By John Pierce
There is a popular game I no longer play: dueling Bible verses. It gets going whenever a controversial subject arises — such as homosexuality or gender equality. It has been played in the past over slavery, interracial relationships, poker and square dancing.
The rules of the game can be arbitrary and confusing. But it usually begins in the same way.
Someone throws out a verse (often from Leviticus) prefaced by: “But God says…” or “The Bible says…” — and 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 being stupid, 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 selective Bible verses.
Playing dueling Bible verses is usually more about trying to win someone over to a certain predetermined 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, those armed with a good verse of two in their favor will rarely talk about past defeats. 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 using the same methods.
The always-insightful Bill Hull has rightly noted, for example, 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.
Those of us who refuse to play dueling Bible verses — or simply surrender “truth” to those who do — get accused of denying biblical authority or other charges that can get you thrown out of some Baptist feller’ships. But that’s OK with us.
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 victories.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.