Rightly dividing the word of truth

 Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately. 2Tim. 2:15 (NET)

This is a much better rendering of the passage I grew up with. The KJV said, “Study to show thyself approved unto God.” Of course, not all of my bible teachers were very conversant with 17th century English. The word, “study” had absolutely nothing to do with reading and becoming informed on a matter. It means to strive, work hard, endeavor, better still, make every effort. To this day, and with maximum irony. The Church of Christ misinterprets that verse as using the modern American word for study. This is the verse we most employ in the mission of provoking members to read their bibles. The passage meant nothing of the sort. There were no bibles on every coffee table to read. There was just an old man encouraging a young apprentice to work hard at his craft. The passage most known for its call to rightly divide the word of truth is wrongly divided.

Comical misinterpretations notwithstanding, a major tentpole of the churches of Christ is their commitment to accurate and infallible transmission of the precise words of God as transmitted through time in the form of the bible. We do like to say that we have the correct interpretation of the bible as much as to say that we understand it correctly. The bible is not open to private interpretation. It does not need to be interpreted, only read with honest eyes. If you are interpreting the bible, you are already doing something wrong. Interpreting is something of a red flag for us.

That is not to say that we, they do not have methods of interpreting the bible. In bible college, students would learn the word, “hermeneutics”. That is nothing more than the art of interpreting a document. We had a particular hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. The following three items guided all of our biblical interpretations:

  • Direct command
  • Approved example
  • Necessary inference

Direct Command

You will notice that each item is preceded by a modifier. It is not just command: “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake”, but direct command: “Love one another”. The first is indirect and situational. The second is universal, and can be applied to all people in all places at all times. Surely, no hermeneutic could be more clear than this. If God, himself, gives a direct command to you and the entire world, then that should be the last word. Except… God, himself, never gave you and the whole world a direct command. It is all open to interpretation. Consider the following: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That sounds an awful lot like a direct command. The Church of Christ doctrine of evangelism is partially based on this command. We interpret it as a literal command for every active member of the church.

But was Jesus delivering this edict to every member of his (at the time) nonexistent church? That makes little sense. We assume the apostles dread this teaching as they established the church. We figure that every new convert was given this instruction immediately after their baptism. However, the bible does not support anything like this. There  are many examples of conversion, but none of this instruction to the recently converted. It stands to reason that at the very least, every would-be book of the Christian scriptures would feature this command. That is not the case either.

Since the vast majority of the people living in the first century would never see the writing that features this command, it could not have been intended for them. That means that only Jesus’ disciples gathered around him at that moment, and those who would have a complete copy of the bible much, much later were the recipients of that command. That also seems rather selective. If Jesus gave the command at all, the only thing we can say is that he gave it directly to his disciples that were with him at the time.

It gets even more ridiculous. Every convert is not equipped to sponsor a worldwide mission to preach the gospel to every creature, or even every nation. How many nations have you visited? How many creatures have you preached to? Right. So in what universe  do we suppose that everyone who becomes a Christian is to preach the gospel to every creature and nation? None! That is how much sense that passage makes as a direct command. There are no direct commands. They are all subject to similar interpretation. We are still in search of a consistent hermeneutic.

Approved example

It only gets worse from here. An example is any bit of narrative that illustrates a particular behavior of the protagonist. An approved example is one that carries the weight of command without a specific directive. “On the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread.” “Afterward, they sang a hymn and went out.” The first example clearly teaches that we are to take the Lord’s supper every Sunday. In the second example, we are taught that no church meeting can end without a closing song.

Naturally, the bible is full of examples of protagonists doing things that we do not emulate. We really only consider examples approved when they have something to do with the assembly. That is the problem with using this as any sort of hermeneutical principle. Who gets to say which examples have the weight of command and which do not. It also pretends that everything they did represented the perfect and mandatory execution of God’s inviolable will. Even if you want to be like someone you respect, you don’t copy his every action. Most of what a person does is unimportant, personal preference. The Church of Christ has traditionally made no distinction between important behaviors to be copied, and unimportant behaviors that can safely be ignored. Without such fine tuning, the principle is useless.

Necessary inference

This is the slipperiest of all the hermeneutical slopes. How do we know that Sunday is the official day of meeting for the church. Believe it or not, the bible never says. Here’s how it works. We have commands and examples that show the early Christians had a common meal on the first day of the week. We extrapolate that the meal either was, or contained the Lord’s supper. We also know that at least for a brief period of time, a few of the churches collected a charitable donation on the first day of the week. Since Jesus was said to have risen on the First day of the wee, early Christians started keeping that day sacred instead of the traditional Sabbath. From these bits and pieces, we must necessarily infer that Sunday was the day they set aside for worshiping God. This inference bears the weight of infallible, direct command.

You do not have to be very imaginative to see how this can all go awry. The same inference bait that has us meeting on Sunday every week, should also have use sending money to the poor saints in Jerusalem every week. That is what that first day a week collection was all about. It had nothing to do with paying for meeting halls, staff, and church programs. Furthermore, it was only temporary. The same bible tells us that for the most part, assemblies were held in private homes, not corporately funded buildings. What can we infer from that? Just about anything.

And that’s the problem with inference. That is the problem with all of it. The solid hermeneutic on which we hung our faith was about as constant as curdled milk. Like Play Dough, we could bend it, twist it, and shape it into anything we needed it to be. To this day, members of the Church of Christ believe the quicksand of their hermeneutic is solid, unshakable ground. They simply do not understand why you don’t see things their way. With this simple hermeneutic, the bible should read the same to everyone the world over. If you do not understand these simple truths, there must be something wrong with you.


There were other hermeneutical principles such as the continuity of the testaments, and the silence of scripture, not covered here. The point is that for me and my kind, the bible was not only the absolute word of God, but it was completely understandable with very few grey areas. Not only did we have the truth which was available to everyone, we had the only correct interpretation of the truth. That made us unique. Of course I thought I knew everything. I did know everything that was important. We all did, and I was one of the best of the bunch.

Perhaps you will forgive my arrogance when you understand that for me to admit to anything less than perfect knowledge was the same as me admitting that I didn’t know God’s will. And if I didn’t know God’s will, then I was as hell bound as the rest of the world. Knowledge was power. And perfect knowledge was the gift of our golden hermeneutic. If that hermeneutic were to start showing cracks, the faith would crumble. It would not be long before the first cracks in that slippery surface would start to show. The reverberations continue to this day.

David Johnson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s