Why are there so many different Christian interpretations?

Question: "Why are there so many different Christian interpretations? If all Christians have the same Bible, and the same Holy Spirit, should not Christians be able to agree?"

Scripture says there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). This passage emphasizes the unity that should exist in the Body of Christ as we are indwelt by “one Spirit” (verse 4). In verse 3, Paul makes an appeal to humility, meekness, patience, and love—all of which are necessary to preserve unity. According to 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, the Holy Spirit knows the mind of God (verse 11), which He reveals (verse 10) and teaches (verse 13) to those whom He indwells. This activity of the Holy Spirit is called illumination.

In a perfect world, every believer would dutifully study the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15) in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s illumination. Alas, this is not a perfect world. Not everyone who possesses the Holy Spirit actually listens to the Holy Spirit. There are Christians who grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30). Ask any educator—even the best classroom teacher has his share of wayward students who seem to resist learning, no matter what the teacher does. So, one reason different people have different interpretations of the Bible is simply that some do not listen to the Teacher. Here are some other reasons for the wide divergence of beliefs among those who teach the Bible:

1. Unbelief. The fact is that many who claim to be Christians have never been born again. They wear the label of “Christian,” but there has been no true change of heart. Many presume to teach the Bible who do not even believe the Bible to be true. They claim to speak for God yet live in a state of unbelief. Most false interpretations of Scripture come from such sources.

It is impossible for an unbeliever to correctly interpret scripture. “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit . . . neither can he know them” (1 Corinthians 2:14). An unsaved man (someone who does not have the Holy Spirit) cannot understand the truth of the Bible. He has no illumination. Further, even being a pastor or theologian does not guarantee one’s salvation.

An example of the chaos created by unbelief is found in John 12:28-29. Jesus prays to the Father, saying, “Father, glorify Your name.” The Father responds with an audible voice from heaven, which everyone nearby hears. Notice, however, the difference in interpretation: “The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, ‘An angel spoke to Him.’” Everyone heard the same thing—an intelligible statement from heaven—yet everyone heard what he wanted to hear.

2. Lack of training. The Apostle Peter warns against those who “wrest [misinterpret]” the scriptures. He attributes their spurious teachings, in part, to the fact that they are “unlearned” (2 Peter 3:16). Timothy is told to “study to show yourself approved unto God” (2 Timothy 2:15). There is no shortcut to proper biblical interpretation; we are constrained to study.

3. Poor hermeneutics. Much error has been promulgated because of a simple failure to apply good hermeneutics (the science of interpreting scripture). Taking a verse out of its immediate context can do great damage to the intent of the verse. Ignoring the wider context of the chapter and book, or failing to understand the historical/cultural context will also lead to problems.

4. Ignorance of the whole Word of God. Apollos was a powerful and eloquent preacher, but he only knew of the baptism of John. He was ignorant of Jesus and His provision of salvation, so his message was incomplete. Aquila and Priscilla took him aside and “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:24-28). After that, Apollos preached Jesus Christ. Some groups and individuals today have an incomplete message because they concentrate on certain passages to the exclusion of others. They fail to compare scripture with scripture.

5. Selfishness and pride. Sad to say, many interpretations of the Bible are based on an individual’s own personal biases and pet doctrines. Some people see an opportunity for personal advancement by promoting a “new perspective” on Scripture. See the description of false teachers in Jude’s epistle.

6. Failure to mature. When Christians are not maturing as they should, their handling of the Word of God is affected. “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat . . . for you are yet carnal” (1 Corinthians 3:2-3). An immature Christian is not ready for the “meat” of God’s Word. Note that the proof of the Corinthians’ carnality is a division in their church (verse 4).

7. Undue emphasis on tradition. Some churches claim to believe the Bible, but their interpretation is always filtered through the established tradition of their church. Where tradition and the teaching of the Bible are in conflict, tradition is given precedence. This effectively negates the authority of the Word and grants the church leadership supremacy.

On the essentials, the Bible is abundantly clear. There is nothing ambiguous about the deity of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, and salvation by grace through faith. On some issues of less import, however, the teaching of Scripture is less clear, and this naturally leads to different interpretations. For example, we have no direct biblical command governing the frequency of communion or the structure of church government or the style of music to use. Honest, sincere Christians can have differing interpretations of the passages concerning these peripheral issues.

The important thing is to be dogmatic where Scripture is and to avoid being dogmatic where Scripture is not. Churches should strive to follow the model left us by the early church in Jerusalem: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). There was unity in the early church because they were steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine. There will be unity in the church again when we get back to the apostles’ doctrine and forego the other doctrines, fads, and gimmicks that have crept in.

Recommended Resource: The Master's Plan for the Church by John MacArthur.

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Why are there so many different Christian interpretations?