You’re probably explaining away more of the Bible than you realize.
Baptized in Bickering
I became a Christian in northern Florida in 1982. I was excited, filled with joy, and rarin’ to go. I was excited about Jesus, and I wanted everything he had to offer. I went to meetings every night of the week except Saturday, when we would pass out tracts near the beach.
I was saved in an Assembly of God church. My favorite person at the church was Mike, my Sunday School teacher, Friday night Bible study leader, and deacon.
Two months after I was saved, he disappeared.
To make a really interesting story painfully short, bizarre circumstances put me in a pew next to him at an anti-spiritual gifts, eternally secure Baptist church.
He was thrilled to see me. He invited me to talk with the pastor after the service, and I sat in the pastor’s study with the both of them as they explained why the Pentecostal way was false. Gifts had passed away, we are eternally secure, and there is no separate baptism in the Holy Spirit.
It was an evening service that I attended, and I worked a graveyard shift in the military. I was up for hours, had little work that night, and I diligently read the pamphlets they gave me and compared them with Scripture.
My conclusion that night doesn’t matter. I had lost my innocence. I was introduced to the world of denominational bickering, and it took a very long time to leave it.
Note: For the curious, I now hold neither the Pentecostal nor the Baptist view on those subjects.
In order to attend a Bible study or Christian meeting every night of the week, you have to go to several churches and small groups. What great fodder for doctrinal debates! I mostly debated Baptists, but I got a few shots at Jehovah’s Witnesses and quite a bit of time with the Way International.
I will say it enhanced my knowledge of Scripture and sharpened my intellect (#dangerous).
The Blossoms of Bickering
I got seven months of such training, and God saw fit to have the Air Force send me to a tiny village in the middle of Alaska with about 300 military and government workers there. I was looking for action the moment I set foot on Alaskan soil. Where are the Christians? When do they meet? How do we reach the eskimoes and indians?
On that little site, I only found five other avid Christians. They weren’t doing anything. I got them meeting in the chapel on Friday nights and going to the local village to pass out tracts on free days.
Six weeks later none of them would talk to each other.
Let’s see: we had …
- A charismatic from Arizona
- A Pentecostal from Arkansas
- Two young men who had come to Jesus there in Alaska (before I arrived)
- A Baptist from I don’t remember where.
The Pentecostal man once told me, “Where I’m from, we spit when we hear the word ‘charismatic.’ They’re just Pentecostals who wear pants and drink wine.”
In fact, halfway through my year up there, the Pentecostal came to me and said, “I’m not a Christian. The Bible says that if you hate your brother, you don’t have eternal life, and I hate Mike.”
He repented weeks later.
At the same time as this was happening, a dear friend back in Florida was being kicked out of the Assembly of God. “Cold-shouldered” out would be a better term. Again, the issue was doctrinal.
That was it for me. I sat down, put a Bible in my lap, and told God I needed to start over. I repented of being Assembly of God, and I asked him to show me what to do.
Verses Versus Verses
There’s a lot of places I could go with that story. I could talk about which doctrines matter and which don’t. I could talk about Titus 2 and Paul’s idea of “sound doctrine.”
Instead, I want to tell you about a principle I learned for Bible study.
I learned it from watching Pentecostals (including myself) debate Baptists about eternal security. The Baptist would throw out John 10:27-28. The Pentecostal would reply with 2 Pet. 2:20-21. The Baptist would bring up Eph. 2:8-10. The Pentecostal would fire back with Heb. 6:4-6. Etc., etc., etc.
I always wondered, “Do we think we are correct because we can come up with 15 verses, and the other guy can only come up with 8? If that’s the case, then the Bible contradicts itself. There are 15 correct verses on this subject and 8 that are wrong.”
I saw an astonishing example of this in a systematic theology I read a few years later. A systematic theology is a book that covers a number of doctrines, explaining them thoroughly and going over all the relevant verses.
This one had a chapter on eternal security. It spent several pages arguing that we cannot lose our salvation. Then it concluded the chapter with a list of verses that “seem” to contradict what the chapter had taught.
The list was at least 50 verses long!
So here’s my rule … for me.
On any given subject I will allow myself one unlikely or far-fetched explanation for a verse that “seems” to disagree with what I’m teaching.
For example, there are hundreds of verses in the apostles’ writings that apply to the topic of salvation. One of them that was really weird, being a good Protestant adherent of salvation by faith alone, was Romans 2:6.
[God] will render to everyone according to their works.
The passage is even weirder when you add verse 7, which says that people who pursue immortality by doing good will be repaid eternal life.
It’s okay, I had an explanation, the same one everyone else had. That passage is hypothetical. If anyone could live a sinless life in pursuit of immortality, then they would reap eternal life. No one can, however, so “faith only” is still intact.
I wasn’t very satisfied giving that explanation, but I had so many verses backing me up! I was able to set Rom. 2:6 aside. For me, however, setting a verse aside meant writing it in a list in the back of my Bible. I put all my troubling verses there.
The list in the back of my Bible began to grow, however.
If you address as Father the one who patiently judges according to each one’s work, then conduct yourself throughout the time of your sojourning here in fear. (1 Pet. 1:17)
There’s more, many more. The final straw was a book I saw in a Church of Christ bookstore. It said, “Martin Luther wrote ‘faith alone’ in the margin of his Bible, and it was the first time the world had every heard of it.”
What?? Ridiculous! Faith alone is all over the Bible.
I couldn’t think of any direct references to faith alone, so I got out my concordance. I looked up every occurrence of “faith” in the Bible, and I looked for “only” or “alone” near it. (We didn’t have home computers in those days to do this for us.)
It is in the Bible!
So we see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jam. 2:24)
I know the explanation for that verse. It goes like this. “We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.”
Ha ha. I feel like a con man when I say those words. Go read the passage. That’s a ridiculous interpretation of James 2, and you know it.
I feel sorry for you if you can’t admit it.
I have more respect for Martin Luther, who simply considered James 2:24 wrong.
The same thing happened with the Trinity, at least with our modern explanation of it. I talked with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I saw verses I could not explain while believing in a “co-equal” Trinity.
I didn’t switch to the JW view because they were dancing around way more verses than I was.
I hate the “my verses outnumber your verses” thing, so I rejected both my view and theirs.
Two Rules of Scripture Interpretation
I have two rules for Scripture interpretation now:
- If I have to explain a verse away, so that it’s left with no real meaning, I write the verse down somewhere and keep it. That way I have the verses I can’t explain listed.
- If I find, or am shown, two verses on a subject that require a far-fetched explanation, I change my view on that subject to “I don’t know.”
No more embarrassing explanations, dodging the bullets of Scripture. If I can’t say exactly what the Scripture says, and in the same words, then what I believe is error.
So my rule is, I get one far-fetched interpretation on any doctrine. Once I have to make two far-fetched explanations, I assume I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe down the road I’ll find a better explanation that makes more sense, but until I do, I’m not risking holding to false doctrine.
Can This Be Done
It’s worked exceptionally well for me. It worked so well that when I ran across David Bercot’s Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, I found nothing surprising in it. In fact, I was thrilled to find out that I wasn’t the only one who believed the things that I had found by simply giving up far-fetched explanations. In the early churches, the things I believed would have been normal.
It is also great for arguments. I am as sure as a human can be that I am not holding any doctrine that requires weak explanations of verses that seem to disagree.
That kind of honesty can be painful, I warn you. We’re 2,000 years from the apostles. A lot is wrong. Be that honest with the Scriptures, and people are going to fight for their precious, but not apostolic, traditions.