Suppose a new church has erected on your street, and when you go to visit it, you find that none of the males have ever cut their hair. Indeed they argue that in obedience to God, men must never cut their hair, and those who do are being disobedient to God and demonstrate that they are unsaved heretics. Alarmed, you ask them to give biblical support for this view. They quickly glance at a little reference card that they had stowed away for just this occasion, and cite the book of Judges, wherein Samson never cut his hair, and when he did, he broke his covenant with God. The immediate reaction of any Christian would be that they have taken the Bible radically out of context. So why should we study the Bible in context?
I am afraid that this illustration is not very far from the truth. While there may not be any Samson churches, there are a number of churches who would pluck a Bible verse out of context, separated from the intent of the original author and the understanding of the audience, and use it to support their view. In fact those reference cards that I mentioned are not a product of my own imagination. Many churches do hand out reference cards to their parishioners so that they can find a single verse to justify the beliefs of their denomination.
Thus Christians today are not being taught how to determine whether some doctrine in their Bible is true. They are being taught to sort of hunt down the answers and use them to support whatever doctrine they have presupposed. This inability to understand what is written is precisely why we have so many false doctrines, and on top of that, so many people who are emotionally committed to their peculiar false doctrine. People should be committed to what the Bible says, not what they want the Bible to say.
Winning An Argument
People tend to make winning an argument about the Scripture their end game. They are willing to cite any passage to prove a point, even if they do not understand the context of that passage or the intention of the author. Getting their information from a reference card, but having no latitude, this type of assertion often will end up in an argument about whether they are right, rather than a discussion striving to come to understand what the Bible says. People need to realize and acknowledge that they are not always right. We do not know everything about the Scripture.
Not even our church nor our leaders knows everything about the Scripture. Many of us are wrong about many different things. I am sure that I am wrong about some things, but I am trying to keep my theology straight. Rather than arguing and striving to prove our points, what we need to do is ask whether our points are in alignment with what the word of God says. Even if we do win an argument and convince somebody of our view, what does that matter, if our view contradicts the Scripture? Will they not be worse off than they were, if they hold to a doctrine that is not true?
There are many churches just like the Samson church, and they smugly tell people that they have the word of God on their side, reading verses from Judges and saying, “How much more clear could it be?” This sort of doctrine may be patently ridiculous to long time Christians, but to somebody who has no knowledge of the Scripture, they may be taken in by these doctrines, as they often are. People with no knowledge of the Scripture are taught false doctrines, given reference cards and deployed to win arguments.
So, why should we study the Bible in context? Christians are being fooled by false doctrines every day. We need to be arm ourselves with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. In this way, we can not win arguments with people, but help others, and ourselves, to come closer to what truth is. We can be willing to accept the biblical truth, even if it contradicts what we thought we knew.
How Can We Study The Bible In Context?
There are two types of context that are crucial to understanding the Scripture. The first is the literary context, and this is the one that most of us are familiar with. It is not about just plucking a verse to prove a point, but rather it is about grasping the full scope of the passage, and perhaps even the surrounding passages, to understand the meaning behind it. We might also consider the grammatical structure of a sentence, the Greek and Hebrew words (in some cases, it can certainly resolve an issue). When we do that, if our original interpretation of a verse seems out of place and not fluent, then we need to rethink and reinterpret what we thought we knew.
Secondly, there is the historical context, which is essentially to say that we need to understand the purpose of the authors’ writing this letter, and how the original audience would have interpreted what is being said. Every passage was written to a specific audience for a specific purpose. If we disregard the authors’ purpose for understanding the letter, then we are in danger of misinterpreting it. If we adopt an interpretation that the original audience would not have had, then we are probably mistaken in our interpretation (especially when considering the epistles). Paul wrote to the Galatians because they struggled with legalism, so he emphasized freedom in Christ. In contrast, James wrote his letter because the church was basking in freedom, and so he emphasized obedience.
Therefore if we are going to avoid taking a passage out of context, remembering these types of context can be a helpful tool so that we do not end up like the Samson church.
If you would like to get in on the discussion about this, join my Theology Discussion Group!