Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thought on reading the Scriptures: The Bible is true… because reading the Bible enlightens the reader…. The Bible illumines our path, so that we can live our lives with hope and integrity. Reading the Bible in a changed world can still change our world and fill it with meaning and purpose…. When truth is understood in this way, it serves to connect the Bible with other sacred texts which… have the same function: to make available to the conscious mind, through the use of symbolic imagery, the transformative energy of the affections. Schuyler Brown, Text and Psyche, 29

I Timothy 2

I Timothy 2:1-15: The body of the typical Pauline letter is composed of two parts, the first of which provides the theological foundations for the second part dealing with practical instructions for the Christian life…. In contrast, the Pastor’s letters [the pastoral epistles] are composed throughout of practical, ethical instructions, with theological material and rationale woven in from time to time. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Pray for everyone, that sounds like a pretty good request to be made. The writer goes on to specify prayers for “kings and all who are in high positions.” One prayed for the governing authorities so that one might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Such language has both an attractive side and a troubling side. We want to pray for all people, including and sometimes especially for those who have power. “The appeals here on behalf of everyone likely reflect the Pastoral’s vision of God as Savior of everyone” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Yet the language seems to encourage a certain quietist social ethic that does not seem in keeping with some of the challenges to imperial theology we have encountered.

The government was pagan and often made divine claims for itself. Nonetheless, it is God’s world they administer. The early Christians were often thought to be a disruptive influence, a threat to community decency and order. The Pastor wants his readers to see themselves, and to be seen by others, as good constructive citizens, even in a pagan state. This was a continuation of the Jewish practice; prayers were offered daily in the synagogue for the emperor, though Jews had resisted to the death the practice of praying to the emperor as a deity. Though they cannot participate in state-sponsored worship of the emperor and the pagan gods, the readers are instructed to pray for rulers so that the church may live peaceably and fulfill its mission. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

I find these words particularly helpful. We live within certain polarities. We seek to change the world, and yet should not be seen simply as disrupters of the social order. We pray for the governing authorities, but there are limits to loyalty to any government. What those limits may be needs to be discerned within one’s context.

Right after this encouragement to pray for the governing authorities comes a slightly anti-imperial word. “God our Savior” contrasts with the imperial theology wherein the emperor was often called “savior.” Only God is Savior, and this saving God desires that all should be saved “and come to the knowledge of truth.” This is interesting language, another way of talking about what it means to be “saved” – to have certain knowledge. The knowledge that saves is reiterated through the use of an early Christian liturgical piece. “There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” Knowing, here, could be seen, and should be seen, as something more than intellectual assent to certain propositions. It should be seen as transformative knowing, something that shapes our hearts and lives deeply. One can recite the words of a creed and even believe them to be true intellectually without being transformed by the God of which the creed speaks. One can struggle with the ideas of the creed and yet be transformed in the midst of that struggle by the Spirit of God.

Notice that this creed/liturgy emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. By this time in the history of Christian faith, there seemed to be developments that would have cast Jesus as more than human but less than divine. This author will have none of that. The death of the human Jesus, his self-giving, is seen, metaphorically, as a ransom – a liberation of slaves by buying their freedom. This is poetic language, analogic language, comparing what it means to be “saved” with what it means for a slave to be freed. If pressed too far in a literal direction the language becomes unhelpful – did God really have to pay someone for the release of humanity, and was the death of Jesus that payment?

The writer returns to the topic of prayer and then to the topic of appropriate behavior for women in the Christian community. Men should pray by lifting up holy hands – the typical posture for prayer in the ancient world was to stand with palms open and upraised. That poses little trouble, something that cannot be said for the verses that follow.

This writer argues that women should be silent in the church. They should dress modestly, be most concerned with good works. They will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. The call for silence is different from other Pauline Jesus communities where women were in leadership. Clearly, of course, pseudo-Paul would not bother to forbid what never happened. That prohibition therefore tells us that women were praying and teaching within the community’s catechetical practice and liturgical worship. But this text dismisses women from those functions and relegates them to home, silence, and childbearing. Augustus… would have been particularly pleased with those injunctions. (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 119) To take these verses out of their context is a gross mistake, one the church made early and often. In my own denominational tradition, women were not ordained until 1956. This writer is attempting to accommodate the practices of the Christian community to the surrounding culture and seems to overdo it. In every situation, the church must decide when to accommodate to and when to resist the dominant cultural ethos. Whichever decision is made must be on the basis of the church’s mission, not lethargy or a desire to fit in, but also not on the basis of individual personal feelings and “rights.” (People’s New Testament Commentary)

These disturbing verses… are influenced by the household codes, or codes of proper domestic behavior, in antiquity’s popular moral treatises. The author supports the command for women to learn in silence with a certain, and somewhat forced reading of Genesis 2:15-22 and 3:13. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

While we can appreciate the struggle of the author to try and figure out appropriate behavior for the Jesus community in that time, there seems little here to commend itself to us, except the idea that we, too, need to struggle with the ethos of our culture. That said, there is something positive in the remark about women and childbearing. It is not that women should be relegated to childbearing, but the author is probably arguing with certain emerging elements in the Christianity of the time that denigrated normal family life. Some teachers taught that “marrying and generating come from Satan” (cited in Irenaeus, Against Heresies, an early Christian treatise). Family life, if lived with faith, love and holiness, is a faithful way to live as a Christian.

I Timothy 3

I Timothy 3:1-7: One argument for dating the Pastoral Epistles after the death of Paul was the development in them of particular roles within the church. In Paul’s time, congregational leadership was relatively unstructured, dependent on the spontaneous guidance of the Spirit. Here, we see stages of development toward ministerial offices, as charismatic leadership becomes more structured. (People’s New Testament Commentary) In these verses, the writer describes the qualifications of a bishop. The term bishop means one who oversees or supervises or looks after others. While this text addresses the qualities desired for a more specific role, many of the qualities are applicable to spiritual leaders more generally.

A bishop is to be above reproach and married only once. This last phrase probably refers to the ideal in antiquity for a person to remain unmarried if their spouse were to die. The qualities desired are a combination of personal and professional. We may find some of this overlap uncomfortable. We have known good pastors, for instance, whose personal lives were more difficult. Yet for spiritual leaders, there needs to be some congruence between the personal and professional. For spiritual leaders to succeed they need to develop trust and the components of trust, according to Lovett Weams, are competence, character and relationships – personal and professional qualities.

I Timothy 3:8-13: The word “deacon” means server or minister (not clergy, but minister as one who ministers to others). Obviously this is distinct from “bishop” but this is all developing and not yet finally determined. While the roles may be distinct, the qualifications are very similar, and again, they apply to church leaders more generally. Interestingly, the writer seems to suggest that women can be leaders in the church by being deacons.

I Timothy 3:14-16: These verses serve as something of a summary to this point. The writer has been concerned that those to whom he is writing “know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” This household, an image, by the way, not found in the undisputed letters of Paul, is seen as a place of truth. The writer reiterates the truth of the faith by citing another liturgical piece from the time, a celebration of the mystery of our religion. The central truth celebrated is that the living God “was revealed in the flesh.” God touched the earth is a special and unique way in Jesus – this is central to Christian faith. This God-made-flesh was vindicated by the Spirit and the message about him has spread throughout the world.

I Timothy 4

I Timothy 4:1-5: Having celebrated the mystery of faith, the writer now argues against those he thinks have strayed from that faith. He characterizes his opponents as people who have being paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, who have been affected by liars, hypocrites - persons of little conscience. What do these false teachers teach? They teach abstinence from marriage and foods. In contrast, the writer affirms the goodness of God’s creation. This is in keeping with the creed/hymn/liturgy cited at the end of chapter 3. God’s touching the world in the flesh is a strong affirmation of the goodness of creation.

I Timothy 4:6-16: One antidote to false teachers and teachings is to have solid leaders who exercise their leadership wisely. In these verses, and continuing through the next chapter, the writer discusses the responsibilities for “Timothy” as a spiritual leader. Interwoven with this are hints at the false teachings that are problematic.

Good leaders are nourished in the faith and avoid “profane myths and old wives’ tales.” This phrase was a familiar philosophical slur of the time. Instead, a leader trains herself or himself in the faith – the writer alludes to athletic training here. Leaders toil and struggle, but with hope in God – who is the Savior of all. The statements here are ambiguous – God saves all, “especially those who believe.” In the end, the reach of God’s saving work is up to God. As believers our task is to remain faithful to our way of life in Jesus, trusting that God will indeed save us.

Leaders are to be examples. Again, this can be difficult. Pastors sometimes struggle with the idea that they need to be examples. We are human beings, and that is important to remember – and it is. Yet we have a responsibility to live our very human lives in ways that say something about the faith we teach and preach. So we strive to be examples in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. Leaders have a story to tell, a story found in scripture and teaching. Leaders lead from the gift of God within. Leaders pay attention to what is going on in their lives.

I Timothy 5

I Timothy 5:1-16: Instruction for “Timothy” as a spiritual leader continues, here focused on relationships with certain groups of people – younger men, older men, younger women, older women, widows. The writer again makes a case for the importance of family life, arguing that those who do not provide for their families have denied the faith. “The real widow” may refer to an emerging group of widows in the church who have decided to devote themselves fully to prayer and service to God and the church. Verses 9 and following may be qualifications for persons seeking to be a part of this group. The other interpretation is that this is a discussion of who is to become a part of the church’s social welfare program. Widows were often persons in great need in the context of that time. Some of the words about widows seem to appeal to unthinking stereotypes and should not be perpetuated.

I Timothy 5:17-25: Besides bishops and deacons, there was an emerging group of “elders.” These seem to be people who are earning a part of their living from their work of preaching and teaching. They should be people of good character and that character should not be easily vilified. Those who fail to live up to the demands of their role are to be publicly rebuked. In the midst of this word about elders, the writer invites leaders to “take a little wine.” Some of the teachers who were disturbing the community advised a very ascetic life, excluding a little wine. For Christians, this is not prohibited, though the writer has already cautioned against excessive use of wine.

Good works are conspicuous, and will come to light – they will not remain hidden and are thereby encouraged.

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