Van Ens: Take the Bible on its own terms, not ours (column)
Correctly interpreting the Bible is difficult because God has spoken to Jews, Muslims and Christians through a historical filter. Readers who disregard this historical filter confuse what scripture teaches.
The Bible records an ancient past stretching from shortly after 2000 B.C. to the Maccabean Revolution, which erupted more than a century and a half before Jesus was born. Through this history, learn what the Bible originally meant to its ancient hearers before jumping to mistaken current interpretations.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions stumbled badly when reciting Romans 13:1. He used this verse to justify separating immigrant children from their parents at our southern borders.
Stung by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ criticism, which branded Sessions’ policy as cruel, the attorney general spoke to law-enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. By ignoring the Bible’s ancient meaning, Sessions stamped “God’s OK” on separating children from their illegal immigrant parents at the border.
Criticism coming from Catholic Bishops was “neither fair, nor logical,” asserted Sessions. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13:1, to obey the laws of government because God has ordained the government to His purposes.”
Although Sessions correctly quoted this verse about God’s support of the Roman Empire’s government, he blundered, ignoring the book of Romans’ historical context. A devout Methodist, Sessions received a reprimand from more than 600 United Methodist clergy and laypersons who on June 18, filed a formal denominational complaint against him. Methodists abhorred how Sessions used scripture to co-opt divine support for his harsh immigration policies (The Christian Century, “Churches rebuke Sessions on immigration rules,” July 18, 2018, pp. 14-16).
Methodist leaders aligned with Cmdr. Jonathan D. White, of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He declared, “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child” (The Denver Post, “Agency warned separation bad for kids,” Aug. 1, 2018, p. 16 A).
Does the Bible clearly teach in Romans 13:1 that Christians were obligated to obey pagan Roman emperors?
Those Roman rulers had presented an ultimatum: Revere them as gods and reject Jesus. Roman authorities threatened to imprison Paul and persecute Jesus’ followers. What sense would it have made for the Apostle to advise Christians that “God ordains Roman authorities?”
Paul had to smuggle his letter through Roman lines to scattered cells of Christians hiding from their adversaries. He used verbal cover that misled the Romans. Why not stroke their egos, saying Christians must obey governing authorities? Then the Romans wouldn’t censor his letter. Upon receiving it, Christians sifted through false advice to obey the emperor and focused on truths about Jesus that the apostle intended to convey to them.
Sessions didn’t devote time doing the hard work of uncovering what Paul originally meant. He used the Bible as a club to protect his power and keep illegal immigrants submissive.
“Such a desire for power appears to be the interpretive lens of many evangelical Christians today. They employ a highly selective Scrabble game of Bible verses to provide spiritual cover for mean-spirited policies. Appeals to scripture become a way to baptize our bigotries and consecrate our callousness,” writes Jonathan L. Walton on June 22, 2018. He serves as chaplain in the Memorial Church of Harvard University.
Biblical proof-texting to OK government policy is a dangerous practice. Ignoring the historical filter God uses to communicate what’s true leads to interpretive errors.
Read the Bible through its ancient lens. Scripture says what it historically means.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.