“So why do you take some parts of the Bible literally and not others? Why Matthew and not Leviticus?”

I was having a fascinating conversation with a friend recently, and we started talking about chemical weapons and Syria and how the world reacts.

At one point in the conversation, I said to him, “I just can’t get around the fact that we are supposed to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us and that those of us who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

“Did Jesus ACTUALLY say those things?”

“Yeah.  These ones I’m sure he did.”

“So why do you take some parts literally and not others?  Why Matthew and not Leviticus?”

We all pick and choose our favourite texts, and ignore the ones we don’t like.  (Note: If anybody tells you that they don’t pick and choose, or that it’s pretty straight forward, tell them to pucker up and give you a holy kiss, just like the Bible instructs them to).

So how do we pick and choose?  Why some verses and not others?  How do we read our Bibles?

People write entire books about this and devote entire university courses to this.  So naturally, I’m going to do incredible injustice to all those professors and theologians and share a rough understanding of how I read Scripture and let it shape my life.

  1. My first “lens” is Jesus – My Bible is not flat.  Not every verse gets equal weight.  Imagine taking a book, opening it up in the middle, and putting it spine side up (so it forms a bit of a pointy, hilly, thing).   The spine is the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Those are the most important parts.  I read everything before the gospels as leading up to Jesus, and everything after the gospels as a result of the gospels.  If I truly believe that Jesus is God incarnate sent to the save the world, taking him fairly serious would probably be a pretty good start.
  2. My second “lens” is to treat Scripture not as a building block, but as an anchor point (think of a boat attached to a dock).  I have five anchors in my life.
    1. Scripture
    2. Reason
    3. Tradition
    4. Experience
    5. Community

Our theology, worldviews, ethics, morals and every day decisions starts with Scripture, but gets filtered through reason, tradition, experience and our faith communities.  This eliminates much of the need to greet each other with holy kisses, keep slaves, or cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin.

Are these the most perfect, air-tight lenses on how to read Scripture?  No.  But they provide a pretty solid framework.

Will we still disagree?  Yes.  But as long as Jesus is the centre, I think we’re on the right track.


12 thoughts on ““So why do you take some parts of the Bible literally and not others? Why Matthew and not Leviticus?”

  1. Also, you know, Matthew is not the same genre as Leviticus – the Bible is not one book, it is many scrolls of history, law, prophecy, genealogies, myths, and gospels, and letters, etc. – in short, it has many genres. If I took 10 different books off my shelf (classic literature, politics, fantasy novels, history, maybe some in German or French, added some letters from a friend, maybe the script to my favourite movie, and put them all into one single bound book, would you read it all the same? No. You would ask about the genres, the context of the writings, where they came from, what purpose they served, etc. Welcome to hermeneutics 101. Like you said, the Bible is not flat – there are whole worlds inside those texts and they interact with our world in many different ways, and that is important, and a gift.

      • That question has a lot of layers of interpretation already. So let’s start with citing the verse you’re referring to so I can look it up. Then I’ll try and articulate how I would normally go about it.

  2. Good question.

    Since you’re pulling a Matthew 19:3a and testing me (because if you really wanted a surefire answer to your question, I’m fairly certain you could use Google to find out the many different interpretations of this text), I’ll pull a Jesus and answer your question with another question (or three).

    How do you read your Bible when you read about remarriage in Matthew 19:9?
    Or about selling all your possessions as part of the invitation to follow Jesus as we read in Matthew 19:21?
    The discernment process you use for those verses might be applicable to Matthew 19:4-6.
    My discernment process is listed in my original blog post.

    But in the end, we still might disagree. So here’s an even better question:
    How do we live together when we disagree?


    PS – I recommend the book Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality. Two Mennonite professors from the States share their different (yet convincing) views on whether marriage should be inclusive or restrictive.

  3. Kyle,

    I, too, start with Christ and have the same lens as you do exegeting a passage; I think your grid is reasonable and wise, (or perhaps we are both fools). I, perhaps, don’t “ignore” the ones I “don’t like”; I don’t think that is our choice. Assumably, by “don’t like” you mean peculiar or odd to us, then certainly, we should examine these passages in light of cultural and historical contexts before applying them to ourselves.

    When interpreting scripture, you mentioned that taking Jesus “fairly serious would probably be a pretty good start.” That is why I was asking the question. Shouldn’t we take his teaching in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 citing Genesis 1 and 2 that marriage requires a monogamous, exclusive male-female union “fairly seriously”?

    As for Matthew 19:9, “except for unchastity,” adultery would be committed. It seems that Jesus came with an intensified sexual ethic.

    As for Matthew 19:21, Jesus was asking the wealthy young man from the region of Judea beyond the Jordan to sell all his possessions as this was his stumbling block to following Christ, (cf. 23-26). It’s also didactic for the disciples revealing that being rich did not imply blessing.

    As for your last question, I am not sure how to answer. GK Chesterton had a “friendly enemy” in George Bernard Shaw and When Christ disagreed with the money changers, he turned tables, made a whip, and chased them all out. He called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” “hypocrites,” “fools,” and “blind men.” And, he certainly spoke the truth in kindness to the unregenerate, but, here too, he showed the error of their ways. If it is a matter of vanilla or chocolate ice-cream, it’s relative, (even though vanilla bean is truly divine). However, if it is an objective claim, then doesn’t getting it right matter?

    And, in light of your Jesus-like triad questioning, He still answered the question asked of Him.



    • Thanks.
      Jesus is quoting the author of Genesis, so I’d ask the question of whether or not the author of Genesis is being prescriptive or descriptive.
      Some people say prescriptive. Others day descriptive.

      Sent from Kyle’s iPhone


      • Once again Chris, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do other than say I’m wrong and you’re right.

        And, one of my anchor points in interpreting Scripture is my faith community, and you and I attend different faith communities (and different denominations), so I don’t understand why you must be right and me wrong.

        I recommended a book explaining both a restrictive view and an inclusive view of marriage that would answer all your theological questions. Did you read it? I doubt it, for it would have explained in greater detail than I can the conversation around descriptive vs prescriptive texts.

        And if you asked me for an answer, and I pointed you in a direction that I think would have helpful, and you didn’t go there, it leads me back to question of what you are seeking to prove (and why).

        Sent from Kyle’s iPhone


  4. Hey Kyle,

    Thanks for keeping this dialogue going! I am merely trying to understand your thinking. And you have been gracious enough to allow my replies to be posted which means that you want this respectful and robust conversation to continue, and for that I am glad!

    As for the book recommendation, I searched Jake Epp and they (unsurprisingly) did not have it. I did make a request for it and they have been faithful to grant such requests in the past so I expect it to arrive in a couple days. The SBC library has it, but currently I am too cheap to get a $10 annual membership there. Amazon.com did let me “look inside” the book at which I was pleasantly surprised how much of the book was accessible. It seems like a well-researched (long bibliography), well-written discussion about two disagreeing people.

    What is left out of the discussion is the definition of marriage altogether. Frank Beckwith says, “Just because you can eat an ashtray does not make it food.” I feel this part was not addressed unfortunately for Thiessen. Grimsrud also asks whether the issue is about the “alleged misbehavior of the homosexual people” or the misbehavior of the church toward homosexual people?” Frankly, with a tweaking of Grimsrud’s “alleged” in the first question, both misbehaviors are issues within the church that Christ frowns upon which Thiessen touches upon in chapter 2. I did find Grimsrud’s analogy comparing homosexuality to left-handedness quite odd and his reasoning flawed. Nowhere in the bible is value ascribed to which hand you use. Also, using one’s left hand is not measurably psychologically and physiologically harmful like homosexual practice between two people is. Furthermore, Grimsrud naively assumes that homosexuality is immutable where research shows many people have left homosexual lifestyles to live heterosexual lives. And finally, I am not sure how Grimsrud deduces that since the church does not adhere to other Levitical laws, why so much attention is paid to this one about homosexuality. Will bestiality become normative? Or incestuous relationships? Surely given a little time these too will, if not already, become morally neutral. Finally, Grimsrud’s “you say, I say” hermeneutics is unfortunate. Truth matters and I think you would agree that we get it right, we’re obligated to do so.

    I do have to say that though an honest dialogue, “Reasoning Together” at this time, does both sides of the issue a disservice. However, I was not able to read the pages Amazon hid from me. I am looking forward, to reading it whenever it comes in, so thank you for the recommendation.

    As far as faith communities goes, I am not sure what that has to do with interpreting scripture so if you could enlighten me, I would be very grateful.

    And in light of you last comment, I was not looking for what other people believed the bible said. I am appreciative of you trying to help me in my reading list, and I think I read through some 80-90 pages worth to get the main arguments of Grimsrud and Thiessen, but I am asking you for your reasoning. You think I am wrong. I could be. I am fine with that. I am finite in my understanding of the world and I am trying my best. Please show me so we can “reason together.”


    The Jets won tonight. At least we have that joy in common!

  5. You’ve been great, and I can’t believe you actually went to the library to request a book. In the meanwhile, if you keep reading about the inclusive perspective, check out http://www.reformationproject.org/ or http://www.oasisuk.org/inclusionresources/Articles/MOIabridged, where the “Billy Graham” of the UK comes out of being inclusive.

    But an even better book is Andrew Marin’s book Love is an Orientation. He’s an Evangelical Christian building bridges with the GLBTQ community, and encourages us to elevate the conversation. I want to buy that book for everyone.

    But Chris, I think I’m done responding on here.

    1) Relationship is key. Community of faith is key. I don’t email the Catholic Church asking them questions of papal authority or transubstantiation. I don’t email other churches about dispensationalism or non-violence or atonement theories. Why? Because these conversations happen best in the context of relationships (plus, I’m grateful for diversity among churches, because it allows us to agree to disagree).

    2) All of our views on everything come from somewhere. To ask for views not attached to others is quite naive of how our worldviews are formed. A quick look at you on the internet shows that are you appreciate Gagnon’s thoughts. So when you defend a restrictive view of marriage, are you sharing your views or Gagnon’s? (I don’t see much of a difference).

    3) I still think you’re out to prove that I’m wrong and you’re right. You are posting on my blog and asking me questions and simply rehashing arguments that I have heard before. I am not posting of your blog with questions and arguments that you have heard before. I also don’t find your answers about seeking truth to be satisfactory. Most people use the word “truth” to hide behind fear (either about “the other”, or “If I’m wrong about this, what else could I be wrong about?”).

    4) You use the logical fallacies to back up your viewpoints, specifically the slippery slope fallacy. Follow your own argument and don’t shave the sides of your head, because that might leave to inclusive marriage, which might lead to churches condoning sex with animals. Or better yet, we probably shouldn’t allow heterosexual marriages, because that might lead to homosexual marriages. See the absurdity of the slippery slope? Debate each point on its own merits please.

    5) Please never ever ever ever again equate a faithful, committed, monogamous relationship between two consenting, non-related adults to leading to having sex with dogs or sheep. I don’t you think you really understand how demeaning and destructive this thinking is, let alone writing it in a public sphere is. For the first 11 months of my blog, each comment had to pre-approved by me to be posted online. Comments like yours are making me think that I should go back to that so as to minimize any damage caused.

    Kindly, I’m out.


  6. Hey Kyle,

    Thank you for engaging with me in this conversation; I have been challenged by you in my writing, tact (or lack of), and thinking. You have been gracious to respond despite your proclivities not to for which I am much appreciative.

    I apologize to your online audience, for it is not my intention to hurt anyone. My analogy using sexual prohibitions was to show a slippery slope tendency in culture if one does not subscribe to Christ’s teachings. The main issue here, I believe, is that if we don’t subscribe to a teaching, a prohibition nonetheless, that is consistent throughout the bible, our Kingdom inclusion is in doubt. My concern is if homosexual practice is okay, what else is? This was merely to show the logical conclusion of the situation. If you could show me how haircuts lead to sexual practices, as you suggest as a possibility, then we can debate the reasonableness of the premises and conclusions. But perhaps this was not the way to engage in this dialogue. Christ’s message is offensive enough: all sinners, obviously including myself, need repentance. So if I have offended anyone, as I have you, I apologize.

    The reason I entered this conversation was to glean from a Christian pastor of a conservative Mennonite denomination, who has an online blog that naturally reaches beyond the church walls, which verses I should take literally and which ones to take figuratively. I have not been formally trained in biblical hermeneutics per se so I wondered how we, who seemed to have a similar exegetical lens, could start from the same point and end at different conclusions. Perhaps our prescriptions are different. In fact, as I look back on our discussion, it seems that you give your anchors equal weight where I favour your chronological order.

    As to your last five comments, certainly relationship is important but I wonder in which sense you mean? And I am not sure why you mention your choices not to email other people about transubstantiation, dispensationalism, and pacifism—all which are subjective issues within the Church. It just seems you want your voice to be heard, otherwise you wouldn’t have sent your letter to the Carillon, or ranted about the prayer event at SCHS, or negatively commented on the people speaking up at the Legislature. This is fine and can be great dialogue. It just seems like you want to call out other people but not have others critically examine your comments. For this I am intrigued.

    In light of your uncharitable worldview comment, certainly, we choose and discard beliefs and understandings that suit our convictions, convictions on what we believe to be truth, and what is truth but the right response to reality.

    And yes, I do think you are wrong in your view about homosexuality, as you are of my views. However, this should come as no surprise to you. And I am sure you have had more responses to this issue than say pacifism, since the former is more relevant to Kingdom inclusion than the latter. I wish you would post on my blog; I do like the traffic. And your comment on hiding behind fear does not come as a surprise, though I am surprised as to how bold it is. I think most humans, if they are honest with themselves, which is not always a given because of pride, know that their understanding is limited and finite, (Socrates would be euphoric if this was the cultural mindset of his day!). I think people would also admit that they do not know which parts of their worldview or reality they are misunderstanding. Why would one continue in misunderstanding once they understood their misunderstanding? I do not fear in being wrong, for as soon as I know what is wrong, I know what is right. For that I am glad, though my pride hurts for a time. Sanctification is not meant to be easy, (how quick I forget!).

    I referred to the slippery slope issue before. It is logical reasoning and is only fallacious if the warrant is unsound. If not a male-female prerequisite, then why not a same-sex couple or polyamourous unions that model polyfidelity? As for “debating each issue on its own merit,” it has been tried and found wanting.

    And finally, I am not sure as to why you are blaming me for any wrongdoing. If you are concerned about your readers, of which I am one, then perhaps revert back to censorship. However, if you appreciate diversity as much as you say you do, and my views divert from yours, then there is no need for the churlish response in this virtual public square. It’s just my view after all. However, I have a feeling my final post, this time, will not pass censorship on your blog. As unfortunate as it would be, unsurprising it would not. And I am more than fine with that, honestly.

    I do wish we could continue. Perhaps, in Heaven!


    *I would like to read Marin’s book, as you have recommended, and thanks for the website links you posted as well. I, too, would recommend some books on the issue. Robert Gagnon’s 100-page book 2 Views is at Jake Epp library as is his other 521-page book entitled The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Also, on the topic about the definition of marriage, I think Anderson, George, and Girgis’s treatment of the topic is fantastic as it does not attempt to moralize homosexual practice, but it rather focuses on what marriage is and why the government should be involved at all.

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