Christian theologians use the word “universalism” to refer to the teaching that all people are saved by Jesus’ works whether they are Christians or not.
Christian Universalism is focused around the idea of universal reconciliation, also known as universal salvation — the doctrine that every human soul will ultimately be reconciled to God because of divine love and mercy. (Universalism.)
In a more general sense, universalism is the “philosophical concept that some ideas have universal application or applicability.” (Ibid.) It’s this second sense of the word that people who claim to read the Bible literally can find themselves falling into using without thinking through its validity.
The Universal Utility of Scripture
All of the Bible has a purpose, and that purpose is good.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17.)
All Scripture is from God and is useful for good, but that doesn’t mean it is useful in the same way for the good of everyone everywhere in every age.
This came to mind because of a recent Twitter exchange where one person argued that Scripture passages on church leadership written to a pastor dealing with Ephesian culture require churches in every context to never let women into leadership, while another person tried to bring in the cultural context to understand how the original readers would have read the passage and how it can be applied today.
The point here is not to debate women and men and church governance and the unique issues facing the church in Ephesus, nor the merits or faults of the doctrine of Christian Universalism. Rather, the issue here is the philosophical universalism inherent when literalism becomes hidebound.
This happens when a person insists that the usefulness of Scripture is not only for everyone (as the Bible says) but that it is the same for everyone (which the Bible does not say).
For example, the Bible itself says the message of the cross has two meanings (that is, usefulness).
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18.)
So where Scripture relates the message of the cross, it’s message is in one manner for one person and a different manner for another person. The gospel is always good, but people will receive the message differently.
Taking Literalism Too Far
The Bible is a written work, and within it there are varieties of writing styles and genres. From the history, to the poetry, to the prophecy, to the letters to churches and between friends, the styles vary as the writers sought to convey the message. All of it, as Paul wrote in his letter to his friend Timothy, is from God for a purpose.
Yet what is the purpose? When reading a historical narrative, does God mean you to imitate the actions of the people involved, or to learn from their mistakes? After all, few people in present day think they should imitate Laban who tricked Jacob – after seven years of labor – into marrying the wrong woman and then forced him to work twice as long in order to marry the one he truly wanted. (Genesis 29.)
And when reading about the message of the cross, does God mean you to take either meaning from it – foolishness or wisdom – as long as you choose one of the two offered in Scripture? No, the context shows that the right choice is to receive it with wisdom, as the passage goes on to state:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. … But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27.)
And then there are passages that few today claim have universal application, yet a literal reading of the Bible would command all churches follow today and always.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. (Romans 16:16.)
This instruction is found four times in the New Testament: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Yet how many people make sure to bring their lip balm to church in order to avoid chapped lips from all the holy greeting going on?
If a literalist tells you there is a cultural context to these passages, feel free to agree with them. But also feel free to point out that all of the Bible has a context which informs a proper and complete understanding of the written word. Understanding it properly means reading the Bible literarily, not literally.
So yes, there is a proper way to understand passages that appear to be addressed solely to men or to women, just as there is a proper way to understand all passages. Look at who wrote the passage, who were the recipients, where did they live, what was going on in their lives, who was in charge, and more. (For a good example of how to dig deep into meaning, see Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb.)
The more you know, the better you will understand the meaning of Scripture. And that is useful for all God’s people for all time.