Purple Shirts Proof-texting in Public

How not to read the Bible courtesy of the Episcopacy


I am always encouraged when Christians choose to measure their actions by the Word of God.  When making a decision, it is helpful to measure it against Scripture and even to be able to justify the action with a passage or a verse.  As an Anglican Christian and an Episcopalian, I am even more encouraged when our leaders seek to live biblically.  This does not always happen.  Unfortunately, this week in church news was not a good week for the untrained to learn from Anglican bishops how to read the Scriptures properly.  Our bishops, if you are not aware, generally wear purple shirts as a sign of their office.  What we witnessed this week in two separate cases is Purple Shirts Proof-texting in Public (warning: do not say this three times fast with five saltine crackers in your mouth).

There is an inherent danger in reading the Bible to find a verse or text to prove your point.  This error is known as proof-texting, and all trained theologians are warned against this isolationist tendency.  As I was taught in seminary, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  The discipline of receiving godly instruction from God’s Word includes the study and consideration of the fullness of any piece of Scripture that we would choose to quote.  There were two notable examples of proof-texting this week by Anglican bishops.

The first came from the Right Reverend Clifton Daniel, Bishop of East (North) Carolina in a letter written to our own Bishop Lawrence.  In it, he chose to reference and apply Mathew 18:15-20.  Here is the context:

Since we have had no direct communication from you regarding these reported actions, we determined that it is our duty as bishops of this province to address these concerns in direct communication with you, as Jesus exhorts his followers in Matthew’s Gospel (18:15-20), and in accord with our ordination vows regarding the unity and governance of the church. What we seek in the coming weeks is a face-to-face meeting with you and and a representative group of your fellow Bishops Diocesan of Province 4 in order to have a clarifying conversation and to address the concerns raised among us:

The letter continues with the listing of two concerns.  In the final paragraph, his letter indicates that he will release the letter to “Episcopal news organizations” following a telephone conversation.

Now it has been widely noted in the blogosphere that Bishop Daniel only partially followed the admonition of Matthew 18.  Here’s how the text reads:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

In his hurry to find a Bible verse to justify the request of the Province IV Bishops, Bishop Daniel failed to follow the very verse he is quoting.  Verse 15 requires Bishop Daniel to visit with Bishop Lawrence privately and alone.  It seems that Bishop Daniel has moved on to the action described in Verse 16 of a group of believers going to a recalcitrant brother.  The only problem is he assumes the conditions in Verse 17 (refusal to listen) and pre-publishes the “offense” to the church.  This my friends is a prime example of a Purple Shirt Proof-texting in Public.  Humbly, either follow Matthew 18 or do not quote it.

The second example involves international Anglican relations and relieves any of the more conservative Anglicans from the smug thought that their heroes, especially their bishops, would not publicly proof-text.  This example comes in a letter from the Right Reverend Charles Murphy to the Archbishop of Rwanda, the Most Reverend Onesphore Rwaje.  There has been a breakdown in the relationship of the Anglican Mission in America with its parent body the Rwandan House of Bishops.  In the letter Bishop Murphy chooses the Exodus story to elucidate the situation.  Here’s how this portion of the letter reads:

I must now say, however, that I believe that the Lord’s present word to me (and to us) now directs me to look beyond Genesis chapters 39-45, and on into the Book of Exodus.  There we find the following:

 Exodus 1:8 > “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” 

 Clearly, with an altogether new and different leadership in place in our African home of refuge and sojourn, the Anglican Mission, like the people of God earlier in Exodus, now finds itself in a very new and different situation.  The result, as we saw in the story of Exodus, is that God’s sovereign hand which had led His people into Africa (Egypt) in the earlier Book of Genesis, then took a dramatic turn in the Book of Exodus instructing His people that it was now time for them to leave Africa.

 Exodus 5:1, 8:1, 9:1 etc. > God next states again and again that He is ready for His people to go.

 The promise, of course, was that He had actually prepared a new home in a new location, which would then launch a totally new chapter in the unfolding story of the people of God.

 Exodus 10:1 >  God then begins to move within the hearts of the Egyptian leadership to make it more and more clear to the people of Israel that Africa (Egypt) could no longer be viewed as their lasting home.

 I now see a parallel between the Exodus story and the present situation with Rwanda and the PEAR. Things have now been made very clear to me, and I am thankful for the clarity that I now have.

 I am very thankful that Bishop Murphy believes that he has received a clarity from the Lord, but I want to humbly suggest that the text from which he draws a parallel is unfortunately a proof-text for his actions.

The Exodus powerfully reminds us of God’s sovereignty over all people and events, not just the people of Israel.  Joseph’s rise to power in Pharaoh’s household is a perfect example of God’s guiding hands over all things.  Because we understand who Pharaoh is – a competing deity with Yahweh in the Exodus narrative – it is hard to accept that the Archbishop or the Rwandan church is a parallel.  Bishop Murphy goes on to directly compare Africa and Egypt.  He even suggest the use in this case of them interchangeably.  How can that be?  Biblically, going to Egypt is sometimes required but never preferred.  Egypt is a pagan nation.  Africa – a continent- is not first of all a nation and second of all is not pagan.  For American Anglicans troubled by the drift of the Episcopal Church to seek shelter from the church in Rwanda is not akin to going to Egypt, at least not biblically.  Again we see a Purple Shirt Proof-texting in Public.

As a parish priest my concern is for everyday Christians to receive the power and presence of the Lord through the proper understanding of God’s Word.  Because I believe 2 Timothy 3:16 when it says that the “all Scripture is… useful for teaching,” I want all of our people to know how to properly receive the teaching that is also useful for “rebuking, correcting and training.”  We expect a lot from our leaders, but I do not think it is too much to expect that they would be “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 3:15).  May I just ask for no more Purple Shirts Proof-texting in Public?