Selective Literalism

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’m reading a really funny and engaging  book called The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. In it, Jacobs tries to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year. His journey yields unexpected epiphanies and struggles, and highlights the challenges associated with biblical literalism. For me, it has served as a reminder of how often I pick and choose which portions of the Bible I decide to take literally and how dependent I am on selective literalism.

So, what exactly is selective literalism? I define selective literalism as the tendency to elevate certain biblical principles over others in order to best accommodate one’s personal opinions. For example, most Christians do not believe that rebellious children should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18), but many support the death penalty as punishment for murder (Genesis 9:6). 

Author Randall Balmer believes that selective literalism has been exploited by the Republican Party in order to attract one-issue voters.  In his book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, he writes that “selective literalism continues to serve an important function for the Religious Right. It allows them to locate sin outside of the evangelical subculture (or so they think) by designating as especially egregious those dispositions and behaviors, homosexuality and abortion, that they believe characteristic of others, not themselves.” (10) 

[I would add that it is equally hypocritical for the democratic party to champion human rights while ignoring the concerns of so many Christians regarding the unborn.] 

While applying selective literalism in interpreting Scripture is largely unavoidable, I see it playing a particularly harmful role in the following areas: 


A few years ago, my church got really involved in Tennessee’s push to include an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Forums were held, signs were posted in the church lawn, and bumper stickers were passed out. It was a classic example of evangelicalism’s continued  obsession with homosexuality, an obsession I believe has done irreparable damage to the relationship between the Church and the gay community. 

Now, I am certainly aware of the biblical passages that condemn sodomy. However, I find it very interesting that Jesus Himself never mentions the issue. 

He does, however, talk about divorce. Jesus said that “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” 

So why isn’t the evangelical community pushing for legislation against divorcees? Should we make it illegal for divorced women to remarry or to adopt children?

(To be clear, I don't think pursuing anti-divorce legislation is a reasonable response to Christ's teachings. Considering the context of His remarks, we might as well imprison folks for calling other  people names...which Jesus likens to murder. I bring up divorce only to highlight the inconsistency in the evangelical response, not to judge anyone who's been divorced.) 

Women in Leadership. 

Why is it that so many evangelicals disregard Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head,” while adamantly supporting his instruction to Timothy to “suffer not a woman to teach…but to be in silence”?  

It seems that whenever Paul talks about clothing, his words are interpreted as being culturally influenced; but whenever he talks about leadership, it’s suddenly considered a “biblical” thing.  Honestly, I have more respect for Mennonite and Amish communities that are at least consistent in this area than for fundamentalist churches that pick and choose and then claim to be biblical literalists.

I echo Balmer’s concerns when he writes, “I guess what worries me…is that if I had been alive 160 years ago or 60 years ago, and the issues of the day were, respectively, slavery and segregation-I worry that I might have been one of those people quoting scripture in defense of slavery and segregation.” (30) 

So, what do we do about this? What other issues are being affected by selective literalism? If it’s impossible to take the entire Bible literally, what should “make the cut?” 

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

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