What Does the Bible Say About..? Logo

What Does the Bible Say About..Taking the Bible Literally?

I was talking to this guy online and we were having a discussion about the Lord. I told him the bible isn’t to be taken literally all the time, but I’m not very educated in ministering and proving points. How do you explain to someone and show them in the Bible that not everything is literal? Can this even be shown? And also he tried to tell me that if I believe everything the bible says, then I shouldn’t be working or in school. He used 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to prove a point. I didn’t know how to respond to this verse; what does it mean anyway and does it still apply to today?


Your first question asks about showing someone that not everything in the Bible is literal. When many people say they don’t believe everything in the Bible is to be taken literally, they often mean that they believe in the teachings but not the miracles or the account of creation. When I say you can’t take everything literally, that is not what I mean. There are some things, especially in the prophets, that are clearly symbolic. There are some phrases that, like normal conversation today, are not to be taken literally, but metaphorically. Here are some examples.

“For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.” (Psalm 50:10) This doesn’t mean God limits his creation of cattle to a specific thousand hills, but is used figuratively for a large number.

“His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.” (Revelation 1:14-16) This, as much in the Revelation, is clearly symbolic. Jesus clearly does not have a literal sword coming out of his mouth or feet of literal brass.

“I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9) This is a metaphor, and few people would think that Jesus was literally a wooden gate. Nobody takes everything in a conversation absolutely literally. We have a lot of similar expressions. “He knocked my socks off.” “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” “That came out of left field,” when used of a surprise event off of the baseball diamond. Even other languages are the same. “Ich sterbe vor hunger.” (I am dying of hunger, in German.) Nobody takes these phrases literally.

The rule I usually try to follow is to take the Bible literally when it is presented as literal (i.e. Genesis 1, the historical books). When it is obviously symbolic (Revelation, certain parts of the prophetic works, some conversational passages) take it as symbolic rather than literal. When it is clearly a figure of speech, accept it as such. Where it is unclear whether it is to be taken literally or not, lean toward the literal interpretation.

Your second question asked about using 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to prove that a woman should not work outside the home or go to school. This is clearly an extreme case of somebody taking a text out of context to make a pretext for his own beliefs. To get this passage to say that a woman should not work outside the home or go to school takes more stretching than a rubber band test lab. That passage says that a woman should not speak out in the assembly of the church. Apparently it was common in the first century for people to ask the preacher to clarify or defend something he said. Paul here tells women that they should ask their husbands at home, rather than in the assembly of the church. He is NOT talking about any other learning. I also fail to see how anyone could possibly get not working outside the home from these verses, since work is not even mentioned. It is common for people who want to ridicule believers in the Bible to take verses totally out of context. Such is the case here. Even the verses say that they are talking only about what happens in the assembly of the church. Instead of ridiculing our beliefs, they are showing themselves to be ridiculous.