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Grieving the American Bible Society

Grieving the American Bible Society

Ever since my freshman year of college, I have read and toted around the same dog-eared, taped up, and much underlined and scribbled-in Revised Standard Version study Bible that I bought in a college book store for both an Old Testament class and an English lit class my first semester. It is an old friend, and I am deeply grateful to the American Bible Society for introducing us.

With that old Bible, I have learned about my faith, pondered deep ethical questions, looked for literary themes, and explored the riches of scripture and its times with it. With it, I have listened for the call of God and it was ceremonially given to me at my ordinations and at the start of every new ministry. Now when I see it, there is a pang of hurt and heartbreak.

The new employment policy of the ABS deeply angers and disappoints me. It is a policy that excludes LGBT persons and single unmarried women with children, and members of couples living outside of marriage from employment by the organization.

There was a time when “orthodox” Christianity meant essentially “Nicean” Christianity, which is a pretty big tent. Some groups might flesh that out a bit here and there over some point of doctrine or practice important to them, but it was still a fairly big tent even if the price of admission was higher.

Some Christian traditions were more welcoming and inclusive, and some less so, but there were (and are) many things we shared. At ecumenical Bible studies and in ministries that crossed denominational boundaries, we could at least share a few things. The ABS was one of those.

There was a time when the ABS allowed for different hermeneutics from different traditions. It didn’t matter if you were a liberal protestant from a mainline tradition, a Roman Catholic, or middle-of-the-road to conservative evangelical. The Bible, in many languages and versions…RSV, the NRSV, the Good News Bible, or KJV… was available to all. The ABS did heroic work in faithfully translating the Bible, without cultural or denominational bias, into most of the spoken languages around the world. They found ways to support Christians of all traditions. They worked to make the Bible accessible and in the hands of as many people as possible.

Now the American Bible Society wants to cut out the majority of Christians from the majority of Christian traditions from their work because the board has adopted a narrow dogma of scriptural interpretation that is both modern in origin and unorthodox in content. They now require their workers to abide by a dogma that understands Scripture to perform in ways never imagined by its authors to say things never imagined by its compilers in violation of the church’s catholicity and orthodoxy.

Their new, required statement of faith reads, in part:

  • “I believe the Bible is inspired by God, an open invitation to all people, and, for me, provides authoritative guidance for my faith and conduct.”
  • “I will seek spiritual maturity through regular Bible engagement…”
  • “I will seek to refrain from sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant prescribed and exemplified in the Bible.”
  • “When relational conflict arises, regardless of fault I will seek to follow a biblical process for correction, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.”

The present leadership of the American Bible Society is very open about their strategic shift from being an ecumenical organization willing to function as a bridge between mainline, Catholic, and evangelical traditions, to one that takes caters mainly to evangelicals and defines that term rather narrowly. Christianity Today reports:

“The organization now feels comfortable enough in its evangelical identity to make such a formal statement of its beliefs,” which includes some evangelical parlance but would easily be embraced by orthodox Christians across traditions, Fea told CT. “The gay employees and the more ecumenical Christians who worked for the ABS should have seen this coming.”

The organization, in their desire to publish not only the content of the Bible but to manage its interpretation, has already undertaken a subtle but significant change. The American Bible Society now holds to itself the internet address extension “.bible” so that other groups, including non-denominational groups concerned with biblical scholarship and archaeology cannot use that extension for their web-sites.

It’s not just traditions, like mine, who are open to LGBT Christians that are being cut out of the ABS’ work, but other mainline traditions (even if they do not marry or ordain LGBT persons), “ecumenically-minded” traditions, and traditions that ordain women and raise them to ministries of responsibility and authority that have been cut out of their new statement of faith. Traditions that affirm the full inclusion of women, lay or ordained, have to either hold their noses to work with this new ABS policy or find another source for scripture resources.

Most importantly, they want to cut out people. They want to bar from employment those whose private lives outside the workplace don’t conform to their narrow definition of morality based on their narrow interpretation of scripture.

So did the ABS enter the fray over the traditional fault lines of sacramental theology, biblical authority, or polity? Nope. They entered the fray over sex. The litmus test for them is over the regulation of women and their bodies and the preservation of ‘traditional’ male roles and hierarchy. They decided to hold open the door for openly gay employees and for those workers whose life at home didn’t reflect their view of marriage and gender roles. The ABS didn’t draw the line at poverty, justice, care for creation, stewardship, or even discipleship. It was about sex.

In confusing moralism for orthodoxy, they have managed to distort the whole Gospel message. They have mangled and trivialized their mission by entering a cultural fray that at its heart has nothing to do with the gospel yet at its core is entirely about how the gospel is lived. Their approach trivializes scripture and is a mockery of the disciplines of biblical study in all its forms. They chose mean-spirited conformity in the service of a kind of tepid, thin gruel of proof-texted obedience.

Their approach violates the freedom of the several Christian traditions to interpret and apply scripture in their contexts, as well the consciences of individual Christians. Their new employment policy is at once uncharitable and arrogant. If you think how they treated their female, gay, and single unmarried employees is bad, think of how they would treat those members of your parish or your community.

Nothing I read in that dear old Bible I’ve read and studied for over forty years of study and ministry justifies this. As the rector of one parish, I, for one, will no longer be using the services and products of the American Bible Society in my congregation, and would encourage my colleagues, my denomination, and members of other traditions to do the same until the leadership of the ABS comes to their senses and repents in the name of God, the Risen Jesus, and the Gospel he calls us to proclaim.

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Kurt Hill
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Kurt Hill

More right-wing, fundamentalist Evangelical crap. This time from a con-evo outfit which has been going down the tubes financially for decades.

But by now progressive Anglican Catholic Christians should be used to this historical period. We live in interesting times, both politically and theologically. Heretics abound, "clobber verses" replace reasoned Biblical interpretations for a new age, and the forces of social and political reaction attempt to freeze theology in a time warp of the 1950s---when uppity women knew their place, fags were in the closet where they belonged and people of color were patted on the head if they "behaved." Sadly, there are even those who claim to be within our own ranks who echo this reactionary--even revanchist--agenda...

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Anne Robertson
Guest

This seems like a good opportunity to remind folks that there are a number of state and regional Bible societies (I think there are seven of us left) and all are independent both from each other and from ABS. Each one sets its own policies and has its own leadership, governing structure, funding, and theological leanings.

I lead the Massachusetts Bible Society, which is seven years older than ABS and has always been independent. At MBS, we don't publish or print Bibles anymore, but we do write and publish Bible studies that are used across the theological spectrum as well as continuing our historic mission of granting Bibles to those in need.

I have had people tell me that they have withdrawn their support from us because of the new policies at ABS (the shift began over a decade ago) and have had to explain that we are not them. We do not discriminate in our hiring or leadership and anyone who is on board with our mission of biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue is welcome.

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JoS. S Laughon
Guest

It does seem quite unnecessarily harsh to ban all unmarried women with children. The rest however seems puzzling as it castigates the ABS for ostensibly sectarian but then also criticizes it for holding to a moral theology common to Orthodox, Roman and Protestant believers at the expense of a relatively recent & minority position in a few provinces of some mainline Protestant traditions.

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Brother Tom
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Brother Tom

Tom, we ask all commenters to please use their first and last names -thx, editor

So - which versions of the Bible does the ABS publish (as opposed to simply selling on their website store)? If you are going to avoid using them, which version(s) will you use?

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