Skeptic Valerie Tarico wrote an the article, “8 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Make People Convert — to Agnosticism or Atheism,” for the left-wing, anti-religion, news-and-commentary website Alternet.org. While I find most of the articles on this site either offensive or just plain ignorant, this article caught my interest, because it contains some truths that Christians need to understand.
While people who reject Jesus Christ ultimately do so because they choose to suppress the truth (Romans 1:18-19), there are also things that many in the church do to push people away. As Tarico states, “if you read ExChristian testimonials you will notice that quite often church leaders or members do things that either trigger the deconversion process or help it along.”
As a Christian, I can learn a lot by listening to what skeptics say about why people leave the church. This series looks at the eight reasons Tarico highlights.
Tarico’s second reason:
2. Prooftexting. People who think of the Bible as the literally perfect word of God love to quote excerpts to argue their points. They often start with a verse in 1 Timothy: All scripture is given by inspiration of God (as if this circular argument would convince anyone but a true believer). They proceed to quote whatever authoritarian, anti-gay or anti-woman verse makes their point, like, Whoever spares the rod hates their children…Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being or Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. In doing so, they call into question biblical authority, because the Bible writers so obviously got these issues wrong. Literalists who prooftext are a tremendous asset to those who would like to see Bible worship fade away – because prooftexting on one side of an argument invites the same in return, and it is easy to find quotes from the Bible that are either scientifically absurd or morally repugnant.
Many liberal or modernist Christians see the Bible as a human document, an attempt by our spiritual ancestors to articulate their best understanding of God through the lens of imperfect human cultures and minds. Suppose such a Christian is confronted with a verse that says, for example, Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man (Numbers 31:17-18), or No man who has any defect may come near [to God in the temple]: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect,…(Leviticus 21:17-23). He or she can simply shrug and say, “Yeah, that’s ugly.” A couple of years ago a group of liberal Christians even kicked off an Internet competition to vote on the worst verse in the Bible. Their faith doesn’t stand or fall with the perfection of the Bible. Biblical literalists, on the other hand, give someone like me an excuse to talk about sexual slavery or bias against handicapped people in the Bible – in front of an audience who have been taught that the good book is uniformly good. For a wavering believer, the dissonance can be too much.
First, let’s define the term Prooftexting. Prooftexting means to pull a Bible passage out of context and to use it to justify a doctrinal position. Unfortunately, Tarico is correct; many Christians grab verses out of context to justify bad theology and sin. The ironic thing is that Tarico pulls the verses she quotes out of context to justify her conclusion that “the Bible writers so obviously got these issues wrong.” Prooftexting works both ways; skeptics are at least as bad about ignoring context as the Christians they rant against.
It’s also ironic that Tarico gives the answer to the problem of prooftexting: All scripture is given by inspiration of God… (1 Timothy 3:16). All scripture means ALL scripture. It means we can’t just grab the verses that seem to support our pet belief while ignoring the rest of the Bible. At various times in its history, the church has used prooftexting to justify slavery, inquisitions, and witch hunts. Today, some Christians use prooftexting to justify protesting the funerals of United States servicemen, racism, and hating homosexuals. Tarico is right – many Christians latch onto Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination, but ignore John 8:11, “…And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’” And, Tarico is also correct in pointing out that such bad theology and quoting the Bible out of context is “are a tremendous asset to those who would like to see Bible worship fade away.”
In my blogs, I make it a point to link to the Scriptures I quote, usually on BibleGateway.com. I do this in order to make it easier for my readers to check out the passages, in context, looking at multiple translations. I want to give my readers the opportunity to check out the context for themselves, to see that, in context, the passage agrees with the point I’m trying to make. And, if the reader disagrees, and feels I’m prooftexting, I want them to point out my error. Context is the most important element to correctly understanding God’s Word. One must not only look at the immediate context of a passage, but also how the passage fits with other related passages. When we fail to do this, we risk believing bad theology, and in turn, we risk living our lives contrary to God’s will. We risk sin, and sin will destroy us. Bad theology can destroy a church, and can drive away those who are teetering between belief and unbelief.
Tarico compares the approaches of “liberal or modernist Christians” and “Biblical literalists.” She concludes that the “liberal” approach is better, because the Bible contains errors, and those errors don’t create problems for Christians whose faith doesn’t “stand or fall with the perfection of the Bible.” She believes that for “Biblical literalists,” the “dissonance” of conflicting passages drives people away from the faith.
The problem with her argument is that she presupposes that the Bible contains errors and contradictions.
It’s true that there are many Biblical passages that, on the surface, seem to contradict each other, or seem to make God into an evil being. The problem is that most people – Christians and non-Christians alike – tend to prooftext these passages, pulling them out of context. The reason Bible passages seem to contradict each other is because people ignore the context in which they are given. Using Tarico’s example, when confronted with a verse like Numbers 31:17-18, ”Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man,” one needs to look at the immediate context of the entire chapter of Numbers 31. In this case, the Israelites had ignored God’s command to destroy the Midianites. Digging deeper, one would need to look at 1) why the Israelites disobeyed God; 2) why God wanted the Midianites destroyed; and 3) how this event fits into God’s overall plan of the redemption of humankind. When I look at a passage like this in the context of God’s love, holiness, omniscience, and sovereignty, I conclude that God had reasons I cannot fully understand for commanding the destruction of the Midianites, and that those reasons were based on His mercy and love. Perhaps in His mercy, He didn’t want more Midianites to be born, knowing that all of them would reject Him and choose Hell instead – leading others away from Him as well. When I look at the whole context of Scripture and the nature of God, I can begin to understand how a loving God can hate sin, and why He would use genocide to keep more people from ending up in Hell. I arrive at a different conclusion than the skeptic or the liberal Christian about this passage because I presuppose the Bible is true and take the passage in the context of the entire Bible.
The answer to prooftexting is not to simply ignore apparent contradictions. The answer is to begin with trust in God’s goodness, love, and mercy; to examine difficult passages in context, starting with the assumption that the Bible is the true Word of God; to allow the Holy Spirit to give insight and wisdom; and to dig deeper into the Bible to understand the big picture of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. For a person teetering between belief and unbelief, the answer is not to water down the Bible; the answer is to dig deeper into the context and “give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).