What’s the harm of taking Bible verses out of context?

There is a problem in the church today that has been weighing very heavily on my heart lately. The problem is a widespread lack of Biblical literacy.

One of the ways this manifests is through the misuse of Bible verses in art/ home decor/online memes etc.

You only need to walk into a Christian book shop (or look in their online store) to see examples of this.

Some “out of context verses” are blatantly obvious, like Psalm 46:5 on this shirt (and if you search “God is within her shirt”, you will find many more!):

God is within her shirt.jpg

In this passage, the “her” that God is within refers to the Holy City, not a woman. So it is horribly inaccurate (bordering on blasphemous) to slap this verse on a shirt and claim that it applies to the person wearing it.

But other verses that are commonly taken out of context are less obviously wrong, like Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

This is another verse commonly found all over coffee mugs, posters, colouring sheets, t-shirts, etc.

It is a promise claimed by many present-day Christians as applying to themselves.

But if we zoom out a little, we can see that the context of Jeremiah 29 is a letter to the Exiles (I would encourage you to go read the whole chapter – it’s great!):

1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

So, we can see from reading the context that the “plans” God has in verse 11 are plans specifically for the exiled Jews, to bring them back to the land of Israel to be in relationship with Him again.

And while we understand from the New Testament that those who trust in Jesus are part of the true Israel, not everything that was written to the physical Israel can be directly applied to the spiritual Israel.

But why does this verse appear over all manner of floral and sparkly items in the Christian book shop? Isn’t it because we find comfort in the idea that God has a plan for us? That He has a good plan for us?

And even if it’s not entirely accurate to apply this verse to present day Christians, isn’t this idea basically true – that God has a plan for us, to prosper and not harm us? And if it’s basically true and it encourages us in our faith, then why not memorize it and apply it to ourselves? What’s the harm?

That’s the big question I want to tackle in this blog post…

What is the harm in taking Bible verses out of context, in ways that are more-or-less true, for the benefit of our personal faith (or even to encourage a friend)?

I think this kind of (benevolent) misuse of Bible verses is indeed harmful, and there are four reasons why.

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Hilarious example of a Bible verse out of context that I found in a local shop. Anyone want this canvas on their living room wall?

 

1. It maligns the word of God, by showing that we don’t take it seriously.

The Bible is not another self-help book that we are free to read and interpret as we wish. It is God’s authoritative word to all people. But when we use Bible verses out of context – whether by ignorance or carelessness – we are sending the message to other people that we don’t really believe that.

When we take a verse of Scripture, put it up somewhere on display because of the meaning we get from it, and then put that little verse reference on the end, we are giving it the stamp of God’s authority. Putting that Bible reference on the end is saying, “this statement comes from God” – that’s why we do it, because these Scripture quotes have the authority of God behind them. Otherwise, we could easily just write inspirational quotes for ourselves and stick those around our house.

So if we are using Bible verses because they come with the authority of God, then it is even more important that we don’t misuse or misrepresent what He actually meant.

 

 

2. We make the Bible about us, and what we can get out of it.

It’s not about us, it’s about God.

True, we learn things about ourselves (or have them revealed to us) as we read the Bible. But it is primarily a book about God. And when we pull verses out of context, it is usually because we feel it “speaks to us” or has a “special meaning” for our personal circumstance.

Here’s the truth – not everything in the Bible is about us!

Are there things we can learn from the whole Bible? Sure! Are there things that apply to us? Yes!

But the Bible was written to us, not about us.

The Bible is all about God and His plan through Jesus to save His people.

If we pull out verses for our personal encouragement (again, that are not blatantly false or evil), we are learning to approach the Bible to see what we can get out of it, or what it says about us. This is not the main reason we should read the Bible.

If you read the Bible mainly to see what it says to you, then what happens when you get to a time where reading the Bible just feels “dry”? When you’re trying to plough through the laws of Leviticus, and finding it really hard because there’s not a lot about you in there? (And even less that you can pull out and write on a mug…)

Well, you might be tempted to stop reading. You might feel like God is distant. You might give up on that book and go back to something more… relevant.

Friends, a me-centred faith is a weak faith. Don’t fall into the trap of letting your Bible reading and application be focused on yourself.

 

 

3. It is not true or accurate.

You can find many verses in the Bible that you can pull out to make you feel better (and also many that will terrify you). You could easily use it like this – as a “spiritual” reference book that you flick through and pull out the bits you need.

You could use it like that, but it wouldn’t be true or accurate.

Going back to my example above, I can pull out Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future…” – and say that it is about me. That God would never harm me and that he has plans to prosper me.

I could “claim” all that for myself. But it isn’t true. It isn’t what that passage is saying or why it is there. By claiming the nice-sounding falsehood for myself, I actually miss out on the more glorious truth in Jeremiah 29.

That an unfaithful, rebellious people are undeservedly pursued and loved by their faithful God. That God had not forgotten them and that he heard their cries.

That God is sovereign over everything.

And ultimately, Jeremiah 29 points us to Jesus – the one perfect Saviour and Rescuer of a stubborn, rebellious people.

All that is waaaayyy more amazing than just “God has a plan for me”.

Don’t settle for sweet-sounding – but false – platitudes that you pluck from your Bible. Because the truth of the Bible is far more wonderful.

 

 

4. It leads to more dangerous Scripture-twisting.

On the face of it, pulling a passage out of context to say that God has good plans for us doesn’t seem as bad as pulling a passage out of context to say that Jesus is not God (like my new JW friends did).

But I actually think the former leads to the latter.

If we begin to allow ourselves to treat the Bible as a book that is about us and which we can interpret as we wish, it acclimatises us to the practice of picking out verses that support our argument (eisegesis), rather than examining the text to understand it’s real meaning (exegesis).

It’s far better to commit ourselves to good Bible study habits from the beginning, rather than practice habits that will not yield good fruit in the long run.

mms_20171006_222924

It’s a slippery slope… hahaha.

 

Friends, I don’t make these points to hold myself up as someone who studies and uses the Bible perfectly. Misuse of Bible verses is something I’ve been convicted of myself, and I wanted to share my thinking on this for the benefit of all you sisters in Christ. So please – if you see me taking a verse/passage out of context, call me out on it!

And I also feel the need to add… I love beauty. I love art. I love pretty mugs and colouring-in and t-shirts with Bible verses on them. That’s not what I have a problem with. And if you walk into my house, you will see many of these things. The issue is in which verses are being used, how they are being represented and if that use and representation is true and accurate.

Let’s do better together, as we study and apply God’s good word to us.

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7 thoughts on “What’s the harm of taking Bible verses out of context?

  1. Preach it! I feel like sharing Jer 29:11 with a friend or new grad is more of a threat- “70 years of exile coming your way, but don’t worry- it ends well!” But nobody knows the context. I find myself doing it a lot when I write. A fragment of a verse will come to mind, but when I actually look it up to share it, I learn it means NOTHING like I thought.

    It *is* about God.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I have been trying to check the context more diligently before sharing verses, on my blog and in real life.

    ” I feel like sharing Jer 29:11 with a friend or new grad is more of a threat- “70 years of exile coming your way, but don’t worry- it ends well!””
    Haha!

    Like

  3. Thanks for this well thought out blog, Jess! You’ve raised some really good points! I feel like I’ve needed this reminder to see the big picture of why I’m reading the Bible, that is, to see who God is and then through this lens, see who I am and how I should live.

    Liked by 1 person

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