Biblical Interpretation Principles

Are Questions Dangerous?

Serpent 2

“It really concerns me when young people ask so many questions about outward standards… Questions are used as a tactic of Satan to cause us to doubt God’s Word. That’s what the serpent used to cause Adam and Eve to fall, “Hath God said…?”

“Satan didn’t tempt them to murder or steal, just to question God’s Word! Satan already has answers to his own questions, he’s not searching for truth. He uses them to confuse, manipulate, and lie. You better watch out for anyone asking questions about what God said!”

Did we really just claim that it’s dangerous to ask what God said? It certainly seems so. I’ve heard this line of reasoning over and over again and I cringe every time. The quips “Hath God said?” and #SlipperySlopeofQuestions work great as social media sound bites, but not as rational arguments.

Thankfully, not all Christians affiliated with the strict churches take this extreme, anti-question view. There are many who will answer doctrinal questions honestly, discuss differing views intellectually, and disagree over distinctive beliefs graciously (which is exactly what Berean Holiness exists to promote). However, a significant portion of affiliated Christians still do highly discourage question-asking; this is the group whose concerns we will address.

 

Examining Genesis 3: What Went Wrong?

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? — Genesis 3:1 

Only quoting, “Hath God said…?” is misleading because it doesn’t contain the full question that Satan asked. The question was, “Hath God said, ‘Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’” Well, did God say they couldn’t eat from any tree? No, he didn’t. God had said;

Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die — Genesis 2:16–17

Quoting the whole question is very important to understanding what’s going on. When Satan asked, “Did God really say you can’t eat from any tree?” He wasn’t asking Eve to loosen the rules. Instead, he was ADDING to what God said. The serpent began his slope of manipulation by making the rules stricter than God. Check out how Eve responds:

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. — Genesis 3:2–3 

Did God say that Adam and Eve were forbidden from touching the fruit? No. God said they could not eat the fruit; there was no command against touching it. Eve definitely opened herself up for Satan’s manipulation, but it wasn’t because she asked what God said. In sharp contrast, it was because Eve didn’t ask,“What did God say?” Instead, she sloppily handled the Word of God and ADDED to what God said (making His rules stricter).

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. — Genesis 3:4–5

This is where Satan makes his move and attempts to make Eve doubt. It was not by asking a question, it was by straight-up lying and causing Eve to doubt the truth of what God said. There is a vast difference between doubting the truth of what God said and doubting our human understanding of what God said. Eve absolutely should have doubted her retelling of what God said; both she and the serpent had been careless about accurately remembering His words. Making God’s rules stricter than He did only served to make Eve more vulnerable to doubting His truth.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. — Genesis 3:6–7

Eve and the serpent’s conversation was a total disaster with tragic consequences. However, these consequences were NOT a result of asking, “What hath God said?” No, they were a result of not asking what God said, not caring what He said. They both ADDED to His Word, Satan doubted the truth of His Word, and Eve fell for it. What would’ve prevented this tragedy? One question. If Eve had asked, “What hath God said?” If she had recalled His Word and stuck to it, if she had never added and never doubted, the serpent would have been defeated on the spot.

 

Are Questions Guilty By Association?

How does the fact that Satan asked a question prove or support the idea that questions are dangerous? It doesn’t. The logic goes something like this:

  1. Satan asked a question when he was being dangerous, (Example, “Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Genesis 3:1)
  2. You asked a question, (Example, “Does the Bible actually call jewelry a moral sin?”)
  3. Therefore, you are being dangerous

This is a classic example of “guilt by association.” To demonstrate how this logic falls short, check out these mirror arguments that continue in the same logical pattern.

  1. Satan made a statement when he was being dangerous (Example, “Ye shall not surely die:” (Genesis 3:4)
  2. You made a statement, (Example, “1 Timothy 2:9 teaches the principle of simplicity”)
  3. Therefore, you are being dangerous

Does that sound ridiculous? Yes, it does.  There are only four types of sentences in the English language: declarative, exclamatory, imperative, and interrogative. Just because Satan was the first character in Scripture to use one of these forms of sentences does NOT mean that form of sentence structure is inherently more dangerous than the others.

Furthermore, what was the first form of sentence that God Himself used when He walked onto the Genesis 3 scene? A question!

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? — Genesis 3:9

If the fact that Satan used a question for evil makes questions evil, then God using a question for good would make questions good. Either way, guilt by association cannot prove questions as any more dangerous than other sentences.

 

“It’s Not About The Question; It’s About The Motive Behind It”

Thankfully, many outwardly strict Christians fully understand that there’s nothing wrong with questions in and of themselves. Instead, this group claims questions about distinctive doctrines are dangerous because of the motives behind them. Let’s address their concerns.

“If They Already Have an Answer, They Have a Bad Motive”

One way these Christians claim to recognize malicious intent is by pointing out that (especially in the case of Berean Holiness), “Just like the serpent, those question-askers aren’t looking for an answer. They already have their own answer carefully rehearsed, so there’s no way they’re seeking truth.” Let’s go back to Genesis 3:9, in which the first words of God were, “Where art thou?” Did God know the answer to His question? Definitely (unlike us, He knows the  answers to all of His questions). He was using the question to provoke Adam and Eve to think. In another example, look at the life of Christ; Jesus is recorded to have asked 307 questions. Was this because Jesus, God Himself, lacked knowledge? Definitely not. Jesus used questions to pique curiosity, gracefully challenge religious leaders, and, just like in the garden, provoke his listeners to think. Questions are a tool of teaching as much as they are a tool of learning. They are much less abrasive and more engaging than flat statements, and give an open invitation for fact-checking, differing conclusions, and open discussion. This makes them an ideal way to communicate controversial truths.

“Questions About Holiness Standards Are Aimed to Make You Doubt God’s Word”

A second claim of those discouraging questions on distinctive doctrines is that, “Just like the serpent, people who bring up questions about the outward standards are trying to get you to doubt God’s Word.” Many of their social media posts which reference the serpent include a saying such as, “Satan didn’t tempt Eve to kill or steal, he tempted her to doubt God’s Word.” The “Hath God said…?” quote will then be applied to anyone who dares to cross-examine the biblical basis for strict, outward standards. First off, even though the serpent did provoke Eve to doubt the truth of God’s Word, the phrase “Hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” is not when he did so. That came a bit later when Satan told the lie, “Ye shall not surely die.” Second off, is this a fair comparison? Is asking whether or not God said something the same as doubting that what God said is true? (No.) If I were to wonder if Scripture teaches God’s goodness, there’s nothing wrong with me asking, “Does God claim He is good?” I ought to go to the Bible and see for myself. However, if I knew that Scripture teaches that God is good, but then I were to decide, “Yeah, but I doubt God is really good; He seems corrupt to me,” now I have doubted God, not just my human understanding of God. Only at this point would I have crossed the line into the sin of unbelief.

The claims of these groups soon begin to form inconsistencies. On one hand, they claim that asking for the biblical basis of their outward standards is a form of bitter attack. On the other hand, they would acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with asking for the biblical basis of every other common Christian belief. For example, I could ask “Did God really say that promiscuity is immoral?”, and they would respond with, “1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 13, 18–19; Ephesians 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:3–4; Colossians 3:5; Matthew 15:19.” After reading these passages, I (and any other honest individual) would conclude, “Yes, God really said that.” In contrast, if I asked, “Did God really say that jewelry is immoral?”, then I’m met with (what I personally find to be) a mental obstacle course, running around this Scripture, jumping over that Scripture, taking that other Scripture, and carrying a heavy load of human commentary all the way. Realizing that their view on the second question is much more difficult to prove, the insecurity about answering it increases significantly. There is room for disagreement, a possibility that others may come to the conclusion of, “No, God didn’t really say that.” Thus, questions on strict, outward standards are much more likely to be discouraged in order to create total agreement (an unhealthy form of unity).

“Ask Questions to Better Understand; Never Ask Questions to Disagree”

It’s bad enough to arrive at differing answers to questions on outward standards, but sharing them is apparently an outrage. Whenever I have dared to do so, my social media feed fills with #QuestionsAreEvil posts. As I have been informed, “It’s alright to ask a question to better understand an outward standard, it’s wrong to ask a question if you are going to tear down or argue against a standard.” In other words, “You’re allowed to ask a question in order to better understand what I am telling you to believe. You’re not allowed to ask a question if you are going to conclude that my answer is scripturally unsound.” Why? It seems that merely disagreeing with these Christians is automatically considered as having malicious intent. There is no room for discussion. This lack of tolerance for consideration of any other view presupposes that this particular group is claiming either one of two things: A) “Absolutely everything we believe is true beyond question,” or B) “We would rather risk believing something that’s not true than risk changing our beliefs.” Clearly, this is the dangerous ground to stand on. It relies upon confidence and pride in tradition and leaves little room for humbly studying God’s Word with an open heart and mind.

 

Is Testing a Movement the Same as Doubting God’s Word?

For the subset of Christians who so adamantly warn against asking questions, desiring to test the beliefs of a movement with God’s Word has often been made equal to doubting whether or not God’s Word itself is true. Stop and think about this claim: does it line up with the biblical mandate to carefully examine all teachings?

Imagine an older brother (we’ll call him John) and a little sister (we’ll call her Sue) have been left at home alone with a list of written instructions from their mom. If Sue were to come downstairs and ask what chores mom wanted her to do, and John were to say, “She said for you to clean my room and mow the lawn,” Sue might cock an eyebrow. She’d ask, “Why would she ask me to clean your room instead of mine? Could I please see the note that Mom left?” to which John may reply, “No way! You should trust me. Why would you doubt Mom?” In such a case, is Sue actually doubting Mom? No. She’s doubting John’s understanding of Mom’s note, which is why she wants to examine it for herself. Is that malicious intent? Is that rebellion? Of course not. It’s common sense. The fact that John becomes so defensive at the questions and so reluctant to let Sue compare his claims to the note is a good reason for suspicion. John realizes that by letting Sue study, interpret, and apply the note for herself, she just might disagree with him, or even prove him wrong (causing John to lose control of Sue). Sue realizes that, at the end of the day when Mom comes home, she won’t be held accountable to what John said, she will only be accountable to Mom’s written instructions. Thus, Sue has a personal responsibility to ask hard questions, to read those instructions, and to apply them for herself as best she can, even if she comes to different conclusions than John.

Similarly, questioning doctrine is more than just biblically permissible, it is biblically mandated. When I stand before God in eternity, He will not be measuring me up against the extra-biblical standards of a church group. He will not be examining my life under the scrutiny of what so-and-so preached. He will be holding me accountable to His Word and to His Word alone. I have a God-given, personal responsibility to study Scripture, weigh out teachings, and to fact-check every single belief that’s ever given to me. I have a God-given responsibility to test every doctrine, to ask hard questions… and so do you.

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. — 2 Corinthians 13:5

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. — 2 Timothy 2:15

I speak to reasonable people; judge for yourselves what I say. — 1 Corinthians 10:15 (Berean Study Bible)

Pay close attention to your life and to your teaching. — 1 Timothy 4:16 (Berean Study Bible)

[The Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so. — Acts 17:11

 

Conclusion

So long as the Scriptures are being interpreted and taught honestly, leaders have no reason to sweat when their congregants begin to fact-check their teachings against Scripture. They should have no reason to fear hard questions. Questions are both a tool for provoking thought and a tool for searching for answers, but either way, the end goal is truth. Instead of squelching these searches, instead of circumventing them by giving out prepackaged answers, we would do much better to teach others how to better study, interpret, and think through the Word of God for themselves. It’s true that they may end up coming to different conclusions than we would, particularly in the grey areas, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s healthy, because it indicates discipleship—not indoctrination.

At the end of the day, any group of people who are studying Scripture individually are inevitably going to differ in some of their conclusions on secondary doctrine and practical application. Instead of viewing these lesser differences as division, we ought to view them as an opportunity to practice genuine unity. Not a unity that demands every detail be identical, but a unity that rallies around Christ and Him crucified. With the gospel at the center, this unity is free to oil friction with unconditional grace, abundant mercy, and boundless love. This is the unity that will never fear questions on the minors, because it is firmly grounded in agreement on the majors. It doesn’t fear a loss of control, because it recognizes Christ as the ultimate head. This is the unity that is free to search for truth with an humble heart and rational mind. This is the unity that will cause the world to stand wide-eyed and amazed as it fulfills the prayer of Christ;

I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. — John 17:23

— Natalie Mayo

 

 

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Interpretation by Allegory

Interpretation by Allegory

Imagine attending a church where a preacher asks you to turn to one of the blank pages in the back of your Bible. He then begins to preach a message that sounds biblically accurate. He tells you not to give up in the face of trials, because Jesus will save you in the end. The next service, he has the same “text,” once again the blank page in the back of your Bible. This time he preaches on how Christians should be different from the world. The next service he does the same thing, with a different message. Do you trust this preacher? No. Regardless of whether you agree with what he says, he didn’t use any Scripture to back up his claims. Would you believe that I heard hundreds of such sermons? Except, instead of preaching from the blank page in the back of my Bible, they preached from a narrative section of Scripture, often in the Old Testament, and they completely ignored the plain meaning of the story in order to manufacture an analogy, not intended in the original story, and then preach about the analogy. The problem with preaching in such a way is that anyone can turn a story into an analogy about anything. It is just as easy to plant a false teaching in an analogy as a true one. The teaching is driven by the teacher, not the text. When you teach that way, it opens the doors for immature Christians and false teachers to extract false meanings from a text with an analogy.

Interpreting by Allegory

Allow me to give some examples, which I very quickly found on Holiness-Preaching.org. I won’t cite the preacher’s names, because I don’t mean to attack the preachers personally. They are just preaching as they have been taught, but I think I can show you that the style is deficient.

The first text is from 2 Samuel 2:23. In this text, Asahel chases Saul’s general, Abner, after a battle. Abner tries to get Asahel to stop chasing him, but he won’t, so Abner kills him. The preacher went on to create an analogy about this text. He said Asahel is like a Christian who attempts to hold on to a sin that he thinks he can handle. Abner is like the sin. You think you can handle the sin, but you can’t, and it will kill you. The basic point the preacher is making is not necessarily wrong, but is it justified from the passage?

The preacher assumed that Asahel was in the wrong, in order to make his point. But a cursory reading of the passage shows that Asahel was fighting on behalf of David, God’s anointed, and Abner was resisting him. So, it seems that Asahel was in the right and therefore the story actually demonstrates that even when you bravely follow God, sometimes things don’t work out for you. But the preacher didn’t want to preach on that, so he redefined the parameters of the story so it would fit his message and then analogized Abner into sin. If we tolerate a preacher doing that, what’s to prevent another preacher from changing the metaphor to say this. “Abner is like a Christian who is running away from sin, represented by Asahel. When Abner is tempted, does he cry out for help? No! He faces his sin on his own and smites it! When you’re tempted, do not tell anyone else, fight alone!” We know that this “takeaway” would violate other biblical teaching of confessing our sins to one another and bearing each other’s burdens. But the same logic that allows the preacher to make the first true claim, allows another preacher to make the subsequent false claims

Allow another example. A second preacher preached from a passage Exodus 25:8, “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” In this passage, the Lord is talking about the tabernacle. The preacher chose to make an analogy to the modern church building and say that this passage meant we had to come to church three times a week, so that God could dwell among us. The problem is that this original text doesn’t refer to the modern church building, it referred to a place where God’s presence was visibly manifest. In the modern era, God inhabits no building that way. Rather, he inhabits believers. This text has nothing to do with going to church. Going to church can be justified from other passages of scripture, but not from this one. I could just as easily say that this text teaches that we must build a personal shrine to God in our garages so that he can dwell with us. Or I could use the verses about bringing gold to the tabernacle to say that we should plate our pulpits in gold. The passage isn’t talking about going to church; it’s talking about building a tabernacle. We can’t just make it mean what we want, no matter how good our intentions are.

In the last example, a preacher took a text from 1 Kings 18:30, in which Elijah rebuilt an altar for the Lord. The preacher preached about how we don’t pray enough in our modern churches and we need to “rebuild our altars.” The problem is that a modern prayer altar is not the same as a biblical altar of sacrifice. The prayer altar is actually just a tradition not even found in the Bible. Prayer is important, but this passage in Kings is simply not about prayer. It’s about worship and obedience to God, but it’s not about prayer. We can’t just read in any meaning we want to a text.

Another error a preacher can make is taking a valid Biblical analogy or parable and expanding its meaning too much. For example, we are the bride of Christ, and a bride spends a lot of money and time on her appearance, so we need to spend a lot of money and time on our appearance. This would, of course, be a false teaching. The reason the Bible uses so many metaphors is that each one expresses only one or at best a few key ideas. Jesus is called our brother, our mediator, our friend, our master, and our husband. These metaphors each show us something about our relationship to him, but we must take the key ideas that the Bible intended us to learn from each metaphor, and not overburden them with meaning not intended. This is also why Jesus often told several parables about the same topic. Jesus knew that parables are an effective way to make a message stick, but a single parable tempts people to read meanings in not intended. So, Jesus told about the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son back-to-back. He wanted us to see all three stories and extract the common thread, rather than reading them in isolation and imagining that each element of the story represents something it didn’t.

Learning Without “Analogizing”

Am I saying that we can never apply an Old Testament story to our lives? No. I’m just saying that you can’t “learn” a different lesson than was taught in the original story. If the story of Abraham and Isaac teaches you that, like Abraham, we must have faith when God tells us to do hard things, then you understand the story. You are applying the story correctly. If you say that Isaac represents us and Abraham represents temptation, and that you shouldn’t resist temptation because God will save you in the end, then you are reading meanings in that were never in the original story, and you may walk away with literally any false doctrine imaginable.

The New Testament gives plenty of examples of how to learn from the Old Testament well. Usually, the New Testament’s usage follows the standard rules that I have laid out – it only extract morals from a passage that are already contained in it. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul instructs us not to muzzle the ox that treads out the grain. The point of this law is that you should be grateful to your ox for its labor and not prevent it from partaking from the fruits of its labor (by eating some of the grain it treads). Paul uses this to say that preachers should be taken care of financially by their flock, because they too are laborers creating value and they should reap some of it. Paul is not taking a meaning out of the passage that was never there. Rather, he is isolating a principle contained in the text and then applying that principle in a new context. “Laborers should be rewarded for their work.” This applies to oxen and this applies to preachers.

On one occasion, Paul does seem to “preach by analogy,” when he allegorizes the story of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians Chapter 4. However, when he does so, he is not pretending to find his meaning from the Old Testament text. He is transferring divine revelation to us as inspired by the Spirit, and using a story from the Old Testament as a parable to illustrate the new truth and make it more clear. We expect our preachers to preach from God’s word. Paul was literally writing God’s word, so he had some liberties to unveil new doctrines that our preachers do not.

The habits we see modeled in the pulpit are easy to adopt into our personal study. We are tempted to skip understanding the text and jump straight to application. However, we must remember that while the Bible was written for us, it was not first written to us. There was an original audience, who understood the message in a particular way. The Old Testament was written to the Jews, the New Testament to various churches in the first century.

In order to arrive at the proper application, we should ask the following questions:

1) What words does the passage use?

What words and phrases are emphasized, how is it structured? Is it a poem, an argument, a story? (Taking a look at the original language is helpful here)

2) Who was this passage written to/ or spoken to?

If this is a message to a first century church, what do we know about them from other parts of the Bible or history?

3) What did it mean to them?

How would an original reader have understood this? How would it have made them feel? Were they being encouraged? berated? advised?

4) What timeless truths does this passage teach?

The same lessons that were true in first century Philippi are true today, so extract those messages. Be careful in the Old Testament not to apply something that the New Testament declares fulfilled (Read more on how to do that objectively)

5) How do I apply those truths to my situation?

What does this teach me? How does it inform my decisions? How does it change my relationships? Most important – what is my plan to implement the truth I have learned?

Notice that we start with understanding and end with application. Often in our rush to apply God’s Word, we don’t take time to figure out what it means.

The worst thing is that listeners often praise teachers and preachers for the unbiblical practice of reading new meanings into a text via a clever analogy. People say “Wow! I had never seen that in that verse before. What a great message!” The reason they never saw the meaning before, is that it was never in the text in the first place. Of course they didn’t see it on their own – it wasn’t there to see.

-Nathan Mayo

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Respecting the Original Language

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The Bible was not written in English. As obvious as this may seem, it’s very easy to overlook what the original language says. This practice is hazardous to sound doctrine.

Why not just trust the translation?

This article should not be understood as a critique of the King James Version, or of any other English version. No English version can perfectly capture the meaning of Hebrew and Greek, unless there are explanatory paragraphs about the original language baked into the translation. Such a translation would be unreadable. The issue I raise here is not with the quality of translation, but with the nature of translation.

There are a lot of concepts in English which don’t translate well into other languages and vice versa. For instance, German has more complex grammar and fewer root words than English. Take the German sentence “den Mann beißt der Hund.” A word-for-word translation, without changing the word order, would be “The man bites the dog.” However, the German reader will know that the dog actually bit the man because of the way the word “the” is conjugated (is it der, die, das, dem, or den?). We can’t express that in English, because we only have one word for “the.” On the flip side, the words great, grand, tall, big, and large have only one German equivalent: “groβ.” So, the best translator in the world, even if he is fluent in English and German, will have to sacrifice meaning when he translates any of these words into German. German has words we don’t have as well. The phrase “Der Mann frisst Pizza” would translate as “The man eats pizza.” But there are two words for “eat” in German. One describes a person eating, and one describes an animal eating. The one used here describes an animal eating, which is a way to insult someone in German. In English, the best “thought-for-thought” translation might be “The man eats pizza like an animal” or perhaps “the man animalistically eats pizza” or “the man eats pizza like a pig.” Multiple translations are equally accurate in describing the intent of the German sentence and the most “literal” translation (“the man eats pizza”) would miss the whole point of the sentence. I am not an ancient languages scholar, but if this is all true for German, in the same language family as English, how much more is it true of ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic?

The good news is that it is relatively easy to use the original language in your study of the Bible, even without being a scholar. In the age of the internet, Bible study websites like BlueLetterBible.org will allow you to see a passage in “interlinear” mode. This breaks down the original language side by side next to the translation. That allows you to click on an original word and see what it means, what its roots are, where else it is used in scripture, and how it is translated in those other contexts. Just seeing where else the word is used is very helpful in understanding the meaning and doesn’t require you to trust a commentator’s word on the “real meaning” of a word. If you don’t like studying with the internet, there are books that do the same thing. The whole concept of doing word searches for English words to derive patterns in scripture is unwise, when you have the ability to search for where the original word is used in other verses. This list of verses you find will be similar, but not identical.

The other easy way to learn more about what a verse says is to “gasp” read a different translation. Even if you’re a die-hard fan of the body of manuscripts that the KJV comes from, you can still read the Tyndale, the Geneva, the KJV 1611 (which is different from the version you read, revised in 1769), the New King James Version, and Young’s Literal Translation (1862). And for ~99% of the Bible, there is no variation between the manuscripts used for the KJV and the older and larger body of manuscripts used by modern translations like the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible (both of which are translated in a slightly more word-for-word fashion than the KJV).

You may agree that these resources sound like a useful study tool, but what is the risk if we, and our teachers and preachers ignore the nuance of the original language? As noted, it is hazardous to your doctrine in the following ways.

1) Over reliance on English makes us lose meaning from the original language.

The original language often conceals deeper meanings than are evident in English – especially when you only read one English translation.

You may be familiar with the fact that there are three Greek words for love. One represents romantic love, one brotherly love, and one unconditional love. Given how prevalent the word love is in Scripture, this nuance can inform the meaning of a verse.

You are less likely to know that there are three words for “hell” in the New Testament. Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. Their meanings do not seem to be interchangeable. It seems that Hades refers to the place that dead go before the final judgement. This would include both “Abraham’s bosom” and “Tartarus.” Tartarus is referred to as a place of punishment prior to Gehenna, which would make it where the rich man was in agony in Jesus’ story. Gehenna seems to refer to the place of final judgement after the end of time, sometimes also referred to as the “lake of fire.” There are many well written articles and commentaries expounding on where the different words are used and why, but you miss all of that depth of discussion if you don’t even know which word Jesus is using. For instance, Jesus’ famous proclamation that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against his church, used the word “hades.” This suggests that Jesus is saying that the realm of the dead will not be able to contain him and his saints. This simple insight makes the proclamation much clearer. Jesus is foretelling the resurrection of himself and his saints – he’s talking about breaking the captive saints out of the gates of Hades, which is something the Bible records he did between his death and resurrection.

God’s name takes at least 16 forms in the Old Testament. The most significant of these are Elohim, Adonai, and Yahweh. Sometimes the translators use adjectives to cue us in to which name is being used and what its usage implies. However, many times they don’t, and we’re stuck with 16 names being reduced to one English syllable – “God.” How much richness and insight do we lose if we never bother to see which name of God is being used? It’s like taking a low resolution picture and then studying the grainy pixels, when we could study a high definition picture of who God is by going back to the original language.

In the first chapter of Hosea, God tells the prophet to name his children Loruhama and Loammi. In the KJV, it records this, but doesn’t mention what the names mean. Other versions show that the names mean “No Mercy” and “Not My People,” which is highly significant to the passage. The original language would make that clear. Do you know what the word Christ means? Messiah? Hosanna? Maranatha? Like the names of Hosea’s children, most of these words are just transliterated from the original language. That is not a problem, but all of these words have very specific meanings that inform how we understand the verses they are used in. It is a problem if we just read them without understanding.

None of this is to say that my take on the original language is authoritative. I am not a scholar. However, the original language itself is authoritative, and we would do well to seek deeper meaning from it and to not merely consult an English dictionary. An English only word study wouldn’t reveal any of the truths of Scripture I have referenced above. Furthermore, all of the examples I listed have to do with word choice, but there are often things that can be learned from grammar as well within the context of a verse.

2) Over reliance on one English translation causes us to add meaning not intended by the author. 

Based on the premise that God’s word doesn’t change. There cannot be meaning that “appears” in English that wasn’t found in the original language.

Here’s a great example. The phrase “peculiar people” appears four times in scripture – in both the Old Testament and New. If you merely look up the word in an English dictionary, peculiar can mean unusual, distinctive, strange, or special. So, either this means we’re God’s special people, or it means we’re God’s odd people. Whenever a meaning of a key word is unclear, that’s a great time to go to the original language. But wait – the Greek and Hebrew dictionaries both support neither of these meanings. They suggest the word is referring to personal property or possession.

When we look to see the Hebrew word used in other places, we find this clue. In 1 Chronicles 29:3, David says of his preparations to build the temple: “Moreover, because I have set my affection to the house of my God, I have of mine own proper good, of gold and silver, which I have given to the house of my God, …” This phrase “mine own proper good,” referring to David’s possession of the gold and silver he was giving to the temple, is the same Hebrew word translated “peculiar” people. So, have we found a bad translation? No. Actually in 17th Century English, “peculiar” meant, “belonging exclusively to one person.” It was a good word choice at the time, but the meaning has evolved in English to mean something substantially different than it once did. Modern translations render this phrase “His own possession,” “people who belong to him alone,” or “a people that are his very own.” If all we read was one English translation, we would get a totally different meaning than is intended. We would talk about how these verses refer to us standing out from other people, when these verses actually refer to God’s possession of us.

When I was young, I was taught that the Holy Ghost was the third person of the Trinity, but that all references to the “Spirit” referred to something else – perhaps the working of the Trinity as a whole. The problem with this belief is immediately obvious in the original language. The exact same Greek word, “pneuma,” is translated “Spirit” 137 times and “Ghost” 89 times in the KJV. The word pneuma literally means “a current of air,” and from it we get the modern word “pneumatic,” meaning “air-powered.” There is no grammatical reason why the KJV translators translated it “spirit” sometimes and “ghost” other times. A great example of this is Luke 4:1 “And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” In this case, the translators refer to the third person of the trinity twice in the same sentence. The Greek word is the same both times “pneuma.” Once they wrote “Ghost” and once they wrote “Spirit.” Their reason for this seems to be stylistic. Whenever the word “Holy” is used as a modifier, they translated the word “Ghost,” ostensibly because they liked the sound of that word pairing in 17th Century English. So, it was foolish for me to develop a theology based on the stylistic preference of the KJV translators which would have caused me to think Luke 4:1 was referring to two different persons or objects.

Another example is the use of the word “abomination.” I have heard entire theologies about how sins of abomination are of a fundamentally different nature than other sins. The only problem with this is, there is no single Hebrew word reliably translated abomination. There are two separate Hebrew root words translated “abomination” in the KJV and sometimes also translated “abhor” or “detest.” If the word “abomination” is supposed to be our cue for a special kind of moral law, then we would expect one consistent root word in Hebrew and English – not two root words with three main translations. See the article on how we apply the Old Testament law for more explanation of Old Testament abominations that are explicitly or implicitly permitted in the New Testament.

There are also some laughable examples of misunderstanding old English that surface when we ignore the original language. I always heard that the suffix “eth” meant that an action was continuous. “He that walketh by faith” meant something different than “He that walks by faith.” The only problem with this belief is that in KJV-era English, “eth” is the correct conjugation of all present tense verbs modifying a third person plural subject. For example: I walk, you walk, he/she/it walketh. In 17th Century English, you cannot say “I walketh, you walketh, or he walk.” This is easily verified by searching the KJV. You won’t find a single instance of “he walks” or of “I walketh.” In modern English, we still conjugate the third person singular, but we do it with an “s” instead of an “eth.” I walk, you walk, he walks. And so, “eth” means literally nothing other than that KJV translators knew the grammar of their day. A simple check of the Greek or Hebrew language would also have kept us from making this error.

3) Over reliance on one English translation causes us to be divisive about things that don’t matter. 

A great example of this is the word “Hell” vs. the word “Hades.” As I have already discussed, there are multiple versions of the word in Greek, and many modern translations literally transcribe the Greek word “hades” as the English word “Hades.” They mostly still use “Hell” to describe “Gehenna” and “Tartarus.” I grew up believing that the word Hades was some kind of near heresy that was introduced maliciously to downplay the significance of eternal judgement. As already addressed, that is a very accurate translation and is not worth being divisive about.

Similarly, the controversy about the use of the phrase Holy Ghost vs. Holy Spirit is equally pointless. The KJV translators used both words. Spirit comes from the Latin word for breath or wind, which makes it an excellent translation of pneuma, which means “a current of air.” Ghost comes from a the Germanic word “gaistaz,” which means “breath or spirit.” That also makes it a fine translation for pneuma (at least as it was used in 1611). It expresses the same idea as spirit, but does so by drawing from the Germanic language family instead of the Latin one. You can see this reflected in different modern languages. The Spanish phrase for Holy “Pneuma” is “Espíritu Santo,” a cognate of spirit which comes from the Latin roots of Spanish. The German phrase is “Heilige Geist,” a cognate of ghost which comes from Germanic roots. I was taught that referring to the Holy Ghost as the Holy Spirit was a form of heresy. Even though the KJV refers to the third person of the trinity as the “Spirit” 137 times… The fact is that in modern usage, the word ghost has the connotation of the spirit of someone who is dead, which can obscure the meaning of the “Holy Ghost” to those not raised in the church. Say “Holy Ghost” if you prefer, but don’t make the issue a divisive one, the original language provides no grounds for such division.

How do we know when to consult the original language?

It’s true that it is not feasible to read every passage of scripture with an interlinear comparison open. It’s also true that most of us aren’t scholars and so we shouldn’t kid ourselves about our ability to understand the original meaning better than the translators. However, there are a few scenarios in which it makes a lot of sense to go to the original language.

  • When one verse seems to have a message different from other parts of scripture.
  • When the meaning of a verse isn’t clear, or you could take it multiple ways.
  • When a word repeats itself many times and is important to a passage.
  • When you want to do a topical study of a word in Scripture (search for the Greek word, not the English one).
  • When you come to a passage that you’ve read many times and you want to learn things from it that you haven’t before.

While those are good guideline for when lay people should consult the original language, our preachers and teachers should be consulting it every time or at least almost every time they pick a text to teach on. In the defense of the KJV, much homage is paid to the scholastic aptitude of the original translators. While I don’t dispute their prowess, this homage raises an important question. Which of the most well-known Holiness preachers have even a sliver of the familiarity with the original languages that the KJV translators had? The answer is almost none. On the contrary, I have sat under the teaching of many preachers outside of Holiness who are familiar with Greek and Hebrew, and they bring meaning to me that wasn’t obvious from the English text. While I have an obligation to search myself before I take someone’s word for what the Bible says, preachers also have an obligation to bring their sheep something which they weren’t going to gather immediately in their own personal Bible study. It is easier for me to verify a nugget of truth than to find it, and who should be mining the truth of Scripture for us if not our Bible teachers and preachers?

-Nathan Mayo

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References:
Different words for Hell: https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/406-use-of-hell-in-the-new-testament-the
The Names of God: https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/name_god.cfm
Etymology of Peculiar: https://www.etymonline.com/word/peculiar
Outline of Biblical Translation of Pneuma: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4151&t=KJV
Etymology of Spirit: https://www.etymonline.com/word/spirit Etymology of Ghost: https://www.etymonline.com/word/ghost

How Do We Obey the Old Testament?

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One of the theological issues underlying many Holiness standards is in how we ought to interpret commands from the Old Testament. There is a variety of opinions within Holiness, and many of the more respected preachers would agree that we can’t just pluck a verse from Deuteronomy and say it applies to today. However, many Holiness people do defend a modern Christian practice with sole support from the Old Testament. But is this claim justified?

Let’s examine what the Bible has to say.

Let me be clear; I believe the Old Testament is the Word of God. It is divinely inspired and helps us understand many things about God’s unchanging character. The psalms model praise, the proverbs model wisdom, and the prophets demonstrate God’s omniscience. 1 Corinthians 10:11 teaches that the stories in the Old Testament serve as examples which Christians can learn from. In that case, Paul was using Old Testament stories to show that idolatry and sexual sin displease God.

Unhelpful ways to distinguish Old Testament laws

The Old Testament also contains several kinds of law, although the exact categorizations are matters of opinion and not stated in Scripture. Generally, people divide God’s commands in the Old Testament into ceremonial, civil, and moral laws. Ceremonial law, such as animal sacrifice, existed before the law of Moses, though the law of Moses added many details. Civil law, such as capital punishment for certain offenses, also predates the law of Moses, but the Mosaic law lists many commands in detail. Moral laws, such as not murdering, were prescribed before and after Moses as well. The problem lies in how we pick apart the categories. Most of things prescribed by Holiness people as “moral laws,” such as not having tattoos of any kind, are understood by many other Christians to be ceremonial laws.

There is no tell-tale marker in the Old Testament to tell us which laws are of which type. I have heard some people say that the word “abomination” denotes that a law is moral. While that is a tidy explanation, a simple word search of “abomination” will show that one of the most common associations is with dietary law. If we use this rule as our guide, then Christians can not eat shellfish (Lev. 11:12), remarry their own wife that they have divorced (Deut. 24:4), or eat bacon (Isaiah 66:17). Furthermore, there are two separate Hebrew root words translated “abomination” in the KJV and the KJV sometimes also translates them “abhor” or “detest.” If the word “abomination” is supposed to be our cue for moral law, then we would expect one consistent root word in Hebrew and English – not two root words with three main translations. That’s not a cue, that’s just confusing.

The moral laws are also not grouped separately from the other types of laws. Laws condemning incest, bestiality, adultery, and homosexuality are lumped in with the command not to have sexual relations with a woman within seven days of her period (Lev. 18:19, Lev. 20:18, Lev. 12:2, Ez. 22:10). Despite how many times that last command appears (and the fact that it listed as an abomination), I have never once heard it preached against. Laws condemning bribes and oppression of the poor are lumped in with the command to not plant crops in the seventh year (Ex. 23). Even the ten commandments lump in not making any molten or graven image with everything else, and that would include the Statue of Liberty. Not to mention the debate about whether we are obligated to keep the Sabbath, and on which day, and to what extent.

For the people to whom these laws were written, none of this was confusing. That’s because to the Jews, all of the Mosaic law was moral. God told them to do these things and to disobey would be an abomination. For them it was easy. For us, I believe the Bible teaches that it is also easy.

How Christians should understand the Old Testament

Why? Because Hebrews chapter 8 makes it clear that the old covenant is obsolete.

7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. 8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: … 13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. -Hebrews 8:7-8, 13

Hebrews says that the old covenant is “old” and “ready to vanish away.” The word “old” is the same word used in Luke 12:33, to refer to what happens to earthly money bags – they become old and not good for their original purpose. The law is the same way, it is good for something, but not good for its original purpose of prescribing God’s commandments for our lives.

Paul reiterates this idea in Romans 7: 4-6 Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Paul says the law is dead. I don’t know about you, but to me, dead rules don’t sound like rules that need to be followed.

But what about the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18?  “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Doesn’t this mean we have to follow the Old Testament? Be careful with that logic. Jesus doesn’t distinguish the different types of law here, he just says that nothing will pass from the law until it is fulfilled. This predicts a future fulfillment, in his death and resurrection. That fulfillment changed the nature of how we relate to God.

The covenant or “contract” that we have with God is different than the one that God had with Abraham and Moses. God had a few versions of the covenant as he revealed it from Adam through Moses, but essentially, the covenant was “have faith in God and follow these rules.” The rules were myriad and served many different purposes. Don’t trim your beard, don’t eat pork, don’t commit adultery, don’t have tattoos, don’t pick up sticks on Saturday. These rules weren’t arbitrary, but they were highly specific to a time and culture – they were tailored to wean Israelite off of pagan practices. God made a lot of promises to them in return – that was his side of the deal. He told them that if they followed him that he would “bless their land” among many other things.

Jesus didn’t tear up that contract – that’s what the Pharisees accused him of. He said he would fulfill it. He made the sacrifice that all of the other sacrifices merely pointed towards. He provided the righteousness that all of the rules hinted at. However, once he fulfilled the contract, it did become null and void. We are no longer obligated to stone rebellious children. We are no longer obligated not to pick up sticks on Saturday. Once a business contract is complete it is not right to say it is “abolished” – but it is right to call it “obsolete.” The Bible calls the old covenant “ready to vanish” in Hebrews 8:1-13 and “dead” in Romans 7:4-6.

It’s like if you have a mortgage debt and you say, “Soon this house will be mine.” I say, “You are trying to abolish your mortgage and default on your debt!” And then you say, “No – I’m not going to abolish my mortgage, I’m going to fulfill the terms and pay it off in full.” Once you pay it off, you no longer owe the bank $700 a month. Nor do you owe them a part of the $700 every month. The contract wasn’t abolished – it was fulfilled, and then it becomes obsolete. So something can be fulfilled, not abolished, and yet be obsolete. It’s not just playing games with words – there is a difference between abolishing a contract and fulfilling it so that it becomes obsolete.

Where does this leave us? Doesn’t that mean that we can murder now, if none of the old covenant is in effect? No. But maybe not for the reason that you have previously understood. It’s like if you move from New York to Texas. When you move to Texas, you will no longer be subject to New York law. If New York has a law against theft, you are not bound by that law. If you steal in Texas, it will still be illegal, but it will be illegal by Texas law and no one would reference the New York law in court.

All possible ways to understand the Old Testament

Basically, there are three possible ways to see the Old Testament laws.

A) The Old Testament rules are in effect unless the New Testament has specifically declared a rule “fulfilled.” This interpretation would leave most of Mosaic Law in effect, minus animal sacrifice, circumcision, and dietary laws about animals.

B) [A + subjectivity] The Old Testament rules are in effect unless the New Testament has specifically declared a rule “fulfilled” or if it seems like they should be considered fulfilled from subjective interpretation. While this is a common view, it leaves the interpretation of Scripture largely up to opinion. “I think we don’t have to follow the command to not cut our beards, but we must follow the command to not have tattoos” – even though those verses are listed side-by-side.

C) The Old Testament rules are fulfilled unless the New Testament has specifically declared a rule a moral principle that we should still follow. Paul reiterates the 4th commandment to honor our parents. Though we could also have also reasonably inferred it from the commandment to love one another. Paul doesn’t reiterate the 2nd commandment not to make statues, though he does make it clear that idolatry is still wrong.

Methods B and C arrive at 90% of the same conclusions, but the 10% of things they differ on are all of the controversial issues – the stuff that isn’t obvious. Method B makes you define a separate position on each issue, according to your subjective interpretation. “Does this issue seem ceremonial or does it feel more like a moral command?” Method C just gives you the answer. Jesus fulfilled the law. So if there is a “do” or “don’t” that you want to impose on other believers, you have to find clear justification for it in the New Testament. Finding it in the Old Testament may give you the insight to look for it in the New Testament (just like there is a good chance something illegal in New York is also illegal in Texas), but it doesn’t count as proof that the behavior is wrong or required.

If you need additional proof that C is the correct interpretation, I would encourage you to hear Pauls’ strong words to the church at Galatia. The Galatians want to practice circumcision and we can easily imagine their arguments. After all, circumcision was pre-Mosaic; it was always how God marked the children of Abraham. If it was a requirement for the physical children of Abraham, why not the spiritual children of Abraham? Don’t Christians have to be separate from the world? Only the pagans are uncircumcised, so why would we be participating in their pagan practices? People who rejected God in the past did so by rejecting circumcision (Joshua 5:5). Jesus was circumcised, isn’t he our perfect example? Circumcision isn’t easy, it’s painful – but aren’t Christians called to suffer? Isn’t God the same yesterday, today, and forever?

 In Galatians chapter 5, Paul lets them know what he thinks of their arguments:

1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. -Galatians 5:1-5

Paul said that to follow the Old Testament law was tantamount to rejecting Christ. But how were the Galatians supposed to know that? After all, Jesus never preached that circumcision was unnecessary, he only mentioned it positively. But yet, Paul clearly thought that the Galatians had gone off the rails – “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?” Paul clearly thought that the Galatians shouldn’t be consulting Mosaic law for church policy. If nothing was said by divine revelation through Jesus or the apostles to reaffirm that a law was a moral one, then it was not to be taught as a requirement. The positive proof of that is found in Acts 15.

22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; … 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: -Acts 15:22-24

The apostles here are inferring that if they don’t give a commandment reiterating an Old Testament practice, then that practice is not to be preached. Essentially, the apostles are expressing their agreement with method C. The Old Testament is not to be consulted for rules. If a rule still applies, the apostles will explicitly specify that the rule still applies.

As it turns out, reading the Old Testament doesn’t have to be confusing. Read the New Testament to find out how you ought to live. Read the Old Testament to learn more about the unchanging nature of God. But don’t keep paying on a mortgage that Jesus paid off on the cross.

-Nathan Mayo

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Does Jesus Obscure His Commandments?

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Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” As people who love Him, we naturally ask “what are His commandments?” and we turn to His word to find them.

Almost all commandments are very clear. Love your neighbor. Forgive people who wrong you. Don’t have sex unless you’re married. The commandments are always or nearly always framed as direct statements. Paul and the other writers of the New Testament don’t ask rhetorical questions and then expect us to infer a commandment. They say things directly: “Give thanks in the Lord always,” “flee from idolatry.” The Bible also uses repetition, it tells us the same thing many times, from many angles, so we understand it and retain it. Did you ever wonder why there are four gospels, which tell the same basic story? The Bible repeats things that are important.

Some things aren’t explicitly addressed. For instance, the Bible doesn’t say “don’t look at pornography.” Why doesn’t the Bible address this? Very simply, because it didn’t exist, or at least wasn’t prevalent, at the time the Bible was written. So, are we left without guidance on this? No. The Bible clearly says that lust is a sin, and pornography is viewed for the purpose of satisfying lust, ergo, we should not do it. It is worth noting that one could theoretically view pornography without lust, and in that case, one would not be sinning. For instance, if you were a criminal investigator determining whether someone should be prosecuted for possessing child pornography, you could, as a Christian, document the pornography in the suspect’s possession without sinning.

Ok, so when the Bible says something is wrong, it usually says it directly and many times, and if an issue didn’t exist at the time the Bible was written, we have to apply general principles, but we can’t be as dogmatic about where to draw the line.

So, one would then assume that anything that was practiced widely in the 1st century, that God didn’t want us to do, He would have told us about it. Paul especially was writing to Gentiles. They didn’t follow the Old Testament law and didn’t even know it. They started as pagans. They dressed like pagans, they ate like pagans, they enjoyed pagan entertainment, they worshipped pagan idols, they participated in pagan sexual practices.

So, Paul must completely retrain their norms. And what does he talk about? He talks about a lot of inward sins and fruits of righteousness, he talks a lot about relationships, and he takes on pagan practices that are unbiblical directly. He attacks the worship of idols and pagan sexual practices most often. He issues direct commands as inspired by the Holy Spirit. He says what he means.

Except for one thing.

Paul never mentions make up, jewelry, clothing, beards, tattoos, musical styles, dancing, sports, or the theater. Arguably, he does mention hair – though for most of the first several hundred years of church history, that passage was thought to be about head coverings. He also mentions sports a little, when he compares the Christian life to being a runner in a race or a boxer in the arena (1 Cor. 9:26). It seems rather odd that he would compare the Christian life to something that was innately sinful. You wouldn’t compare the Christian life to something inherently sinful, “The Christian life is like when you’re abusing your children…”

Jewelry and makeup were both common in the Greek and Roman worlds, as well as all the forms of entertainment listed. But why didn’t he mention prohibitions on any of these things? It’s not absent because the early church was so mature that they didn’t need to be told these things – they had to be told to stop sleeping with prostitutes on multiple occasions. The artisans at Ephesus started a riot because no one was buying their idols anymore. Why didn’t the manufacturers of makeup or jewelry riot because no one was buying their products?

Does Jesus Obscure His Commandments?

While the arguments posed by those who would curtail our liberty can and should be addressed, almost all the arguments are indirect arguments – trying to stretch Biblical principles to wrap them around everything that Granny did. If we’re talking about television, I acknowledge why only indirect arguments from Scripture are possible. If we’re talking about “wicked” practices that were common in the first century, then why don’t preachers ever cite verses saying “and do not wear a ring, for that is what the pagans do?” If these verses existed, you would have heard them.

The reason that indirect arguments, arguments from Old Testament law, and appeals to tradition are so common in Holiness sermons, is that the Bible doesn’t ban these things. Even the Old Testament doesn’t ban jewelry or makeup, and it has entire chapters full of rules. And it’s not because it couldn’t have. It’s not because God ran out of paper and said “If I had space for a few more words, I would say ‘don’t wear makeup!’”

If all of the things are wrong that the Holiness preacher told you were wrong, why didn’t God directly say not to do them?

God chose not to, because he, in his infinite wisdom, didn’t see a problem with them. Who are we to pencil in what God never said?

-Nathan Mayo

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Examining the “Guilt by Association” Rule

Examining the "Guilt by Association" Rule

There are many things that Scripture says are right or wrong. However, there are many facets of modern choices that are not explicitly addressed by Scripture. We are required to apply Biblical principles as we navigate our daily choices. Not comfortable with that personal choice, some Christian leaders have attempted to add clarifying rules to help us choose. One of these rules, which undergirds many legalistic arguments is that things are wrong because they are associated with evil. We’ll call it the rule of “guilt by association.” But is this really a Biblically justified rule? And if we applied this rule uniformly, what other things would we end up banning? In order to evaluate this argument, we will first hold it to the light of Scripture, and then see how the rule holds up when we start to apply it fairly, not just when supporting pre-existing beliefs.

Does the Bible say to not do anything that is associated with evil?

The most often cited verse in defense of this rule is 1 Thessalonians 5:22 “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The verse does not actually say “abstain from things associated with evil,” it says that what we do should not look evil. “Association with evil” just means that an action has interacted with evil – an evil person invented it or it sits on the shelf next to something evil. “Appearance of evil” is an action that is not evil, but looks to a casual observer as if it is. This verse doesn’t actually say anything about actions associated with evil – it talks about a different, albeit related, topic.

Note that the definition of evil is also constrained by Scripture, not a subjective term that people can use to make us do what they want. “You shouldn’t listen to that music because I think drums are evil.” “Drumming” is not an evil mentioned in Scripture. The Bible still gets to define what evil is. You shouldn’t spend a night in a hotel with a person of the opposite sex that you are not married to, because it makes it appear that you are committing adultery – a specific, Biblically defined evil.

Ok, so we shouldn’t do things that make us look like we are doing evil, but our world is full of evil. A tremendous number of ordinary actions and places provide opportunities to do evil or look like you’re doing evil. What guides us as we try to avoid looking like we’re doing evil? If you send an email on your phone, someone may think you are posting hateful comments on a racist discussion forum. If you go into a restaurant that has alcohol, people might think you are a drunkard. If you talk quietly with a friend after church, you may look like you are gossiping. In Europe, gas stations very often have fully naked women on the covers of magazines in full view. Clearly, looking at such magazines is wrong, but is it wrong to go into the gas station? How do we abstain from the appearance of evil when opportunities to do evil are connected to everyday life?

There is an excellent Biblical example that gives advice on what to do when a practice is associated with evil. It is Paul’s advice concerning eating food sacrificed to idols. It seems that in Roman times, the easiest way to get meat was to buy meat from a place near a temple, where it had previously been sacrificed to an idol (go figure, the idols never actually ate it). The Bible even suggests that sometimes you would actually go into a part of the pagan temple and eat the cooked meat on the spot. This practice was deeply associated with pagan idolatry, and was sometime recommended against for new Christians who didn’t want to return to an old lifestyle.

Paul could have simply said “don’t eat food sacrificed to idols” and taken one verse to do so. Instead, he devotes four chapters to discussion of the issue. In Romans 14, Paul elaborates that eating meat sacrificed is not inherently immoral, but some are personally convicted against it. He tells us that weak Christians should not judge those who eat the meat sacrificed to idols. V 4 “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” In other places, the Bible tells us to lovingly correct Christians who are sinning, since Paul didn’t say that here, clearly eating meat sacrificed to idols can’t be sin. He also tells us that strong Christians shouldn’t intentionally do anything that may cause a weak Christian to violate their own personal conviction. V 21 “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” This is also the passage in which Paul says “let not your good be evil spoken of.” This verse is often cited in the context of the rule against any action associated with evil.

Paul delivers a similar message in 1 Corinthians 8:10, where he says even more strongly that eating food sacrificed to idols is not wrong, however “if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols” So, we see that Paul didn’t see an inherent moral problem with going to a pagan temple to buy meat that had just been sacrificed to idols, but he wouldn’t do it if he knew there was a weak Christian around who thought that he might be there to worship the idol. Or perhaps, he might buy it in the marketplace, but he wouldn’t go inside the temple to eat it.

Does this mean that a man who says “I believe it causes a stumbling block of lust if a woman shows her wrists” gets to make all Christian women hide their wrists? No. The Bible doesn’t say we must kowtow to the strictest standard in the room. Paul gives us clear liberty, but then says we must exercise that liberty with love. In 1 Cor. 8:8-9, he says “But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” So Paul calls eating meat sacrificed to idols a “liberty” – which means it is something that a Christian can do righteously. He doesn’t say “give up your liberty lest you become a stumblingblock,” he says “take heed [be aware] lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock.” He then says that while you can eat food sacrificed to idols, you should be careful to do it in a way that means you won’t confuse others about whether you practice idolatry.

So, for example, how would we deal with the person who thinks women should cover their wrists? First, we must ask if we are really going to make him or anyone else stumble. In 98% of cases with such an extreme rule, that answer is no. Such a claim is made to be controlling, not out of a humble cry of weakness. Second, if we think he could really stumble, we should probably take action to strengthen his faith, so that he is not always so weak. Third, if the guy is really this weak, maybe women should stay away from him for a while. He sounds kind of creepy. These actions would allow a Christian woman to exercise her liberty of showing her wrists, while dealing with another person in love, so as not to be a stumbling block to him.

The Bible teaches that exercise of Christian liberty is a loving give and take – not a “demand and do.”

Even in the very passages that detractors cite, the Bible is overwhelmingly clear that we can morally partake in practices that are associated with evil. As long as you exercise your liberty in love and with caution, it is your right to do things that are associated with evil, as long as they don’t make you look like you are acting in an evil way.

In light of this, how do we solve the problem of whether we can go into a gas station with provocative imagery? Does that violate the Biblical principle of not looking like you’re doing something evil? The answer is that it is a case by case determination, guided by Biblical principles. A man spending a night in a hotel with a woman to whom he is not married has very few explanations other than adultery. Going into a gas station has plenty of reasonable explanations other than satisfying lust. But even with the same case, the best course of action may depend on the person. At one extreme is a married woman, who is in no way tempted, nor viewed to be tempted by lust after pictures of provocative women – I see no reason why she shouldn’t be able to buy a soda at that gas station. At another extreme is a man who was just converted last week and is in the habit of thumbing through the magazines every time he goes in – he should probably pay at the pump or his friends will think he’s gone back to his old ways. Where you fall is a matter of your discretion, which will increase in accuracy as you “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior” and follow the guidance of the Spirit.

How does the “guilt by association” rule work in practice?

The Bible explicitly contradicts the idea that you can assert that all things that are associated with evil are therefore evil. The Bible teaches that preventing others from stumbling is complicated, based on love, and cannot be practiced simply by applying a guilt by association rule. In addition to that, the guilt by association rule doesn’t work very well anyways, because many ordinary things are associated with evil at some point. There are three main versions of this rule, that I will analyze in turn. I’m not going to analyze the all the facets of the example statements here, I’ll just show that the argument itself is insufficient to support the restriction.

A) The Recent Past

For example, “Women shouldn’t wear pants, because they are associated with aspects of the feminist movement, which rejects the Biblical truth that men and women are different.” If this is a good argument, what else is true? Women working outside the home is associated with the feminist movement. Women voting is associated with the feminist movement. Women having the right to own property is associated with earlier parts of the feminist movement. Women wearing bras instead of corsets is associated with the feminist movement. Women going to college is associated with the feminist movement. If the feminist movement associations are a good reason not to wear pants, then women shouldn’t ever work outside the home. I’ll bet your great-grandmother who never wore pants probably didn’t have a college degree either.

B) The Distant or Pagan Past

For example, “Wedding rings are wrong, because they were invented by the pagan Greeks and therefore associated with paganism.” If this is a good argument, what else is true? The pagan Greeks also invented the shower, the spiral staircase, democracy, the truss roof, and many other things which we would also have to throw out. The names for the days of the week, months of the year, planets, and the words “Easter” and “Hell” are all derived from pagan gods. The bouquet, bridesmaids, and the veil of the bride were all pagan traditions which originated to distract and ward off evil spirits. Bronze, paper, the ox drawn plow, the sickle, the modern alphabet, the sun dial, the calendar, toothpaste, glass, shaving, high heels, and breath mints were all invented by the pagan Egyptians – some in conjunction with pagan worship. Pagans invented temples before God ever instructed His people to build one. Paul quotes pagan philosophers in 1 Corinthians 15:33, and does so positively.

C) The Biblical Past

For example, “Makeup is wrong, because it was associated with the wicked queen Jezebel.” If this is a good argument, what else is true? Jezebel also was the only one in Scripture to talk to someone from a window (which she did as a part of her plan to deter Jehu from killing her, just like the makeup). “Graven images” or statues of any kind, are always associated with idol worship – that would include any ceramic figurine (essentially a higher tech clay idol) or wooden carving. “Scarlet” or red clothes are both associated with the prostitutes in Scripture. A platter or a “charger” is only associated with the decapitation of John the Baptist. The instruments that were used to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image were the same ones the psalmist used to praise God. The phrase “I love you” is only found in Scripture referring to anyone other than God, when Delilah said it to Samson. Washing hands is explicitly associated with the Pharisees, but not the disciples. “Long prayers” are exclusively associated with the Pharisees. Baldness is always associated with the judgement of God.

In summary, the “guilt by association” rule is not found in Scripture, and is undermined by Pauls’ statements that Christians can eat food that was associated with the evil of idol worship. Furthermore, we find that this principle is only applied when convenient, to justify pre-existing beliefs. If we applied it more fairly, none of us would shower, own figurines, or hope our daughters go to college. What the Bible teaches instead is liberty to make our own choices about things not addressed in Scripture, as long as we do so with love and awareness of the people around us.

-Nathan Mayo

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