1 Timothy 6 (contd.) – Error-Prone People

1 Timothy 6 Bible with Green and Blacks Organic 60 Percent Cacao Mint Dark Chocolate

Today’s ChocolateGreen & Black’s 60% Cacao Mint Dark Chocolate

Today’s Passage1 Timothy 6

In what has got to be some kind of record, we’re still on Paul’s statements about slavery in 1 Timothy 6:1-2:

All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.

Yesterday I made some introductory remarks on Biblical inerrancy and my own capacity for error, then took a look at the full scope of the Bible and its themes of liberation, concluding that the Biblical position is to oppose slavery. But we were left with the question: what do we do with Paul’s apparent condoning of slavery? If he’s positing that it’s God’s will for some people to own other people as property–what then?

I start with genre and context. In 1 Timothy, we’re looking at a letter, one of many letters that Paul wrote to facilitate the spread of the gospel and ensure that newly-started churches were conducting themselves consistently with it. Paul, Timothy, and their fellow missionaries were formulating their responses to the question: how do we live as followers of Jesus Christ, forgiven sinners, adopted children of God? Leading and working through the canonization process at such convocations as the Councils of Laodicea, Hippo, and Carthage, God gathered these books in order to teach him about himself. God has a purpose for our reading of Paul’s letters, in part to give us a picture of his work in history through the early days of Christianity and the birth of the Christian church.

Part of that purpose, I believe, is to show us that we can err. Paul didn’t select which of his letters would be preserved or canonized and which would be lost, and I don’t believe he viewed himself as writing works on par with the authority of the Torah. In coming to Christ, Paul had to repent of a whole history of errors, having formerly persecuted Christians and sought to kill them. In his writings, at points he is careful to distinguish that “I say this (I, not the Lord)” (1 Corinthians 7:12), and he even began this same letter by stating, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul often writes with authority, but he also practices humility and is prepared to repent of his sins when convicted.

Furthermore, the New Testament as a whole shows human beings, even prominent figures such as Peter, as capable of error. In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul tells his readers about the time he publicly rebuked Peter for showing favoritism toward Jews, distancing himself from Gentiles, and misleading Jewish believers with his behavior. In Acts 10, we see God leading Peter to accept Gentiles as he concludes, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28) and “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality” (Acts 10:34). The gospels record Jesus rebuking Peter for attempting to stand between him and the cross (Matthew 16:21-23); later, on the night of the crucifixion, Peter denies any association with Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75).

My point in bringing up the example of Peter is that, among other lessons, God intends us to understand human fallibility through his presence in the New Testament documents. God also intends us to understand how he can work through fallible people, grow them, and use them to do good in the world: this is the same Peter who spearheaded the growth and leadership of the early church, and who delivered a crucial evangelistic sermon at the celebration of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) which resulted in some three thousand converts to Christianity. But Peter made mistakes! And if Peter can make mistakes, so can Paul.

But it’s one thing to say that scripture’s narratives contain flawed people making mistakes. It’s another thing to say that Paul was in error when he penned certain statements in his letters. Am I opening the floodgates to the possibility that the gospel authors were unreliable narrators, that the narratives of the Old Testament fall short of the benchmark of accurate history? Again, I turn to genre. Paul authored letters, personal first-person correspondence to churches and individuals, not law or history. I don’t believe God wants us to put the stamp of approval on every expression of outrage or desire for vengeance in the Psalms (e.g. 28:3-5, 109:1-20), and I’d similarly hesitate to give Paul a pass on every single line he wrote in his letters. They provide substantial doctrine and copious practical advice, and as writings inspired by God, they have the power to challenge and convict us. But they’re not the same kind of writing as the Torah, they’re not the same kind of writing as the gospels, and we shouldn’t treat them as such.

I’ve had a lot to say about the fallibility of various persons in this entry. But I’d like to reiterate: I, too, am prone to error. I lack the systematic knowledge of a seminary graduate or career pastor, and my approach to the text can be just as personal and subjective as David’s poetry or Paul’s letters. Each weekday morning, I sit down with the text and bang out my reactions to it, both emotional and intellectual. I show you the process of God working in me, I make mistakes, I learn where I’ve been wrong, and I may be wrong in the argument I’ve presented in these past three entries. On this blog, I go raw.

Tomorrow we’ll finally move on and dig into Paul’s second letter to Timothy. But thanks for sticking with the these two verses of Paul’s concerning slavery, and for sticking with me as I zoom out and try to put them into perspective. If you have a better way of looking at these verses, or if you spot any errors in my thinking, I invite your constructive criticism and feedback. That’s how we grow, iron on iron.

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