Wrenching a Bible verse out of context isn’t the only bad Bible-quoting habit out there. There is a more subtle set of unfortunate customs we use in evangelical churches when we quote the Bible.
Here’s an example: a relative of mine was reading to me her salvation testimony as she prepared to deliver it to her church. It’s a stirring story, full of God’s grace. At the beginning she said:
Ephesians chapter 2, verses 4 through 5, states, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
It is the height of rudeness to complain about someone’s Bible quotation practices after they read their beautiful conversion testimony.
It’s a good thing my relatives love me.
And it was a practice session anyway. And I’d been thinking about this issue at the time. Okay?
I said to her, “You know, there’s no law saying you have to give the reference, use the word ‘states,’ or even quote these verses in their entirety—verse divisions are a comparatively recent invention. And when you start a quotation with ‘But,’ it’s confusing unless people happen to know that passage.”
She was actually relieved. She told me she thought she “had” to do these things. Others feel the same way, apparently, because the unwritten rules of American evangelical Bible quotation are observed with only minor variation everywhere I go.
This issue is not a pet peeve for me, however; I don’t get upset, and I don’t look down on people in whose Bible-quoting habits I see minor flaws. I only offer “correction” when it is asked for. But all of evangelicalism is asking for it, in my opinion.
Here are three principles you should keep in mind the next time you quote Scripture publicly:
1. Mention the context instead of giving the reference.
Why mention chapter and verse numbers at all if you don’t expect people to look them up? It’s like a person you just met saying, “I’m from Connecticut, where are you from?” and you replying, “I’m from 16114 Edgewood Drive, Montclair, Virginia 22026.” This is, at best, too much information. At worst, it’s confusing: language is built on the implicit promise of “relevance,” the idea that anything you say to someone else is intelligible and useful given the knowledge you share and the situation you’re in. Someone who hears you give your home address, zip code and all, will struggle to figure out what possible purpose you might have for doing so.
Unless you do in fact want people turning to a given passage, the time you spend saying “Romans chapter 1 verses 16 through 18” could be better spent making a brief reference to the context of the statements you’re about to quote. It could be as simple as saying, “Paul says in his letter to the Romans. . .” It could also go into slightly more detail: “Right after exulting in his calling as an apostle, Paul exults in the power of the message he was given by saying. . .” Much more than knowing a Bible statement’s precise “home address,” people need to know the general terrain in which it resides. This is more helpful for understanding—which is your goal, right?
2. Remember that quotations by their nature always omit something.
Quotations always leave something out, no matter who or what you’re quoting. Two little apostrophes joined together to form quotation marks (“) are a kind of ellipsis. A pair of them, encircling a sentence or two, says, “Whether there was stuff that came before and after this quotation or not, what’s inside these marks is all that’s relevant to my communicative purposes at the moment.”
Imagine if we followed the same convention when quoting movie lines. Picture tough-as-nails Clint Eastwood as he rasps:
Go ahead. Make my day. Call D’Ambrosia in the DA’s office.
Picture Tom Hanks aboard Apollo 13 as he radios back to earth:
Houston, we have a problem. We have a main bus B undervolt.
They kind of lose their punch . . .
You don’t have to say the whole line when you quote something.
3. Quote the words that make the best sense standing alone.
I suggest you quote that portion of a given Bible passage which makes the best sense by itself, standing alone. It can be more than a verse or less than one. It can even cross a chapter boundary. It’s okay. Chapter and verse divisions are recent, wholly man-made, and not always helpful.
In fact, by the power vested in me by the Christian Information Superhighway Administration (CISA), I hereby grant all evangelicals everywhere the privilege of starting their Bible quotations one word later if that enables their quotations to communicate the truth without confusion.
- “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
- “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
- “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”
- “God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Every one of these sentences makes sense without the opening connecting word (“For . . . ” “But . . .”). Make truthful and effective communication your goal, not pedantic precision. You’re not “taking words out of Scripture” a la Revelation 22:19; remember: all quotations leave something out—namely, the rest of the Bible.
If I were to edit my relative’s written salvation testimony, I’d suggest she put good Bible quotation habits into effect, weave Paul’s words into her own naturally, and say something like the following:
I’ve always loved the words Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus. Right after reminding them of the depths of sin from which they’d been saved, he says that “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Paul says—and I know it’s true from the Bible and my personal experience of divine mercy—that it’s “by grace [we] have been saved.”
If you violate every principle in this post the next time you quote the Bible publicly, it is truly not a big deal. We can still be friends. I have written 1,111 words about a molehill. I also have no authority to police your language, and I care a great deal more about the substance of what you say in a testimony, devotional, or sermon than I do about the little accidental features like the mechanics of how you cite Scripture.
Just please don’t go quoting from “Revelations” . . .
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