- Courtney Ellis
If you could eliminate one verse from the Bible forever, what would it be?
I posed this question on Twitter a few weeks ago as an intellectual exercise, not an actual plan to remove sacred text. Our answers to questions like these can tell us a lot about ourselves, our priorities, our blind spots, our fears. Which sections of God’s word make us squirm, and why?
The answers I received were all over the map. A couple of women wanted 1 Timothy 2:12 struck down. Lots of folks wanted to do away with Judges 21, which, upon first reading, seems as if God sanctions genocide—not a good look. Anglican priest Tyler Wigg-Stevenson joked eliminating Revelation 22:19 would be the equivalent of “wishing for more wishes,” because once the prohibition against subtracting things from Holy Writ was gone, we could do away with whatever additional verses we wanted.
I took the post down after a couple of days—less charitable parts of Twitter discovered it and I didn’t have the energy for troll management—but people’s answers have continued to make me think.
Tussling with God is not without its dangers.
The delete button would certainly save us from having to wrestle with the Good Book like Jacob wrestled with God. Sure, Jacob left with a blessing, but according to tradition he also walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Tussling with God is not without its dangers.
I, too, struggle with Judges 21. I’m uncomfortable with psalms that end in darkness or violence directed at enemies. (Ever heard this one read in worship? Yeah, me neither.) I don’t love how so many biblical “heroes” end up fallen: Noah, a drunk; David, an adulterer; Paul, breaking ties with Barnabas and never reconciling.
As an ordained woman, I’ve had 1 Timothy 2:12 flung at me more times than I can count. While I am happy to walk people through what I believe to be a faithful and deeply Scriptural interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that allows women to serve as pastors (If I couldn’t, I would find a different vocation!), the fights that weaponize the Bible extract a cost.
If I’m honest, I’d like my Scripture tidier, simpler, more straightforward. I spend a lot of time tugging at loose threads and finding, to my dismay, they sometimes unravel whole cloth. And then I discover the cloth I’d been clinging to was never of God in the first place, that God was always weaving something entirely different.
Still, given all that, the verse I’d eliminate if God granted me permission is one far more troubling to me personally. Perhaps it says something about the state of my soul that I’d choose to keep violent verses if only I could exorcise the one that rides around with me daily like an itchy tag in the back of my shirt.
Matthew 5:48 is my waterloo: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus is speaking. The previous verses describe the command to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. It seems terrifyingly plausible that this verse means exactly what it seems to say upon a plain first reading: be perfect.
Jesus forgives the repentant thief and the loudmouth Peter.
This verse is death to the overachiever, the Type A student, any of those among us who suffer from try-hard-itis. Just when we’re ready to collapse into a recliner at the end of a long day, the verse reaches out a tentacle.
“See that basket of dirty laundry? Remember that unkind thing you said but never apologized for? How long has it been since you exercised that body of yours—the one that’s supposed to be a dwelling place for the almighty?”
Yet just as we cannot erase a single verse from Holy Scripture, neither can we pull one verse out and build a life around it. Jesus does say, “Be perfect.” But he also says, “Come to me, you who are weary.” He commands Sabbath rest. He retreats to a mountain to be alone, to pray. Jesus forgives the repentant thief and the loudmouth Peter. He speaks of his thirst. He weeps.
As Jessica Hooten-Wilson noted in an interview with Matthew Mullins in Christianity Today, Scripture is poetry as much as it is history, command, and instruction. Poetry flows and moves. It deepens when we give it time and attention. It reflects time and place in its timelessness.
It’s telling that Jesus doesn’t say, “Be better” or “Try harder.” Instead he calls for us to be perfect, an absolute impossibility. Our sins and foibles and hangups don’t just relegate us to second place at the Kentucky Derby, a nose away from victory. They bar us from entering the racetrack.
We can strive and grasp and cling and stress, or we can hold out our open palms with a smile and look to the heavens, knowing that it isn’t simply that we will fall short.
We can fall to our knees, asking for laughter and mercy and someone to step in and make things right.
And there, suddenly, is the perfection.