Reckoning with Infallibility and Inerrancy—A Pastor’s Path Out of Abusive Church Culture

Posted by on Aug 30, 2021

Like many, the church and religious system I grew up in taught emphatically that the Bible was my rule for faith and conduct. The Bible was the “all-sufficient Word of God” deemed to clearly lay out rules for what I was to believe about God and how to live. Over the past 20 years, I have been on a journey out of this fundamentalist-heritage Christianity, and I have discovered that this definition of the Bible as a “divine rulebook” is a misguided human construct that allows religious leaders to justify spiritual abuse, control and manipulate congregations, and value human certainty over divine mystery. Eventually, it will produce arrogant Caesar-like leaders, rather than humble, servant leaders.

The Oppressor’s Tools
As I have journeyed and wrestled with the question of how abuse, control, manipulation, arrogance, and certainty became hallmarks of leadership in many Christian traditions (including my own), a frightening and disorienting thought emerged: the language around the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture (meaning the text is crystal clear and without error) sustains these evils in the church and church leadership. I have come to believe that these two doctrines are dangerous and the roots of abuse in the church. In my inquiry into how these doctrines arose, I came to see that many of the doctrines and descriptions around infallibility and inerrancy serve no purpose other than to allow those with power to present their interpretations and applications as inerrant and infallible. This dangerous posture creates an authoritarian ethos in too many churches, which props up men in power and creates the conditions for sexual abuse and misconduct to thrive and be swept under the rug.

It is beyond our scope here to fully explain how these doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy arose and became so widely accepted, but it is important to highlight that these are extra-biblical concepts that those in power have used to give divine authority to their interpretations of the Bible and squash divergent views. With the infallible and inerrant Bible as their sanction, church leaders assume or expect—some even demand—obedience to their particular interpretations, their rules. They often link people’s obedience to eternal salvation or damnation. History teaches us that these interpretations—predominately by men in positions of great power and influence—bring war, murder, slavery, economic injustice, greed, oppression of women, lack of care for mental illness, sexual abuse, continued abuse of a spouse rather than divorce, and the list goes on. 

Since the church holds considerable influence in many cultures of our world, unless these views and doctrines are tempered and evolve, these evils will continue to persist in the church and in the world at large.

The Pattern of Assertion and Subversion
A few years ago, in my own pastoral work fighting sexism and patriarchal ideas, I wanted to tackle the harmful and dangerous “rule” (drawn from Ephesians 5) that the husband has the final say and wives must subject themselves fully to their leadership. So I decided to teach this passage and offer a counter approach to the infallible, rule-book mentality towards scripture. I had been studying the work of New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan who describes a tension you see throughout the Bible between what he calls the “assertions of God’s radical vision for our world” (one which is inclusive of all and egalitarian in nature) and the “subversions” of this in passages where you see the normalcy of the ancient structures of human civilization. Take for example Ephesians chapter 5, a text that has been used for centuries to leverage inerrancy and infallibility to justify the exclusive and absolute authority of husbands in marriage and the long running oppression and spiritual enslavement of women in society and the church. These interpretations present patriarchy as God’s design for human flourishing rather than as dark shadows of human civilization’s oppressive structures which elevated some as rulers/owners of other human beings. By learning to look for this recurring tension in scripture, we can avoid the dangerous seduction of infallibility and inerrancy: to create rules that maintain power structures of oppressive privilege that disempower and enslave people to fear and rule-based religion.

To understand Ephesians 5 and its continued interpretation to endorse patriarchy (the subversion of the radical vision of God for gender equality), we must see God’s radical vision for men and women asserted elsewhere in the Bible (Genesis 1:27-28, Galatians 3:38 and Jesus’ interactions and friendships with women). This assertion of the full egalitarian vision of God was a radical idea when it was written that opposed the normalcy of the hierarchical and oppressive structures of civilization at that time. When looking at texts related to male and female relationships, we must always start with the assertion of the “radicality of God” (egalitarianism) so we might be able to identify any subversion of it by the normalcy of civilization (patriarchy). Only then, can we interpret Ephesians 5 and similar texts in a wise and non-abusive way. Only then can we ask honest questions of the text and what the authors were doing in their time for their place.

In the end, the text in Ephesians may or may not offer wisdom for the 21st century marriage. It doesn’t need to. That isn’t the end game of every passage of scripture that speaks of marriage. I do not need to turn that writer’s insight, whether appropriate for its time or not, into a rule for today’s marriages or for all time. I am free to critique the text in the light of the relationship between what God’s Spirit is doing today with the pattern of assertion/subversion in scripture.

Only when Christians learn to read their Bibles in a way that can recognize and accept this pattern (of assertion and subversion) will we find freedom from the burden of fear-based rule following, patriarchal leadership, and the perpetual advancement of violent and abusive images. Without this freedom to abandon rules, images, and metaphors that subvert the radicality of God, we will never see the end of the persistent evils of violence, patriarchy, sexism, and fear of the other.

When we unshackle ourselves from historically abusive theories of infallibility or inerrancy, we are free to explore the text for the wisdom or truth it may or may not offer our lives. We are free to accept and reject any potential implication for our lives based on how it relates to the radical vision of God displayed in the person of Jesus and the rest of scripture. We are free to stop enslaving ourselves to fallible, errant interpretations and abusive rules from those who would use the Bible to maintain power and control.

Christians awakening to God’s divine justice and seeking to follow the way of Jesus feel an alarming disconnect between their exclusive, controlling religious communities and the radical, justice-oriented God embodied in Jesus. Even though they may not be able to accurately articulate it or identify its origin, this spiritual dissonance is growing stronger and acutely painful.

Free from manipulation and fear, we can begin to work with God in healing this world. Christianity will not reflect Jesus nor participate in ending homophobia, sexism, racism, divine violence, patriarchy, and other evils as long as our beliefs about the nature of scripture allow those in power to create divine rules.

Conclusion: Not Afraid of Freedom
We do not need to fear that this freedom will somehow leave the Christian with a useless collection of writings. Christians are not on a slippery slope that ends with a sacred book that offers no inspiration, guidance, or authority. By reexamining the place of inerrancy and infallibility, we are not abandoning the belief that the Christian scriptures bring comfort for life or wisdom in following the path of Jesus. We are not denying the sacredness of the Bible. Nor are we abandoning a faithful reading or belief in God’s inspiration within these texts. On the contrary, this path of reexamination frees the Christian to think critically about healthy and unhealthy metaphors and behaviors attributed to God throughout the Bible. The Bible offers inspiration, comfort, and wisdom only when we are free to watch for the assertions of the radicality of God (the non-violent, inclusive program of Jesus) and the subversions of the normalcy of civilization (violence and exclusion).

Jesus did not promise to send us a collection of infallible or inerrant writings that if interpreted correctly will tell us how to live faithfully for all time and in all cultures. Jesus never promised to send us a perfect image of God in book form. Jesus did not command us to follow a divine rule book that would teach us how to keep God happy. Perhaps Jesus was smart enough, or knew enough human history, to know what humanity would do with such a book. Perhaps it’s time we stop being people of the book and become people of the person. People of God and humanity working together to liberate our world. 

Ryan Howell is a graduate of Evangel University (’99) and Harvard Divinity School (’01). He worked in New England for over 20 years as both a pastor and the president of Vision New England. He currently serves as the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Church in northern Colorado. In his free time Ryan enjoys camping with the family, hiking with friends, participating in triathlons and new adventures with his Airedale Terrier, Roman.