Here are three simple steps, but they take time and effort. Understand the passage in its original context, understand how the passage fits into the biblical storyline and is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ, and apply the passage to yourself in your circumstances in a way that is faithful to steps 1 and 2. And we’re not keen on spending time and effort on this. The tragedy is that this is causing great harm within the church. Christians are hurting other Christians because they don’t know how to interpret and apply Scripture faithfully.
I know, it’s a strange title for an article, but it’s coming from a place of great concern, and the title expresses the sentiment I want to convey. I’ve had a growing frustration about something happening in the church. Let me put it bleakly: vast tracts of Christians don’t actually know how to apply Scripture in popular forms of argument and everyday conversations. They have Scripture memorized; they can quote chapter and verse numbers; they even have an accurate understanding of the central message of Scripture, but they don’t know how to apply it. They don’t know how to use it with faithfulness to what the text really means and how it’s been fulfilled in Christ.
Come to think of it, what I just said is gracious. It’s not that they don’t know how to apply it; it’s that they think they do, but they don’t. They’re confident and they’re ignorant. And that’s far more dangerous. When confidence marries ignorance, the offspring are hideous.
What’s the result? Miscommunication, polarization, and a horrendous witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just outside the church but within it. To be “allowed” to apply Scripture, you have to understand its context. If you don’t, your interpretive privilege is revoked. I’ll say it again: If you don’t know the context for a passage of Scripture, you don’t get to apply it to a popular argument or casual conversation. You and I are allowed to apply to Scripture in an argument or conversation only if we know its context (more on that below) and can match that context to the area in question.
Why the Problem?
We’ll work through an example together, but before that, let’s think about why this is such a problem for contemporary Christians. My working theory has two forms, one less offensive and the other more offensive. Here’s the less offensive form: We live in a culture that encourages fragmentation and discards depth. Fragmentation means that our minds aren’t often putting together threads of coherent thought. Much of the time, we’re pigeons grabbing bread crumbs of information and entertainment. And that crumb-picking habit carries over into our understanding and application of Scripture. We’re not asking questions of a text, working through context in widening circles, or even using our God-given reason to reach understanding. Instead, we’re crumb-picking. We grab a friend’s complaint here, a Facebook comment there, and a Scripture passage we found through a Google search, and boom: we’ve got an “argument,” an arrow to shoot in conversation. And because we’re quoting Scripture, it appears to be biblical. But let’s be clear: Quoting a Bible verse doesn’t mean you’ve made a biblical argument. In fact, it doesn’t even reflect your faith. Satan, remember, dropped Scripture references more than once (see Matt. 4), and he’s pure evil.
Here’s the more offensive form of my working theory: We’re lazy. Looking up a biblical passage in its context, trying to prayerfully discern meaning within the biblical storyline and how the passage is fulfilled in Christ, takes work and time. And we don’t really want to give time to this. We just want to reinforce our perspective and pass off some judgment on “weaker” Christians before we grab our next cup of coffee. Again, what I’m claiming in this article is blunt: We don’t get to do that. We’re not allowed to apply Scripture to something without knowing where a passage is coming from, what its context is. We’re not given a free-pass on laziness just because we grew up in the church and are familiar with Scripture.
What Does Context Involve?
When I say “context,” I’m actually suggesting that you and I have a process for interpreting a passage of Scripture, what we call a hermeneutic. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple one is set out by Vern Poythress in God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (p. 116):
- Understand the passage in its original context.
- Understand how the passage fits into the biblical storyline and is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ.
- Apply the passage to yourself in your circumstances in a way that is faithful to steps 1 and 2.
Three simple steps, but they take time and effort (see also chapter 4 in Poythress’s Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God). And we’re not keen on spending time and effort on this. The tragedy is that this is causing great harm within the church. Christians are hurting other Christians because they don’t know how to interpret and apply Scripture faithfully. Let’s flesh this out with an example.
An Example Passage
Take a text that’s often abused in our cultural moment: 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” How is the text abused? Since people “cherry pick” this verse and don’t understand what it means in context, they take it as a blanket statement that addresses human emotion in general. The popular usage might look something like this:
If you seem to be afraid of something, you’re not being a true Christian, since God has not given us the spirit of fear.
This has the harmful, unbiblical consequence of making people feel guilty for having feelings. It can encourage a form of Stoicism, a rejection of the place and weight of human emotion. In our cultural moment, I’ve seen Christians use this passage to bully other Christians. If another Christian appears (and I say “appears” intentionally, because we can’t see the motives and inner workings of others) to be afraid of something—Covid exposure, judgment of others, performance at work, physical illness, anxiety—that believer gets slapped in the face with 2 Timothy 1:7.