by Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio.
An absolutely fundamental piece of responsible hermeneutics is context. When we approach the Bible and seek to study and understand it as God's eternal and enduring word, we must also seek to understand the world in which it was written.
If I were to write a letter to my friend JackJack, it would be written within the context of our relationship. I would be a white woman in her late twenties penning a note to a sorority sister in the Year of Our Lord 2020. In order to understand what is going on in said letter, you must understand the intricacies of our time, place, and dynamic. If I say, "Man, this year, I tell ya," a further investigation would reveal that this has been a difficult one. If I tell her, "Go ahead and eat that cake, you deserve it," one can assume she has earned a treat.
These statements are specific to me and JackJack, two dear friends walking through a hard season and eating confections, and should be understood within that context. The words themselves might not be universal, but the ideas of acknowledging challenging times in our lives and rewarding ourselves with some small pieces of joy now and then ring true across the board.
The same principles apply to Scripture. When we approach the Bible, we are approaching resolute truth that will not fade away, but the packaging is a result of the times and places when said truths were put down. It was realizing this that helped me to finally accept my calling as a woman in ministry. Rather than understanding passages that refer to men in leadership as prescriptive, they are to be understood as descriptive. Words about wise and fruitful shepherds can also be faithfully applied to women when they are taken out of a patriarchal world in which women had little to no value. Women now have a voice and have a place in the pulpit and beyond. But we will leave that for another day’s blog post.
Allow me to share a specific example that struck me this past week.
I have been spending a little bit of time in Titus. It is a rich book that really challenges us to move toward goodness because the Lord has been good to us. No wonder it is considered to be one of the pastoral epistles! These meditations on context were sparked by Titus 2:9-10:
"Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive." (NIV)
First and foremost, I think that we can all affirm the truth that slavery is evil. It has and continues to take a lot of different forms, but none of them bring glory to God. It is true that in Paul’s world, slaves were not as mistreated as they have been in at other periods of time, but I do not believe that this is Paul voicing his approval of slavery. Rather, let's take a closer look.
Paul's instructions to slaves were to basically treat their masters kindly, be trustworthy, and engage in conscientious work, but this was not an end unto itself. Rather, a slave behaving in this way was so that they would be a credit to the God that they follow. The conditions of slavery were not being celebrated; rather, the slaves were being encouraged to live in light of the Gospel to the best of their ability right where they were. A master should be able to look at their slave and think, "What is different about them?"
I love this. The conditions in which we find ourselves, our context, might not be the ideal situation, but we can still glorify the Lord. Because the Gospel pervades everything, slaves are now worthy representatives of Jesus Christ. I truly believe that those slaves heard this letter read aloud and were encouraged. Their lives had fresh meaning because they were dedicated to service of God before service of master-- everything which once was "normal" now flowed from the core of their faith.
Is slavery good? No. Do we see in this a challenge to live into love and truth no matter where we are? The answer is a resounding yes!
The challenge that Paul put to the slaves is the same that is put to us today. Ask yourself: "What is my context?"
Maybe you are extremely happy and at peace with the world. If so, glorify God in that context. Sing His praises loud and clear. Remember with a full and glad heart that we worship the Prince of Peace and it is He that reigns in your existence. In the context of apparent goodness, live as a credit to the Gospel.
For many of us, however, feelings of happiness and peace are not the norm. Maybe you find yourself in a difficult job, or in heart-wrenching family dynamics, or in a hospital bed. Life is hard, and our contexts are often hard as well. Does God say that this is how life should be? Quite the opposite; one day He will set things right and we should fight for justice and equality here and now. In the meantime, however, we are to be His ambassadors. God did not immediately change the context of slavery when Paul wrote about it, but He did provide a way for those beloved daughters and sons to move through that kind of existence with dignity and as a beacon of redemption.
That is our calling today: exegete your context. Look around and see where you find yourself. Change what you can, acknowledge what you cannot, and seek to love and be loved by the Lord through it all. We all have a time and place, we all have a context, but may we be encouraged to join with our foremothers and fathers in the holy act of living fully into the moment. For the slave and for the free, He is present and He is good.
Cross-posted from "Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today"