(This is a piece I originally wrote for CuratedQuotes.com, but they ultimately decided it was too big for them to run. Since I spent quite a bit of time on it though, I wanted to go ahead and share it. Would love to hear your thoughts.)
Anyone who grew up in the church, or with friends and family who did, is familiar to some extent with the Bible. It’s the foundation of the Christian religion and the book that millions of people claim to live by. Yet even though we’ve spent over 500 years trying to fathom it, many people still get what it says wrong. You can blame this on bad interpretation, teaching, or cultural bias, but the fact is many religious people don’t know the meaning of the core verses they pass around. Here is a list of 20 of these most commonly misunderstood Bible verses.
1) Jeremiah 29:11
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Entire churches have been started on the misinterpretation of this verse, found in the Old Testament. The most popular understanding, that spurned the “prosperity gospel,” is that God wants you, yes you, to prosper. How? With money of course! And happiness. A future of prosperity is enticing enough to fill whole arenas with Christians every Sunday, eager for their share.
But mansions and Mercedes and a life free from worry is not what the Lord was declaring in this verse. As Thomas Turner, writing for Relevant Magazine, so perfectly explained,
“This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with vocation or discerning God’s will, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people—an entire [Israelite] nation…in Jeremiah 29:10, God lays down the specifics on this promise: that He will fulfill it “after seventy years are completed for Babylon.” In other words, yes, God says, I will redeem you—after 70 years in exile. This is certainly a far cry from our expectation of this verse in what God’s plans to prosper us really mean. He did have a future and a hope for them—but it would look far different than the Israelites ever expected.”
For this verse, and every verse in the Bible, context matters. And the context for Jeremiah 29:11 removes any notions that God promises you a future of riches and comfort.
2-7 on this list is devoted to the most popularly referenced verses when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. These are sometimes referred to as, “the clobber verses,” because the effect on the people they’re lobbed against is often hurtful and damaging. Here’s why the religious people using them this way have it all wrong.
2) Genesis 1:27-28
“27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
This verse is used most often to defend the argument that gay marriages, and therefore gay rights, are against God’s design because gay unions cannot be “fruitful” and produce children. This argument, from the start, makes two mistakes: 1) Wrongly assuming that the creation story was meant as a model for all humans, not just the first two (who had to populate an empty Earth,) and 2) Ignoring the fact that what God gives in this verse is a blessing, not a commandment.
Dr. James Brownson writes an entire chapter on this misinterpretation of the verse in his wonderful book, “Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Marriage.” Among his many sound observations on the true meaning is this:
“…to “be fruitful and multiply” is not given merely to the man and the woman. It is also given to the animals (Gen 1:22) and is thus not a directive given uniquely to human marriage. This in itself calls into question whether the essence of marriage is in view here…”
Furthermore, if the main purpose of marriage was to produce children, then we would see infertility as a biblical grounds for divorce. But no where in the Bible does it say this. Neither does the church refuse to marry older couples who are past the age of child-bearing.
3) Genesis 19:4-5
“4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. 5 They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
The source of many misconceptions about homosexuality can be traced back to this verse, taken from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Despite the fact that “the sins of Sodom” are listed in various other verses in the Bible that recall its destruction, yet not once is “homosexuality” mentioned, many Christians maintain the belief that this story is about the fate that will come to any people who accept homosexuality as normal.
Here’s some problems with that interpretation: 1) the men who surrounded the house were threatening gang rape, not sex, 2) rape, as we know today thanks to a modern understanding of psychology, is not about sex, it’s about power and de-humanizing another person; rape is not “gay,” and 3) The point of this story was not to teach a lesson on sexual immorality, but rather, to show the importance of hospitality, and the punishment for treating visitors or guests with ill will.
4) Leviticus 18:22
“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is an abomination.”
This is a great time to remind people of something they need to hear: the Bible was not written in English.
The word that was translated in King James, to “abomination” was written in the Hebrew Bible as “toevah.” This word is used over 100 times in the Bible, to describe a host of things that are permissible for one people group, but not another. It does not mean that gay people are an abomination, in the way we think of the word today.
5) Romans 1: 26-27
26 “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Some religious people find this to be the most damning of the “clobber” verses. It’s hard to read any interpretation other than that homosexual acts are unnatural. The verse even clarifies that these were homosexual acts of lust, not rape, which many people before have tried to claim the verses against homosexuality were really condemning. As an extra condemnation, this verse is the only one that specifically references female same-sex acts, making homosexuality seem not something isolated to pederasty and soldier rape, like other pro-gay Christians have claimed.
But once again, context is everything. It wasn’t until I dove into early church history, rabbinical texts, and again, Dr. James Brownson’s book, that I saw the true meaning of this verse. It wasn’t a warning against homosexuality, it was a warning against excessive lust, which, in biblical times, and for hundreds of years after, most people assumed homosexuality was a result of. What does that mean? It means that for hundreds of years the church, and society, assumed that homosexual acts were committed by men who were so “inflamed” with lust that they grew bored of “natural” relations with women, and moved onto “conquering” other men. The concept of sexual orientation wasn’t discovered until the 20th century. And what was “natural” for most of the earlier centuries wasn’t just heterosexual sex, it was heterosexual sex acts that resulted in procreation.
What religious people need to understand from this verse is that lust is sinful. Any acts driven by lust, gay or straight, outside of marriage, can be understood as sinful sexual acts. That is what Paul is warning against here, and that is what happened to these people when they turned their backs on God. But that has little to do with two committed, loving, monogamous adults of the same sex today.
6) I Corinthians 6:9-10
“9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Once again, the Bible was not written in English. The word used here that is roughly translated to “men who have sex with men” is the Greek word “malakoi.” This literally means, “soft.” In ancient times, the insult of “soft” was hurled at men for a variety of infractions, like wearing perfume or luxurious clothing, not wanting to work, or loving women too much. Yep – loving women too much, or wanting to have sex with a woman “too” often could get a man labeled “soft.” Sure, there were plenty of men who were “soft” who also engaged in same-sex acts, but a look into history shows that not all of them did.
Over time, “soft” became “effeminate” which the people that translated the book into English apparently took to mean, “men who have sex with men.” Of all the clobber verses, this one is probably the most grossly mistranslated and understood. How we got from “soft” to “men who have sex with men” just shows how much damage can be done by people who don’t understand context.
7) I Timothy 1:9-10
“9 We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine”
The condemnation of homosexuality in this verse depends on one of the most debated and little understood words in the Greek language -“Arsenokoitai.” It’s found first in the Bible and very few places other than scripture, leading many scholars to believe that either Paul made it up, or it was so rare that all other references to its origin were lost. It translates, literally, to “male bed” or some other combination of those two words (bed referring to sex.) It is notably a different word than what was used in 1 Corinthians above. Because of the rarity of this word, and the lack of it in other texts, different interpretations of what it means exist. Some think it refers to male-male sex acts, others to male sexual expression, and others still think it refers to men who engage in sex trafficking, as the word falls into an ordered list and precedes a condemnation of slave traders.
Regardless of what the word means, what religious people tend to get wrong with this Bible verse is the meaning of what was being said – that the law was not for the righteous but the lawbreakers and rebels, which we all can count ourselves among. All of us. So to single out “Arsenokoitai” from this verse, and use it to condemn gay persons, is a horrible misinterpretation.
8) 1 Corinthians 14:34
“34 Women[a] should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”
True story: once, before my mother left for a mission trip she was leading in Africa, she asked if she could say a prayer in front of our church’s congregation. One of the male leaders refused, and said, “in my Bible, it says women should stay silent in church.” This man later cheated on his wife and left her and their five kids, but that’s beside the point. Many men (and women) would agree with him, that women have no place speaking or teaching in church. Here is what they don’t understand.
This verse is part of a letter from Paul, written to an actual congregation. It was meant for specific people, experiencing a specific problem. As Rachel Held Evans puts it, these letters were written for us [modern Christians], but not to us. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, context matters. The context here is that this specific church that Paul was writing to had a problem with a large group of women that were becoming disruptive and distracting, and possibly hurting the reputation of the church. Paul’s instructions were for how to deal with them. But for whatever reason, unlike his other biblical instructions (like that church members greet each other with a holy kiss) this one stuck as universal and absolute for many Christians. It shouldn’t be. There’s no reason for us to take this verse, and not the whole movement of scripture towards women (more on that later), as what to reference as far as female roles in the church.
9) I Timothy 2:11-12
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
This, like 1 Corinthians, is an epistle and letter; Paul wrote it to help his friend and colleague Timothy with his ministry in Ephesus. So most of the arguments made about context in number eight above apply. What makes this verse all the more frustrating when it’s used to oppress women, is that it only takes a cursory reading of Paul’s other letters to see that he has no problem with women who teach.
Again, to quote Rachel Held Evans,
“Obviously, Paul didn’t have a problem with women teaching in general…he honored Priscilla, a teacher to the apostle Apollos, and praised Timothy’s mother and grandmother for teaching Timothy all he knew about faith. He recognized Junia as an apostle, Phoebe as a deacon, and Euodia and Syntyche as church planters.”
If Paul truly did not permit all women to teach and to be quiet, then it would make no sense for him to honor and praise the women above. In fact, he likely would have called them out by name, and said exactly what it is he thought they were doing that dishonored God. Paul was not shy, or subtle.
10) Ephesians 5:22-24
“22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
As a woman, I struggled with this verse for most of my faith. Why should I have to submit, just because I am a woman? Does Paul think God created women inferior? How can I call myself a feminist and a Christian, if I follow a religion that says my husband is the “head” of me?
See, like many religious people, I was misunderstanding these verses. Thank goodness for Rachel Held Evans (seriously, read her stuff.) To understand this verse, you need to understand two things: 1) Greco-Roman “household codes” and 2) the biblical culture of patriarchy.
In biblical times, women were literally property, like cattle and slaves. In fact, as Rachel points out, the verses preceding the ones above are all instructions to slaves and masters, because these fell under the same category. When reading Ephesians with this understanding then, it’s incredibly subversive because it goes on to command husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church.
It is another example of the ways the Bible, when looked at as a whole, lifts women up from their societal place of property, to one of loved and honored children of God. A person needs to look no further than Jesus repeated treatment of women to prove this theory. What people need to understand from this verse is not how women should submit to their husbands, but how we all should submit to one another, as Christ gave himself for the church.
11) Proverbs 31: 10-31
“A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies….She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks….She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy…She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple….She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her…Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Oh this verse. Imagine being a young woman growing up in the church, trying to figure out what kind of person God wants you to become, and being told to read this. Or listening to guys in your singles group talk about how, “hard it is to find a Proverbs 31 woman.” Yeah I bet it’s hard to find a woman who does all of those things (especially being able to afford servants and a vineyard while finding the time to make all those linens.) This verse has been used to make far too many young women feel bad about themselves, or strive to attain something unattainable.
Here’s the problem with trying to be a “Proverbs 31” woman: you can’t. And you shouldn’t want to be. Why? Because trying to mold your personality and life by one proverb of the Bible causes you to miss the whole point of the rest of it – your value isn’t in your works, but in Christ. I’m a wife, and I pretty much never arise before the sun. I also have no children to call me blessed. But while I agree that beauty is fleeting, I also agree with the message of the Bible that says my worth is not in the quality of the linens I make, but my commitment to Christ.
12) John 11:35
You would think that the shortest verse of the Bible would be the hardest to misinterpret, but then you would be wrong. This is included on the list thanks to former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who, in response to the Supreme Courts ruling that DOMA was unconstitutional, tweeted, “My thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: “Jesus wept.”
As a former pastor, you’d imagine that Huckabee would know Jesus was weeping in John not as a result of homosexuality (or any “sin”) but because of a profound feeling of compassion. He saw and felt the grief of his friends family who mourned the loss of their brother, and wept himself, even though He knew He could and would resurrect him. The point of this short verse is to show the dept of Christ’s compassion. It does not exist for pundits to throw it around whenever they disagree with a culture shift.
13) Psalm 37:4
“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
I have been guilty of doing the same thing many religious people do when they read this verse: seeing only the second part, and not the first. What I mean by that is I would look at this verse and see only, “he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Here’s the thing so many people miss: if you follow the first part of the verse, and take delight in the Lord, those desires of your heart are going to change to what God desires for you. But most people don’t think that way. They go to this verse when they’re already desiring something they badly want. They think that if they just take the minimum required delight in the Lord and wait a bit, then bam! What they desire is delivered to them. That’s not what this means though. What this verse is saying is that the more you delight yourself in the Lord, the more your heart reflects His. Which means maybe that job, or husband, or fat book contract might not be given to you – but something the Lord desires for you, will.
14) Isaiah 53:2-3
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”
There is almost no chance that Jesus looked anything like the handsome, striking actor Jim Caviezel, who portrayed Him in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. First of all, Jesus wasn’t white. He was a mediterranean Jew, who likely had dark skin, hair, and more pronounced (less chiseled) facial features. Many people forget this, mainly because when we think of Jesus face, we either picture the Person of Interest actor, or a painting or work of art we saw hanging in a museum. Or the YMCA. But, of course, none of those images were actually of Jesus. We don’t know what He looked like. But we do know, thanks to this verse, that there was nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. Which means He was not as gorgeous as art has made Him out to be. He was probably very plain and average.
15) John 2: 13-16
“13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
Someone on Twitter said this, about the above verse: “When asked, ‘what would Jesus do’, just remember that chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.”
We often forget this side of Jesus, and fail to understand what the verse above means. He got angry. Really angry. And kind of violent. This contradicts the picture of Jesus most of us have, of a serene, gentle man holding a teeny lamb. Jesus did that too, but He also screamed at people for abusing the church. What we need to understand from this verse, but we often overlook, is that His Father’s house is not a market. Now what that means is certainly up for debate, but I think it’s fair to say Jesus is angered by the use of the church for profit.
16) 1 Corinthians 10:13
“13 No temptation[a] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[c] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Have you ever been in the midst of something horrible, like a break-up or job loss, and someone has said to you, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle?” Turns out that is found nowhere in the Bible. What is found is this verse above, which promises that God, in his faithfulness, will not tempt us more than we can bear. Of course, being tempted with sin and feeling the weight of grief or depression are two totally different things. But over time the two have gotten confused, leading people to mistakenly assume that God will not put on us more than we think or feel we can bear. All it takes is reading the book of Job, or sitting with a friend who just lost a spouse or loved one, to see that this is simply not true.
This does not mean God is cruel, or that He abandons us. It just means that life is hard, and while He will be by our side when we experience hardships, becoming a Christian does not free us from great pain.
17) Proverbs 13:24
“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
One of the most dangerous books out there today was written by a Christian pastor. It’s called, “To Train Up a Child,” and it’s been cited in numerous child abuses cases as a catalyst for often fatal abuse. In the book, Michael and Debi Pearl give instructions for how to use a quarter-inch thick length of plumbing pipe to hit misbehaving children. This is what they call, the “Rod of Reproof.” The inspiration for this rod came from the Proverb similar to above, 29:15, “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
If parents want to take literal instructions from the Bible on how they should discipline their children, they should just drive themselves straight to jail. Among the many things parents in the Bible did, or were instructed to do, were; stone disobedient sons to death, bash infants against rocks, sacrifice their sons to God, offer their daughters up for gang rape, or offer their daughters up as rewards. The moral of the story? The Bible is not something you can read and pick and choose what you want to take literally. That’s not the purpose of the Bible.
Almost all psychologists agree that spanking and physical punishment harms children. And a reading of the Bible as a whole, shows that the last thing Christ would want is harm to fall on any child.
18) Phillipians 4:13
“13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
If Bible verses were movie characters, this one would be Rocky, triumphantly reaching the top of the steps, arms raised and fists pumping. This verse has been plastered on everything; T-shirts, mugs, posters, football players faces - everything. But is it really telling us that, with enough faith, anything we want or need to do is possible? Will the Lord really give us superhuman strength to accomplish any feat? No.
As Ben Witherington on Patheos puts it,
“The problem is, that this translation absolutely makes no sense of the context, and is not a literal rendering of the verse in question at all. The verb ‘to do’ is nowhere to be found in this Greek verse. The verb ‘ischuo’ means ‘to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful’. That’s the only verb in this phrase. You have to fill in the helping verb, and the context absolutely doesn’t favor the translation— ‘to do’ as in ‘I am able to do all things….’ Not at all…What Paul is saying is that no matter what his circumstances, God has given him the strength or ability to endure and be satisfied, even when he must do without, even when he must go hungry.”
Too many religious people have taken this verse as a motto for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, with Jesus help. When in actuality, Paul was saying not that God will give us the strength to do anything, but that God will give us the strength to do the only thing we need to focus on – following Him. Because really, isn’t that the only thing that mattered to Paul? And shouldn’t it be the only thing that matters to us?
19) John 8:10-11
“10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, [a]Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more”
This is one of the most famous stories of the Bible, of the time Jesus saved a woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death by her accusers. Ironically, many religious people today focus not on Jesus declaration that, “he without sin” should be the first to cast the stone, but on Jesus last words to the woman, “go and sin no more.” They see the moral of this verse not as one cautioning against self-righteous judgement, but that Jesus wants us to,“sin no more.” Aside from that glaring misinterpretation, another common mistake is made with this verse.
That is the confusing of it with the story of the woman at the well, told earlier in John 4. I’ve had many religious people tell me, while discussing homosexuality and the church, that, “people caught in sexual sin are loved by Jesus, but he still told them to go and sin no more, just like the woman caught in sexual sin at the well.” The problem with that, of course, is that Jesus never said that to the woman at the well, in John 4. He simply shared the gospel of eternal life with her, and treated her as a human being should be treated – with respect and not judgement.
20) Matthew 22: 36-40
“36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Appropriately, I saved the most important misunderstood verse for last. What more religious people need to understand is this: that the greatest commandment is first to love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and the second is like it, to love their neighbors – their poor, gay, immigrant, female, male, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish neighbors as themselves. Every other law and commandment found above and in the Bible, depends on this. If more religious people asked themselves, before voting, preaching, and commenting on Facebook, “am I loving my neighbor as myself by doing this?” the world would truly be a better place.