A professor once wrote the following sentence on a blackboard and directed his students to punctuate it correctly: “Woman without her man is nothing.” The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” The women wrote: “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”
One important lesson from this story is that punctuation matters. When Wayne Mack spoke at our church last year, he illustrated this by changing the punctuation of Ephesians 4:28 to read, “Let him who stole, steal. No longer working with his own hands that he may have to give to him who is in need.” We all had a good laugh, but his point was clear: Be careful how you communicate the Word of God, for punctuation, and therefore emphasis, does matter.
All too often we punctuate life with question marks rather than with full stops. That is, we turn factual statements into debatable questions. For instance, consider the slow but steady slide in the institutional church over the past five decades with regard to the acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate and God-sanctioned lifestyle. The Bible identifies such conduct as sinful—full stop.But many self-appointed “theologians” have gone to the exegetical blackboard and have turned it into a question mark. And after decades of wearing down their opponents they have now stated that homosexuality is acceptable to God. The Anglican Church is the most recent culprit in this redefining of truth. Very recently, they added an exclamation point to sign off their affirmation of this heresy.
The everlasting, conscious punishment of those who die without Christ is another area to which—even though the Lord Jesus stated this is as a reality with a full stop—many over the centuries have sought to add a question mark. The most recent abuse of this punctuation has been by Rob Bell who in his book Love Wins, argues that we cannot know ultimately what happens to those who die without Christ. I am glad that the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest denomination in the United States) recently adopted a resolution stating with a very bold full stop their conviction that the Word of God is not open to debate in this matter.
You and I could probably add several other examples but I simply want to drive home the point that we need to be careful to pay attention to the words of God and to avoid turning His Word into an interpretive free-for-all. I am fairly certain that some of the Greek and Hebrew scholars amongst us are saying, “Actually Doug, in the original languages there was no punctuation!” Full marks for this astutely correct observation. But I hope that even a literalist will get my metaphorical point. When God’s Word gives us an imperative (a command), let us not be guilty of turning it into a suggestion. When God makes a statement of fact (an infinitive), let us not make it an imperative. Where the Bible uses an exclamation point, let us not minimise what it is declaring.
Let me make another serious observation from the story with which I began this article: Perspective influences how we interpret God’s Word. The male and female students viewed the statement from their own frame of reference and punctuated the sentence accordingly. Thus each student interpreted the statement according to his or her own biases. We need to be careful of doing the same thing when it comes to interpreting Scripture.
A. T. Robertson, one of the greatest New Testament Greek scholars in the history of the church, once noted that providence puts us in situations in which the Scriptures appear to us in more profound ways. That is certainly true, and we can probably all testify to the joy of such experiences. Scriptures that once seemed to be irrelevant all of a sudden become very personal and helpful to us as we encounter a particular trial or some happy circumstance.
But what concerns me here is the danger of questioning a clear Scriptural truth simply because we don’t like its implications. For example, when it comes to gender issues, many want to reinterpret the clear teaching of Scripture simply because of the bias of their own gender. Some women don’t appreciate God’s revelation with regard to her responsibility to submit to her husband, and some men are disturbed by God’s clear Word regarding their responsibility to lead. And so each “punctuates” the clear statements in his or her quest to avoid the otherwise unavoidable implications. That is silly and dangerous.
The same can be said with regard to the clear biblical teaching regarding the authority of the local church and each believer’s responsibility to be accountable to it. This also applies to such areas as eschatology, where the present seemingly dismal circumstances of a world increasingly dominated by Islam on one hand, and secularism on the other, tends to make us biased against any optimistic outlook that Scripture paints for us. Again, let us pay attention to the Scriptures more than to the newspapers!
One final example: Many believing parents are all too easily influenced more by secular psychology and a hope-so, seat-of-the-pants approach to childrearing rather than by the clear promises and principles of Scripture. Thus, many believing parents view the training of their children as a coin toss, a mere gamble in which “we do the best we can and hope for the best.” Many such parents are not hopeful about the salvation of their children, and the subsequent ability to raise a godly seed, because they have been influenced by heartaches that they have seen in other families. The result is that they have developed a bias against the biblical optimism concerning childrearing. Parents, let me exhort you to refuse such rewriting of Scripture. Study God’s Word, seek His face and raise your children on your knees with a conviction that God desires to show His mercy to thousands of generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6). Don’t ever turn the exclamation point of that promise into a mere question mark.
When it comes to parenting, as in so many areas, punctuation really matters!