It doesn’t take long for a Christian who’s studying the Bible to come across challenging passages. When we do, we should always remember the basics of interpretation: looking for the author’s intended message, reading it in context and with the whole of Scripture in view, even considering how believers throughout history have interpreted it.
But following those principles isn’t enough. There are still common mistakes we can make when we study—or seek to teach from—difficult texts in Scripture. Here are six ways we easily go astray when approaching such passages.
1. Avoid Hard Texts
The most common approach to difficult texts is to avoid them. When we come across a problematic passage, we might prefer to focus on the verses that are more accessible or understandable. But avoiding these texts doesn’t make them disappear. Eventually you or someone you love will want an explanation.
For teachers, if you consistently sidestep difficult passages, it can look like you have something to hide or that you don’t have confidence in God’s Word. After a while, people may stop looking to you for answers because they assume you don’t have any. Ironically, pastors often avoid hard topics because they don’t want to lose people. But that’s the likely result if we shrink back from declaring all of God’s counsel (Acts 20:27).
2. Exaggerate Their Significance
As I recently prepared to teach from 1 Timothy 2—one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible—I was struck by Paul’s primary command: urging prayer in the church. This focus is often obscured by the more controversial aspects of the chapter. Yet if we spend all our time thinking about a Christian’s relationship to government or women’s roles in the church and never address our calling, posture, and purpose in prayer, we’ve missed the main point. We’ve made the reader’s questions and concerns preeminent.
But there are other ways we can easily exaggerate a text’s significance. I’ve found that some Bible teachers are theological ambulance chasers. They’re eager to turn minor issues into major crises, then offer themselves as courageous advocates for the truth. But not every confusing passage should rise to the level of church controversy. Some issues do not threaten the gospel or our salvation.
3. Assume Correct Interpretation Is Simple
I grew up in a Christian environment where preachers would sometimes say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Once, I even heard a teacher assert that there’s “no such thing as a hard passage in the Bible.” We might chuckle at such a view, yet some Christians assume that Scripture’s perspicuity implies that its interpretation should be straightforward.
Not every confusing passage should rise to the level of church controversy.
But the Bible isn’t a pocket dictionary for faith and practice. In his Word, God has spoken through complex narrative and poetic philosophy. He’s recorded commands complete with rationale, motivation, and explanation. He’s provided principles, then called us to thoughtful application and situational wisdom. That’s why he’s given us minds for thinking, pastors for teaching, a community for learning, and his Spirit for illuminating. These good gifts would be gratuitous if God’s words to us were always clear—which, by its own admission, simply isn’t the case (2 Pet. 3:16).
4. Assume Correct Interpretation Is Inaccessible
When it comes to difficult texts and debated doctrine, Christians often say: “The church has disagreed on these issues for thousands of years. If they couldn’t figure it out, neither will we.” While I appreciate the apparent humility of such a statement, it betrays an unbiblical fatalism toward the possibility of knowing God’s will on certain issues. Yet we have good reason to believe that what God has revealed he wants us to know!
While the secret things belong to the Lord (Deut. 29:29)—and we will not answer every question—God’s revelation calls for our diligent study. We should expect that individual believers (and the church as a whole) can and will grow in their understanding of God’s Word over time.
5. Research Texts like a Cold Technician
Some Christians enjoy the science of interpretation. Difficult passages don’t discourage them because they enjoy new discoveries. It’s as if they’re in the lab and the Bible is a specimen under a microscope.
But we must be cautious about coming to complex texts in God’s Word as a cold technician: isolating the problem and identifying the solution without a view toward the care of souls. We should be wary of scientific diagnosis or endless speculation, especially if it’s absent of a warmed heart and any bedside manner that demonstrates genuine love for others—and ultimately for God. “The aim of our charge,” Paul says, “is love” (1 Tim. 1:5).
6. Query the Bible as Judge and Jury
Perhaps the most dangerous way to approach difficult texts is as a judge and jury. We can easily study the Bible in such a way that we preside in judgment over it—as if we’re the ultimate arbiter of what is true and right and good.
Instead, we must allow God to sit in judgment over us through sacred Scripture. His Word is what discerns the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts (Heb. 4:12), exposing our sin alongside his provision of salvation. When we confront difficult texts, therefore, we must be careful not to cross-examine the witness of God. We are ultimately the ones in need of scrutiny, not the other way around.
Rightly Handling Hard Texts
As we read and teach from challenging passages in God’s Word, we must not miss the clear message of the gospel. It is of first importance. However, when the spotlight is on the cross, obscure and difficult passages don’t disappear in its shadow.
We believe God has given all his Word—even challenging passages—to reveal himself and his will. As those who humbly and expectantly want to receive what God has given, we should seek his help as we do the hard work to understand the Bible accurately and communicate it with others lovingly.