Published on January 28th, 2011 | by Dustin Schledewitz
Context, Context, Context!
The other day I got a text message from a close friend, and this is what showed up on my phone screen when I opened it:
“in class, I have a short break from 2-2:45 if you want to hang out, today would be a good day for you to come to faith.”
What!?! He knows me! He knows that I am a Christian! Is this a joke? As I gave it some more thought, I was convinced that this is not something that he would say to me. He has never said anything in the past that would make me wonder if he questions my faith. So, I looked closer at the message…and there was another part to it, which didn’t fit into the screen but read, “and learning with me.” Oh…it was a good day for me to come to his faith and learning class. If I would have focused on this small section and not read what followed (the context), my misunderstanding of this one text message could have led to some unintended results. Even though we wouldn’t choose to handle even a simple text message out of context, it seems all too common with Scripture, leading to some bad results.
Scriptural Context Defined
There are two broad categories for context. One is called the historical-cultural context. The other broad category, which I want to focus on, is the literary context. In regard to the literary context, one needs to take into account the genre of the text (which I wrote about in Greek and Bible Study) and the surrounding context (i.e. the words, sentences, and paragraphs, etc). In my crises of faith above, the rest of the text message is comparable to the surrounding context.
As a result of a clearer understanding of the importance and role of context, I have had my understanding of several “familiar” verses nuanced or even completely altered for me. For example, if you’re like me, you’ve walked into several church services in which this verse is quoted to support Jesus’ presence in the service – “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). When this verse is used in this way, it seems to indicate that once two or three gather, then Christ it present. Is that true? Is Christ present? Yes.
The Context of Matthew 18:20
This is clearly stated in Matthew 18:20. However, is that what this text is communicating? If you look at the context, it is found in a section of text discussing church discipline. As Blomberg says in the New American Commentary on Matthew, “In context v. 20 then assures God’s blessings on action properly taken to try to reconcile believers to one another (as in vv. 15–18)” (281). Yes, God is present everywhere, and, yes, Christ is with His followers. However, this is not the text to use to support that. When it is used, it can give the wrong idea that Christ is present once a group of at least 2-3 Christians is gathered. In context, Matthew 18:20 points out that when discipline in God’s church is done God’s way, it has God’s “endorsement,” even if only 2-3 are gathered.
Avoiding using Scripture out of Context
As you can see, sometimes we just say the right thing with the wrong Scripture. The danger is that we can undermine the authority of Scripture in people’s eyes when we do this. So, how can we avoid this?
First, take into account the circles of context. Imagine a bulls-eye with the selected text at the center with the surrounding rings in this order: paragraph/pericope, section/chapter, book, author, testament, and canon. Make sure to take into account these “rings of context,” but remember to give the highest priority to the immediate context.
Secondly, try to keep these three principles regarding context in mind:
- Each statement must be understood according to its natural meaning in the literary context in which it occurs. Don’t rip single verses or even portions of verses out of their context.
- Taking a text out of context opens the door for proof-texting (using verses to say what you want them to say).
- The smaller the passage being studied, the greater the chance of error.
Just as I was prevented from a faith crisis by looking at the full context of my text message, I hope that these guidelines for considering the context of Scripture help prevent misunderstandings, or even the undermining, of God’s Word.
Other examples of Scripture out of Context?
What about you, do you have other examples of Scripture taken out of context often?