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How Christian faith groups handle
apparent internal conflicts in the Bible

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The validity of biblical passages:

Conservative theologians generally teach that the Bible's authors were inspired by God to write text that is inerrant. This is compatible with II Timothy 3:16:

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, [literally God-breathed] and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness"

The author of 2 Timothy was presumably referring only to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) because the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) had not yet been assembled while he was alive. However, this verse is often used to affirm the freedom from error of the entire Bible -- Hebrew and Christian Scriptures together.

Not all Biblical verses are necessarily given equal weighting. Some Christians regard certain passages as not applicable to Christendom today:

bulletLeviticus 17:1 to 26:46 contains part of the Holiness Code. These total hundreds of ethical and ritual laws which governed all aspects of life in ancient Israel. The purpose of the laws was to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbors - to keep them ritually clean and pure. A consensus exists amongst Christian theologians, pastors and tele-ministers that most the Holiness Code is no longer binding for today's Christians. Among the exceptions to this general rule are the Ten Commandments and Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, which most conservative theologians believe are still binding. They usually interpret the latter two passages -- and four more "clobber" passages -- as  condemning all homosexual activity. Thus, most of the laws of the Holiness Code are essentially ignored in denominational policy making.
bulletSome passages in the Bible are considered to be truths that are limited in scope to a particular society or a particular era. For example, 1 Corinthians 11:4-10 appears to discuss how men and women should be clothed in church. Various translations of the Bible describe hats, hair length, veils, and shaving the head; the precise meaning of these verses is ambiguous. But the translations all appear to agree that St. Paul required women and men follow different practices: e.g. men must not wear hats while women must cover their head. By the end of the 20th century, these verses were generally interpreted as applying to first century CE practice. They are not considered binding today by most denominations.
bulletMost Christian denominations have some long-established practices which deviate from Biblical commands. For example, Genesis 2:2-3 mentions that God rested on the 7th day, after having created the earth and the rest of the universe during the 6 days of creation. He apparently did not do this because he was tired. He did it to make the Sabbath a holy day for all humanity, forever. Exodus 20:8-11, one of the Ten Commandments requires Jews and Christians to preserve the seventh day, Saturday, as a day of rest. But for a variety of religious and political reasons, the early Church adopted a Pagan practice and changed the holy day to Sunday. The vast majority of Christian denominations now worship on Sunday. They believe that the commands in the Bible for Sabbath worship are not binding on the modern church. Only a few Christian groups, the "Sabbath-keepers," meet on Saturdays. The Seventh-Day Adventists are the largest of these.

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Handling conflicting biblical passages:

Among the sections of the Bible which are considered binding on Christians, pairs of passages often appear contradictory. Believers in the inerrancy of the Bible will usually accept one passage in a conflicting pair as literally accurate. The other verse(s) are usually interpreted symbolically. Some rationale is developed to resolve the apparent conflict. Depending upon which passage is accepted as literally true, A Christian may end up with one of two widely diverging beliefs.

One example is on the topic of salvation. There are many Biblical passages that specify different requirements for a person to be saved. Many are mutually exclusive. Two are:

bulletJohn 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (NIV)
bullet1 Corinthians 6:9: "...Do not be deceived: neither fornicators no idolaters, nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals,* nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God." (NAB)
* The NAB has a footnote indicating that "practicing homosexuals" is a translation from the original Greek reference to adult males who rape boy prostitutes.

Many consider the word "whoever" in the verse from John as indicating that all believers will have eternal life. However, the verse from Corinthians indicates that entire groups of believers will be denied eternal life, depending on their actions. In fact, if you took the entire body of Christians, and removed all of the individuals had engaged in pre-marital sex, inter-marital sex, extra-marital sex, or who had been greedy, or stole something, or slandered someone, or who was once drunk, or had had sex with an under-aged person, etc. then you might not have very many Christians left to go to Heaven! Hell would be full to the rafters -- if they have rafters.

Obviously, if you regard John 3:16 as literally true and attempt to resolve the verse with 1 Corinthians 6:9, then you will conclude that all believers will go to heaven. If you accept the Corinthians verse as literally true, and attempt to resolve it to John 3:16, then you will conclude that heaven is restricted to those who meet certain standards of behavior. Very few believers -- apparently even among those who are born again -- will go to heaven.

Many conservative denominations teach that John 3:16 teaches that almost all believers including thieves, the greedy, alcoholics, slanderers, murderers, etc are saved and will attain heaven. However, they do stress that 1 Corinthians 6:9 does teach that sexually active homosexuals will all go to Hell. Liberal denominations tend to discount the importance of the Bible's lists of people excluded from Heaven.

Another example relates to the role of women in church. Two apparently conflicting passages are:

bulletGalatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (NIV)
bullet1 Timothy 2:11-12: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

Paul, in Galatians 3:28, would seem to teach a general principle that women and men should be treated equally, particularly within the church. However, the author of 1 Timothy 2:11 implies that all positions of authority in the church must be held by men, and that women should remain silent and submissive.

If one were to accept the Galatians quote as literally true, one would then accept women as full members of the church. This would make them eligible for consideration for ordination. If one were to accept the 1 Timothy quote literally, then one would prevent women from positions of power in the church -- in fact from any position that requires them to speak. One would then have to interpret the Galatians verse in a non-literal manner. Most liberal faith groups have typically taken the first approach; some conservative denominations have taken the latter; others interpret the Galatians passage are referring to only spiritual equality.

Generally speaking, liberal Christians have few problems with what appear to be internal conflicts in the Bible. They regard conflicts as simply indicative of evolution of spiritual and religious thought over the approximately ten centuries over which the Bible was written.

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Copyright © 1988 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-JUN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson   

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