In the late 1990s I attended a running camp for two summers in the mountains of New Hampshire. The camp had a lake, cabins, and was surrounded by thick piney woods. Built into a natural plateau was a field. We used it for ice breakers, cabin competitions, and Ultimate Frisbee. Trees ringed the field. The sides plunged down into natural gullies full of pucker brush and thistles. I learned one important lesson playing sports there: if you wanted to stay safe, you remained on the field and out of the tangled underbrush.
The Old Testament is like that: it’s a big field for pastors to play in. When handled well within interpretive limits, it is glorious. When mishandled, it forces people into thick jungle which can really hurt them.
Every Bible cult misuses the Old Testament and spiritually abuses people because of it. This is because the cult leader has read 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The cult leader misinterprets this to mean that all scripture is equally valuable and equally applicable to the Christian. This assumption is false and is not what the text says.
Instead, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that every word of scripture is equally inspired by God and is useful. But not all scripture is equally valuable or applicable to the Christian life. Is it scandalous to say that? For example, the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9 are inspired by God and serve a purpose, but they are not particularly useful for understanding the gospel message, handling conflict with your in-laws, managing money, or relating to a bully at school. Similarly, regulations concerning ceremonial cleanliness have little practical relevance to Christians who are no longer under the Mosaic Law.
But cult leaders or spiritually abusive pastors mishandle the Old Testament out of ignorance or obsessiveness. They may take random Old Testament verses out of context and quote them to their congregation as if they should be obeyed without question or context. Or the leader compares himself to Old Testament leaders like Moses or David and then demands absolute allegiance from church members.
Four Boundary Lines
Thick books have been written for Christians about the proper interpretation of the Old Testament. This post does not pretend to answer all of the possible questions of interpretation and application. Instead, I’d like to form some commonsense boundaries which can help you discern whether a church leader has mishandled the Old Testament text.
Think of these four guidelines as four sides of a field which is surrounded by gullies and pucker brush. Inside the lines is a wide pasture of diverse interpretation and application of the Old Testament. Good Christian scholars and church leaders may disagree with each other within these boundaries, but they are all within the pale of permitted Christian orthodox belief.
But outside of these lines is the realm of heterodox belief. Any church leader who uses the Old Testament in ways which fall outside these boundaries is in grave danger of hurting their followers.
1.) Pastors should avoid comparing church leaders with Old Testament theocratic leaders.
Israel was a theocratic nation which was led first by Moses as a prophet-priest-king (a type for Jesus Christ), then by Joshua as a military leader, then by a series of judges, and finally by a series of kings. None of these roles bears any relation to the New Testament roles of pastor, elder, overseer, or deacon. Because there is a difference between the nation of Israel and the church, there is a corresponding difference in leadership. If your pastor compares his authority to that of Moses, run for the exits (see related post here).
The New Testament provides strict qualifications for church leaders, chief of which are trustworthiness (life experience and good character) and truth (proper handling of God’s Word and wise interpretation). Church members may evaluate their leadership on these criteria. No leader is unimpeachable simply because he or she holds a particular office or wears a particular title. And no church leader compares in any way to the leader of a nation-state or a divinely-appointed monarch.
2.) Pastors should avoid mistaking the church for Israel, especially in prophecies.
If you look carefully at the prophecies related to Israel in the Old Testament, you begin to see that God has a purpose for the nation of Israel which sometimes corresponds with the church but more usually is distinct. Different streams of Christian tradition differ on this, but one thing is certain: if your pastor takes a one-to-one correlation between Israel and the church, you will encounter some pretty weird Old Testament prophecies which your church will have to believe relates directly to you. For example, try reading the book of Zechariah as if it all applies directly to the church – to your church – rather than to Israel. While a responsible pastor can extract certain principles about God’s character and how he relates to his people, there is not a one-to-one correlation between Israel and the church. You can usually tell when a pastor mistakes his or her church in the prophecies about Israel because the church starts to have an apocalyptic, polarized, judgmental feel to it.
Helpfully, Paul makes a distinction between Israel and the church. For example, in Romans 9-11 he says that God still has a purpose for the nation of Israel in his program. The oft-quoted “remnant” concept refers to Israel, not to the church. Sorry.
3.) Pastors should not demand adherence to the law in order to be saved.
I wish I didn’t have to include this guideline. But there are still many pastors who believe that because the Law of Moses remains in their Bibles, they are obligated to obey it. They argue that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Listen: the early Church already handled this matter for us. In Acts 15, an authoritative council of the Church – which included the apostles James, Peter, and Paul – declared that Gentile believers don’t have to obey the Law of Moses. And in the book of Galatians – the first epistle Paul wrote – he flatly opposes the idea that Christians must obey the Law. Anyone who says otherwise is a modern day Judaizer who fails to understand the gospel of grace. They are still in bondage to the idea of works righteousness and they figuratively re-crucify Christ. Yikes.
4.) Pastors should not mistake descriptive narrative material for prescriptive decrees.
This is not difficult. The Bible is literature and there are sections which are descriptive (think Genesis, Judges, Jonah, and Esther) while other sections are prescriptive (think Jesus’ sermons or the Pauline Epistles). Descriptive material includes both positive and negative behavior and doesn’t always comment on which is which. It takes wisdom to extract helpful principles, recognize God’s character, and properly apply narrative material. When a pastor takes a descriptive passage and interprets it as prescriptive (Prayer of Jabez, anyone?), folks can get misled or hurt.
5.) And here’s a bonus fifth guideline: Pastors should not confuse their own extra-biblical filler material with authoritative scripture.
Gene Edwards has written a bestselling book called A Tale of Three Kings which remains popular in many Christian circles. Unfortunately, the book freely combines Edwards’ loose paraphrases of scripture related to Saul, David, and Solomon, with his own historical fiction. He then draws life principles both from his paraphrase and from his fiction. Unfortunately, because his premises are flawed his principles are skewed. I have heard from a number of people whose churches used this book as a study and it resulted in spiritual abuse. So don’t do that.
To interpret the Old Testament using any of the five errors cited above makes a church vulnerable to abuse. Yes the Old Testament is rich with God’s working in history, with guidelines for wise living, with prophetic anticipation, and with examples of faithful men and women. But it is also full of anticipation for the redemption of God’s people through the cross of Jesus Christ and the coming of God’s Kingdom to earth.
Christians should read the Old Testament through the lens of the cross, understanding that church leaders are to imitate Christ, not Moses, and that we are not under law but under grace.
Posts in this Series:
Distortion #5: “It Says in Deuteronomy…”: Misuse of the Old Testament
Distortion #6: God or Mammon: Logical Fallacy of the Excluded Middle
Distortion #7: I Committed Adultery Watching the Smurfs: James 4:4 Unpacked
Distortion #8: You Shall Be Holy Unto Me (So Ditch the Budweiser)
Distortion #9: “We Alone are the ‘Remnant,’ all 75 of Us!”
Distortion #10: Fun in the Shun? Confessions of an Excommunicator