This cartoon/meme is one of my favorites. It’s the twisted and “word” kind of humor that I love. Analyzing the humor, one could say that it’s about punctuation or wording…but it’s really about context. There are some information clues that are missing, one is supposed to keep THE BOTTLE away from children. Of course, once you analyze it too much, it’s not funny anymore…but it is a good lesson. It’s a lesson about “context” and pulling phrases or words OUT of context and then reading or hearing something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than what was intended.
In the study of scripture especially, this is called PROOF TEXTING.
proof text: (noun) a singular Scriptural passage produced
as proof for an entire theological doctrine, belief, or principle
PROOF TEXTING is recognized by almost everyone as an error when someone else is guilty of it, but unfortunately tolerated by almost ALL (including the Apostle Paul) when used to fashion their own argument, view or doctrine. It is a difficult thing to avoid, because there are so many quotable and singular verses that say much in few words. When one finds a verse that seems to speak directly to a particular time and place in the one’s mind and heart (resonates is a good word to use there) it is difficult to not read through, around and between the verses. And worse, when one has a particular viewpoint one is trying to argue, or a particular part of their own personal or corporate theology and doctrine they are trying to promote, it seems that Scripture Proof Texting can be used quite well to substantiate any and every view. PROOF TEXTING single, out-of-context verses, has been used to form entire books, entire theologies and entire religions.
Examples of this that we can still see today are these: forbidding women leadership in the Church and, in the not so distant past, slavery. Both of these viewpoints and doctrines can easily be defended by Proof Texting Scripture…and HAVE been. But both the concept of non-leadership for females and the concept of slavery are also great examples of why Proof Texting is dangerous for the Believer & Follower who are trying to “know God” (which is our only meaning in life).
PROOF TEXTING Can Ignore Context – The three questions we as Believers & Followers must ask about every Scripture we read are these: WHO is speaking? TO WHOM are they speaking? WHAT IS THE CONTEXT in time and place? Only then can a student of the Scripture get closer to what the original intended audience heard, THEN we can know the core of what God says to all places and times. If one doesn’t understand which festival was being observed when Jesus shouted out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink!” (JOHN 3:37) and why that would be controversial at that specific time and place, then they do not get the REAL and FULL meaning of the phrase. It is just like the words, “keep away from children” on the aspirin bottle…if you don’t know the context, it’s just plain funny…AND SAYS SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
PROOF TEXTING Can Ignore The Kingdom – for the sake of individual, and sub-group arguments. Since the 1970’s our religion has turned very egocentric at the expense of community. Ours is not a Faith that is practiced theoretically or individually, it is a Faith that is exercised through action-love to others; that is how we are to be identified in the world, and how we will be judged at the end of this age.
“Judas went out and hanged himself.” (MATTHEW 25:7) is rarely a verse anyone pulls out of context and builds an entire theology around, and for good reason…it is not necessarily about us, it is information, as many other scriptures are also. For those who believe that EVERY verse speaks to EVERY person of EVERY time and place, this may be a matter of semantics. Much of the scripture was written for specific people, specific needs, at a specific time…there may be a problem of relevancy to every word in the scripture today, or in any other time.
Why do the folks in my congregation wear clothes manufactured with blended fabric, even though the law of the Old Testament specifically commands us differently? Because 1. we don’t live according to the law any more, we live by the grace of God in Jesus, and 2. that law doesn’t apply to us. Every verse does not speak to every person in every time and place, but the core principles of those verses do carry a common thread and Kingdom principle that speaks to all at every time. The verse about Judas isn’t a command for me or anyone else to do likewise, but in the context of the story there is a lesson about the desolate nature of turning away from the grace that is God.
PROOF TEXTING Can Ignore Wholeness – The main reason Proof Texting is dangerous is because it looks at scripture as if it were a bunch of little pieces, unconnected from other little pieces, instead of seeing each verse, each chapter and each book as part of the whole. Why do reasonable Believers & Followers think that slavery is a bad concept for humans who love God? Is it because there is a specific verse that says so? No, it’s because when one reads/studies THE WHOLE OF SCRIPTURE and gets to know God OFF THE PAGE as well, one clearly sees that everything points to a Truth that “people are not to be owned by others”. This leads to another flaw of IGNORING WHOLENESS, “the scripture is the best commentary on itself.” When one verse or odd collection of various out-of-context verses sit next to THE WHOLE of Scripture and God do they align? If not, it’s most probably not the scripture that’s in the wrong…it is most probably lack of study, poor translation, or resistance of the reader to “re-search” and be open to a different reading than they may want or know.
PROOF TEXTING Can Ignore Priorities – The WHOLE of scripture points in one direction…to the person of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus is the point, Jesus is the hub, Jesus is the paradigm through which ALL of scripture needs to be seen…or the rest of scripture makes no sense. It stands to reason that His words have priority. It makes sense that if the book is ABOUT HIM then His ideas and His theology take precedent over all the rest. Thankfully, when the scripture is read in context, faith and honest research, even the most confusing of passages align with His thoughts and deeds.
I have watched good friends divide over national issues and have read many arguments using PROOF TEXTING on both sides, using the Scripture and the U.S. Constitution. This is perhaps the most important point: the disturbing word here is USED. The Scripture is not to be USED by anyone as an instrument of attack, especially for their own agenda. Pulling verses out of the scripture to make them fit what one wishes to be truth and then calling it God’s truth because all the words came from scripture is like me cutting a Picasso artwork up into one hundred pieces, gluing the pieces back together haphazardly, and still calling it a Picasso.
PROOF TEXTING is an un-winnable game, the only way to triumph is to not play. The important things to remember when using the scripture as a way to KNOW GOD, are Context, Kingdom, Wholeness, and Priority…all the Bible Study in the world is not worth more than empathy, compassion and plain old LOVE. No verse ANYWHERE in the scripture has dominance over the continual message of Jesus: YOU LOVE ME BY LOVING EACH OTHER, friend, family and foe…even “to the least of those.”