I know, it's a strange title for an article, but it's coming from a place of great concern, and the title expresses the sentiment I want to convey. I've had a growing frustration about something happening in the church. Let me put it bleakly: vast tracts of Christians don't actually know how to apply Scripture in popular forms of argument and everyday conversations. They have Scripture memorized; they can quote chapter and verse numbers; they even have an accurate understanding of the central message of Scripture, but they don't know how to apply it. They don't know how to use it with faithfulness to what the text really means and how it's been fulfilled in Christ.
Come to think of it, what I just said is gracious. It's not that they don't know how to apply it; it's that they think they do, but they don't. They're confident and they're ignorant. And that's far more dangerous. When confidence marries ignorance, the offspring are hideous.
When confidence marries ignorance, the offspring are hideous.
What's the result? Miscommunication, polarization, and a horrendous witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just outside the church but within it. To be "allowed" to apply Scripture, you have to understand its context. If you don't, your interpretive privilege is revoked. I'll say it again: If you don't know the context for a passage of Scripture, you don't get to apply it to a popular argument or casual conversation. You and I are allowed to apply to Scripture in an argument or conversation only if we know its context (more on that below) and can match that context to the area in question.
Why the Problem?
We'll work through an example together, but before that, let's think about why this is such a problem for contemporary Christians. My working theory has two forms, one less offensive and the other more offensive. Here's the less offensive form: We live in a culture that encourages fragmentation and discards depth. Fragmentation means that our minds aren't often putting together threads of coherent thought. Much of the time, we're pigeons grabbing bread crumbs of information and entertainment. And that crumb-picking habit carries over into our understanding and application of Scripture. We're not asking questions of a text, working through context in widening circles, or even using our God-given reason to reach understanding. Instead, we're crumb-picking. We grab a friend's complaint here, a Facebook comment there, and a Scripture passage we found through a Google search, and boom: we've got an "argument," an arrow to shoot in conversation. And because we're quoting Scripture, it appears to be biblical. But let's be clear: Quoting a Bible verse doesn't mean you've made a biblical argument. In fact, it doesn't even reflect your faith. Satan, remember, dropped Scripture references more than once (see Matt. 4), and he's pure evil.
Here's the more offensive form of my working theory: We're lazy. Looking up a biblical passage in its context, trying to prayerfully discern meaning within the biblical storyline and how the passage is fulfilled in Christ, takes work and time. And we don't really want to give time to this. We just want to reinforce our perspective and pass off some judgment on "weaker" Christians before we grab our next cup of coffee. Again, what I'm claiming in this article is blunt: We don't get to do that. We're not allowed to apply Scripture to something without knowing where a passage is coming from, what its context is. We're not given a free pass on laziness just because we grew up in the church and are familiar with Scripture.
What Does Context Involve?
When I say "context," I'm actually suggesting that you and I have a process for interpreting a passage of Scripture, what we call a hermeneutic. It doesn't have to be fancy. A simple one is set out by Vern Poythress in God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (p. 116):
- Understand the passage in its original context.
- Understand how the passage fits into the biblical storyline and is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ.
- Apply the passage to yourself in your circumstances in a way that is faithful to steps 1 and 2.
Three simple steps, but they take time and effort (see also chapter 4 in Poythress's Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God. And we're not keen on spending time and effort on this. The tragedy is that this is causing great harm within the church. Christians are hurting other Christians because they don't know how to interpret and apply Scripture faithfully. Let's flesh this out with an example.
An Example Passage
Take a text that's often abused in our cultural moment: 2 Timothy 1:7, "For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." How is the text abused? Since people "cherry pick" this verse and don't understand what it means in context, they take it as a blanket statement that addresses human emotion in general. The popular usage might look something like this: "If you seem to be afraid of something, you're not being a true Christian, since God has not given us the spirit of fear."
This has the harmful, unbiblical consequence of making people feel guilty for having feelings. It can encourage a form of Stoicism, a rejection of the place and weight of human emotion. In our cultural moment, I've seen Christians use this passage to bully other Christians. If another Christian appears (and I say "appears" intentionally, because we can't see the motives and inner workings of others) to be afraid of something—Covid exposure, judgment of others, performance at work, physical illness, anxiety—that believer gets slapped in the face with 2 Timothy 1:7. "Stop being afraid, you weakling! We've got the spirit of power, remember?"
What if we worked through that simple process of interpretation?
Step 1: The Passage in Its Original Context
Here's the passage in its immediate context.
I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 2:1-7)
First, note that this is a personal letter from Paul to Timothy. It's intimate and earnest, one brother in the faith writing with love to another brother. And what does Paul say about his brother? He's praying for him constantly. He remembers him with tears. He affirms his sincere faith, which was also in Timothy's grandmother and mother.
Second, Paul uses the sincere faith of Timothy as a reason for his reminder. What's the reminder? To fan into flame the gift of his faith and talents. Why? That's where we hit our verse. "For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." Actually, God gave us HIS Spirit. God's Spirit is of power, love, and self-control. It's also, by the way, a Spirit of self-giving. The Holy Spirit leads God's people to act with a concern for others, not for self. Just look at the portrait of the early church in Acts 2:42-47. The Spirit leads God's people to be selfless, to give themselves to others. We'll come back to this point later. For now, just remember that Timothy is being encouraged to fan his faith and talents into flame because of the Spirit of God in him.
Step 2: The Passage in the Biblical Storyline, Fulfilled in Christ
How does this passage fit into the biblical storyline? How is it fulfilled in Christ, since all of Scripture is about him?
In terms of the biblical storyline, this passage occurs in an epistle written after Christ has lived, died, and rose from the dead. It occurs after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on God's people (Acts 2). The hope and longing born in a dark and distant garden have now been met with a resounding "Yes!" The salvation foreshadowed in types and sacrifices throughout the Old Testament has come. God's people are now being made into a temple for the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:22; 1 Pet. 2:5). God himself is doing heart-work on them, shaping them to the beauty and glory of his own Son. He is taking each person, in one faith but with unique gifts, and growing the flame of his Spirit in them. And nothing can stop that work; it's already established, as certain as the sun rises.
How does this help us understand our passage in its context? Here are two points.
Paul is encouraging Timothy to be who he already is in Christ, a man of sincere faith indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Paul is not doing a character critique. He's not saying, "Timothy, you need to work on your Christ-likeness. You need to stop being afraid!" Instead, he's encouraging him to fan into flame his Spirit-bestowed talents because that is who he is. This passage is about encouragement because of truth, a truth that cannot be thwarted.
When contemporary Christians use this verse as a character critique of others, they're not being faithful to the text. They're distorting the meaning to serve their own ends.
Because of Christ's finished work and the Spirit's constant application of that work to his own heart, Paul has a personal concern for Timothy as a brother in Christ, established by a previous pattern of prayer. This may seem obvious, but note that Paul's concern is expressed through something with a history, a previous working of the Spirit in Paul, represented by his prior prayers, tears, and longing. Paul, in other words, has an established relationship with Timothy that undergirds his encouragement. Wellington Boone said, "You cannot go where you have not prayed." We could also say, "You cannot critique whom you have not prayed for." If the Spirit has not worked in you to draw out prayer and longing for a brother or sister in Christ, why should you feel no hesitation in passing judgment on their faith? When contemporary Christians critique those for whom they have not prayed (let alone wept or longed for), they're not representing the heart-rooted truth of this passage. And in the storyline of Scripture, they're not truly treating another person as their brother or sister in Christ, as one for whom Christ died, as one in whom the same Holy Spirit dwells, as one for whom they should already be praying.
You cannot critique whom you have not prayed for.
In terms of being fulfilled in Christ, this passage draws us to the perfection of Christ for us. Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of power, love, and self-control. Christ perfectly lived out of this Spirit in his earthly life, and continues to do so in his priestly intercession for us. The Spirit of power, love, and self-control isn't something that can be gained by effort; it can only be given in grace. And it has been given. We possess it as we possess Christ. Think of it this way: Christ already is who we are becoming. Yet, because we have him, we can be secure in our hope that his Spirit of power, love, and self-control is going to grow in us.
Applying the Passage in Faithfulness to Steps 1 and 2
Applying this passage with faithfulness to steps 1 and 2 would involve at least the following.
- Regular prayer for a brother or sister in Christ long before any attempt at "challenging" or criticism is taken. We're slow to pray and quick to judge. That's a terrible combination. Prayer is what God often uses to develop our heartfelt concern for another. When we lack that heartfelt concern, we sling words like stones, and they bruise. As Wellington Boone said, "You cannot go where you have not prayed." Prayer (extensive prayer) should be the first step in coming alongside a brother or sister in Christ.
- Encouragement through a reminder of identity. That's very different from judgment through a reminder of identity. Encouragement says, "You can do this! God is faithful!" Judgement says, "Why aren't you doing this? You're unfaithful!" The former brings brothers and sisters into communion for a common cause (finding our identity in Christ). The latter puts brothers and sisters on opposite sides of an obedience/disobedience wall.
Putting this in the context of a common problem such as anxiety (something I've written extensively about), throwing 2 Timothy 1:7 at someone in casual conversation does far more harm than good. Rather than encouraging and uplifting fellow believers, it heaps guilt on them and likely drives them into deeper despair.
One step we could all take is memorizing passages of Scripture, not just verses. Memorizing single verses makes it easier for us to thoughtlessly apply Scripture without considering the context. If we know even the verses in the surrounding context of the one we're concerned about, that will go a long way in help us not be rash in applying Scripture.
Be Careful with Words
We're not careful enough with our words, and that's sad, given that we're made in the image of a speaking God. But what's even sadder is that we're sometimes even less careful with the words of God. God's words are medicinal. They heal. They restore. They bring new life. We handle physical medicine with care, for we know it's potential. If we do this with a bottle of Tylenol, why don't we do it with God's word, which is far more potent than we can even understand?
Let's grow in our ability to interpret and apply Scripture faithfully. Nothing could be more worthy of our time and attention.
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