Saturday, 25 April 2009

Blinded by the Light 12 Scripture Twisting - The Trap

[Paul's] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. (2 Peter 2:16-17 RSV)

The scriptures can be twisted in many ways. The cults do it deliberately in order to use the authority of the Bible to reinforce their claims. But even Christians can fall into the trap of misunderstanding or reading things into the scriptures that are not really there. Many errors have crept into the church in the past because of this. For example, it took Luther to make a stand before the teaching of grace was finally accepted, even though it seems plain to us today.

By ignoring context and picking up bits of scripture, it is possible to prove almost anything from the Bible. For example, “There is no God.” (Ps.14:1).

Here are just a few of the ways in which scripture can be twisted:

1. Ignoring context

This is especially dangerous in the practice of opening the Bible at random and lighting on a verse for guidance, but it can also appear to support teaching which is incorrect. For example:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matt.18:21-22).

This verse has been used to prevent people from speaking out when they are being hurt or misused by other Christians, or even their leaders. They are accused of having an unforgiving spirit and made to feel guilty because they can't or won't forgive.

Looking at the context of this passage, the chapter begins with the disciples' question, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and ends with the parable of the unforgiving servant. Because of his unforgiveness, the king “handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” The final verse contains Jesus' warning, “So shall my heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother, from your heart.”

Peter is searching for a formula for how to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, but once again, as in so many places in scripture, Jesus points our that God's standards are beyond our reach. It is not a question of how many times we forgive, but the kind of forgiveness. He who cannot forgive from the heart will find himself handed over to the torturers.

Such forgivemess is beyond us, in truth. It is only when we realise our inadequacy that we can turn to the source of our righteousness for the strength to obey. Our only hope is in God's mercy. The emphasis is on integrity, purity of heart, rather than covering up.

It is also interesting to note that in Luke 17:3 we are told “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents forgive him.” Is this saying that our forgiveness should be conditional? Does God forgive those who do not repent? Let us at least say that releasing someone from our vengeance does not mean that we should trust them or associate with them again or associate with them again, certainly does not mean that we should keep quiet about sin.

2. Putting together separate scriptures which do not belong.

For example: 1 Cor.15:31 "I die daily" and Matt.16:24 "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.'"

These verses are used on the subject of self-denial. They are used to say that we must do away with every thought for ourselves and shoulder the burdens of what God wants us to do. This can lead away from grace and back to works.

1 Cor.15:31 is in the context of a discussion on the resurrection, not self-denial. Having established the truth of the resurrection, Paul asks "why do we endanger ourselves every hour?", and he ends the chapter with the exhortation "stand firm. Let nothing move you." Paul is saying that because of his confidence in being raised from the dead he feels free to put his life at risk for the sake of the gospel.

In Matt.16:24 the cross we must take up is the cross of Christ.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it... Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matt.16:25,26)

There is no service or sacrifice we can give that will merit us anything in seeking salvation. Self-denial, if you want to call it that, is denying that there is anything that we ourselves can do to merit eternal life, and looking to Christ.

Not only do these verses not teach what they are being used for, but they are not about the same subject.

Illustrating points 1 & 2 together is the amusing story of the lady who opened her Bible at random for guidance and came upon the verse "And Judas went out and hanged himself." (Matt.27:5). Finding this unhelpful she tried again, and found "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:37). Such are the dangers of ignoring context and putting together scriptures which do not belong!

3. Misquotation

Especially when we quote from memory, it is easy to be inaccurate. A classic misquotation is "Money is the root of all evil." The actual verse says "For the love of money..." (1 Tim.6:10). This is not as harmless as you might think. It would make quite a sermon on the value of poverty, particularly if the object was to persuade you to give up all your evil money to the speaker's church or pet cause!

4. Selective attention to scripture

Choosing the parts that fit our way of thinking without reference to the whole message. This is very similar to ignoring context, but on a wider scale. Whole theologies can be built on a range of scriptures which sound very plausible when you are listening to the sermon, but do not check out with the wider message of the books from which they come, or indeed with the Bible as a whole.

For example I once heard a well-respected Christian leader quote "All these people were still living by faith when they died" (Heb 11:13), and use to teach that if we do not test our faith every day we could find we were saved yesterday but not today. The verse continues "They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance." The writer to the Hebrews is saying that they trusted God, even though they had not seen their salvation. That is why they were still living by faith, not for fear of losing their salvation.

This is a technique known as proof-texting, which is forming an opinion in your own mind and then looking for a scripture to back up what you have already decided. This is very dangerous and cultic thinking. The correct approach is to come to scripture with an open mind, research all that it has to say on the subject, and then reason out what the message is, even if we do not like the answer.

Previous posts in this series:

Legalism: The Truth, The Trap, The Solution
Magic Formulas: The Truth, The Trap, The Solution
Answers to Everything: The Truth,The Trap, The Solution
Scripture Twisting: The Truth
Further posts to come in this series:
Scripture Twisting: The Trap, The Solution
Superstition: The Truth, The Trap, The Solution
Elitism: The Truth, The Trap, The Solution
The Need to See: The Truth, The Trap, The Solution

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