Every seminary student learns early on that, when it comes to the Bible, a bad interpretation leads to a bad application. But a second truth is often not emphasized: sometimes you can make a bad application from a good interpretation.
I was reminded of this often-overlooked principle when I read a recent blog post by Southern Baptist college professor Denny Burk on Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Burk argued ably that despite the belief among many modern Christians’ that Jesus is speaking of the poor here, the phrase “least of these” actually refers to Christians who have been persecuted for preaching the good news. It turns out that many respected Bible scholars agree.
If one accepts such an interpretation, I can think of any number of modern applications: the 21 Coptic Christians martyred in Libya, the Pakistani pastor whose life is in danger for preaching the Gospel, the hundreds of Christians imprisoned for sharing their faith in China. But Burk claims that the “least of these” are Christian bakers, florists, and photographers who have been penalized for refusing to serve LGBT couples.
Now I’ve argued repeatedly that marketplace discrimination against a people group—gay or otherwise—is neither noble nor Christian. But setting this aside for a moment, Burk’s assertion reminds us once again that a good interpretation doesn’t guarantee a good application.
Burk believes that the “least of these” refers to Christians who are preaching the Christian Gospel, but such is not the case in the instances he mentions. None of the bakers, photographers, or florists in question were penalized for preaching the Gospel. They were penalized for refusing to serve certain classes of people even though the law states that those who operate public businesses are required to serve the whole public. Since Burk has clearly given this much thought, I asked him what I may be missing.