The apostle Paul instructed Timothy to be diligent in properly handling God’s self-revelation (2 Tim 2.15). One can hope for a legitimate interpretation of any communication only when that message is understood in its context.
Here are a few examples of passages that are commonly misinterpreted as a result of removing them from their biblical contexts. Stay tuned; we’ll look at others in the future.
“. . . May the Lord watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight.”
Kind believers often use this verse as a blessing for God’s caretaking while they are apart. The context reveals quite the contrary, however. Laban—lacking trust of his nephew and son-in-law, Jacob—is invoking God’s curse upon him in the event that he violates the covenant that the two of them had just entered. The phrase was not originally intended with good will.
2 Chronicles 7.14
“and My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.”
This passage is so familiar not because its context is broadly understood, but because well-intentioned interpreters misapply the precept to their own geopolitical state. The context, however, of Yahweh’s reply to Solomon—king and solicitor general of old covenant Israel—clearly indicates Yahweh’s promise to ethnic Israel in the context of their covenant relationship. The promise concerns Israel’s geographical locale, her place in history, and her relation to her covenant LORD before the spectating eyes of other peoples around her—peoples to whom Yahweh also wanted to make himself known as LORD, for better or for worse.
“Teach a youth about the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Many an interpreter applies this proverb (as well as many others) as promise, ignoring the genre and function of the literature and stirring uncertainty about the truth and/or reliability of God’s Word among the undiscerning. A proverb is a general principle of truth grounded in God’s instructive wisdom. The genre is not intended as absolute promise. Removing these texts from their context as proverb and interpreting the statements as absolute promises results in illegitimate interpretation and application.
What are some texts you’ve heard taken out of context?
Jean Witmer says
Good morning Tony,
I read with interest your approach to study of scripture, that is, within it’s context, which is so refreshing, more authentic, and probably what our God intended. You have mentioned 3 areas above where scripture was taken out of context and of course we know there are others. With context in mind, I would be interested in knowing where context has broken down in 1 Timothy with regard to women in ministry. I would appreciate in knowing what The Holy Spirit has revealed to you personally, with regard to this very important part of God’s Word especially in the lives of women Jesus graciously has gifted to serve wherever He calls them. Thank you!
Toby Jennings says
Thank you for thoughtfully engaging the Scriptures and for your question.
Interestingly, two books with the same title address your question from opposite perspectives, one complementarian, the other egalitarian. The title is “Women in the Church” (though they have distinct subtitles). My views accord with a complementarian view: http://amzn.to/1hQFuZm. The other espouses an egalitarian view: http://amzn.to/1p0sx4o.