Saturday, July 13, 2013
This post is part of a continuing series on rethinking the authority of Scripture. Read the first post here
In my previous post I discussed the problem of inerrancy and infallibility, and in particular how they support an authoritarian reading that hurts people and legitimizes violence in God's name. Consequently, lots of us have been looking for alternative ways to read the Bible. Let's dive into a practical example:
In 1 Timothy 2:12 we read “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” Lots of progressive evangelicals like me find this passage troublesome because it appears to promote gender inequality, and imply that women are inferior and cannot be good leaders. So what do we do with this?
One approach that is taken frequently by us progressives is to claim that Paul did not write First Timothy at all. This argument comes from biblical scholarship which, based on a linguistic analysis of the Greek has determined that the vocabulary used in the pastoral epistles (including 1 Timothy) differs significantly from the other "authentic" or "undisputed" Pauline letters like Romans, Galatians, and so on.
We see this kind of statement being made a lot in biblical scholarship. Another prominent example is the entire study of the "historical Jesus" which tries to differentiate the Jesus we find in the Gospels who is presented through the lens of the Gospel writer, and the "authentic" and "real" Jesus of history. From this, again, similar claims are often made: "The historical Jesus did not say that yucky thing, that was an embellishment of Matthew."
There has of course been a lot of debate as to whether these claims are true or not, but what I want to focus on here is a much deeper issue: Namely, these kinds of arguments are appeals to authority in the very literal sense of the word: It is an appeal to author-ity. That is, the appeal is to who said it (the author), rather than to the merit of what was said. I would submit that the real problem here is not one of authorship at all.
Let's be honest: the reason you and I have trouble with 1 Timothy 2:12 is not because of the authorship, it's because we recognize that it is hurtful and wrong to dis-empower women. So we look for a way to make sense of this, and then we hear about this idea from biblical scholarship, and say "Ah ha! That's it, Paul didn't say it. Whew, now I can discount it!" The irony here is that while we are disputing an authoritarian claim (the subjugation of women) we are using an appeal to authority (who said it) to do this.
What I want to propose is that if we have a problem with passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 (I certainly do, and hope you do too) then let's not pretend the issue is about who wrote it or that an appeal to (non)authorship solves the issue. Let's be honest and face that this is really not the issue for us at all nor is it a valid solution. The issue is moral. That's important and deserves a moral response. That is, we need to present an ethical response to this as readers of scripture. I would insist that an ethical response is the single most important task of biblical interpretationc-- and one that biblical scholarship has largely avoided all together (more on that later). So let's find a way to deal with that honestly and forthrightly.
We read in Galatians (an undisputed letter of Paul if anyone is still keeping track) that Paul says "I told Peter to his face that he was wrong" (Gal 2:11). Peter wrote parts of the NT. Yet apparently he could be wrong. So is it equally possible that Paul could be sometimes wrong, too? Can we also "tell Paul to his face" that he's wrong too? I want to propose that Paul makes room for us to do just that. He models a way of questioning things that don't line up with the way of Jesus. When we do the same it's not because of unfaithfulness, but precisely because we are being faithful. We question out of compassion and in the name of grace as an act of faithfulness.
Paul says further here in Galatians "I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel" (v. 14). Now what is that gospel message Paul is referring to here exactly? Specifically, Paul is criticizing Peter for treating Gentiles like second-class citizens when they were now one in Christ. Along these lines, Paul declares later in Galatians that in Christ there is "neither Jew nor Gentile" to back this up. But he does not stop there. Paul continues on to say "nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." So just as Paul called Peter on treating Gentiles badly, we can call 1 Tim 2:11 to task and say "I see that this is not consistent with the truth of the gospel."
With all of this in mind, let's think for a moment about what real authority means: True authority does not come from who says it, but from the content of what is being said. In other words, authority is not demanded by threat. That's tyranny. Authority is earned through trust. It is deserved. There is a huge difference between these two perspectives. One is about fear, and one is about respect. Perfect love casts out fear.
CONTINUE TO POST #3