Out of Context

In my third week of theological college my lecturer made a joke about teenagers using Jeremiah 29:11 as a guiding or motivating scripture for their lives. Laughing along with my fellow students, I made a mental note to never tell them that the ring I wear on my finger has that exact verse inscribed on it. Regardless of where I was spiritually or what I was praying for when I found the ring, I was afraid they might use it to fuel a stereotype of Pentecostal Christians. Ironically though, finding this ring with this specific verse on it at the particular time that I did had a direct impact on my eventual decision to study theology.

Even before commencing my studies, I would often hear Christians complain about other Christians taking verses out of context, or making fun of them for holding certain Bible passages close to their hearts due to the original context of that passage having nothing to do with them or their situation. This worries me for two reasons; (1) using this tactic for reading the Bible would rule out most passages as somewhat irrelevant to my life – even with exegetical application, and (2) because more and more Christians seem to be jumping on this bandwagon of (what I like to call) “context shaming” other Christians; and it’s not healthy.

First of all, I would encourage you to be very careful about stepping into this self-designated role of Biblical narrator. I’m sure the Pharisees who rebuked Jesus’ disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath would have thought that He was using isolated scriptures out of context to defend their actions.[1] In fact, I’m sure it could be argued that, had it been anyone besides the Messiah, Jesus’ scriptural defence against Satan while He was fasting could be seen as a bit out of context.[2] And let’s not even go into Paul’s use of the Old Testament to back up some of his points.
I’m not denying the authority of Jesus or the Holy Spirit through Paul; but would like you to reconsider how you impose “context”. Is God restricted in how He uses His own Word to minister to people?

Though I have never been a nation in exile and ruin, God still used Jeremiah 29:11 to minister to me and guide me toward His purpose for my life. I have seen people encouraged, liberated and healed with the use of Bible passages outside of their context. I don’t believe God is sitting up there shaking His head, refusing to move until His Word is given in an unbending exegetical form; as though it holds no power outside of its originally intended setting. That would be quite unfortunate for Christians in persecuted countries who have no theological training opportunities.

In saying this, I don’t want to downplay the importance of knowing the original context of the Bible’s writings. I believe every Christian, if possible, should be somewhat educated on this matter; it is imperative to our understanding of God and His gospel, and of ourselves – our identity and purpose in the world. Cases of seeing alternate meaning in a verse or passage need to be considered in light of the entirety of the Bible – we can’t just read it whichever way we prefer. However, I wish for people to carefully consider when, where and to whom it is appropriate to limit the use of a Biblical passage, and for what reason they feel the desire to impose that restriction.

[1] Matthew 12:1-7

[2] Matthew 4:3-11

One thought on “Out of Context

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  1. I used to think Pentecostals took Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, but actually I no longer believe this to be true. (Some study into Hermeneutics, that is the various methods by which we analyse and apply the bible, is helpful when thinking about this, especially as it would provide a common understanding of the terminology commonly used when discussing systematic methods of interpreting the bible)

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