Is Prooftexting a Growing Trend Among Christian Leaders?

A religious leader makes a controversial dogmatic statement, and then attaches a Bible verse or passage as “proof” that the statement is true, or Biblical.

Have you seen this? I have, and I am pretty sure you have too. Some by people one might think should know better. I think it is on the rise. Consider a few that I have come across in 2016.

  • A friend of mine back in the US got a canned message48467483 on his phone from Jerry Falwell Jr. telling Evangelicals that they have an obligation to vote. This statement was footnoted by the statement of Jesus, “Render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s.”  I hope it is pretty obvious that this verse has NOTHING to do with voting, and it doesn’t even seem possible to apply it contextually to voting. Go to the passage and try substituting voting and decide for yourself. But even if you thought it did, somehow, apply– in the United States, voting is a right and privilege, NOT an obligation. In other words, there is no governmental obligation to vote. In fact, choosing not to vote is equally exercising one’s right to vote.
  • In a similar vein, another religious leader in a completely different context argued that abstentions in voting were unacceptable based on the words of Jesus “Let your ‘Yeas’ be Yea, and your ‘Nays’ be Nay.” Again, I hope that it need not be said that a verse primarily about honesty and keeping promises, and secondarily about taking oaths, has nothing to do with valid voting options in a business meeting. (I am holding out some doubtful hope that this quote was meant to be humorous.)
  • I have had a number of people tell me (I do work in a counseling center, after all) that they don’t need to forgive those who are unrepentant. They bring up one verse, and it is always the same single verse. Why is that? Because everywhere else in the New Testament (though you are welcome to explore the Old Testament as well if you want) forgiveness is commanded without qualification. Considering how unhealthy unforgiveness is to the injured party, I struggle to see why anyone would seek a loophole anyway.
  • A letter was circulated around here by religious leaders that attacked a person’s reputation. The justification was James 4:17. “ So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.” Ignoring that the verse really doesn’t appear to apply to this sort of case, it doesn’t even justify it by extension. What this letter is saying, essentially, is “We have determined that writing such a letter is a good thing, so based on James 4:17 we wrote it.” There is no basis here for arguing that the letter was right in the first place.

  • Okay, this one I have bumped up against for years and years. So many when talking about conflict or discipline just bring up Matthew 18:15-17. Some church bylaws even say for their Church Discipline “We follow Matthew 18 for church discipline.” Unlike most of the cases above, this one is properly utilized… up to a point. The problem is that the Bible has a WEALTH of information on how to deal with sin and conflict. Matthew 18 is relevant but hugely limited. I have seen it misused on both sides. On one side I have seen churches use it like a checklist. Private conversation check– Small group conversation check– Brought before the church check. Out they go. This ignores the fact that intention of the passage is how to reconcile rather than how to kick someone out. On the other hand, I have come across people who have tried to use it the other way. They do wrong and justify it (or at least justify not being disciplined for it) with the argument that “the church did not follow the process correctly.” Some even go further by pulling in the Bible’s call not to gossip. So, following their logic, only one person knows the sin, one should not use the Matthew 18 passage at all because to have two people come by means that one had to gossip. Therefore there should be no church discipline at all. Church discipline is admittedly hard, but it is not necessarily easier by embracing a sub-biblical position of ignoring most of Biblical wisdom on the topic.
  • I have heard the most despicable things justified under the umbrella of “Submission to those in Authority” over you, in Romans 13. You probably have as well. I hope it doesn’t need to be emphasized that submission to ANYTHING other than God is limited. As Melba Maggay said recently said (sorry I have to paraphrase here): “Don’t read Romans 13 without also reading Revelation 13” (Or, I might add, much of the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament.)
  • Relatedly, an acquaintance of mine put up a verse from Hebrews 13:17, Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit. He chose the specific parts to underline and emphasize. The emphasis suggests that leaders are accountable ONLY to God. That is also sub-Biblical (in my view). Secondly, this particular post was written to church youth in how they should relate to youth pastors/leaders. Again, as one involved in Christian counseling, I have come across so many church youth that have been abused sexually, spiritually, emotionally (and so forth) by youth leaders embracing the idea that they have no accountability to any person, and that youth are to obey without question. Truly horrible. I hope it doesn’t need to be emphasized (again) that submission in the Bible is typically mutual, and always (with the exception of to God) limited.

I will stop here. I won’t add examples such as FB posts that prooftext verse “strong national defense” or “immigration reform.” I hope you are already a bit suspicious of such self-serving uses of the Bible. My basic argument is that the Church (in general) is unethical. You can look at some heavier stuff in this regard in my post, “The Unethical Church.”

  1. A problem is identified
  2. The leadership of the church, or the church as a whole, does what it feels like doing.
  3. A verse footnote is added to suggest that they have embraced a theologically sound attempt to understand the heart and mind of God.

We really need to do better. If a church and its leadership lacks the Biblical breadth of understanding, and theological discernment to make wise decisions “on the fly” then at least work to come up with wise policies during times of calm discussion. And don’t throw around Bible verses lightly.

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