By Ben Swift
‘Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy.’ (Frank Sinatra)
While this throwaway line from Sinatra may get the light-hearted response he desired, it highlights an important issue, that of context. Digging a bit deeper into the original context of Scriptural passages can quickly reveal how so many sections of the Bible are twisted to serve human agendas. The practice of taking particular verses of Scripture and using them out of context leads to all sorts of contextual conundrums, false teachings and false doctrines.
Perhaps one of the most well used biblical verses in Christian devotions is Jeremiah 29:11. It reads, “For I know what plans I have in mind for you,” says Adonai, “plans for well-being, not for bad things; so that you can have hope and a future.” So many times this verse has been used to promote successful living and a hope for a prosperous, pain free existence. This sounds great and certainly speaks to what most of us are eager to hear, but are these words being used in context?
Like many other verses in the Bible, it shouldn’t be read in isolation but rather considered in the context of its surrounding verses. For starters, Jeremiah, when writing this verse was addressing the Israelites in Babylonian captivity, after informing them that they must wait out seventy years in bondage, patiently waiting for God’s deliverance. So this well-known and quoted passage is more about future hope for the Israelite nation than it is for a prosperity doctrine in the modern age. According to Old Testament scholar, Kenneth Boa, when Jeremiah originally gave his message he suffered misery and opposition. He was rejected by the prophets and the priests who called for his death. It’s hard to comprehend a man being condemned for speaking these words in the context they are often used today.
“So what?” you may be thinking. What harm can it do to take a verse from Scripture, put a positive spin on it and draw our own conclusions?
Popular and insightful documentary journalist, Louis Theroux, once investigated the power and legitimacy of experts in hypnosis operating in Las Vegas. He found that several men were running seminars based on their claims that through hypnosis, performed by themselves as experts, anybody could be given the mental capacity to become multi-millionaires and also to be able to lure members of the opposite sex into relationships that fitted with their desires. The interesting conclusion that Louis came to was that the only people becoming wealthy were the slippery characters running the seminars.
The power of confirmation-bias is enormous as it speaks directly to the desires of the self. People will be easily led by these ‘Vegas Shepherds’ as I refer to them, or by any other motivational speaker willing to confirm what we humans want to hear.
Jesus clearly warns his people not to be led astray by false teachers, taking care to discern their motives and ours.
‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Matthew 9:36)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand, since he isn’t a shepherd and the sheep aren’t his own, sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away. The wolf drags them off and scatters them.” (John 10:11-12)
It is worth contemplating just how dangerous it becomes to quote Scripture apart from its intended meaning. Just how devastating an affect can this have?
History is perhaps one of our greatest teachers and we can learn a lot from its pages as we seek to answer these questions.
Not so long ago, South Africa’s Apartheid policies and the events that flowed from them, sickened much of the world to its core. But just how did the white leaders of this country find themselves being able justify the injustices they enforced for so long, whilst still claiming to live as Bible revering Christians? According to historian Kevin Giles, Apartheid in South Africa was justified by Reformed theologians who were totally convinced that the Bible endorsed the separation of the races and that their policies were pleasing to God. They suggested that the story of Babel for instance, tells us that the separation of people into different races with different languages was God’s will. They also used passages such as Romans 13:1-7 which suggests that the government has the right to create laws and citizens are obliged to obey them. With virtually every reformed theologian in South Africa at the time endorsing these theological stances, it’s not hard to see how easily Apartheid became an internally accepted way of living.
As if any further evidence is needed, we also have the example of the Hitler, possibly the man most associated with evil on a mass scale. According to ABC journalist, Samuel Koehne, Hitler’s favourite Bible passage spoke of Jesus cleansing the Temple of the money changers (Mark 11), which he saw as an early model for his own perceived battle against ‘materialistic’ Jews. He even went as far as to reduce the mission of Christ to, “It is only the means that change over the course of time; what was earlier a whip is today a blackjack [a leather-covered hand weapon used for bludgeoning].”
Clearly when it comes to the Bible, context matters. We must be ever so careful to avoid the dangers of misinterpretation. We must learn to rely on the knowledge and interpretive skills of trustworthy theologians and scholars whose desire is to serve Christ and not their personal bent. We must avoid reading through the lens of confirmation-bias.
Beware The Vegas Shepherd. Seek the voice of Christ, the one Shepherd who knows his sheep, having given His life for each and every one.