A friend from bygone days tells me why she is put out with most of the churches of her denomination. "There is this male/female thing. You cannot tell me that God in Heaven would rather have a fat, bloated, smug, egotistical know-it-all man as pastor of a church instead of a sharp Godly woman."

I did not argue with that, and in fact, find that hard to argue with, if those are the choices.

If we asked, she has scripture to back up her position, too. The Apostle Paul put it like this: "For as many of you as are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:27-28)

Open and shut case, right? Not hardly.

It's true Paul said those things. The problem is he said a lot of other things too. He told how he does not allow women to speak in church (I Corinthians 14:34), cautions women who are prophesying (without ever telling precisely what that means) to cover their heads (I Corinthians 11:5), and then he really does it. The reason the man does not have to cover his head is "he is the image and glory of God," whereas the woman "is the glory of man" (I Corinthians 11:7).

He said it and left it that way for us to deal with it the best we could.

The next time you hear someone panning the Bible as the result of some council that got together and made all this up, ask why they didn't take the hard places out, but left them in to befuddle us for the rest of time.

This, I say, is a huge reason we have theologians: to figure out what to do with scriptures that seem to be very clear on their face but which seem to say opposite things.

A book of theology, a professor of theology, a class on the subject, should do two critical things: give us the big picture so we can see what God is doing and why, and then deal with the details sufficiently to assure us they all fit together in some kind of pre-conceived whole.

Question for discussion this morning: Are there contradictions in the Bible?

And I don't mean clerical stuff, where two scribes copied texts referring to a biblical battle and wrote down contradictory numbers of warriors on the field or fatalities in the morgue.

By contradictions, I mean those places where the Bible appears to be teaching opposite truths.

A few examples, none of which I will try to resolve, to guide our thinking...

  • Are we saved by faith only? Ephesians 2:8-9 says so. Are we saved by works? James 2:14-26 seems to say that is the case.
  • Is water baptism essential to salvation? John 3:16 leaves it out. But Acts 2:38 puts it in.
  • Are musical instruments a part of healthy worship? A hundred references in Psalms would say so. But Ephesians 5:19, one of the few New Testament references to worship music, makes no mention of them.
  • Is the Bible itself the Word of God? 2 Timothy 3:15-17 seems to leave no question. But 2 Peter 1:21 says God used "holy men of old" to pen it.
  • We should do good works and keep them to ourselves (Matthew 6:1). But in the preceding chapter, Jesus tells us to so work that "others may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

Entire books have been written listing all the seeming contradictions that people have found in the Bible.

Entire libraries have been written to answer them.

It's why theologians will never be out of a job.

We need people who know all the Bible and who think well about these things to help us figure them out.

After all, if God were to write a book--and that's what we believe we hold in our hands--it's no stretch to think there would be things in it hard to understand.

It's why C. S. Lewis will remain popular as long as a single Christian walks this earth. He helped us think through many of these matters that were befuddling us.

Let me present a metaphor for your consideration. See if this shines any light on the matter of believers and preachers and entire denominations disputing scriptures and truths.

Suppose in a living room there is an elephant. He is 600 pounds and invisible.

For our purposes, the elephant represents God's Truth through Jesus Christ.

Okay, with me now?

And suppose that the believers in the room can see him, although vaguely. "As through a mirror," Paul puts it (I Corinthians 13:12). Some see more clearly than others. New believers are just starting to behold and are awe-struck.

In the room, strangers (outsiders, unbelievers, seekers, whatever we wish to call them) come and go. They see no elephant, but they hear us talking about the elephant in the room.

Some are interested and some aren't. Some think we are delusional, but others want to know if there is such a Truth. They stop to investigate.

What puzzles the seekers is the way believers in the room are saying contradictory things about the elephant. Not everything, but some things. They agree on the vast majority of aspects, but disagree on numerous details.

A fellow standing in the doorway to the dining room points toward the center of the living room and says, "There he is." Across the room, a man near the foyer is pointing in the opposite direction, saying, "No, the elephant is there."

Someone has a grasp of the elephant's tail and builds an entire system of elephantology from that. Likewise, the guy who has a hold on his trunk. Those standing near the huge legs or the massive sides wonder how the other guys could be so mistaken.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, and the seemingly contradictory teachings are merely pointing from their locations to that reality.

At a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the thousands of messengers were doing what we do best: holding an open business meeting where anyone who wished could walk to a microphone and address the huge throng.

The subject was some theological issue that was threatening to divide our body. Few were neutral, most speakers had strong opinions, and each side was accusing the other of not loving the Lord or believing the Word sufficiently.

A man at one of the microphones was recognized to speak. He identified himself as Bob Franklin, and said, "Years ago, when I was growing up on an Alabama farm, sometimes our calf would get out of the fence and my dad would keep me out of school to help him look. On one occasion we were combing the woods in search of that heifer. We came to where the hollow divided with a ridge in the middle. My dad said, 'Son, you go that way and I'll go this way. Because I just have a feeling that calf could be on both sides of this ridge."

The truth often is somewhere in between the stances we take.

That's why we need a major helping of humility and dependence on the Holy Spirit when we come to understand and interpret the Word of the Lord.

It's why we need to cut slack to those who see things differently from us.

And it's why we need not to be so hard and fast in our views on matters where good and sincere people differ lest we wound a brother or sister and be found in error.

This, some will be encouraged to know, is not a new problem. Believers have wrestled with these issues from the beginning. We are forever indebted to the Apostle Peter for pointing this out in an unforgettable way. There is nothing else in the Bible quite like this:

"Consider that the longsuffering of God is salvation--as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they also do the rest of the Scriptures" (II Peter 3:15-16).

The next time you hear some well-intentioned believer cavalierly dismiss all controversy regarding what the Bible says because "it means what it says and says what it means," I suggest you don't respond. You're listening to someone who has never really read his Bible.

Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mtUsed with permission.

Original publication date: June 18, 2010

Editor's Note: If this article has prompted you to want to seek more insight into "Tough Questions Christians Face," visit our live stream from the Ligonier Ministries conference of the same title!