Context Matters

51733093Years ago, I found myself in a knock-down, drag-out theological conversation about the Bible’s teaching on the role of women in the church. We were in the campus cafeteria, but the only things getting eaten up that day were me and my arguments. Let the reader understand that I was dramatically overmatched, up against a well-prepared and belligerent person for whom this issue was central. He was ready, I was not.

It was a smackdown.

I’ll illustrate. At one point in the proceedings, in the middle of his long digression about 1 Timothy and desperate to somehow stem the tide, I found myself blurting out, “well, I disagree with your hermeneutic.” He paused for  a second and asked me what I meant. And in the 20 seconds it took me to try in vain to come up with a good answer, he decided that my time was up and resumed his central argument, which was that by allowing women to speak in our InterVarsity Large Group meetings, I was functioning as a false teacher.

It was ugly.

Now, years later, I have more and better words. In particular, I know now what I mean by “I disagree with your hermeneutic.” What I mean is this:

Proper biblical interpretation reckons with the context in which the passage was written.

And that’s really the central message of the new-ish book Paul Behaving Badly, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. According to the authors, the process of understanding the message of Scripture must necessarily include a serious effort to reckon with the context in which a particular text sits.

It’s a long quote, but here’s what they have to say about dealing with context in the interpretive process:

“One of the challenges of interpreting Paul is that his writings are what scholars call ‘occasional writings.’ That doesn’t mean that Paul only wrote periodically. It means that when he wrote, it was with a specific audience and situation in mind. His writings were specific to a particular occasion. This wouldn’t necessarily pose a problem for us if we had all the information to reconstruct the occasions for which Paul wrote. If we knew, for example, what questions people had asked him, what crises he was responding to, what books were on his desk when he penned his thoughts, well, the work would be half done for us. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to all that information.

What we have to work with are Paul’s letters compiled in the New Testament. These letters are half a correspondence. In some cases, they are Paul’s responses to letters he received from others. But we don’t have their letters with their questions and concerns, so we’re listening in on only one side of a private conversation. We don’t know the exact dates all the letters were composed, so we can’t say with absolute confidence what situations or events may have shaped Paul’s thoughts on a subject. So then we must weigh all the evidence and make educated guesses. Like all good readers of Paul, we try to recreate the world in which Paul was ministering and writing, and interpret what he had to say in that context.”

This quote captures well the challenge of context. Grasping the context surrounding Paul’s words is surely a challenge, though it’s a challenge that must be accepted in pursuit of right interpretation.

In their chapter “Was Paul a Chauvinist?”, the authors engage some of the verses where Paul seems to restrict the full participation of women in the first church, like the 1 Timothy text that we were talking about back in the cafeteria that day. As they overlay these verses on a thorough examination of the first century context around women, it becomes clear that the passages in question are not meant to be timeless prohibitions. Instead, they are culturally-bound admonitions, meant for the first audience first and foremost.

And Paul’s injunctions would have pushed the cultural envelope. As Richards and O’Brien put it:

“Paul does indeed behave badly when it comes to women. His Jewish culture would not have been pleased with all of the freedom and responsibility he suggested women had in Christ. Traditional Roman culture would have been equally displeased for the same reasons, and the modern ‘liberated’ women of the day would have felt restricted by Paul’s teachings.”

If I had a do-over, if I could walk back into that cafeteria again, I’d like the think the outcome would be different. And it would be different because we’d talk about context, and about the occasional nature of Paul’s letters.

What was the problem with that guy’s hermeneutic?

He paid no heed to context.

And so he missed Paul’s heart for the full liberation of women in the church.


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