That's Not What It Means to Me

“That’s not what it means to me.” You’ve probably heard someone say this before: maybe while sitting at a café, having a chat with a friend; maybe at an in-home Bible study; maybe even in an adult Bible class on a Sunday morning. Regardless of the setting, the scene plays out predictably. Someone, maybe even the teacher in those settings that feature one, points out the meaning of a Scripture in light of its historical, cultural, and textual context. Someone else, unable to deny the logic of what has been pointed out and unable to defend his or her own belief regarding the Scripture (which differs from what the first person has just said), simply says, “That’s not what it means to me,” or, this statement’s twin, “I just don’t see it that way.” In some settings, these words are followed by further (sometimes heated) discussion; in others, these words bring an end to the discussion. In either case, the second person often leaves the setting unchanged and yet satisfied in his or her belief.

The second person in this often repeated exchange is guilty of applying what is sometimes called a “reader response” approach to Scripture. For those who may not be familiar with this term, a simple definition from Google is that reader response is an approach to written works “that ignores both the author and the text’s contents, confining analysis to the reader’s experience when reading a particular work.” Yes, you read that right: it doesn’t matter what the author meant, and it doesn’t matter what the text says. All that matters is what the reader thinks and feels as he or she reads.

Reader response is not totally without its merits. The Bible was written to and for its readers. At its heart, the Bible is a persuasive document designed to bring about change in its readers; it is a living message that delves deep into the hearts and minds of those who read it (Hebrews 4:12). However, to suggest that the Bible is a pliable document that can be shaped into the whims and wishes of its readers is to undermine the fact the Bible was not written by human authors alone but through the inspiration of a God who wished to communicate (2 Timothy 3:16). In fact, it undermines the very nature of language as a vehicle for communication and flies in the face of what the Bible says as clearly as it possibly can.

The Bible abounds with warnings against its misuse or alteration. The text is bookended and bookmarked with three clear warnings against adding to or taking away from the Word of God (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5-6; Revelation 22:18-19). References to and warnings against false teachers and false prophets abound in both the Old and New Testaments. Peter spoke of those who twist the Scriptures “to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Paul spoke of the danger of preaching or receiving a different gospel, which was not the Gospel by virtue of the fact that it was different (Galatians 1:6-9). On and on a list of similar passages could go. How could one possibly prophesy/teach falsely or alter the Gospel if the Bible is intended to be understood differently by those who hear/read it?  

The fact is that if the Bible says whatever a reader thinks it says, it falls under the truth of an adage: what says too much says nothing at all. If all points of view in approaching Scripture are valid, then the Bible both commands murder and forbids it; it condemns stealing and commends it; it would have man do anything, everything, and nothing all at once. If this were the case, it would be better for the Bible not to exist, as all it could possibly do would be to confuse the inner promptings of its readers.

Sometimes the water of this issue is muddied when people reflect on the nature of the Word of God as a message given life by the Spirit of God. They assume that their heartfelt conclusions represent Spirit-led convictions. Once again, the Bible speaks plainly to such thoughts. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). He does not show partiality in His dealings with man, nor does He accept conflicting standards of truth and righteousness (Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; James 3:17; 1 Peter 1:17). While there are certain aspects of the “law of liberty” (cf. James 1:25) designed to be adapted to time and space, what it requires of man and forbids for man transcends time and space.

If you can help it, don’t allow conversations of which you are a part to end with the statement, “That’s not what it means to me.” Humbly and gently, remind the person who says this of what God says in the above passages. Ultimately, we will be judged by God, not based on what it means to me or to you, but what it means to Him.  
-Patrick Swayne






1 Corinthians 12 1 Corinthians 14:15 1 Corinthians 14 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 1 Corinthians 7 1 Peter 1:6-12 1 Peter 2:9 1 Peter 3 1 Peter 5:6-7 1 Peter 1 Samuel 4 1 Thessalonians 5:18 1 Timothy 4:1-3 2 Corinthians 6 2 John 1:9 2 John 9 2 Kings 2 Peter 2 2 Peter 3 2 Peter 2 Samuel Abel Abraham Absalom Acts 17 Acts 19 Acts 2 Acts 8 Acts Alcohol Alleged Contradictions Apostles Ark of the Covenant Attitude Authority Autonomy Autumn Balance Baptismal Regeneration Baptism Barnabas Benevolence Bible Contradictions Bible Questions and Answers Bible Study Bible Biblical Interpretation Bishop Body of Christ Borrowing Broad Way Cain and Abel Cain Calvinism Catholicism Catholic Celibacy Challenges Children Christian Living Christmas Church Funds Church Leadership Church Membership Church of Christ Church Circumspection Citations Citizenship Colossians 3:16 Communication Communion Community Confidence Congregations Contend for the Faith Contentment Covetousness Creation Credit Current Events Dating David Debt Forgivness Deconstruction Degrees of Punishment Deity Deliverance Denominationalism Devil Difference Different Discipleship Divine Nature Doctrine Dragon Drinking Easter Ecclesiastes 7:10 Ecclesia Eldership Elders Elder Elijah Elisha Encouragement Enoch Ephesians 2:8-9 Ephesians 5:15 Ephesians 5:16 Ephesians 5:18 Ephesians 5:19 Ephesians 5:5 Ephesians 5 Esther 4:14 Evangelism Ezekiel 36 Ezekiel 6 Faith Alone Faith Only Faithfulness Faith Fall False Teachers False Teaching Fathers Fear Feeding of the 5000 Fornication Free Will Fundamentals Galatians 4:9-10 Gender Roles Generosity Genesis 22 Genesis 4 Genesis Gift of Tongues Gifts Giving Godhead Godhood God Gospel Meeting Gospel Grace Gratitude Greater Sin Greed Grief Grieving Hallelujah Praise Jehovah Hallelujah Hebrews 13:4 Help Hermeneutics Holidays Holy Spirit's Deity Husbands Hymns Hypotheticals Idolatry Imperatives Influence Insomnia Instrumental Music Instruments in Worship Intertextuality Isaac Isaiah 2 Isaiah 6 James 1:19 James 1:27 James 1 James Jehovah Witnesses Jehovah Jerome Jesus Temptation Jesus' Deity Jesus\' Deity Jesus Job John 11 John 19:11 John 4:24 John Calvin John the Baptist Jude 1:11 Jude 3 Jude Judgement Judging Judgment Kindness Lamb of God Lamech Lazarus Leadership Leaven Lemuel Lending Levites Limited Atonement Living Sacrifice Local Church Lord's Supper Luke 1:28 Luke 5:1-11 Mariolatry Mark 1:12-13 Mark Marriage Martin Luther Mary Matthew 5:13-16 Matthew 5:3-12 Matthew 5 Matthew 7:13-14 Matthew 7:1 Melchizedek Men's Business Meeting Men\'s Business Meeting Men\\\'s Business Meeting Men Metaphors Minor Prophets Miracles Miraculous Gifts Money Mormonism Mothers Mount of Olives Mountain of the Lord's House Mountains of Israel Mountains Murder Music Mutual Submission Narrow Gate Narrow Way No Elders Non-Denominational Olive Trees Olives Olivet Olive Once Saved Always Saved Parenting Pastor Patience Patriarchs Pattern Paul Peace Pentecostalism Persecution Perseverence Perspective Philippians 3:20 Philippians 4:6 Plagiarism Poetic Language Politics Prayer Praying to Saints Praying Pray Preacher Preaching Priesthood Priests Proverbs 31:6 Proverbs Providence Psalm 148 Quotations Reader Response Redeeming the Time Relationships Relationship Religion Religious Pluralism Religious Syncretism Remission of Sins Restoration Movement Restoration Revelation 12:9 Riches Roman Catholic Church Romans 12:1-8 Romans 12:10 Romans 12:15 Romans 12:1 Romans 12 Sacrifice Saints Only Salvation Satan Scarecrows Sermon on the Mount Serving Others Sexual Sin Silence of the Scriptures Singing Sin Sleep Sobriety Song Studies Sons Sovereignty of God Spending Spirit and Truth Spiritual Death Spiritual Gifts Spiritual Leadership Stephen Straight Gate Stress Student Debt Submission Suffering Temptations Thankfulness The Beatitudes The Problem of Pain and Suffering The Problem of Suffering The Way of Cain The Way Tongue Speaking Total Hereditary Depravity Tradition Trials Trinity Types and Antitypes Uncleanness Unconditional Election Understanding Unity Unknown Tongue Vulgate Wealth Wide Gate William Kirkpatrick Wives Women in the Church Women's Roles Word Study Work Worship Zechariah clergy death sickness