the most important aspect– that all scripture points to him! Also, early in his ministry he tells a parable of a wise and foolish man who are both building a house. The wise man, who is centered on the teachings of Jesus, is compared to a man who chose stone as a foundation while the foolish man (who neglected the teachings of Jesus) is compared to someone who built their house on sand. Finally, in the last hours of his life, Jesus reminded his disciples that he “was the way, the truth, and the life”. According to Jesus, this thing we’re doing– and the book we read– is all about him.

As we read the Bible, we must remember that it’s all about Jesus and designed to point us towards Jesus. We must interpret everything in light of Jesus, and we must allow it to form us to be more like Jesus. If one allows the Bible to point them to anything other than Jesus of Nazareth, it is a misuse of scripture.

So read it, humbly try to understand the context, hold interpretations with humility, and let the words point you to the main character of the story– Jesus.

Yes, the Bible can be a complex set of documents to understand, and is easily misused. However, I think if we’ll be conscious of these 5 ways we too often unintentionally misuse and misread the scriptures, we’ll find ourselves on a trajectory that might be more exciting than anything we had previously anticipated.

 

 

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  • mark phoenix

    Benjamin, this is one of the best posts I have read concerning misusing the Bible. I have to admit that in the early years of my Christian walk I pretty much have been guilty of doing all those things, it was what we good Baptists were taught to do. I have been a Christian since 1982 years I am still recovery from my fundamentalist beginnings. So much of my early years as a believer was spent tearing others down and hating myself. Then I understood grace and freedom and God’s unconditional love, And things have been changing (albeit slowly). Thank you for your wisdom and insight. Your posts are a regular part of my reading, Peace to you.

  • paul

    As a former Catholic I have to say its just not Baptists who tear down other religions.

  • http://faithlikeaman.blogspot.com/ Ryan Blanchard

    From my perspective, the easiest way to misuse the Bible (at least in terms of evangelizing to smart people) is to insist on inerrancy. Your best bet is to admit the obvious from the start: there are errors. there are contradictions. It’s not perfect. That doesn’t mean the general message can’t be “true,” but if you can’t be honest about the simple things, I’m not interested in your opinion about the complicated things. Enjoyed this one.

  • Guest

    Actually doesn’t it mean that.

  • LilyDawn

    #1&2 seem to be the biggest abusers when attempting to control the lives and hearts of others. I heard a teaching once that completely changed my Bible study. “When reading scripture for edification, correction and inspiration, it’s innapropiate to keep finding the correction verses and be thinking that ‘this is great for correction for John, oh this is definitely for Betty, I have to point this out to Joe.’ No, no, no. Apply it to your life, examine where you see this in your life, Pull the log out of your own eye. ” let it work out your own life. When you look at all the times Jesus slammed anyone it was NEVER the seeker. .. It was only the Pharisees. So I attempt to walk to walk humbly with the Lover of my soul and avoid legalistic pronouncements. Mercy triumphs over judgement.

  • Mike Smith Jr.

    Very nicely stated!!!

  • LilyDawn

    Thank you. I try. Some of my worst times in life came at the hands/mouths of “friends” trying to wield the Sword. Bible college was brutal. Amazing that people make it out alive and intact.
    I like the illustration in James where we are told that any “correction” should be accomplished “like the gentle setting of a broken bone”…..I think to often we do more harm than good.

  • http://sdcaulley.com sdcaulley

    Thank you for sharing this!

  • Timothy Weston

    Another misused verse is 2 Chron 7:14.

  • Ari

    How so? Would you care to cite an example? Should we turn a blind eye toward sin?

  • Guest

    2 Chron 7:14 was part of a long prayer for Israel, which had a covenant with God. The verse has nothing to do with America. As for sin, watch this interview with Francis Scaeffer Jr about l’Abri: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1v0lf7sNRuQ

    America was founded as a secular republic. If you want do deal with sin, start with yours and slowly expand within the body of believers and keep it with your fellow adherents. In a theocracy, those in power can define sin legally on their own terms.

  • Timothy Weston

    2 Chron 7:14 was part of a long prayer for Israel, which had a covenant with God. The verse has nothing to do with America. As for sin, watch this interview with Francis Scaeffer Jr about l’Abri:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4dSNWKPgg4

    America was founded as a secular republic. If you want do deal with sin, start with yours and slowly expand within the body of believers and keep it with your fellow adherents. In a theocracy, those in power can define sin legally on their own terms.

  • Ari

    I don’t care what you think America was founded as. I’m not an American. The internet is not “AMERICA”. You might want to have a word with the pilgrim who actually founded the colonies that later became the US. You might also want to talk to the natives who were there even before then.

    Are you suggesting that all the scriptures in the old testament and and new testament were ONLY written to that audience long ago and have no relevance to us today? Is that what you are saying? Because if you are, I suggest that you go find your jollies elsewhere. Most followers of jesus believe that all scripture is beneficial to people living today and that letters written to churches of the 1st century are equally applicable to churches and christians today. I see the same patterns in the new testament as we see today. The heresies being professed today by “liberal” theologians were circulating during Paul’s time.

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com/ Benjamin L. Corey

    All scripture is “useful” or “beneficial” but when you say “equally applicable” you go out on your own. Even conservative theologians don’t believe that– there are cultural aspects of the past that do not apply today.

  • D Rizdek

    “Are you suggesting that all the scriptures in the old testament and […] new testament were ONLY written to that audience long ago and have no relevance to us today? ”

    Well, I’m just lurking (until now) and THAT is what I got from the blog post. And perhaps this is what you are saying. You are indirectly disagreeing with the blog. The example is given from Jeremiah that the scripture that says God has a plan for you…”you” meaning Israel…was included as what not to do…i.e. assume that verse means God has a plan for you (here, now). But then the blog goes on to say that he really thinks god DOES have a plan for everyone. What is the significance of pointing out that THAT verse if it is believed to be true?

    But perhaps I misunderstood…I took it too literally…I used my understanding of language to glean meaning.

    In this case, the original blogger can respond and correct MY misunderstanding if he so chooses. BUT apparently we don’t have access to the “original blogger” when interpreting scripture, so it seems (to me) folks get to reinvent meaning ad libitum if the scripture would be absurd or undesirable when applied to us, today.

    The reason I say we apparently don’t have access is because from my perspective I NOTE that apparently equally devout and sincere folks believe entirely different things BASED on that scripture. Is that a good incentive to try to “return to the fold.”

    I’m not an atheist because of inapplicable, mysterious, absurd or contrary scripture…although reading the Bible was one of my first steps away from Christianity. I am an atheist because each day I assess and am never aware of any god. I don’t think there are any gods. Therefore I don’t believe in any god. I certainly see no special power in any given groups of god-believers that would lead me to explore their doctrine over someone else’s.

    I will also say that mindsets represented by the blogger don’t really appeal to me. It’s almost a form of free-thought and free-life style that had a heyday in the 60’s. For them, then it was free-sex and rebellion against social norms. Even though that was “my” generation, I didn’t like it. This view of scripture is simply free association of scriptures to make them appeal to an individual feels is right in their opinion.

  • M85

    Very interesting…

  • Ruaidrí Ó Domhnaill

    I love the tattoo story! Had a similar experience when I got my ear pierced and was told that I could no longer serve as a camera operator because I had an earring. Just when I started thinking “Is that all I had to do to get out of this?” leadership decided that I would still be permitted to direct video because that was done from another room and my rebellion wouldn’t be visible to the congregation.

    If it weren’t for the double standard, there’d be no standard at all.

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    My first act of rebellion was getting tipsy off the Eucharist after I stole some. I was six. Wasn’t caught though.

    First act of visible rebellion was calling a priest a kid raper to his face. That one was noticed.

  • radiofreerome

    Had you reached the ripe old age of seven when you said that? :-)

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    Thirteen, actually.

  • Guest

    Honestly after reading this article it makes me wonder why even bother reading the Bible at all. It seems that its mostly useless to us then.

  • Chip

    Not at all! It’s bigger than us and our individual concerns, but it’s fully applicable to us. I wrote more about this in a response to Paul (above).

  • paul

    What I get from your article is that the Bible is 95% useless to me and my daily walk and I have no reason to read it.

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com/ Benjamin L. Corey

    Sounds like you had a seriously low view of scripture to begin with if “read it in context” and “find Jesus in it” makes you want to throw it all away.

  • paul

    You yourself said that there are specific portions that don’t apply to us so how do we know any of it does. Maybe adultery was only a sin for a short period and is okay now. And to say it is wrong is just a manipulation.

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    I know where you’re coming from. I’ve touched on these things with Mr. Corey before, and he knows I DO have a seriously low view of Scripture.

    However, if you’re familiar with the rest of the blog, you’ll know that Mr. Corey doesn’t believe anything in the Bible is rubbish – for better or for worse. This post makes more sense in the full context of the blog. Because, you know, irony.

    Here’s a tip. If you want to know what parts of the Bible Mr. Corey takes at face value and why, come right out and ask him.

  • Chip

    Paul, maybe this will help: Benjamin accurately said portions are written *for* us but not *to* us. Jeremiah 29:11 is a great case in point. The promise indeed was directed *to* Israel in exile, not to us living today, and that becomes really evident if you read the verses surrounding it. But it is *for* us in that it speaks much of God’s character, particularly his goodness, and his love for his people. Furthermore, the rest of the Scriptures show us God’s plans for the restoration of the entire universe, which certainly provide both a future and a hope! We then see that the same God who was faithful to Israel in exile is likewise faithful not only to us in our own individual walks, but to the body of Christ down through the ages and, indeed, to his entire creation. You have every reason to keep reading the Bible. It all applies to us, just not in the ways that we always think — and often in a more corporate sense than an individual one.

  • Proud Amelekite

    Have you grown so lazy in your traditions and legalisms that your conscience has atrophied? I doubt it. I bet you are actually a really decent, awesome guy to live near and be friends with. Just think about it and really test it against your conscience. Adultery is selfish, cowardly, and hurts someone else. Worse than that, it hurts someone you claim to love. It is a violation of a promise as well as a contract you made with this person you supposedly love. Test it against your conscience. Trust your conscience. That is what it is there for.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

    Could you or one of your readers recommend a good book or books that would be helpful for understanding some of the things you are talking about. Sort of a textual criticism for beginners.

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com/ Benjamin L. Corey
  • sc

    Mr Corey, your summation in steps 1-4 on how most Christians misuse the bible was excellent. Thank you.
    Unfortunately, in step 5, you completely contradict everything you said before. The book of John as you should know is by far the biggest leap of faith in the entire NT. Most biblical scholars, applying the arguments you make in 1-4, understand this book for what it is, a complete work of fiction. It is the least accurate and by far the most embellished of the four gospels. You were doing so well for most of this article and then you throw out “it’s all about Jesus” sounding more like a recent, enthusiastic born-again Christian than a doctoral student! This is just another illustration of the innate capacity of religious individuals to be both rational (in the rest of their life) and irrational (their faith conviction) at the same time.

  • Michael Shawn Kelly

    If you think joining a large group of fat people that read and share healthy recipes while discussing the important differences of blending vs. stirring, and then wrapping up that meeting with critiques of exercise manuals before going home to eat cheesecake while watching t.v. – if you think this sounds like a great achievement, then you’ll just LOVE the typical bible study.
    I hope that we all start living Jesus rather than reading Paul.

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    Ignore my last comment. I misinterpreted what you were saying, which was my mistake. I get your point, but I’m not sure the analogy is the best, considering how many people genuinely struggle with their weight.

  • CrazyDogLady

    Thank you for this post. This is really helpful.

  • CroneEver

    I love this! I’m especially driven crazy by #1 – don’t even try that at my house and #4. To anyone who tells me, “All you have to do is what the Bible tells you, plain and simple”, I respond, which translation? My favorite example is Matt. 5:5:
    “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (KJV)
    “Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!” (Louis Segon)
    And “les debonnaires” does not mean “meek”…

  • Herro

    What you propose in point #5 (all the Bible is about Jesus) is in blatant violation of point #3 (read the text in cultural context).

    Or do you really think that if you follow the maxim “primary meaning of scripture is whatever it meant to the original audience” every verse will point to Jesus and that it’s “all about him”?

  • Matthew Olmedo

    it’s called bowtie theology. OT does contain Jesus through Typology, theophany, and rectilinear prophecy. Reading scripture in context allows one to understand the events that occurred and to understand why it was specifically placed within scripture. The council of Nicea in 325 A.D. left a lot of letters, books, texts out of scripture: for instance there are a total of 16 gospels. but to the council they decided that 4 gospels were sufficient and communicated the story of Jesus quite coherently and complete. Historical context allows the scholar to apply the use of typology to those events.

  • Herro

    Matthew: I’m not sure to how large extent you think that theophanies in the OT are actually Jesus, but clearly the original authors weren’t thinking about it as Jesus. Same goes for “typology”, the original authors weren’t thinking about Jesus when writing those things. If there are actual prophecies about Jesus then, sure, those would be about him, but these would be few and far between. Compare that to what Corey wrote:

    >As we read the Bible, we must remember that it’s **all** about Jesus and designed to point us towards Jesus. We must interpret **everything** in light of Jesus, and we must allow it to form us to be more like Jesus. If one allows the Bible to point them to anything other than Jesus of Nazareth, it is a misuse of scripture.

    The vast majority of the OT has nothing to do with Jesus.

  • http://scythewieldor.wordpress.com/ Bryan Runnels

    Things to help use the Bible correctly:
    *Recognize that God’s testimonies shouldn’t be interpreted in such a way that His commandments are broken.
    *One of His commandments is to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.
    In a way, honoring others means giving them room. We need to give God room to make Himself known. We need to give men room to get to know Him.

  • Mat Cobb

    I have lots of problems with the article. It seems to be saying “don’t make those assumptions, make these instead!” Who is to say which assumptions you should and should not have before reading the bible?

  • Honey Badger

    6. Read what the Bible says, but then argue that it really says the exact opposite of what it actually says. The obvious example is gay marriage.

  • JaMarcus Joseph

    So, where is the NT clear about the OT not being used as a rule book for the here and now?

  • Ian K

    Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

    Steven Weinberg

  • Ari

    So which group of evil doer are you?

  • NanaLenore

    In addition to needing to know the culture/people/circumstances of a particular passage, there is the issue of which translation you use. Translations should also be thought of in light of the times and language usage when they were done and even whatever the mindset of the translator(s) may have had at the time. Douay, King James, RVS, NRVS and a myriad of other versions are available and may well differ greatly from each other in a particular passage.

    All that said, this is a WONDERFUL post.

  • Nancy Knowles

    Here’s a summary of the above so you’ll appreciate the hermeneutical subtext to this editorial (as in reading between the lines): blah, blah, blah, blah, blah … homosexuality is ok. (ad hominem attacks expected and welcomed)

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com/ Benjamin L. Corey

    That’s what you thought this was about? You should really take a hermeneutics class, these are basic hermeneutic principles– ironically– the same ones most conservative Evangelicals affirm.

  • Wayne

    The “cultural context” of the scriptures, both the “thus saith the Lord’s”s of the Old Testament and the “But I say unto you..” of the New Testament, is what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God. Fundamentalists and the Progressives both neglect and ignore that.

  • BoatRocker

    Good article, though I take exception to the bit about Revelation. It isn’t good logic to say that a past meaning has no future meaning, especially when most of what the book describes has not happened in history.

  • Nathaniel Grubbs

    Who says it hasn’t happened in history? Have Christians not been persecuted (truly persecuted – as in practicing their religion was illegal, and they risked even death doing so)? Were the Christians to whom the book was written not suffering persecution under Caesar? Can the symbols of the book not point to events occurring then? Does it not promise hope of ultimate victory to those faithful to Christ (though possibly not in this world)? If the book was written to suffering people about hope for their descendants many millennia later, what would be the point? Unless it can offer a hope just over the horizon, it is useless – and that is the ultimate point about putting the writings in their appropriate contexts. Instead of assuming those events haven’t happened yet, look for interpretations that connect the book’s symbols with events and people of its time. You might be surprised at how much clearer and better connected it will become.

  • BoatRocker

    Of course Christians have been, and continue to be, persecuted. But Rev. is about the Wrath of GOD. Its purpose is, as stated in Daniel’s 70 Weeks prophecy, to punish the evil world and bring Israel back to God. We are the Body of Christ, and as you noted, we have already suffered the punishment of man and Satan. Rev. will be God raining down judgment. Totally different kinds and purposes of suffering.

    So unless you think the sun has turned black as sackcloth, the moon to blood at the same time, the stars have fallen from the sky, every mountain and island has shifted from its place, and everything else in Rev., you cannot say it has happened in history. I see no evidence that any of this has literally happened, which you shouldn’t have a problem with since you see literal historical fulfillment. I’ve assumed nothing you haven’t assumed.

    Anyway, no need to start a fight; I expressed my opinion.