You know if you have read my previous posts that I am back in school so I am mostly writing about my classes! I did consider perhaps it was too late for me to finish my degree at 58 years old; then I met a woman who finished her Master’s degree in her 80’s. I decided, “What to heck! If she can do it, I can do it too! I don’t think God is through with me yet!” So, I am working hard every day reading a lot of textbooks and my Bible. I love it, but I have to admit, I miss reading some good stories – you know the kind – those that keep you glued to the couch until you finish them. Some of those stories are found right here on this site, written by my really neat Christian brothers and sisters who write really awesome Christian fiction! I have found good Christian books balanced with reading the Bible to be the best recipe for my life. I hope you have too. Today, I want to share some things I have learned in one of my classes that help us to read the Bible for all its worth!
I think these interpretation rules can help achieve consistency in anyone’s biblical understanding. I pray you will find this to be true for you: (1) The first rule addresses our starting point, which is what we call exegesis. Exegesis is what we do in trying to understand what was written to them back then and there. One does not have to be an expert to do the basics of exegesis. We just need to be aware of a few things. For instance, Fee and Stuart, authors of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, recommend that we set limits to what the text can and cannot mean today based on what it could mean when written to the original recipients. In other words, it cannot mean something to us today that the hearers then would not have understood. Remember, those that these words were originally spoken or written to didn’t try to interpret them in their present time according to a future understanding or future culture such as our western lifestyle in the twenty first century. It is we who have that task. We must look back and interpret according to their situation and culture, not according to our own.
This seems like a basic idea; yet, we all can probably think of some times we have seen poor interpretation from ignoring this rule. For example, those who do not believe that spiritual gifts are for today sometimes use 1 Corinthians 13:10: “When the perfect comes the partial will be done away” as their theological basis for refutation of the spiritual gifts. They claim that the perfect has come in the form of the written Word of God, particularly the New Testament. They say, therefore, prophecy and tongues are no longer needed. With good exegesis, however, we know that First Corinthians 13:10 could not possibly mean this to the first century Christians; because, they did not know we would have the Bible in the form we have it today. By asking the question, “Could this have meant that to the first century reader?” when we are considering an interpretation, we can prevent ourselves from building a false theology. I am not trying to tell you what to believe concerning spiritual gifts. But I am saying that if you don’t believe they are for today, hopefully this isn’t the reason; (2) The second rule: When the situation surrounding the first century recipient is comparable to ours, then God’s Word to us is the same as it was to them. That’s easy enough. On the other hand, if it is not comparable, whether it is what we want to believe or not, we must accept that most likely it needs to be interpreted in view of cultural relativity. In other words, it is vital that we correctly reconstruct the circumstance of the hearer then in our exegesis, if we are to apply this rule with biblical accuracy. These things must be done before we can then determine what the Word means to us today in our present situation.
One such place in Scripture that is interpreted differently by different denominations is First Timothy 2:11 concerning the operation of the church and women. As I have studied the passages concerning this issue this past year, I have found that the Church at Ephesus was a church in crisis! This is important to know because a church in crisis may need different instructions than one that is not. One of their challenging issues involved some very specific women who were spreading wrong teachings (1 Timothy 5:11-15; 2 Timothy 3:6-9). When considering what they may have been teaching, consider the culture of Ephesus.
The culture was highly influenced by the goddess Artemis which encouraged women to dominate men. Her worship was fanatical and traced back to the Amazon (female warriors), of whom many in Ephesus claimed to be descended from. Having this type of knowledge about what was going on in Ephesus helps us to understand the situation, problems, and crisis Timothy was trying to handle which demanded drastic measures. It helps us to understand why Paul would write, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” in one place and do the opposite in another. Paul was the founder of the church at Ephesus and had left Timothy there to handle the crisis. Paul was laying down some strict measures based on the situation present in Ephesus at this particular time in order to bring it out of a crisis situation. Paul wouldn’t allow a woman to teach or speak for that particular church at that particular time for that particular circumstance, and not for every church for ever.
After all, Paul writes to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11) to help them sort out the issue of headdressings when women are… what?–when they are prophesying and praying in public worship services! He didn’t command them to be silent. He gave instructions for them to pray and prophesy. One cannot pray and prophesy and keep silent! In other areas of Scripture we see women were involved in leadership roles in Paul’s ministry as well. Therefore, we must take the this Scripture and the one other used to prevent women from holding leadership roles in some churches today and consider them in light of all the Scriptures and references to women and ministry made by Paul. When we do, I believe the best conclusion is these two situations must be culturally relevant, meant for very specific situations, and not a universal mandate.
Again, I am not trying to change your doctrine about this controversial issue with this short post. However, I do hope I have heightened your sensitivity to specific problems inherent in Scripture, and helped you realize why different options exist. I share Fee and Stuart’s goal that as readers, we learn to discern between good and not-so-good interpretations and perhaps to know what makes them one or the other.
Until next time…Happy Reading and may you be safe in our Father’s care!
1Fee, Gordon D. and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003.