"You take the bible too literally!"

I have had this said to me twice in the last week, when I had spoken to two different church leaders about the subject of my earlier posts (Characteristics of a biblical church and Jesus says: "Give me back my church").

Well I am happy to say that I do indeed take scripture literally, or, to put it better, I take it in its plain sense, which is how Jesus and the apostles and all the prophets took it. The difference between the plain sense and the literal sense is that the bible contains many figures of speech, which have to be understood as such:

Psalm 18:
  6 In my distress I called upon the LORD;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
  7 Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry.
  8 Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
  9 He bowed the heavens and came down;
thick darkness was under his feet.
  10 He rode on a cherub and flew;
he came swiftly on the wings of the wind.
  11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him,
thick clouds dark with water.
  12 Out of the brightness before him
hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds.
  13 The LORD also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice,
hailstones and coals of fire.
  14 And he sent out his arrows and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings and routed them.
John 10:7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.

No one in his senses takes these as literal descriptions of God or Jesus, but as poetic imagery and metaphor. But it is easy to recognise such figures of speech. We use such figures all the time and have no trouble in interpreting them.

Similarly, the bible contains apocalyptic books, which have to be understood according to their genre. Yet once they are decoded, using the bible's own codes, they are clear and relatively easy to understand.

But when God describes what he did in creation or what he is going to do, he does not use figures of speech but speaks plainly. That is how Jesus and the apostles always understood his word. God clearly states that he created heaven and earth in six days. He also declares that he is going to destroy heaven and earth and replace them:

2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

This could not be plainer, yet one of the two leaders who told me I was taking the scripture too literally had outright denied these scriptures in his sermon and stated that he thought that instead the existing earth would merely be cleansed of evil.

God means what he says and says what he means. If he did anything else, he would be a deceiver and not the God of truth. But he does allow people to deceive themselves, and the first steps to deception are to take the word of God lightly and substitute one's own opinion for what his word says. This kind of deception is rampant in the church and has led to compromise with the world and to all sorts of cults and sects.

The context of church order

In speaking to these leaders, I pointed out that Paul had received a tradition about the conduct of the church that he passed on to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:2); that the content of that tradition must logically be found in the following chapters about the conduct of the Corinthians' meetings; and that an apostolic tradition is obviously one that we should be following. The response of both was that those were times of church planting (are no churches to be planted any more?) and that they should not be used as a pattern for now. Yet the scripture contains no hint that anything was to change as time went on. These were leaders in the Pentecostal tradition, but their argument would lie very aptly in the mouths of the cessationists who deny that the spiritual gifts have any relevance today.

God has undoubtedly used unbiblical church structures in the past, and he still does so. If he waited for us to be perfect, he would do nothing in the world. However, that is no excuse for ignoring his word. He does hold it against people if they ignore his word, particularly when their error has been pointed out to them. There were several good kings of Judah, but against nearly all of them the final summation included the words, "the high places were not removed". (1 Kings 15:14 et al.) The pagan worship that God had utterly forbidden kept on creeping back into Israel through their disobedience to his plain commands. One can imagine the priests of the high places insisting that God could not really have meant that they were to be destroyed, but Judah's disobedience in this matter and others ultimately led to the destruction of their kingdom and the exile to Bablyon.

If we do not follow God's pattern, we will inevitably lose by it. His will is the best for us, and if we substitute our own will, we will lose that best. If church leaders had the courage to follow the scripture, rather than their tradition, they would bring great blessing on the church.

Inner conviction?

One of the two leaders I spoke to, a woman, asserted that she had a definite, unmistakeable call from God to leadership in her particular church; that is obviously a position supported by the wider church grouping. But someone's inner conviction, no matter how strong it is, cannot trump the word of God. (The Mormons speak of the "burning in the bosom" that supposedly verifies their false teachings.) Leadership of the church is male only, and that is clearly and plainly set out in scripture. There are many roles for believing women, but teaching and having authority over men is the one role that God does not allow them. He does not guide anyone contrary to his own word.

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Oliver Elphick
Last modified: 22nd October 2015