No Bible verse is an island

A little bit of effort can help you avoid common Bible quoting pitfalls

This story originally appeared in the print edition of ChristianWeek. View it here.

Whether it be in church or on your Facebook feed, it seems there is a short and pithy Bible verse to solve every problem.

Do you feel overwhelmed? The kids especially irritable or the boss nagging a little too much? Just quote that one little section of 1 Corinthians 10:13 (God…will not let you be tested beyond your strength), and you will be fine.

While it may be comforting to use Scripture in this spell-like way, it can actually lead to a lessened understanding of what the Bible really says.

Below are three of the most misused verses in the Bible, and some simple things you can do to put a dent in the problem.

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10, NRSV).

I have a soft spot in my heart for this verse. I fondly remember an old friend quoting it at me while I was in business school.

If the wording of the first line sounds odd, you likely learned it with the translation that many consider to be “the holy one.” For the love of money is the root of all evil… (KJV).

Notice the large difference between these translations. In the KJV, love of money is the only root of evil, while in the NRSV it is not. Oddly, both readings are correct.

Because all languages work differently, translating word-for-word will rarely end in something intelligent. As such translators need to work to smooth out the language, hence the difference.

As such, when you read check out some other translations. Seeing the verse and its surrounding context in another translation may help you better understand the passage.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, NIV).

Many use this verse to shame parents of loud children, but to do so they are misquoting it. That’s because to understand the verse, one must understand the genre of Proverbs.

No verse is in a vacuum, and it is important to always read a passage as part of the larger story.
No verse is in a vacuum, and it is important to always read a passage as part of the larger story.

Genre is what guides how we understand what we read. When we read a textbook, we expect to read explanations. When we read a romance novel, we expect a sappy love story.

Proverbs are tidbits of wisdom. Wisdom literature generally applies to only a particular circumstance or describes a specific likelihood. Under no circumstances should Proverbs be read as promises.

It is most likely that if parents raise their child right, their child will behave. However, it is also possible for a child to become terrible on his or her own, even with great parents. Proverbs aren’t promises.

It is important to be mindful of genre when you read. How Proverbs should be read is different than how we are to read the gospels. If you read the entire Bible as a single genre, you’re going to get some of it wrong.

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NRSV).

Every year without fail there is one celebrity who recites this passage, usually at an awards show. This is unfortunate, because there is no better example of a verse being misused due to context.

In the passage where this verse is found, the Apostle Paul says it is best to be content in all things. As most understand it, being content in all things is different than thanking God for winning you an Oscar.

No verse is in a vacuum, and it is important to always read a passage as part of the larger story. Take the time to learn about the historical context as well; the Bible was written over a span of thousands of years, in many different settings featuring many different people and people groups.

It is easy to take what we read out of context, and when it comes to a book as important as the Bible, that can be a big problem. Taking the time to understand what you read pays off, and if you do so the Bible will become alive in some wonderful new ways.

Russell Doerksen is the Managerial Editor of Providence Theological Seminary’s academic journal, Didaskalia. He enjoys

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