Headings in the Bible

Headings in the Bible

Modern Bibles have headings in them.  The headings are there to help break up the Bible into sections and to summarise what those sections are about.  But headings are not part of the Bible.  It irks me when people read the Bible at church or in Bible study groups and they read out the headings.  The headings are not the Word of God!

These days Bibles often have study notes as well as headings.  The problem is that the authority from the actual Word of God starts to ooze over into the headings and study notes!  But they aren’t the Word of God!  Of course such things can be helpful.  Good commentaries and Christian books are helpful.  But they are not the Word of God, and having them actually in the Bible can be dangerous.

Sometimes the headings are wrong.  A classic example for me is Colossians 3:1-17 in the NIV.  The heading is “Rules for Holy Living”.  I’m not sure I could possibly think of a worse heading!  Paul rails against rules at the end of chapter 2.

In Colossians 2 Paul argues that we continue as Christians the same way we started: by being rooted and established in Jesus (Col. 2:6-7).  We become Christians and grow as Christians the same way: by focusing on Jesus and his death on the cross.  In Jesus all the fullness of God resides, and so we have fully everything we need as Christians in him (Col. 2:9-10).  We must beware false teaching that would lead us away from Christ (Col. 2:8).  False teachers teach worldly rules, such as “Do not taste” and “Do not touch” (Col. 2:21).  Paul admits that such external religious rules look good.  Such rules make people look holy
(Col. 2:23), but they don’t actually work.  They “lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence”.  They don’t actually change your sinful nature.  Rules can’t do that.  Only Jesus can.

Religious rules won’t help us live for Christ and put sin to death.  But if we focus on Jesus, on things above, we will be able to put sin to death and live to please God (Col. 3:1-4).  So we are to set our minds on things above: on Jesus.  We are to put to death earthly things, such as rules and our sins!

So is chapter 3 in Colossians about rules for holy living?  No!  Paul is slamming rules for holy living!  Chapter 3 is a character description of a Jesus person.  People who are focused on Jesus will be like him.  Jesus was and is compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, loving (Col. 3:12-14).  Christians focused on Jesus will be like Jesus.  They won’t do the sort of things outlined in verses Col. 3:5-11.  They will look like verses Col. 3:12-17.  Following rules is earthly.  Such rules are destined to perish (Col3:2:22).  These are the things to which we have died (Col.3:2:20).  Chapter 3 of Colossians is not about rules for holy living!

Trust your Bible.  Don’t trust the headings and notes.  They are not the Bible!  Sometimes, often in fact, they are helpful and right.  But not always.  It is such a shame that modern Bibles don’t contain just, well… the Bible.



  1. Don (Author)

    I guess you could extend this to verse numbers, chapters and even in some instances, books of the Bible.

    It’s obvious, when reading some verses at the end of one chapter, that they belong in the next. Or verses at the beginning of a chapter actually belong in the previous. And it’s curious how some books in the Old Testament start with the same verses as found at the end of a previous book. I suppose this was done to provide continuity.

    Of course, like headings, though the verse and chapter numbers are not part of Scripture, they certainly help the reader.

  2. Martin Pakula (Author)

    Thanks Don. A judicious comment, but I disagree! I agree with some of what you say. Verses and chapter numbers are not original, and they certainly do help. They are not always right – true. For this reason sometimes in Bible study it is good to get a whole book (say Colossians) written out without chapters, verse numbers, or paragraph divisions. It does change how you read it.

    However it is a big step to move from chapter and verse and paragraph divisions to headings (or commentary). I don’t think these help us read by and large. My pet hate on this topic is when people do a Bible reading at church and read out the headings. It seems that they don’t distinguish between the Bible and what is not the Bible. We don’t read out the chapters and verses during the reading (only before it so people can find it).

    Chapters and verses, I think, are a reference system. You could only argue that they are interpretative in a very minimal way. Translations into English suffer the same problems. However headings and commentary are actually changing what we read and interpreting it, and it’s very hard not to give them the same authority as the Bible. That’s not to say that they can’t be helpful at times. But the Bible is not a modern piece of prose in a newspaper or magazine (in which we use headings), it is the Word of God.

  3. Pedro

    Theres a problem here though. The headings have just as much place as any books in the bible in the sense that someone chose to put them in. Plenty of biblical books are forgeries (eg half the Pauline letters – the pastorals in particular and 3 Corinthians) whereas many books whose authorship may be equally unclear were left out.

    Who is to say that these headings aren’t at least as valuable as the apocrypha that were left in the new testament?

    • Martin Pakula (Author)

      Hi Pedro. We believe that people did not ‘choose’ which books of the Bible should be in or out. If there really is a God, then we believe he is not ‘dumb’ but can speak. He has spoken at various times to different people and their words have been recorded for us as the words of God given through them. That is what we have as the Bible. The headings were not part of that. Neither was the apocrypha. The Pauline letters, including the pastorals, were. Doubts were cast over the latter only ‘recently’ in history (the last 200 years). If the Bible were full of forgeries then the headings would be fine. But then it wouldn’t be worth reading at all.

  4. Pastor Scott

    Good Information. I was looking at the heading in the NIV at James 5. ‘Warning to Rich Oppressors’. Danger. That is not the only warning in that section. The warning is to the rich, and to oppressors. So many would love to squirm out of James’ looking glass, but you would be wise to heed him.

    • Craig Baxter

      Hi Pastor Scott, thanks for the comment. I think the ESV is a little more clearer saying, “Warning to the Rich”. But your point only affirms the article, it is best to be guided and directed by the text of scripture and not by the introduced headings. Thanks again.

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