By Mike Willis
As the discussion of unity with respect to our differences over divorce and remarriage is occurring, we are hearing statements that seem to imply that brethren do not think that we should expect them to understand the difficult subject of divorce and remarriage alike. Some are boldly affirming that a demand for uniformity of belief is sectarian or constitutes an appeal for a denominational alliance of congregations that all believe/teach the same thing. Such statements tend to cause one to question if brethren still believe that men should be expected to understand the Bible alike.
One of the main tenets of the unity-in-diversity movement espoused by Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett has been the idea that men should not be expected to understand the Bible alike. They have said that he can no more expect men to understand the Bible alike than he can expect men to look alike. Leroy Garrett wrote,
We likewise question the practice of rejecting any brother on the basis of his misunderstanding of scripture. There are surely grounds for excluding a brother from the fellowship of the congregation, but a sincere and well-meaning misinterpretation of the Bible is not among them. Whether a brother is right or wrong in this or that interpretation of Scripture is beside the point of whether I receive him as a brother beloved (“How Men Use the Bible to Justify their Divisions,” Thoughts on Unity 104).
We are likewise hearing today that good, honest and sincere brethren who teach what is admitted to be false doctrine on divorce and remarriage should not be labeled as “false teachers” and no lines of fellowship should be drawn. We are told that divorce and remarriage is too complex a subject to expect men to understand the Bible alike on that subject. This raises the fundamental question, “Can men understand the Bible alike?”
The Bible Is A Revelation
The Scripture uses the word “revelation” to describe God’s making known his will to man (Eph. 3:3). The word &1roxdXu4dls means “an uncovering; 1. prop. a laying bare, making naked… 2. tropically, in N.T. and eccl. language, a. a disclosure of truth, instruction, concerning divine things before unknown esp. those relating to the Christian salvation given to the soul by God himself, or by the ascended Christ, esp. through the opera-ion of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. ii.10), and so to be distinguished from other methods of instruction. . . b. equiv. to To atroKaaurrTtwO a i as used of events by which things or states or persons hitherto withdrawn from view are made visible to all, manifestation, appearance” (Thayer 62). The very definition of the word used to describe God’s word, “revelation,” asserts that one can know what the Bible teaches. Unless men can understand the Bible, it is not a revelation!
God Commands Men To Understand His Word
Not only does God affirm that men can understand his word, he also commands men to understand it. Paul wrote, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 5:17, NIV). Has God commanded of mankind that which is impossible? Either that is true or men can understand the Bible. Paul affirmed that men can understand his knowledge in the mystery of Christ by the reading of the word.
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit (Eph. 3:1-5).
Other passages emphasize that men can understand the Bible. Jesus expected those of his day to read and under-stand the apocalyptic words of Daniel (Matt. 24:15). Paul told the church at Thessalonica to “prove all things and hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), obviously thinking that they could discern good and evil. When Ezra read from the Scriptures, the men of his day understood them (Neh. 8:7-12). Men were said to know the truth in New Testament times (1 Tim. 4:3; Col. 2:1-3; Heb. 10:26; 2 Pet. 2:20-22).
Jesus plainly made salvation conditional upon knowing the truth. He said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The truth about which he was speaking was his word. One not only can know the truth, if he obtains the forgiveness of his sins, he must know the truth.
Can Men Understand the Bible Alike?
If men understand the Bible at all, they understand it alike. The Bible does not teach ten different things on any subject. “Thou shalt not steal,” if it is correctly understood, means the same thing to every man. There is not a different, individual truth for every man. The Bible teaches one truth which, correctly understood, is the same thing for every individual under heaven. “Thou shalt not steal” condemns every form of stealing, from embezzling to shoplifting. It condemns stealing for every man, without regard to which culture he may dwell. If the Bible has 100 different interpretations, then each interpretation is just as valid as any other.
If men cannot understand the Bible alike, the fault must be God’s. God wrote the Bible as it is. If it is too ambiguous, God is the one who made the ambiguity. If it is incomprehensible, he wrote it in such a flawed way that men cannot understand it. If the Bible cannot be under-stood, God becomes a monster for condemning to damnation those who do not do that which is impossible (to under-stand and obey the Bible).
Is the reason that man cannot understand the Bible because of some innate fault in man? If so, God is responsible for man’s inability to understand his word because he made man as he is. If the revelation which he wrote cannot be understand by the man whom he made, God is at fault.
There is no place in the Bible where man’s differing beliefs about divine things is attributed to an unclear revelation or some defect in man. In every case in which men differed about the Bible, the divine Scripture was appealed to as a standard which every man could understand. And they were expected to understand it alike.
Uniformity in Doctrine
What was revealed in one church was revealed in every church. Paul wrote, “For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church” (1 Con. 4:17). The uniformity in doctrine which the various churches had was not because they were units in a sectarian/denominational body, but because the same truth was revealed to and preached in every church. The early church was not content to have a “Jewish church” and a “Gentile church” which were not expected to understand the Bible alike. Rather, all men, both Jew and Gentile, were reconciled to God in “one body” (Eph. 2:16).
In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul asked, “What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only?” (1 Cor. 14:36). What is the point of these rhetorical questions? Paul affirms that the Corinthians are deviating from the norm of divine revelation in their worship assemblies. Since the word did not originate with them (“came the word of God out from you?”) and was not revealed solely to them (“or came it unto you only?”), the Corinthians were obligated to bring their practice into conformity with the divinely revealed standard that would make them like other faithful churches in belief and in practice. Hence, he said, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). The man who did not conform to the divine standard was neither a prophet nor spiritual.
In chapter 15, Paul spoke of the resurrection because some were denying that there would be a bodily resurrection. The apostle did not dismiss the subject saying, “We can no more expect men to think alike about the resurrection than we can expect men to look alike.” Rather, he asserted what God had revealed on the subject and warned men to have no company with those who teach a different doctrine (15:33).
Which Things Can We Not Understand Alike?
Those who do not believe that we can understand the Bible alike need to come up with a list of those things that all men are expected to believe alike and those which men are unable to understand alike. Are we expected to under-stand these following items alike?
Divorce and remarriage?
The humanity/deity of Christ?
Church support of human institutions (missionary societies, colleges, orphan homes)?
Church sponsored recreation?
Sponsoring church organization?
Mechanical instruments of music in worship?
The action, purpose, and subject of baptism?
The inspiration of the Scriptures?
The deity of Christ?
Belief in God?
There are men who disagree with every doctrine reflected in the above list. If the fact that men disagree proves that we cannot understand the Bible alike, then we can no more be expected to believe alike the verse that says “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) than we can be expected to believe alike the verse that says, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” (Matt. 19:9)
We are moving away from the basic tenets of Scripture when we justify divisions among us on the grounds that we do not believe that men can understand the Bible alike. Many of us grew up using a tract by A.G. Hobbs on that subject. In the early days of the restoration movement, a common theme in sermon outline books was a sermon entitled, “Can We Understand the Bible Alike?” The men of that era had to answer the argument “we cannot understand the Bible alike” which was used to justify denominational division. They responded that the “gospel, as God gave it, is adapted to man, as God made him” (N.B. Hardeman, Tabernacle Sermons IV:60-70). They affirmed that the Scripture was revealed in such simple terms that “wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein” (Isa. 35:8). They expected all men to understand what to do to be saved from sin. Are we moving away from that solid ground of faith?
Guardian of Truth XLI: 13 p. 2
July 3, 1997