Misattributing The Bible: What Dawson Trotman Would Say To Barack Obama, And To All Of Us Who Identify In Christ


President Obama followed up one of his more ingenious moments with one of his more forgettable moments.  After brilliantly taking over for Stephen Colbert on his show earlier this week, President Obama took to quoting scripture during an immigration speech in Nashville last night.  Mr. Obama said:

“The good book says, don’t throw stones in glass houses. Or, make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes.”

As many commentators (and twitter users ) have pointed out the first quote is not from the Bible.  It is a common proverb quoted in Chaucer, perhaps attributed to James I, and re-quoted by scores of English speaking Europeans and Americans over the past three centuries.  And yet, while it appears to be a helpful moral proverb, it does not find its grounding in the authority of Scripture.

So what do Christians make of President Obama’s inexcusable misattribution of Scripture? And furthermore, in what way should this rather awkward public misattributions shape our future discipleship?  I believe that Dawson Trotman would be helpful for weighing in on this particular issue.


dawson-trotman-courtesy-of-the-navigators-linkDawson Earle Trotman (1906-1956) was the founder of The Navigators parachurch ministry, the architect behind Billy Graham’s Follow Up team, a mentor and confidant to Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright, Wycliffe Bible Translator’s Cam Townsend, and YoungLife’s Jim Rayburn, and the original thinker behind the 20th century idea of discipleship in the fundamentalist and evangelical movements in America.  At the core of Trotman’s discipleship methodology was a practical emphasis on memorizing the plain text of scripture, usually from within the King James translation.

Trotman believed that Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,”  was a core theological text for spiritual formation and essential for the development of disciples of Christ.  In his reading of this verse, Trotman believed that God wants all Christians to memorize scripture and hide it in their hearts, the central-most part of their being, in order to effectively shape and produce a disciple who would operate from a biblical worldview.  Not surprisingly, the first year of discipleship training under Trotman involved flash card memorization of 1000 Bible verses covering theological topics ranging from sin and salvation to prayer, evangelism, and spiritual growth. By the end of the discipleship program, many of the Navigators’ top brass could recite whole portions of the Bible from memory.

Trotman recoiled at what he observed to be an “easy believism” in American Christianity, the kind of watered down Christianity that offered cheap grace and psychological notions of forgiveness to convenience-oriented Christians.  These were the selfsame types of American religious adherents who often misattributed popular sayings to the Bible.  For Trotman, if you did not know the difference between cultural moral sayings and the plain text of scripture you were breaking the heart of God.  In fact, it was not uncommon for Trotman to find himself chatting with a Christian only to shift the conversation to spiritual matters with the piercing and unsettling question, “So, what verse of the Bible are you currently memorizing?”

Upon attending his first Billy Graham crusade meeting in 1950 (at Graham’s invitation) Trotman took issue with the lack of any legitimate follow up efforts for those who made decisions to be born again and to follow Jesus in discipleship.  He invited the Graham team over to his house for dinner and proceeded to lecture them on why follow up was important.  In particular, Trotman pressed Graham and his team on the need for more robust scripture memory plans for new believers.

To his credit, Graham was not offended at the stern lecture during the meal at the Trotman home.  Instead, Graham demanded that Trotman begin developing a systematic follow up program to be used in all future Graham crusades — the very follow up program that Graham would use for 60 years, and the same program currently used by most major evangelists, including his daughter Ann Graham Lotz.

With Graham’s reach and influence, Trotman was able to see a portion of his ministry vision fulfilled as thousands of people came to believe in Christ and then become discipled through Navigator training methods, including scripture memorization. Many more came to grow spiritually through one of Trotman’s most notable inventions – scripture memory cards.

Trotman worked diligently throughout his ministry to ensure that when Christians were pressed into giving informed positions on important issues, they were prepared to also provide a document trail back to the chief authority on all matters of life and faith — The Bible, quoted verse and chapter. For Trotman, paraphrasing was not enough. General summaries were ultimately unhelpful.  And misattributions were lazy and potentially damaging, since they spoke to the reality of God’s nature and character.  For Trotman, God was the chef, the Bible was the menu, and the job of the Christian was to be a waiter who quoted verbatim what was printed on the menu.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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