Question: Taking Bible Verses Out of Context



danideewantsitall asked:

Hi there! What do you think of people taking scriptures “out of context”? For example, I was talking with my friends about Philippians 4:13, which is often used as encouragement. My friends said that it’s harmful to consistently quote that verse out of context, since that verse is, of course, part of a much larger story, but I say what’s the harm in someone using that verse for their own personal comfort and encouragement? Thanks!


Hey my friend, here are my general feelings about this.

1) Yes, Christians tend to take verses way out of context.

2) But most of us do it innocently without harm, because we just don’t know all the theology on that yet.

3) Certain Christians make a big deal about taking verses out of context, so they become the biblical equivalent of Grammar Nazis.

So if a superstar athlete wants to tattoo Philippians 4:13 all over his ribcage — well, why not? If a verse like Psalm 34:18 or John 3:16 can inspire someone and give them hope, then I say all the more power to them.

I would even suggest that most of us probably have entire chunks of the Bible all wrong. In other words, because of our human bias and our hazy filter of sin, I doubt any one person can properly contextualize the entire Bible at all times.

We have so many interpretive hermeneutics where everyone thinks “My camp is right,” but the older I get, the less I’m sure this or that guy has it totally right. I know dudes who are scholar-expert-level on the Bible but they’re total jerks, so it’s not working for them. I know others who are beginners at Scripture and still need the table of contents, but God has tenderized them with the little biblical knowledge they have.

When we get to Heaven, I can guarantee we will laugh at all the ways we misinterpreted Scripture and be shocked at what some passages really meant. And we’ve been doing that for hundreds of years already. Example: slavery.



Yes, certain verses need to be in context. It’s true that false teachers can twist verses to mean inappropriate things. It’s true that cherry-picking verses can lead to ugly triumphalist theologies where we’re secretly saying, “God is on my side and not yours.”

But I really don’t meet many Christians who are doing this on purpose to be bad people. They are simply misinformed or only on the first lap of faith. If I sit down and talk with someone who is obviously taking a verse out of context, usually they get it. No one but a false teacher actually wants to be a false teacher.

Personally, I am a literal Bible-reader who sees Scripture with a Christ-redemptive focus, so I try not to allegorize. I try not to make myself the “hero,” so Philippians 4:13 wouldn’t be about me. A storm is just a storm and not a “storm in my life.”

But then — these days I’m more often balancing rigid doctrine with our evident desire for the poetic and aesthetic. Humans have a need for beauty and symmetry and inspiration. There is tons of single-verse encouragement in the Bible. I need that sometimes. God does occasionally call us to be the hero. And I believe God speaks to the storms in our lives. So I’m not going to neurotically over-think how I am declaring certain verses. When life is tough, like on my face in tears with hands shaking and world breaking, usually all I can do is shotgun a verse or two over myself: and that is enough. That is God’s grace.

— J.S.

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7 thoughts on “Question: Taking Bible Verses Out of Context

  1. I used to look at context as meaning the chapter, then book that a passage is in. Now, I look at THE book for context.

    There is one book, one story. I used to see the Bible as 66 books making up one epic with two volumes (OT & NT), but as my understanding matured I now see it as 66 chapters making up one book. ONE book.

    To me, the story of scripture is that of Christ, and him crucified. Period. We learn about how & why that happened in the Bible, but to fully understand it we have to accept that it still is THE story-HIS story.

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  2. Good balance as usual. I tend to not bother with this issue: Who cares if Jesus was talking to believers or not when standing before the door, we all should let Him in!
    There are a few doctrines held as tests of orthodoxy in some circles built on similarly slender pillars, though. They get on my nerves. It’s no fun being considered a heretic because I don’t see the context supporting the claim they make. The struggle then is not to look down on them as they do on me!

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    1. Thanks Cheri! I’ve heard it said there are “closed-fist” doctrines that remain non-negotiable, like salvation offered through Jesus and the authority of the Bible. But then there are “open-hand” doctrines that remain negotiable. I think we can disagree about a lot of things and still be friends, so it’s a shame the church divides over their secondary disagreements.

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  3. I hope I’m not one of those “scholar-expert-level” guys you refer to! I would offer this: the Bible can be read in different ways (after all, it is alive Heb. 4:12). Devotional reading lets the verse/section hit me as I am now. Inspiring, but can be short-lived. So we can search for deeper meanings, using the literary context to place the teaching. Then we who do Bible scholarship look even deeper at the historical, linguistic, cultural context. All worthwhile ways, depending on our own context. But the most profound reading is NOT for meaning, but with open mind and humble heart let the Bible transform us and the way we live into fruit-bearing ambassadors of the Saviour. The only creed I am impressed with is the Christ-like behaviour of God’s people. I’ll take lived spirituality over religious orthodoxy anytime!
    Peace

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  4. The Bible is meant to be a story line that produces doctrine, not a doctrine that produces a story line. (picked-out proof texts) If we look at the whole 66 books, we see the clear storyline. “The lamb was slain before the foundation of the world”, and “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent”
    When you fit this into your little doctrines, you have the gospel.

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