Someone recently asked, “What is the status of a person’s salvation if they disagree with the ‘Church of Christ’s interpretation’ of scripture?” He went on to explain, “I ask because I am a member and still struggle with interpretation. I know some people at the ‘CoC’ who don’t agree with everything that is taught. I go to the ‘CoC’ because I believe they follow God’s word more closely than other churches.”
We appreciate the sincerity of this person to ask such a difficult question. Many people want to ask questions like this but fear a rebuke from other members of the church. Sadly, this fear isn’t unfounded. Too many Christians today hold tenaciously to their traditions, attempting to bully others to toe their line. This causes some Christians to question the status of their salvation or the viability of their relationship with the church. What does the Bible say about interpretation and its link with salvation?
Interpretation refers to the explanation of a passage of scripture. Hermeneutics is the formal science of interpretation and to many people it seems daunting because it requires several skills of study. There is a verbal study that includes semantics (defining words) and syntax (examining how the words relate to one another). A contextual studies consider the sectional context (the overall meaning of the section the passage is found in), the book context (the thrust of the book containing the passage), the canonical context (the theme of the Bible as a whole), and the immediate context (the verses immediately surrounding the passage). Interpretation also includes environmental study to examine the time, place and conditions of the author and the audience. Then there is a historical study that pays attention to the history leading to the passage’s writing, the history surrounding the writing, and the history following the writing. (See Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology for more information on the history of Bible study and interpretation.)
As Bible students employ the verbal, contextual, environmental, and historical study skills they can exegete or “draw out” the meaning of a passage. This conceptualized meaning of a passage is the interpretation.
Interpreting the Bible intimidates many people because they are not prepared for or motivated to do the analysis needed. However, God created the Bible as a book of instructions to be understood by the simplest man with a sincere heart. Amazingly it also explores the depths of humanity that challenges the most advanced scholars.
What about the “Church of Christ’s interpretation”? Is it different from other interpretations? Is there an official interpretation of the church? These questions litter the mind. But the answer comes from Paul. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV).
God expects personal interpretation, “present yourself.” The church uses corporate study not to disperse “official doctrine,” but to pool understanding and help Christians find the meaning of the text together. In the end, however, every individual must come to their own conclusion.
The church doesn’t determine salvation. God does, “one approved…no need to be ashamed.” One’s status depends on his ability to follow God’s instructions. An improper understanding will result in an improper life—ashamed before God.
Finally, Paul understood the importance of personal interpretation, “rightly handling the word of truth.” Everyone has the duty to handle or interpret it correctly. Does this mean that everyone has to follow the “Church of Christ’s” interpretation? No! It means everyone must follow God’s instruction.
Albert Barnes comments on this phrase, “The word here rendered ‘rightly dividing [or rightly handling ESV],’ occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, properly, ‘to cut straight, to divide right.’” When God wrote the Bible, he had a single meaning in mind for every passage. His original intent is the straight line. Bible students must cut along that straight line, not turning to the right or left (Josh. 1:7-8). Otherwise every interpretation would create a “new” Bible and there would be no standard for God’s judgment. The goal isn’t to interpret like the church or a preacher or another person or group.
The goal is to interpret like God.