The Forest and The Trees
When President Jimmy Carter announced recently that he was parting ways with the Southern Baptist Church, he argued not only with the Southern Baptist Convention’s unjust treatment of women, but just as importantly with their “quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses” to justify their actions. As President Carter wrote in his statement:
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place — and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence — than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
President Carter’s point with respect to the ordination and equal treatment of women is an important one, and the principle he cites has broader implications. As the Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and the leader of the Interfaith Alliance, puts it:
You can go in the Bible and find pretty much what you want to be said on any subject. I think what you have to do is look at the whole sweep of the Bible’s message.
The key point is this: Any time a group of people takes individual Biblical verses out of context and attempts to use them in a way that contradicts the central teachings of the Bible, the true meaning of Scripture is lost.
An example of this that has always nagged at me is the second creation story in Genesis, which concludes: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Some in the church rest their case against marriage between two men or two women on this text. But in so doing, they take it alone and out of context, without the neighboring passage only a few lines earlier that, in beginning the story, provides context for the whole thing. They miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.
In Genesis 2:18, we are given God’s reason for creating a human companion for Adam: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should live alone.” And here we have a great truth: People are not meant to live alone. Families are built upon the foundation of the love between two who become one, and that is as God intended.
As one verse taken out of context, Genesis 2:24 is a moral without a story, a commandment without reason. In context, the story fits in with a lesson taught again and again throughout the broad sweep of the Bible: to love and care for and support one another, because we are not made to live alone.
These eternal truths of Scripture — the forest — support marriage between any two people who make a lifelong commitment to love one another. We must not let carefully selected verses like Genesis 2:24 — the trees — distract us from the full sweep of the Gospel.