Importance of Context and Context, 1 Cor 14
Author: Bobby Valentine
Bible believers routinely take verses out of context when it serves their agenda.
The famous New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has opined, “texts matter, but contexts matter even more” (Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 489). This observation deserves full acceptance.
Context is what called for the creation of the text in the first place. Context is why we have a text in the first place. Context is what gives the text meaning.
A text without a context, a text is simply used as a pretext.
Context matters because texts must be interpreted. There are those who claim they do not interpret the Bible, they only read it and obey it. Usually this claim arises when a sectarian position that has emotional content to it has come up for consideration.
But recognizing the Bible has context does not imply I am embarrassed by Scripture. Recognizing the context of Scripture is an act of submission to the authority of the Holy Spirit. It is to respect the integrity of the word as it was given. Here is an example,
- “women should be silent”
First to be noted on this text is that not one church known to me actually obeys this text as it is translated in most English Bibles. That women sing proves that the text cannot be understand to “mean what it says and says what it means.” There is no caveat, no exception clause, for singing. But brothers will say that the text has to be understood in light of the “command” to sing. Precisely! The text has to be “interpreted.” They interpret even while claiming they do not.
Other texts that are routinely interpreted are:
- “tear out your eye and throw it away” (Mt 5)
“cut off your right hand” (Mt 5)
“do not store up treasure” (Mt 6)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mk 10.25)
“sell everything you have and give it to the poor” (Lk 18)
“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (Jn 6.53)
“do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14)
“when you meet for worship, one person has a hymn …”(1 Cor 14.26)
“baptized for the dead” (1 Cor 15.29)
“men should pray lifting up holy hands” (1 Tim 2.8)
“women … should not wear fancy hair and jewelry” (1 Tim 2.9)
“women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim 2.15)
“laying on hands” (Heb 6.2)
“Greetings by kissing” (Rom 16.16; 1 cor 16.20; 2 Cor 13.12; 1 Thes 5.26; 1 Pt. 5.14)
“believe on the name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16.31)
“we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3.28)
“It is by grace that we are saved you are saved through faith, and this is not your own doing” (Eph 2.8)
“if any are sick they should call the elders and have them pray over them and anoint them with oil” (James 5.14)
“they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5.10)
There is not one of these texts listed that are simply used, obeyed or even preached without some sort of qualification, some sort interpretation. These verses are “explained.”
I maintain that the statement “women should be silent” must be understood in its CONTEXT just like every other text just cited. And every single person that allows women to sing also has already admitted the text does not mean “exactly” what it appears to say (in common English translations).
I am no more embarrassed by Paul’s words on women than Jesus’s words on tearing out our eyes and cutting off our hands. The text must be properly understood in its own context if we are to understand Jesus and be faithful.
It is the height of special pleading to insist that the texts above must be interpreted in their literary contexts and in light of the rest of scripture and then deny that very principle in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 … especially when the texts under question are surrounded by verses that they insist must be “properly understood.”
What drives the special pleading? Is it sectarianism? In Churches of Christ we place the caveat on Ephesians 2.8 because of baptism. So why can we not place a caveat on 1 Cor 14.34 when a mere column over (in Paul’s papyrus scroll) we read about women who are hardly silent but are publicly praying and admonishing the ecclesia (11.4-5; 14.4-5) and know that at least one woman in Cenchrea (the Corinthian port) was a deacon (Rom 16.1-2). And not only so but the biblical witness gives us a number of women who publicly taught God’s people (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna, etc).
First Corinthians 14 cannot have a meaning apart from its context and what Paul intended in that context. If we actually believe in the authority of the Bible then we must in fact do diligence to its context.
Context has a way of slaying sacred cows which may be why some dislike it.