Keep In Context

As a rule no text should be taken out of its context. All preachers need to learn that “a text out of context is a pretext”.

Taking a text out of its context can create theological problems for both churches and preachers. The cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons, are masters of this practice resulting in perverted gospels. Almost all misunderstanding of the Bible arises out of the fact that people do not regard the context of the verse or chapter. It is vital to read what comes before and after (maybe even the whole book or letter) to determine what God is actually saying in any particular text.

The word of God should be “rightly divided” rather than twisted and distorted. Unfortunately even well meaning preachers can distort the true meaning of God’s word by taking isolating verses. Why should there be any need to take any verse out of its context when there is ample material in the Bible to build a sermon around?

The important thing to note here is that context is vital in determining doctrine and practice. There are those who have adopted Jewish lifestyles because they have not kept their salvation experience under the context of the New Covenant in Christ. This produces not only faulty teachings but also unbiblical practices.

The only time a text can be lifted from its context is when illustrating a point of doctrine rather than making a point of doctrine. The apostle Paul appears to have done this with regards to Esau and Jacob in Romans 9:12-13. He actually unites two verses of Scripture which were spoken hundred of years apart, one factual and the other symbolic (Genesis 25:23, Malachi 1:2-3) to illustrate his teaching without reference to the actual context of the texts. There are those who have built systems of theology upon contextless texts or illustrative application of texts.

There may be an argument that lifting a text from its context is legitimate in certain situations, but the dangers of heresy increase when doing so. One has to know the word of God well enough, as did Paul, before illustrating a teaching in this fashion. Great sermons have been preached on “Take the Precious from the Vile” (Jeremiah 15:19) without any reference to the actual situation that this text is found. I believe that we give the Scripture true honour when we use the context. God knew what He was doing when He appointed the writers to pen His word as it appears in our Bibles. We miss the beauty and consistency of Scripture when we ignore the context.

While I cannot say that it should never be done within the presentation of a sermon, I do believe that it is better to steer well clear of taking texts out of contexts. [I once heard a preach ministering upon the fragments left over after the feeding of the 5000. His main point was that we should be environmentally aware – don’t leave litter in the park!] The bottom line is vital – no doctrine should be made to rest upon an out of context verse, otherwise we are not only dishonouring God, but also run the risk of adding or subtracting from God’s word.