There’s a silly old story about the country parson who strongly objected to the latest fashion among the women of his congregation who would tie up their long hair in a little ‘bun’ atop their heads. This pastor interpreted the Apostle Paul’s remark that “a woman’s hair is her glory” (1 Corinthians 11:15) to mean that they should wear their hair loose and flowing. But when he tried to convince the women, they merely laughed. After stewing about this awhile, the pastor had an inspiration, and the next Sunday delivered a thunderous sermon on how Jesus Himself had commanded: “Top Knot Come Down!” – which he swore were His exact words in the Bible.
This crafty fellow had carefully parsed the words of Jesus found in the King James Version (KJV) translation of Matthew 24:17 : “Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house…”
Now that IS a silly story, but it provides us with a rather classic example of how NOT to read the Bible – and an excuse to offer some practical hints for responsible reading.
Context is everything! If any of the parishioners had the sense to check this passage they would have immediately spotted the swindle just by reading the entire verse, but it’s often important to step back and look at the larger context of the surrounding verses to see what point is being made. In this case Jesus was foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem, not lecturing on personal grooming!
Read “out of” not “into.” One of Martin Luther’s big things was that the Bible is a book that ordinary people can understand – you don’t need a priest, a scholar, or the authority of the church to interpret it for you. The reason that this is so important is because when people start inventing religious theories they invariably try to inject them into the Bible (like our scheming parson). The authentic Lutheran way of reading the Bible is to distrust anything which is being forced on the words of scripture. Let it speak for itself!
Check other translations. The much-beloved King James Version employs the same vintage of English as Shakespeare used in his plays, and we know how challenging those can be to read. Now, the parson’s deceit would be apparent in any translation, but there are other situations where looking at a different wording helps to clarify what the writer is driving at. In this church we use the English Standard Version (ESV) as our ‘go to’ translation, but there are other good ones too. And you don’t have to spend a bunch of money or fill a bookshelf with Bibles. The www.biblegateway.com site on the internet gives you free access to about 50 English translations (and a plethora of other languages as well) — you can even access it on your cell phone!
Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Let’s face it, despite endless study and debate, there are passages of the Bible that remain obscure and/or controversial. But here’s the reassuring reality: everything truly important that God has to say to you will fit into the larger pattern of the Bible’s consistent teachings as summarized in the creeds. So don’t get your “knickers in a knot” about some isolated passage. If it’s important, the point will also be explained elsewhere.
Trust God’s Word for your salvation. Conscientious Christians do get into heated arguments as to whether God intended the Bible to be authoritative in every area of human endeavor. But that shouldn’t obscure the sure truth that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible to create a saving faith in God’s plan of salvation, won for us by the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. This is why we emphasize God’s Word (together with the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as the “means of Grace” by which God brings us to everlasting life with Him.