Bible Character Studies Are the Worst

Because Bible characters mean nothing apart from the Bible.

On January 20th, Pastor Robert Jeffress preached a sermon comparing President Trump to Nehemiah, mainly because they both wanted to build walls. On January 23rd, self-proclaimed prophet Rick Joyner said "the Jezebel Spirit" was behind the Women's March on Washington because they were seeking "to seduce God’s people into sexual immorality".

Everybody seems to find biblical parallels wherever they can. Even in colloquial Christianity, we often call skeptics "doubting Thomas's" or apostates "Judas's". We find a single point of commonality and sanctify it with biblical truth.

Some people actually profit off of these parallels (how American) making character studies and quizzes for Christians to consume and feel pious. And while I might be one to applaud any attempt to get folks reading their Bibles, encouraging the abuse of reason in the process is not what I had in mind.

Character studies operate on two planes of reason: inductive and deductive. Inductive, simply put, reasons from specific to general while deductive reasons from general to specific. Thus, character studies take a specific example like Thomas's questioning of Jesus' resurrection and induce that his general characteristic is doubt. They then deduce that doubt applies to us in our moments of questioning.

Except that inductive reasoning doesn't work like that. A better way of describing it is that inductive reasons from specifics to general--not from one example but many. In the case of Thomas, he may have said that he needed see Jesus before he believed, but he also encouraged the disciples to follow Jesus to Judea so that they might die with him. Hardly the words of a doubter.

Bible characters were never meant to be studied apart from their role in the narrative. Thomas wasn't a doubter any more than the rest of the disciples. In fact, his words of skepticism served as a metonymy for the disciples lack of faith juxtaposed against the faith of the women who did believe.

Rather than abuse logic and the biblical narrative, we should like for specific patterns in Scripture from which we can induce general principles. Take the recurring theme of God's choice versus man's: not Ishmael but Isaac, not Esau but Jacob, not Joseph but Judah, not Jesse's older sons but David, not a lion but a lamb. We see it so often it's hard to ignore, unlike Thomas's doubt.

Random character traits ripped from their contexts couldn't be more irrelevant because God uses all of them to accomplish his purposes. Abraham twice lacked trust yet God created a nation through him. Moses angered God on multiple occasions yet no one was closer to him. In contrast, David was brave yet he murdered and committed adultery. Gideon was trusting yet he led Israel into idol worship. Even Judas, though given to Satan, fulfilled God's plan.

There's only one perfect character in the Bible, but there are no perfect characteristics. However, we all have a tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the characteristics we think God prefers. More to the point, we like to find favorable examples for ourselves and unfavorable examples for others.

You won't come across many Christians who would happily call themselves Judas's but you will find a number of them who identify with Peter, the impulsive hot head who made some mistakes but ultimately did "great things for God". We all want affirmation in our walk so we'll use inane character evaluations hoping to feel better about ourselves in comparison to others.

Character studies are just another device to make the Bible commend us and condemn others. Joyner tried to use the Bible to condemn the marchers, and Jeffress tried to use it to commend Trump. But the Bible doesn't do either with characters. It condemns and commends based on what its characters do, not who we reduce those characters to be. Likewise, we will be judged by what we do, not by the characteristics some second-rate psychology test says you have.

Don't look for comfort in the vapid analyses of another church marketing ploy. Take comfort in the promise that if you abide in Christ, he will abide in you. Love God, love people, and trust that your character is not what sanctifies you.

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Photo credit: jimmiehomeschoolmom via / CC BY-NC-SA


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