After our last time together, when I talked about the importance of ‘context’ when studying and teaching the Bible someone approached me and asked, “Is it ever okay to take a singles verse of the Bible out of its context and apply it?”

 

I will begin my answer by reinforcing what I said, “Using a passage of Scripture that has been taken out of its context can lead to mistakes in interpretation and therefore false teaching”. Our main problem as Christians is that we don’t apply what we clearly know to be true. We always seem to be more fascinated with those passages that are difficult to understand, or we spend most of our time looking for some ‘hidden’ meanings in those passages that are already quite clear. 

These are fertile grounds for those false teachers who say they know the deeper spiritual meaning. Our God is not intentionally being obscure, those things that He wants us to know have been clearly revealed and quite often it is our laziness as Christians that prevents us from seeing clearly. Let’s try to put into practice those things that He has clearly revealed to us first, then we will be better able to understand those passages that seem to be obscure.

I am getting sidetracked. So, in order to answer the question honestly, I will say that quoting a single verse, does of course take it out of its context, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the verse is being misused. Some “out of context” verses do teach a stand-alone truth; while others require a study of their context in order to properly interpret and apply them.

Unfortunately, often the intention of the speaker, or teacher is what tells us if the interpretation of the verse that has been taken out of context is correct or not. If a single verse, out of context, is interpreted to mean something other than the biblical author’s intended meaning or to overlook the intent of the overall passage, then it is a dishonest use of that verse. But if quoting a single verse the original meaning is still clear and the intent of the passage is not twisted, then it is good and proper to quote the verse. Of course, verses can be misused even without bad intent, so we must be careful.

Let’s look at some examples of taking a verse out of context and misusing them:  In Luke 12:19, Jesus says, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry,” If we were to then teach that this is Jesus’ philosophy of life, we would be misusing the Bible. Because, when we read this phrase in its context, a parable in which Jesus is actually teaching the opposite, then we cannot come to that interpretation. Jesus says this is something that a foolish rich man would say. His point is that a person who lives this kind of lifestyle will receive God’s judgement.

Another example of taking a verse out of context and misusing it is quoting the first part of Habakkuk 2:15 in order to teach that we should not give alcohol to our neighbour: “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,” However using this verse to teach this, is actually twisting the intended meaning of the Bible. When we read the remainder of the verse, we see that there are reasons given for this prohibition, “pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!”. The sins referred to in this verse are drunkenness, voyeurism, lust, and sexual exploitation. When we look at the whole context of Habakkuk 2:15 we can also see that ‘the giving of alcohol’ is a metaphor that refers to the sins of the nation of Babylon.

In the two examples we just looked at, it is quite clear that certain verses (or portions of verses) cannot be made to stand alone and teach a lesson. A Christian “who correctly handles the word of truth” will be wise to avoid these types of falsehoods. Don’t forget our main purpose in reading, studying, and applying the Bible is told in 2 Timothy 2:15, Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”.

But not all verses become twisted if they are lifted from their contexts. There are examples where we can use a single verse or even a part of a verse by itself and still agree with the Bible’s teaching. For example, if we are trying to tell someone that salvation is a gift from GOD, we might use John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This is a good example of a verse that clearly says what it says. Even a superficial understanding of this verse alone still fits within the context of John 3.

Therefore, our conclusion is that quoting a single Scripture “out of context” can be fine at times but at other times, it is dishonest and can create problems. Here is a useful guideline; If we hear a verse or word being given a meaning other than what the broader context suggests then that meaning is wrong. So, whenever we read or hear someone using a single verse, or word in isolation, then it is always good to put that verse, or word, back into its original passage to see if the new interpretation still fits.

Of course, this becomes very evident when the speaker wants to find Biblical support for their own opinions or teachings. Often the passage they use to support their teaching has to be removed from its immediate context and then interpreted to mean something quite different from its original intended meaning. As I mentioned already this is a very dishonest practice and that will be that person’s character as well. So, the truth that we find in the Bible becomes evident in that, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”