Does teaching the Bible lead to abuse?

Let’s get the Sunday school answer out there: no, teaching the Bible doesn’t lead to abuse. It doesn’t. After all… how could teaching God’s own words lead to abuse? 

Remember, 2 Timothy 3:16 assures us that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

So we can have a confident knowledge that the Scriptures come from God and they are good for us, right?

You might even feel that we are inching towards blasphemy to suggest that the Biblecould be used for harm. We’re talking about God’s own words. They are a treasure.

But let’s rethink this for a moment.

Consider Matthew 27:25, “And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” This verse, known as the blood curse, upheld anti-Semitism. 

Consider Genesis 9, “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without…And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” This “curse of Ham” provided theological support for race-based chattel slavery. 

Consider Ephesians 5, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” This verse has been preached to support all kinds of domestic abuse. 

Consider Malachi 5, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” This passage has been misused by prosperity preachers to steal from their audiences. 

It is a lamentable historical fact that the Bible has been used to justify killing Jewish people, enslaving black people, beating women, and fleecing Christians. “God approves of this — here’s the proof — in the Bible.” As you will notice, this is a very brief summary of the ways in which the Bible has been used to support what is evil. 

I wish it were otherwise. I’d like to go back to the innocence of Sunday school. 

But even in Sunday School we might read the gospels. And the gospels themselves teach us to expect that God’s words will be twisted to cause harm. 

For instance, in Matthew 4, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert so that he can be tempted by the devil. And what is the nature of the devil’s temptation? At one point, Satan quotes Psalm 91 to encourage disobedience. The temptation is to understand and trust God’s words in such a way that Jesus does harm to himself.

The Bible teaches that we are sinners who rebel against God. So is it really surprising to find that our rebellion extends to how we understand and apply God’s words? 

Reckoning with these generational and catastrophic abuses of the Scriptures is necessary. If Christians are to be known for their commitment to the truth, then we have to tell the truth, even when it is ugly. If we are to be known for loving our neighbors, then we might need to demonstrate that we care about the way our sacred Scriptures have been used to harm our neighbors.

It is a grievous truth that the Scriptures have been invoked to support grotesque social sin, like slavery, and life-wounding tragedies, like childhood sexual assault. And the magnitude of these crimes merit a robust and passionate response. Not only in acknowledging the pain but in walking alongside to provide comfort and support. 

In addition, there’s another way we need to view this problem. Because it is not just a problem ‘out there’ but also ‘in here.’ It isn’t something we see exclusively in the historical record but that we’ve now progressed beyond. It is in your heart. In my heart. In your church. In my church. We all want the Bible on our side. 

For instance, during Bible study at a church I’m familiar with, one participant leaned over to someone sitting at their table and said, “I wish we could kill all the Democrats.” To their surprise, what they heard back was, “Wait, you want to kill me?!?” 

You see, we can be in a Bible study and have murderous thoughts. This isn’t new. As we read through the gospels, we read about all kinds of people who felt the same way when they were in the presence of the Word became flesh.

When Christians cannot acknowledge that we have misused the Scriptures in abusive ways, we look like our heads are buried in the sand. Have we not heard about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church? And… the sex abuse crisis in the evangelical church? Do we not understand elementary facts of history? Are these truths too much for us to handle? 

If we cannot speak honestly about our own sin, we will lack the posture we need to invite others to come to terms with their sin. 

And I want to say a particular word to pastors. If you are responsible to preach God’s word this Sunday, I especially urge you to consider these temptations.

Might you preach a message to benefit yourself at the expense of your congregation? 

If that’s a possibility, have you ever asked someone else to read over your sermon notes and said, “Please be honest with me. Tell me if anything in this message appears designed to benefit me rather than the congregation God has called me to serve.”

And might someone who hears your message be desiring to get divine leverage to take advantage of someone else? 

So have you ever read over your sermon and asked, “How could someone use what I am going to preach in order to abuse someone else? How can I challenge them to repent? How can I let their victims know I stand with them?”

And might some people who have been abused by Christians be listening to you? Will you recognize them? Will you speak to their hurt? Have you ever sat with and listened to someone who has been traumatized by the church? Or perhaps, someone who has been hurt by your church in particular?

Until Jesus returns, we can expect that God’s words will be twisted to facilitate abuse. Church, let’s come to terms with this reality. Not just in an intellectual sense, though we need to think carefully about these complexities. We also need to provide formational experiences that prepare church communities to notice and resist this practice. 

Before you move on with your day, I invite you to prayerfully meditate on the charge that Paul gave to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

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Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash