Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Men and women's roles: 1 Timothy 2:8-15 part i

A mono-dialogue
Continuing the conversation (Gen. 1-3)
The end of the conversation (but not really)

This is one of the most disputed passages in the whole Bible today. There have literally been hundreds of books written just on these eight verses alone! And I haven’t actually read even a single one of them! So it’s tempting to just give up on this portion of Scripture and discreetly turn the page. Still, I do trust in the clarity of Scripture, so long as we are in line with how language and literature (genre etc.) works, and we understand that clarity does not equal to ease of understanding – understanding the Bible can be hard work!

To tackle 1 Timothy 2:8-15, it seems important to me to see where these 8 sentences emerge from. Also, I am fairly dependent on a sermon I heard on this passage for this post, especially on linguistic matters, since I don’t understand Greek nor do I own any commentary on 1 Timothy. It'd probably help to have an open Bible at hand somewhere to follow this post.

Background and purpose of 1 Timothy
Paul is on his way to Macedonia, but he has left Timothy back in Ephesus. The reason for this is the rise of false teachers in the church (1:3-4). Paul had already taken serious action against two of them, Hymenaeus and Alexander (1:19-20). More generally, this seems to be primarily a book about church order, so in chapter 2, we already have instructions concerning our controversial passage as well as public prayer, chapter 3 on the qualifications for overseers and deacons, chapter 4 on church discipline and chapter 5 on caring for different groups in the church, be it widows or slaves.

But I don’t think we need to see the rise of false teachers as just a side note, an “oh, btw Tim, do take care of the business of false teachers while I tell you how to run a church” from Paul. Instead, I think the spectre of false teaching looms large in Paul’s thinking regarding the running of the household of God, and the letter is bookended by a charge to be faithful and a warning against false teaching. "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care” (6:20). Paul is concerned that the church must be seen as the “church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (3:15). When we gather together, we are in some way, a family, a group of ambassadors of God. Therefore, all these instructions about church order are, in the end, to ensure that God’s name is not besmirched by improper conduct among his people, which could be undermined by all sorts of false teaching. (Notice how 4:1-5 follows immediately on from 3:14-16). So in v.16, possibly quoting an old creed or hymn, Paul gives us doctrinal teaching, but not in an abstract sense, since it is finally to do with person of Jesus. It is the "mystery of godliness", so doctrine and conduct, theology and worship, go together.

In chapter 1, Paul has spoken against false teachers, reminding us of the usefulness of the law in showing up our sin, and given his testimony about God’s abundant grace in Jesus. This is something worth fighting for and we can’t let others shipwreck it (1:18-20).

So why is Paul so adamant about this? This is made clear in chapter 2. It’s not about nitpicking over the final details of doctrine. No, it’s all about mission. In 2:1-7, the first matters he addresses to the church is prayer. Pray for the authorities (v.1-2)...why? So that they won’t get in the way of mission (v.3), a mission that is huge in scope ("all men"). Mission is the heartbeat of God (v.4-5), and at the center of it is Jesus (v.5), the only one who could reconcile us to God. This is Paul’s heart too (v.7). Paul remembers this all too well: "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of which I am the worse" (1:15). This is set against the less than trustworthy sayings of the false teachers, eg. 1:4, 1:8-10, 3:1, 4:1-5, 9-10.

Why is this so important? Because unfortunately, the NIV has left out a very important word in v.8. It should start with the word "therefore", linking v.8-15 back to 2:1-7. We need to understand v.8-15 in light of v.1-7. (See more literal translations like the NASB or ESV which has kept the word.) So when we read the instructions regarding men and women in worship, we should do so, knowing that Paul has the mission of the church in mind.

[To be continued, when BK jumps into shark-infested waters!]

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