The Context Trap

In 1983, when I first became a Christian, I was very zealous about sharing my faith. As I did so, I often heard unbelievers telling me: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged.” Because they didn’t seem to be know the context of that passage, I was quick to bring it to their attention. In so doing, I came across as even more judgmental, thus only validating what they thought of me in the first place.

Many times since then, I have heard people employ the use of Scripture, only to be told by someone that the Scripture was “taken out of context.” But there is a trap here. Many biblical Scriptures reflect universal truths. As such, they are applicable both in and out of context — because they are simply true.

Not too long ago, a Lutheran friend whom I’ll call “George” posted the following Scripture on his social media:

“When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” — Leviticus 19:33-34

Instantly, George received a retort from “Gary,” a member of a large evangelical church. “Of course, George, you are taking those verses totally out of context!”

Naturally, my friend George asked his friend Gary: “What is the context?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “I’ll have to look it up.”

While this may be amusing, it points to a phenomenon that I find a bit disturbing. The idea that someone is taking a biblical passage “out of context” is often used as a bluff. It’s very possible that Gary figured he knew the Bible better than George did. But when George called his bluff, he came up empty-handed.

We have to be very careful before playing the “context card.” In this case, the Scripture is a good example of something that is true outside of its specific context, because it conveys an absolute standard. If a foreigner comes into our land — whoever we are, and whoever they are — we are to treat them as an equal — as one of us.

If a person is particularly obsessed with context, they might object. “Well no – it applies only to the ancient Israelites, who were literally foreigners in the land of Egypt.” But that objection doesn’t hold water in light of a deeper study.

Many times “Egypt” is typed in Scripture as a former place of bondage. Similarly, Sodom is typed as a place of gross departure from the ways of God. This is why Revelation 11:8 refers to a place “figuratively called Egypt and Sodom, where also our Lord was crucified.” Yet we know that our Lord was crucified at Golgotha. He wasn’t literally crucified in either Egypt or Sodom. These references are figurative.

So we have a couple broad considerations here that may serve to lift us out of the Context Trap. Many biblical passages can be taken both literally and figuratively, and many verses can be taken both in and out of context.

I have to confess that I sometimes become frustrated when I see someone “wielding” a Scripture in order to win an argument. It seems to happen all too often. Also, the instances of this abuse of Holy Scripture are not restricted to Christians of any specific leaning. Ecumenicals and Evangelicals alike may be prone to this tendency. To my way of thinking, this is an abuse of something that we are to hold sacred. The Bible is largely intended to teach us how to live — not to teach us how to emerge victorious in a theological debate.

When I become sufficiently frustrated — as I was after hearing the dispute between George and Gary — I have a tendency to scour the Bible immediately to confirm what one might perceive to be my own bias or agenda. In other words, I want to “win.” I want to “prove” that I am “right.” In doing so, am I any different from the other believers whose approach I have found objectionable? Not at all.

A better approach would be for me to ask myself, for example: “How do I treat someone from another country when they move their family into my neighborhood? For that matter, how do I treat a Californian when they move up to Idaho? Am I welcoming of people of all races, genders, orientations, ages, and abilities? Or am I threatened by them? If I am threatened, what is it that threatens me? Do I regard all people as equals, as “one of us?” Or do I see them as somehow unequal — as the “other?”

These are the kinds of questions I feel we should all ask ourselves, whenever we encounter powerful passages from our holy books. How do these words apply to our own behavior, in a world full of conflict, suspicion, and distrust?

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