It is no surprise to anyone who reads the Bible to hear people get things wrong. There are a few minor ways to get life wrong. But I can think of 3 ways to really mess things up. If you want to commit massive amounts of evil, you can not do any better than to use these interpretation mistakes. We should be aware of them when talking about faith and scripture with anyone.
Justify Your Ways
Using the Bible to defend the status quo, is the first means by which great evils occur. Opposing a change, especially a social change, by using the Bible is to abuse the intellectual integrity of another person. “The Bible clearly says…” is a formula of destruction. The Bible has been used to justify the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and Americans in two ways. The first is the Bible speaks of slavery and apparently supports it sometimes. The other reason is to evangelize – make Christians of the benighted souls.
The Bible is used to subjugate women. Please note I am not speaking of the past. There is still a hostility to female members of the clergy in too many churches. While women often take leadership roles in every other facet of society, those roles are often subordinate to males. Biblical texts that appear to place women beneath the authority of males are elevated as authoritative in themselves for no other reason than they serve the purposes of the interpreter.
This one sounds weird for a progressive blog. Yet, there are people who use the Bible against the status quo for their own vanity. Claiming we will be more faithful, godly, and biblical if everyone did things my way is simply dishonest. No one can make such promises even if they exhibit those virtues. There are too many factors for such formulas to work. For some people change is about gaining control. The proposed change may be done in the name of the future or the past. It does not really matter so long as the person pushing it is seen as an authority. If one can appeal to the Bible as the “real” authority, the deception is better.
Real changes reflect the core make-up of any organization including churches. If the change does not reflect the core values, then it will cause damage and heartache. When people tell pastors, “we tried that and it did not work,” it is because the attempt did not reflect a value of the church.
Find New Ways
This appears to be the same as the section above. Perhaps, I should say finding teachings or beliefs no one ever had before. People latch onto the new and spectacular. Some of them never let go of what they caught. This attitude explains why certain television programs have run longer than twenty seasons after they were “new” and “fresh.” But most people never hold onto anything new for long. Constant reinvention sells. And the sell is all that matters.
Biblical scholarship throughout the centuries has interpreters with idiosyncratic readings. They are often recognized as such and dismissed. The large number of other interpreters make “newly discovered ideas” undergo a series of thought experiments. If the interpretation has no coherency, it does not pass the test.
New interpretations that became dangerous to the well-being of other people were popularized in other ways. Journalism and preaching give platforms for bad ideas that do not pass the test of coherency. Ideas like, the origin of the native people of the Americas being the lost tribes of Israel justified their destruction. Hardly anyone outside of Mormonism agrees with that anymore.
The Bible is a record of how people got things very wrong as well as did some things right. The job of the interpreter is to figure out how the Scriptures express these things. Do righteous people really want to bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked? (Psalm 58) I don’t. Why? Because my cultural assumptions consider such an act criminal. One constructive use of the Bible is understanding how we avoid thinking that way.
The best constructive use of the Bible is why we keep it around. It helps us see the many ways the Divine is understood to work among people. What have people learned over the centuries? And how do our assumptions shape our understanding of the Bible? We work from there.