After a conversation I was having with Christian friends last week I gave some thought into how to read the Bible. I'll try to give my opinions without insulting Christians. Reading the Bible, whether it's one verse or a whole passage, should be done in four steps. These steps apply for non-Christians as well as Christians.
1. Read it
2. Understand it
3. Believe it (Accept it)
4. Apply it
The first step sounds obvious, but it isn't. Many people who call themselves Christians don't read the Bible and just make assumptions on what it contains, based on what others tell them. In the same way, many non-Christians call the Bible rubbish without ever having read what it says. It's impossible to have discussions about the Bible without reading it first.
Understanding the Bible is vital. Some parts are figurative. Some parts are poetic. However, for the most part the Bible is easy to understand. It means what it says and says what it means. It's important that everyone carries out this step for himself. If a priest, pastor or theologian has a very long, complicated explanation for a short, simple verse it's usually wrong. The obvious meaning is the right one.
3. Believing (deciding whether to believe)
The third and fourth steps could be combined into one, and sometimes the fourth step is irrelevant, but I prefer to separate them. The difference I make is that "believing" means accepting the statement as a general truth, whereas "applying" means using a statement as a guideline for my own personal life. If the reader is a non-Christian there will be many things that he doesn't accept in the Bible, but there are also many things that he can believe, or at least accept as a possible truth.
4. Applying (deciding whether to apply)
This step is relevant when the Bible gives a direct command. A Christian might accept that God, Jesus or one of the prophets said something, but then decide not to obey it, for a variety of reasons. Maybe he thinks the command is no longer relevant for today. Maybe he sees the command in a context that doesn't always apply. The step is also relevant when we read about someone doing something. The question to be asked is, should I imitate this person or not? In the case of a simple statement the step might not be relevant.
That's all very theoretical. Let's give an example.
"Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience". (1. Corinthians 10.15)
This is a very easy statement to read and understand. Eat any meat, whatever animal it comes from, and however it has been prepared. Let's skip straight to the third step. Do I believe it? I think most people would, whether they're Christian or not. But a Moslem might read this and say "No, that's a lie. It's not right to eat pork". A Buddhist might go one step further and say, "No. It's not right to eat animals". Are they right or wrong to say this? I won't judge them. It's the decision of everyone to decide whether or not to accept what the Bible says.
As for the fourth step, applying the statement, a Christian might say that he believes it's right to eat any meat, but he doesn't like the taste, so he prefers to be a vegetarian. Some Christians might refuse to eat Halal meat, because a prayer to Allah was spoken before the slaughter, consecrating the food to Allah. These are two different cases. In the first case it's solely a matter of personal preference. In the second case it's a matter of conscience, so it isn't a matter of applying the statement, he's refusing to believe it (step three).
"Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses". (1. Timothy 5:23)
The seemingly obvious meaning has been confused by some preachers who are too biased to believe the obvious meaning. It's a common statement that the Greek word translated as "wine" means grape juice, i.e. it's a non-alcoholic drink. This is a lie that's easily refuted by linguists, and it's even apparent from other passages in the Bible that it's an alcoholic drink. For instance, at wedding feasts the guests became drunk from wine. The preachers are confusing the second and the third step. They understand the statement incorrectly to conceal the fact that they don't believe what is written. They are saying that what Paul wrote to his friend Timothy was a mistake, and it shouldn't be in the Bible.
Once a person believes that it's permissible to drink wine, the application of the verse can go in many directions. Some might say that wine should only be drunk for medicinal purposes. Others might argue about what is meant by "a little". Another matter is that at the time the Bible was written wine was the only form of alcohol, so can the statement be extended to cover any alcoholic drink available today?
Of course, the Bible is a big book and contains many statements on the matter of food and drink. Some statements even contradict one another. For instance, in Genesis 1:29 God says to Adam, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole Earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food". That statement clearly advocates a vegetarian diet. What do we do when we see contradictions like that? Do we choose not to believe it (step three)? Or do we try to contextualise it, believing it was true then, but not something to apply to ourselves today? Even within the Book of Genesis, there are differences. "Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything". (Genesis 9:3).
I hope that my brief thoughts may assist my Christian friends. Please don't dismiss what I say with statements like, "How could you possibly tell us what do do? You're not even a believer". It's irrelevant whether I believe or not. Anyone can understand the Bible, without the help of priests telling him what to think.