Bible Education Questions Bad Bible Bullies Don’t Want You To Ask
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.
What if the way to set yourself free from the oppressive power of Bad Bible Bullies is as simple as asking better questions?
One thing is certain about Bad Bible Bullies. They already know the answers. Ask them a question about the Bible, and they will give you the definitive, authoritative answer about “what the Bible says.”
Getting The Right Answers
For many Christians, “The Truth” comes in the form of predefined answers. You learn to recite a catechism or statement of faith or creed. Your “faith” is equivalent to your “belief” in authoritative statements and “belief” is your assent to the doctrines and practices of your particular religious group.
This is why Bible “study” is often the same as “studying” for a test in school, where you are judged by whether or not you provide the “right” answers.
Many of us learned very early to accept predefined reality as the way things really are.
The Real Meaning of “Education”
Consider the word “education.”
For many of us, education means sitting passively in classrooms, while the “teacher” expounds information. Our job as students is to “learn” the information well enough so that we can provide the right answers to questions about the predefined information.
In fact, “education” comes from the Latin word, educare, which is derived from the Latin word, educere, which means “to bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” + ducere “to lead.”
In other words, “education” is a matter of direction. It is not a matter of putting information into the student, but a matter of the teacher “bringing out” and “leading forth” the student.
But what is brought out of the student? What is the student led forth to do?
Consider this dictionary definition of “educate.” Education “develops the faculties and powers of the student.”
As a former teacher, I have thought long and hard about what this basic meaning about education means for teachers and for students.
And as a preacher and teacher in churches, I have thought long and hard about what this basic definition means about preaching and teaching the Bible.
And as a writer, I consider this basic definition as the essential foundation for Freedom From Bad Bible Bullies.
It’s Not About Getting The Right Answer
If you feel oppressed by what you have learned about the Bible, the solution is not to start by asking for answers, but to ask a new set of questions.
For four years, I taught a course on the “Old Testament Prophets” at a theological seminary in Berkeley. I never taught the course the same way twice, but I always began the semester with a class motto.
On the first day of class each semester, I gave the students a one-page handout with these words on it.
It’s not about getting the right answer.*
*It’s about asking better questions.
I told my students at the beginning of the semester that I was a hard teacher and an easy grader. They would have a short written assignment for each class. Each assignment had a question or two. The assignment was to do their best to answer the questions, based on their own reading of the Bible.
I specifically asked them to answer the questions themselves and not to use the textbooks or any other references books. I told them that I wasn’t looking for specific answers to the questions, but for evidence that they had actually engaged with the material.
I also told them that I would make comments on their papers but I would not put grades on them.
Bible Education For Seminary Students
My students were all adults, which means they had spent lifetimes learning how to play the game called “going to school.” Seminary students all have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some have advanced degrees. This means that my students knew very well what it meant to sit and listen and take notes. They were veterans at the game of figuring out what the teacher is looking for and feeding it back. Give the teacher the right answers, and you get a good grade. Give the teacher the wrong answers, and you flunk.
Freedom From The Need To Get The Right Answer
As a teacher, I was fascinated to watch the students react to the freedom to read the Bible without having to produce the “right” answers. Some students immediately caught on to what I was after. Others struggled for a while. But as time went on, I could recognize the moments when particular struggling students finally realized that I meant it. All I wanted was for them to answer the questions without having to worry about getting the “wrong” answers.
What was most fascinating to me as a teacher was to watch the quality of responses over time. I began to see amazing insights from students. Their insights opened up perspectives I had not seen before.
I was especially gratified as a teacher to see how much the students who had always considered themselves to be mediocre students began to realize that they were far more capable than they ever imagined they could be.
Of all of my students, the one who resisted the most was a woman who had given up her position as a tenured full professor at a prestigious university to start theological seminary.
One time, when my assignment asked for a one-paragraph hand-written response to a particular question, she gave me an eight page typed paper with a dense one page bibliography that included references to five books written in German.
In my comment on her paper, I wrote: “This is not what I asked you to do. All I wanted from you was one paragraph telling me what you see in this chapter when you ask this question.”
It went on like that for ten weeks of a thirteen week semester. She could not do any assignment without turning it into a research paper compiling the opinions of experts.
Undoing Three Hundred Years Of Education In The West
And then one day, as I was in the front of the room, leading a class discussion, she blurted out from the back of the room: “I have finally figured out what you are doing. You are trying to undo three hundred years of education in the West.”
Although I had never quite thought about my teaching method in those terms, I said, “You’ve got it.”
In hindsight, that is exactly what I was attempting to do. I was attempting to set my students free from an educational process that that indoctrinates more than it educates.
This is especially true in “Christian education,” which often has little to do with education and much to do with indoctrination into particular doctrines and formulated beliefs.
And this is exactly what I am attempting to do here. To teach in a way that educates rather than indoctrinates.
And so back to the Bad Bible Bullies.
Why Bad Bible Bullies Do Not Want Genuine Bible Education
One of the dominant characteristics of Bad Bible Bullies is that they do not allow genuine study of the Bible, because genuine questions about the Bible have a way of challenging the status quo.
And even more significantly, for Christian believers who claim that the Bible is the “Living Word of God,” a process that doesn’t allow genuine questions doesn’t leave much room for any sort of life-transforming insights.
And this is exactly why so many people who have been wounded by Bad Bible Bullies quoting Bible verses can’t quite get free of the lasting effects of the hurt. They have only the old answers. They don’t have new questions.
Unquestioned Answers That Become Weapons
The Bible—in the hands of untrained users—can be as dangerous as a loaded assault weapon in the hands of someone who has no idea how to use it. The Bible is a powerful weapon and can hurt people, whatever the intention of the person using it.
You could be someone who grew up the way I did. The dominant experience of my earliest years was constant fear for my life. I was constantly terrified by parents who were—in my experience—terrible parents.
Where did I first encounter Bad Bible Bullies? They were the well-meaning Sunday school teachers who taught me that I had to be obedient to the parents who terrified me.
Very early, I knew—was absolutely certain—that the angry Father God in Heaven didn’t care at all about me. God cared only that I obeyed my parents. And to make it even worse, God knew everything about me. God could see me, even when I was lying in bed terrified, too scared to allow myself to sleep.
I knew—was absolutely certain—that God could see me and didn’t care. All God cared about was that I obey the raging drunk who beat me and keep silent under endless verbal assault.
I knew—was absolutely certain—that God would punish me if I ever disobeyed my parents by telling the truth about what happened at home.
Did my Sunday School teachers intend to be Bad Bible Bullies? I’m sure they didn’t. They were well-meaning volunteers with no training at all in biblical scholarship. They couldn’t have known know how much their instructions to obey my parents compounded my fear. Their unquestioned answers kept me silent and scared, forcing me to keep secrets no child can bear to keep without paying a heavy price.
Hurt By Bad Bible Bullies
Over the years, I have listened to many people who have been hurt by Bad Bible Bullies.
I have listened to battered women talk about going to their clergymen, asking for help, only to be told that they must submit even more to their abusive husbands. The pastor or minister recited Bible verses, and chided them: “If you are more submissive, your husband will stop beating you. And if he doesn’t stop beating you, your submission will make him feel guilty and then he will repent.”
I have listened to gay Christians talk about the fear and shame heaped upon their heads by those who fire Bible verses as if they were bullets. They have been ostracized from families, excluded from churches, targets of verbal abuse and physical violence, and denied various civil rights, in the name of the “Word of God.”
I have listened to black friends talk about their experiences growing up in the segregated Deep South, and how they were wounded by Bible verses about the curse of Ham and the obedience of slaves, and claims that God ordained the separation of races.
I have listened to stories about children being sexually assaulted by priests and ministers—“men of God”—who heard what all abused people hear from Bad Bible Bullies: “God demands that you be obedient, submissive, and silent. And you have to forgive the one who wronged you, even when the one who abused you never asks for forgiveness, because Jesus said you must forgive. And if you don’t forgive, you are an even greater sinner.”
I have listened to people who were out of work and struggling to put food on the table tell stories about how someone armed with Bible verses told them that they had to tithe, even if it meant going hungry, because God demands it in the Bible.
These are just a few examples. I could list many more. All of these people—and so many more that I have known personally and legions more that I have heard or read about—experienced the power of Bad Bible Bullies.
Whether the Bible is used as a weapon intentionally or unintentionally, the result is the same. People get hurt in the name of the “Word of God.”
Asking Better Questions About The Bible
The only way to set yourself free from the suffocating answers of the Bad Bible Bullies is to go back to the Bible with a different set of questions.
- Does the Bible really teach scared children that God will punish them if they tell the family secrets?
- Does the Bible really teach women to be submissive and silent in the face of male authority and abusive power?
- Does the Bible really teach that homosexuality is an abomination and that gays deserve to be killed, or at least ostracized?
- Does the Bible really teach that dark skin means defectiveness?
- Does the Bible really teach that God cares only that people be obedient to power?
Does the Bible really teach this kind of stuff?
If you can find something in the Bible that seems to say so, are you sure that you know what it really meant then?
And if it really did mean that in its own context, is that meaning the best that the Bible has to offer now?
Are certain types of people always meant to endure abuse because of something that was written and recorded in the Bible? Really? What kind of Good News is that?
These are the types of questions that can set you free from the oppressive certainties of Bad Bible Bullies.
If you see yourself in this list, and you want to be free of the power of Bad Bible Bullies in your life, I welcome you to ask these questions with me.
I invite you to join my Bible Authority Questions Email Newsletter for regular emails about the difference between answers about the Bible that rob you of personal freedom and questions about the Bible that will set you free.
For Your Freedom
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.