Context: A Required Fundamental for Hermeneutics and Analysis

by Jon Pirtle, Full-Time Instructor, Atlanta

Recently I was invited to speak at a local church gathering on the biblical worldview with regard to some hot button issues in our culture. That’s a pretty common request, so I did not expect anything unusual to come of it. Boy, was I going to be surprised. About forty adults, forty to eighty-year-olds, assembled monthly to discuss current events. I knew several people in the class on a casual level. We shared a passion for history, so I was excited about being with them in their current events class. The evening arrived. I entered the church, greeted folks, engaged in small talk, and then the class leader introduced me and asked me to pray. After that, we distributed printed agendas so the class would have a road map of topics for the evening’s discussion.

We were in a political season in GA. The primary elections for governor and other state offices had been held just days before. Arguably, like much of our nation, the class divided when it came to social issues and politics. The atmosphere had been cordial, respectful, and dignified when I entered. But when the topics of politicians’ stances with regard to illegal immigration, special “rights” for the LGBTQ demographic, liberation theology, and “social justice” engagement came up, the atmosphere changed. Some of the men’s voices grew louder. I watched three of the women’s faces grimace. Several wives squeezed their husbands’ hands as if to say, “Patience.” I was hearing Solomon’s admonition in my mind (ESV): “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). In short, I sensed things were going south … quickly, and I had not even spoken yet. What was I going to do?

Then something happened that made me realize I had an opportunity to hopefully bring calm to the room and draw the focus to the biblical worldview. One man cleared his throat and said loudly enough we were all sure to hear, “You know, it’s not our place to judge! Jesus told us to ‘Judge not, that you be not judged.’” He then sat back in his chair as if he’d settled every issue for the night.

What shocked me was this: the class as a whole seemed knocked off their positions due to one man’s quotation from part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Suddenly I felt like Esther. Was I here for such a time as this? I believe I was, so I raised my hand. The class leader looked at me and said, “Jon, you have something?” “Yes, I do. May I ask a few questions and then just make a comment or two?” I asked. “Sure,” he said.

“I heard someone say that we are not to judge. Is that right?” I asked.

“Yes,” came a wave of affirmations from the class.

“Do you know what the Lord says in the following verses?”

Silence filled the room.

“Jesus tells his followers to not throw pearls before pigs. Isn’t he judging? Isn’t he making distinctions? He called some people pigs—foul animals to his first-century Jewish audience.”

Again, silence.

“Furthermore, Jesus tells us in that same sermon to not condemn sanctimoniously but to remove the logs from our own eyes. Does that not require us to judge, to discern, our own shortcomings? Isn’t judgment involved there?” I pressed.

I knew I might make some enemies by drawing them to the text, but the text of Scripture must be interpreted correctly. Otherwise, all sorts of misapplications can occur with supposedly biblical grounds. Proper context is key.

This is the way I ended, and for the remainder of class I just listened.

“Folks, may I suggest something to you? You are in a current events class. You spent half an hour excoriating politicians with whom you disagreed. Some of you condemned the president for wanting American sovereignty and laboring to build a wall to protect legal American citizens; others of you recognized that social justice is encroaching, and even overtaking, some mainline Protestant denominations. You condemned your political and theological enemies, and you lauded those with whom you agree. How can you misapply Jesus’ words about judging? Your whole class is designed to have you think biblically—to judge, to discern, what God would have you think and do. Does that make sense?”

I share this story from my own life only to reiterate what we need to do with our own writing and when we teach writing to Belhaven students. When we quote Scripture, context is key. Explaining and understanding the whole and proper context of a verse/passage/book, etc. of Scripture is essential in our vocation as educators and Christians. When Paul neared the end of his life, and was about to be executed for his Christian witness, he wrote to Timothy crucial words for all of us, too, to heed: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

One comment

  1. Artie Burnett

    We are not ever given the “authority” by our Lord to “judge” another, either the content of their speech or their motives. However, that does not take away from us the “perception” from our Lord that “we will know them by their fruits.” Thus, we are not judges but we had better be very good “fruit inspectors” under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!

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