The Abuse of Scripture Part I

Arise E-Newsletter Archive | Dec. 10, 2009

Dr. Manfred T. Brauch has recently published Abusing Scripture: The Consequences of Misreading the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 2009). In the paragraphs below, he briefly introduces us to several abusive readings of biblical texts and of Scripture as a whole—dealt with extensively in the book—which contribute to what he calls “the heresy of gender inequality.”

To abuse Scripture is to do violence to its message and meaning so that its redemptive truth regarding God’s intention for the absolute equality of men and women in all areas of human life is twisted and distorted.

One such abuse is “the abuse of selectivity.” This abuse does not consist of an outright distortion of the meaning of given texts, but entails ignoring or rejecting other parts or passages of Scripture that support a different teaching, present an alternate perspective, or advocate an opposing view. Thus, supporters of gender inequality claim the authority of biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 or 1 Timothy 2:11-14, where the voice of women is restricted, but close their minds and hearts to the clear teaching or implication of biblical texts that show women as the first carriers of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to his male disciples (Luke 24:1-11); as active participants in leadership in the early church (Rom. 16:1-7); as gifted by the Spirit for the authoritative proclamation of the Word of the Lord (Acts 2:17-18); and as partners with men in the work of the gospel (Phil. 4:2-3).

The “abuse of words” has contributed significantly to the perpetuation of gender inequality within Christian communities. This abuse happens when words or expressions in the biblical text are “decoded” in ways that are not faithful to the original “encoding” by the biblical authors. A clear example is the way in which the designation of the woman as man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18, 20) is traditionally understood as “assistant” or “servant,” designating someone in a secondary, subordinate position. However the Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer) does not carry this meaning at all. The term is used throughout the Old Testament exclusively as a designation of God who upholds, redeems, strengthens, and rescues Israel. It is clear from these texts that God is not depicted as Israel’s “assistant.” Thus, the word “helper”—rather than indicating a subordinate status—implies strength. In Genesis, woman is presented to the man redemptively, to save him from “aloneness.” She is “fit for him” (his partner). There is no hint of secondary or subordinate status.

Theological contexts” are all too frequently abused in the interpretation of texts and this happens when the larger theological perspective of an extended passage (such as Eph. 5) is not considered in the interpretation of a specific text (such as Eph. 5:22-25). Ephesians 5:22-25 can be used to require the submission of wives only when the larger theological thrust of the entire chapter is ignored. Chapter 5 concerns an admonition to “be imitators of God” and to “live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” These passages celebrate Christ’s servanthood, which is the larger theological context for all human relationships, including that of male-female, husband-wife. That is why 5:22-25 begins with the specific expression in 5:21, where Paul states that one of the evidences of the Spirit’s presence in our lives is “subordinating ourselves to one another in awe of Christ.” It is this “mutual self-subordination, modeled on Christ’s servanthood, which determines the husband-wife relationship articulated in 5:22-25. It is “in awe of” Christ’s self-giving, that husbands and wives are to “give themselves over to one another in servant love.”

Several other abusive readings which lead to a patriarchal (over-under) understanding of the male-female relationship are the abuses of literary, historical, and cultural contexts. What I seek to show throughout my book is that the cumulative weight of these various abuses of Scripture are an offense to the God who created man and woman in his image; called them into equal and complementary partnership; and in Christ came to set them free from the cursed, demeaning, and lessening reality of hierarchical bondage. The continuing denial of this absolute, essential, and functional equality in large sectors of the Christian community worldwide continues to contribute to, abet, and reinforce the widespread abuse of women, and is therefore a major roadblock to the advance of the gospel. 

MANFRED T. BRAUCH is former president and professor of biblical theology at Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary, and author of Abusing Scripture: The Consequences of Misreading the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 2009).