Reading and understanding the Bible well is something I believe that every Christ-follower desires. Having read and taught over the past six-plus years in the arena of biblical personal finance, I have noticed that there are three common misuses in our reading and understanding of the Bible. This article will look at the first of those three misuses: proof-texting.
Proof texting is “the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing.”1 Unfortunately, the arena of biblical personal finance is replete with this misuse. At the very least, proof-texting teaches people that the Bible is a book of individual pithy statements that can be used to justify almost any behavior. At its worst, proof-texting uses the Bible to justify an action or behavior that is contrary to what the Bible teaches. Neither of these is a good outcome. We want to be people who understand that God gave us His Word primarily as a revelation of who He is and how He is working in the world. It isn’t a book of principles for a more comfortable life. Following Jesus in this world will make us uncomfortable. It will be amazing and worth it, but it will demand more than many of us are willing to give. If we want to read and understand the Bible as it was meant to be read and understood, we must not engage in proof-texting.
So, how do we avoid proof-texting? Read each verse in context. Ask yourself, what is the subject being taught on in the surrounding verses, chapters, and book? How does this verse align with what was intended to be taught by the original author to the original audience? How do I understand this verse in the context of the whole Bible?
Let’s take an example of a commonly misused verse in biblical personal finance circles, Luke 14:28. This verse says, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” People regularly use this verse as a text to show that Jesus tells us we need to save and plan for the future. On its face, this seems like a logical interpretation. However, if we read this verse in context, we gain a very different understanding of what it says. Luke 14:25-30, 33 says,
25 Now great crowds accompanied [Jesus], and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ . . . 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
In context, it is clear that Jesus isn’t teaching about saving or planning. How odd would it be for Jesus to confront people with the obscenely high cost of following Him and then throw in a little aside to teach about saving for the future? Read in context, using this verse to talk about saving feels ridiculous. In fact, Jesus appears to be teaching the exact opposite. He is teaching that we must renounce our future and our savings and understand that giving those up is a cost we must be ready to bear as His disciple. If we fail to consider that following Jesus will cost us everything, then people will look at us like the fool who tries to build a tower and doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for it.
Passages like these are some of the clearest teachings by Jesus that help us see His worth in comparison to the things of this life. Our love and devotion to Him should be so great that in comparison to our love and devotion to our family and our own lives it seems like we hate our families and lives. We must view all that we have as rubbish compared to the grace we’ve received from Him. In this understanding, following Jesus is a call to lay down our savings, desires, and goals at the foot of the cross and willingly give them up to point others to His worth and glory.
When we take verses like these so far out of context, we are neutering the Word of God. It is not okay to make a verse say something that it most clearly does not say. We must do better. The Bible has other things to say about saving, so there is no need to grab this verse to justify a practice we want to embrace. As a matter of fact, this passage is a great qualifying passage to other teachings about saving for the future–for we can’t properly apply or understand those passages without understanding passages like these. While saving may be prudent in certain times and seasons, passages like Luke 14 teach us that we must always be ready and willing to lay down our savings and future to follow the call of Jesus.
So, let’s do our best to avoid proof-texting. Let’s correct each other lovingly when we see it. And, let’s seek to be people who understand the Bible in light of its entirety and not just its parts. When we do, it will be worth it!!