When the church John and I used to attend embarked on Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose campaign, the leadership showed promotional videos during the three Sunday services leading up to the campaign. As I watched the first video, I couldn’t help noticing how frequently Warren quoted Bible verses out of context in order to substantiate some of his claims. Reading only the two opening chapters of The Purpose Driven Life, I saw the same trend, made worse by his use of multiple translations and paraphrases to provide his desired effect.
How did I recognize that he quoted Bible verses out of context? Simple: I’d done the same thing when I wrote counseling letters for Love In Action. I knew the psychological principles that our ministry embraced. All I had to do was shoehorn snippets of Scripture into our paradigm. Voila! I successfully sounded as if I gave Biblical counsel!
I knew what I was doing.
Once I moved away from ex-gay ministry, the Lord brought me to online Bible Study websites that taught me better methods of interpreting God’s Word. I learned the absolute necessity of reading verses in both their immediate context and then in the context of Scripture as a whole. This approach to Scripture ultimately led me to embrace Reformed theology.
To borrow (and edit) one of my favorite quips by Phil Johnson (played at the introduction to the Too Wretched for Radio podcast), the Bible isn’t some Gumby action figure that you can manipulate any way you want. As the very Word of God, breathed out by the Holy Spirit, it demands that we use it appropriately, giving it the honor and respect it deserves.
When we quote isolated verses (or even a group of isolated verses) to support our theological position, we run the risk of violating the overall context of those verses. More than we care to admit, we make those verses say things that they really don’t say at all.
The temptation to use isolated verses was bad enough in the 1980s and 1990s when I typed those counseling letters. The advent of social media, which thrives on immediate responses and condensed sound bytes, only exacerbates the temptation. Instead of using the sword of the Spirit thoughtfully and properly to carve out our arguments, we use it to make quick jabs that we think subdue those who disagree with us.
Building a Scriptural case can’t even be accomplished in a single blog post, much less by throwing isolated verses out on Twitter or Facebook! Examining theological positions requires looking at large passages in context, and then weighing those passages against other large passages in Scripture. In doing so, we must maintain humility, asking the Lord to show us when (not if) we’re wrong.
Begin with context. End with context. You’ll be amazed by how much clarity your Bible Study gains.