Libby Offers Reminder: ‘A Text Without a Context is a Pretext’

Rev. Dean LibbyRev. Dean Libby, associate pastor at First UMC Sulphur Springs, delivered the following message at the Ignite contemporary service as a reminder on the need to provide context when quoting scripture.

I was appalled when I read the news headlines this week about U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s use of the Bible to prop up the immoral, un-Christian and inexcusable exercise of power over families attempting to enter our country as refugees.

When I was a seminary student, I heard one of my professors say, “A text without a context is a pretext.” That thought stuck with me to the point that I printed out a copy of it and posted it on the wall of my first office when I was in Youth Ministry. Most of the teenagers who came in and out of that office over the years never said a word about it, but it hung there as a reminder to me that our scriptures are meaningless without a deep appreciation of where they came from, who wrote them and the situation of the original audience.

“A text without a context is a pretext.” That sentence shapes my approach to preaching the Word of God each week. It drives me to help each and every person understand more about what God is saying to us today in the 21st-century United States, through words written down thousands of years ago to people experiencing slavery, freedom, war, victory, defeat, exile, return, renewal and the genesis of a movement that would sweep across the globe with the love of God for all.

I go to great lengths to unpack the background around the biblical texts each week in order to accomplish two things:

  • to make sure that anyone present who is not familiar with the Bible is not put on edge because they don’t know where to find 2 Corinthians or Ezekiel; and
  • to remind those of you who have been around the church for a while that the Bible tells the stories of the ancient Israelites and the first Christians, while we get to listen in and find application for our 21st-century American lives.

“A text without a context is a pretext.” Attorney General Sessions quoted the Apostle Paul from Romans 13 on Thursday to defend the “zero tolerance” policy that results in children being immediately separated from their parents as they are apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, including those seeking asylum from violence in their home countries. Not only did Sessions engage in proof-texting, but without the context of the rest of Romans 12 & 13, he is creating a pretext for defending an indefensible policy.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to a small community of Jesus-followers trying to spread the good news of Christ in an increasingly hostile environment. The Christians in Rome faced daily persecution from those in power and feared for their lives constantly.

“A text without a context is a pretext.” So here’s some context. The verse Sessions quoted, Romans 13:1, has been used by authoritarian governments throughout history to enforce compliance on those in the minority or “the stranger” in their land – even those they deemed unworthy of citizenship or life itself. In Romans 13:1-7, it seems to me that Paul is attempting to teach the Roman Christians how to live in their current society without bringing undue wrath upon themselves. Perhaps he is giving them “guardrails” for Christian behavior that will allow them to worship Christ faithfully in the midst of a culture that worshiped Caesar blindly.

“A text without a context is a pretext.” If Sessions had bothered to read back into Romans 12 he would have found verses 9-11 and 13: “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic – be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! ... Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome the strangers into your home.”

If he had read further into chapter 13, he would have read verses 9-10: “The commandments … are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is what fulfills the Law.” Paul says that love fulfills the Law. Jesus teaches love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment. And God’s law is greater than any other law. And if God’s law is love, then I’m going to stand for that law. The law of love has no part of tearing families apart, callous oppression, or harm to children and families.

“A text without a context is a pretext.” And a law without love is tyranny. May our love, O Lord, rule the day. Move in us, Holy Spirit, so that we might love the stranger in our midst. Shape us into your image, O Christ, so that we might love as you do. Amen.

Published: Wednesday, June 20, 2018