By Eric Johnson
While the Bible is part of the four Standard Works, there are some common mistakes Latter-day Saints sometimes make that result in an improper understanding of biblical verses and passages. Let’s take a look at 10 different examples and see why each of these is a problem.
1. Interpreting a verse out of its immediate context
This is by far the most common mistake preventing any students of the Bible from making a proper interpretation. One common rule is to read the seven surrounding verses–both preceding and following–for any verse you want to understand. Reading a verse in its immediate context will prevent most errors that could occur through an improper reading.
James 1:5 was a verse used by Joseph Smith in 1820 to pray about which Christian denomination in his area was true. The verse says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Latter-day Saints use this along with Moroni 10:4 in the Book of Mormon to show potential converts how they should pray about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, ultimately, the LDS religion.
However, James was not concerned about praying for a religious book or religion. Instead, he was instructing his readers about trials and maturity. When Christians are in need of wisdom, especially when going through hard times, he taught that God will the requested wisdom. Verses 2-3 say, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” Verse 12 adds, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.”
Notice how verse 5 talks about gaining “wisdom,” not “knowledge.” Knowledge is the information you can comprehend. Wisdom is the application of that knowledge. In other words, when a believer needs wisdom in dealing with a trial or temptation, God is willing to provide an understanding on how to deal with this sticky situation. When people pray about which scripture or religion is true, they are not praying for “wisdom” but for “knowledge.” James could have easily used another word to make this point clear. There is a difference.
While prayer is definitely important for every Christian’s life, there are some situations where prayer is inappropriate. For example, praying about possibly stealing a neighbor’s car or disobeying parents are not things that should be prayed about. Why not? The scriptures clearly instruct that doing these things would be wrong. If Mormonism were true, this would be evident through its faithfulness to biblical teachings, not through a good feeling that could be received through prayer. If a church’s teachings do not line up with the truth, the problems should be obvious to the careful observer (Gal 1:8-9; 2 Cor 11:4; 1 John 4:1).
Biblical scholar Mark Strauss has an interesting perspective on using a verse out of context:
Does God speak to us through random verses taken out of context? I don’t want to say no too quickly or to sound too negative. I believe God can speak to us in any way he wants. After all, he is God. God could speak to you through a friend’s counsel, through a book you are reading, or even through the message on a billboard at the side of the road. While most Christians would be cautious or even skeptical about these, there is a tendency to assume that if we find something in the Bible—even if it taken out of context—it has some special authority to guide us. But a biblical passage taken out of context has no more authority than a billboard on the side of the road. Could God communicate in this way? Certainly—he can do whatever he wants. Is it likely that he would? I don’t think so (How to Read the Bible in Changing Times, p. 17).
Again, we emphasize that reading a verse out of context is the most common mistake made by Christians, Mormons, atheists, and every other reader of the Bible. Be careful! In order to properly understand the Bible, a person must consider the context and see what the original author intended by what he wrote.
- For a Christian Research Journal article that I authored on James 1:5, click here.
- Another article to consider is Justification and the Book of James
- I also recommend this article: “Never Read a Bible Verse” written by Greg Koukl, the founder of the Christian ministry Stand to Reason.
2. Taking a verse/passage literally when it was not to be taken in such a way
Psalm 82:6-7 says, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” Referring to this, John 10:34 says, “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?”
LDS leaders have used these passages to show how people can become exalted beings in the next life. This does not make sense for several reasons. First, we should be careful about taking doctrine directly from the genre of poetry, which is what the Psalms are. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart write,
While the Psalms contain and reflect doctrine, they are hardly repositories for a doctrinal exposition. It is dangerous to read a psalm as if it taught a system of doctrine, in the same way that it is dangerous to do this with narrative (How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth, p.190).
It also would not make sense for Jesus to identify the Pharisees — whom He called “whitewashed tombs” (Mt 23:27) and “of your father the Devil” (John 8:44) — as “gods” in the present tense. (Not even Mormonism claims that men can be gods now!) In addition, the Bible is very clear that the only true God who exists is God Himself, and He knows of no other true gods (Is 43:10, 44:6-8). If there are no other gods before or after God, then how can humans ever progress to become gods? While Christians will indeed be glorified in the future state, it would not be biblical to call them gods.
Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes further explain,
Jesus’ statement must be understood as part of his overall reasoning here, which is an a fortiori argument: “If God even called human judges “gods,” then how much more can I call myself the Son of God.” Christ had just pronounced himself one with the Father, saying, “I and My Father are one” (10:30). The Jews wanted to stone him because they thought Christ was blaspheming, making himself out to be equal with God (vv. 31-33). (When Cultists Ask, pp. 177-178).
Showing how Jesus was referencing Psalm 82:6, they write,
Jesus was showing that if the Old Testament Scriptures could give some divine status to divinely appointed judges, why should they find it incredible that he should call himself the Son of God? These judges were “gods” in the sense that they stood in God’s place, judging even life and death matters. They were not called “gods” because they were divine beings. Indeed, the text Jesus cites (Ps. 82) goes on to say that they were “mere men” and would “die” (v. 7). It also affirms that they were “the sons of the Most High,” but not because they were of the essence of God himself. It is possible, as many scholars believe, that when the psalmist Asaph said to the unjust judges, “You are gods,” he was speaking in irony. He was saying, “I have called you ‘gods,’ but in fact you will die like the men that you really are.” If this is so, then when Jesus alluded to the psalm in John 10, he was saying that when the Israelite judges were called in irony and in judgment, he is in reality. Jesus was giving a defense for his own deity, not for the deification of man (Ibid, p. 178).
- For a longer answer, click here.
- Another verse used to support that people can become divine is 2 Peter 1:4
3. Thinking a particular verse/passage is alluding to the Book of Mormon and the situation in ancient America
There are several biblical passages Mormons have used to support the story of the Book of Mormon. Two of the most popular passages are Ezekiel 37:15-23 and John 10:16. Let’s take a quick look at both.
Ezekiel 37 talks about “two sticks” that are rolled into one. Since ancient writings were often rolled up on narrow poles, LDS leaders speculate that the scrolls they were written on may have been literally called “sticks.” The Hebrew word for stick is “aits,” which literally means a wooden stick or timber; it never means “scroll.” Verse 22 says that the sticks refer to two nations, the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms, as it predicted how they would become united again. This was partially fulfilled after the Israelites left Babylon following the captivity, with the ultimate fulfillment to take place when Jesus returns again. This passage certainly has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon that would come many hundreds of years later.
Meanwhile, John 10:16 says, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” LDS leaders have taught that the “other sheep” is a reference to the Book of Mormon peoples. The context of the Bible, especially when we study the book of Acts, is that this was referring to the Gentile believers who were baptized in the Spirit and were allowed into the “fold” in Acts 10. It took a vision and a stubborn conversation with Jesus (Acts 10:9-15) before the apostle Peter “got it.” Before that time, godly Gentiles were not allowed into the synagogues; even the Christians did not consider them to be fellow believers. This all changed with the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 10:44-48.
Later, Paul became known as the apostle to the Gentiles; in the Book of Romans, he made it clear that both Jews and Gentiles were equal in their belief. For instance, he said that both Jews and Gentiles were under the power of sin (3:9), yet they had the ability to receive the same salvation. In verses 22b-24, Paul wrote, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes further explain John 10:16:
The “other sheep” in John 10:16 are Gentile believers as opposed to Jewish believers. The lost Jews in the Gospels had been called “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24). The Jews who followed Christ were called his “sheep” (John 10). When Jesus said, “I have other sheep, which are not of this [Jewish] fold” (insert added), he was clearly referring to non-Jewish Gentile believers. The Gentile believers, along with the Jewish believers, “shall become one flock with one shepherd,” not one flock on earth (When Cultists Ask, pp. 175-176).
- For more on Ezekiel 37, click here.
- For more on John 10:16, click here.
- For information on another passage that we didn’t cover in this point, see Does Isaiah 29:4-12 predict the coming forth of the Book of Mormon?
- For information on another passage that we didn’t cover in this point, see Revelation 14:6-7: Moroni Delivering the Book of Mormon?
4. Believing that a verse/passage is true just because it was stated, disregarding who said it
Quoting Satan, Genesis 3:5 says, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Church leaders have used this verse to support the doctrine of exaltation in the celestial kingdom and show how people can become gods of their own right in this next state, with families being together forever. As taught by LDS leaders and church manuals, 2 Nephi 2:25 in the Book of Mormon says that Adam did a positive thing when he “fell,” allowing humans to leave the preexistence and enter mortality. This is called a “transgression” but not a “sin.”
BYU professor Charles R. Harrell writes, “In LDS thought, Adam and Eve’s decision to transgress gradually came to be regarded even more favorably than an innocent error in judgment. It is now seen as a wise and righteous decision made with God’s full commendation” (“This is My Doctrine,” p. 253). We must understand, however, that Satan is called a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Should we accept everything he says as true? While Satan did use some truth in his arguments, Jesus certainly didn’t believe him during the time of His temptation (see Matthew 4:1-11). Understanding Satan’s character needs to be understood if we want to properly understand a verse/passage.
Using the example of Jesus, Satan’s words should not be accepted as doctrinal truth but ought to be scrutinized by considering other teachings in the Bible. While Gen 3:22 later shows how Adam and Eve did become “like” God since they now understood the difference between good and evil, Satan was only telling part of the truth. A “half truth” is still a lie, as Paul compares the “cunning” serpent to false teachers who twist the gospel when they teach another Jesus (2 Cor 11:3-4). Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command, “death spread to all men, because all sinned”; from this came judgment that resulted in condemnation for everyone, not godhood (Rom 5:12, 16).
5. Not recognizing the audience to whom the biblical author is writing
Christians like to talk about how it is through faith that a person is saved by grace and not through works (Eph. 2:8-9). A common verse used by many Latter-day Saints in response to this belief is James 2:20, which says, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” Verse 26 adds, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Thus, some Mormons claim that one’s efforts are required for celestial glory.
Theologian Mark Strauss writes,
Paul says that a person is saved by faith alone, apart from works (Rom. 3:28). James insists that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26), so that faith plus works saves you. These differences can be resolved when we recognize that Paul and James are addressing two different situations. Paul writes against legalists who are claiming that a person can earn salvation by doing good works, or who perhaps are claiming that salvation has come through the “works of the law”—the hallmarks of Judaism such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance.” James, on the other hand, is writing against those who are abusing the doctrine of free grace by claiming that once you are saved by faith, you can live any way you want. James rejects such libertarianism and insists that authentic faith will always result in actions, so that the two work hand in hand. . . . The key to harmonizing Paul and James is understanding their distinct contexts” (How to Read the Bible in Changing Times, pp. 35-36. Ellipsis mine).
In other words, both Paul and James are correct based on their audiences and situations. Paul says that justification comes only through faith, with grace as the necessary ingredient. Christians believe that good works are also important in the role of sanctification, as Ephesian 2:10 importantly adds that believers were created to do good works from the very beginning of time. Paul’s audience of legalists needed to know that it wasn’t their good works that made them righteous before God. James, meanwhile, needed to communicate that believers cannot consider themselves to be “grace-only Christians” and therefore minimize good works. As Paul said, believers are created “unto” good works. Although they may look contradictory on the surface, both passages are correct when we take a closer look.
For more on this, visit “Doesn’t the Book of James say Faith without Works is Dead?”
6. Ignoring the context of the situation and the purpose of the verse/passage
No verse is more utilized for baptism for the dead than 1 Cor. 15:29. It reads, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” Since not everyone may have had the chance to be baptized during this lifetime, Mormon leaders place great importance on having their members get baptized in proxy on behalf of those already dead; this is accomplished in a ceremony performed in one of the 160+ LDS temples located throughout the world.
Rather than attempting to introduce a unique teaching in this passage, however, Paul’s focus was on providing evidence for a bodily resurrection. While the passage probably indicates that some people during his day may have practiced a baptismal ritual for the dead, Paul neither endorses nor criticizes the ritual. In verse 29, he used third person plural (“they”) rather than first person singular (“we”), which would be strange if he was referring to fellow believers. In the context, verses 24-25 and 27-28 uses third person singular (he/him) to refer to Jesus, and in verse 30 he uses the first person plural (“we”) along with the second person plural (“your”) in verse 31. He also used first person singular (“I”) in verse 34. So, the question is, why did Paul purposely move over to the third person plural pronoun (“they”) when a first person plural pronoun (“we”) would have identified him and other Christians if this was a valid practice?
BYU professor Charles R. Harrell agrees, writing,
It should be noted that the voice changes from “we” to “they” for this verse only: Else what shall “they” do? And why are “they” baptized for the dead? Then the shift is back to “we”–why stand “we” in jeopardy? Could Paul be alluding to a practice that only “they” (not “we”) were participating in? (“This is My Doctrine,” p. 355).
There is no doubt this is a difficult passage to interpret. Estimating that there may be as many as forty different interpretations that scholars have given to this verse over the years, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart write,
. . . Paul neither condemns nor condones their practice; he simply refers to it—for a totally different reason from the actual practice itself. But we do not know and probably never will know who was doing it, for whom they were doing it, and why they were doing it. The details and the meaning of the practice, therefore, are probably forever lost to us (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2nd ed, p. 59).
Theologian Mark Strauss calls 1 Corinthians 15:29
one of the most obscure statements in the Bible. It is nowhere else referred to by Paul or any other New Testament writer. It does not appear elsewhere in the early church. Paul does not explain it or affirm it, but merely uses it as part of his argument for the reality of Christ’s resurrection . . . Such an obscure and disputed passage should never be used to develop a theology of baptism for the dead or to encourage a particular pattern of behavior. Fringe passages like this should not be used to establish core tenets for faith or practice (How to Read the Bible in Changing Times, p. 87).
As stated, if baptism for the dead was as important to the early Christians as it is to Latter-day Saints, we should expect that this would have been discussed in further and more complete detail elsewhere in the epistles. However, this is not the case. This teaching is not even found in the Book of Mormon. It is dangerous, therefore, to create a doctrine when there is so much uncertainty.
- For more on this verse, click here.
- Another verse that is used to support work for the dead is 1 Peter 4:6
7. Reading a presupposed doctrine into a verse/passage
Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Many Latter-day Saints use this verse to support their presupposition by showing how all people lived in God’s presence in a “preexistent” state before they were born into this world.
BYU professor Charles Harrell explains the interesting aspect of preexistence when he writes,
A distinctive LDS teaching today regarding preexisstence is that all living things–humans, animals, plant life, and even the earth itself–had a preexistence as spirits. The idea that the trillions upon trillions of insects and noxious weeds have spirits that existed for aeons prior to their fleeting and seemingly insignificant existence on earth is a curious thought. Even more astounding is the notion that they will be resurrected in immortal glory at some specified time in the future (“This is My Doctrine,” p. 212).
Of course, this doesn’t seem to make any sense. Regardless, is it possible that souls previously existed before life on earth? Not according to this passage nor the rest of the Bible. First, God is the one who “chose,” “set apart,” and “appointed” Jeremiah to be a prophet. So, while the sovereign God knew Jeremiah, there is no evidence that Jeremiah knew God in the same way. Referring to the LDS interpretation, Christian theologian D.A. Carson writes,
The words of Jeremiah 1:5 could just about be taken that way if there were contextual reasons for thinking that is what they mean, but such reasons are completely lacking. What the Mormons are really doing is appealing to their book Pearl of Great Price for the content of their doctrine, and appealing to the Bible at a verbally ambiguous point and overspecifying what the text says in order to claim the Bible’s authority (Exegetical Fallacies, 115).
- For a more detailed answer regarding this verse, click here.
- For other passages used to support preexistence, see Proverbs 8:22-31 and Ecclesiastes 12:7 along with John 9:1-3 and Hebrews 12:9
8. Assuming that a passage is referring to “all time” rather than a specific time in biblical history
Amos 3:7 says, “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” LDS leaders have taught that their church ought to be considered true because it has a prophet—just like they had in biblical times—whereas other churches do not.
First of all, the LDS Church has only one “prophet” at a time, but this passage uses the plural word “prophets.” In Old Testament times, multiple “prophets” existed at the same time. Some have suggested that the other top LDS leaders can be called “prophets, seers, and revelators,” but technically there is one prophet/president, along with his two counselors and twelve additional apostles, making up fifteen general authorities at the top of the organization.
Second, this verse is not saying that “prophets” would always exist, but in the day of Amos’ writing, he revealed his secrets to these men called prophets. Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes write,
This verse should not be interpreted to mean that God will always have a prophet on earth. . . . This passage affirms that God had previously warned the Israelites that judgment would follow disobedience, but they had ignored the prophets (cf. 2:12). In context, then, Amos 3:7 simply points to God’s chosen pattern of not engaging in a major action with the Israelites (such as judgment) without first revealing it to the prophets (When Cultists Ask, p. 87. Ellipsis mine).
While Latter-day Saints like to think that the “offices” discussed in the Bible are fulfilled in their church’s structure, this is not entirely the case. Consider those offices in Ephesians 4:11-16 that are not included in the LDS Church, such as evangelists (though someone may say these are “missionaries,” but the Bible seems to differentiate between the two), pastors, and teachers. Meanwhile, the seventy who were sent out by Jesus–the source used by Latter-day Saints for “quorums of the seventies”–was never intended to be a church office. So, it appears that the LDS leaders pick and choose which offices are necessary and which ones are not.
For more on Amos 3:7, click here.
9. Making a verse say something that the speaker/author never intended to say
Perhaps a verse we hear on the streets more than any other is Matthew 7:1 where Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” This verse is often cited when someone doesn’t like an evangelist passing out tracts or witnessing, saying that nobody should judge.
There are several problems with this view. First, we need to understand that the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) has many difficult sayings. In this discourse, Jesus provided the ideal way of living, but we must be careful about taking what He said too literally. Otherwise, people will have no hands or eyes left (Matt. 5:29-30) and they will be left completely naked (Matt. 5:40), among other issues.
Second, if this verse really means that a person should not “judge” another, then who will volunteer to say so? In other words, if you tell someone whose message you don’t like, “You shouldn’t hand out Christian tracts on the street,” then aren’t you judging that person in the same way you are accusing him? (Whenever someone says that it’s wrong to judge, ask, “So why are you judging me?” There is no answer to this dilemma!)
In addition, the words of Jesus are twisted to make Him say something He did not intend to say. Instead, a self-righteous, hypocritical judgment was being condemned (see Rom 2:1-3). If “judging” was not to be done, then why did Jesus command His followers to “judge according to righteous judgment”? (John 7:24) As far as judging other believers, why did Paul say that the Christian is responsible to judge those inside the church (1 Cor 5:9-13, 6:2-5)? Of course, our intentions matter when making righteous judgments, as correction ought to be the goal. We must also keep a humble, non-hypocritical spirit if we hope to be effective.
- For a longer discussion on this topic, go to Is Judging Always Wrong? A Closer Look at Matthew 7:1
- Also, see To Be or Not To Be (About Perfection in Mormonism)
10. Confusing terms given to mean something completely different
In 1 Corinthians 15:40-41, Paul wrote, “There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.” Mormon leaders have turned this (sun, moon, stars) into three kingdoms of glory that awaits humans in the final state.
However, there are a number of problems. For one, if this is supposed to be a run-down of the three kingdoms of glory, then what happened to the telestial kingdom, which is lowest of Mormonism’s three kingdoms? There are, in fact, only two bodies listed here, with not one mention (anywhere in the Bible) of a telestial kingdom. Just like 1 Corinthians 15:29 that we talked about in Point 6, we must understand the context of 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter Paul was defending the resurrection of the physical body. Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes explain:
The context of the passage very clearly has to do with resurrection bodies (see. V. 35). Paul in this verse is talking about the heavenly (celestial) body as opposed to the earthly (terrestrial) body. He says the earthly body is fallen, temporal, imperfect, and weak (vv. 42-44), while the heavenly body will be eternal, perfect, and powerful (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-4) (When Cultists Ask, p. 239).
Another way a “third” kingdom is derived is by referencing 2 Corinthians 12:2. It says,” I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.” Commentators are pretty much unanimous in their opinion that Paul was speaking about how he went from the atmospheric heaven (Deut. 11:11) to the starry heaven (Gen. 1:14) and finally up to the highest heaven where God dwells (Isa. 63:15).
If Paul were intent on describing three kingdoms of glory—a rather important teaching in Mormonism—he certainly would have spent more time discussing this concept. Even the Book of Mormon is silent about both baptism for the dead and the three kingdoms of glory. Certainly the early Christians did not believe in these doctrines as Mormons do today!
- For a more detailed explanation on 1 Corinthians 15, click here.
- For a look at another verse used to support the three kingdoms of glory, go to John 14:2
- Check out Doesn’t the Apostle Paul say there are three degrees of glory?
We encourage Latter-day Saints to read their Bibles and do what they can to understand God’s Word for humanity today. However, great care and caution is required. Merely reading one’s presuppositions into a verse or passage will be more dangerous than not reading it at all. It does take work, but 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
We even suggest finding another version of the Bible that is more readable–two recommendations are the ESV or the NIV–and see if the message doesn’t become more relevant because the writing is not from three centuries ago. You can read these online editions by going to biblegateway.com. (You can control the version at the top right.) It’s worth the effort. Give it a shot.
Perhaps you are a Latter-day Saint and would like to further discuss these issues with us. We would be happy to do so. Write me at eric at mrm.org. We promise to be confidential and keep our conversation on the friendliest of levels!