Butchering the Bible

When considering the topic of how one might butcher the Bible, unfortunately, almost two dozen topics come to mind. Given that we are all prone to this error, at one point or another, it is clear there is a need for training in proper methodologies for handling such an old book from a place in time which is quite foreign to the modern reader. Sometimes our butchering stems from the poor approaches, attitudes and mindsets that we hold. Fortunately, those issues can be addressed without formal education, as this essay will show.

See Also: Beyond Reasonable Doubt: 95 Thesis Which Dispute the Church's Conviction Against Women (USA: Xulon Press, 2008).

By T. Scott Womble
Professor of Biblical Studies
St. Louis Christian College
June 2014

The Bible is the greatest selling book of all-time, and perhaps, also the most debated. While, for the most part, its basic tenants can be agreed upon, much is misunderstood. This is evident by the existence of approximately 45,000 denominations.[1] Furthermore, one can verify the truth of our lack of understanding by simply sitting in on virtually any random Bible study. The problem is heightened by social media platforms where every person has ample opportunity to advance a biblical text which has been recreated in the image of the Facebooker or blogger. While our shortcomings in handling the biblical text can be many, one can begin to avert the butchering of the Bible by working to avoid five key mistakes: dogmatism, trusting completely in church tradition, trusting in our presuppositions, spiritualizing the text and reading with a relativistic mindset. To clearly explain and differentiate the five, 1 Timothy 2:12 will be utilized as a case study. It says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

The dogmatic thinker is often a know-it-all who tends to speak just a bit louder than everyone else. While he commonly believes he is a “defender of the truth,” in reality the dogmatic person is often only defending his own closed-minded views. Such views are derived from a delusional black and white world where everything is clear and grey areas (the unknown, the debatable) do not exist. For the dogmatic, everything is “my way or the highway” (and when it comes to discussing biblical issues, “my way” is also of course God’s way). Therefore a dogmatic person may read 1 Timothy 2:12 and say something like, “What is there to discuss? A simple straightforward reading of the text shows it is clear. It is not permissible, under any circumstances, for a woman to ever teach or have authority over a man.” Another might dogmatically state, “Paul did not even write 1 Timothy. So the entire issue is irrelevant.” In both cases, this person already “knows.”

The key mistakes made by dogmatic thinkers can be overcome by attitude changes. First, since dogmatism is often the result of a lazy mind, a shift can occur by understanding one’s need to explore, contemplate and study. Learning should be exciting, but for the dogmatist it is mostly threatening. Of course, some dogmatic people are also quite studious. Their difficulty can sometimes reside in the fact that they lean towards their favorite “proof-texts” and others who think as they do. In the event that a dilemma arises, they will certainly gravitate towards a like-thinking “authority.”[2] A dogmatist must force himself out of this comfort zone and cease to view those with opposing views as “dangerous, heretical or unorthodox.”[3] This correlates with a second issue for the dogmatist; because he lives in a black and white world, gray areas make him feel anxious and can even lead to an unsettled faith. Dogmatic thinkers must come to understand that uncertainty does not equal ignorance, and it by no means weakens the biblical message. In the end, the dogmatic thinker needs to remember that only God has perfect understanding of the biblical record. In other words, good biblical interpretation always begins with personal humility, the realization that all is not known.

When it comes to handling the biblical text, church traditions may very well be big brother to dogmatism. While church traditions have their obvious value, reading the text through these traditions can lead to butchering. The heart of this problem is twofold, involving arrogance and ignorance. It is simply arrogant to assume that one’s church tradition is “the” definitive truth that stands opposed to other doctrinal and theological beliefs held by countless Christians for the past two millennia. As with dogmatism, this outlook leads to ignoring the thoughts and contributions of other frameworks, and in this way it demonstrates an astonishing ignorance. A person who interprets through the lens of church tradition might not even know what 1 Timothy 2:12 says. They may simply explain, “My church never allows women to teach, preach or become a part of the leadership group. My leaders know the Bible and that is good enough for me.” Another person who belongs to a church tradition that allows women in leadership roles may say, “Well, I’m not sure what 1 Timothy 2:12 means, but it does not mean that women can not teach men.” In other words, both people may choose to ignore the text and simply focus on what their church believes.

To combat this tendency, one must come to see tremendous value in the entire body of Christ, in the unity of believers. Unity not only takes on an important social aspect, it also plays a key role in our ability to escape the hermeneutical boxes we place ourselves in all too frequently. As we consider what other Christians believe, unity can become a key component that helps us see the text with fresh eyes.

Both dogmatism and church traditions can lead us to approach the text with presuppositions. Regardless of the source of our presuppositions (e.g., culturally shaped beliefs/attitudes, worldviews and existential concerns), they are consistently to blame for yet more opportunities to butcher the Bible, as many of our presuppositions send us down paths of faulty trajectory. This is a seriously difficult issue to deal with because our life experiences set the tone for the presuppositions we hold, both good and bad. In a sense, we have been conditioned by our parents, our community and our culture to think and behave in specific ways. We all have great difficulty in filtering out false assumptions; it is a life process. Thus, the dilemma with which we find ourselves, is that we bring all of our presuppositions to the biblical text. An interpreter who fails to recognize presuppositions will clearly have a tendency to read the biblical text in a familiar fashion. In other words, the meanings we attribute to Scripture will tend to reflect presuppositions already in place. Thus, a person who believes women are inferior to men may read 1 Timothy 2:12 and say, “See, the Bible verifies what we already know. Women should be kept in their place.” Another person may say, “Give me a break. Women lead corporations and can clearly hold authority over men.” Both of these people are primarily persuaded by non-biblical factors, as their presuppositions have influenced the reading of the text.

This issue can be addressed by considering that our prior assumptions on any given topic may actually be incorrect. Therefore, as the reader moves towards the text, he must attempt to remove his metaphorical life lenses. While this will not magically fix the quandary, it is the place one must begin and return to on a continual basis. Recognition and removal of life lenses, with the addition of lifelong learning, is the eventual remedy to our ignorance.

Spiritualizing the text is also a common error. Examples of this include early church fathers, such as Philo and Origen, who purposely interpreted the entire Bible allegorically. Their belief was that the deeper meaning of the text lay beneath the natural meaning and was something only the spiritually mature could discover. This misstep, however, is not simply a hermeneutical blunder. It begins with a flawed mindset, rooted in the idea that what God has plainly revealed is not enough. Thus, like a lost treasure, God is keeping something from us. Such a concept is certainly not consistent with the New Testament which relates that the mystery of God has been revealed in Christ (Col 1:24-2:7). Foundational to this erroneous effort is a hint of narcissism. One may think, “God will reveal to me what He has not revealed to anyone else.” While God is alive and certainly speaks, the temptation here is to inflate one’s personal importance. As “God reveals new and deeper things,” the reader can quite easily impose his will upon the text. The irony is, while the meaning of the text is now up for grabs, the “new revelation” is not to be questioned since it is a God-given insight to a special person. This person might read 1 Timothy 2:12 and say something like, “God revealed to me that this is referring to one-on-one situations (i.e., no woman over a man). Furthermore, God made it clear that I need to obey my husband but I am free to preach to the masses.”[4] In this scenario, the personal revelation takes precedence over correctly ascertaining what God has already revealed through His word.

Spiritualizing the text can be avoided after one grasps some basic hermeneutical principles and learns to read the Bible as literature (not as a mystic code to be discovered). Furthermore, it should be noted that we not only learn independently, but also within the Body of Christ. Collective learning is a great way to help those who tend to spiritualize the text because collaborative efforts by nature run thoughts, concepts and beliefs through the filter of others before an understanding is met. It must be noted, however, that the “others” cannot only be people who share the same flawed hermeneutic.

Running rampant today is yet another problematic issue. While many tags may appropriately be placed on this subject, perhaps the most appropriate title is relativism. In our relativistic post-modern world, everyone’s interpretation of the text is legitimate. Relativism is simply an expansion of existentialism, where one’s interpretation is derived from a personal encounter with the text. It differs from spiritualizing the text in that the reader is not seeking out deeper, hidden meanings. A few years back this was popularized in Sunday School when the teacher, who needed no clear understanding of the text, would simply spend the hour asking everyone what they thought the text meant. What ensued was the crazy notion that everyone’s opinion was in some way valid. Subjectivism, however, neither properly explores nor reveals biblical truth. Instead it advances the thought that truth is elusive at best and, at worst, not even important. A person with this approach might say of 1 Timothy 2:12, “I think Paul is trying to warn us about the true nature of women. My experience tells me that women are often tempted to usurp authority.” Another might say, “I’m sure God is not anti-women. I think maybe God intends us to simply be careful before we appoint teachers.” In both cases, objective biblical truth takes a back seat to subjective opinions.

To escape our culture’s relativistic trappings, one must be convinced that truth is knowable and based on objective standards. For example, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The politically correct or religiously tolerant contention would be that all paths lead to God. The Bible, which proposes objective truth, says otherwise.

While there are certainly many other ways a reader can butcher the Bible, these five seem most prevalent and applicable today. In an effort to treat God’s word as such, it is helpful to remember Paul’s words to Timothy. He said, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Perhaps the latter statement is easier said than done, but one thing is certain; we have no excuse for a butchering that occurs from these sloppy approaches to Scripture.


[1] Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/StatusOfGlobalMission…

[2] Cedric B. Johnson. The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Academic Books, 1983), 59.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Typology, and 1 Timothy 2:15 (June 7, 2011). Girls Gone Wise blog http://www.girlsgonewise.com/women-typology-and-1-timothy-2-15/

Comments (8)

So what is the correct view of this text?

#1 - Martin - 06/24/2014 - 17:14

Over all, very helpful piece. I'm not sure that we can exactly equate Origen's method with modern spiritualizing of texts though. I highly recommend Henri deLubac's book History and the Spirit. I'd say that other ways to butcher the Bible include: failure to read it with ancient anthropological values in mind like collectivistic thinking, patronage, kinship, purity, benefaction, and brokerage. Those issues are huge. From a Christian perspective, the chief failure is a failure to read Scripture with its canonical purpose in mind: obedience to the commands of Jesus. Reading the Bible looking for the right interpretation only takes you so far when texts are ambiguous or seem to be contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

#2 - Geoff - 06/25/2014 - 13:07


I have an entire chapter devoted to 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in my book. One must consider the historical and cultural backgrounds, the literary context, the structure and some key words to get a better picture of what is going on here.

There was most definately some false teaching at Ephesus and the women were surely involved. 1 Timothy is full of references to women (2:9-15; 3:11; 4:3, 7; 5:6, 11, 13, 14,15). The following is a brief exerpt from my book:

More importantly, Paul tells us that the Ephesian women were susceptible to false teaching (1 Tim 4:7; 2 Tim 3:6) and that they became “vehicles for propagating false teaching,” says Keener. They (especially the young widows) appear to have been susceptible to ascetic teaching that devalued marriage (4:3), which is one of the reasons Paul tells the women to get married and bear children (5:14). After all, in contrast to continuing in faith (2:15), when they choose sensual desires (5:6, 11) over Christ (5:11) they incur condemnation and set aside their faith (5:12) to follow Satan (5:15).
It’s no wonder that Paul says “women shall be preserved through the bearing of children” (2:15). Paul knew that the women at Ephesus were weak and easily captivated by false teachers (2 Tim 3:6), but if they would stay busy (not idle, 5:13) attending to their homes (5:14) it would keep their attention from wandering to things like gossip and false teaching. When one interprets 2:15 within this context, it makes complete sense. Outside of this context, it becomes one of the most perplexing statements in the entire Bible.
Unfortunately the Ephesian women not only fell prey to false teaching, they also propagated it. This is clear by the fact that they were gossips (3:11; 5:13) and busybodies (5:13) who went house to house talking about things not proper to mention (5:13).
The word “busybodies” (periergos) is quite interesting. When speaking of people it means “busybody, meddlesome, curious” (5:13) and when it refers to things it means “magic, witchcraft” (Acts 19:19). The only two biblical usages of this word occur in correlation to Ephesus. It is possible that the “things not proper to mention” (5:13) speaks to the women’s curiosities that involved witchcraft. This would also make good sense of Paul’s statement regarding the women who turned aside to follow Satan.
Regardless, in light of the fact that women were spreading false teaching, it makes total sense for him to also prohibit them from teaching men (2:12). In fact, comparing Eve’s deception (2:14) to that of the women at Ephesus also supports his contention that the women at Ephesus need to be quiet (2:11-12) and learn because they were being led astray.
It is worth repeating that 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is also set within a context that involves a tremendous concern for godliness (2:2, 10) and how our lifestyle affects the Christian witness. This is clear because both themes are present within the immediate layer of context, as well as being prevalent throughout the letter. In fact, it has always amazed me that 1 Timothy contains the word “godliness” (eusebeia) eight (2:2; 3:16; 4:7, 8; 6:3, 5, 6, 11) times, and yet few people take notice and fail to consider how it impacts the discussion concerning women.

#3 - S Womble - 06/25/2014 - 17:37

To me 'butchering the Bible' or any text would be taking its component parts in entire separation without trying to see their connection or perhaps contrariety.
The question about the prohibition on teaching and authority for women is whether it stands alone in the Epistle, by itself on the butcher's slab, or is linked to teaching elsewhere in the Epistle itself or in other works, if any there be, connected with that Epistle. The connection you suggest is between the complaints against the behaviour of some women mainly in ch.5 and the apparent de-authorisation of (ban on) all women in ch. 2. Is it your view that the ban on women's authority is a emergency reaction to a local and temporary crisis? That would be a way of not treating it as universal, ie would be a form of relativist reading. There is a difficulty, I think, in the structure of the argument: the reaction is given us in very bold terms several chapters before the crisis is described, the conclusion before the reason. On the other hand it holds out hope for consistency with the elements of the NT that deny spiritual difference between men and women.

#4 - Martin - 06/26/2014 - 20:59

seeing the whole picture at Ephesus is imperative. thus, understanding as much as we can about the women in Ephesus and in the church are critical in trying to ascertain why Paul gave us 2:11-15.

#5 - S Womble - 06/28/2014 - 01:18

Perhaps I should have said that I would be quite pleased if your view of this passage was the true one!

#6 - Martin - 06/28/2014 - 13:58

Womble seems to want to have his cake and eat it too: on the one hand, use social context to explain away passages that contemporary Western readers would find abhorrent if applied today, yet still somehow retain some sort of absolute authority inherent to the text.

The interpretive paradox creates itself. This is what happens when you hold up a text as authoritative for all, while divorcing it from its context of production in an utterly alien cultural environment with completely different social values. Selectively reintroducing social context in order to explain away passages that make us feel uncomfortable isn't going to fix the problem.

Better to just admit that the author of 1 Timothy had a patriarchal attitude typical of his time, agree that this attitude is wrong in our own social context, and then see if we can actually get something positive out of the text without having to accept 1st century Mediterranean social values as our own.

#7 - Robert M. Jennings - 06/29/2014 - 02:27

Prof Womble, you say concerning the Bible that "for the most part, its basic tenants can be agreed upon".

Are you referring to Abraham and Sarah, who dwelt in tents in what must have been some sort of rudimentary leasehold arrangement?

#8 - Deane Galbraith - 07/02/2014 - 21:06

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