Saturday, November 5, 2011

5-Step Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - Part 2

Part 2 of my analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 focuses on Step 4 of a five-step process that takes literary and historical context into account before honing in on a reading of the actual passage in question. Afterwards, before proceeding to the last step, I will talk a little bit about how this process casts in doubt the traditional, restrictionist view of this passage as being Paul's actual, intended meaning.

So on to Step 4: Determine the place of the passage in question within the purpose and literary context of this particular book of the Bible.

This book is a personal letter written by Paul to his "true son in the faith," Timothy. It is not intended, therefore, to function in the same way the "general" letters do, as exhortations to whole congregations. Timothy was Paul's most trusted delegate in his mission. Paul's purpose in writing this particular letter to Timothy is given in chapter 1, verse 3: "as I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain persons not to teach false doctrines any longer." Later, Paul expands upon this purpose in chapter 3, verses 14-15: "Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household." The church is being viewed as a "household," which in those days meant a large family unit that functioned as both a family and an economic enterprise. Paul's purpose, then, is to instruct Timothy in a temporary mission while Paul is away: to stop the spread of false doctrine and to make sure the church is acting in such a way as to be a healthy family unit and a productive center for the spread of the gospel. (Note that though this letter has been denoted as a "pastoral" epistle, for the purpose of instruction to a young pastor-- that is not Timothy's actual function or mission at the time of this letter. Paul is clearly intending to return to a church he considers a special charge of his own. He is not turning over leadership of this church to Timothy; in fact, there are already local leaders in place. But Paul wants Timothy to make sure the local leadership of this church, in the form of "overseers" and "deacons," is are properly qualified and functioning as they should. There was no such thing as a "senior pastor" at this stage in church development. Churches were run by groups of leaders, checked in on by an apostle like Paul. But Timothy will not be this church's "overseer." Timothy's mission is temporary.

Paul's letter is set up as follows:

Greeting and purpose statement: false doctrine
Paul's view of his own former errors and God's mercy
Charge to Timothy to hold onto faith and a good conscience
Instructions regarding prayer and worship with an eye to the community being allowed to "live peaceful and quiet lives," and with an eye to the desire of God that all people "be saved and come to knowledge of the truth."
The verses in question (I'll get back to those in Step 5)
Qualifications for overseers and deacons
Reiteration and expansion of purpose statement
A quotation of an oral tradition regarding the nature of the Christ (true doctrine)
Description of false doctrines that are a problem at Ephesus with exhortation to Timothy to repudiate them and teach true doctrine
Treatment of elders, and the maintaining of a "list" of widows to receive care
Exhortation that everyone take care of their own dependents "so that no one may be open to blame."
The problem of younger widows
Instructions to Timothy to give honor to the local leaders who are doing right and to rebuke those who are sinning.
A brief aside about Timothy's own health
Instructions to give to slaves
A warning to be on watch for money-loving as a motivation for false teachers
A command to Timothy to keep himself pure and to exhort the rich not to put their trust in money
A final exhortation about guarding against false teaching

So that's the letter as a whole, and where the passage fits into it. And here's the main areas where I think the traditional reading is incorrect.

The traditional/restrictionist reading is inconsistent in its interpretational methods. While insisting on the timelessness of "I do not permit a woman to teach," the traditional reading treats the verses immediately preceding, about men lifting their hands when they pray and women not wearing gold and pearls, as cultural and temporary. The traditional interpretation extracts the principles of these verses (men should pray in a holy manner and women should dress modestly), and keeps those, but not the “plain meaning,” which involves the lifting of hands and a prohibition against certain kinds of clothing and hairstyles.

The restrictionist reading then insists that in spite of the culturally-bound nature of the preceding verses, the prohibition against women teaching is not cultural and temporary, but timeless. The reason given for this is that Paul “grounds” the prohibition in the creation order by citing the Adam and Eve story. This is done without adequate justification as to how the creation story makes the prohibition timeless. Readings such as “Adam was in authority over Eve even before the Fall” or “because Eve was deceived, all women are easily deceived” involves reading meanings into Paul‘s words, and into the Genesis account, that are not supported by the actual texts.

Second, the traditional reading is inconsistent in that it discounts the "plain meaning" of the verses immediately following, which (if read according to "plain meaning") say that women are saved by having babies. It then insists that the “plain meaning“ of "I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority* over a man" is: "no woman shall be a pastor or an elder," or "no woman shall give a teaching 'from the pulpit' during a church service.“ These are actually not “plain” readings of the text at all-- but even if they were, it is problematic to insist that we have to take these verses for exactly what the restrictionists claim they say, when the restrictionists themselves do not follow the plain meaning a few verses later. Instead, they say women will be "saved" from being deceived if they accept their role as child-bearers. They are unwilling to contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone, even for women-- so they change the meaning of "saved" and "through" and "child-bearing."

The traditional/restrictionist reading, through these inconsistencies, reveals an ongoing cultural bias against women having power in the church, which bias colors the interpretation. Women are allowed the benefit of the doubt when a passage's "plain reading" might appear to rob them of salvation by grace, but when a passage appears to rob them of full participation in the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit, who was "poured out on all flesh, on your sons and daughters" in the New Covenant-- this reading flatly denies women.

There is no place in this restrictionist reading to question whether Paul, who considered the church at Ephesus his church and was giving Timothy instructions for managing it in his absence, might actually have been saying, "This is the course of action I'm taking at this time to deal with these problems in my church. Please follow them while I'm gone." There is no room to take into account that Paul's own perceived mission was to present true doctrine, and to make sure the gospel message did not become distasteful to the surrounding culture-- which might have resulted in particular procedures, specifically for this church at that time, designed to make sure uneducated women learned correct doctrine and did not embarrass the men in an honor-shame culture. The restrictionist reading refuses to take into account that Paul did not give these instructions in a general letter to all churches, but in a personal letter to his closest right-hand man-- and that if he'd really wanted to restrict women from any authoritative or teaching roles, he should have rebuked the women that he mentions in Romans 16, rather than commending them!

But this five-step method is set up to take all those things into account, before proceeding to determine the most likely, author-intended meaning of the passage in question. Stay tuned.


*The translation "exercise authority" is also problematic; but that's an issue for Step 5.

1 comment:

Andrew Clark said...

Wow! That is certainly a different way to look at that passage. I can remember being taught the restrictionist reading and never suspecting anything. The teachers I've had had a very specific way of teaching in which students were made to participate but they had to come to come to the same conclusion as the teacher.

Many times my Bible teachers were like, "were going to look at just this passage." By that they meant not taking into account the historical context or purpose of the passage. Of course, such a message is awful. It's reading something out of context, which is never a good way to learn.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to your next post.