It’s often quoted, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
The Church (and individual Christians) certainly aren’t immune from making mistakes — horrible ones, at times. In the past, we’ve misused the Holy Scriptures to defend — and even promote — some indefensible beliefs and actions.
There was a time when most Christians believed slavery was the will of God. There was a time when most Christians believed women should not be allowed to vote. There was a time when most Christians believed that interracial marriage was wrong. Each position was elaborately supported with biblical arguments — and each position, we can now clearly see, was dead wrong.
We now understand that cultural prejudice was at work shaping the way these Christians read the Bible. It is essential, for those of us who seek to know and follow the will of God in all we do, that we learn about the errors in our history so that we never those mistakes again. Precious lives are at stake, and we simply can’t afford to be so wrong again.
If we know how these mistakes were made in the past, we have a better chance of recognizing and avoiding the same errors today. Consider these examples from the past:
Christians who used the Bible to support the American system of slavery
Proponents of slavery used three distinct appeals: nature, scripture, and social order. They argued that the nature of African people (often seen as the "curse of Ham") relegated them to servitude. This view was bolstered by a narrow reading of select scriptures. [See note 1. ] They also claimed that human society would collapse if the status quo were not maintained:
"The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined." United States Senator James Henry Hammond [ See note 2. ]
"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God… it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation… it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." –Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.
"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." –Rev. R. Furman, D.D., Baptist, of South Carolina
"There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral." Rev. Alexander Campbell
"The hope of civilization itself hangs on the defeat of Negro suffrage." — statement by a prominent 19th-century southern Presbyterian pastor, cited by Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Perhaps one of the saddest records from that era is this account: [See note 3. ]
"Proslavery [proponents] charged that abolitionists took [historical-critical interpretation of the Bible] to distort scriptural plain sense. The proslavery clergyman John Henry Hopkins, Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, bemoaned: ‘For I can imagine no transgression more odious in the sight of God, and more sure to forfeit His blessing, than the willful determination to distort His revealed Word, and make it speak, not as it truly is, but as men, in their insane pride of superior philanthropy, fancy it ought to be.’
Bishop Hopkins believed that a misguided sense of philanthropy had replaced the Bible as the standard of truth.
In one of the most revealing passages in proslavery literature, Bishop Hopkins further argued this point. Hopkins himself was racked by a moral unease about slavery’s goodness; nonetheless, he remained convinced that the hermeneutics of plain sense was the key to divine truth. He yielded his own conscience to biblical authority:
‘If it were a matter to be determined by personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery, for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be "wise in my own conceit," and not to "lean to my own understanding." As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusions, when I know that they in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account in the last great day.’
Torn between the rational humanity of conscience and the irrational orthodoxy of literalism, Bishop Hopkins felt compelled by the hermeneutics of plain sense to support an institution he intuited to be evil. His personal dislike of slavery that conflicted with the plain sense of the Bible convinced him that moral taste was relative and so unreliable. Proslavery’s biblicism was so extreme as to render rational judgment in debate over moral issues a form of religious infidelity."
How incredibly sad — Bishop Hopkins ignored the prodding of God’s Spirit on his soul, and other positive, powerful scriptures contrary to slavery, because he believed the Bible compelled it.
Christians who used the Bible to deny women the right to vote
Using the same reasons as those who advocated for slavery (nature, scripture, and social order) some Christians have resisted every attempt to improve the standing of women in society, most notably fighting against allowing women to vote.
Nature and selected scripture were invoked to show that a woman’s place was in the home, not engaged as a citizen. Regarding the desire of women to vote, the Council of Congregationalist Ministers of Massachusetts said:
"The appropriate duties and influence of woman are stated in the New Testament…. The power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of the weakness which God has given her for her protection…. When she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer… she yields the power which God has given her… and her character becomes unnatural."
Opponents even called into question the character of those who supported equality:
"Who demand the ballot for woman? They are not the lovers of God, nor are they believers in Christ, as a class. There may be exceptions, but the majority prefer an infidel’s cheer to the favor of God and the love of the Christian community. It is because of this tendency that the majority of those who contend for the ballot for woman cut loose from the legislation of Heaven, from the enjoyments of home, and drift to infidelity and ruin." — Justin Fulton, 1869, in opposition to women’s right to vote.
Those who fought against women’s suffrage most often used selected verses from Paul’s writings to make their case. [See note 4. ]
Christians who used the Bible to condemn interracial marriage
In June 2007, the United States celebrates the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark civil rights case that struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage. Here is what the judge in the state case wrote:
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix. " — Statement by Virginia trial judge in 1959 case that led to 1967 U.S. Supreme Court striking down laws in 16 states that prohibited interracial marriage.
Incredibly, this judge was invoking the same prejudiced understanding of God, nature, and social order to make his ruling. And this was nearly a hundred years after the lessons of slavery!
Parts of the Bible, when applied in isolation without the context of the whole of Scripture and without the guidance of the Spirit, have been used to justify slavery, segregation, racism, and the subjugation of women.
So, the questions we submit are, Where else is that same error being committed today in your life and the lives of those around you? When are the same arguments (nature, isolated Scriptures, and social order) used to condemn others?
All of these historical arguments about race and gender sound hauntingly familiar people of developmental disorders, emotional disorders, to people of varied gender identities (transgender), and to people of varied sexual orientations. Even people of advanced age or unique physical features have been subject to the prejudice of "normative" society. We’ve been told we’re contrary to nature, even condemned in scripture, and that any recognition of our rights or relationships will, at the very least, strain social order.
Christian love seeks to encompass all humanity in the embrace of God and to teach each of us to love one another as we love ourselves. There are ways to read read the Bible — spiritually, intellectually sound ways — that are affirming to all. You can hold to an anti-anyone interpretation, but that is your choice. The Scriptures do not compel it.
The Bible has been used by fallen humans as a tool for both oppression and liberation. God, however, promises to be on the side of the oppressed and the liberators.
For Further Study
The Good Book by Rev. Peter Gomes Some people idolize the Bible, and others discount it. Rev. Gomes does neither. This thoughtful book describes the nature of Bible abuse in the church throughout history, and proposes a way to read the Bible without neglecting either its Divine inspiration or its cultural context.
The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships by Rev. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley "Short, clear, and amazingly easy to read, this book does much more than offering loopholes or excuses with regards to the Bible. Instead, the authors combine careful research with a tremendous respect for God’s Word, using humor, personal stories, and Biblical examples to make their case." –review from GayChristian.net. Much of the text from this site is derived from The Children Are Free.
Holy Homosexuals : The Truth About Being Gay or Lesbian and Christian by Rev. Michael S. Piazza Rev. Piazza makes his case elequently in a book suitible for lay people and clergy alike. Piazza shows a deep respect for scripture, while educating the reader on context in both Hebrew and and Greek society.
Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response by Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott This compasionate book examines the meanings and intents of Scripture, but also speaks of real people’s lives, and challenges Christians (gay and not) to re-examine their attitudes toward gay and lesbian people.
Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church by Jack Rogers Evangelical theologian and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Jack Rogers observes that today’s church is led by many of those who were once cast out: people of color, women, and divorced and remarried people, and he argues that we must interpret the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ redemptive life and ministry.
Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible by Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson (This title is out of print, but Amazon usually has used copies available.) Our Tribe is the anecdotal, scripture-citing, and very funny memoir of the ministry of Rev. Wilson, Moderator of the Metropolitan Community Churches.
The Queer Bible Commentary by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, Thomas Bohache
Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America by Rev. Dr. Mel White. Rev. White details his twenty-five years of being counseled, exorcised, electric-shocked, and nearly driven to suicide because his church said homosexuality was wrong. His story is powerful and uplifting.
Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan Writer, blogger, and gay Catholic, Andrew Sullivan analyzes the politics of the homosexuality debate. His ideas are sure to give both sides something to think about.
What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality by Daniel A. Helminiak An examination of all of the Biblical passages that are commonly used to condemn gay people and gay behavior. The methods of Biblical interpretation, and their validity, are explained well.
Affirming Christian Communities
Metropolitan Community Churches - An affirming Christian denomination, founded in 1968, with congregations in most US States and in 22 countries.
Jesus Metropolitan Community Church , Indianapolis, Indiana The inaugural WJD? Campaign site and an affirming, Biblically-focused, Jesus-following church in central Indiana. Visit the web site for online sermons, a daily devotional, and information about the church.
Affirming Congregations List from ChristianLesbians.com
The Gay Christian Network A nonprofit organization providing resources and support to Christians who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trangender. They also work with churches and other Christian organizations to help educate the Christian community about sexual orientation issues from a Biblical standpoint. Visit the website for Bible study resources, prayer support, online sermons, a weekly internet radio show, and a supportive community of GLBT Christians from across the theological spectrum.
Whosoever An online magazine for GLBT Christians.
Note 1. From the Old Testament: Genesis 9:16, Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:44, Deuteronomy 5:7-8. From the New Testament: Romans 13:1-5, Titus 3:1 and 2:9, Philemon, I Peter 2:13-18, Colossians 3:22, I Corinthians 7:21-22, and Ephesians 6:5. This list is from Biblical Texts used to defend slavery and Biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality, by Justin Cannon.
Note 3. The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate, J. Albert Harrill, Religion and American Culture, Vol. 10, No. 2, (Summer, 2000), pp. 149-186.