For years, the American evangelical church and many of its denominations have used the Bible as a way to control, oppress, and abuse others — from cultural genocide to the abstinence/purity movement. In my church, which was part of the Southern Baptist Church, I grew up learning that to love God meant to get my checklist in order and to use that checklist to secure the salvation of everyone I came in contact with.
I grew up going to True Love Waits rallies, grouping together with other girls who wore their purity rings and talked about virtue and abstinence, making lists of the characteristics our future husbands would have. Some of us devoted ourselves to dating only young men who wouldn’t be tempted to kiss us before we were ready marry them. What was never explained to us, however, was that these rules of purity would bleed into our adult dating lives and our marriages, causing shame and a distortion of what should be healthy sexual relationships.
Too many church leaders use the Bible to instill fear and shame into the lives of its congregants — and some of us had to step outside of our hometown churches to realize that. It wasn’t until college that I first understood the world is not full of people waiting for direction, but people who are simply trying to be human to one another. It was the first time that I saw the institution of the church breaking down in front of my eyes. I had the realization that it had failed them — and it had failed me. I had friends who were atheists, friends who dated openly and went to college parties, and I was terrified for their souls — until I began understanding that the terror embedded in me came not from the Bible, but the men leading my churches who were interpreting the Bible to preach a message of control.
With the election of Donald Trump and what some are calling the last gasp of conservative evangelicalism thrust back into the spotlight, it is clear that the values held by many Christians in America are the same values we thought had passed away.
We see the way that education is conflated with religion and politics, the way some church pulpits are used for political rants, and public schools are criticized for not teaching creation or abstinence to their students. Some in the church continue to use the Bible to try to control our children, their education, and at times, even our workplaces in adulthood.
This nation has grown up as church mixed with empire, and the church must choose to let go of some of its power and control so that it can be a better source of the love of God and a truer vision of shalom. It must learn to come last, to humble its institutions and denominations to become servants and not oppressors.
Examining the roots of our nation, we see that the Bible was used to subjugate, enslave, force off of land, and kill indigenous peoples. We must look at those roots — when white leaders talked about slaves as objects and justified their actions with their faith convictions. We need to remember that people considered undesirable in this nation have been sterilized and treated as lepers. While some in the church stepped out to speak against such acts, many were simply silent, encouraging their children to “not be yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship can light have with darkness?” The Bible was used to separate and divide us based on our righteousness, and directly encouraged us to discriminate and judge others who wouldn’t or couldn’t step foot in a church because of the color of their skin or the state of their dress.
These stains are still marked all over our churches and our nation, and for the sake of the church and the sake of those who refuse to step foot in one, we have to take an honest look at how we got here.
If we follow a line of leaders who, for example, have treated Native Americans in this country as heathens, savages, souls waiting to be converted for generations, who have put profit before people and have desecrated creation, that line leads us to today, and the American evangelical church has played a part in using the Bible to support those leaders in their unjust actions. The church has played a part in being silent when people are struggling outside their doors.
We’ve seen people act out on behalf of our leaders’ words, evidenced in brutality against immigrants and refugees, hatred toward Muslims or anyone who could be considered the ‘other.’
In a nation run mostly by the privileged, the United States was founded by privileged white men, and so were many of our churches. In that, the patriarchal model of interpreting the Bible and using it for control has been an unspoken reality in this nation until recent years as many have stepped out to question it, as women have taken leadership in church roles and have met their share of harassment and challenges.
If we are to interpret the Bible in our churches through the same lens we’ve been using and preach those words to control others, we will lose them like we have been losing them for years now. And in the era of Trump, an era in which evangelical Christians gather at the White House, hold meetings, and lay hands on our president and use the Bible to confirm his calling, it is essential that we question how the Bible is being used in our pulpits, schools, businesses, families, and culture.
Instead of blaming people for leaving the church or stepping outside the boxes that have been created as a way to fear God, the church should humbly listen to the people in its communities by asking what God looks, sounds, and feels like in 2017.
Then the church should be ready to hear that God doesn’t look like what we’ve always thought, and the Bible can’t control those images anymore. To enter into the true Kingdom of God is to see those who have been forgotten by the church and to lose the ability to control and manipulate people and a world that should never have been controlled in the first place.