Interpreting the Bible: Asking the Right Questions

bible.jpgI forget who told me this, but it’s been a source of great insight for me over the years: “The Bible not only provides the answers, it also provides the questions.”

The first time I heard it, I found it a perplexing saying. Why couldn’t I ask the questions I want to ask? Who is God to tell me what to ask? Well, it answers itself, doesn’t it? GOD is who he is!

I remember in junior high having a teacher tell me that the Bible answers every single question that there is. I was a smart aleck as a child (surprised?), so I asked if the Bible told us the distance from the earth to the sun? The teacher said, well, um, uh, sure, it’s got to be in there somewhere!

No, the Bible doesn’t contain astronomic charts. It doesn’t answer every question. It does answer all the questions that really matter.

Now, this tell us that some questions don’t matter. These are, of course, the questions not answered. However, we arrogantly presume to know what questions God should have answered.

Now, how can we tell when we’re asking wrong questions? Obviously, it’s not that easy, or we wouldn’t ask so many of them!

Plainly, if the answer isn’t in the Bible, it’s a bad question. It’s not in the Bible if we have do get the answer from a passage written to address a different question. If the answer is important to God, God will make it plain enough. This is not say that there are no truths found from such indirect inferences, it’s just that such truths are neither commands nor salvation issues.

Thus, answers found in offhand comments are not answers at all. Must I pray before a meal to be pleasing to God? No.

(1 Cor. 10:30)  If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

Some make a law of this passage, but Paul is plainly not intending to issue a command that we must “say grace” before each meal. On the other hand, he does say we should eat with thankfulness, and that’s certainly true, based on countless passages. The need to be thankful to God for what we have derives from the core of who God is and our relationship to him.

Take the passage as an arbitrary law–obey or be damned!!–and you start to generate absurd results. For example, I am told that it used to be the practice at one Church of Christ-affiliated college for a professor to say grace in the cafeteria every 15 minutes! A slow-eating student might have bow 4 times just to finish his meal!

The thinking seems to have been that the students couldn’t be counted on to say the blessing, and so the adults had to do it for them. In case someone ate really fast, 15 minute intervals would assure that God’s demand for blessings would be satiated without fail!

Just so, this passage is not a statute–

(Acts 20:7)  On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.

If the only “command” we can find ordering us to meet on Sundays is this historical reference, there’s just not a command.

Now this passage, along with a few others, suggest that the early church likely met weekly on Sundays, but there’s just no instruction that we must do the same.

And this is important, because looking for answers where none is given has led to some other downright peculiar interpretations. For example, a few teach that Christians may only assemble at night!

(Acts 20:7-8)  On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.

You see, not only do we have an example of a church meeting on a Sunday, we see that they met Sunday night, rather than Sunday morning. Why is the first example binding and the second ignored? Solely because we haven’t asked whether it matters to God what time we meet!

If we’d grown up in a culture where the time of meeting was considered of central importance, this passage would be the proof text, and we’d argue, with great vigor, that the scriptures are silent as to meeting in the morning. As we have an example of a nighttime meeting, and hence authority, and no authority for daytime meetings, we must meet at night!

Just so, others teach that Acts 2:42 prescribes an order in which the acts of worship must be performed!

(Acts 2:42)  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [the sermon] and to the fellowship [singing and the contribution], to the breaking of bread [communion] and to prayer [prayer].

Odd? Well, not if you start your study by assuming that there must be an order!

Now, it may seem surprising that I lump the very conventional “command” to meet on Sundays in with these other rather odd interpretations, but there’s a reason. To be truly disciplined about our hermeneutics, we must not demand that the Bible give answers that just aren’t there. As cherished as our Sunday meetings are, if God doesn’t compel Sunday meetings, he just doesn’t and we have to accept that.

You see, any hermeneutic that requires Sunday attendance, requires some very odd things. There’s just no good place to draw the line once you’ve gone past what the Bible actually says.

On the other hand, the scriptures plainly anticipate that the church act as a body, assemble, and be united in fact, not just in theory. This conclusion hardly obviates the need to meet! It just means that we aren’t required to meet on Sundays.

To be frank, I’m not entirely happy with this outcome. I wish God had given us a few more rules. I know how to follow rules. Rules are comfortable–especially rules that are easy to obey, like: meet on Sundays.

Unfortunately, such rules also distract from what God truly considers important, and we tend to think because we’re good at meeting once a week on Sundays we are good Christians. We take an offhand comment and use it to justify ourselves before God, greatly distorting his will!

As much as I hate it, I’m going to have to deal with the commands that matter the most: love your enemy, do good works, the Great Commission–all those very hard commands, the ones that don’t let me feel like I’ve earned my salvation.

And when I get to this point in my figuring, I figure I’m about where I need to be.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Asking the Right Questions

  1. ken says:

    Maybe you are correct in some respects but you missed one point. The Apostles where inspired and the fact that they met on the 1st day of the week is evident as you noted. This sets the pattern of worship becasue they did it. What more do we need? and when would you suggest that Christians meet? I would suggest that the scripture teaches that we should meet on the 1st day of the week to sing, pray, contribute, partake of the Lords Supper etc. The 1st day of the week is the only time that is mentoined for this, thus it elimates any other day!

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Actually, the scriptures also mention meeting daily. For example, Acts 2:46. Cf. Act 5:42; Heb. 3:13. And so, why isn't this the pattern?

    Or if they met only once a week, on a Sunday, why do we also meet on Wednesdays? Isn't that adding to the pattern? How are we authorized to add to what's been prescribed?

    The church in Troas met in the evening. If I may paraphrase: "The [evening] is the only time that is mentioned for this, thus it eliminates any other [time of day]!" If what you say is so, why isn't this also so?

    You see, a danger of this kind of thinking is that it leads to inconsistent and even absurd results. You don't run into these problems when you stick with commands. But try to impose examples, the question of which examples are binding and which are not becomes very subjective–and the bases for countless church splits.

    Where is it that "the scripture teaches that we should meet on the 1st day of the week to sing, pray, contribute, partake of the Lord's Supper"? Acts 20:6 says they met to "break bread," which is as likely a reference to the love feast as to communion. It says nothing of meeting to sing or engage in other worship.

    1 Cor. 16 speaks of laying by in store on the first day of the week, but says nothing of doing so at a meeting. Some take the passage to refer to setting aside money weekly out of each member's weekly pay. Even if it refers to a weekly meeting, it speaks only to a special collection for the work in Jerusalem and says nothing about how the local church was supported.

    The only other reference to a Sunday I can think of is John's statement that he received the Revelation on "the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10). He doesn't appear to have been in the Christian assembly at the time.

    I don't dispute that–as a matter of history–most if not all early congregations met on Sundays. I do dispute the the scriptures can be fairly read as commanding this practice.

    Of course, virtually every denomination has weekly meetings–most meet more often, but those churches who choose to meet on a Saturday do not violate a command of God in so doing.

  3. Kris says:

    Well said, Jay.

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