Proof Texting

Written by Drew on December 15th, 2005

“Proof texting” is the practice of using a passage of Scripture to prove a doctrine or practice. Although it has come under fire as an inappropriate way to preach, there is nothing inherently wrong with using a text as proof. Jesus and the apostles frequently used proof texts in their preaching and writing (cf. Mt. 4:4, 7, 10; 22:32; Acts 2:16-21; Rom. 10:5).

There is a problem, however, with using proof texts out of their context. This is a satanic way of dealing with the Bible (Mt. 4:6) and should be avoided at all costs.

However, even for faithful gospel preachers, the temptation to use a proof text out of context can be hard to resist. Below are some examples of passages taken out of context to prove a point. In most cases, the point was scriptural; the preacher just used the wrong passage to support it.

1. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). This is the go-to passage for all families who are on vacation and who do not want to look for a church on Sunday so they can go to worship. While I believe the Lord would encourage us to worship with others when we are out of town (cf. Acts 20:6-7), I’m sure that he does not refuse worship when it is offered up by only two or three individuals. However, Matthew 18:20 has nothing to do with worshiping in small groups.

The verse comes at the close of a discussion of church discipline, in which the disciples are told that their leadership over the church will sometimes be very challenging (vv. 15-19). Jesus’ words “there am I among them” are meant to comfort them in the face of these leadership challenges.

2. “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). This is one that I got caught using in a sermon on influence. I was making the point that our attitudes and actions affect others, even if we do not realize it. Other preachers I respect had used the verse in this manner, and I thought nothing of parroting their delivery.

In Romans 14, Paul’s teaching does touch on the matter of influence, but here he is pointing out that Christians live their lives for Christ, not themselves. Consider verse 8: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

After I completed the sermon, a fellow preacher approached me and kindly suggested that I took the verse out of context. I was embarrassed but thankful that he drew my attention to my mistake.

3. “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2). This verse is often used to support the idea that the Spirit dwells in the believer representatively, through the word of God. According to this interpretation, the phrase “hearing with faith” refers to an understanding of the word that leads to obedience to the gospel (cf. Rom. 10:17). Thus Paul supposedly tells his readers they “received” the indwelling of the Spirit upon hearing God’s word.

This interpretation fails, however, when the passage is read in context. Consider a parallel rhetorical question in verse 5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” Again we find the phrase “hearing with faith.” Here it is understood that miracles were also worked by “hearing with faith.” Now, are those who advance the “representative” position prepared to say God imparts miraculous power through the word? It’s doubtful.

In context it is clear that this passage addresses the problem of Judaizing teachers who teach a works-based salvation by “works of the law.” Paul argues that the law of Moses cannot save. One must come to God through “hearing with faith” in order to be saved.

4. “If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). I heard this example from Alan Highers. He recalled how that, when he was a boy, the men of the congregation would reprimand the youngsters who were a little rowdy in church by reading this passage on how we ought to “behave” in the “house” (KJV) of God. They understood “house” in terms of the church building. But, really, Paul meant for it to refer to the family of God, which is the church (cf. Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:5).

These are just a few examples. They remind all preachers and Bible class teachers of the importance of open-minded Bible study.

Maybe you have some more examples of proof texts to share. You can leave them in the “comments” section below.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Anonymous says:

    I too find “prooftexting” out of context to be troublesome also. There are plenty of examples of poor prooftexting in our Restoration Movement but I wanted to cite one a little further removed. The following is an excerpt cited by Alan Dershowitz in a debate against Alan Keyes in 2001, “The Role of Religion in Society.” I show this debate every year to my High School Bible class to illustrate several things but in particular the dangers of proof texting as done by Dershowitz.

    “Dear Dr. Laura,

    Thank you so much for trying to educate people regarding God’s law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:12 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

    “But I need some advice from you regarding some of the other specific laws and how best to follow them. When I burn a bull on the alter as a sacrifice, I know it creates a ‘pleasing odor for the Lord’ (Leviticus 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this? I would like to sell my daughter into slavery as suggested by Exodus 21:7. What do you think a fair price would be? I know I’m allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Leviticus 19:24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but some women take offense. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I obliged morally to kill him myself, or may I hire a hit man? I know you have studied these things extensively, and so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.”

    I enjoy the blog, glad JP put me on to it.

    Chris King (Atlanta)

  2. Anonymous says:

    prooftexting eh, (is that from the book 1984?). those are some pretty poor examples to show and in the final one you ‘prooftext’ yourself. obviously, the house is the church/body, and not the literal house.
    also, jesus does not come unless you are with someone? all those lonely prayers wasted…
    the fact that you are corrected and being accused of prooftexting should show that you need much more teaching on your subject before spreading ‘the word’ and leading astray

Leave a Comment