Of all the mistakes that we make in reading the Bible, I think that the most common sort is to take passages out of context. Sometimes it is relatively innocuous, as when we use the words of Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me” and then use them for the purpose of evangelizing the lost. In context, the passage is directed at Christians for their repentance. Other times, pulling a passage out of context can be amusing, as the story of the unemployed woman who concluded that God would give her a job soon, because when she opened the Bible at random, her eye fell on a whole book of the Bible called “Job.”
Much less amusingly, I’ve noticed that some Christians misuse passages of the Bible in order to pound on people that they don’t like. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 as rendered in the King James Version has been a classic seized upon to condemn many: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Even if you can’t find anything in the Bible that forbids the behavior, if you don’t like it, just throw that in the person’s face and watch them squirm. Tell them that just because something they are doing looks bad, they stand condemned. Unfortunately, only the King James words the passage that way. The NIV translates it simply as “Avoid every kind of evil” while the TNIV says, “reject whatever is harmful.” Even the KJV wording, if understood in context, is simply explaining that people should abstain from evil whenever it appears.
But understanding it as it was intended is simply not as useful for those concerned with outward “appearances.” But as I recall, it was the Pharisees who were quick to condemn for how things looked to the neighbors. They often criticized Jesus for the company he kept, and for doing or saying things that were at odds with proper appearance. Imagine how tongues wagged when that prostitute washed Jesus feet with perfume and her tears, while kissing them and wiping them with her feet! If the popular understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 really meant what so many think it does, then Jesus himself stands condemned. The first clue that we’ve misinterpreted is when our interpretation results in such an obvious absurdity.
Another classic in missing the context is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Read by itself, it seems that Paul is explaining that there are some people, due to their reprehensible behavior, who have thereby been excluded from heaven. In verse nine he writes that “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” and then he lists who he means by that: “sexually immoral,” “idolaters,” “adulterers,” “male prostitutes,” “practicing homosexuals,” “thieves,” “the greedy,” “drunkards,” “slanderers” and “swindlers.” He concludes by stating a second time that the people he has just listed will not “inherit the kingdom of God.”
Therefore, so the popular argument goes, if you are gay (just to pick on one of the sinners in the list), you simply can’t go to heaven. So there. Odd how the other sorts of sinners are usually ignored in the enthusiasm to pick out that one particular sort of sinner as an example, but I digress…
Fred Phelps, the “pastor” of a “church” in Kansas who operates a website called “God Hates Fags,” leads members of his congregation in picketing the funerals of dead homosexuals and others with signs announcing that the recently departed is currently roasting in Hell. His basis for his signs appears to be Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6. And while most Christians would not be so rude as to wave signs at the grieving, I suspect that many would probably agree with Phelps’ basic argument.
Unfortunately, Phelps apparent interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is dependent upon ignoring the context of Paul’s words. In verse 11, Paul adds “that is what some of you were.” You see, some of the people to whom Paul was writing his letter were sinners that he had stated could not inherit the kingdom of God. So Paul points out “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Paul affirms that while some of the Corinthians were wicked people, they were also redeemed wicked people. And Paul doesn’t say that by their own efforts and good deeds they had earned a ticket to heaven. Their redemption was something accomplished by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
It is worth pointing out that in the same letter to the Corinthian church, Paul again uses virtually identical language, but with a different target: “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Thus, Paul’s point in both passages is the same way. Rather than saying that certain sorts of sinners are by definition excluded from heaven, he is simply saying that unredeemed humans don’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. It is redeemed humans that inherit it. Otherwise, following Phelp’s illogic, one would have to argue that no human beings go to heaven, since Paul very explicitly says that “flesh and blood” can’t go there.
One comforting thing: our imperfection in how we interpret the Bible, our ease in pulling passages out of context, our very real failings, do not prevent God from working through us. Look again at the passage about Jesus knocking at our heart’s door in Revelation 3:20. It was that very passage, used by my Sunday School teacher when I was seven, that led me to accept Jesus as my Savior. Even out of context, God can still use his word to his advantage. God is still God, no matter how human we may be.