This list is by no means exhaustive; these are just some observations from my own ministry. Notice that there is some overlap and several of them involve not reading the Bible at all, which is generally a prerequisite to misinterpretation but, given the anti-intellectual bent of our culture and of modern Christianity, is no longer the obstacle it once was:
1. People misinterpret the Bible because they don’t bother to read the Bible. Sometimes they simply go with a foggy memory of something they thought they heard or read years before. They won’t admit this, though, they will claim that they know they read it in there somewhere but they just can’t find it now. Sometimes they did read something but their memory is foggy and they don’t remember it correctly. Either way the result is the same: misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
2. People misinterpret the Bible because they rely on their memory of something that a pastor may or may not have said about a verse or passage one time. Every preacher knows what it is like to have someone grossly misinterpret something you’ve said from the pulpit. Usually one of several things will happen. Sometimes, things you say take on a life of their own; they are twisted in the hearer’s mind until they don’t resemble at all what you said. Other times, the hearer connects facts or conclusions that you never intended to be connected. Sometimes someone will mistake an idea you were criticizing for an idea you espouse (like the time when I was a child and my pastor mentioned purgatory in a sermon, a handful of people thought that he was teaching that as doctrine; what was frightening was not the ones who misunderstood and got mad, but the ones who simply accepted it and thought that was what we were supposed to believe).
The most frustrating thing happens more often than the average person might think: someone will simply think they heard the pastor say something he didn’t say and then run with it (R. C. Sproul has an interesting story about once when this happened to him, thankfully, they were taping the lesson that day). Either way, either you or another preacher will end up slandered or painted with the brush of false teaching and the person will persist in false belief. Because of this, I try to cut other guys slack when I hear things told about them and I try to do the same.
3. People misinterpret the Bible because they read the Bible, but only small portions at a time and they interpret the verses in isolation. This is especially prevalent among those who read devotional books like Our Daily Bread and who use study Bibles like the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, which depend so much on using single verses or proof texts to communicate their points.
4. People misinterpret the Bible because they allow the culture to interpret the Bible for them. They read a verse and instead of thinking about its meaning in context or in light of the rest of the Bible, they think of how that verse relates to something they read in a magazine or the latest self-help book or heard on Oprah (or watching Joel Osteen).
5. People misinterpret the Bible because they allow their own presuppositions and ideas to cloud their interpretation of verses and passages. They interpret passages not according to the rest of the Bible, but according to their own preconceived ideas of what is right and wrong, true or false. In this case, the Bible does not speak for itself, but instead is made to say what the reader wants it to say.
6. People misinterpret the Bible because they allow theological systems or denominational distinctives to color their interpretation. Instead of letting their theology be guided and dictated by the teachings of Scripture, the Scriptures are made to adhere to the standard already established. This is often done by appealing to passages that do not really support a particular doctrine.
7. People misinterpret the Bible because they don’t go to church and listen to preaching or they don’t go to a church where they can listen to preaching (because there isn’t much biblical preaching going on). One of the purposes for preaching is to guide the believer in the proper understanding and application of Scripture. If your pastor won’t preach the Bible (and by that I mean expositional preaching, preaching that explains and applies the text, not preaching that takes a verse or a fragment of a verse and then uses that as a springboard to talk about something else) then find another church where the pastor does preach the Bible. If you attend a church where the pastor does preach the Word then be faithful to attend when the Word is preached. Many more conservative, traditional churches have several preaching and teaching times each week and if you avail yourself of as many opportunities as possible, you will have more chance of learning Bible truth which will then help you as you study the Bible on your own. Be careful to remember, however, that Bible study is not something to be done selfishly, you should study the Bible with a view to serving the church and serving your brothers and sisters in Christ with your knowledge.