One of my biggest pet peeves is when clergy commit the sin of eisegesis. To be perfectly honest, I, too, have fallen into that sin. Most of the time the Holy Spirit stops me before I can preach it, but sometimes my pride and sinfulness get in the way. For those times, it is upon me to repent and restate correctly where I erred.
For those who don’t know, eisegesis is reading an interpretation into a biblical text. Exegesis — the proper form of interpretation — reads out of the text what the passage says. Justin Taylor provides an excellent example in a 2015 article printed in Tabletalk Magazine. He says,
In Revelation 3:15–16, for example, Jesus tells the Laodicean church: ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.’ Many sermons have claimed that hot and cold refer to something respectively good and bad—after all, we can be ‘on fire’ for the Lord (good) or have a ‘cold heart’ (bad). And Jesus says He wishes the church were either hot or cold—anything but lukewarm. So, the preacher says, Jesus would rather have your cold-hearted rejection than your lukewarm reception. But a study Bible note can provide us with background information we might not have otherwise known:
One common form of eisegesis that I’ve seen in recent years is trying to read “social justice” in to the Bible. These so-called preachers aim to retell Scripture as a history of social movements rather than proclaim the truth of the text. What’s unfortunate is they often succeed at twisting the Bible to fit their agenda; and that’s because eisegesis is selective rather than comprehensive. I had a similar run in with a false-preacher on Facebook. By eisegeting 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they [unmarried people and widows] do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” he attempted to claim the Bible supports marriage equality (that marriage is not limited to a one-man-one-woman relationship). He fails in two parts.
First, he lifted out verse 9 and ignored the rest of chapter 7, specifically verses 1-5:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul very clearly has in mind the one-man-one-woman relationship — the historic understanding of marriage. “Each man is to have his own wife,” not each man is to have his own man/partner/multiples/animals. Again, “Each woman is to have her own husband,” not each woman is to have her own woman/partner/multiples/animals. Additionally, when Paul urges the Corinthians to “Stop depriving one another” he is talking about sex, which has it’s rightful and holy place only in the bonds of a one-man-one-woman marriage relationship. The Corinthians were depriving their spouses of sexual relations for wrong reasons and/or were practicing extra-marital or homosexual relationships — all of which are immoralities Christians mortify.
This leads me to the second part where he fails, which was in considering the larger teaching of the Apostle Paul. Whenever he warns Christians of sexual immorality, Paul always has in mind the biblical sexual ethic, which is the marriage covenant between one man and one woman (Rom. 1:26-27, 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19). When considering the larger scholarship of Paul, it quickly becomes clear that the biblical sexual ethic stands in stark contrast to the modernist marriage equality agenda. It is impossible to read into Paul anything that supports promiscuity, homosexuality, cohabitation, transgenderism, polyamory, or sodomy.
“Social” justice is the same way. Justice is vitally important to God and appears throughout both Testaments. But what eisegetes want to do is read into the Bible modernist connotations of justice. Biblical justice is defined in two Hebrew words: mishpat and tzadeqah. Mishpat is often misinterpreted for “social” justice. Timothy Keller explains,
Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.
The Bible does care immensely about the condition of society’s most vulnerable populations. This is why the church is called to charity and compassion. This is why the churches in Asia Minor collected offerings to support the churches in Judea (Acts 11:29-30; Rom. 15:25-28; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-4, 9:1-12; Gal. 2:10). This is exactly what the Apostle James had in mind when he said, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (Jas. 2:14-17) Keller continues,
We must have a strong concern for the poor, but there is more to the biblical idea of justice than that. We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as ‘being just,’ though it usually translated as ‘being righteous.’ The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.
Keller’s point is that biblical social justice (if I may use that phrase) has both an inward and an outward component. Outward justice (punishing wrongdoers, aiding the vulnerable, etc.) is good, but falls short of true justice if there is no inward justice. This is Paul’s understanding of justice when he uses the Greek word dikaiosyne (Rom. 3:21-26, 5:17-21; Phl. 3:9), which is most often a translation of the Hebrew tzadeqah. Jesus gets this point across when he insists that a person’s heart (inward righteousness/justice) is born outwardly (“social” justice/righteousness) in the fruit of his life (Mt. 7:15-20; Lk. 6:43-45).
When false teachers aim to read into Scripture modern notions of social justice, they are robbing Christians of their conviction of sin and need for repentance (unless, of course, you are a white, cis-gender, male, in which case you need to repent for everything; but that’s for another post), which means they are robbing the true, biblical justice of its transformative power. God’s understanding of justice is to produce life-altering change in His children. No longer are we sons of wrath, but now sons of God, co-heirs with Christ. If we are the bring biblical social justice in this world, it must first start with the heart and the righteousness that only comes through the cross of Christ.