I introduced this series by looking at Al Mohler’s change of mind. In part 2 I described the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and in part 3 and part 4 I looked at the first of the two main stages of the scholarly approach, exegesis. In this part I am moving on to the second main stage, application.
I will start by continuing the quotation which I started in part 4 from Think Again about Church Leaders (1 Timothy 2:8-3:16) by Bruce Fleming, now from p.88 and concerning “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2:
The instructions in the Bible apply to all people in all
cultures. However, in my work as a missionary
professor I came across three different, distinct and
mutually exclusive interpretations of this phrase in 3:2:
In the United States I heard:
No divorced and remarried man may be an
overseer – one may have only “one wife.”
In France I heard:
Bachelors may not be overseers because they
are not “husbands” and do not have “one wife.”
In Africa I heard:
No polygamist may be an overseer because
one must have only “one wife,” not many.
When the original meaning of verse 2 is understood
as a comment on being a “faithful spouse,” it applies to
all marriage situations wherever one may live. Single
persons may be overseers. If married, either husbands
or wives may be overseers, but in married life they must
be a “faithful spouse.”
This is a good illustration of how the same exegesis of a passage, as meaning literally “husband of one wife”, can lead to different applications. Fleming seems to consider that his alternative exegesis, “faithful spouse”, solves the application issue. Well, maybe it does in this particular case, but the problem is not solved in principle.
Study of the principles of how a Bible passage (or any other text) may be applied today is known as hermeneutics. And this is a very complex field of study. All I can do here is to outline some of the issues which relate to Titus 1:6 and its near parallel 1 Timothy 3:2.
The first thing which needs to be established is whether the text has any kind of authority today. Christians accept the New Testament as in some sense the foundation document of the church, but there are many different views on how far it is authoritative today. I take the evangelical position that what is explicitly taught in the Bible is authoritative for Christians today, and that anything in it which is intended to be a normative or binding rule for Christians should be obeyed – although I would not take the stronger position that the Bible is inerrant on all matters of fact. Some scholars argue (and with some good reasons) that the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not in fact written by the Apostle Paul and so should be seen as less authoritative than other parts of the New Testament. While I would not be dogmatic about authorship, I accept these books as part of the Bible and so authoritative regardless of authorship. Where in this series I write “Paul”, this should be understood as “Paul or whoever actually wrote this letter”.
It is then necessary to establish whether the rules laid down in these letters are to be understood as normative for the church today. At this point I need to lay to rest one argument. Christians who hold the cessationist position, that the gifts of the Spirit ceased to operate in the church at the end of the apostolic period or when the canon of the Bible was closed, apparently argue that certain commands of the apostle Paul, such as “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, TNIV) and “be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39, TNIV) no longer apply to the church today. Concerning these passages, Adrian Warnock writes to cessationists:
Why, on the one hand, are we at liberty to ignore Paul’s clear commands to the Corinthians … when, on the other hand, we are expected to accept all of his other commands to local churches as applying to us today? If these two commands do not apply to us, which other of Paul’s commands also do not apply? How are we then meant to decide which of Paul’s commands we are going to obey and which we are going to ignore?
Perhaps someone could argue that Paul didn’t allow women elders while spiritual gifts were in operation, because they were not equipped to direct these gifts, but there is no reason to continue this prohibition in the post-apostolic era. With this kind of argument cessationism can be used to negate any biblical command. But, as I am not a cessationist, I will assume that there is no time limit on any biblical command.
But there is a more difficult issue here. Should Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about elders and overseers be understood as applicable only to the recipients’ specific situations, in Ephesus and Crete respectively? Here the issue becomes very complex. Paul’s original intention in writing may have been only for the specific situations. But the letters were preserved by the church and incorporated into the Bible on the understanding that this was authoritative teaching for all situations, not just the specific one which Paul addressed.
At this point I turn again to Gordon Fee, and to chapter 4 of the excellent book which he wrote together with Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (the link is to the edition which I have, which is not the latest). Fee sets out two rules for proper hermeneutics, in the context of the New Testament letters:
a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers (p.64).
Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them (p.65).
Fee warns that we must be very careful with extending applications into areas beyond comparable contexts. But he does accept that even where there is no directly comparable modern context there may be a principle which can be applied to
genuinely comparable situations (p.68).
Fee then turns to the problem of cultural relativity. He notes that some Christians do not seem to recognise cultural relativity but
argue for a wholesale adoption of first-century culture as the divine norm (p.71).
My own take on this is that whereas many Muslims take this approach, with the 7th century Arabian culture of Mohammed as the norm, in practice the culture which Christians take as normative is something from the 19th or early 20th century, which they read back into the New Testament. As an example, I would cite John Piper’s Vision of Biblical Complementarity, discussed on the Better Bibles Blog; it seems to me that Piper is not so much Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as recovering Victorian manhood and womanhood. But my position is the same as Fee’s, that
there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture… the recognition of a degree of cultural relativity is a valid hermeneutical procedure (p.71).
Fee notes that there are basic lists of sins concerning which the New Testament witness is consistent and unambiguous, and that these prohibitions should be considered applicable to all. But in other matters such as women’s ministry and the retention of wealth there is more variation, and this suggests that these are cultural rather than moral matters. He also writes that
The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position (p.73).
Thus slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.
On these principles Fee argues that the prohibition on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 may be culturally relative and so applicable only to Timothy’s specific situation (p.75).
But I think it would be much harder for him to argue the same about “husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:2,12. For this condition for church leadership is repeated in several places in relation to differently named church offices and without any restriction to specific contexts. So I would conclude that this phrase is applicable to church leaders today, and without restriction to specific named offices. But it can only be applied today in accordance with its meaning as determined by good exegesis.
As I have previously concluded, Paul’s teaching at this point is not about the gender of church leaders but about their sexual activity. Titus 1:6 did not mean to Paul or Titus that women must not be elders, so it cannot mean the same to us today. What it does mean today is what it meant to Titus, that married male elders must be faithful to their wives – and by extension to genuinely comparable situations, it may also mean that married female elders must be faithful to their husbands, and that single and widowed elders must be celibate. At least, this is the conclusion to which I am led by the scholarly approach to the Bible.
This concludes my discussion of this scholarly approach, but I do have some more, possibly surprising, things to say about approaches to the Bible in part 6: Conclusions.