Context is King

If someone were to ask the question, “What’s the best way to refute the teachings of the Christian Bible,” I suppose the answer would be…”Simple. Just take everything out of context.” It really is just that easy. The sad truth of the matter is that both skeptics and Christians have been notorious for doing this very thing for centuries.

I suppose to many, that might be a rather bold and even controversial way to begin. Perhaps so, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Whenever one deals with skeptics or critics of biblical Christianity, one often hears a great deal of the atrocities committed…often by the Church…in the name of Christ. While I will not presume to attempt to justify these horrible crimes, I recently wrote a post discussing that to look only at these things is to not take all the facts into account. It’s quite simple to claim that something is wrong when you point out nothing apart from the negative.

The other side of this is to look at things such as…how were these crimes committed by the Church? Most often, in fact I’d argue every time, the people who actually were responsible for these things were not following biblical teachings. Instead, they were corrupt, power-hungry people who managed to gain positions of power and influence in the Church and used that power for their own selfish gain.

Like many skeptics, they would take passages of scripture out of context and use it to manipulate lesser educated people (remember, in those days, very few people could actually read and even fewer were allowed to read the Bible for themselves). Today, it’s less common for scripture to be used for large-scale violence (at least in America) but it can still be used out of context. Every time a man tries to justify mental, emotional or even physical abuse of his wife. Every time someone violently decries what they’ve learned is a “sin” and use that to persecute or otherwise abuse another human being.

Skeptics, obviously, use this tactic, too. Often they will refer to the ceremonial law from the Old Testament to try to show that the Bible teaches slavery, spousal abuse or child abuse. Some of the more amusing things I’ve heard is for them to wonder why God would have created Man as a sinful creature. They claim that an all-powerful God should have been able to do better. Of course, in these cases, they completely disregard free-will. That or, they completely misconstrue the concept of free-will asking why God couldn’t have made usĀ  to freely choose Him.

Really? How, exactly, does that work? Is it not an utter defiance of the very logic skeptics cherish so much to try to assert that one can make someone freely choose something?

The fact is, when one starts asking what is taught in the Bible, one has to take the entire canon into context. Perhaps another example might help to illustrate what I mean here.

For years…decades…perhaps centuries, debate has raged among Christian sects about whether or not salvation is by faith alone or if it requires works. Those who believe the latter, that works are required for salvation, often use this as their proof-text:

18But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble! 20But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
James 2:18-22

The problem, as I see it, is that if one only looks at this one passage, we lose the context. Certainly, one possible understanding of this passage is that faith and works are both required for salvation. Another way to look at this passage, however, is that faith is expressed by works in order to hold one another accountable for the authenticity of one’s faith. So, how do we go about figuring out which is the correct way to interpret this passage? Context.

It’s been said that the best commentary for scripture is…well…scripture. If one pre-supposes that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and therefore inerrant, then one must hold that one passage could not contradict another. If that’s true, then we would have to find another passage that addresses the issue and see if it refutes one or the other. If we can do that, then we have our answer. So, what do you think?

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

It would seem that Paul does not really leave much wiggle room, here. He’s quite explicit that we cannot earn our salvation by our works. Again, skeptics will also do things like this…take a passage and not weigh it against the entire canon of scripture.

So, what does all this mean for us? Basically, that context is king! Any time someone wants to refute a biblical teaching, check the context. If someone tries to assert that the Bible allows us to do something and we want to verify that’s so, check the context.

“Christians” with hidden agendas, skeptics and the devil himself will attempt to take scripture out of context in order to make it seem to say anything they want it to look like it says. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to check the context. The very fact that there is sin in the world today is because God’s Word was taken out of context in order to cast doubt on it. Just go back to the beginning of the Bible and read Genesis 3:1-5. Classic. Subtle. Insidious. Deceptive. Out of context.

It is the tool Satan himself uses to veer us off the path of truth. Read the Gospel of Luke when he tried to tempt Jesus in the desert. He quotes scripture to try to get Jesus to do what he wanted Him to do. Yet, Jesus brought to bear the most powerful weapon He could at that moment…context. He knew that, while the passage satan quoted was from scripture and, therefore, was God’s Word…out of context it was used to say something that would have violated scripture.

Keep context in mind all the time. Like Jesus in the desert, it is your most powerful weapon against being led astray.

Grace, love and peace.

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