Paul’s instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 are very controversial in some circles today. He makes some assumptions about gender roles that directly contradict the spirit of this age. Many people — even some conservative evangelicals — reject this passage out of hand as conditioned by an ignorant, outdated culture. As interesting as the passage itself is, I am even more intrigued by a question for those who dismiss it as chauvinistic and patriarchal: If the Lord himself appeared and gave you this teaching personally, would you accept it? And a second question: If you can reject one passage of Scripture on the basis of cultural opinion, how is any passage still authoritative for you?
Two of the greatest dangers for the believer: (1) how our culture insinuates itself into our opinions and (2) the tendency to make our opinions lord over Scripture and even Jesus himself. Even long-time students of Scripture are vulnerable, as we develop a personal theology, which can become a filter for our understanding of the text, a voice that tells us what the Bible means and keeps us from listening to what the Bible actually says.
That may be one reason Paul later told Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.”
A Facebook friend responds to agree that “All scripture is inspired by God …” but adds that “the issue is what in our Bible is ‘true Scripture’ and what is / was a cultural norm in those days?”
He continues: “In progressive revelation, I believe some of the teachings give us insight into the higher teachings of Jesus. Obviously, this is not easy. Some of those teachings may be attributed to Jesus in the scriptures and others may be coming from the words of some of his disciples. Gal 3:28 is a major one for me in view of interpersonal relationships.
“Now the big question is, if Jesus spoke to you today in this culture, would he say the same thing or would he say something different? I think that he very likely would tweak the statement a little.”
Another Facebook friend adds: “If Jesus spoke to you today doesn’t really have any relevance to your broader question. Beyond that, it sounds like you’re talking about inerrancy without using the word. Personally, I believe we now know enough about scripture, how it was written, collected and collated, how the canon was arrived at and when to render the inerrancy question moot.
“I attribute Paul’s comments on gender to the specific circumstances in the church he was addressing (these were letters before they were books of the Bible) and to the prevailing attitudes of the day. I have an evolutionary worldview, so I wouldn’t say that Paul ‘didn’t understand the issue as well as we do today.’ I think he understood the issue perfectly – given the cultural milieu he was immersed in, and the time. Since then we have evolved, somewhat. Thankfully the journey continues.”
A third Facebook friend says: “It seems to me that the letter we call 1 Timothy, and in fact, all the writings in what we call the Bible are cultural artifacts. They are human words. They didn’t drop out of heaven and bounce down here to earth. The Bible as we have it [well, there’s even variations about what is included in the Bible] is a product of a church council called by Constantine and enforced by him… he wanted One church for One empire. All this is to say, as I think Karl Barth said it, that the Bible is very much human words which witness to the Word of God within those words. It is our very human task to interpret those words. Maybe we get it right, maybe we don’t. Thankfully, wisdom is embodied in real human life, at least I take it that this is what John 1 is saying about Jesus Christ. Wisdom is in the living, in the life. It is for us to live and to share the life we experience with the wisdom we are learning. In 2000 years we have learned that women are not just unformed, defective human beings, as was thought in the ancient world (and is still thought today in traditional cultures).”
I find all those answers immensely unsatisfying, not to mention evasive. Buzzwords like “progressive revelation,” “higher teachings of Jesus,” and “cultural milieu” merely mask the fact that we are choosing to give more credence to one passage of Scripture than another. None of it explains how a person would discern the difference between a passage that is authoritative and one that is not. What are the objective criteria for distinguishing between the two kinds? How do you decide what is “true Scripture” and what is not?
What concerns me is the problem of submitting Scripture to our culturally conditioned opinions. Of course, Scripture is influenced by the culture of the time in which it was written. Our opinions today, however, are at least as much influenced by our own culture. If certain passages must be written off because they are culturally conditioned, how are we to discern which of our own culturally conditioned opinions also must be written off? If we have misgivings about the authority of given passage of Scripture, how does a person objectively distinguish between “good” Bible and “bad” Bible? How are people who dismiss passages leaning on any authority other than their own subjective opinion?
Has culture evolved since biblical times? In some ways, yes; in others, it has surely devolved. Do we have any tools other than our own opinion for figuring out whether and how we have progressed or regressed on this issue? How would we justify saying, in effect, that Paul didn’t understand the issue as well as we do today and his words need to be discounted because of that?
Certainly, the part of Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the whole, the unclear in light of the clear. But surely we do not decide to discount a passage just because it’s hard to understand and apply. If there isn’t a way to be objective in discounting a passage of Scripture, do we not need a different approach to interpreting?
The reason we shy away from a difficult passage like Paul’s word to Timothy isn’t that the passage isn’t fully God’s word; it’s because we agree with our contemporary culture and reject what Paul is teaching. We at least ought to be asking ourselves what core truth the passage is teaching that we must apply to our lives and our society. It’s better to get into the pig pen and come out with truth, than to decide we don’t want to get muddy and wind up allowing cultural opinion to be lord.
Personally, I do not want to discount the authority of any passage that my faith community has accepted as Scripture for millennia. The question isn’t giving credence, but understanding what it meant to the original audience, what the core truth is that is being taught, what it means today, how the application differs because of differing circumstances, and — a question too seldom asked today — how it challenges our contemporary cultural opinions.
Paul’s words to Timothy are very interesting. They present a great challenge for interpretation. We have to go deep to get hold of the truth. And I don’t expect everyone to agree on their conclusions. But most of what passes for egalitarianism these days is cultural accommodation, not serious exegesis.
The core issue we need to wrestle with is how we can be aware of our own cultural conditioning and allow Bible truth to speak more loudly than the voices around us. Once we get a handle on that, “difficult” passages like this can crack wide open for us.