Interpreting Scripture vs. Twisting Scripture

Title: Interpreting Scripture vs. Twisting Scripture

Text: 2 Peter 3:14-16

Time: September 30, 2008

For nearly 2000 years of Christian church history there have always been slight variations in the interpretation of scripture; and in some cases, as in the case of classic differences between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant understanding, for example, large differences. But never, ever has there been such a wide diversity of biblical interpretations as we see today flooding the church from every direction. It is a legitimate question to ask, “Is there such a thing as an evangelical Christian any more?” I believe the problem all comes down to a sloppy and careless approach to interpreting the Bible. Today it seems that anybody can come to the Bible from any angle whatsoever and pull anything, any kind of interpretation of any passage out of the Bible and claim to have a new interpretation. And the sad fact is that most of evangelicalism has nothing to say accept, “Well, if that’s what he sees the passage saying, who are we to question his understanding of it?” It’s as if anybody at any time can come up with any kind of bizarre interpretation of any passage in the Bible and nothing can be said to object, because after all, doesn’t everyone have the right to read and understand the Bible any way they want? Isn’t anyone’s interpretation of the Bible as good as anybody else’s? Well, the answer to that question is clearly, “No.” It has never been the case in the history of the church, from the earliest times to modern times, that anybody’s and everybody’s understanding is to be given equal weight in Christianity. For example, in the first century of Christianity, the Apostle Peter writes to Christians and comments on the writings of the Apostle Paul. In his comments, Peter clearly distinguishes between correct interpretation of scripture and incorrect. 2 Peter 3:14-16, “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In this brief comment, we see the Apostle Peter making the distinction between true and false interpretation of scripture. He makes the distinction between an accurate and clear understanding of inspired writings, and distortions and lies produced by ignorant and unstable people. In contrast with today’s evangelical world, Peter doesn’t grant everyone the privilege and respect of having their own personal interpretation of every scripture passage. Clearly, there is accurate interpretation of scripture and there are distortions. So with that as an introduction, let me make a few points on some key principles of scriptural interpretation, so that some of the confusion we see generating in the evangelical world today might perhaps be corrected. I’ll use 1 Timothy 2:11-14 as an example of scripture twisting today and its correction using sound principles of biblical interpretation.

First, much scripture twisting can be avoided by seeking the plain sense meaning. 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” The context for the passage is the church, and the verse seems to say, on the surface and plainly, just what it says: the Apostle Paul doesn’t want a woman to teach or have authority over a man in the church. I think it was John Wesley who once said of the plain sense principle of interpretation: “Seek no sense other than the plain sense if the plain sense makes sense.” In other words, if the passage makes plain sense, then leave it at that. Now does the above passage make sense? Yes. Ok, then it means what it says and says what it means. But today, modern feminist authors and speakers and thinkers can’t leave the plain sense plain because they have another agenda to promote – total equality between men and women in all matters great and small. Now the Bible plainly teaches equality of worth for men and women from the beginning of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them, ” Genesis 1:27. So we see total equality of worth very early and very clearly taught in the Bible. That is clear. But nowhere does the Bible teach that men and women are equally gifted or equally called to carry out the same tasks or assignments. That’s what modern feminists want to promote – total equality of men and women not only in worth but in every aspect of life, gifts, roles, callings, assignments, abilities, etc. It’s just ridiculous. While teaching equality of worth, the Bible clearly teaches differentiation of roles and callings between men and women. 1 Timothy 2:12 clearly and plainly teaches differentiation of roles between men and women in the church. God does not give women the same function or role in the church as he does men. But feminists, even those in the church who call themselves Christians, don’t want to admit to the plain teaching of the scriptures on this point, so they have to ignore the plain sense meaning of scripture in order to find some other alternative interpretation. It’s what the Apostle Peter called a distortion of scripture by ignorant and unstable people. The feminist argument against the plain sense meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12 is there must be some other meaning because it cannot possibly mean that a woman can’t teach or hold a position of authority over men in the church. Because it if were so, then that would be unfair, unjust, male chauvinistic. The problem is that the plain sense meaning of the passage offers no problem to anyone, except and unless they insist on promoting a feminist interpretation and agenda within Christianity and the church – then and only then does it present a problem, but not for the Bible. The Bible doesn’t have a problem with the plan sense interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12; only people who bring to the Bible an outside agenda, such as feminism, have a problem.

Second, much scripture twisting can be avoided by consulting the historical church understanding. 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” We’ve just seen that the plain sense understanding of the passage yields a straightforward and clear understanding and meaning of the verse. But as I pointed out, today modern feminists do not accept the plain sense meaning because they want to promote an outside agenda and bring that agenda to the text in order to interpret it in harmony with their modern understanding of equality and justice. They want to impose an outside and foreign meaning on the biblical text in order to bring it in-line with what they already believe, instead of letting the text bring them in-line or conformity with the truth of God. So in order to do that, they must come up with alternative and diverse interpretations of the verse and overthrow the plain sense meaning of the passage. We don’t have time to review and evaluate all the diverse and different interpretations that modern feminist authors have given this passage because they are many. Their goal is not to necessarily defeat the plain sense or common sense interpretation of the passage, at least not at first, but only to promote the idea that there can be many understandings or interpretations of the verse. The goal, at first, is to simply make room for their new, modern feminist understanding, not necessarily defeat the traditional understanding for the verse. This is where evangelicalism stands today. More and more churches and denominations are opening up the Bible to more and more diverse and different interpretations. For example, on this issue of women’s ministry in the church, more and more denominations are practicing diversity of interpretations and permitting women to become pastors in local churches. This growth of diversity of interpretation is spreading into many other areas too. The next phase is to allow diversity of interpretation of the Bible on the issue of gay lifestyle, gay marriage and gay ordination to ministry. How is this done? By reinterpreting every passage in the Bible that teaches against homosexuality. Solomon once wrote that there is no end in the writing of many books; well, today we might rephrase that to say there is no end in the spinning of many different interpretations of the Bible. The whole problem of the multiplication of endless interpretations of the Bible can be solved if we simply consult church history. Has the plain sense meaning of a passage been affirmed and established throughout the generations of Christians of all times and places? If it has, that’s pretty weighty evidence that the plain sense meaning should be maintained, regardless of how many alternative interpretations can be found. If the earliest Christians thought it so, if the generations of Christians after the founders thought it so, if all subsequent generations of Christians thought it so, then it probably is so. We’ve got to recognize the Holy Spirit working when the plain sense of scripture is affirmed by Christians in all places at all times. The feminist interpretation of scripture is new, very new, which makes it novel, which makes it at odds with the plain sense of scripture as well as the historical understanding of the passage by nearly all Christians throughout the ages. That’s strong evidence to preserve the classic interpretation.

Third, much scripture twisting can be avoided by letting scripture interpret scripture. 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” Martin Luther was a champion of this most common sense principle of interpretation. Let the Bible, it’s whole and it’s parts, interpret itself. In other words, because the Bible is a product of divine inspiration and because it’s Author is ultimately God Almighty who reveals his will to prophets for the purpose of communicating to mankind, the assumption must be that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself and is in harmony with itself overall. Given that assumption, it only makes sense that we should use scripture to interpret scripture. So if we apply the principle of scripture interprets scripture to the above passage we find, again, the plain sense meaning and the historical church meanings line up, as well as the whole Bible, generally and specifically, lines up too. Does the plain sense meaning line up with what the whole Bible teaches about roles for men and women in ministry? Yes. From the ministry of Jesus to the last apostle, we see men and women functioning in ministry in harmony with what the Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 2:12. Feminist authors like to point out the many names of women in the Bible who carry out ministry, which is perfectly true. The point is, however, that these women don’t carry out ministry in ways that violate the Apostle Paul’s teaching that men are to be primary teachers and leaders in the church. Feminist authors attempt to read-into the brief descriptions of women in ministry found in the New Testament as examples of women teaching and leading men in the church. But it’s impossible to do so honestly. The descriptions of women in ministry in the New Testament establish that women were indeed highly involved in church ministry, as they should be today, but in no way does it prove that they were in positions of authority over men teaching and leading – in contradiction to Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2. There were indeed women prophets or prophetesses, but that doesn’t contradict Paul’s instructions. There is a difference in the New Testament between giving prophetic utterances and teaching or leading. Nothing in the New Testament describing women in church ministry contradicts the plain sense meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12. Every account of women in ministry in the New Testament fits perfectly with Paul’s teachings on the distinctions between men and women in the church. There is no reason for overthrowing the plain sense meaning of the verse, or overthrowing nearly 2000 years of Christian understanding of the verse, and the fact that when scripture interprets scripture, it harmonizes perfectly with the classic, historic, established interpretation.

As I stated before, in the evangelical world today there is a rapid multiplication of interpretations of the Bible moving forward at an accelerated pace. If something isn’t done to bring sanity out of the situation there will be soon be near chaos in the evangelical world, and the word “evangelical” won’t mean anything at all. It won’t describe anything distinct from anything else. Historically, evangelicals were known for their strong loyalty and commitment to the Bible, but today, with the spread of diverse interpretations and the seeming approval of this modern development by evangelical leaders, pretty soon any kind of distinction based on the Bible will be gone. Denominations, church leaders, pastors, teachers and Christians in general must return to a common sense view of biblical interpretation and encourage others to do the same. If we continue down the path of unlimited tolerance for diversity of interpretations of the Bible, we’ll see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Truth has fallen in the streets.” What good is a Bible if nobody can agree what it says? What God is revelation from God if Christians can’t even agree what the revelation says? If every individual Christian has his or her understanding or interpretation of every passage of the Bible how can there be any kind of order? I mentioned the case of homosexuality and the Bible. There is a strong move right now for full recognition and approval of the gay lifestyle within the church by reinterpreting all the classical and historical passages in the Bible against homosexuality. If this project is completed in the years ahead, Christians will be forced to affirm gay lifestyles, gay marriages and gay ordination to church ministry out of respect for the different and diverse interpretations of the Bible that will be tolerated. Instead of calling homosexuals to confess and repent of sin, Christians will be forced by denominations and church leaders to respect the diverse and different biblical interpretations and lifestyles. We see this happening already in the Episcopal Church and other denominations. That’s where the evangelical world is headed unless something changes. I propose that denominations and churches begin to carefully examine the issue of biblical interpretation instead of simply permitting an ever-widening and diverse tolerance of any and all interpretations of the Bible. We simply must get back to sanity and a common sense view of biblical interpretation. Just because someone has an alternative interpretation of the Bible doesn’t mean they should automatically be affirmed, respected and recognized in that interpretation. The Apostle Paul says, “Test all things; hold to that which is good.” We must begin to do that with more seriousness. Instead of automatically affirming and tolerating all kinds of new and novel interpretations of the Bible – done mostly out of a motive for affirming and welcoming all persons – we must test all things, even if that challenges relationships or even offends people.

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