God’s Word is unchanging, but the interpretation of it is not. There are many examples from history to show us how a misunderstanding of the Bible has been used to excuse bad behavior. When the Bible is misunderstood, it is used as away for people to justify abuse and control of others, often to the detriment of the marginalized and disenfranchised. This is important to study so that Christians today can recognize and temper their own potential to misinterpret scripture.
Do you remember when Christians…thought child abuse was ok?
Many Christians have used the verse, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them,” (Proverbs 13:24) in order to justify child abuse. They took this verse literally and out of context to mean that the rod was a weapon with with to apply blunt force to a child, ergo beating your child to teach them lessons is ok. You do not hear the Christian church complaining about modern laws that punish child abuse, though. It means the stance of Christians has changed, following a change in laws that followed discoveries in psychology that physical abuse is harmful to children not only physically, but also mentally. The Church also now will mostly agree with Baptist Minister Michael Eric Dyson in saying that the rod in Proverbs 13:24 refers to a rod that a shepherd uses to guide their sheep. This implies a gentle method of parenting and setting healthy boundaries for children. You can read more about the history of misapplication of Proverbs 13:24 as well as about Biblical confirmation of gentle parenting here: https://theweek.com/articles/443585/christians-have-no-moral-rationale-spanking-children
Do you remember when Christians…thought mental illness was caused by demon possession?
For centuries, the mentally ill were accused of being possessed by demons. This made the most sense to Europeans based on accounts of demon possession in the Bible, and of their lack of medical knowledge. Most Christians today, even those who believe in demonic possession, acknowledge the validity of modern medicine’s diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. This is an excellent case of God given knowledge, through advances in medicine and technology, informing the way we should change how we interpret the Bible.
Article Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9019873/
Do you remember when Christians…believed in Manifest Destiny?
White people used the Bible to justify the horrific abuse against Native Americans and the theft of their land. The church today would not condone this type of action. Manifest Destiny was a term coined in an 1845 publication called The Democratic Review and stated “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” This popular view supported American Expansionism, which was imperialism cloaked as a mission from God. Manifest Destiny has no Biblical support, but rather is supported by the non-Biblical beliefs of Christian Nationalism, a philosophy that informs people to impose Christian values on all society and claim that America is a Christian Nation, instead of a secular one, in contradiction to historical facts.
Do you remember when Christians…thought slavery was good?
The Bible was used by White people to justify slavery. Period. The Bible was also used by White and Black abolitionists to condemn it. The stance of the church today is that slavery is wrong. Many pro-slavery Christians pointed to the verse in Ephesians 6:5 that states: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. They also felt justified because they thought that divine providence had provided slavery as a tool for good, the good being that enslaved people would have a chance to be converted to Christianity, though enslavers had no real concern for the wellbeing, spiritual or otherwise, of those that they had enslaved.
Do you remember when Christians…thought women should not wear pants?
In western culture, women were widely encouraged to dress in a particular way, and the main argument for this was that it was biblical. The verse they pointed to was in Deuteronomy 22:5, which states that women should not wear men’s clothes and men should not wear women’s. The majority of women today wear a variety of clothing styles, including pants, which were strictly forbidden by all “good” Christians once upon a time. Why did this change happen? Because Christians today are better at understanding that the Bible should be understood contextually instead of literally when it comes to moral issues.
Do you remember when Christians…thought Black people and women should not have voting rights?
Jim Crow laws made it impossible for many Black people to vote. This was rooted in theological racism, which deeply informed Christian culture in the American South for the better part of the 20th century. Southern White ministers were known to preach against civil rights for Black people.
Article Link: chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=10498
During the time when women’s suffrage was a hot topic, people on both sides of the issue used the Bible to argue their point. The main argument against women’s rights was that the Bible states that women are the property of their fathers or husbands. Today, American Christians agree that the image of God is present in every person, making civil rights and equality supported by scripture.
Article Link: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230114715_3?noAccess=true
Most modern Christians would agree, without hesitation, that the views outlined above are backwards, unreasonable, inhumane, and definitely not biblical. But most will not pause to reflect and make the connection that they too have views that are informed by a specific interpretation of the Bible, and that there is a possibility that they are getting it wrong. Writing this article, I may be interpreting the Bible wrong. But history is clearly on the side of liberalism for matters that pertain to society at large.
As in history, there seem to be two sides to every contentious moral issue — one side is seen as conservative, and the other, as liberal. Today’s liberal stances on LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, immigration, and social welfare champion the rights of those who are in the minority and are disenfranchised. Matthew 25:40–45 (NIV) would seem to support these views:
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Those who oppose liberal stances do so on grounds of morality, which they have a right to do. But what I do not agree with is how Christian conservatives fail to recognize that liberal Christians also believe what they do because of morality — just a different interpretation of the same scriptures. Through history, we see that the general consensus among Christians, over time, comes to accept the positions that are more in line with freedom of choice, freedom of expression, bodily autonomy, and equality — if these same Christians who accept women who wear pants, work outside of the home, and vote had lived in past times, they would be seen as radical backsliders, yet somehow today, many of them refuse to take a closer look at their beliefs, seemingly informed by scripture, that are not conducive to showing the message of the gospel to all people in a spirit of love and grace.