Zeal Without Knowledge: Bible Interpretation that Leads to Mercilessness and Injustice

I have written on this subject and on the following Scriptures in other posts. But they have been on my mind again the last few weeks. I keep seeing them violated by Bible teachers, pastors, and counselors of a certain type. Recently I have seen this “zeal without knowledge” pattern in publications by writers of the NANC (nouthetic counseling) school. In their zealous handling of Scripture and in their desire to be absolutely “biblical,” unswayed by any input outside the Bible, they come to erroneous interpretations and make harmful applications. The same kind of hermeneutic (interpretive method) is rampant in other conservative Christian circles. This approach to God’s Word creates the very thing such folks say they don’t want to create: man-made traditions that trump the Word of God. Read these Scriptures, and then I will try to explain more clearly what I mean.

And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:11-13

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,‘ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:1-8

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Matthew 23:23

Wooden literalism demands a specific proof verse for everything. And it proposes specific proof verses as a basis for a very literal, unbending application. Wooden literalism leads to applications that make no sense at all in real life and that are devoid of mercy. It takes one verse and derives from it an all-inclusive, broad principle which is divorced from the larger context of Scripture that, if considered, would reveal things like the mercy of God. This school of Bible teachers just will not listen unless you can give them chapter and verse. Oh, and that chapter and verse MUST use the exact, literal words on the subject you are discussing.

This approach to interpreting Scripture and applying it to real life is also characterized by an underlying legalism or works-righteousness. One of their underlying assumptions is that if we are to please God and be “perfected” in his sight, our marriage must be preserved at any cost. This is a fundamental plank in these teachers’ agenda, and it is the product of their flawed hermeneutic. The formula, in their eyes, goes like this: Jesus said marriage is forever. Jesus said let no man separate what God has joined together. Jesus said no divorce except for adultery. Boom! That’s it. That’s the rule that governs all cases. Therefore, no matter what kind of terrible abuse a victim might be suffering, Jesus did not use the “abuse” word. No divorce for abuse. You say that makes no sense? Well, my child, God’s ways are higher than your ways. And so it goes.

Let me give an example taken from a small book on abuse, written by a pastor who I believe truly desires to help people. And yet, his method of approaching Scripture leads him to merciless conclusions. Never once, not even by indirect allusion, is divorce mentioned in this booklet. Yet it is the elephant in the room as the abuse victim reads what this pastor has to say. [I say again, the acid test of whether someone is really going to stand with the victim and against her abuser is whether or not they grant that abuse is indeed a biblical grounds for divorce].

Ok then, listen to this excerpt and think about how what this pastor writes is a product of a fundamental, stiff handling of Scripture that leads him to embrace the assumption that there is no divorce for abuse:

God may use your suffering to bring glory to himself. Peter writes that our endurance through suffering proves the genuineness of God’s work in us, which will result in ‘praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.’… We who follow him should not be surprised when we suffer…but instead should realize that all who follow Christ will suffer (2 Tim 3:12). Many preachers, missionaries, and ordinary believers have glorified Christ as they were tortured and killed for the sake of the gospel. Rather than being angry with God over our suffering, we should submit to his sovereign will and count it a privilege to suffer for his Name’s sake (Philippians 1:29; Acts 5:41). The faith of other believers will be strengthened and God will be glorified when, in the midst of your suffering, you declare with Job, ‘Though he slay me, I will hope in him’ (Job 13:15). I have known victims of abuse who glorify God by their ongoing joyful trust in him.

Now, once again (after you get your heart rate back under control), think about how in the world a Christian pastor could be led to such a conclusion. I mean, what he is saying to the abuse victim is that she should be willing to stay in the “marriage” and if it be God’s will, be killed by her abuser and ride off into glory land as an eminent martyr. What is totally confusing is that in a couple of places earlier in the booklet, the author alludes to the fact that perhaps in some cases a victim may need to get to safety. But here in his conclusion we see what he really thinks. The marriage must be preserved at all costs, and that means at ALL costs.

Mercy and Justice, Mr. Pastor. That’s what God desires. Yet you have done what the Pharisees did. You demand sacrifice, and disregard the weightier matters of God’s Word.

13 thoughts on “Zeal Without Knowledge: Bible Interpretation that Leads to Mercilessness and Injustice

  1. Lynn

    That pastor needs to brush up on his theology of suffering and learn what God actually means by suffering for Christ.

    Not all suffering is equal. Not all suffering is godly. Suffering for Christ is not the same as suffering from an abusive person. It is not sin to seek to be free from abusive people. Christ came to set the captives free, not keep them enslaved to wicked masters until they passed into eternity if the opportunity to escape is possible. Claiming that Christian women must remain in abusive relationships in order to suffer for Christ is a gross misrepresentation of who God is and maligns his character by telling women that they can’t break free from their wicked abuser without incurring God’s wrath. It’s a lie. It’s evil. Those who perpetrate it and do not repent will reap the reward of their faulty teaching.

    I pray God grants this pastor and any professing Christian whose theology is warped on the nature of suffering, abuse, and evil the pleasure of suffering under the same weight of abuse his victims are under in order to open his eyes to his own wicked counsel and to get a taste of what he’s subjecting his readers to by telling them they must endure to the point of martyrdom in order to honor Christ.

    In any other relationship, you are allowed to leave in order to cease your suffering, but not marriage according to this pastor. Such foolishness reveals an evil heart that hates God and hates women.

    He who has an ear let him hear what the spirit says regarding the oppressed. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I desire that my people seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before me. They who are called by my name will seek to proclaim liberty to the captives, bind up the brokenhearted and love their brothers and sisters in Christ as Christ has loved us. So if you’ve been in bondage to evil men’s faulty interpretation of the Bible, I invite you to repent of your sin and be made new in Christ. Embrace the freedom in a new life in Christ offers you. He whom the son sets free is free indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Be free

    The pastor waffles somewhere between a shame based and bordering murderous approach, it’s minus logic and the fundamental understanding of why Christ even came to live amongst us and die for us.

    When I read information such as what this pastor stated, it is quite familiar, toxic and dangerous. I speak from experience, it is definitely not a privilege to have been a Christ follower that was beaten by, and abused in several other forms by my former spouse – it is actually instead horrifying.

    Trusting in God and honoring him does not mean you must stay in the abuse and suffer. It is really that simple, despite what some pastor(s) may try and twist it around to be.

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  3. Concerned friend

    And the same people that practice this type of literalism condemn the Taliban for their treatment of women. In both cases it is enslavement of women – they are objects and not people that Christ came to set free.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tim

    In “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch argues that narcissism and what you call “wooden literalism”—what scholars might call fundamentalism—are aspects of the same cultural development. The characteristic expression of both is an intolerance of complexity and ambiguity. This intolerance amounts to, I argue, a denial of charity, which is of course the chief theological virtue. I’ve been writing about this off and on for going on two years, and am happy to share, but don’t want to hijack your comments section.

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    1. Jeff Crippen

      Tim – Thank you. We teach and believe the Bible literally as the inspired Word of God. However, “literal” is a loaded and often misunderstood word. The “literal” meaning of scripture, for example, is that while God required sacrifices in Israel’s tabernacle, and He required total rest on the Sabbath, etc., we see in Christ’s teaching that mercy was never to be overridden by a wooden handling of the Law. Tithing instead of helping elderly parents in need. Healing the sick on the Sabbath, etc. In addition, “literal” handling of the Scriptures realizes that Jesus’ parables, various symbols, etc. appear in Scripture, they represent REAL things. If, for instance, we realize that the true Israel of God is His real flock, His elect, from every nation and not limited to the earthly descendants of Abraham, we are not denying the true Israel’s existence. Nor do we, similarly, deny the reality of the real Promised Land, the new heavens and earth, when we conclude that God’s promise to Abraham was not to be realized on this present earth. All this to say, we are fundamental in the sense of believing the inerrant, inspired Scripture being God’s Word. We do not dismiss the reality of what the Bible says. But we must accurately handle it or great harm will result.

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      1. Tim

        Oh, I agree with your statement; Orthodoxy lies between wooden literalism and (obviously) denial of the chief tenets of the faith, and our use of “literal” is often regrettable for exactly the reasons you mention.

        What I’m getting at is that wooden literalism obscures the complex ethical demands of the Bible, and that this makes it congenial to narcissism for at least two reasons:

        1. It tends to set as the sole test of character an adherence to a few thou-shalt-nots and a profession of faith (sometimes, but not always, requiring too an emotional display of piety), which can make Christians easy prey to abusers.

        2. As I’ve learned, the ambiguity most intolerable to the narcissist (avoidance of which explains most of his behavior) was stated by Solzhenitsyn in these terms:

        “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

        Passing this unrigorous character test persuades the narcissist that the line is in fact drawn between classes, and that he now belongs to the class of good guys.

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        1. Aussie

          Tim,
          I found your insights very helpful.
          Thank you.
          “A denial of charity.” that is so true. It’s very heart searching stuff what you and Jeff wrote.

          Like

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