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.

Wayne Grudem isn’t Sorry for the Damage He has Done to Abuse Victims

Wayne Grudem. “Distinguished Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies, Phoenix Seminary.” Wayne Grudem, author of 22 books. Wayne Grudem of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Most of you have probably heard of Grudem. In this article, I want to talk to you about Grudem’s supposed “groundbreaking” study of 1 Corinthians 7 and his resulting announcement “Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There are More than Two” (June, 2020).

Grudem was general editor for the ESV Study Bible, in which we read the following quote from the section on biblical ethics: (boldface highlight is mine)

Are There Other Grounds for Divorce? In addition to the two grounds of sexual immorality or desertion by an unbelieving spouse, are there any other legitimate, biblical grounds for divorce? Some interpreters have argued that repeated instances of physical abuse should be seen as an additional legitimate ground for divorce. Others would respond that many other means should be used to bring the abuse to an immediate halt, including separation (for the eventual purpose of bringing restoration along with the complete cessation of the abuse), church discipline, confrontation and counseling, police action, a court order, and other kinds of intervention by church members, family, and friends. But these would stop short of adding a reason for divorce that neither Jesus nor Paul specified.

Bibles, Crossway. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 325157-325158). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Grudem, like so many other pastors, theologians, churches, etc., has taught for years that abuse is not grounds for divorce. You see the typical language of “instances of physical abuse” in this quote which we know exposes a person using such language as being ignorant of the mentality, nature, and tactics of the domestic abuser. My point here is that Grudem has denied that abuse is grounds for divorce, claiming that the Bible only allows for divorce for adultery or desertion.

Well, now we are all supposed to rejoice and give praise to the Lord because Grudem has published What the Bible Says About Divorce and Remarriage (Crossway, 2021) which is adapted from his book Christian Ethics. In this booklet, Grudemn announces that his detailed study of 1 Cor 7:15 has led him to “A New and Broader Understanding” of the phrase “in such cases.” Here is the verse:

1Co 7:15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.

Grudem now concludes that the phrase “in such cases” broadens the application of this text from just addressing desertion as a ground for divorce, but is to include, well here is how he puts it:

…when Paul uses en tois toioutois to say that ‘in such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved”, he implies that divorce is a legitimate possibility not only in cases of desertion by an unbeliever, but also in other circumstances that are similar to but not necessarily exactly like desertion. A reasonable possibility is that ‘in such cases’ in 1 Cor 7:15 means ‘in this and other similarly destructive situations’ (that is, situations that destroy a marriage as much as adultery or desertion).

What the Bible Says About Divorce and Remarriage, p 42

Grudem goes on then to apply his conclusions to divorce for abuse, abuse of children, extreme, prolonged verbal and realtional cruelty, credible threats of serious physical harm or murder, or incorrigible drug or alcohol or gambling addiction. He says “Pastors, elders, and Christian counselors…need much wisdom and discernment in order to rightly evaluate the actual degree of harm in individual cases and whether there is a reasonable basis for hope that the destructive behavior has ended and the marriage can be saved.” And he continues by saying that “Churches Need to Aggressively Protect an Abused Spouse….In cases of physical abuse, something – perhaps several things – must be done quickly to prevent the abused spouse from having to endure further suffering…for the eventual purpose of bringing restoration of the marriage along with the complete cessation of abuse).”

Now, this book and Grudem’s words are so filled with error that I hardly know where to even begin. Notice his emphasis on physical abuse. Notice how he emphasizes that (page 51) “Restoration of the Marriage, if Possible, Must Remain the First Goal.” Notice how he assumes that church leaders are the ones who are going to judge these cases and give a verdict of divorce or no divorce. All of these things point to Grudem’s continuing damaging thinking on this subject of domestic abuse. His overall tone is that divorce is always a damaging thing that is to be a very last resort and which will always cause damage to children. These are fallacies. We know, for instance, that divorce from an abuser is the best thing for the victim and the children!

But what I want to point out specifically here in this article are two things:

  • Grudem seems to think that we should be “wowed” and in awe at his “groundbreaking discovery” from this little phrase “in such cases.” To this, I say – Wayne, we have been saying that abuse is grounds for divorce for years. You have been opposing our position. And now, it has supposedly taken a minute study of three little Greek words for you to be able to see it? So that now you and your academic cohorts can sit around and talk about a little tree in the forest that you should have seen a long time ago? This smacks of something we have seen before:

Mat 23:23-24 “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. (24) You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Fine, now Wayne says abuse in grounds for divorce (although make no mistake, his emphasis is on physical abuse though he lists other kinds of abuse). But he hasn’t come to this position via the route Jesus points out – identifying and seeing the weightier matters of the Law like mercy and faithfulness. No, Grudem continues to focus on the gnat.

  • But even more significantly, I want to point out that Wayne Grudemn offers no apology nor shows any remorse for or confession of the damage his erroneous teaching has caused for countless victims of abuse. He and his crowd (and its a big crowd) have for years refused to acknowledge that abuse is grounds for divorce. They have thereby put guilt and shame and condemnation on countless Christians who have gotten free from their abuser in spite of what the no divorce for abuse crowd said.

Do you see the problem here? These people like Grudem who sit in their academic vatican towers pouring over minutae and cranking out their decrees in books and lectures, seem to think that they are a cut above the rest of Christ’s people. And foolish Christians seem to agree. “What does Grudem say? Did you hear what Grudem wrote? How wonderful! Wayne now says we can divorce for abuse. How glad we are that he and his kind know the deep things of koine Greek!” The thing is sickening.

Grudem and those like him have been doing horrid and cruel damage to probably thousands of real Christians who have been horribly oppressed by wicked, false “Christian” spouses and by their churches. Where is Grudem’s repentance of this? Where is his confession of distorting God’s Word? Where is his godly sorrow for what he has done? I sure don’t see it. What I see is a sanitary, academic, covering of his posterior regions in a manner that will retain his prominence among his fellows.

What would happen if Grudem stood up and said, “Men, we have sinned. Pastors, we have sinned. Theologians, we have sinned. We have oppressed the oppressed, and God sees it all. We have distorted His Word and gutted it of His mercy.” Well what would have happened is that Grudem would have had to pay a price. And I have yet to see one of these celebrities pay the price of being thrown out of the temple.

Incompetent to Counsel

I receive communications from pastors or other people in churches who are doing “counseling,” with some regularity. I won’t say “frequently” because most of them think that they know all they need to know and I find that they really are not teachable, so I don’t waste a lot of time dealing with them. Once in a while someone who is sincere will write and ask for help, but they are a rare breed.

Here is an example of the kind of thing I receive. Read it and then mull it over and chew on it a bit and then let me know what you think. Spoiler alert – I am also including below our friend Kelly Orr’s take on it:

Dear Pastor Crippen,

I’ve recently read your book “Unholy Charade.” It was presented to me by a spouse in my church who is undergoing marital difficulties and may consider herself to be an abuse victim. What I’m wondering, following my reading of your book is how in your view does a pastor differentiate between a difficult marriage and an abusive one? – or an unhappy marriage from an abusive one? While I see some validity to the things you say about abuse victims, the thought also occurs to me that your book has the potential for throwing the door wide open for easy divorce. All that’s needed is for a spouse to create a rationale for calling him/her an abused victim. Is it not true that some form of abuse can be found in every difficult or unhappy marriage situation? I’d appreciate your thoughts on knowing when a marriage crosses a line and how to recognize that line.

How did I respond? Well, after my blood pressure level lowered again, I simply said this: “Read the book again. And this time, really think about what it says. Your questions are answered clearly in the book. You still don’t ‘get it.'”

You see, this fellow’s questions on the surface to most people sound like, good, honest, genuine inquiries, right? But there are red flags all over the place in what he says which tell us he is incompetent to counsel an abuse victim or to deal with an abuser. Let me give you Kelly’s reaction and you will see what I mean:

Good grief! Really. Even reading the phrase “easy divorce” makes me feel irritated. When is divorce easy? He sounds like a legalist wanting an easy answer to making a judgment about someone else’s situation. He is trying to take away her perspective. Now that, in my mind, is controlling. I like your suggestion to tell him to read it again. If he can’t figure it out, he should remove himself from the privilege of giving any input into her life. He should just refer her on to an abuse professional like the domestic violence center and be quiet. He has no empathy. He doesn’t believe her and he minimized her situation. He thinks he knows better than her and that he gets to make some decision about her life. 
It makes me angry and I want to tell her to run far away from him.

What do you think? What red flags do you see in what he says? And let me know what you think about this business of the “difficult marriage”? Hmmmm…. What is that? What does this concept tell us about this pastor’s theology of salvation, of the new birth, of who a Christian is in Christ???