Today let’s talk some more about taking verses out of context! Ready?
A young woman came to me several years ago to ask, “Is it okay to tell God I’ll be a missionary if He’ll give me a husband?” I said no. She had not yet understood his claims. Are we in a bargaining position with our Creator, Redeemer, the Holy One?
I would also tell this woman no, because being a missionary is hard work, and it would be extra miserable if you had any doubt about the calling. Don’t do it, lady! I understand this woman’s desperation, though: no boyfriends on the horizon, and isn’t there something she can do?! Who hasn’t asked that!
I’m not sure I agree that we’re not in a bargaining position with our Creator. Jacob certainly thought we could bargain. Abraham did it, too, famously. Hezekiah asked God for a longer life and got it. If the Shulamite woman’s advice can be interpreted to mean, “The Bible says don’t date until you’re ready to get married” why can’t we use Jacob as an example as well: “I will not let you go until you bless me!”
I can read Jacob’s quote, claim that it means I should bargain with God until he gives me what I want, and go about my merry way, and I have done no more harm to the text than Elliot et al have done by applying “do not awaken love until it pleases” to the modern dating scene.
Plucking verses from their context and applying them to our lives today with no other guiding principles just leads to confusion. How are we to know which verses are for us, today, and which can be dismissed? Unless you have a narrative, to guide you, God can come across as a capricious monster. As Rob Bell says:
I don’t see all of the passages in the Bible sitting equally side by side so that you can pick one and then counter it with another and go back and forth endlessly, always leading you to the randomness of God. I read it as an unfolding story, with an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have.
I think this tendency to hold all verses equal and forget about the overarching narrative comes from 2 Timothy 3:16, which enjoys rock-star popularity in evangelical circles:
All scripture is inspired by God [God-breathed] and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
This is the verse we were taught to remember if anyone questioned the authenticity, accuracy, or divine origins of the Bible. It also serves as a kind of equalizer: because all Scripture is God-breathed, yes, even those obscure passages in Judges and 1 Chronicles, you are just as likely to find guidance for your life, right now in the book of Numbers as from the Sermon on the Mount.
In some ways, ironically, we evangelicals have a really excellent sense of narrative. Consider the question, “Well if God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then why could He get away with genocide in Exodus?” Any evangelical worth his salt will say, “Because now we are under a New Covenant!” God is still the same, but now He operates differently because of Jesus. When we’re talking about covenants and substitutionary atonement, we evangelicals do have a honed sense of narrative and trajectory.
Unfortunately, we tend to lose that perspective when we are talking about actual human decision-making. Look at how many anti-gay rights activists rely on Old Testament verses to support their position. I would bet money that these same people know all about the new covenant and Paul’s vision of clean and unclean animals, etc, and yet when asked to support their position on “how should we live, right now, and how should we make a decision about this one very specific issue?” they almost immediately choose an Old Testament passage that most specifically supports their position, throwing all that new covenant trajectory stuff out the window.
I’ve heard pro-life arguments that begin and end with a single Proverb: I knit you together in your mother’s womb. I’ve heard sermonized dating advice for college students based on a single verse from the story of Isaac and Rebekah (the fact that the story also involves bride prices paid in gold by a servant and an arranged marriage was not mentioned.)
It’s also common to take a single verse out of context and glean overarching principles from it. In that sermon from Genesis about Isaac and Rebekah, “Isaac went into his field…” before Isaac’s servant came back with his bride-to-be. The overarching spiritual/dating principle, we were taught, was that men should be “in their field,” that is, working, if they want God to bring them a girlfriend. Since we can all think of perfectly happy couples who met and fell in love and got married in less-than-ideal employment circumstances, it’s safe to say that this is a pretty sloppy “principle.” But there’s nothing in the evangelical approach to the BIble that helps us tidy it up to get a real, working principle. So, if you were an evangelical who wanted to argue against this sloppy interpretation, you can use logic and experience, or you can find another Bible verse that summarizes your point for you.
Unfortunately, That One Bible Verse will pretty much always trump logic and experience in an argument with an evangelical. After all, all Scripture is God-breathed, and therefore much more reliable than your mind/experience.
When we approach the Bible as a Choose Your Own Adventure book (Do you want more guidance before making a decision about prom? Turn to Matt 5. Have you already prayed for guidance and are ready to ask her out? Turn to Gen. 24) we forget about the fact that it’s us choosing the adventure. We are choosing which verse to turn to, which verse to ignore, which plot point matters most. And we don’t choose in a vacuum, but in a context of culture, religion, desires, language, mood, education. Our choices may be wise and godly, but let’s not pretend they’re universal.
I have posted about taking verses out of context twice in a row because I think this sloppy approach to applying Bible verses is also kind of a theme in Elliot’s book. Soon we’ll see how she takes single experiences from her own life and turns them into Timeless Christian Principles for All Men and Women Everywhere. I think this problem is easy to overlook in Passion and Purity because the evangelical assumptions are deep, implicit, and hard to identify–especially since they are cushioned in romance and martyrdom.
Individual experiences, like individual Bible verses, can and often do illustrate greater principles. But without a reliable, Jesus-centric interpretation framework, it’s very easy to think that every individual experience and every Bible verse is equally applicable to any given situation. And that can lead to advice that is just plain bad.