"A Word About Preaching"
I enjoy preaching, yet there is a difficult part to preaching that you may never hear about. It’s called predictably, “preaching difficult texts” especially one that the preacher (personally) has a problem with. But there’s a discipline that comes with being a Lectionary Preacher that calls us to preach even those texts we find most difficult. It occurs to me that you too, have trouble with Biblical texts, perhaps for some of the same reasons.
This scripture in Timothy is one of those texts that I find very difficult. Actually, I tend to avoid Timothy whenever possible.
Yet all NT texts have something to say to us, we just have to decide how we will approach them. BEFORE I can hear what Timothy has to say, I have to understand the context. (You’ve heard me talk about the importance of context before.) It is VERY important if we are to ‘get anything’ from the somewhat strange instructions in this letter.
We don’t have time for all the details but let me summarize a few bits of Timothy’s context and you can always ask me questions later. (Whether or not I have the answers.
1st – Timothy is a psuedographical letter, it was not actually written by Paul. It was common in the 1&2nd century to write in someone else’s name to lend authority to what you were saying. This is not as ingenuous as you think. Imagine a painter learning to paint just like a master, possibly under the master artist’s tutelage. Imitation of the master was a way to be part of their “school”. It isn’t an exact comparison but it’s a good way to think of the letter unless you want to do more serious research.
2nd – The letter was written around 125 CE, actually up to 25 years on either side of that date, but we’ll pick a mid-point. This is 100 years after Jesus and times, and “the church” have changed!
3rd – These conclusions about author and time are confirmed by WHAT is written, which is our concern for today.
Timothy’s letters sound vastly different than Paul’s actual letters.
The concerns about behavior, church conduct, and church officers weren’t even dreamed of in Paul’s day. The content then is an important clue for context.
You can be sure that if a certain behavior is PRESCRIBED, then it was NOT the behavior currently found in the church. (Or else why would you write to someone about the behavior?) The specific language used is another clue, but is harder to see in the English translations so let’s just look at content.
3 Concerns come across in these letters purported to be to Timothy:
1. The church’s organization is described as a Hierarchal household with the Father, or Chief patron at the top, and all the children, siblings, women, and slaves stretched out below. This would later become the actual hierarchy in the Roman Church (we know as Roman Catholic) but in Paul’s day, he wrote about small house churches and the equality of all, even slaves and masters. (Remember Philemon?) We have only to turn to Philippians 4:2-3 to see that women were a key part of his ministry and the early church.
" I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life."
So the first thing we notice about content, is that something has changed drastically since the first decades after Jesus.
2. The church in Timothy, is also the guardian of ‘official’ doctrine. In Paul’s day, doctrine was almost non-existent. In fact, it was from Paul’s writings that the later church developed doctrines.
When someone writes about the importance of a single way of believing, you can be sure there are other ideas around.
Early Christianity had a plethora of ways of thinking and ways of practicing the “Jesus Way”. There have been many books written in recent years about the “winners” and “losers” of those arguments. We know that some arguments continued to develop for a century and ended up dissolving ‘THE church’ into 2 - WESTERN Christian Church and the EASTERN Church (900 years later.)
3. The content of this letter is Prescriptive of desired behaviors, NOT Descriptive of current behaviors. The author writes about what he wants and from that we can infer what is actually occurring.
If we read further into Timothy,
"I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also 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."
You see my problem. We can be sure that an instruction saying ‘women should be silent’ means that women were speaking as equals in the church. Why was that important? Because 100 years after Christ, Christians were trying to fit into the dominant culture, not stand apart from it.
For the author of Timothy, it was important Christians to live quiet, peaceful, respectful lives as good citizens of the empire so that tensions with the dominant culture would cease.
In time, due to similar pressures, women disappeared from church leadership completely. The ‘equality of all’ developed into a hierarchy of bishops and priests. And the church changed.
It took from 150 to 1950 for the church to involve women as leaders again. At least that’s when the COB began to ordain women. Some denominations are still not there. It took many years after NT letters were written for the church to hear God’s inspiration regarding slavery. And it took years until people like Alexander Mack were convinced that simple living and the equality of members was true to Jesus’ teaching.
God finds ways to speak through God’s people so we will hear the word needed for the day. This makes God’s word always relevant. We call it the “continuing revelation”. It has always been important in the brethren world to show what we believe by our actions. Like St. Francis of Assisi said,
“PREACH THE Gospel WORD ALWAYS, when necessary use words.”
In the Church of the Brethren we try to balance ‘tradition’ or what was done or ‘heard’ in the past with what is being heard now. It takes years for us to hear.
You can find many Annual Conference decisions that were non-decisions or decisions to NOT DECIDE YET. Because the wise elders knew that acting in haste is not the way to listen to God’s continuing revelation.
The hardest place to be is in an in=between time, when the spirit-inspired voice is heard by some, but not all. Ask any woman who heard the call to ministry before 1950 and they will tell you how hard it was to try to live out their call, when their church didn’t recognize it.
Read the Martyr’s Mirror of people burned at the stake because “the church” couldn’t understand their desire to be baptized by immersion. Read the stories of slaves who went to their grave counting on Heaven’s goodness to make up for the evils they experienced in this life.
‘In-between’ is the most difficult place to be.
We are in an in-between time again. I believe the Spirit is speaking and has been heard in many places. Arlington COB is one of those places. We are a place that has learned to live easily with differences of sexual and gender orientation. I am sure we don’t all agree or understand the issue in its completeness, but we DO AGREE to live together in love and unity, putting the mission of sharing Christ’s love and compassion above our incomplete understanding.
Those who can hear the Spirit’s voice more clearly need to speak now, as hard as that is to do. And those who can’t hear as clearly but believe in love’s priority, need to speak in support of our brothers and sisters.
In this in-between time, the COB needs to hear from us. In the upcoming listening process, our voices – plural – are KEY to helping this denomination stay together and learn to live together. Even if you think you don’t have a story to share, your experience right HERE, can open eyes and ears in fearful circles.
Our voices, speaking at hearings and in letters, need to share the context we’ve experienced so God’s spirit can continue to reveal the Jesus’ Way for today. THIS is the way WE PREACH THE WORD, balancing spirit-inspiration, & tradition.
This letter to Timothy balanced the revelation of the day with the need to accommodate society’s requirements so that Christianity could flourish. We can criticize it or we can listen for the message that comes through their context.
If we listen, rather than discard this teaching, we will hear the instruction to pray for ALL PEOPLE, making supplications, intercessions and thanksgiving for EVERYONE. And if we FOLLOW this advice,
what we hear,
what we pray and
what we PREACH, will surely be inspired by God’s Spirit.
May God use each of us in ways that “preach the word”.