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Taking Scripture Out of Context

August 3rd, 2007 · 16 Comments · Bible, Biblical Interpretation, New Testament, Old Testament, Religion

It seems like we are in the midst of a rash of popular authors taking scripture out of context. I have mainly noticed this in word studies used in works like Purpose Driven Life and the Beth Moore studies (like this one). They know the point they are trying to make and search and search until they find the most obscure way a Greek or Hebrew word is used and then present it as if that is how the people heard that word in that verse.

Lexicons are great when used properly. But to the uneducated they can quickly make Biblical studies and lesson preparation into something akin to statistical interpretation – you can make it say nearly anything you want if you don’t use the proper procedures.

I don’t mean to discourage anyone who has done this. And Beth, Rick…if you are reading this 🙂 I hope it doesn’t discourage you. We just need to try to approach the text to discover what it has to tell us and not to find what we want it to say. We should not try every possible translation or the most obscure glosses in the lexicon to make our point. We are trying to make God’s point and that means we approach scripture to listen and not to speak. We come to scripture to help it form us and not to make it conform to our likeness and opinions. When we do that we will have a hard time taking scripture out of context.


16 Comments so far ↓

  • Tim Archer

    To be honest, I had a hard time reading Purpose Driven Life because of that. One of my friends said, “But he usually a lot of scriptures.” “Yeah, totally out of context,” was my charitable reply.

    What really scares me is when I catch myself doing the same at times.

    Grace and peace,

  • Darin

    Could you be more specific please? This is an interesting point that I would like more info on.

  • preacherman

    I like Darin, would like more specifics.

  • mattdabbs

    When I get back to my desk, likely Monday, I will point out some examples.

  • Frank


    You make such an important point here. And you’re exactly right. The influential people you mention sometimes model a sloppy approach to Scripture, seizing on the wording of a particular translation, then switching to another translation because it seems to prove the next point. And, it seems that one mention of “the original Hebrew” or “the original Greek” establishes an over-whelming authority for points that are garbage.

    As you know, Matt, this is why N. T. Wright is so very popular with preacher types. A first-rate biblical scholar, he’s talking about the things of God without falling prey or resorting to that sort of thing.

    Part of the problem here is the insane popularity of “word studies.” Years ago, the iconoclastic scholar James Barr wrote a book (don’t remember the title) where he absolutely trashed (he’s “good” at that) the basic assumptions behind the multi-volume “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.” It does theology under word headings. Barr basically said that words don’t mean anything without a defining context. Compare “I can do the job” with “I’m holding a tin can.”

    I don’t recommend reading Barr, unless you’re feeling a little too cheery. To get to the intersection of Bible study and modern linguistics, a person would do better to read “Biblical Words and Their Meaning” by Moises Silva. It’s a little dense, but well worth the struggle.

  • mattdabbs

    Barr – Semantics of Biblical Language. Pretty much took Kittel and other similar works to task. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • rogueminister

    Its such a difficult task to be faithful to the original meaning of scripture while finding out what it means in our current context. Its difficult enough to be honest in our search for God’s purposes in Scripture because we all have our own biases, not to mention that there are thousands of years seperating us from the original texts. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us and ultimately seek the Truth who is Jesus.

  • mattdabbs

    I will pull some from the book itself but the very worst one I have gotten to so far is in the accompanying video lessons. In Purpose #1 he talks about Romans 12:1-2. He is making the point that the first purpose of our lives is worship. He says that this is done in three ways the first of which is The Principle of Dedication. He turns to the Williams translation that says, “Make a decisive dedication of your body” to find the word dedication in the verse. Then he turns to Greek and says that the word used here [παραστεσαι] means “the picture of making a reservation at a table in a restaurant” and he follows by saying, “the table has been set aside for you benefit because you made a reservation. And nobody else can use that table because your name is on the reservation card. When you offer yourself to God you are putting a reservation card on your life.”

    Neither BDAG, Kittel, or any of a number of other references don’t point out anything to do with that illustration or usage. Second, like Frank said, appealing to the Greek lends authority to what you are saying and then you go and say something crazy and irresponsible like that. It is cute and creative…but it isn’t in the text. If you asked a 1st century Christian if they thought about restaurants and reservation cards in connection with Romans 12:1 they probably wouldn’t have a clue what you are talking about.

    What usually happens is someone has a point to make so they look at every possible or conceivable angle until they find something close and then they twist it around to make their point. Using a lexicon like that is very dangerous and completely irresponsible. There are so many consideration one makes when deciding what lexical gloss is the best and it does not hinge on the application or connection the person is trying to make. It hinges on what the text is trying to tell us (through grammar, context, other usages by the same author of the word, etc). So they find one instance when an ancient author used this word in connection with eating somewhere and he starts weaving this into Romans 12.

  • preacherman

    I appreciate you pointing how the taking out of context. Thanks for taking the time.

  • Darin


    Thanks for the response. It was a crazy week, sorry I have not gotten back.

    I am lost with your example and I suppose without the video that will remain. Was he just trying to put some type of modern understanding on what was happening to help the viewer relate?

    Does the word mean to place at ones disposal? Maybe that isn’t the usage and I would love a better understanding because it seems that the reservation analogy say the person is placing himself, reserving himself, for God and God alone. What am I missing?

  • mattdabbs


    He wasn’t giving it a modern restaurant twist. He was saying that is how that word was used back then. He probably found some use of the word in an obscure ancient author that wasn’t typical and then generalized that meaning onto Romans 12. That is just not good practice.

    Let’s try an analogy with English. If you were studying English and were trying to find out what “pick” means. You read a whole bunch of instances where it means to choose, to take a booger out of a nose, a tool used to play a guitar, etc. Then you run into this sentence in the sports section of a newspaper, “He was the 2nd round draft pick and is now making 10 million dollars a year.”

    What Warren did in that example is something like this: Throw out the majority of instances of what pick means and you come up with this – “When Americans talk about picking they do it in drafts and it results in making millions of dollars.”

    Then you start looking for a translation that uses the word “pick” to make your point. You find that in the NASB it is used in 2 Timothy 4:11, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me in service.” You go on to say that Timothy was to have a draft in which Mark was to be picked and as compensation for his usefulness to Paul he would be paid a high sum of money often in the millions of dollars.

    That is clearly not the usual sense the word is used and it ignores all NT usage of the word. That is similar to what Warren did with “offer” in Romans 12. It just doesn’t fly and really makes me cringe.

  • Darin

    Thanks Matt. I was thinking more about this today and I think the idea of what faith is is one of those areas that usually bothers me, so I do understand.

    Thanks for taking some time to make your point.

  • Darin

    Just stopping back in to say thanks for the discussion.

    I think we can easily lose the richness of the text without context.

  • Matt Dabbs


    Amen to that. You can take things out of context to get the Bible to say all kinds of crazy things that it doesn’t really mean.

  • Leona Simmons

    We should never take our Lord word out of context Alimght God and Jesus and the holy spirits know they are doing I see a lots of pastors/priests popes bishops is taken Almighty God’s world’s out of contexts .they need to read the Bible more and less talking about thing’s that is not in Jesus word I prayed that everyone that followed our Lord Jesus will ask the sweet holy spirited for Helped in Jesus name amen

  • Leona Simmons

    Please everyone say a prayed for Israel and a prayed for the worlld

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