How can everyone read the same Bible and come to different conclusions about what it means? If we’re all reading the same book, why don’t we all believe and practice the same things? Here are some thoughts about why we don’t all understand the Bible alike.
Not the Reason
First of all, you need to give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume they are lazy, ignorant, or rebellious. There are honest, sincere, God-fearing people from every religious tradition. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone is equally right or no one is wrong. It just means, typically the problem is NOT people’s motives or work ethic.
Statements like this, “Well, if people would just read their Bibles, they would see it clearly says…” are rarely helpful. After all, the people who disagree with you are probably thinking the same thing. They are thinking you just need to start reading your Bible and you would see they are clearly right.
Imagine there are seven children in a family. Each of the children is a different age and has different things going on in his or her life: one is hungry, one has baseball practice that evening, one is having trouble with a boyfriend, and one just failed his history test.
All seven of the children walk into the kitchen to discover their father is on the phone with their mother, who is out of town for the week. Without interrupting the phone conversation, they decide they will try to glean the information they need by listening to everything their father says to their mother.
They listen as their father asks and answers several questions and they try to piece together an idea of what kind of mood their father is in, what they are going to have for supper, and what the plans are for that evening. It’s easy to see how some of the children will inevitably walk away with differing impressions and understandings.
One reason the children will not understand the conversation alike is that none of them can hear both sides of the conversation. They can only hear what their father is saying, but not their mother’s end of the conversation. Another reason is, they are each asking different questions. They are listening from their unique perspective and trying to understand something about which the other children do not care.
Understanding the Bible Alike
Reading the New Testament is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. The apostle or evangelist who wrote each book was having a conversation with the original audience, answering their particular questions and addressing their particular problems. This is true for the Gospel accounts, the book of Acts, the epistles, and the book of Revelation. It is even true of the Old Testament.
One reason we struggle to understand the Bible alike is that we are coming to the Bible asking the wrong questions. We are trying to force the Bible to answer our questions, rather than asking, “What issues is the Bible actually addressing and how is it addressing those issues?” The only way to come to similar understandings of the Bible is to start with the same question.
The primary issues of the Bible are the issues the Bible specifically addresses. These must be our primary concern. Paul wrote:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
The Bible specifically addresses questions about who Jesus is, what His death means, what His resurrection means, and how to become a redeemed citizen of His kingdom.
The things Scripture specifically addresses must be our primary concern. We must strive to understand what the biblical authors were saying to their original audience. Only then will we be able to understand how that message applies to us today.
Listening to one side of a phone conversation, the seven children can understand, “Dad told mom he would pick her up at the airport tomorrow evening at 3:00.” The issue of picking mom up at the airport was directly addressed in the conversation, therefore it is a primary issue.
However, the issue of Sarah’s recital that is supposed to take place on the same evening at 4:30 was not directly addressed. How can the children know whether or not their parents will make it to the recital? Though that issue wasn’t specifically addressed, it may be possible to piece together an answer to that question, based on other things that were said.
There are many issues the Bible does not address directly, but we can piece together a proper understanding by taking the whole of Scripture into consideration. We must be very careful with this of course, because it is possible to allow our own bias to cloud our judgement.
Many of these secondary issues revolve around things the biblical authors and audiences took for granted. They didn’t address some issues, because the answers would have been obvious to them based on everything they knew about God and His will.
There are other issues and questions we might call, “non-issues.” These are things Scripture simply doesn’t address either directly or indirectly. Like the children listening to their parents’ conversation, one of them might ask, “What did they say about eating candy?” The honest answer might be, “They didn’t say anything about it.”
How should we approach these non-issues in Scripture? How do we handle issues like whether or not a Christian can – or should – vote in an election, when voting is something never addressed directly or indirectly in Scripture?
We handle these issues with sobriety, humility, reverence for God, grace for our Christian brothers and sisters, love, and a desire to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (see Romans 14 and Ephesians 4).
We need to start with the question, “What issues is the Bible actually addressing and how is it addressing those issues?” We need to be willing to accept the full implications of what we discover. And we need to be willing to say, when appropriate, “The Bible doesn’t address that issue.”
We will always have differences of opinions, but it is possible to be on the same page about matters of first importance, have a solid understanding of secondary issues, and not let “non-issues” come between us.
I love you and God loves you,
Wes McAdams April 19, 2017