Out of Context, Single Verse Justifications
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he writes the famous line: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
But has everyone used the words of the Bible for righteousness and good works? Certainly not, unfortunately. Take, for example, the application of a passage in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, which says, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.”
This passage, along with others in the Bible, was used historically by Christians to justify the institution of slavery (TIME, 2018).
We also know that verses like, “wives submit to your husbands” have been used to justify domestic abuse and the oppression of women’s rights, or “spare the rod, spoil the child” to justify beating children, or how the beginning of Romans 13 (submit to governing authority) was used to justify tyrannical government. Listen to any sermon by a prosperity preacher and you will hear strange sections of verses twisted to mean that Jesus is a get rich quick scheme.
My point in saying this is that while the true meaning of the Bible is perfect, its interpretation and application by humans can be very bad. The Bible has to be understood within the context it was written: historically, culturally, and the author and audience, as well as in connection with the rest of the chapter and Biblical principles that consider the whole of scripture. But most importantly, we cannot single out verses that fit our extra-Biblical agendas.
What Is An “Extra-Biblical Agenda”?
To make the distinction of what is within the Bible and what is extra-Biblical, we have to ask the fundamental question of what the Bible is, and therefore, how it is to be understood. Firstly, we know that the Bible is all true, but does not contain all truth. Or, in other words, the Bible obviously does not contain every piece of true information in existence. You aren’t gong to find out who the 10th President was or what the quadratic formula is by studying the Bible. The Bible contains true information relevant to its purpose.
The Bible clearly elevates one concept as being of central and foremost importance: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the atonement for sin. If someone read the entire Bible and studied it their whole life, but didn’t gain a personal understanding of their need to repent for their sin and accept Christ in their life, it would be a waste. But more than that, as Paul says to Timothy, the Bible gives instruction for righteousness and good works. This righteousness and good works is, however, not a simple list of “dos” and “don’ts”; it’s a transformational disposition to be Christ-like. The central conception of this disposition for good works is, as Jesus says, to “love God, and love others” (Matthew 22:36-40).
The Bible does contain an account of certain factual, historical events, that can be verified by other historical sources. But this history is not much value on its own (who cares about some stories of random Israelites from 4000 years ago?). The value of the history is to point people towards gaining a testimony and understanding of Christ.
Does the Bible contain scientific information? No. A total of zero scientific advancements have been made by studying the Bible. There are no instructions for the discovery of DNA or photosynthesis, or the invention of cars and televisions.
Does the Bible contain a political philosophy? No. In the Old Testament, there was a type of covenantal political philosophy specific to the group and time: i.e. the nation must follow the hundreds of Levitical laws or face the consequences of disease, famine, captivity, etc. But you will not find instructions for democracy, minimum wage laws, foreign trade deals, or anything of the like. Jesus had the opportunity to criticize the government of his time, or set political principles for nations, but did not; instead saying “my Kingdom is not of this world” (connecting back to the primary purpose of the Bible and his ministry).
Does the Bible teach economic principles? No. While the Bible treats personal generosity as a very important virtue, it does not establish economic principles. It does not say what interest rates should be set at, what type of mutual fund will give better yields, whether a wealth tax will increase economic equality, etc.
The Bible and Abortion
There are four verses that feign some possible relevance to the topic of abortion: Exodus 21:22-25, Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:41-44 and Numbers 5:11-31.
Exodus 21: 22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[a] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
I’m not sure why street fights with pregnant woman were an issue for the Israelites, but regardless, it says that if a man hits a pregnant lady and kills or severely injures her child, he should be killed. This is not the same, at all, as abortion as we think of it today. This man killed the baby against her will. In our modern law today, if you are some random guy who punches a pregnant lady in the stomach and kills her unborn child, you will go to prison for a long time. The modern abortion debate is not about whether men should engage in street fights with pregnant women and kill their unborn child against their will. So this verse really has no relevance to the concept of pro-choice abortion done by a doctor.
Psalm 139:13-16, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
These verses are dealing with the topic of foreordination. Or, in other words, that God had a plan for David and Jeremiah that he would call them to a special purpose. David says that God created him, and referenced that in the womb is where people are made, but does not say he had a legal right to life, or that he was already a human with rights to personhood while in the womb. Jeremiah mentions that he had a purpose before he was even in the womb, but again, does not state that while in the womb he had legal rights to personhood.
Luke 1:41-44: “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women! . . . Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy'”
Did the baby literally “leap” in her womb? If so, that baby had the legs of a 5 year old child and her womb must’ve been massive… This verse is clearly referencing the fact that John the Baptist (who Elizabeth was pregnant with at that time) was foreordained to proclaim the coming of Christ, and so she felt, even when he was unconscious in the womb, that he had delight for the Savior to come. Again, it never says, “he had a legal right to life”.
The last one, Numbers 5:11-31, actually supports abortion, but the case is extremely specific. Basically, in that culture and time, one of God’s laws was that if a woman commits adultery, she will have to drink a substance that will cause the baby to die- and that will be her punishment. However, this is certainly not relevant to the new covenant, and bears no possible resemblance to the modern abortion debate.
In the event that I’m misinterpreting these verses or missing a verse on the topic of abortion, and actually the Bible does clearly establish unborn babies as having a right to life, then it would still need to make the jump to: the Bible is making a political claim that we should enforce this law on non-believers as well.
This does not mean that Christians should necessarily be pro-choice. I personally am pro-life, because I believe that unborn babies are humans with legal rights. However, I don’t believe that because of a Biblical verse, but because of the scientific and legal arguments I’ve heard and considered.
The important thing to take from this is that if your faith is primarily built around being anti-abortion, you’re not practicing Christianity. The Bible barely makes any mention of the topic whatsoever. Jesus himself never says anything even close to resembling the topic. The purpose of the Bible, as I mentioned, is to help people gain a testimony of Christ, and I think if someone ends up with a pro-choice stance in their political philosophy, it does not mean they are not a Christian, or going against the Bible.
The Bible and Gay Marriage
The Bible seems quite clear in its condemning of the practice of homosexuality (unless maybe you’re reading the Queen James Bible or taking other extreme liberties with the text). There are multiple instances of explicit mention of the practice in both the Old and New Testament, as well as Christ himself describing marriage as between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:5). So, for that reason, I’m not too interested in the debate about whether the Bible supports homosexual practice for Christians.
However, in terms of a legal or political philosophy, the Bible does not define that. It never says, “you must put all gay people in prison” or “you must not allow gay people to have equal rights”. These are extra-Biblical concepts about what makes for a good society. People used to commonly argue that allowing gay marriage would destroy the family unit and corrupt society. Now gay marriage is legal most places and the threats of family destruction have not been realized.
The question is also a human rights issue: as defined in the constitution, is it lawful to discriminate against someone based on gender or sexual orientation? The courts in first world countries have nearly unanimously said “no, it is not consistent with human rights law to discriminate against the LGBT community.”
While the Bible does not want Christians to practice homosexuality, it does give instruction on how to treat others: “love your neighbour”. Does condemning them and treating them poorly seem consistent with the most important ethic of all?
For these reasons, good Christian people can support LGBT rights and be friends and neighbours with members of the LGBT community, and not be in violation of anything in the Bible in doing so.
The Bible On Socialism
In Jesus’ economics lecture to the graduate students at Nazareth University, he outlined the nature by which labor effectiveness is maximized by profit incentives… oh wait, he never said anything even close to that.
Jesus was not an economist. The Bible is not an economics textbook. This is an extra-Biblical issue.
There are some who say that Jesus was socialist, because he taught the importance of sharing and generosity. But this is not saying “we must implement a national economic system that forces people to give their money to government programs”. You can share and be generous in a capitalist system as well.
People might draw upon Biblically based individual virtues or conceptions of public justice to arrive at some form of economic system. For example, someone might believe that implementing a wealth tax and putting it towards ending homelessness is a way of fulfilling Jesus’ admonition to care for the poor. However, another individual may believe that reducing taxes on the wealthy will create more jobs and thus end homelessness. The moral question of justice for the poor is answered the same way, but the economic means to get there becomes an academic, economics question.
The Bible On Religious Freedom
Jesus was the victim of one of the worst infringements of religious freedom ever: being tortured and crucified for apparent blasphemy against the Pharisees’ conception of “proper” Judaism. Oddly, Jesus did not try to change the political systems around him to make life easier for Christians. In fact, he said “the world will hate you” and “you will face trouble in this world for my sake” (John 15:21, for example). Paul often talked about finding joy amidst persecution and accepted it as part of the Christian life. He never said “the Roman laws need to change so that I don’t go to prison”.
This is to say, the political agenda of religious freedom does not seem important to the Bible.
However, in an extra-Biblical sense, in regards to human rights, first world nations recognize that discrimination against someone based on their religious identity is an infringement on their human rights, and makes for a worse society. Christians may derive a sense of justice on the topic of human rights through realizing God’s heart for humanity, and each individual’s intrinsic worth, and thus be inspired to fight for religious freedom. There would be no logical reason for this to only extend to Christian rights, and to neglect or encourage the suffering of other religious groups. If God loves all people, and commands us to do the same, there is no reason why we would be concerned only for the welfare of other Christians and not for Muslims or Buddhists as well.
While the Bible is a perfect book for the purpose it was intended, it easily becomes a terrible book if we interpret it poorly to fit our extra-Biblical agendas. A desire for personal wealth, racial superiority, right/left wing political agendas, or any other ideas can cause people to read the Bible with massive distortion; picking out specific verses and making wild assumptions about their meanings.
Political agendas are not necessarily bad. In fact, the reason we have the rights and freedoms we do is because of wise, good hearted political agendas that formed and accomplished that. We have the writers of the American constitution, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and many great people today who champion good things in the world to create a more just society. While those people may have gotten inspiration from the Bible, the Bible did not provide them with their political philosophy, because it’s not a political book.
The Bible fails to make any mention of most of the important political issues of our time, and on the ones it does mention, gives almost no direct or complete answer to what we are supposed to do. This means that Bible believing Christians can have a variety of political views, and they will be primarily based in extra-Biblical ideas (like human rights law, economic systems, sociological considerations for creating a better society, etc.).
But what the Bible makes clear to anyone who reads it is that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Savior of the world, sent down to earth to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, and through accepting his sacrifice we can have eternal life. While political agendas may have short term importance, the ultimate solution is not found in them. In fact, seeing the greatest solution in political agendas is a type of idolatry; placing man made systems and ideas above God. The solution for our lives is already clearly defined, and the ultimate solution for the difficulties of mankind is in the hope of Christ’s return to the earth to establish His Kingdom.