Mistake #3 in Teaching the Bible: Villainizing the Villains

I don’t like finding out about mistakes I’ve made, but I do like learning how to avoid them. When my pastor, Jeff Manion, shared a workshop about three common mistakes Bible teachers make, I realized I had been making all three! But I also learned how to avoid them—and you can, too.

Jeff graciously agreed to let me share these mistakes in a three part series (here are part 1 and part 2), and today I’m sharing mistake number three:

Mistake #3: We Villainize the Villains

Perhaps because Christians know that the Bible is where we find out exactly what is wrong or sinful, we tend to look down on the “bad” people in the Bible, rather than identifying with them. We Bible teachers do this particularly well.

It’s as if we—standing in front of a group of women, holding our Bibles, pointing to a particular verse—are standing on some elevated platform as judge of the one whose sinfulness is smeared across the page. But we aren’t the judge; God is. And our teaching should invite women to bow before Him, not stand in judgment beside Him.

When we—Bible teachers and leaders—take pride in wrinkling our noses at sin, we demonstrate an arrogance that mirrors some of the greatest villains in the Bible. Can you think of anyone more villainous than the Pharisees and religious leaders who plotted to murder Jesus? That was the crime of all crimes. Yet think of how they looked down their noses at other “sinners” while ignoring their own sin!

As with the Pharisees, it’s impossible to participate in finger-pointing disgust without elevating ourselves. And elevating ourselves will not prove helpful for our own hearts or for the hearts of the women we’re sharing Truth with.

instead of looking down on them, it’s far more constructive to help our women find common ground with the sinful people of the Bible. Rather than villainizing the villains, let’s put ourselves next to the biblical figure behaving badly, and ask, “Where do I do that?”

Here are two examples:

Example 1: A whiny king (1 Kings 21)

King Ahab wanted the vineyard next door to the palace so he could plant a vegetable garden. But Naboth, the vineyard’s owner, refused. The land had history. It had been in his family for generations. It didn’t matter to Naboth that the king offered him a better vineyard or large sum of money; to Naboth this vineyard had no price tag.

Upon hearing “no,” Ahab went home and sulked like a toddler. He lay in bed, refusing to eat. His wife came in and asked why he was upset.

And he said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money, or else, if it please you, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ And he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” (1 Kings 21:6)

If you read the words of Ahab out loud, do you want to use your whiniest voice? I do. I want to paint Ahab like a whiny, entitled brat. Yet, doing so is not constructive. It exempts me from the text, rather than opening my heart to its message.

Far more helpful—both for me and the women I teach—is to ask, “Is there ever a time that I act like Ahab?” Perhaps I pout when I don’t get my way. Or I storm off when somebody doesn’t give me what I want. I retreat to my room, where I sulk and stew. I recruit supporters by telling my version of the story—just like Ahab did. It’s far better to put myself next to Ahab than to villainize and look down at him.

As I open my Bible, I can either look for a villain to criticize or a mistake to avoid. Either way, I’ll be sure to find it.

Example 2: The hypocritical leaders (Matt. 6:1–18)

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, He didn’t call out the Pharisees and religious leaders by name, but everybody knew who He was talking about when He mentioned the “hypocrites,” especially when they heard the three examples Jesus gave:

  • When you give, don’t blow a trumpet to announce it. (Matt. 6:2)
  • When you pray, don’t do so loudly on a street corner. (Matt. 6:5)
  • When you fast, don’t take extra measures to look really awful. (Matt. 6:16)

Here’s how I’m tempted to teach that passage:

Blow a trumpet? You’ve got to be kidding me. Pray loudly on the corner of Broad and Main? Come on. Walk around looking haggard and gloomy to seem super spiritual? Good grief. Obviously these religious leaders were feeling a little needy, right? They wanted all eyes on them, and craved constant approval.

It’s not helpful for me to put myself in some elevated position, standing in judgment over these Pharisees’ hypocrisy—or to invite the women I’m teaching to do the same. Why? Because our churches are filled with women who do the same things and our hypocrisy is far more serious than we might expect. 

Think of the religious leaders Jesus was warning. They were so invested in being admired and seen that they misinterpreted who Jesus was and why He had come. Instead of welcoming Him as their Messiah, they plotted against Him—the one everyone was looking at instead—perceiving Him as a threat. Rather than collapsing at His feet in repentance, they schemed to have Him nailed to a cross.

Again, it’s tempting to think of them as the villains of all villains. But when we point with disgust at their trumpets and street prayers and haggard-faced fasting, we place ourselves above the Pharisees, not among them. We see ourselves as immune to their hypocrisy and pride, not prone to it. We look down on their hearts rather than examining our own.

It’s far more constructive—as I counsel my own heart and the women I’m called to teach—to ask, “When do I act like these Pharisees?” Are there times I want everyone to look at me more than I want them to look at Jesus? Do I crave approval and attention—trumpeting the gifts I’ve generously given? Do I pray with flowery language and excessive wordiness, rather than from the heart? Do I call attention to how exhausted I am because of my devotion to church ministry? It’s better to place myself next to the Pharisees than to villainize the villains and point down at them.

Placing Myself Among the Villains

I love the song, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” I find these lyrics especially poignant and helpful:

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.

Painful as it is, I must find myself among the scoffers at the foot of the cross, because until I see that my sin was the cause of Jesus’ death, I won’t see my need for Him as my Savior.

I share the condition of every villain in the Bible. I harden my heart like Pharaoh. I am self-focused like Ahab. I betray like Judas. I deny like Peter. I am a hypocrite like the Pharisees. I scoff like those who crucified Jesus. As I open the pages of my Bible, it’s good for me to see myself among the villains because there I receive the warning and instruction I need. It’s there, among the villains, that I see my desperate need for Jesus—and there my women will, too.

Here are a few more tips to help you refrain from villainizing the villains in your message prep:

  • Make a list. Start by compiling a list of flaws you see in your Bible villain, then notice how these flaws are common to people today. Cain loathed being outdone. Achan was a liar and a thief. Nebuchadnezzar was his own god. Judas was a lover of money. Your women will be able to relate to each of these.
  • Find yourself first. Humble yourself and find commonality with the villains yourself before asking your women to do so. A broken teacher who says, “We should humble ourselves . . .” is more effective than a puffed up teacher who says, “You should . . .”
  • Don’t sidestep. It might be tempting to skip past some grievous sins of the Bible, painting them as sins of the past but not the present. Think of the story of Lot’s daughters, getting their father drunk so that he’ll sleep with them (Gen. 19:30–38). That one might be easier to skip, but don’t we skip over our own sins as well? Could there be a woman in your group who is thinking about compromising sexually to get security from a man rather than waiting for God to provide a husband in His good timing? Do you see why it would be helpful for her to hear about Lot’s daughters?
  • Be wary of disgust. Don’t teach with a “We would never” attitude. Actually, we would. When we’re tempted to be shocked or horrified with the villains of the Bible, we have to recognize that we’re equally blind to our own sinfulness. Think of Pharaoh, who murdered all the newborn baby boys in Exodus 1:22. Do you wonder how he could have justified such a ruling? Think about how you have justified some of your own selfish, sinful behaviors. These stories of deeply sinful people of the past are meant to lead deeply sinful people of today to God—where they find grace and forgiveness and hope.
  • Always lead the conversation about sin back to Jesus. Yes, sin is grievous and disastrous. But we have a Savior who came to save. He took every single ounce of our sin’s load and carried it up Golgotha’s hill. Jesus died, was buried, and rose to new life—and we can, too.

Are you ready to get back to your Bible study prep? As you encounter the villains of the Bible, don’t villainize them. Instead, help women find common ground with sinful people from the past who needed salvation as desperately as we do today.

About the Author

Shannon Popkin

Shannon Popkin is happy to be sharing life with her husband, Ken, and together they have the joy of watching their three young-adult kids become the amazing people God created them to be. From the platform, page, and podcast mic, Shannon invites women to drink deeply of God’s story and live like it’s true. Her books include Comparison Girl and Control Girl, and she hosts the Live Like It’s True Bible podcast.