A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Method of Interpreting Scripture in the Conservative Evangelical Church Needs a Reboot

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

All the years I was in graduate school and then seminary, I was taught how to interpret the Bible. We took courses like Bible Study Methods, New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew. We had classes in preaching in which we learned methods of outlining a passage of Scripture and then turning that outline into a “homiletical” one that would be the framework of the sermon, using more contemporary and memorable outline headings. That jump from exegetical outline to homiletical outline was, as I look back on it, a pretty dangerous one that often resulted in the real meaning of a passage being framed in some catchy phrase to make it “relevant.”

I have been preaching God’s Word in Christ’s church now for over three decades, and over these years I have seen my method of sermon preparation change. I didn’t sit down and decide one day to do it. It has just happened. In earlier years “exegesis” was my main focus. A close, careful examination of the passage I would preach on including careful word studies to determine their true meanings. These were the things of lexicons, Greek grammars and syntax, BDB (the classic Hebrew lexicon), and then intricate computer programs that searched all these tools at once and made the books I carefully collected over the years obsolete. I still use these tools some, but…

Things have changed.

Why? Because in dealing with evil in the church, in seeing firsthand the grievous experiences of abuse victims at the hands of their churches, I have been forced to face the fact that somehow our method of handling God’s Word has frequently gone sadly wrong. For all of our studies and training, we have misapplied and misconstrued the, shall I say it…spirit of the Word. And I suggest that this is precisely what Jesus confronted the Pharisees with. In the gnat-straining process of our Bible study methods, we have missed the biggies: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (Mat 23:1-4)

Do you see it? They apparently read the text of Scripture accurately as they read from the scrolls, but when it came to the application of the Scripture, they got it wrong. Why? Because they were arrogant, and that arrogance and their seeking of self-glory led them to entirely miss justice, mercy, and faithfulness which was to guide the interpretation and application of the Scripture, and instead applied the Scripture in a way that put a crushing weight on the poor souls of the people. By the way, and I hope that everyone catches the full import of what I am about to say: “In all my years of seminary, not one single professor, not one single class, not one single book I read EVER admonished us to be certain that our handling of Scripture affirmed God’s justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And yet these are the VERY things that Jesus identified as the BIGGIES”!! Chew on that for a bit.

Pastors, church members, elders, seminary professors, Christian authors, stop it! We have been doing the very same things ourselves. How? Well, come back to the abuse victim who comes to us for help. Tell me, are we regularly giving them the justice, mercy, and faithfulness that characterizes the very essence of the Lord Himself? I maintain that the answer is a resounding, “No!” What they are regularly receiving is heavy burdens, hard to bear, laid upon their shoulders. Burdens that the very people tying them on the poor souls would never lay upon themselves if they were in such a position of suffering.

Go ahead. Study Greek. Learn Hebrew. Carefully consider sound Bible study methods. BUT after doing all that, remember. If your method and your conclusions in handling God’s own Word are not consistent with the character of God as shown to us in the Person and works of the Lord Jesus Christ, then it matters not a mite how much intricate gnat straining you did in your study. Your conclusions are wrong. If you tell an abuse victim that she is forbidden by God to divorce her abuser, if you tell her God requires her to continue in that suffering, if you forbid her from remarrying if she does divorce the wicked husband, then your handling of Scripture is crooked. You are not “cutting it straight” as Paul exhorted Timothy to do:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2Tim 2:14-15)

I suspect there will be many, on that Day, who will have much need to be ashamed because they did not rightly handle the word of truth and those oppressed sheep who suffered as a result will be there as witnesses.

25 Comments

  1. joepote01

    Yes, and Amen!

    It does no good to become biblical experts if, in so doing, we miss the heart of God. And He has told us plainly that His heart is justice, mercy, faithfulness, and deliverance.

    Well stated, Jeff!

  2. Sarah

    I’ve said this for so long! thank you

  3. MaxGrace

    So beautiful. The letter of the law kills but the Spirit gives life. After reading this my mind and heart, was just flooded with scriptures throughout the old and New Testament which confirm this wonderful word this morning. Thank you, P.J.

  4. Misti

    In the very least, if you’re going to claim to love logic, actually use it.

    And don’t attack the folks who point out the logic fallacies, misused words, and assumed transitions in your communication—because we all do that sometimes.

  5. Anon

    Exactly. The problem I’ve encountered, regardless the denomination, is the idea that the people who should receive mercy are the abusers, rapists, murderers, etc. Because when I go to a pastor and question his or her offering the right hand of fellowship to one of these in a sermon, or in their actions, they claim that they are being merciful, then they tell me that I’m still too close to the pain of my own suffering and that is clouding my judgement. *sigh* Thanks for your continued work in this area. I keep praying that soon the church will listen.

    • Dear Anon, I changed your screen name to protect your identity. Please re-read our New Users Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

    • Innoscent

      Anon, the pastor is definitely the one whose judgment is clouded… You hold your ground, and come here often to be validated and keep on track.
      Not long ago I heard of a pastor who molested several ladies over a few years and it all came out one day. Then I heard another pastor preach and referring to that particular ‘pastor’, explaining how the first thing he did when he heard of his sin was to call him and assure him he was praying for him. I was horrified! This is WRONG and DECEIVING! The message it sends to the audience listening to this mercy counterfeit is that we ought not to judge the “poor perpetrators”. It would have made such a difference if he had said he’d called the VICTIMS and told THEM words of support! and quoted 1 Co 5.5 that he had delivered such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
      Where are the true men in the church.. ?

  6. standsfortruth

    It appears that the Scribes and Pharisees of mainstream Christianity today are doing the same thing as they were doing back in the days when Jesus walked amoung them.
    “They are missing the Heart of Christ.”

  7. Tracey

    Praise God from all blessings flow. Amen and amen!

  8. Very good, and right on. Jesus said that the commandment to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength was the greatest commandment, and the second was like it – Love your neighbor as yourself.
    But then he said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” If you meditate on that a bit, it is clear that everything in scripture – EVERYTHING – is for the purpose of increasing our love for God and our love for neighbor.

    And one other – Jeremiah said this:

    23 Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches:
    24 But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.
    (Jer 9:23-24 KJV)

    Jeff, what you are describing is what I have also seen in the conservative scholar world. We pride ourselves in our wisdom, but do not know the Lord. If we cannot be moved with compassion and cannot be grieved over injustice, then we do not know the Lord, no matter how well we can parse Hebrew verbs.
    PS – I absolutely love parsing Hebrew verbs, but that skill is useless if it doesn’t stir me to worship and good works.

    • Thanks Sam, and I really appreciate people like you who can lovingly parse Hebrew verbs, because I rely on you to help me interpret scripture. 🙂

    • Innoscent

      This -> “What they are regularly receiving is heavy burdens, hard to bear, laid upon their shoulders. Burdens that the very people tying them on the poor souls would never lay upon themselves if they were in such a position of suffering.”

      I was told to hang in there with my abusive H and the pastor quoted me all the ‘relevant’ verses! And now after significant time of separation I hear that only adultery is grounds for divorce according to Jesus. Which means I am condemned (by them) for the rest of my life to be a separate spouse (or until one of us commits adultery or dies), this, even after I have had to endure much abuse from the H, his allies, families, etc. and collateral damage. Exactly like a victim of a Muslim rapist is condemned to death…

    • Innoscent

      “We pride ourselves in our wisdom, but do not know the Lord.”

      Sam, how sad this is.. 😦

      One key verse for me puts it in a nutshell. “He [king Josiah] judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know me? saith the LORD.” Jer 22.16 (A rebuke addressed to Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son.)

  9. Irene

    Wow. Thank you so much for this post. I especially need it today!

  10. freeing hope

    Exactly! Especially this:

    In all my years of seminary, not one single professor, not one single class, not one single book I read EVER admonished us to be certain that our handling of Scripture affirmed God’s justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And yet these are the VERY things that Jesus identified as the BIGGIES”!! Chew on that for a bit.

    In the “church” today, there is little justice, mercy for the wrong, evil people, and no faithfulness to the victims.

  11. healinginhim

    Thank you for speaking more truth. I also needed to hear this.

  12. Theo K

    Pastor Jeff,

    How would you respond to people that take a similar approach (appeal to justice and mercy) in order to justify same-sex marriage?

    Many Thanks!

    • Hello Theo K
      I am replying on Jeff’s behalf as he is quite busy for the next few days, and he and I have already discussed how he would reply to you, so I am confident he will be happy with this reply.

      How would you respond to people that take a similar approach (appeal to justice and mercy) in order to justify same-sex marriage?

      I would show them Romans 1 and tell them it is not mercy to tell people they are free when in fact they are in bondage.

      People who practice homosexuality are in bondage to that sin and they will only be free if they repent and come to Christ.

      In contrast, a Christian who is abused by her (or his) spouse is in bondage to (under the control of) their spouse’s sin, not their own sin. It is not a sin to flee from the wicked to escape persecution. Jesus told us to shake the dust off our feet. Jesus and his apostles fled from persecution many many times. The victim of abuse will not be in sin if she separates from the abuser and obtains a divorce. She will in fact being doing good to the abuser, because by removing herself from his reach she will be reducing his opportunities to continue sinning against her. She will be exposing his abuse and bringing it to the light, exactly what Ephesians 5:11 tells us to do: Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

      • Theo K

        Hi Barbara,

        Thank you very much for your answer!
        It does make a lot of sense.

        Thank you and pastor Jeff for all the hard work you put on this site.

        May our Lord bless you abundantly 🙂

  13. The Wary Witness

    This is so spot-on. Thank you.

  14. For Too Long

    When a friend of mine, outside of my church, asked one of the leaders why they hadn’t shown mercy and reached out to me and my kids before ex-communicating me, he responded, “We did! We sent several letters to her.” …Um, yeah. Letters threatening ex-communication and signed by the “prosector” on the church session. Sad, if that’s what he calls “reaching out.”

    • Ha. That deserves a place on our (to be created) Platitudes and their Paraphrases page.

      “We reached out to her with mercy — we sent several letters to her,” is a paraphrase, a stealthy euphemism for:
      We sent letters to her threatening ex-communication and signed by the “prosecutor” on the church session.

      • For Too Long

        Oops – I realized, Barbara, that I meant “prosecutor.” Either way, it sure carries a heavy note of condemnation!

  15. Anonymous

    Thank you Pastor Crippen.

    I used to regret not attending bible college and not learning to read Greek and Hebrew–not having the time to learn this. But now I see things a little differently.

    Many on this website have commented on how the bible colleges they attended actually enslaved them to their abuser due to wrong teachings and as you pointed out in this post, knowing how to read Greek and Hebrew is no guarantee of accurate scripture interpretation.

    It all boils down to our hearts–as it has since the beginning of humanity. Adam and Eve knew God personally–had walked and talked with Him. Cain and Able also had an intimate relationship with Him–maybe not as close as their parents–but they were able to sacrifice to Him and God spoke directly to them. And then, as now, we see that even the most intimate interactions with God and God’s people still has no “positive” effect on evil ones. (Except that they may become more knowledgeable and efficient at manipulating others. Again, nothing positive as in getting closer to Jesus.)

    And we can even go back further than the beginning of humanity–to satan. He lived with God and had much rank and position yet still was–from the beginning–unmovable TOWARDS loving or understanding Him or His heart and His ways.

    “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice, he heard my cry for mercy….”(Psalm 116:1)
    God is all that I truly have. He has shown me this over and over. All throughout my life I have been unloved, abandoned and considered to be nothing. But God has allowed me to know HIM through His word and in my life. I certainly don’t deserve this gift as I try to run from Him often and battle with Him on countless occasions–but for some unexplainable reason–He continues to teach me. Most of the time I feel blessed by this but just as often I feel overwhelmed because so few others seem to understand the TRUTH. You do Pastor Crippen and because you relentlessly speak this truth and don’t back down, you strengthen people like me. People who belong to Jesus but who were previously enslaved to the evil one through wrong scripture interpretation. And because you have written books and this website, many after you will have a chance to be helped and strengthened and encouraged. Don’t stop!

    • Jeff Crippen

      Thank you for the encouragement, Anonymous. Very much. By the way, did you know that you can learn NT Greek by yourself? There are good textbooks with workbooks and learning aids available. Same for Hebrew, though I found Hebrew more difficult (though in some ways simpler when it comes to the numbers of verb forms). Greek is the place to start. It is valuable, but nevertheless no sure-cure for fouled up handling of the Scriptures.

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