A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Are Our Leaders Replaceable By Computers?

On the blog a recently, poster Greg Gilbert wrote the following:

One of the things I cover in my leadership seminar is the more times you say “if I did it for you I’d have to do it for everyone”, the easier it is to replace you with a computer.

As a software developer myself, I feel this statement crystallizes a lot of where our problems are coming from in the leadership of evangelical churches. We view the Bible as source code, and our leaders (and really all believers) ideally as programs that execute this code and turn it into behavior. Before going too far with that analogy, let me break down my day job so we’re all on the same page.

I know a lot of people see computer programmers as wizards who do magic in the realm of computers. As much as I’d love to view myself that way, the truth is much less glamorous. What I do is basically describe processes in a way that a computer can understand and repeat. My basic day-to-day job is taking a task a user gives me and “coding” it to the computer in a special language it understands. The real skill of this is not in knowing the language, though many people make that mistake, but being able to properly break down and fully describe the process, understanding what the user wants.

Have you ever seen the example where two students are working together to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, where one is giving instructions and cannot watch how his or her instructions are being followed, and the other is doing exactly what the instructor says as literally as possible? The results are often funny, as the instructor will say things like “put the peanut butter on the bread” and the eager person executing the instructions will take the jar of peanut butter and sit it in top of the loaf of bread. See, as humans we deal in the abstract.  We know that “put the peanut butter on the bread” means a series of steps including: opening the bread, taking out a piece, opening the jar of peanut butter, sticking a knife in the peanut butter, etc. In fact, even THOSE steps have to be broken down further to accurately describe how to make a PB&J sandwich. And that’s what I do for a living. I take high level tasks and break them down into small, concrete tasks that a computer can do. You simply cannot tell a computer to “make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich”.

The PB&J example really illustrates how different we are from computers. We can make intuitive logical leaps and infer meaning by using a lot of natural, higher level thinking abilities we mostly take for granted. Computers are not so blessed – they can only do what they are told, exactly as they are told. They cannot infer what we want or make allowances for the limitations of what we have communicated. If you want a computer to do a complex task, you have to hire someone like me to take your higher level instructions and break them down into simple tasks, understanding all of your assumptions and underlying goals, and then describe it to the computer in its language. In my opinion, it’s one of the most fascinating jobs in the world.

So how does this relate to the Bible and the church? We are not computers and the Bible is not written like source code. Within its pages the Bible contains all we need to know for Godliness, however it’s not just something we plug into a computer and let it rip. Our lives are so much more complicated and messy than that. Can you imagine what would happen if we plugged the Bible into a computer and then gave the computer full access to run our lives? Do we think that a computer would correctly be able to apply passages like plucking out our eyes if they cause us to stumble? Or that we should hate our families?

Yet that is exactly how people apply the scripture to problems (especially other people’s problems). We say “thems the rules, sorry that your case doesn’t work out”. I will be the first to say that divorce in the case of abuse is not immediately apparent when we look at the scriptural teaching viewed as a rulebook. In fact, looking at what is immediately apparent, Jesus and Paul seem to contradict each other in giving exclusions to the “no divorce” rule. But when we move beyond using the scripture as a book of wooden rules and our lives as programs to be governed by it, we see how God deals with oppression and treachery. We see that God is a defender of the weak and that he does not desire us to suffer (though it is necessary at times). Intuitively we know that God wants to free the suffering of the abused, even when the “rules” don’t make it explicitly clear. And then when someone like David Instone-Brewer looks closer at all of the details we see that, in fact, the “rules” DO work in concert with the rest of scripture and there is no contradiction. But really, should we need David Instone-Brewer’s work to know that God does not want the abused bound in marriage to their abusers?

Rules are easy. Rules are simple. But they totally fail at deal with the messy and grey, and really if we read the scripture with clear eyes we see that God is intensely interested in the messy and grey. I’m not suggesting that we try to negate or otherwise skate around the direction of scripture in our lives, but I do think that real pastoral care requires more than just hearing a person’s situation, plugging in the scripture “source code” and then rendering a judgement or order of behavior. God gave us minds that not only can do logic and follow instructions like a computer, but minds that can do abstract thought, think intuitively, and empathize.  And even THAT wasn’t enough, for he gave believers the Holy Spirit.

We are to know people, love them, and get involved in their messy lives. God certainly did – that is the evidence of his love for us- that he loved the world so much he sent his only begotten to BE one of us. God could never be replaced with a computer; let us strive to never be replaceable ourselves.


  1. Still scared

    This was a wonderful illustration. Thank you.

  2. Still scared

    Umm…but isn’t the date you want on this November 1st, not October 1st??

    • That’s what happens when you let computers make all your decisions for you… 😉

      • Jeff S


        I have messaged Jeff to see if he can fix this, both for this post and the poem.

      • Still scared


  3. Excellent illustration, Jeff S!

    Yes, it is much more than learning and enforcing rules. Christianity is all about relationship, and learning to better understand the heart of God. A heart so filled with love for us that He became one of us, entered our dark, messy confusing world, and suffered torture and death at the hands of the very people He came to save, for the purpose of redeeming and delivering us from the kingdom of darkness.

  4. Bev Christensen

    Well done!

    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Song

    Great illustration, Jeff S. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. “We view the Bible as source code, and our leaders (and really all believers) ideally as programs that execute this code and turn it into behavior.”
    This is an excellent analogy for a common error in Christendom.

    I’d like to take this analogy one step further. When the Bible’s teaching on a topic has been misunderstood for a long time (as I believe has happened for the Bible’s teaching on divorce for abuse) then it’s like trying to execute the program with only some the source code being read correctly, and the other sections of the code being corrupted by malware.

    If people kept uppermost in their minds the attributes and character of God – that He is both merciful and just – they would be more likely to hear alarm bells when they come to conclusions that further oppress those who are already oppressed. They would think: “Hey, we’ve come to a weird and untenable result in our interpretation of the source code! Something’s gravely wrong, here.” But when their mindset is ‘input here = output there’ (end of story), the malware just continues to blight the system.

    Taking it a bit further, here are some of the sources of the malware, as I see it:
    – the centuries of mistranslation of Malachi 2:16
    – the ignoring (until recently) of the significance of Ex. 21:10-11 for divorce, also Deut. 21:14
    – the male-privilege mentality in much of the church, which many are still not fully recognising
    – the mentality that blames victims of domestic abuse for their own oppression (this is not just present within the church, it’s part of society at large)
    – the false and silly interdiction against gossip
    – the failure to call evil evil
    – the lack of leaders with real integrity and courage who have taken the trouble to learn enough about domestic abuse
    – the numbers of leaders who are abusing their own wives (we hear from the victims themselves; we don’t know the percentage, but we believe it is happening more than many would like to believe)

  7. Jeff S,

    This is excellent. Really. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. I will have to reread this several times. You have found a profoundly useful way of explaining things.

    (We are still playing “storm refugee” but I am in a place with internet at present.)

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