When Personal Interpretation Goes Wrong
A hallmark of Evangelical theology is the belief that every believer is capable of interpreting scripture as they believe the Holy Spirit indwells believers at the time of salvation. Leading Evangelical theologians and pastors would of course argue that this personal interpretation needs to be consistent with their Biblical principles and would reject interpretations that they consider heretical.
Those raised within with Evangelical circles will understand this grey area of personal interpretation, which is often accompanied by claims of the Holy Spirit revealing
certain truths to the individual, balanced amidst the theological framework of Evangelicalism. Yet, there is a plethora of opportunities for believers to claim a personal divine revelation and understanding of Scripture.
In the various Catholic and Orthodox churches, believers rely on a combination of Christian tradition and the interpretation of previous and current Popes and church leaders, with a lesser focus on the Holy Spirit’s role in an individual’s life for interpretation of Scripture. As these churches are more hierarchical and liturgical, we see fewer splits due to theological differences and less of a propensity to make grandiose claims about what the Holy Spirit, has revealed to an individual. This is best illustrated by the ever growing number of Protestant/Evangelical churches and denominations, versus the far fewer Catholic and Orthodox denominations which, particularly for the Orthodox, are based on ethnicity (Greek, Serbian, Russian, Ethiopian, Coptic, etc.) Orthodox.
If you are not a Christian, these distinctions may not seem that important, but within Christendom, they represent major theological disagreements including spiritual authority, Christian doctrine, forms of worship, and much more.
Throughout my Christian upbringing, adults often quoted scripture to justify everything from their theological beliefs to everyday choices, to interactions with others. I saw this in innumerable ways throughout my life, such as New Tribes Mission (NTM) leadership who felt “a check in their heart” about my parents serving in a tribal ministry which kept them in support roles despite their desire to enter tribal work. There were the many decisions regarding how to raise all of us missionary kids, educate us, and discipline us that were based in individual leader’s interpretation of scripture and personal spiritual revelation. As I’ve written about recently, scripture was interpreted literally by NTM which, combined with unchecked personal interpretation, resulted in a lot of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse at my boarding school.
As I got older, especially after graduating from BIOLA University and starting my first job at a large international Christian NGO, I really began to notice how cleverly many executives at that NGO wielded personal interpretation and revelation as a means to enforce their personal views on work issues and to maintain control of staff. I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years, as I’ve seen it in personal relationships, the church, and at work. But, it was on full display in a most revolting way during this never-ending election week.
I followed with great interest the way influential Evangelicals utilized their faith to give a “spiritual stamp of approval” on supporting President Trump, quoting scriptures, peddling falsehoods, and leading “prayer events.” Regardless of your political views, it is hard to not be appalled by this blatant abuse of the concept of personal interpretation of Scripture. In fact, the contortions some of these individuals went through were so pathetic as to be downright comical.
Below I share some of these examples to illustrate my point. While some naïve Christians have an unshakeable faith in their Christian heroes and leaders, I think the vast majority of individuals see straight through this utilitarian sham which is a naked abuse of faith. While I admit it has provided for some entertaining moments this week, this type of abuse ultimately undermines Christians and the faith they supposedly represent, whether on full display in the political sphere, or within churches, schools, and Christina homes. While similar issues could be addressed in other faiths, I draw particular attention to Evangelicals this week due to the abundance of incidents that should be highlighted. Please see the tweets below and be sure to scroll to the last which is my favorite! For those who are Christians, I hope this will be a cautionary example of how manipulating faith for your own purposes demeans and undermines the claims of Christianity.