Wrestling with the Biblical Text: When we don’t like what it says…

What do we do when the Bible turns up a doozy of a passage?

How young adults make sense of challenging biblical passages is informing their lived faith in a very real way.

Rape, incest, murder, genocide, racism, sexism, other isms. Sometimes reading texts which are about very ancient peoples and cultures – but which we expect will inspire and inform contemporary faith – is a challenge.  I’ve read a number of blogs recently, particularly on the subject of sexuality and gender identity, where people have done things with the biblical text which show this is a genuinely pressing subject – not just a hypothetical discussion for Bible nerds. How young adults make sense of challenging biblical passages is informing their lived faith in a very real way and we need to help people do that wisely.

It has made me reflect. What have I/we consciously or unconsciously taught them to do when faced with a tricky text? Ignore it? Skip over and turn to something comforting instead? And what are the long term implications of people losing confidence in Scripture because it’s often a challenging read?

Criticisms of Evangelical Bible Reading

Many scholars (and others!) have problems with how Christians read their Bibles. At a reactionary level it’s easy to dismiss that since many don’t share a sense of the Bible as Scripture. However, we should listen. Accusations that many of us are inconsistent with the way we handle Scripture deserves some reflection.

It is well documented that most evangelicals adopt a plain sense reading of Scripture (it means what it says) and assume it to be accurate until they come across a text which causes problems. At that point various interpretative strategies are used to explain why a text doesn’t really mean what it says. This is called “remote” reading. The passage might be viewed as an allegory or metaphor, questions of translation or cultural miscommunication come into play. Handling of Genesis 1-3 is a good example. Literal seven days or not? If not, why and how not?

We might think we read the Bible in a straightforward way – but we really don’t.

Often other theological values are brought into play so that one passage may be read using “plain sense” but another not.[1] Different traditions do it with different passages. For example: A Reformed, cessationist church will typically read the passages on women’s leadership plainly “I do not allow a woman to teach a man.” Simple. However, they don’t read passages on spiritual gifts plainly – those are explained away using a variety of theological and hermeneutical arguments.  Alternatively a charismatic, egalitarian church does the opposite. It undertakes plain reading of 1 Corinthians 12-14 on gifts, but engages theological and hermeneutical tools to argue that passages on women’s leadership don’t mean what they look like at first glance.

We might think we read the Bible in a straightforward way – but we really don’t.

What is tricky for Millennials?

In the focus groups I ran discussing unfamiliar passages the most controversial theological theme turned out to be acts of violence attributed to God so I’ll use it as an example. The discussions included 1 Samuel 25 where God ‘strikes down’ Nabal, an enemy of David, 2 Kings 5 where Elijah’s servant Gehazi is stricken with Leprosy, and Acts 12 where King Herod is killed by an angel of the Lord.

Of the nine focus groups only two weren’t bothered by God getting “smitey” – the eldest (aged 27-32) in the mainstream and conservative evangelical churches.  However all the charismatics and those under 26 were VERY uncomfortable with the idea of God behaving like this and adopted various strategies to make sense of the texts. I identified five strategies these readers used.

5 ways to wrestle with the text

1.      Unquestioning Acceptance

If a topic was not a problem then they used a straightforward, plain reading. “It means what it says. I trust God is just, therefore He can be a smitey as He likes. That’s not an ethical problem for me, I accept the version of events presented.” That doesn’t mean these individuals read this way with every text – just on this topic it wasn’t a problem.

2.      Reader Limitation

When readers were mildly unhappy with the version of events they explored historical and cultural questions to try and legitimise what (from a contemporary perspective) appeared confusing. They assumed that they must be missing information that would explain why God had acted like this. So the problem wasn’t with the text but with their understanding. E.g. if they just knew more about ancient hospitality rules then they’d understand the seriousness of Nabal’s crime and why God killed him. The text was still authoritative but they were missing key information to make sense of God’s actions.

3.      Uncomfortable Resignation

A third group were typically younger. They often asked cultural questions but defaulted to a position that, even though they didn’t like it, this must be an accurate account of events. Unlike the first group who were comfortable with the biblical account these guys were unhappy but resigned to accepting the narrative (since it was in the Bible) but were unable to resolve their concerns and left them hanging.

4.      Explicable Misrepresentation

These readers were seriously unhappy with the biblical accounts of Divine violence; it contradicted their understanding of God’s nature. To negotiate that (but still allow the Bible to have authority) they suggested that perhaps the exact wording of the text was wrong and that there were mistranslations. Perhaps in the original language it would make more sense?

The Bible was still authoritative but for acceptable reasons, it didn’t mean exactly what it said.

Alternatively they wondered if the ancient people who reported the events were too primitive to understand what was really going on? So, perhaps Nabal had a heart attack or stroke – the shock of events killed him – but because people didn’t understand those medical conditions they ascribed his death (wrongly) to God. It was an error in the Bible, but it was understandable, no one was to blame. The Bible was still authoritative but for acceptable reasons, it didn’t mean exactly what it said.

5.      Partial Resistance

The final strategy I observed only twice in 18 hours of discussion and 6 sermons. On both occasions someone was sufficiently unhappy with the text’s version of events that they said “I don’t believe that; it’s not how God works.” On one occasion it was in a sermon and there was no explanation for why the Bible might be wrong. On the other a 25 year old suggested an alternative version of events that meant God had permitted not caused an event despite what the text said. He wasn’t willing to reject the Bible entirely, he just thought its version was incorrect on this occasion. His comments were greeted with total silence. The rest of the group were not willing to go there, although they were willing to agree that it was a mystery they did not fully understand.

Our Response

Listening to these guys and reflecting on the strategies they used made me consider which of those tools for negotiating with the Bible I modelled in my preaching? Was I even aware of how I demonstrated engaging with challenging biblical texts or was it unconscious and inconsistent? I’ll be honest, I had something of an existential crisis about my Bible handling. In the end I decided what I did with Scripture was no worse than most people and that I should get over myself. However, it has made me self-reflective.

  • What do I do when I read and what am I demonstrating as I teach? Is it helpful in equipping people (especially young people and new believers) to make sense of Scripture themselves and how are future teachers and preachers being trained in our churches?
  • Do I really allow Scripture to challenge me? Am I willing to put in time and effort, to be open to reading and seriously considering what others think about a text’s meaning, or does the Bible just function as an echo chamber for me?
  • Do I skip the difficult bits and return to something comfortable and comforting? If we claim to take the whole Bible seriously then why do we so often ignore difficult passages and books and what effect does that have on the faith and theology of our churches? Are we actually guilty of “functional Marcionism”?[2]
  • How SHOULD I help young adults make sense of the complicated, beautiful, ancient literature we believe was inspired by God Himself? How can we help our guys to do that well – not just be boggled, resigned or confused by how to make sense of the word of God?

It’s vital that we equip young people to be confident in handling Scripture in a life-giving way.

This really matters – when faced with aggressive secular atheism and well documented biblical illiteracy we have to equip our young people to be confident in handling Scripture in a meaningful and life-giving way.

One is to be honest with ourselves as leaders and teachers, step two is to ask God’s Spirit to inspire us to be passionate, discerning and wise.  As Paul wrote “This is my prayer that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.” (Phil 1.9-10)


[1] Richard Briggs notes that the result of this is that we can simply get the Bible to say back to us what we already believe rather than allowing it to challenge us. It simply becomes an ‘echo chamber’ that legitimises values we already hold.  Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously. (Eugene: Cascade, 2011), 130

[2] Marcion was a first century heretic who scrapped the Old Testament and its ‘angry God’ and deleted big chunks of the New Testament for the same reason.

Illustration by Harri Endersby-Marsh


  1. Jeremy Edgar says:

    Great article. I agree that if we don’t help people handle the challenging parts of Scripture we are failing to equip them as healthy disciples. As a youth pastor I have tried a few things to overcome this problem. (1) Tackle the material head on. Don’t pretend it’s not there, and don’t pretend it’s always easy to accept. If you put it out on the table for discussion, people at least feel like they are free to question and have reservations. (2) Build theological frameworks. Pithy one-liners are not helpful to try and understand complicated problems. (3) Help people see that if God is real, you will not always agree with him. If you did, you wouldn’t be believing in the real God, just your own interpretation of him. Being a disciple of Christ requires that we be confronted with beliefs and values that are contrary to our own. We know we are true disciples when we go to war with the Bible and come out on the losing end.

    • Ruth says:

      Thanks Jeremy, those are really helpful comments – all the best in your endeavors enabling young people to wrestle with the Bible!

  2. […] Wrestling with the Biblical Text […]

  3. […] topic of acts of violence, committed by God in Scripture. She uses this topic to discern how young people tend to deal with such difficult parts of Scripture. Her keen insights deserve serious […]

  4. Harry D. Akers says:

    I’m not a teacher and I have begun really studying the Bible later in life. (So I’m newer at this than most of you and have not studied this at any institution).
    As far as the concept of God being unloving when He “smited” someone or commanded others to – we know that God is not confined to time and space – He created them. Therefore, He knows what is coming and can give us direction to protect ourselves.
    When He commanded Saul to kill every breathing thing (and Saul did not) those people came back later and were destructive to the Jews. At the time, Saul did not know what God knows, and based on his limited knowledge did not understand why they all needed to be killed, dis-obeyed God and paid the price. The Jews also (later) paid the price.
    God was being loving by protecting His people.
    When we are given full knowledge and look back, we will see that God is always a loving God. Past – Present – Future

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