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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

When Paul exhorts men to pray properly (1 Tim 2:8), shall we assume that women should not pray properly? Or shall we assume that, just as Paul had a specific situation to address with the women in that congregation (2:9-15), he also had a specific problem in mind addressing the local men’s behavior (2:8)? Given other passages which commend (Rom 16:1-12; cf. Judg 4:4; Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; Phil 4:2-3) or permit (1 Cor 11:4-5) various ministries of women, is it possible that the limitations of 1 Tim 2:11-12 address a special situation? The answers to some of these questions are much debated, but our desire to be consistent in the way we interpret the Bible may invite us to ask such questions.

The office of an “overseer” (1 Tim 3:1), like most other local-church offices in the New Testament, arose in a specific cultural context; it was practical for the church to borrow models of leadership from the synagogues that already worked in the Roman world. Is it possible that modern denominations’ arguments about forms of church leadership may make too much of a matter that is not really central to Paul’s point? Some would retain as transcultural the requirement that one rule one’s family properly as a condition for ruling the church (3:4-5). But this borrows ancient Mediterranean requirements for respectable leadership, in a culture where paternal authority could be enforced by severe discipline (in theory even execution)—a culture which differs markedly from our own. Granted, some regard these models of church order as transcultural, so we should turn to other, more clearly culture-specific examples.

Perhaps more significant are passages providing instructions not merely to Timothy but to the church as a whole. How many would regard as transcultural the warning that widows younger than sixty will spread bad talk (probably best translated “false teaching”; 1 Tim 5:11-13), or that fables circulate especially among older women (4:7)? Here, for example, widows must not be put on the roll for church support unless they are at least sixty years old, have been married only once (5:9), have raised children and washed strangers’ feet (5:10), and also have no extended family to care for them (5:8). Americans usually relegate to government programs the caring for widows; Africans, much closer to the biblical culture, normally support them through the extended family. But in most cultures, so few widows today have washed strangers’ feet that our churches can claim to obey Paul’s teaching without supporting them anyway! Paul commands that younger widows must remarry, not taking the pledge of membership in the order of older widows supported by the church (5:11, 14). But how they can obey this precept if they do not find husbands is not quite clear. In Paul’s day there was a shortage of women (possibly due to the pagan practice of female child abandonment), and most women therefore sought and found husbands quickly. In many black American churches, however, single women outnumber single men more than two to one; in parts of rural India and China, by contrast, men far outnumber women.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2004, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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