One of the greatest issues facing individuals coming out of an experience with the Worldwide Church of God and its related organizations is what many pastoral counselors call “Bible abuse.” This is an issue not limited to the Worldwide Church of God experience which I have shared, but common also to many who are from other Fundamentalist Christian denominations.
What is Bible abuse? Bible abuse is a form of spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is when religious beliefs or practices are removed from the context they were intended for and used as tools of discrimination or oppression of others. For instance, the belief in divine healing is a spiritual belief common to many of the world’s faiths. Yet, in certain branches of Christianity experiencing miraculous healing from sickness becomes a “stamp” of spiritual accomplishment. At times, the message about this spiritual belief is turned from “God is available to you and has the power to heal” to “The way to be healed is to be close to God, thus if you are disabled or physically or mentally ill, you must be sinful or lack faith.” Here a spiritual belief intended to have a positive, liberating belief, is transformed into a tool of oppression and prejudice against a minority (the disabled).
Prejudice against a minority group works on a number of levels. At times, it can be systemic or institutional — for instance, the way in which in many conservative churches, women for years were given a subservient position to men, both in the home and at church. There were structures created by those communities of faith that kept women in a role in which they did not have freedom to lead, to fully express themselves, and to realize their full potential, simply because of their God-given gender.
Prejudice can also be an expression of one’s dominant culture, both in the sense of “Southern culture,” “Hispanic culture,” or even a “church culture.” For instance, in the South where I grew up, in many areas inter-racial marriage was simply “not done” and was viewed with suspicion. It went against the cultural grain, though no longer were there laws against it. If you married another race, you would be talked about, looked down on by some, and at times ostracized from the family.
Prejudice of this type often becomes the worst type when lived out by an individual in that culture — unaware prejudice. Here people have certain assumptions about how life should work, how others should live, which aren’t grounded so much in truth, but in the cultural or religious ideals that were spoon-fed to them from childhood on. These notions so subtly enter into a person’s worldview that one may not realize they are affecting one’s choices.
These forms of prejudice lead to stereotyping. For instance, in the wider community, an effeminate man is often assumed to be gay, based on the stereotype that gay men are not in touch with their masculine side. In fact, many men with strong traits our culture would view as “feminine” are straight as an arrow in their sexuality and many gay men are very macho, almost to a fault. Truth be known, even straight women do not completely fit the mold of what our culture’s concept of “femininity” is.
All of these forms of prejudice can be fed by spiritual beliefs that are taken out of their context with the purpose, whether the person mis-using them is conscious of it or not, of marginalizing and shaming those in a certain minority group. This marginalizing and shaming produces what is known as internalized prejudice — a mistrust of one’s self and often a negative opinion, even hatred, of one’s self for some extrinsic quality that leads you to be marginalized. This happens on an emotional level and the emotional turmoil caused by this can continue even after someone has come to realize intellectually that God does not hate them or disapprove of this extrinsic quality.
Bible abuse is a particular form of spiritual abuse. In Bible abuse, select texts, taken out of their historical context, are quoted in order to support the marginalization of individuals from certain minority groups, whether that be the divorced, homosexuals, or those in an inter-racial marriage. These verses are used to justify unequal and oppressive church and community structures, to justify discrimination by individuals and families, and end up deeply scarring those in whatever minority is being oppressed.
Many times, the end of this Bible abuse will be serious emotional and mental problems for the recipient of it, besides being marginalized and oppressed. Many, many times, this will lead an individual to give up on a life of faith altogether, turning toward atheism, agnosticism, or secular spiritualities. I have known of people who turned toward drug or alcohol abuse to squelch the pain that Bible abuse has caused them. Other times, the crushing fear of God and hatred of one’s self will be expressed by resorting to irrational violence against others, whether abusing other family members, going on a rampage of violence, or committing suicide.
Is the Bible’s purpose to cause such agony in the lives of others? No! God forbid! Scripture makes it clear that, at least to Christians, the goal of Scripture is to witness to Jesus, who describes his own purpose as being to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Scripture also tells us God does not judge us based on extrinsic qualities like race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation — “[A human being] looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart,” 1 Samuel 16:7 says. And the apostle Paul writes that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Though every possible category of difference people can have which they may be discriminated against (such as sexual orientation, height, gender identity, physical disability, hair color, hobby) are not listed here, the principle Paul is espousing points in a direction far removed from any use of spiritual beliefs or Scripture to condemn others for being different.
In future articles, I hope to get into more detail about how to overcome and combat Bible abuse. Right now, I want to close by pointing out how to identify Bible abuse being used to oppress a minority.
First, ask yourself, is this author quoting the verse out of context? If he or she does not get into the history behind the text, whether in the rest of that book of the Bible or through historical references, chances are that they are.
Then, ask yourself, does this sound like the purpose is to “release the oppressed” or to marginalize others? Since Jesus is our guide, any interpretation that seems to be oppressing others needs to be viewed as questionable and suspect.
Finally, ask yourself, does this reflect the wider principles of Scripture (such as Jesus’ command to love God & love others, or Scripture’s acknowledgement that God does not judge by external characteristics like race or gender but by the heart)? If not, probably the author is mis-using the Scripture for his or her own ends.
Whatever else you get from my article, realize that your life has worth. Though the world may look at you as a nobody, in God’s eyes you count. You can with all confidence join in the words of the Psalmist, saying to God, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:14)
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.