Perhaps the greatest “sin” of Bible interpretation is to rip a passage, verse, or word out of its immediate context and use it to prove a point or apply a teaching to which it does not speak.
Often, so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers will do this.
The move goes something like this:
- Declare a meaningful blessing over the life of a person
- Find specific examples that are quite likely to find identification with the audience
- Reference a biblical character with a vague enough story to be able to prove the point so that it has the appearance of biblical teaching
This particular example is a sinister use of Scripture.
Of course, not all such violations are so sinister. Much of the time, people are just searching for a Scripture that can speak to their situation.
The problem comes when a person does not do the work of first understanding the context of the text, to make sure the eventual application is accurate.
Our task, then, is to do our best to arrive at the meaning of a text and then we apply the text based on that meaning.
We need the ability to interpret Scripture without violating its context. And more to my immediate point, since we often engage others’ thoughts on the Scripture, we need the ability to recognize when someone else is using the Scriptures out of context so we don’t fall prey to bad or false teaching.
Here’s a 5-step process you can use:
Step 1: Understand the context of the passage
Consider the historical, cultural, and literary context of the passage.
Note: I discussed this issue at length in my newest book, The Bible Isn’t Boring: Hidden Truths About Why the Bible Bores You, and How to Fall in Love with it Again. Click here to grab it today.
You hear someone proclaim a thought and then “back it up with Scripture.” I want you to listen skeptically at first.
Take a few moments in your mind to see if the use of that particular passage makes sense in the context of what the person is asking you to believe.
The quickest example of this is Jeremiah 29:11. It is true that God cares for his people and has a plan for their lives. However, in the case of Israel, that plan first involved 70 years of captivity in a foreign, hostile land.
Most scenarios in which that verse is used to declare blessing over one’s life, however, ignore that inconvenient time of hardship.
I’m not asking you to exegete every proof text in the moment. Rather, I’m asking you to think logically for 5-10 seconds every time you hear a verse quoted in support of a point.
Think about whether the verse can really be used to support their claims.
If you think it requires further study, write a question mark next to that verse in your Bible (or make a note in your app).
Next time you’re in a study session, return to the verse and see if you can gather what went wrong and what true application to your life could be gleaned from that text.
Step 2: Identify any violations of the context
Once in your study session, look for words, phrases, or ideas that seem out of place or disconnected from the rest of the passage.
Greg Koukl often says, “Never read a Bible verse.” Of course, he doesn’t mean “Don’t read the Bible.” That’d be silly!
He means, “Don’t read a verse in isolation.” You often need quite a bit more context than one verse will allow (sometimes, the Proverbs are an exception to this rule).
The only way to know what an author truly means is by examining the words he says in the context of the other words he says. The surrounding verses and chapters, given in the single unit of thought that a biblical book constitutes, are the best way to make sure we know what an author means.
A common example: Did James think salvation is works-based? Some think so based on James 2:14-20.
A cursory reading devoid of the context sets James in opposition with Paul, who authored most of the New Testament and appears to adamantly believe that salvation is through faith and not of works (ex., Eph. 2:8-9).
If Paul and James were comparing notes, do you think they’d disagree on this issue? An issue that has become inscripturated and upon which one’s eternal destiny depends?
Of course not. I do not endeavor to exegete the passage here, but as many others have pointed out, James seems to be speaking of the evidence of faith while Paul is speaking of what produces faith in the believer.
James’ dialogue is with a person who thinks he can say “Look at all my faith!” but has nothing to show for it. He points to the examples of Abraham and Rahab, who produced righteous works that were the evidence of their faith in God.
Also, you need to become aware of your own biases and assumptions that may influence your interpretation.
If you were raised in a Christian tradition that teaches, for example, premillennialism, then you are going to read certain passages with that assumption.
If your goal is to find out whether or not that view is true, you cannot just assume it. You must be willing to question your current beliefs and accept new beliefs as true, assuming they are well-evidenced by the text.
Step 3: Analyze the impact of the context violation
Next, consider how the context violation affects the overall meaning of the passage. Is it a minor issue? A major one? Does it affect other things you believe? Does it affect core Christian doctrine?
Reading through Romans 14, Paul seems to think that secondary issues such as the particular days you choose to observe are not really a huge deal.
Uncomfortable as it is for many Christians, there are gray areas and some things are not clear-cut.
However, take someone who believes in oneness theology and appeals to the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one.”
“See,” they say, “the Bible says God is one—not three. It’s so simple. Trinitarians are trying to invent something to make God more complex.”
This context violation sounds simple, but it’s not. Trinitarians are not trying to be difficult for the sake of difficulty or Gnosticism (secret knowledge). Biblical writers were actively against that sort of thing.
The nature of God has tremendous theological implications. It has serious impact. Thus, it is worth spending a considerable amount of time studying and getting this issue right, whereas it is likely not even worth a Facebook argument over whether one should celebrate Christmas on December 25th or not.
Step 4: Research alternative interpretations
Assuming it is, in fact, important, look for other perspectives on the passage that take into account the context and consider how these alternative interpretations compare to your own.
I admit this is the part where it begins to get uncomfortable—especially if you were raised to believe one thing about a passage, it can be very disconcerting to “see the light” when it starts to look like you were told wrong (even if those who taught you were well-meaning).
If you are committed to truth, however, you must do this. Spend time researching to be sure you are correct in your current understanding.
Again the context of this article, it is likely you are being introduced to a new interpretation by a teacher of some kind.
One example in my own life is creationism. I was always taught young earth creationism. And by the way, that is still my view. However, I never even considered that there were other interpretations of Scripture.
I admit it was challenging when I first engaged evolutionists and old earth creationists who love Jesus. I thought things like, “How can they love Jesus and get this issue wrong?”
That’s the wrong attitude. I still think they’re wrong, but I’ve no reason to question their loyalty to Jesus.
You might find through studying the issue that you persist in your current belief (like I did with young earth creationism). But you may find yourself persuaded by a different view. And if so, you should take the courageous step of adopting that new belief.
Here’s where the danger lies: You must, again, check your biases. Accepting old earth creationism because you believe Scripture teaches it is justified—accepting it because it would make you more acceptable in scholarly circles is not right and dishonors the Lord.
The same could be said for many other examples as well. Boldly stand upon the truth of Scripture.
Step 5: Refute the context violation with evidence
Finally, use the information gathered in steps 1-4 to present a well-reasoned argument against the context violation. Consider the potential objections to your argument and be prepared to respond to them.
Here’s an example of something I heard often growing up in church that I’ve come to reject.
Pastors would often quote Jeremiah 33:3 in the context of prayer:
Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.
The first phrase “call unto me, and I will answer thee” sounds like prayer language. Thus, the reason for the quote. But here’s the question we must ask ourselves:
If we call out to God, will he in fact show us great and mighty things we don’t know? That’s not clear anywhere else in the Bible. So we take the claim skeptically.
When we read a little further, we get the surrounding context (Jer. 33:1-6):
Moreover the word of the LORD came unto Jeremiah the second time, while he was yet shut up in the court of the prison, saying, Thus saith the LORD the maker thereof, the LORD that formed it, to establish it; the LORD is his name; Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not. For thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the houses of this city, and concerning the houses of the kings of Judah, which are thrown down by the mounts, and by the sword; They come to fight with the Chaldeans, but it is to fill them with the dead bodies of men, whom I have slain in mine anger and in my fury, and for all whose wickedness I have hid my face from this city. Behold, I will bring it health and cure, and I will cure them, and will reveal unto them the abundance of peace and truth.
Jeremiah is a prophet—in prison, mind you. The Lord reaches out to him, and says “If you call on me, I will show a great prophecy.” Which he proceeds to do.
So, does this verse have anything to do with prayer at all? The answer is no. There is absolutely nothing we can learn about or apply to our lives from this verse as it relates to prayer.
We consider the new view: “Ah, this verse isn’t about prayer. It’s actually about God giving Jeremiah a prophecy while he’s in prison.”
How can we apply it to our lives? This verse is not so much telling you what to do; it’s simply telling you what happened. But insofar as all Scripture is profitable for us and aims to teach us (2 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 15:4), we could take away lessons of faithfulness and obedience.
Jeremiah was faithful in the midst of a day of prophets who were unfaithful, and he was obviously obedient since the Lord seemed to show him the prophecy.
We should be faithful and obedient even in times of drastic hardship, and the Lord will keep his end of the bargain.
Hopefully, these examples help you understand why it is so important to be on the lookout.
False teachers can intentionally lead you astray if you don’t consider the context of a passage.
And even if a teacher means well, you should be diligent and aware of Scripture so you do not end up believing false things. We must be people of the truth, and a commitment to believing God’s word accurately should be a top priority as Christians.