Author Greg Koukl
Published on 09/18/2023
Christian Living

When and How to Respond to Misinterpreted Scripture

Greg and Amy share how they might respond to the misuse of popular sayings like “where two or three are gathered” versus misinterpretations that might have more serious implications.


Question: What do you do when you hear Christians misinterpret and misquote Scripture? What if it’s your boss? I see this all the time at the ministry where I work.

Greg: So, the boss is the head minister of the group? Well, this is awkward, and sometimes it’s just best to let it go and not pursue it, and I do that a lot. This happens so often. If they’re schooled even a little bit in hermeneutics—which ministry leaders are supposed to be schooled in, and many of them are—and they get an A in their test in hermeneutics when they’re in theology school, and then they forget everything they’ve learned, it’s maddening. It is absolutely maddening because a verse taken out of context is no longer God’s Word if it is not being used as God intended. It is not God’s Word. There are words that are similar to God’s Word, and even phrases that are in God’s Word, but when you misconstrue the meaning, that’s not God, and therefore, it has no power.

If you’re familiar with our principle “Never read a Bible verse—always read a paragraph or more,” then you’re going to think things like, “Oh, my goodness. That’s not right.” And, most of the time, it’s just better to let it ride. I heard of somebody, just recently, who was talking about what formed them and their ministry and this “where two or three are gathered in your midst—so now, that’s why I’m going to start a church, which turned out to be successful. So, I can get two or three in our midst, and that’s where Christ is going to be.” Well, that’s an abuse of that passage in Matthew, and for those who read it, no, it’s not talking about what people take it to mean. He’s talking about church discipline, and where two or three are gathered, they render a verdict that Jesus stands behind because he’s with them in the process of church discipline. I often wondered, “Oh, man. Now I know. That’s why my prayers aren’t getting answered. Jesus isn’t here with me sitting by myself. He’s over there at the other side of the room with those two or three people that are gathered. No wonder he can’t hear me.” Well, this is a ridiculous application of that mistaken understanding.

Amy: So, the question was, what do you do when you hear, of course, people using verses out of context. What if it’s your boss?

Greg: So, a lot of times you just ignore it because it’s not going to be that helpful to always be the naysayer raining on other people’s parades. I have someone very close to me for whom this is kind of a habit, and he gets in trouble a lot, and so he’s really had to back off from that, and he’s a student of STR. And he’s right most of the time. But that kind of conflict gets wearying on pastors.

Now, if you’re going to correct a pastor on something—if you think it’s really worth a significant talk to them in private—then you say, “Look, I’m curious about how you use that passage there, and I’ve wondered, have you ever read that passage in its context to determine its meaning?” And that’s questioned. And if he says yes, then you might say, “Can you explain to me, from what you know about the context, how the meaning you offered follows from that train of thought?”

Now, of course, when you’re asking these questions, you are in a very nice and subtle—maybe not so subtle way—communicating to your pastor that you think he’s wrong. He misspoke. That’s always dangerous because lots of people in leadership have ego problems or don’t have ego strength, and this is why they are egotistical. They don’t want to receive criticism. They don’t want to change. They want their thing to go, and they’re too intimidated by difference of opinion. They can’t handle it and assess it, and so, then, they have to ego up, so to speak, to silence dissent. Just be aware of that. And you just have to make your assessment in the circumstances. Most of the time, I let it go.

Now, maybe I’m more the person who is viewed a little bit more as biblically literate, then I might say, “You know, I’m curious how you use that verse. Do you know where it is?” It’s like when people say, “My sheep hear my voice.” I just read that the other day in a book. “So, what’s going on in John 10?” “I don’t know.” “Well, then, how do you know that’s what it means?” “Because he said, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’“ So, I try to develop an argument or a conversation that way to hold their feet to the fire a little bit, but it’s a huge problem.

There’s all kinds of nonsense that passes for biblical understanding. That is simply because people are socialized with regards to certain verses—like “where two or three are gathered,” as a good example. It’s cited so many times in prayers. “Here we are. Two or three or four of us. So, we know, now, you’re right here in our midst. When we’re not all together, you’re not omnipresent anymore. You are over there with other people. I realize that. But now we got you, and we’re hanging on to you.” It’s theologically silly. But people just declare this in the middle of their prayer. What are you going to do? “Wait a minute. Hold the show. Point of information....”

Amy: Greg, I agree with you. I let it go most of the time. I see these as ending up in two different categories, and I would treat the two categories differently. The first category would be verses that they’re using in a way that expresses something true, even if that verse doesn’t actually teach it. So, maybe they’ll use the Jeremiah verse—”I know the plans I have for you”—to express the idea that God is working all things together for good. Now, we know that’s true, even if that verse wasn’t teaching that for us. From a different verse, we know it’s true. So, I generally let those things go.

The other category would be if they’re misusing a verse to make an argument or to justify something as a church or to justify some sort of doctrine, and those would be the ones that I would probably go privately and say, “Hey, I kind of want to challenge you on this because I see this differently. So, can we look at this and look at the context and determine something? Because I think this is actually not what the verse is saying.”

Greg: Even the word “challenge” is a little bit strong. So, you might say, “Do you mind if I push back a little bit on the point that you made, just to give you something to think about?”

Amy: Asking for permission is a great idea, Greg: “Do you mind if I give you my opinion on this verse? And then we can look at and see what you think.”