Question: Doesn’t the Bible contradict itself in certain areas? For example, the Bible has examples of both monogamous and polygamous relationships. Which is it? What about passages which say that women shouldn’t be pastors or leaders in the church, and other sections where women serve in leadership roles. They can’t both be true.
Answer: In order to answer such concerns, we must first understand the difference between statements which are prescriptive and those which are descriptive. A statement which is prescriptive gives a directive or rule, while a descriptive statement simply relates that which was done by someone. This is helpful because the Bible describes many things which are not prescriptive. The Bible describes the sins and failures of mankind in many different ways. For example, the Bible describes Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham’s lies, Judah’s adultery, Moses’s pride, David’s murder, Gehazi’s covetousness, Peter’s attempted murder, and much, much more. All of these (sinful) examples are from people we would call “Christians”!
Do such sinful actions negate what God clearly commands (or forbids) in other places in His Word? The answer is no!
We are not to use the examples of men or women in the Bible as a prescriptive regulation from God for our lives or our society – especially when that example is in direct conflict with a clear prescriptive warning from God in His Word.
The Bible nowhere prescribes or even condones the behaviors mentioned above. A person’s actions (what the Bible describes) does not equal a prescription from God to act in that way. So when we find passages or examples in the Bible of things that seem contradictory, we should ask this question: “Is this section prescriptive (Is God commanding) or is it descriptive (Is God describing)?” Asking and answering that question will help us resolve almost every supposed contradiction people may bring up.
Is God commanding or is God describing?
Abraham’s marriage to both Sarah and Hagar is descriptive and does not remove the clear teaching of Scripture that marriage is to be between one man and one woman for life.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24
“Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” – Ephesians 5:33
“Appoint elders in every city as I commanded you — if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.” – Titus 1:5-6
(Note: There are only a few examples of polygamous relationships in the Bible, although they are very prominent ones. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon are the most familiar and in each case the plurality of wives caused major problems in the home.)
- The Role of Women in the Church
The descriptive events of Miriam prophesying or Deborah judging do not nullify the prescriptive statements of God to Moses and Paul regarding the role of men and women in the church.
“They shall be joined with you and attend to the needs of the tabernacle of meeting, for all the work of the tabernacle; but an outsider shall not come near you.” – Numbers 18:4
“For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.” – 1 Corinthians 14:33-40
“In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” – 1 Timothy 2:9-14
The difference between descriptive and prescriptive is vital in properly understanding and applying God’s Word in our lives.
All too often many people (even Christians) are willing to throw out the prescriptive sections of the Bible in favor of the descriptive sections. Why? Sometimes it is simply a failure to understand what the Bible really teaches. In other cases people do so to make God and His Word bow to their own feelings or to the whims of our secular culture.
When we try to make God’s Word fit our lives, we end up losing the message God offers in His Word: We are sinners in need of the Savior He sent.