Do Bible verses always have their “plain meaning”? Do they always “mean what they say”? That is, does the text of a Bible verse always mean what the English translation of the verse says?
It often takes work to understand what a Bible passage means, both what it meant to its original audience and what it means to us today. Particularly if the “plain meaning” of the English translation of a passage conflicts with multiple other Bible passages, insisting that the passage has its “plain meaning” is almost certainly wrong.
Do the 15 Bible passages below have their “plain meaning”? Does the passage mean what a plain reading of the English text says?
Or does one need to consider the full context, such as surrounding verses and historical context, to understand the passage’s meaning?
What do you say for each?
1. Honey, I have some news …. It’s in the Bible.
“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not …. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
(1 Cor 7:29-31)
2. Christians always receive everything they ask for.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
3. “Maybe” and “Yes, thank you” come from Satan.
“All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
4. Do not pray in church or at the dinner table.
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
5. Yourself and your family are exceptions to the “love others” instruction.
Jesus said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
6. You must carry a cross in your pocket or hand. You must own it.
Jesus said “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
7. I can save my immediate family just by believing.
“The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.’”
8. I hope you haven’t made any changes.
“Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
(1 Cor 7:20)
9. What about single women?
“But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
(1 Tim 2:15)
10. Aren’t other people in the world?
“Do not love the world or anything in the world.”
(1 John 2:15)
11. First time offenders, too!
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
12. Every time?
[Jesus said] “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
13. No bank accounts or 401(k) allowed.
[Jesus said] “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
14. Women are not allowed to sing, lead prayer, read scripture, offer their confession before baptism, etc., in church. And they can’t greet people, ask about prayers, or ask to be baptized.
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
15. Women cannot teach or have authority over a man anywhere—not at home, not at work, not at church, …. Women cannot preach or teach Sunday School to men, teach at a public high-school or at a university that has men students, supervise men at work, serve as a police officer, tell the church about their mission work, be in charge of VBS, teach men by example, ….
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
(1 Timothy 2:12)
There are lots more passages in the Bible like these, passages that do not have their plain meaning.
Why do people sometimes insist on a “plain reading” of certain passages of the Bible when the plain reading yields a meaning that is contrary to the expressed love of God, contrary to the love of others, and contrary to other Bible passages?
One sometimes has to do more work to really understand the meaning of a Bible passage. This is particularly true when using a verse in a manner that impacts another person.
Is resting on plain meaning and not doing the work consistent with this? —
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ … ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Sources & Notes
https://books.google.com/books?id=1uQC7G94z6cC&pg=PA81&lpg=PA81&dq=scripture+%22its+plain+meaning%22&source=bl&ots=g716wpRGpF&sig=iES74l-k5nnWYStaHSAngNfDuJ8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwibk5Tc9vncAhWhl-AKHaojByQ4FBDoATAAegQIARAB#v=onepage&q=scripture%20%22its%20plain%20meaning%22&f=false (pages 81-82)
Also see Luke 9:62 (“Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”); Luke 10:3-4 (“Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.”).
All passages are from the NIV or KJV.