By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.
Context is from the Latin, contextus, meaning that which is woven together. Good Bible students know the value of context in biblical interpretation. Passages must be woven together with other pertinent information to get a clear picture. Somewhere I heard, “A text out of context often becomes a pretext.”
“Handling aright the word of truth” involves considering any biblical pas-sage in the light of its context. Words and phrases often have different shades of meaning in different contexts.
I believe that we need to be careful (1) lest we give a text a broader application than its context warrants, (2) lest we use a context to overly restrict a text, or (3) lest we lose sight of the writer’s message in our applications. Here are some examples of the use and abuse of texts and contexts.
2 Corinthians 5:7
“For we walk by faith, not by sight.” This passage is popularly quoted as a proof text against walking by one’s opinion. Either explicitly or implicitly speakers frequently make “opinion” synonymous to “sight.” While the Bible clearly teaches that our walk is to be by faith (according to the word of God) and not according to our own opinions, it is not what this verse says. In this context, Paul contrasts our present life on earth with our future life in heaven our “earthly house” with the “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (v. 1). We are now “at home in the body” but “absent from the Lord” (v. 6). We look forward to being “absent from the body” and being “present with the Lord” (v. 8). Hence, “we walk by faith” now without seeing the Lord, but will walk “by sight” when we are “present with the Lord.” Remember “faith is . . . evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” It is certainly true that God’s wisdom is inherently far superior to man’s wisdom and God’s way of doing things is not the way man would inherently behave. I have no problem with using this verse to point these facts out. However, we may be missing the real thrust of God’s message to Israel through the prophet by not viewing these verses in the light of their con-text. Taken in context, this is actually a call for Israel’s repentance. In verse 6, Isaiah admonishes them to “seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.” Then in verse 7, “let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous his thoughts; let him return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Then verse 8 begins with “for” referring back to verse 7. The prophet then invokes the words of the Lord to reinforce his call to repentance. They needed to repent because God’s thoughts and ways were not their thoughts and ways, but they should have been. Instead of thinking as God thinks and walking in God’s ways, they had come to follow their own ways and thoughts. The gap had become as wide “as the heavens are higher than the earth.” The wicked needed to forsake his way and return to the Lord’s way. The unrighteous man needed to forsake his thoughts and think like the Lord.
2 Corinthians 13:5
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith.” I have no problem with using these words at face value in a general way to urge people to look at their lives to see if they are living according to God’s word. In context, what is Paul was really saying to the Corinthians? He finds himself having to defend his apostleship (cf. 12:12-13), offering proof that Christ was speaking in him (v. 3). Since they had come into the faith under Paul’s preaching he urges them to just “examine yourselves.” Were they in the faith? Of course they were. He asks, “Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” Of course they knew. By examining or looking at themselves they would find proof of Christ speaking in Paul. If they wanted proof of Paul’s apostleship they needed to look no further than themselves and their claim to being in the faith. If under his preaching they were not disqualified (reprobates, KJV), surely then they would know that Paul was not disqualified (v. 6). In other words, the Corinthians themselves were the “proof of the pudding” that Paul was an apostle if they would just examine themselves they would know that.
1 Timothy 2:12
“And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” Here is an ex-ample where one needs to look at the general context as well as the immediate context. I have known some conscientious people who feel that is wrong for a women to teach over a man or have authority over a man under any circumstance. For example, they feel that a lady could not be a man’s boss on the job. A lady could not teach men in a college classroom. Nor could she be a principal in a school with men teachers. She would have authority over them. A young lady could not deliver a valedictory address at her graduation. After all, the verse does say that a woman cannot “teach or have authority over a man” period. Or does it?
Here the general context must come into play. These words are in a book dealing with spiritual matters not secular matters. The teaching and authority under consideration is in the spiritual realm. It is not dealing with teaching mathematics or science. Nor is it dealing with authority in the school system or work place. If the application is universal throughout all realms of life, then a woman could not hire a male gardener and exercise any authority over his work.
I went to a college where the Bible is taught along with secular subjects. I sat at feet of some great lady teachers in some of my secular courses. Believe me, they had authority over the classes even to the point of being able to order one to leave the class. However, all my Bible classes and other classes dealing with spiritual matters, I sat at the feet of men. I could not, in view of this verse, have taken a Bible course under a woman but science and English are courses of a different color.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
“Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” In this example and the one to follow, a general principle is invoked and applied to the specific situation being discussed. It is an abuse of the context to make the general principle apply only to situations described by the immediate context. In these verses, Paul is dealing with a specific situation in an unusual kind of church assembly at Corinth. It is likely that “your women” refers to prophets wives. At any rate, the only women under consideration were married women with husbands, whom they could ask at home. No doubt, this was an assembly where spiritual gifts were exercised.
However, the reasons given for these women not speaking and being submissive are general principles that would apply to all women in the church. The reasons given are “as the law also says” and “it is shameful for women to speak in church.” What “the law also says” does not apply just only to prophet’s wives in assemblies where spiritual gifts are exercised. It would apply to that kind of situation, but it would apply to any other situation that violated the law on the submissiveness of women. The reason it was wrong for a prophet’s wife to speak in the churches is the same reason “it is shameful for women (in general, not just “your women” ) to speak in church.” I believe it is an abuse of the context to limit application to just duplications of the specific situation described in this immediate context.
2 Thessalonians 3:6
“But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” This example, like the one above, invokes a general principle and applies it to a specific matter. Since the context of this verse shows that the specific problem at Thessalonica was that of idleness or free-loading, some have concluded that this verse only authorizes us to withdraw from lazy bums among us. Some have relied so heavily upon the context that they have mistranslated atoktos (“disorderly, out of ranks [often so of soldiers] . . . deviating from the prescribed order or rule, Thayer) by substituting the word “idle” for “disorderly” as in the New International Version. However, most reputable translations have it “disorderly” or “unruly.”
An idle lifestyle is one way to “walk disorderly,” but there are other ways to “deviate from the prescribed order or rule.” So, Paul simply applied the general rule of withdrawing from every brother who walks disorderly to specific brethren who were walking disorderly namely, brethren who were “working not at all” (v. 11) or idle. But, we must not refuse to with-draw from brethren who are walking in other forms of disorderliness.
Let us become more aware of the context in our study. Let us not stretch the application of passages beyond what the context will allow nor make applications more limited than the context warrants.
Guardian of Truth XL: 6 p. 14-15
March 21, 1996