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Context: Are You In Or Out?
December 30, 2015
Most of us know someone who has been hurt by a church. Maybe it was a friend or a family member. Maybe you yourself have experienced church hurt. Church hurt is devastating and leaves us with big questions about the Church, God, and our faith. There are two general categories of church hurt. The first is when tension develops because of personal preferences. This refers to people dressing differently than you would prefer, or a different style of music than what you think should be played. It can even include congregation members treating you poorly. The second type of church hurt is caused by abuse. This can be an abuse of Scripture, physical abuse, or abuse by the leadership. This post concerns the latter. The abuse of Scripture is particularly damaging because it uses the texts we hold most sacred to say something that those texts never meant to say. We hold the teachings of Scripture as the foundation of our faith, but the abuse of Scripture alters those teachings. This makes our understanding and beliefs about ourselves, others, the Church, and God skewed or even altogether different from what the Bible actually says. The effects of this range from confusion about our faith to abandoning it altogether. It is sad when anyone lands anywhere on that spectrum. There are times when this abuse is blatant and intentional, but there are many other times when it is unintentional. In fact, Christians with good intentions have accidentally done this. This is not to say that all good meaning, loving Christians are actually horrible people who lead others astray, but, rather, that we must all be careful when we approach, interpret, and teach Scripture. It is a weighty task for every believer, not only for teachers, because what we believe affects us and anyone we converse with about it. We praise God when those effects are positive, but we grieve when they are devastating and hope that the damage can be undone. In order for us to communicate our beliefs in a way that avoids collateral damage, we must read Scripture within its proper context.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines context as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” To give an illustration, context is like the hidden stage crew in a play. Though their presence is unknown, their job is of incredible value. The props they set up draw us into the play. We physically see the scene develop and unfold before us. Imagine a play that has the following locations: a house, the woods, a train station, and a ballroom. Now, consider how the play would develop if the stage crew only set up the props for the woods. The scenes in the woods would be vibrant and lively, but all the other scenes would be missing something, would they not? No matter how talented the actors were, the other scenes would become confusing. They would not be as stimulating and complete as they would have been with the appropriate props. The same could be said about when we approach the Bible. Knowing the context of the passages we read brings deeper meaning, better understanding, a stronger connection, more adoration, more powerful encounters, and a greater appreciation for God, ourselves, others, and our faith.
Nonverbal communication (body language & tone of voice/inflection) accounts for ninety three percent of all communication. In the same way as the stage crew, nonverbal communication enriches the actual words we hear. We observe nonverbal communication automatically. Our brains involuntarily seek these cues and process them in the background without us telling it to. Nonverbal communication is so powerful that we can comprehend the emotions of people having a conversation in a foreign language. Furthermore, we can discern if a friend is happy, sad, worried, afraid, etc. by the tone of his or her voice over the phone. Written communication, on the other hand, is totally different. Whereas the context of our verbal communication (body language & tone of voice) is observed and processed subconsciously, the context of written communication has a conscious element to it. Think about a text message or an email. Sarcasm and tone of voice are much more difficult to detect through writing than speaking. These are aspects we have to make a conscious effort to figure out. The Bible is written communication, which means we have to make a conscious effort to notice the context. If we fail to notice it, or assume it will subconsciously come to us like nonverbal communication does, our experience within its pages will look a lot like that play with only woodland props. Some parts of it might make sense and feel vibrant, but the vast majority of it will seem out of place or incomplete. We may miss out on the full message of Scripture, or maybe we will miss the meaning entirely. We are more inclined to unintentionally share a skewed understanding of a verse to a person who has questions when we do not incorporate the full context while reading that verse. As stated in the introduction, skewed understandings of Scripture can have negative effects on people who trust what we say, so it is vital that we know what our contextual cues are and how to find them.
Much like an onion, there are different layers of context within the Bible. Historical-Cultural context gives us information about the history and culture of the Biblical authors and audiences that we would otherwise be without. Here, we are introduced to the authors and audiences as historical figures. Within historical-cultural context, we are not so much concerned with what the author said as much as we are concerned about who the author was within his culture. Each culture has specific quirks that are unique; these quirks make them different, and they must be treated as such. For example, in the United States, the midwest has many differences from the southwest: driving styles, pace of life, cuisine, celebrations and festivals, and potentially language. Regions of the same country can simultaneously have a different culture. This is true today, and it was true for the cities and nations of the Bible. Their cultures differed from city to city, and, they differ greatly from our own in multiple ways: time period, location, language, currency, religions, values, ethics, work conditions, slavery, and travel. Ignoring the unique quirks of the cultures in Biblical times will cause us to miss details, meaning, and understanding. Knowing the historical-cultural context is important because it tells us why the Biblical characters did what they did. Ignoring the historical-cultural context will not render us incapable of gleaning from the Bible. However, embracing this context will open more doors and bring us to a much deeper level of understanding of God’s word.
Knowing more about the following will enrich your understanding of the historical-cultural contexts of the Bible:
- Ethnic Groups
- Historical Age (Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.)
When it comes to the Bible, we can believe it is God’s word, that it is powerful, and has an important message. But we will always struggle to discover that message unless we incorporate studying the context alongside reading it. The second layer of context is Literary Context. Literary Context brings our attention to the literary aspects of the text that enhances our understanding or give us a new understanding entirely. A lot of people read the Bible as if each line is disconnected from the line before and after it. This approach makes it impossible for the reader to notice those aspects that increase understanding and lead to growth. The categories within literary context start as narrow as a particular word in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, and it gets as broad as the literary genre of the book your passage is in. The following is a list of things to consider when exploring your verse or passage’s literary context:
- Neighboring verses and chapters
- Who is speaking (Especially in dialog)
- Read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament
- Words/Word Studies
This list is not exhaustive, but it serves as a good start. Each item listed above helps us get a better understanding of the text, which gives us a more profound realization of what God said and what that means for us. Now, let’s look at each aspect of literary context respectfully.
Genre is often overlooked, but it plays a crucial role in our ability to understand what the author is communicating to us. The genre of a text refers to its style of writing and structure. The style and structure used by an author depends on that author’s purpose and intent of writing. A love letter will be written and structured very differently than a textbook. The author of a love letter will incorporate imagery, poetry, and similes because she is trying to engage her lover’s heart. The author of a textbook, on the other hand, writes for the purpose of instructing and is only concerned with engaging his reader’s mind. We must read the love letter through a poetic lens, while we must read the textbook through an instructional lens. This concept holds true for the Biblical authors as well. There are 9 different genres in the Bible: Old Testament Narrative, Law, Wisdom, Poetry, Prophetic, Gospel, New Testament Narrative, Epistle, and Apocalyptic. Each one is different from the others and requires a slightly different approach when reading. Reading the epistles of the New Testament requires us to pay attention to the grammar and follow the progression of the logical argument being presented, but it would be catastrophic to look for and focus on those same writing elements while reading the Song of Songs (Poetic). Hebraic poetry, like English poetry, does not follow the same grammatical rules as non-poetic works, and it certainly does not assert a logical argument. Reading one genre through the lens of another genre distorts the message of the text. As this happens, we find ourselves drifting away from what the author originally meant. Doing this can produce a misinterpretation of Scripture and possibly the future abuse of Scripture.
Neighboring verses and chapters can reveal deeper insight about a passage. This is a good habit to get into every time you open your Bible: quickly skim over the previous chapter(s) leading up to your current starting point before you begin reading. A great way to do this is to look at the section headings. Most Bibles have them, and they stand out from the text. Doing this makes it easy to follow the storyline by only reading a few words. Another option is to have an outline of the book on hand. A quick review like this comes in handy when one verse or passage refers back to a previous one, as seen in Genesis 3 when the serpent questions Eve about God’s instructions from chapter 2.
Who is speaking/Who is being spoken about? It may sound silly, but knowing who is speaking in a narrative or dialog changes everything. Keeping characters straight while they’re in conversation and following who the narrative is talking about can be difficult, especially if you are fairly new to reading the Bible. Often times the Biblical authors wrote “he said” instead of “David said,” or “Paul said,” etc. This can get confusing if you are not overly familiar with the conversation. If you get bogged down and cannot figure out who is speaking, then reread the previous verses until you find clarification. You cannot focus on what is being said if you are too busy worrying about who said it. Plus, you might attribute something to the wrong person (Did Moses say ______, or did God?). The same thing goes if you have lost track of who that specific story is about. Take the time to figure out who said what because it will pay off in the long run.
I once saw a church website that had “And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these things if you will fall down and worship me.’” in bold at the top of the home page. That verse sounds like a great promise when it stands alone. There is only one problem: Satan said that. This verse is Matthew 4:9, and it is part of the passage that describes Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. The previous verse indicates that Satan is the one speaking, but whoever placed verse nine at the top of the website must not have checked the surrounding verses to determine who was speaking. Make sure you know who is speaking, and, above all, do not accidentally quote Satan.
Read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. The two Testaments are linked together; they portray one narrative. From beginning to end, the Old and New Testaments show God’s works of creating, sustaining, restoring, and redeeming. The Old Testament does not only pertain to Jews and weird Christians who have an overzealous obsession with history. Rather, the Old Testament shows us how God revealed Himself and reached lost people and nations prior to the coming of the Messiah. His purpose of revealing Himself as the one true God in a broken world was the same then as it was when Jesus Christ came into the world. Therefore, we must see the two Testaments as one story. Furthermore, much of the New Testament alludes back to the Old Testament; Matthew mentions a number of prophesies and has an extensive genealogy in its opening chapters; Galatians is an argument using the Old Testament against the Judaizers. James, likewise, has a heavy Jewish influence. Hebrews alludes back to the Old Testament many times and talks at length about the Old Testament figure Melchizedek. These books start to make a lot more sense when you understand the pieces of the Old Testament that pop up in them.
Words and Word Studies play an important role in our understanding of a text. However, they are not always necessary, and they have to be done properly in order to actually be of value. There are basic and extensive word studies. A basic word study consists of looking up a word from a passage in the lexicon to see its range of uses. It is important to know that the first definition provided will not apply to every situation that word is used in. Words have a range of meanings (called a semantic range); a word may mean one thing in one sentence and mean something else in another. When we look up a word in the lexicon to get a better understanding of it, we need to look at all of its possible meanings. This lets us see how the word is used by the New Testament authors as well as authors of other works during the same time period. We can use this information to enhance our understanding of how that word affects our verse, although, we do not want to choose just any of the provided definitions to serve as the definition in the given passage. Observe the possible meanings of the word, and then discover the meaning that applies to your passage.
An extensive word study is done by examining all the occurrences of a word within a book, an individual’s usage of it, genre, or the entire Bible. We could do this by looking at all the examples of “faith” within the book of Genesis. Or, we could find out what Jesus meant when he used the word “faith,” how is “faith” used throughout all of the epistles, and, finally, how the entire Bible uses the word “faith.” The purpose of an extensive word study is to build our understanding of a word from the Biblical text instead of simply relying on a lexicon.
As stated above, word studies are not always necessary. Do not read too much into them. Significant word studies will prove their worth. There is no need to make a word’s meaning seem more significant than it is. It is okay if a word’s meaning ends up being less significant than you thought it would be. Take what you get and move onto the next one. Reading too much into it will bring us to believe something the text does not intend for us to believe.
Our beliefs are built upon our interpretations of Biblical texts, but often times those interpretations are developed from a shallow reading of Scripture. Most of the passages within the Bible require digging beneath the surface to discover their full meaning. It is easy for us to arrive at a conclusion about a passage that the Scriptures do not intend for us to arrive at, and we are much more likely to do so when we ignore the context that our passage is immersed in. How many times have we quoted Paul in a way that was only half true? What about something Jesus said? Or how about one of the events or stories from the Old Testament? How many times have we responded to someone’s question with an answer that we were not sure was right, or even half right? When this happens, severe damage is done to the adherents of our faith, and we leave a wake of many wounded and confused people strewn out all over our communities. There is a great responsibility upon all of us who profess the name and works of Christ to know what we believe, why we believe it, and how to take the message that we so firmly believe and give hope to those who long for it. We must be able to communicate this message well and respectfully to those who ask us to give a reason for the hope we have. We need to be able to talk about God and our faith with each other without unintentionally saying He is something or someone He is not. We need to give a hurting person words of healing instead of throwing meme-verses at her about how she can do all things through Christ who strengthens her, all things happen to her for a reason, it is all part of the plan, or do not allow yourself to get bitter. For us to do this, we must seek to understand the words that we profess to be the very words of God to the absolute best of our abilities. That requires us to abandon reading the Bible on a surface level and start reading it in light of the context we have available to us. A proper understanding of how to use context will allow us to understand the truths within the verses and chapters that God desires us to know, and, ultimately, we will not wound as many of our brothers and sisters.