Principles of Bible Interpretation for Teachers

I was sitting with a group of Christians at a conference a few years ago, and we were encouraged to gather in small groups to pray with each other. The five of us who shuffled our chairs randomly to somehow gather together introduced ourselves. Then one very dear saint reminded us before we started praying: “We don’t need a big group. After all, the Bible says that “if two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

I started to open my mouth and then quickly closed it. It wasn’t worth it. But I so wanted to instruct this person that they were using a Bible verse completely out of context. But the reason I didn’t bother is that they were just trying to encourage us, and their point was well taken, even if they were misusing the Bible to do it. After all, it isn’t like they were teaching a congregation.

But when I hear Bible teachers misuse the Bible, I don’t keep my mouth closed. I watched a video two years ago from a Sunday evening service in a large church in America. The pastor and his wife were answering questions from the congregation. One young man sent his question to the pastor and it basically sounded like this: “My wife and I just had a baby earlier this year. We decided that she should continue working and I would stay home with the baby since her job pays twice as much as mine. Did we do the right thing?”

This pastor and his wife spent the next twenty minutes tearing this guy to shreds. They told him (he was anonymous in his questioning, by the way) that if they ever found out who he was they would remove him from membership. Then, as a basis for this drastic action, they quoted a verse from one of the books of Paul to Timothy: “If a man does not take care of his own family, he is worse than a heathen.” I was already angry at the foolish way they were addressing this sincere question. But when they taught this, I started to sputter and shake my fist at the computer screen.

Yes, I realize how silly that probably looked. But I was so angry. This is a so-called Bible teacher completely taking that verse out of its context to back up his stupid bias. The verse is speaking of families that will not provide for their widowed mothers, choosing instead to rely on the church’s help when they could just as easily provide it for her. This is NOT talking about whether men or women should be the primary breadwinner.

I wish I could say this was the only incident. But because bible knowledge as a whole is diminishing among Christians, bible teachers are getting away with these sort of egregious errors.

It is one thing to study the Bible for your own edification. You don’t necessarily have to know all the rules of interpretation to enjoy the truths of the Bible. But perhaps it would be good for all of us to know the rules of biblical hermeneutics (the rules of interpretation). Yes, these can get technical, and yes, this does take work. But if  you want to really know what the Bible says, these are the accepted rules that all good teachers follow when they study the Bible.

1. Begin with Inductive Study.  I highly recommend the book by Kay Arthur “How to Study Your Bible”. In that book, she lays out the principles of Inductive study quite clearly. Summarizing, the method teaches to ask the five W questions (who, what, where, when and why) and How in order to get a systematized view of what the passage is saying, In addition, you should note contrasts (using the words “but” or “rather”) and conclusions (using “therefore” and “knowing that” etc.) If you do an inductive study of a passage of the bible, you at least can teach with certainty that you have looked at the evidence of what is being taught clearly.

2. Context Within the Chapter. Every book of the Bible has a train of thought that runs through it (with the exception of Proverbs, which are a collection of pithy and spiritual sayings). Therefore, to understand a verse or a series of verses, you should read the entire chapter to get an idea of the train of thought. That would have saved the little old lady in my prayer group. What she thought was referring to worship or prayer was actually referencing times of confrontation. Study the chapter and find out what the author is getting at. It will make the verse you want to teach more understandable.

3. Background of the book and writer. Once you have understood the chapter that your passage comes from, it is then good to spend a few moments learning the name of the writer, their historical place and why the book was written. Most authors of Bible books give statements as to why the book was written. John’s Gospel, for instance, tells us that “these things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” It would be good to know that Paul wrote Philippians in jail or that John wrote Revelation while he was imprisoned on an island. It will help you to interpret some of the teachings.

4. Other Places in the Bible. When you are interpreting a difficult passage of the Bible that is hard to understand, you might need to go to other places in the Bible to help you understand it. This can be done in three ways.

a. A Word study. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (with a tiny bit in Aramaic). It would be helpful to get a Word Study book that contains all the original words and look up where some of the more difficult words of your passage are found in other parts of the Bible.

b. Theme Study: A Bible dictionary can tell you where certain concepts can be found in other places in the Bible. So can commentaries and Bible encyclopedias. These helps can aid you in seeing the bigger picture for your passage.

c. Other books by the same author. The most powerful resource to help understand one book is another book by the same author. The five books of Moses for instance, carry certain themes and therefore it is good to get an entire picture of Moses when looking at difficult truths. Paul’s letters, Luke’s Gospel and Acts, John and Revelation. Each author has similar truths they are putting forth, and to read other places where that author writes can shed light on the passage you are studying.

If you follow these basic rules of interpretation, you should be able to interpret about  95% of the Bible accurately. But what do you do with the other 5%? In the next article, I will lay out what resources you can use to work through hard teachings.