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Context, Context, Context

How many times have you heard of an argument between two people where one person accuses the other of taking their words out of context? Or how many times has some public figure been vilified in the media for a comment he or she made and their defense was that their comment was taken out of context?

The context of anything we say, or do for that matter, must be taken into account in order to understand the true meaning of our words or actions.

For instance, what about the words “Justin! I could just kill you!”? Or what if someone overheard something racist come out of your mouth but failed to hear the part about it being a comment a coworker had made and how you had chastised the coworker for the comment?

What about certain behaviors? What if a girl had been sexually abused much of her life and as a young adult became promiscuous? In light of her past, could her behavior at least be more easily understood? Would you be more inclined to excuse some of her bad behavior when understood in the light of her past? Additionally, what about cultural context? Words and actions that are appropriate in one culture can easily mean something else in another culture.

Context is everything. When we fail to understand people’s words and actions apart from the entire context of the conversation or culture, misunderstandings easily occur.

Most American churches today are being led by pastors who are handling the Word of God the same way a journalist might take a politicians words out of context and tell a story to suit the journalists own political viewpoints. They hand-pick one or two verses out of the Bible and preach an entire sermon based on those two or three scriptures while rarely returning to the Bible. Additionally, it’s not too hard to turn on any “Christian” TV show today and find a televangelist who has built and entire framework of doctrine around just one single verse.

2 Timothy 3:16,17 (ESV) states the following:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The entire Bible, from cover to cover, is the Word of God. Just like taking one sentence out of the President’s speech and trying to explain the entire meaning of his speech based on just one or two sentences, you can’t take one or two sentences out of the Bible and expect to completely explain the meaning of the text.

While writing to Timothy about how to be a good pastor of the people, Paul states:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching (1 Tim 4:13, ESV)

Paul understood the likelihood of error being introduced into Timothy’s teaching by simply reading one verse and giving an hour-long talk on what it means to the congregation. Paul understood that the context of any given verse was of utmost importance.

Taking one or two verses, or even three, out of the entire context in which they were written and preaching for an hour is exactly what is happening in much of the churches in America today. Particularly those of the Pentecostal, Charismatic, and “Purpose-Driven” variety.

A common method of sermon preparation for these pastors would look a little like this: First they would determine a “theme” for a series of sermons. All of the sermons for several weeks will center around this central sermon theme. For instance, the central theme may be about “Wise Stewardship”. the pastor would then develop several points he would like to teach his congregation about wise stewardship. Each of these points would be an entire Sunday sermon and would teach a particular aspect of using God’s resources wisely. As an example, one Sunday would be about giving to the poor, another would be about giving of your time, another sermon would include tithing, and so forth.

Thirdly, while preparing for a particular Sunday sermon, the pastor determines what he would like to teach the congregation about “Giving”, for instance. Using his knowledge of the Bible, he would determine which passage of scripture best fits what he would like to teach his church and he uses this verse or two to back up what he is trying to teach the people. As he preaches along, he may quote a verse or two as he preaches to further establish his points.

This method of sermon delivery actually has a name. It’s called a topical sermon. The topic is chosen by the pastor and then scripture is then used to establish the credibility of the sermon. While there certainly is a time and place for topical sermons, this is a bad choice for most sermons. Topical sermons lend themselves, by nature, to introducing too much of man’s opinion into the sermon and too little of the Word of God.

The proper way of handling the Word of God is called expository preaching, or inductive teaching. These methods basically take an entire section of scripture and “expose” its meaning. By going through an entire book of the Bible chapter by chapter and verse by verse only then can each individual scripture be properly understood in light of its original intent to its original readers, its cultural meaning when it was written, and what the scripture is telling us today. There is no other way to properly interpret scripture and it’s one of the reasons we have so much goofy doctrine being taught today.

When a pastor is committed to the public reading of scripture, as Paul commanded Timothy to be, and he teaches through the Bible book by book, chapter by chapter, and verse by verse there is far less likelihood that error will be introduced into his teaching. Though pastors are still human and errors will still be made, it’s easier for the average Christian to spot errors when the scriptures are taught in this manner. Additionally, the difficult-to-interpret scriptures aren’t glossed over, as most pastors tend to do when teaching topically.

When scripture is taught by reading through it verse by verse, we get a good balanced diet of God’s word each week. I used to attend a church where each year we focused on the “vision” and our “mission” at the beginning of the year and as the year progressed we moved into sermons about “serving” the body of believers. Towards the end of the year came the sermons about “giving”. Year after year this “topical” style of preaching continued. It did nothing more than keep the people in spiritual infancy feeding on spiritual “milk”.

There are many pastors and churches committed to verse by verse teaching. Even many pastors in denominations that have abandoned this type of teaching still teach in this manner. Calvary Chapels are churches that are all committed to teaching verse by verse. Churches that identify themselves with 9Marks are also churches that are committed to teaching in this manner and there are many others out there.

Although I’m not suggesting that anyone leave their church they are attending, I am suggesting that you take a long hard look at the manner in which your pastor is handling the Word of God. If topical preaching is the order of the day, I would almost guarantee that the people aren’t being fed the Word properly. If you need to find another fellowship, look for one that teaches line by line through the scriptures…….your very soul may just depend on it.

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