It really matters.
And when interpreting the Bible, it matters even more.
Why? Because the Bible matters… and getting our interpretation correct matters for those of us for whom the Bible is both formative and authoritative.
Many years ago, when I was a Young Life area director working with leaders at the local university, we had a great faith community together. We enjoyed vibrant worship, discipleship, ministry and mission together. But the group of leaders was young and needed some strong direction in certain areas. I created a rule for our leaders (and staff) about drinking. No drinking in public in the same town you did ministry in. There were lots of reasons for that rule. But to be clear, I am not a Christian who believes that drinking is wrong — but as a leader in that context I sensed that it was important to lay out that ground rule.
Now if someone else happened to read the memo I wrote to our leaders (outside of the discussion we also had), they might have concluded that I was opposed to all drinking or that the application of what I was teaching/saying is that we should never drink in the town we live in or minister in. Out of context, they would probably misunderstand and over-apply the principle. You see, in context and given the specific people and community involved — and a specific context of ministry — this rule made sense. But it was only a statement about that particular context and time. In fact, several years later, I lifted that rule because context had changed. It was no longer needed or necessary.
I have just started to study again Paul’s Letters to the Corinthian church. And I am reminded that understanding context is critical to exegesis. Paul lays out many rules, wisdoms and strong suggestions. But these are all contextual. They are based on Paul’s understanding of the community, his relationship with them, the particular issues and players involved, cultural assumptions and biases, etc etc etc. The technical idea here in hermeneutics (that is, the art of interpreting a text) is to determine whether a particular text is general/universal — that is, true and applicable in all times and all places irregardless of context — or specific — that is true and applicable within a specific context, perhaps with broader implications by principle, but not necessary “binding” or true in all times and places.
For example, when Paul writes “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) or that it is better to stay single (1 Cor 7:8) … or that women should be silent in church (1 Cor 14:34)… or we should drink some wine with our water (1 Tim 5:23) … before we assume that these are universally applicable, we need to look at the context. And when you begin to understand what was going on in the Corinthian church (or with Timothy’s stomach) it becomes clear what Paul is saying and why. And there are applications and implications for us today — we should never ignore these texts. But to interpret these texts as being universal — for all times and all places — is not just silly, but unfaithful to the text.
And this is why context matters… whenever we read, interpret and apply scripture, we must always consider the context of both the author and audience in our exegesis. We do this not to dismiss or ignore passages, but to faithfully understand and learn from them. The right and proper reading of the scriptures is critical to the vibrant Christian life. When we ignore context, the text becomes irrelevant to us because we are reading it wrong. When we take the time to seek out and understand context, the text becomes alive, vibrant and effective — life a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:!2) and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Tim 3:16)