Updated: Aug 31
Everyone reads the Bible through their own lenses, whether it be their upbringing, experiences, interests, worldview, or perspectives. These lenses come quite naturally, and they influence how we perceive information. It is important, though, for us to remember to read God’s Word through the context of scripture, and to be aware of the lenses we have on, so we don’t accidentally add to or take away from the author’s intended meaning. If we do, then we will most likely get the application wrong, too, which is where things can get really messy (and damaging).
Why messy and damaging? When we insert too much of ourselves into our reading of the text, we aren’t reading the Word in its original context. This is called eisegesis, which essentially means anyone can make anything mean anything they want. As Natasha Fish (our board chair) points out, the word “eisegesis” is similar to the word “isolate,” which is what you have to do to the text to make it mean what you want.
When we do this, we are missing out on who God really is and risk forming a God in our minds who is not the God of the Bible. We end up believing messages that are not really there.
Not knowing how to read the Bible for yourself is also a real door opener for people who want to take advantage of you:
“People who have a cult upbringing, where it's a Pseudo-Christian situation where the Bible is still used, are not taught how to read the Bible properly, because learning how to read the Bible properly would be against the mission of the cult leadership. The cult leadership wants to tell you what the Bible means; they don't want you to know how to really read the Bible for yourself and investigate the Bible yourself. The cult leadership wants to indoctrinate you." - Naomi Wright
While the fault is always on the perpetrator for their actions, there are steps we can take to help strengthen ourselves against their tactics. Knowing how to check their teaching against scripture itself is one of those ways.
Side note: When someone reads a passage that they’ve heard out of context previously–whether just wrong, or used to harm, control, or manipulate them—it can feel impossible to stop hearing the passage in that same way. It can be so bad at times, that reading the passage will trigger those painful emotions and cause the reader to feel unsafe with their Bible. If this is you, we understand!
Here is Naomi's (beEmboldened’s Founder and Executive Director’s) recommendation for this struggle:
Take it slow. Start someplace that isn’t triggering, or is the least triggering. For her, it was the book of Ruth.
Have supports in place, from a weighted blanket and hot beverage to an appointment with a support professional.
Have a Study Bible and a solid commentary ready to check what the passage really means (for examples, check out the Denver Journal).
Allow yourself the time to sit with this new information-again, take it slow.
Down the road, you may still hear that voice repeating that incorrect interpretation and application, but you’ll know how to debunk the lie in your own mind. While you’ll likely need to do that often at first, you will find you do it less and less as time goes on. The voice weakens, making it easier to ignore, until it goes away altogether.
A note for the reader: If you are dealing with religious trauma due to past voices that have used scripture to harm you in any way, please know you are not alone. We have been there, and we exist to provide support and hope. You can learn more about our support services here.
So how do we read the Bible in its context, and not based on lies we’ve been taught by abusive leadership?
How to (Biblically) Read Your Bible: Taking the Lenses Off
The first change you can make is your best effort at "exegesis," which is taking the meaning out of the text, then applying it to life based on its original meaning at the time it was written. Again this is in contrast to putting your meaning into the text (eisegesis).
“I like to remember this one by the similarity to the word “exodus”, which means “to come out of,” which is the meaning you get out of the text that exists intrinsically, without you adding to it.” - Natasha Fish
How do we use historical and cultural context to study scripture? Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. Consider the following:
A historical someone was writing a letter specifically to someone else in time and space
A specific prophet was giving a specific message to a specific people at a specific time
Questions to ask as you read the scripture:
Where did they live?
What was the political climate?
What was going on around them at the time?
What was their culture like?
This is huge — We have to remember that people in the future, looking back at us and our culture today, are going to think we did weird things. Hopefully, they'll try to understand our context so that they can better understand us. It's important to do the same thing when reading about other cultures, now and in history. For example, the importance of focusing on whether or not to buy/eat animals sacrificed to idols seems odd to modern day Americans, and yet, there is still a lesson to be learned (see Romans 14).
3) Literary Context
What genre of writing does the book of the Bible you’re reading fall into? Identifying the different literary context and styles helps us to understand why it was actually written the way that it was and gives us clues as to how to interpret.
Some Literary Contexts in the Old Testament: Narrative, law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom.
Some Literary Contexts in the New Testament: Parables, miracle stories, pronouncement stories, narrative, creeds and hymns, the domestic code, slogans, vice and virtue lists, letters, and apocalypse.
How does literary context work in relation to reading the Bible? As a reader, we know that poems commonly have metaphors, which is an image that symbolizes something else. We can expect that the same will be said about poems in the Bible, like the Psalms.
There were also techniques in writing, just as we have today. For example: To bring emphasis to a specific sentence or thought, you may find the use of a chiasm: Idea A, B, C, C, B, A. The main focus of the Author is idea C. A Biblical example of this is found when Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4:23-24, answering her question about where/how to worship:
23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, (A & B)
for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (C) [beEmboldened note: this is what Jesus is highlighting to answer her question]
24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (B & A)
4) Divine Factor
When we read through the lens of divine factor, we are looking at the eternal significance of the passage. If we do the work by studying to determine what the text meant back then, it will have application to today. In doing so, it will serve us in knowing God and aid us in becoming more like Christ. In other words, the meaning and application of what we’ve read will guide us in our lives today.
The Holy Spirit will oftentimes nudge us or pull us towards a specific book at a specific time, then highlight a certain verse. It will seem to pop-out at you, like it was written specifically for you at that moment. This is a gift in our relationship with God. Still, we won’t know for sure what that verse means in our lives at that time and how it applies to us, if we don’t still do the work we already discussed.
This is a red flag moment. It is super easy and tempting to just be like, “I know what this means!” when really, it’s because it’s what we were subconsciously thinking or what we were wanting to hear. Be careful or you could miss why it popped out at you in the first place!
From the Head to the Heart: Biblical Applications
As we established, the original context of scripture will never change. With that being said, we need to be aware of our own biases when we approach the text. It is important for us to read and study to the best of our ability with the lens of the author and audience at the time, and we need the Holy Spirit’s guidance to apply the information to our lives today.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, there are different applications and methods to Biblically apply scripture. One of the most common ones is the SOAP Method:
Scripture - Write out the verse(s).
Observation - This is the study component. Investigate that observation.
Application - What does this mean for the life of a believer? What does it say about the character of God? What can we learn from this scripture?
It is very important to remember that the Holy Spirit’s guidance will never contradict what the text is telling us. If it does, question the Spirit. Is the Spirit we are hearing/feeling from God? Remember 1 John 4: Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Prayer - Pray about what you read and learned. Ask God to help your heart to live it out.
The point is: don’t only read scripture and move on with your day. The goal of reading and studying the Bible is to process His Word, absorb the truth into our hearts, apply what we’ve learned, and live our lives in such a way that reflects Jesus, with his help.
Having access to the Word of God is such a gift. We hope this serves you in learning how to engage with him through the Bible!
If you have experienced spiritual abuse, you can learn more about our support services here.