Monday, January 5, 2015

Just for Timothy

A host of hermeneutical questions have been nagging at me for some time now, so I feel as though I’ll inevitably have to write about it at some point. But for now, I just want to try and capture the precise nature of the questions that have been swirling around in my head. This is not Rob Bell-esque skepticism. This is faith seeking understanding.

When we read a command in the Bible, by what standard(s) do we adjudicate whether or not the command should be directly applied to us as individual Christians today?

For example, it’s common for many Christians to insist that the Great Commission is a command that every individual believer must personally obey. They see support for this in the fact that Jesus instructed the disciples to teach new believers to observe all that he had commanded them (Matt. 28:20). So in that light, if Jesus commanded the original twelve (eleven rather) to make disciples of all nations, then it follows that this commission should likewise be viewed as the task of every individual believer.

Yet those who make this argument will rarely, if ever, apply it consistently. Many of them don’t wash each other’s feet the way Jesus commanded his disciples to do (Jn. 13:14-15). Nor do they think it necessary for missionaries to abide by every detail of Jesus’s instructions to the disciples when he sent them out to preach (Matt. 10:5-14). And then on a more absurd level, certainly no one seriously maintains that Jesus’s command to fetch a donkey (Matt. 21:2) applies to every individual believer, and neither does his command to go fishing for tax money (Matt. 17:27).

So some of Jesus’s commands to the disciples are applicable to believers today, while others are not. And my question is, how do we tell which is which? When Jesus instructs the disciples to teach new believers to observe all that he has commanded them, this has to be qualified in some sense. So how should it be qualified?

Sometimes when faced with culturally and ecclesially awkward biblical commands, what we do is reduce the command to a more general principle. Thus, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16) becomes “Greet one another with some visible token of love and respect,” and so a good hug or handshake will do just fine. Or, “You ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14) becomes “You ought to serve one another and tend to one another’s needs,” making the command more easily applicable to any day and age. But where did we get the right to generalize biblical commands? Why should we assume we’re allowed to do that?

Paul said, “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). This is an imperative. It’s a command that’s in the Bible. And yet it’s a command that I have no possible way of being obedient to. Now obviously, we seem to know intuitively that this is clearly an example of a biblical command that is contextually-confined. In other words, it was just a command for Timothy. But this sets a precedent that slightly perturbs me. Because if that’s the case, then what else in these epistles might have been just for Timothy? And by what definite standard are we adjudicating what’s just for Timothy versus what’s universal?

These are questions I feel like I should work through more carefully, because when, oh, say an egalitarian comes along and insists that those ugly commands about submission and working at home (1 Tim. 2:11; Tit. 2:5) are contextually-confined and non-universal, and then points to John 13:15, Matthew 10:5-14, Romans 16:16, and 2 Tim. 4:13 to remind me that I fully understand this hermeneutical category, I ought to have something to say that goes beyond my own personal intuition.

But note here that the egalitarian would also need to defend his own hermeneutical decisions just as carefully; because the mere fact that some commands are contextually- or culturally-confined doesn’t mean we’re free to assume that any one command is.

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