Coffee Cup Christianity needs to end. It’s lazy, unethical, and dangerous. It elevates our own meaning above God’s and passes it off as divine writ. We don’t read what our friends have written with such carelessness. Let’s no longer do it with what God has written.
This might sound a little creepy: I know how you read your email. I promise I’m not stalking you, but I know there’s something you never do when you get a message from a friend.
You never open the email, skip the first three pages, and read just one line on the fourth page. No one, in fact, takes that approach with their mail. By skipping the context of the email and ignoring the flow of thought, you wouldn’t know what that line meant on the fourth page. If it’s wrong to read your friend’s mail that way, then why do we read God’s mail that way?
We open the letter to the Philippians, skip the first three chapters, and read verse 14: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Message received. Close the letter. We’re done here!
We even plaster that verse on a mug, publicizing our mistake. I call this “Coffee Cup Christianity,” and it’s killing our biblical literacy. We’ve become accustomed to seeing isolated Bible verses and presume we know their meaning. Too often, however, we merely insert our own meaning into a Bible verse, thereby overwriting what God was trying to tell us.
It’s not just on coffee cups. We see isolated verses on calendars, walls, phone cases, and just about anywhere you can post text.
Sadly, Coffee Cup Christianity violates one of the most basic and well-known principles of interpretation: context. It’s a principle known not only among Bible readers. Many people in our culture understand it. Tragically, we apply it when reading man’s word but neglect it when reading God’s word. Coffee Cup Christianity leads to three dangerous problems.
First, Coffee Cup Christianity overwrites God’s intended meaning with your own.
The verses before and after a Bible verse are the context. They clarify what the author is talking about. The word “buck,” for example, means dollar if the context is about money but means deer if the context is about hunting. Notice that changing the context changes the meaning of the smaller unit of text.
The same is true with Scripture. That’s why you want to first read the context of any verse before trying to understand what it means. In the Bible’s case, it’s the Holy Spirit who inspired not only the verse you’re trying to understand, but also the context to help you understand it. Coffee Cup Christianity often ignores the Spirit’s inspired words, leaving a context vacuum, which we quickly fill with our own context from our own life situation. Since context drives the meaning of a verse, your own life context may be changing the true meaning of the words of Scripture, overwriting what God intended to tell you. In effect, we’re infusing our meaning into Scripture and granting it divine authority.