Do Christians Read the Bible Selectively?

By Kathy Keller

How often have you heard this charge leveled against Christians? 

“Look how inconsistent Christianity is!” 

The claim that Christianity is inconsistent is supposed to be a mic drop in a conversation. Many contemporary writers make cases regarding the so-called inconsistencies of Christianity often by citing certain verses in the Old Testament that on their own don’t look like they are consistent with Christian beliefs today. For some of these writers, it seems they either rely on poor research, or they simply don’t understand the relationship between the Old and New Testament laws and the change that Jesus brought about through his life, death and resurrection.

Do Christians really pick and choose from the Bible?

Let me just suggest you do a quick google search of “Christians cherry picking” and cast your eye over the pages of accusations of Christians who choose the verses they wish to obey, and ignore the ones that are hard to defend, seem silly to modern people, or are no longer practiced.

Some of these accusations may alarm the uninformed reader. One might ask in response to reading them, “Is there really no way to aspire to consistently obey what the Bible commands?” “Is Christian obedience really just based on the individual picking and choosing what from the Bible they like and discarding what they don’t like?”

Example after example has been made by critics of orthodox, creedal Christianity to show that while some of the Old Testament laws are still considered to be in force, others are not. This is simply put, they say, cherry-picking—choosing which parts of the Bible to observe and which to conveniently ignore.

Here’s something to consider: Why is it that traditional, historic Christianity in all times and places has always taught that homosexuality went against God’s law (until recently when some denominations decided they would no longer adhere to traditional interpretation of Scripture on sexual fidelity), while discarding the prohibition against eating shellfish or wearing garments made from a combination of different fabrics? There is clearly something more going on throughout the history of the church than mere cherry-picking. It is right to point out that something changed at the start of the church. The change that occurred, however, was not a collective decision to begin cherry-picking the laws to be followed, but the fulfillment of the law by Christ.

While there are some Old Testament laws that are no longer observed because Christ fulfilled those laws with his perfect life and sacrificial death, there are other laws concerning moral character (like adultery, murder, stealing or lying, etc.) that are still in effect because they reflect God’s desire for us to live holy lives. This can confuse people unacquainted with the narrative arc of God’s redemptive plan, which prepared his Old Testament people for Jesus’ coming in the New Testament.

While there are some Old Testament laws that are no longer observed because Christ fulfilled those laws with his perfect life and sacrificial death, there are other laws concerning moral character (like adultery, murder, stealing or lying, etc.) that are still in effect because they reflect God’s desire for us to live holy lives.

A personal example of this is when I read Rachel Held Evans’s 2012 book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. After reading the book, I gave a review of it here. I pointed out how she was concealing the basic principles of biblical interpretation from her readers in order to mock Scripture. She had said (emphasis mine):

I’ve long been frustrated by the inconsistencies with which “biblical womanhood” is taught and applied in my evangelical Christian community. So . . . I set out to follow all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year to show that no woman, no matter how devout, is actually practicing biblical womanhood all the way. My hope is that the book will generate some laughs, as well as a fresh, honest dialogue about . . . biblical interpretation.

I said in response:

Evans wants to show that everyone who tries to follow biblical norms does so selectively—“cherry picking” some parts and passing over others.

Perhaps the most basic rule—agreed upon by all branches of Christianity—is that Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete.

He was the final sacrifice, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. [] 1. John 1:29 – The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! I continued:

Because Jesus taught that “all foods are clean” (Mark 7:19) and God told Peter not to call impure the things God has made pure (Acts 11:9), and because the entire books of Galatians and Hebrews explain this change at length, all Christians have known since the beginning of the church that observing the “clean laws” of the Old Testament was no longer incumbent on them.

Jesus called himself the final temple (John 2:21) and offered himself as the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This is why no Christian anywhere has offered sacrifices since the crucifixion, nor observed the rules of temple worship (cf. Galatians and Hebrews). This most fundamental rule of interpretation is based on the fact that the Bible is the story of God’s salvation coming into the world, climaxing in Jesus, and therefore we can’t read the first part of the Bible as if Jesus never came in the last part.

In making the decision to ignore the tectonic shift that occurred when Jesus came, you have led your readers not into a better understanding of biblical interpretation, but into a worse one. Christians don’t arbitrarily ignore the Levitical code—they see it as wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus. In him, we are now clean before God.

Hebrews 7:27:  Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

How to better read and apply Scripture

Every first-year seminary student is taught basic hermeneutics (the study of interpretation of texts, the Bible and others), so there is really no reason to suppose that asking: “Are there grounds for Christians to cherry pick Scripture?” is not a hard question to answer. Here’s how every Christian must approach Scripture:

  • Determine what the text meant to its original audience.
  • Discern whether the text is reporting or requiring the behavior or teaching described.
  • Interpret the text by understanding its place in redemptive history (namely, the coming of Christ).

When we apply these steps to interpreting Scripture, most accusations of “cherry-picking” texts to support one’s chosen theology are nullified.

Where there may indeed be cherry-picking and resources to address it

There may be some cherry-picking that is actually going on in what I could call “pseudo-Christian” circles.

There are people who find the tenets of Christianity embarrassing or untenable—miracles, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In most cases they are religious people who cannot affirm the Apostle’s Creed. They do, then, cherry pick their way through the New Testament to create a false gospel made up of their own unbiblical values.

People or groups who do this are not too concerning to me, as people have been denying the basic tenets of Christianity since the Sanhedrin began spreading the rumor that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the Roman soldiers were asleep (which carried a death sentence).

What is more concerning is the biblical illiteracy (at best) or genuine cherry-picking that is going on among those who profess to be Christians but don’t believe the basic tenets of Christianity. How should we think about and address instances of this among fellow believers? 

Consider how the Bible directs us to be honorable in our practices—we cannot ignore a part of Scripture in order to conduct deceptive business practices. In Amos 8:4-6, we see God’s anger directed at unethical business practices:

4 Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,
5 saying,
“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
6 buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

Paul, writing from prison, demands that Christians exhibit godly character to other Christians, while also being on the look-out for false teaching.

In Ephesians 4:1-2, 14-19, Paul, writing from prison, demands that Christians exhibit godly character to other Christians, while also being on the look-out for false teaching. He extolls them to absolutely NOT imitate their oppressors:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love…

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

And paramount are Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount, blessing the people who are meek, peacemakers, and persecuted, rather than those who are aggressive or avoid persecution at any cost: 

Matthew 5:3-12

3  Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4   Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
5   Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
6   Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
7   Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
8   Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
9    Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all
  kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because
  great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the
  prophets who were before you.

In fact, even a quick read through the New Testament will show you that it warns and even condemns the very behavior many people now deem necessary to counter the opponents of Christian teaching and values: quarrelsomeness, vulgarity, harsh words, false teaching (which would include selectively using Scripture—cherry picking—to manipulate or even deceive). When someone professing to be a Christian displays these qualities, it calls into question whether or not they have ever even read through the New Testament, much less the entire Bible, and if they have, how they cannot be concerned with God’s judgment on the very behavior some of them encourage.

So, no, Christians aren’t “cherry-picking” when they no longer observe the Old Testament cleanliness laws and sacrificial system, since those were fulfilled in Jesus. But perhaps it is in some cases a valid accusation against others who, rejecting the main tenets of the Christian faith—affirmed since the start of the church—teach others to live in ways that are diametrically opposed to what Jesus taught.

As Christians who love and serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us allow the gospel to direct how we read and apply Scripture to our lives and may we live out the Word of God humbly and honorably in spirit and in truth.

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