Each morning Daddy struggled to put on my leg braces. In an effort to move my leg into position, my muscles would tense to the point of becoming rigid and all but impossible for him to get into the brace. When I explained that I just wanted to help, he’d bellow, “Quit helping me — you’re making it harder!” My seven-year-old mind reeled with confusion and hurt.
Then I’d be at the school for handicapped children, working on an arithmetic problem or an art project. The volunteer assisting me, out of the kindness of her heart (or maybe impatience to get the job done), would do just a little something that I could have done myself. Invariably, Mrs, G. (one of the aides that took care of our physical needs) would see the infraction and give me a big scolding for accepting unnecessary help.
So what was a seven-year-old to do? Should I obey Daddy or Mrs. G.? Was I supposed to relax and let able-bodied adults take over, or was I supposed to do whatever I could? I loved and wanted to please both these adults, and yet carrying over the principles one taught me seemed to violate the principles that the other taught. I tried to be obedient, but it was genuinely difficult to discern how they wanted me to behave.The two scenarios happened repeatedly, and neither adult had the slightest idea that I found their instructions contradictory.
At that age, I hadn’t yet been introduced to the concept of context.
But I am not writing about my childhood angst for the purpose of talking about myself, Rather, I want to use my experience to illustrate the importance of understanding things within their appropriate context. As adults, we chuckle at my childhood dilemma because we see that trying to help Daddy with my braces was vastly different from letting volunteers do things that Mrs. G. knew I needed to do for myself. Context should have shown me how to respond in each situation.
Context is probably the most important element in interpreting the Bible, and also one of the most ignored. Just as I failed to contextualize the instructions that Daddy and Mrs. G. gave me, many evangelicals fail to understand verses and passages of Scripture in context, leaving themselves vulnerable to all sorts of error.
In planning this article, I considered several apparently contradictory Bible passages to go through in order to show you how context resolves the conflicts. While it would be beneficial to perform such an exercise, the scope of an average blog post would necessarily limit us to examining only one example. And even then, it would need to be a lengthier piece than I’d care to write and you’d care to read. More importantly, if I used a singular example to walk you through the way context helps Bible interpretation, I fear all of us would focus more on the issue in the passages than we would focus on the way context clarifies whatever matter those passages addressed.
So right now, why don’t we keep our discussion centered on the general idea that context supplies the foundation for evaluating any situation. I eventually learned that obedience to Daddy worked in terms of letting him secure my leg braces, while obedience to Mrs, G. worked in terms of doing my schoolwork as independently as my disability allowed. Later, as an English major in college, I learned to critique works of literature in context of each work itself as well as in the context of its genre and its place in history. Again, context gives us the foundation by which we understand anything.
This foundation is especially crucial, of course, when it comes to how we read God’s Word. And if the Bible really is His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17), it follows that we have a duty to handle it reverently. Spiritual discernment absolutely depends on having a proper understanding of God’s Word so that we can apply its teachings in various circumstances. Application of Scripture, in turn, enables us that live in obedience to the Lord. Therefore, comprehending the meaning of each portion of Scripture requires careful study.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. ~~2 Timothy 2:15 (NASB1995)
I realize that there is more to Bible study than simply ascertaining context. My pastor holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from The Master’s Seminary, giving him tools of Biblical interpretation that I can even imagine. So I’m by no means arguing that context alone is the be all and end all of understanding the Word of God. At the same time, I’m most assuredly arguing that we must start any engagement with Scripture by reading it in its context.
I need to emphasize that reading Bible passages apart from context opens us up to the danger of having false teachers and unbiblical practices influence us. Most error in Christian circles uses misconstrued and misapplied Bible verses, always ripped from their contexts and matched with other out-of-context verses, to promote ideas that contradict God’s Word. False teachers manipulate Scripture very cunningly to make people think error is truth. Unless we take the portions of Scripture that they set forth and evaluate them as they fit into Scripture as a whole, we will be deceived.
There are, of course, many reputable blogs, podcasts and websires that identify false teachers and unbiblical practices. I list quite a number of them on the sidebar of this blog, and I definitely encourage you to take advantage of these resources. At the same time, simply having a Who’s Who of false teachers shouldn’t substitute for developing discernment skills of your own. And discernment skills begin by reading the Bible in context.
Once you cultivate the discipline of looking at the context of Bible verses and passages, yours find it easier to identify false teachers. For example, several years ago I attended a church that went through Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose campaign. Trusting the pastors, I didn’t bother to research Warren. I was all in! But then the elders showed a promotional video during a Sunday morning service, and I could plainly see that Warren wrenched verses out of context to support his agenda. From there, I researched Rick Warren and confirmed that he indeed taught error. Understanding context, therefore, gave me initial discernment to question his campaign.
Ladies, the Christian publishing industry depends on the assumption that women don’t study our Bibles well. Sadly, they’re often right. So they successfully sell us books by false teachers who quote a lot of Scripture, but quote it out of context and apply it wrongly. Because of this practice, we very much need to understand the Bible in context. Otherwise we become confused little girls not knowing whose direction to follow.Follow my blog with Bloglovin