I honestly cannot nail this down to a moment or a specific time in my life. However, once the dangers of proof texting became clear to me (gradually with ever deeper conviction), avoiding the practice of proof texting became an obsession for me.
Identifying my own proof texting is a humbling process for sure. It is hard for me to admit (because of my pride) all the ways I supported my specific beliefs and practices by isolating texts from their contexts and then using them to try to convince others of the correctness of my beliefs and practices (often in opposition to theirs). Over the last fifteen years, I have become more aware of the ways that I abused and misused biblical passages. And it remains an ongoing process. One of the key ways of identifying my own proof texting is realizing when a specific word, clause, sentence or short passage is my only proof of my “correct” doctrine or practice.
A key belief and practice of many restorationist denominations (or at least it used to be) had to do with recognizing the leadership role, and qualifications, of “elder” (aka “bishop,” “overseer,” and/or “shepherd” or “pastor”). In the restorationist denomination in which I was initially trained and in which I served in the full time ministry, the issue of who was qualified to be appointed as an elder was paramount, and one “qualification” in particular was crucial. As stated in Titus 1:6, “An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.” For years, I believed and taught that the children of elders must be faithful Christians (i.e., baptized and actively following Jesus as Lord). If any of a man’s children either hadn’t ever made the decision to follow Jesus or had done so and then later “fell away,” that man was not qualified to serve his local congregation as an elder.
There are several problems with using Titus 1:6 as a proof text that an elder’s children must be faithful followers of Jesus. First, this is the only passage that might possibly be interpreted in that way. There is no other passage of scripture that teaches or gives an example of this. Second, interpreting the phrase “τέκνα ἔχων πιστά” as “having believing children” is not the only way to translate this clause. It can, and I have concluded should, be translated as “having trustworthy children”. The word “πιστά” from “πιστός” means “trusting, believing, full of faith, faithful, trustworthy, reliable, dependable.” The clause that follows “τέκνα ἔχων πιστά” is translated as “not accused of debauchery and not rebellious” (NRSV) or “not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (NIV). This final clause defines, in this context, what the adjective “πιστά” means and thus how it should be understood and translated. Understood as “trustworthy/reliable/dependable children” makes more sense given the immediate context and is the more usual meaning of “πιστός.”
Fundamentalists and conservative evangelical denominations and their members, however, are not the only ones who proof text in order to support their beliefs and practices. The same can be, and sadly is, what progressive and liberal denominations do, often in response to the proof texting of fundamentalist and evangelicals. In those cases, all parties are guilty of abusing and misusing the scriptures. Hot topics that often rely on proof texting right now include issues related to LGBTQ, gender equality, and gender identity. Arguing about who has the better proof texts, in my opinion, proves nothing. Rather, a reasoned, mutually respectful discussion that honestly attempts to exegete these isolated texts with respect to their contexts (biblical, cultural, historical, etc.) has a much greater probability of leading to understanding, if not agreement.
In my last year of formal graduate study, I wrote a paper titled, “What is Actually Prohibited by the Law in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13?” This is one of the passages that the LGBTQ community and supporters call, “clobber passages” because of their proof texting use by fundamentalist and evangelicals to prove that LGBTQ individuals are guilty of “abominable” or “utterly detestable” sin. Yet, after careful examination of the words and phrases used in these verses, and the contexts in which they laws are found, one of the conclusions I came to was…
…the numerous questions that arise from the close reading and various analyses of each verse are not insignificant and should give any interpreter reason to pause and thoughtfully try to provide reasonable answers. Those who insist that these laws clearly and unambiguously prohibit all same-gender sexuality for all people for all time, ignore or minimize the complexities/difficulties of the Hebrew text, misunderstand/misrepresent the meaning of תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה, [the Hebrew word for “abomination”] and/or refuse to take the immediate context into consideration.
Sadly, most proof texting is done arrogantly and self-righteously and is used to not only defend one’s belief and practice, but to attack and delegitimize the belief and practice of those with whom the proof texter disagrees. Such an use of proof texts is often referred to as “weaponizing” scripture.
Bottom line: When one strives to avoid proof texting, and thus seeks to appreciate these passages in context, possibilities open up to other potentially valid, or at least reasonable, interpretations that support different beliefs and practices. That is, doing my best to dismantle and avoid proof texting has resulted in many “Aha” moments which have each impacted my spiritual journey.