There’s an old saying about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. The key to understanding scripture is context. If you quote half a verse to support any argument, the first thing I’m going to do is go find the whole verse, then read the whole paragraph. We need to know who is writing, to whom, and under what circumstances before applying any particular verse to our situation.
There are always critics of religion in general and of Christianity in particular that insist religion was invented or the Bible was written to control people. Roman emperors used religion to build an empire, Medieval kings used it to build wealth and add territory, and Christians today use scripture to justify everything from suppressing women to persecuting homosexuals. Sadly, to some extent, each of those arguments have some merit. Emperor Constantine made the switch from persecuting Christians to embracing Christianity in order to defeat the enemies of the Roman Empire. I think we should blame Rome for that, not Christ. The problem with the Middle Ages is that the vast majority of Europeans were illiterate. If the kings and knights of Medieval Europe could have read the Bible for themselves, they would not have been so easily manipulated. Thank God for Gutenberg, am I right? Which brings us to today.
As I said, each argument listed above has some degree of merit. There are Christians and churches that use scripture as means to the ends they desire. Just like Rome, I believe that’s a failure of the those involved not Christ or the Bible. When an issue arises what both sides tend to do is throw verses at it. What really upsets me on a personal level is when I cite a verse of scripture and get accused of being a bigoted hatemonger hiding behind religion. We could all benefit from reading the whole Bible and considering the message it has to share, not putting words in it’s mouth, so to speak. Good science looks at the available evidence and then draws conclusions, it does not not set out to prove something. Good Bible study should do the same; God gave us the Word in order to tell us something, and if all you’re getting is that everybody who disagrees with you is wrong it’s time to look at it again.
Contemporary issues are going to get some people hot, and by the bottom of the page (if not already) we’ll be throwing verses at each other again. Let me my point by examining an issue with some historical context. Up to and during the American Civil War, Christians and church leaders divided on the issue of slavery. Some used the Bible to support equality, peace and loving your neighbor as yourself, while others cited verses such as “slaves be obedient to your masters.” Consider what you know about slavery in the Old South, and read these verses from Exodus 21 regarding slavery:
When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. (Exodus 21:2-3)
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. (Exodus 21:20)
“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth. (Exodus 21:26-27)
What is being described here is not what took place in the antebellum South. The American institution of slavery was a new evil not seen before in history, and led first to the abolishment of the slave trade and later to the end of slavery in industrialized civilizations. Above are Old Testament verses, taken from the Law. The New Testament lays down strict standards for the treatment of slaves, reminding us that all people are created in the image of God. Proponents of slavery in the 19th century misused scripture to defend an institution critical to the survival of the southern plantation economy. Which reminds me of another verse of scripture: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
Read the Bible. Consider each single verse in its greater context. The purpose of Bible study is to see what God is saying to us, not to find weapons to use against our adversaries.