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. 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?
As I promised yesterday, we’re returning to the final chapter of 1 Timothy to get some perspective on Paul’s views on slavery. The question’s on the table: is Paul condoning slavery? Is he justified in encouraging slaves to submit to their masters “so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against?” (1). I’m going to answer this question indirectly, by arguing Biblically that slavery is wrong and it’s wrong to condone it, and then by asking a follow-up question: what if Paul is wrong when it comes to slavery? But to introduce my points, I want to make a few prefatory comments on Biblical inerrancy.
Yesterday, I listened to a story on NPR’s Here & Now about the history of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and its role in contemporary Independence Day celebration. I was struck by National Parks Service Ranger Adam Duncan’s remarks on the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s early draft included a passage indicting King George III for fostering the slave trade in North America. The document’s editors removed the anti-slavery passage from the final Declaration of Independence, and it would not be until January 1, 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation would legally free American slaves. So today, as Americans celebrate their freedom and independence, what better topic for us to return to than the Apostle Paul’s views on slavery?
Where we last left our heroes, Paul was giving Timothy directions concerning leadership and good practices within the church body, and today he continues in that vein. Chapter five concludes with various instructions on respecting elders, dealing with sin, laying on hands, and how to deal with gastrointestinal health problems. Most of it’s fairly uncontroversial, though when Paul prescribes a little wine for Timothy’s stomach ailments, there’s been some debate on just how diluted the “wine” of the Greco-Roman world was, and some might think that public rebuke for an elder’s persistent sinning seems a little harsh. But let’s set aside the trivial controversies of the ending verses and rewind to that thorniest of topics: widow issues.
How do you tell you’re in the end times? As Paul tells us, in the last days men will come telling you you can’t eat this, you can’t eat that, and you can’t get married.
The qualifications for overseers and deacons comprise Paul’s primary topic in this chapter. Some versions translate the word for “overseer” as “bishop;” the original Greek word is pretty much a direct analogue for the English “overseer,” so as long as you’ve got an understanding that bishops are supposed to exercise oversight for the churches they serve, I’d consider “bishop” a perfectly acceptable translation. But enough translation notes: have at those qualifications.
Oh no. Today’s chapter is a Controversy Box, and I’m going to have to open it. Not all of what Paul says to Timothy here will prove unpalatable or hard to swallow, of course. Christians will readily accede to his theology on Christ as Mediator, and even the generally religious or spiritual may see some interest or value in it; only an adamant antitheist would take serious issue with it, and while I try to accommodate the skeptics even as I accommodate my own inner skeptic, I don’t expect there are many religion-haters reading Chocolate Book. Paul’s views on political authorities here might be a little more divisive, but even a politically anti-authoritarian liberal-leaning Christian could see the value in praying for their native nation’s leaders, and for peace for all men. Moreover, Paul’s teachings on modesty in this chapter may even appeal to the feminist who’s willing to look closely at what he actually says. But then he gets into female submissiveness, and man, I am not looking forward to cracking open that can of worms.
To this point we’ve seen only Paul’s letters to churches in particular ancient Mediterranean cities, but today we begin a letter to an individual. Timothy was one of Paul’s missionary companions, a younger man who was also biracial, the son of a Jewish Christian woman and a Greek man. He’s first introduced in Acts 16:1-5, and we hear more of his missionary journeys and work in Acts 16-20. Beyond that, Paul at times puts Timothy’s name alongside his own in his salutations and mentions him in his letters. I don’t know to what extent Timothy influenced on Paul’s writing, whether he co-authored any particular letters or passages. But today we have a letter not from Paul and Timothy, but rather from Paul to Timothy.