The Dangers of Preaching a Passage out of ContextMay 4, 2017
“That’s not what I meant.” Have you ever heard someone make that statement? Somewhere along the line their thoughts, their ideas, their intent was misconstrued so that others grossly misunderstood what was being said. It can be dangerous, you know. One misplaced word in a text message, one nuanced inflection in the voice, one misinterpreted pause in a conversation and suddenly things are perceived in a way that was never intended.
“That’s not what I meant!” I wonder how often God says that during the preaching hour?
Nothing is more dangerous to the church of Jesus Christ than taking a passage of Scripture out of context. Much of the rampant heresy and apostasy we find in our culture is the result of misplaced, inaccurate, sensationally-charged preaching in our pulpits. Too often when preachers invite the congregation to “take a text” they end up taking a text out of context. Such a practice not only dilutes the meaning of the passage, it simultaneously exposes the people of God to misconstrued truth, thus weakening their faith. If you read through the pastoral epistles of Paul, you find a continual theme: Preach the Word, be true to the text, teach no other doctrine, rebuke those who embrace error, stay committed to exposition, be a workman, be a teacher of the Word.
This is one of the main reasons I resort to expositional preaching. Preaching should not be a launching pad into the atmosphere of our own thoughts and opinions; it should be a diving board where we plunge into the depths of what God has already decreed. When Paul said, “we have the mind of Christ,” he implied that we can know what Christ thinks through the contextual meaning of His Word. Therefore, the contextual meaning of Scripture is the key to biblical preaching.
Think about it. We refuse out-of-context information from every other venue of life. We dare not take medication without knowing the parameters. We would not permit our children to go off with someone without specific details. We wouldn’t give money to a cause without proper investigation. We wouldn’t volunteer for charity work without knowing the physical and emotional ramifications. We check things out, we investigate, we consider all the peripheral and outlying specifics so that we can make good, proper decisions. Failure to do so will result in problematic living. If this is true in medicine, child-rearing, and financial affairs, it is exponentially true when it comes to the preaching of God’s Word.
Why, you may ask, is it so dangerous to take a passage of Scripture out of context?
It Allows the Opinion of Man to Usurp the Authority of God
Ask most men if they are a “bible preacher” and they will answer in the affirmative. That’s not the question. The question is: Are they saying what God meant in the passage? Just because someone opens a Bible when they preach doesn’t mean they are saying what the Bible says. Many preachers use Scripture as a starting point merely to validate their own thoughts and opinions, thus reducing the sacred text to a footnote or appendix of their sermon. This manipulative act exalts the thoughts of men over the words of God. Preaching is void of divine authority when we fail to say what God said, how God said it, when God said it, and where God said it. Contextual preaching considers the truth of God in the sequence, order, and framework that was intended by the Holy Spirit. When a man operates out of that realm, he is venturing into territory not ordained from above; he exalts his thoughts over God’s.
Truth Becomes, at Best, Misconstrued
When a message is mingled with only parts and parcels of Scripture, it almost always opens the door to faulty theology. The preacher’s job is to proclaim clear, definitive, objective truth from God’s Word; but when his message is taken out of context, the “truth” he proclaims becomes muddied and murky with misinformation. In his classic volume, Bible Preaching, Haddon Robinson observes:
“In our eagerness to say something helpful to hurting people, we may end up saying something the Bible doesn’t say at all. We can use the text of Scripture that we feel supports what we want to say without considering the intent of the biblical author or the context of the verses. Those who want to address the felt needs of their people are to be commended for their desire to be relevant. At the same time, there is no greater betrayal of our calling than putting words in God’s mouth.”
“Putting words in God’s mouth” leads to error, heresy, falsehoods, misrepresentation, and half-truths. “Parts and parcels of truth,” said William Howells, “are the most envenomed shafts which fly from the bow of Satan.” This is exactly what the devil did in the garden when he tempted our first parents. He did not outright deny the Word of God, he just took it out of context. What a warning to every God-called preacher!
Believers Develop Shallow, Depleted Faith and Worship
Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. If God’s Word is depleted, misrepresented, or distorted in any way from the pulpit, it will inevitably, and negatively, affect those who hear it from week to week. If the “just shall live by faith” and the Word being propagated from the preacher is faulty, then the verdict is conclusive: The faith of those who consistently hear out-of-context preaching will have sophomoric, or even worse, counterfeit faith. This is clearly seen in our Americanized culture of Christianity. When the directives being published from the pulpit are unclear, indistinct, and Scripturally blurred, the church turns to entertainment, emotionalism, and egotistically-charged tactics to arouse the crowds. Such shallow, depleted spirituality is the result of unbiblical, juvenile preaching.
The Holy Spirit is Grieved
The Holy Spirit only validates and approves that which is being said by the preacher if what the preacher says is the contextual truth of Scripture. Jesus confirmed this by calling the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth” (John 15:26). Jesus told the woman at the well that “God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). God the Spirit cannot lie (Numbers 23:19, 1 John 1:10). Therefore, if a message is taken out of context, the Holy Spirit cannot and will not bear witness to the erroneous claim. His holy character will not permit such a thing. One of the reasons there is such a dry, cold, indifferent, apathetic spirit in our churches is because of the grieving of the Spirit in the hour of exposition. Ezekiel spoke the Word to the dry dead bones, and the Spirit wind proceeded to give life to that which had been proclaimed by the prophet. If the expositor fails to properly and contextually speak to the bones, there will never be an empowering of the Spirit of God.
The Expositor Grows Spiritually Anemic
The health of the church is undeniably connected to the spiritual growth of the expositor. If the preacher of God’s Word fails to steady his own spiritual intake with systematic, sequential, successive consumption of Scripture he will be forced to substantiate his health somewhere else. Many preachers resort to trendy topics and modern methods, thus vacillating from every newfound gimmick on the religious market. Expositional, verse-by-verse study and preaching requires no such chicanery. Through the ongoing digestion of scriptural milk and meat the preacher can anchor his soul at the table of God’s unlimited supply of truth. When preaching out of context, the preacher reduces the amount of time he spends in systematic study and preparation. The outcome is unqualified men taking on an unsupported task with an unsubstantiated message to an unequipped congregation.
Doctrine becomes Insignificant
Have you ever heard someone say, “Let me tell what that verse means to me?” That is a risky approach to Scripture because it doesn’t matter what a verse means to you or me. What matters is what the verse means, in its context. The meaning of the verse is the meaning of the verse without superficial and anecdotal additives. The church arrives at its fundamental doctrines through the contextual meaning of Scripture; but if a verse means one thing to you and another thing to me then all our doctrine is subject to whimsical thought and gesture. Scripture, out of context, gives no dogmatic doctrinal foundation, and without the foundation, the house is destined to fall. This reality has unfolded in our culture where doctrinal truth is not taught, embraced, or even faintly understood by leadership, let alone the congregation.
God is not Glorified
The Bible says in Psalm 138:2, “For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.” Holy is the name of God, unspeakable and unwritten to the Hebrews of old. Yet here, the psalmist declares the glory and majesty of God’s Word. The most horribly-imaginable exploit of any expositor is to mishandle that which God has magnified above His own name. Taking a passage out of context not only strips the preacher of his authority but it veils the glory that God wants to manifest to His people. Had God wanted His Word to be understood and known in another way He would have written it and ordered it so; but He gave it to us as it is, therefore, to the glory of God, may we give it to men in the same fashion, in context!