I was recently asked about how ELCA Lutherans handle difficult passages in the Bible, particularly ones dealing with women's ordination. Do we dismiss them as being from a different cultural context or should we take them literally? So today I want to take a look at one of those passages and one way we might consider it.
1 Timothy 2:9- 14
"1011[A]lso that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. "
The easy way to deal with this is to say it is from a different time and is no longer applicable. This is not the word of God for us. However, that does not acknowledge the reality of this passage as part of our scriptures. If we believe God has inspired the words of the Bible, how do we deal with cultural issues and changes in common understanding.
This is a little bit easier with slavery in that very very few people today believe the passage "Slaves obey your masters" should serve as an obvious Biblical call for a social structure that includes slaves. Yet it be that easily dismissed? And why is that this is easier to do with passages about slavery and not with passages about women in church leadership?
Helpful in considering parts of scripture is the understanding that various parts were written for different reasons. Histories tell of God's people fighting various enemies for various reasons. Wisdom literature sings God's praises and points out hard truths about the reality of life on earth. Prophecy talks about God's expectations, disappointments and work among people. The gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ on earth and Acts tells the story of his disciples after his ascension. Epistles are from disciples to various faith communities- advising, consoling and exhorting. Revelation is, well,... revelation.
When we read Scriptures, we should go into it preparing to be challenged, comforted and questioning about what we meet. We must also remember to think about all scripture together- the Bible is our whole canon- the parts we love and the parts we'd like to leave out.
The letters to Timothy are written, to our best understanding, by someone writing in Paul's name. They may not even be to someone named Timothy, but rather general letters written to faith communities in the names of Paul and Timothy. This was a common practice in that time to write in the style of a particular leader or teacher and to continue to use (usually) his name.
By the time the letters to Timothy and from Peter are being written, people are becoming concerned with the growing church and the development of Christian practices. By now the Christians are still a sect of Judaism, but are more frequently recognized on their own and for their different beliefs. Many Christians by this time would have also begun to adjust to the idea that the return of Christ might be further away than previously thought. The letters we believe are genuinely from Paul (Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are similar in writing style and deal with understanding the nuances of faith and living in community until Christ comes again... an event that seems imminent. The later epistles, written in the Pauline style, are concerned with church practices and establishing respectability for the growing faith (1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians).
With this information, we have to look at the Scriptures with the eyes of two audiences, those of the original readers and then our own contemporary eyes.
In the whole of Scripture, women have various leadership positions and play significant roles in the development of faith. Where would the lineage of Jesus be without Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Mary? But it is not only through sex (or retained virginity) that women make a difference, but also through proclamation, hospitality and evangelism. Deborah (Judges 4), Lydia (Acts 6:14), Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Susannah and Joanna (Luke 8:3) all play a significant role in the lives of the people around them and further the spread of the word of God through their actions.
If we know that women play a successful leadership role in Scripture, then what does it mean for our reading of texts that say women should not have leadership roles (over men) in churches. For the time at which it was written, women did not often have access to as much education as men had. Also, other major religions at the time (namely Judaism) did not have women leaders and having them might have made Christians less respected or accepted culturally. In contemporary understanding, the message is that our church leaders (and our own behaviors as church members) reflect not only on ourselves, but on the gospel. Our lives are not merely our own, but may be the encounter people remember with a person who described themselves as a Christian.
The larger message is that there are parts of the Bible that may seem irrelevant or confusing, but when we dismiss them, we lose the chance for God's spirit to work in our hearts and increase our understanding of the Word. So don't shy away from that Bible or the wrestling. Jacob might have limped away from the angel, but he did so with a blessing. So do we when we spend time read God's inspired Word to people then and now.