There is a popular game I no longer play: dueling Bible verses.
It gets going whenever a controversial subject arises — such as homosexuality, gender equality or immigration.
It has been played in the past in defense of slavery — and in opposition to interracial relationships, wine drinking, poker playing and square dancing. You know, whoever or whatever some folks hate at the moment.
The rules of the game can be arbitrary and confusing. But it usually begins in the same way.
Someone throws out a verse (often something legalistic from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, or perhaps from one of Paul’s scolding moments). The highly selective verse is prefaced by: “But God says…” or “The Bible says…”
In doing so, the initiator quickly declares “checkmate” or “Bingo” as if the game is over and a victory lap is in order.
Any countering brings another verse or two — if not condemnation for the now nemesis being liberal or third runner-up in “sword drills.”
It’s easy to get sucked into the game — and fire back with another verse or two that supports a different “right answer.” Then, round two and three follow with back-and-forth verses as well as authoritative translation efforts by those who can’t translate biblical languages.
Then, some preacher with unaccredited or honorary degrees gets quoted — and it all spirals downhill from there.
But the short answer to why I don’t play dueling Bible verses is: carnage.
Human slavery, abuse of children, racial discrimination and oppression of women — just to name a few — have been carried out by those with an arsenal of highly selective Bible verses.
Playing dueling Bible verses is usually more about justifying — and trying to win someone over to — a predetermined, concretized position rather than an honest pursuit of truth.
I’m reminded of William Sloane Coffin’s insight: “It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one.”
Also, it is instructive to note how those armed with a good verse of two in their favor will rarely talk about their past errors.
Oh, they may join in way-late apologies for issues like slavery or racism — after the issues have been settled by the larger culture — but don’t expect detailed confessions about how biblical selectively aided those grave errors. That would reveal too much about current defenses that use the same methods.
The late Bill Hull, an always-insightful New Testament scholar and minister, rightly noted that if someone will show him how they arrived at the conclusion that the Bible doesn’t favor slavery then he can easily show them how the Bible affirms gender equality. It is the same route.
To my knowledge, there has never been a good result from playing dueling Bible verses.
Those who think they are winners can claim all the ribbons and trophies they wish — and denounce the rest of us as unbelievers.
Yet, we know there is a difference between embracing and respecting the authority of the biblical revelation and pretending the Bible is some consistent catalogue of truth from which a verse here and a verse there can provide a definitive statement on every issue we encounter.
As strange as it may seem, many of us still favor the idea that the Bible is best interpreted through the lens of the highest revelation of God: the life and teachings of Jesus.
To us, Jesus is a better “criterion for interpreting scripture” than human authorities who want that role. And the broader biblical themes of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love of God and neighbor — so consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus — take precedence for us over lesser ones.
Having observed (in person or through readings from eras past) the ways selective readings of the Bible have been used as tools of oppression, condemnation and exclusion has caused my interest in this age-old game to vanish.
There are simply too many losers and too few victors. And no victories in Jesus.
Author’s note: Current social media debates led me to resurrect and adapt this column from 2012.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.