Be careful, mindful in Bible interpretations

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LI have especially been thinking about the manner in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a Biblical passage – Romans 13:1 (Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God) – to defend the president’s controversial policy. 

Many have harshly criticized that particular interpretation of Scripture by Sessions, and in thinking about this controversy I have wondered, how is it that people can have such radically different interpretations – and thus applications – of the Bible? People of faith, obviously, read, interpret, and apply the Bible very differently, which begs the question – which interpretation is correct? 

Well, that depends, of course, on your point of view. In this column I will offer what I consider a few important points to consider about the reading, interpretation, and application of the Bible, and how I believe this applies in the controversy over President Trump’s immigration policy.

First, it is very easy to “proof-text” the Bible. 

Proof-texting is the practice of searching the Bible for a verse that seems to affirm what one already believes. If one is not concerned about the context of the Bible it is quite easy to proof text it to the point of making it say whatever one wants. 

Would you like to find a verse to back up your view that women ought not be allowed to occupy particular positions of leadership in churches? You can even find verses that will back up your point of view, if you don’t mind doing the Bible the injustice of ripping those verses from their very important and particular context. Don’t like tattoos or beards? You can find verses to bolster your opposition to those as well. The danger of proof-texting is that it overlooks the fact that every verse has a context and ripping that verse from its context does great injustice to the most accurate meaning.

Second, it is important to remember the overall tone of Scripture. Building a theology or political point of view from one verse – especially using a questionable interpretation of that one verse – is not a sound theological practice. 

As Sessions built a political rationale on one verse – and a very questionable interpretation of that verse – he overlooked the fact that the entirety of the Bible has a great deal to say that contradicts his position. 

The prophets, for instance, railed against the powers of their day, particularly because of the unjust treatment of those who were the most vulnerable members of society. The Bible, in many places, reminds us that God is the champion of the poor, the outcasts, the downtrodden, and the suffering, many of whom make their way to our country’s borders in search of a better life. 

To set one verse against the totality of the Biblical witness, it seems to me, is to turn a blind eye to the message found throughout the majority of the Bible.

Third, God does not separate his children by national boundaries, so to use the Bible to provide a theological justification for a political policy is a very questionable way to use the Bible. 

Borders are the creation of humanity, not God, so when we speak of borders and the protection of those borders we are using political, not religious language. One of the great themes of the Bible is the call to welcome those who are not natives to a particular land, but find themselves either in a new land – or desiring to come to a new land – because of hunger war, or other difficult circumstances. 

Deuteronomy 10:18-19, for example, (one reference in a larger collection of similar passages in the Old Testament) tells us that He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. In the New Testament, the great example of this command is when an expert in the law asked Jesus what must I do to inherit eternal life? In response, Jesus gave his famous command to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:25-27). The man who asked Jesus the question was evidently not satisfied with that answer, as he asked Jesus for clarification about who is my neighbor. Jesus, in reply, tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is in large part a lesson about extending hospitality and care to those in need, without recognizing the boundaries and limits created by humanity.

Fourth, when in doubt about how to treat people, from a Biblical perspective, I believe it is helpful to read Matthew 25:31-45. That passage follows the parable of the talents, which is often misinterpreted. 

The point of that parable is not about the faithful use of our gifts and talents – which is how it is often interpreted – as much as it is about the failure of the servant who was given a single talent to recognize, and thus act upon, the nature of his master. 

This point is underscored in verses 31-45, in which Jesus goes on to explain the nature of God, which is to care for the lease of these, ending with the stern warning that whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me (verse 45). The nature of God is to care for the least of these, and if his followers do not understand that, they need to read Matthew 25:31-45 again. And again, if necessary.

Fifth, the reality is that each of us is a complex mixture of influences and experiences, and those influences and experiences often cause us to want to bend reality to fit our particular views. 

Our influences and experiences give each of us a unique lens through which we view all of life, including both the way in which we view God and interpret Biblical teachings. 

It is true, I believe, that the lens through which we see all things certainly shapes the manner in which we read and interpret the Bible, which, in turn, results in the reality that our political views very often shape the manner in which we interpret the Bible, rather than the Bible shaping our political views. 

It would be helpful, then, if Sessions were more thoughtful about the manner in which he interpreted the Bible, especially when an erroneous interpretation has such a significant, and detrimental, impact upon the lives of others. 


Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at davidpaulcharlton@gmail.com.