Why the Bible is not an Instruction Manual for Life and Relationships

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Last week on Facebook, I shared how, quite often, what Christians perceive as attacks on marriage are invitations to reflect and mature up.

What we think are criticisms are opportunities to pay attention to the things that are not working. To raise the bar from the floor and consider perspectives outside the Bible text… because the Bible is not a manual for life or relationships.

In the comments, (see the post here) I found myself explaining what I meant by “the Bible is not an instruction manual for life an relationships.”

Why the Bible is not an Instruction Manual for Life or Relationships

And so I decided to write a post about it.

Why The Bible is not an Instruction Manual for Life and Relationships 

Before I explore why I don’t think the Bible is an instruction manual for life and relationships, let me confess that I once thought it was exactly that: A teaching manual filled with answers to all of life’s questions and angsts—the to-go place for all kinds of explanations.

That belief permeated every area of my life, including my interactions with others. For example, a couple of friends and I did a bit of hospital “ministry” (In Kenya, where I was born and raised.) In those days, we could walk into a hospital during visiting hours and pray with the sick and their loved ones.

Tragically, our (or at least my) attitude was, “if you believe God’s word, you will receive physical healing.” We listened, shared Scripture, prayed AND stank of judgment and stress. Because one of the most repugnant forms of nut-ism is indeed wrapped up in religion. It “loves” but it’s thoroughly clueless and detached from painful, confusing human realities.

We thought the Bible had all the answers, and without saying it directly, we made people feel as if it was their fault they/their loved ones were ill. 

My attitude then is still common today, especially in evangelical/conservative leanings. Many believe and tell others that all they need is a Bible and faith in God to fix all things. The Bible is presented as the answer to all of life’s problems, which works out to if the issue is unresolved, then you’re doing something wrong.

What’s an Instruction Manual?

So that’s what I was looking at last week: proposing that Christians ought to explore why they feel attacked when there’s pushback on their beliefs or a non-preachy but workable solution is presented. See 15 Things We Think God is Obsessed With (But He Isn’t)

So let’s talk about the Bible not being an instruction manual for life or relationship.

Imagine you bought a fancy lock with-a-complicated-locking-mechanism for your backdoor. You know how to install a lock, so you proceed with the knowledge you already have. Until the end when you notice a small bag of screws and a gizmo peeking from under the empty box and wrapping. You have no clue what they are for, and of course, the fancy lock isn’t working. 

What would a reasonable, logical next step be? Ecclesiastes? Paul’s letter to the Galatians? I suspect not. Most people’s logical next step would involve rummaging through a box to find the step-by-step instructions to figure out what they missed and how to fix it.

Wikipedia describes an instruction manual as “A user guide, also commonly known as a user manual, is intended to assist users in using a particular product, service or application.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe the Bible offers wisdom for life and relationships. My point is the Bible can’t do what it was not meant to do.

For example, if we go to the Bible to seek medical treatment for a broken leg or inflamed brain, we’re in trouble. When we need that type of medical assistance, we find ourselves a trusted medical professional. 

Not because we don’t trust the Bible but because we know God’s wisdom and knowledge is found in other places. So for example, for functional medical skills, we seek the view of an individual who has completed her undergraduate degree program, passed her exams, finished medical school, enrolled and completed a residency program, and obtained a medical license. 

The Bible is not an Instruction Manual for Relationships : Changing Our Approach

And I believe we ought to take the same approach for our emotional, relational, and mental ailments (and life in general.) 

We exercise discernment, yes. Weigh options, absolutely. Lean into our values, of course. But we also remember what the Bible is: a bigger story about God and His interaction with humankind over time, from where we discover who He is, what He thinks of us, and who we are in light of who He is, etc.

Not a detailed handbook for every decision, piece of information, or ailment we’ll ever face in life. Again, wisdom, yes. Micro-operator of all, no.

The point I’m making being Christians need to explore where God’s wisdom is found in detail, specific to their current circumstance or need, instead of being suspicious or catastrophizing every thought, criticism, or new information that does not have “Bible” or “Christian” language.

I suspect that many who say the Bible is an instruction manual for life and relationship also look at other sources for knowledge. They go to school, read books, listen to podcasts, try new recipes e.t.c

What we all need to understand though is that our words have consequences. If what we say (when followed to its logical end) causes harm, then we must change what we say. Not rally around our intention. See How Christians Can Stop Giving Bad Marriage Advice

Nobody knows (or cares) about what we meant when we said what we said. What most people care about is how it harmed them. And if tweaking our words so they are healthier is good for everyone, then I think that’s the fruit we should be pursuing.   

Why the Bible is not an Instruction Manual for Life or Relationships 1

Changing Our Bible Lenses

And speaking of how we read the Bible, let me add something I was going to share later.

It might be a surprising consideration for some but the Bible was not written to us..not as the first hearers anyway. It was a surprising and affirming consideration when I first considered the implications. (I was steeped in evangelical fundamentalism at that time.)

But the reality is what we Christians call Scripture is a cultural/spiritual book for a people group: an ancient historical narrative for the Jewish people, to be exact.

When the rest of us look at Scripture, our purpose shouldn’t be to replicate or be like the people group and the cultures and customs of the original hearers. It should be to observe and learn how God interacted with that ancient original audience. The larger story remains God. Not people. 

Changing how we approach Scripture may help us appreciate other people’s cultures and histories. We’ll see our differences as important and beautiful. See Shiny Happy People – An African American Perspective

We’ll avoid taking Middle Eastern ways and culture (and a very Westernized understanding of the same) and imposing them on everyone everywhere.

We’ll avoid centering stories like those of the patriarchs and thinking, “well, they did awful things and their names are in the Bible and they were loved by God and so we should not be too hard on people who exploit and plunder and devour and destroy because God didn’t.” See What Harmful Spouses Need (And Why It’s Not More Prayer)

FYI. When we read the Old Testament without a pandering lens, we’ll see people reaping what they sowed. They were loved, comforted, and rescued when they wanted out, yes, but the very real consequences of their actions was also documented.

Bottom line: if God is central, if we see through His lens vs. cultural/people lens, we see love but also justice. We see opportunities but also accountability. We see an unbroken vow, but also how that is something God does because He’s Divine and we are not. And how all of that IS love.

I’ll stop here but I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you ever considered the Bible an instruction manual for life and relationships? (Even if you didn’t mean it that way!) If you no longer believe that, what changed? How have you grown in your approach of Scripture, and how has that impacted your life? Let’s chat in the comments!


  1. Schuhow Debi says:

    Interesting perspective. Love your conclusion. When people aren’t steeped in their identity in Christ- the dumbest interpretations of the Bible come forth that aren’t even consistent with the rest of Scripture or God’s character.

  2. There are millions of things for which the scripture does not give us specific instructions. (The man who married two wives in different countries and comes to faith wanting to know how to deal with his polygamy, since he quite intentionally deceived both women…dealing the complex confusion of those wo suffer gender identity crises, which, like gossip, is not biblical, but cannot be immediately eradicated, and other issues. The scripture is actually not just a book written for ancient Jews. Most of the Pauline epistles were written to Gentiles from a secular world view. I am sure that your intentions were good but it is not fundamentalists to pray for and expect healing every time. That is not scripturally. Paul was not healed of his eye disease. Triomphimus was left sick in Miletus, so that suggests his apostolic friends knew that healing did not depend on turning faith into another work. (Let me muster up enough so God works). That is a lack of understanding of scripture. Huge swaths of scripture in the Old and New Tesatment were written to diverse nations.
    It is not a “how to manual” but is does provide universal foundational principles to help us discern wisely. I do not limit my reading to scripture but we must interpret other resources through the truth of the scriptures.

  3. Carol Horton says:

    The Bible is a manual for relationships. It’s the misinterpretation of it that’s causing all these problems. Serving, respecting one another. Learning how to make boundaries. That I’m wonderfully made. So if someone is not that way, it tells me to make boundaries. I’m not seeing to stay in a relationship that’s not all these. Where someone isn’t treating you that way.
    The tricky part is leaving in most cases. That has nothing to do with the Bible, but laws of man and counties!

    1. When you consider the definition of a manual, do you see how problematic the statement is? Even when properly understood, do you see how the Bible does not offer step by step instructions for everything we’ll ever need in life? That’s the point I’m trying to make. Not Scripture doesn’t offer guidance. But there’s more we need in real-world living than we find in the Bible. Scripture isn’t trying to be a doctor or a high-school teacher or researcher or a college professor or a marriage coach or all these other areas of skill or knowledge beneficial to us.

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