Friday, June 30, 2023

Strong and Weak

 I heard someone claim recently that there are people “who have nothing to say if they can’t belittle the past or make fun of the church.” I suppose that’s true — though I also think it’s true that there are those who have nothing to say if they can’t fetishize the past, dismiss the real questions of the present, or ignore the needs of the future.

     In any case, I don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t have anything positive to say. The fact is, talking about how to read the Bible means grappling with the reality that we’ve all inherited some unhealthy and unhelpful ways of reading. For that reason, I suppose we have to look critically at those practices.

     But eventually, we also have to talk about best practices to help us read the Bible better. 

     We’ve already talked about a few of those things at various times. Jesus’ hermeneutic of love. Reading with character. So now I’d like to turn our attention to ways of reading the Bible that will bless us and help us to keep everything else straight.

     I want to start with something that springs from the last post. I tried to show that arguing from silence can twist us into interpretive pretzels. I used the history of my own tribe of God’s people, the Churches of Christ, and how we’ve at times argued from silence, particularly in relation to the use of instrumental music in worship. 

     But I also acknowledged the fact that, because of this, there are those whose conscience won’t allow them to worship with instrumental music. They wouldn’t feel right about it, wouldn’t feel that they were offering something that’s acceptable to God. What would I say to them?  

     To deal with that, we need to spend a little time with Romans 14 and 15.

     In those chapters, Paul is addressing similar issues of conscience in the church at Rome. There are Jews and there are non-Jews at this church. There are probably Jews who are more and less observant. This very diverse church has, apparently, run into some issues with food and with the observance of holy days. As Paul puts it: “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (v. 2) And, again: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike.” (v. 5) 

     It seems that some Jewish Christians in the pagan city of Rome believed that the danger of breaking the Law when eating meat was so great that they should just forego meat entirely. That may seem extreme, but in Paul’s day, in a city like Rome, much of the meat someone might buy in the marketplace wouldn’t have been slaughtered in a way that was acceptable to Jews. It might have even come from a pagan temple, in which case it would also be associated with idol worship.

     As to “sacred” days — Jews didn’t work on the Sabbath, and there would certainly have been Jewish Christians in Rome who continued that practice. There were Jewish feast days, like Passover or Purim or the feast of Booths, and the fast day, Yom Kippur. Some Jews, we know from the Gospels, even observed personal fast days during each week. 

     Understand, for these Christians  these convictions came from the way they read the Bible. The food laws and laws about feasts and fasting were right there in Scripture. They didn’t invent those texts. There was some interpretation involved for sure, but the texts were there. These Jewish Christians, some of them, at least, would have insisted that anyone who wants to please God needed to observe those laws, just like they did.

     And Paul said their faith was weak.

     Wait, surely that’s wrong. Wouldn’t it be the strong Christians who gave up meat, cost themselves a day’s work to observe Passover, and stringently observed the feast and fast days? Paul says no. Their faith is weak — because it doesn’t “allow them to eat anything” or to skip the observance of special days. It isn’t strong enough that they understand that Jesus has given them freedom. They’re plagued by doubt as to whether it is right for them to eat certain foods They were what we might call today more conservative readers of Scripture. 

     It’s important to note that the descriptors “strong” and “weak,” or our rough equivalents, “liberal” and “conservative,” aren’t labels to be applied derisively or condescendingly. The “weak” Christians aren’t trying to be difficult or judgmental, and they don’t necessarily have anything against Gentiles. Their standing with God,  salvation through Jesus, or share in the Holy Spirit aren’t in doubt. They’re not weak in love, or holiness, prayer, or good works. In this issue, and this alone is all Paul is talking about, they are “weak in faith.” 

     But notice what Paul says: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” (1) Paul knows who’s right and who’s wrong in the dispute, but it shouldn’t come down to a dispute. The one whose faith is weak is to be accepted as a part of the community: “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not….” (3) He points out, “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord…and whoever abstains (from meat) does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (6)

     Paul will go on to say to those of “stronger” faith, “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (13) He explains, “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (14) He continues, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.” (15) He sums up, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (21) Finally, he says this: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” (15:1-2)

     In this post and the next, I want to make a couple of connections from this text to our current discussion of reading Scripture, especially in situations where there’s dispute about the meaning of certain texts.

     First: We can be absolutely convinced that we’re interpreting the Bible correctly, and be mistaken. While you’d like to think that a sincere desire to obey God will get  you on the right side of most sticky questions, that isn’t always true. Jewish Christians in Rome were dead certain they were right, and Paul said that the coming of Jesus changed how Scripture should be understood. Don’t imagine that you’re better. You can be certain and be wrong. You can be echoing an interpretation that’s been accepted for generations and be wrong. You can miss how Jesus changes the game. That’s called being a fallible human being. 

     Second: Always read Scripture according to your conscience. If you’re convinced that a text limits you, then obey those limits. If you’re convinced that a text binds you to do something, you should do it. Ultimately, “to [our] own master [we] stand or fall.” And don’t forget that we serve a Master who will help us to stand. Getting everything in Scripture exactly right is not the basis for our standing; the grace of our Master is. So our intentions to please him matter, even when we’re mistaken. Don’t violate your conscience as shaped by your reading of Scripture: “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (14)

      Third: Reading Scripture together requires some “bearing with.” (15:1) That means assuming the best of those who disagree with us. That means going out of our ways not to become an occasion for sin for Christians who are more conservative in their reading of a text than ours. It means that who “wins” an argument over Scripture isn’t what matters — it’s building up the other. 

     Next post, we’ll make some further connections. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

The Silence of Scripture

I was probably a pre-teen when I first heard the phrase, "Speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent." I didn't know at the time that it was a quote from Thomas or Alexander Campbell, or that neither of them likely originated it. It's a great quote, of course. But, like most great quotes, it oversimplifies.   

     I stumbled across a question on social media this week: “Where does the Bible say you can use social media to spread the gospel?” Now, no one was trying to say that you can't; the question is really about something else -- the silence of Scripture. And in this series of posts on reading the Bible, I want to take some time to deal with that. 

     In the question about using social media to share the gospel, most everyone would say that we can, even though the Bible is silent about social media. Of course it is; the documents that make up our Bibles just slightly predate any of those technologies. You might as well expect Scripture to prohibit air travel (“Lo [low], I am with you always?”) or weigh in on cell phone etiquette. In Matthew, Jesus does tell us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Seems like he leaves the methodology up to us. Paul said he hoped to save “some” by “all possible means,” and wondered how anyone could preach the gospel unless they are sent. He wrote letters to communicate with people he couldn’t be present with.

     In response to the social media question, someone invoked “general authority”: God has given us “general authority” to go and make disciples. Acting on that general authority, it’s OK to use social media, even though the Bible is silent on it. 

     Here’s where I want to get a little contrary: Why? Where do we get that concept of general authority? 

     Please understand, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using social media to spread the gospel. 

     I’m saying that there’s something wrong with the whole idea of arguing for or against anything from silence. 

     The fact is, my response to a question like this has usually been to wonder why in the world anyone would think we need express authorization from God to use one method over another. Share the gospel on TikTok, Facebook, public access TV — hey, use smoke signals or semaphore if it works for you. I don’t think God is a micro-manager.

     Let me get specific. There are well-intentioned folks who I love dearly among my people in Churches of Christ who are absolutely convinced that it’s wrong to sing with musical instruments on Sunday morning. There are some who just prefer it, who appreciate the tradition and feel that maybe it encourages congregational singing better than a full band. But some say it's wrong, unacceptable to God, and they argue their opinion on the basis of silence. God tells us to “sing.” He doesn’t tell us to play. He tells us what he expects, and it’s wrong for us to do something else. 

     What I wonder, if "general authority" worked, is why we don't invoke it there. God gives us authority to sing, just like he gives us authority to go. There are different ways to do both. Why is silence on how to "go" permissive, but silence on how to "sing" restrictive?

     Those who say instrumental music is wrong would almost certainly deny that they're arguing from silence, that God has spoken and said that he wanted us to sing. But of course they are, because God hasn’t spoken on instrumental music.

     Well, actually, he has, and in the affirmative. It’s just in the Old Testament, which we don’t think has authority for us in the same way that the New Testament does. (Something else we need to talk about soon.) Interestingly, a story from the Old Testament is sometimes appealed to by those who would argue from silence: Nadab and Abihu.

     That’s a really interesting choice, because Nadab and Abihu are said to have offered “unauthorized fire” (“strange fire” in the KJV) on the altar in their work as priests. The Bible doesn’t elaborate on that, which may make us want to tap the breaks on using this story to strike fear into the hearts of those who would strum a guitar in worship. A few verses later, Aaron is cautioned against drinking too much before coming before the Lord to serve as priest. A few chapters later, he’s warned about going into the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle “whenever he chooses.” Maybe that had to do with Nabad’s and Abihu’s infraction. Maybe they took coals from the wrong place, or offered the wrong kind of incense, or did it at the wrong time. 

     But is it a fair comparison? The ancient Israelites were given very specific laws on how and when to come before God to make offerings. When Paul tells the church in Ephesus to “sing and make music” in their hearts, he isn’t writing laws for worship. He’s telling them about what arises from and/or encourages being “filled with the Spirit.” When he tells the church in Colosse to sing to God with gratitude, it’s about letting “the message of Christ dwell among [them] richly.” Nadab and Abihu violated laws that by their very nature — and maybe explicitly — proscribed other ways of doing things. In neither Ephesus nor Colosse is Paul handing down a new Levitical law for entering God's presence; he’s encouraging Christians to be mindful that their lives — not just their worship — make room for the message of Christ to live among them and for the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill them.

     Now, I know that this is an interpretive assumption on my part. I know that sisters and brothers in Christ may disagree with me. But this is sort of my point, and it’s the reason that I don’t think that generally speaking arguments from silence are very helpful. Everyone makes interpretive choices regarding the silence of Scripture. We just don’t always think about it in those terms. Silence about social media is permissive, but silence about instruments is restrictive? Based on what — something called “general authority”? (Which I think you’ll find the Bible is, ironically, silent about.)

     A really interesting comparison is the command — at least four times in the New Testament, twice the number of commands to sing — to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” I don’t know about you, but I normally shake hands or maybe hug someone in greeting. What authority do I have to change the greeting God has authorized? God says “kiss” — is it OK to shake? 

     Here’s a good interpretive rule about silence: When the Bible is silent about something that we do, or think we should, we call that silence “permissive.” When it’s silent about something that we don’t do, or think we shouldn’t, we call it “restrictive.” Oh, we generally come up with some textual acrobatics to justify our choices, but in the end they’re still choices — interpretive choices.  

    We’re all making interpretive choices, even when we cover them with something else. Let’s please not confuse those choices with Scripture. Let’s listen to and learn from each other, instead of labeling and attacking, as we’re sometimes inclined to do. 

     And please, let’s try not to be too sure that the Bible’s silence supports our own points of view.

     But what if your conscience really can’t get comfortable with instrumental music, or something else that other Christians seem fine with? That’s what we’ll talk about next — reading the Bible in a way that’s true to our consciences.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

"The Bible is Clear"

 I saw something on Twitter recently that kind of made me laugh a little, in a “I-can-identify-with-that” kind of way. It was the beginning of a thread of tweets, and if you know how Twitter works then you know that the first tweet in a thread has “(1/X)”, where X is the total number of tweets in the thread. So most threads will have (1/4) or (1/6) or maybe even (1/10) or (1/20), if the poster has a lot to say.

     This person tweeted “The Bible is clear on this issue” as the first tweet. I actually don’t remember what the issue in question was, honestly, but he took the rest of the thread to show how the Bible is clear on it. What really stood out to me were the numbers in parentheses after this tweet — (1/32).

     So this was the first in a thread of thirty-two tweets. Purporting to show how clear the Bible is on whatever issue he was addressing.

     I don’t believe I have ever seen a 32-tweet chain. About anything.  I’m not saying they don’t exist, just that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one that long. Close to that long. That’s almost 9,000 characters. That includes spaces and punctuation, and I’m not sure what it comes out to in words, but that’s a lot to say to make the case that the Bible is clear. 

     As I said, I laughed, but I didn’t intend it in a belittling way. I laughed because I think I’ve probably done the same thing in one way or another. I think I’ve represented the Bible as being clear on something that, upon further review, isn’t actually so cut-and-dried. I think I’ve probably used tortured interpretation and logic to “prove” that the Bible says this or that. I think I’ve probably used a lot of words to tell people who saw things differently to sit down and be quiet, because the Bible is clear, as clear as it can be, and anyone who doesn’t see it just has another agenda.

    If I may, two rebuttals to this tendency — that, again, I share  — to misrepresent the Bible as being clear when it’s anything but.

     First — it’s OK to acknowledge that the Bible is not clear, at least sometimes. I think we’re sometimes afraid to admit that, afraid that maybe it means we don’t acknowledge the Bible as authoritative, or that we don’t know the Bible well enough. Sometimes we equate respect for the Bible with certainty about it, but those aren’t the same. 

     Sometimes it is clear, that’s true. But not always. There are some reasons for that.

     Sometimes there are significant linguistic and cultural questions that we just don’t have answers to. A good example is the word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 — “I do not permit a woman to teach or authentein a man.” The word is translated in various ways: “assume authority over” (NIV), “usurp authority over” (KJV), “have dominion over” (ASV), “control” (CEB), “tell a man what to do” (CEV), “dictate to [men]” (NTE). Some translations say “have lordship over” or “wrench authority from” men. Most translations — though not all — include something about authority in their renderings of the word.

     The word isn’t used anywhere else in the Bible. In other Greek literature, it is always a negative and even violent word — one usage of it refers to what parents do when they sacrifice their children! Paul discusses authority quite a lot in his letters, and never uses authentein. Perhaps some hint of the improper use of authority is in view, but women having authority over men does not seem to be the big problem. (By the way, if you can get through 1 Timothy 2 without saying, “I’m not sure about….”, you probably need to recheck your interpretation!) In this case, the Bible isn’t clear because no one is 100% sure about that word.

     These days Deuteronomy 22:5 gets quoted a lot: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing….” The Bible is clear, right? But it’s also clear — from the same chapter — that we should all build our houses with parapets around the roof, and that a rapist must marry the woman he victimizes. In this case, the Bible isn’t clear about what crosses culture and time and what doesn’t.

     Sometimes the Bible isn’t clear because there seem to be contradictions. The Bible is clear: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” With some people who are intransigent and disingenuous, it doesn’t pay to argue with them. They’ll just pull you down to their level.

     But of course, the Bible is also clear in the next verse: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Sometimes, a person who is deeply entangled in foolishness needs to be answered, lest he not see and repent of his foolishness. Either way, the Bible is clear. So which is it? 

     Sometimes, the Bible isn’t clear because the questions we ask aren’t always the question it answers. People who feel very strongly for and against gun control find support for their opinions in the Bible. So do people who support and argue against capital punishment. Most of the varying theologies of baptism different “tribes” of Christianity embrace are at least partially from Scripture. The issue, of course, is that to make our cases we have to argue from biblical principles and emphases. The Bible isn’t alway as clear as we imagine it is because quite often our opinions on specific questions are constructed of our interpretations of the text — and those constructions can be pretty rickety. 

     And so it goes that we have to use 32 tweets (or the equivalent) to explain how our opinions and convictions are “very clearly” supported in the Bible. We don’t see the irony; just maybe, if we need word piled on word to support our ideas of what the Bible says, it isn’t quite as clear as we’d like to think.

     And here’s my second rebuttal to our tendency to say, “The Bible is clear….”:  Almost always, that statement is intended to shut down discussion and debate. “The Bible is clear…” is the nuclear option, the big gun churchy people pull out to obliterate dissent. It’s what you say when you want to cast people who disagree with you as disingenuous, deluded, and just not all that interested in actually understanding and obeying Scripture. We never say “The Bible is clear…” about God’s love for us in Jesus or that Abraham was from Ur or that stealing is wrong. Of course, the Bible is clear about those things — it’s just that no one really debates them. You don’t need the big gun when there’s no one to shoot it at. 

     But get into a debate with someone about, I don’t know, what to do in a worship service or the role of women in the public life of the church or divorce and remarriage — issues about which there have been centuries of disagreement in the church — and someone will pretty quickly bust out, “The Bible is clear on this issue….”, or something similar. And then they’ll write books and blog posts and dissertations, start podcasts and preach sermons and make videos and post 32-tweet threads on Twitter, all to show how clear it is. “The Bible is clear on this issue…check out my 13-week course that will convince you, too, how clear it is.”

     Saying, “The Bible is clear….” doesn’t invite anyone to read it with you. It doesn’t tell anyone that their opinions are important to you, that you want to hear what they think. It doesn’t convey the idea that the Bible is best read in community. It contains no humility. When you say those words, you place yourself in the position of Supreme Authority on the Bible.

     Let’s use other words to have discussions about the Bible: “How do you read it?” “What does this text mean to you?” “What do you think it says about this issue?” It’ll sure require fewer tweets.

Friday, June 9, 2023

The "Death of the Author"

 Not long ago, my son and I were talking about the concept of “the death of the author.” If you’re not familiar with it, it says that the definitive meaning of a text can’t be understood from the intentions of the author. It argues that what a reader thinks a text means is at least as important, and maybe more so, than whatever meaning the original author intended.  

     To revisit a previous post with this in mind: even if the authors say they didn’t intend for Puff, the Magic Dragon to be about marijuana use, the idea of “the death of the author” would say that if a later hearer of the song took it that way, their interpretation is correct.

     The idea comes from a 1967 essay by a French literary critic named Roland Barthes. He explains that it’s impossible to fully know the meaning an author intended, that all we can know with any kind of certainty is our response to it in the moment. He writes,"a text's unity lies not in its origins,” — its author — "but in its destination" — its reader. 

     I’ve said that the Bible can’t mean to us what it couldn’t have meant to its original authors. But if Barthes is right, then what the text meant to Paul or Matthew or Isaiah doesn’t matter. 

     And, in fact, biblical texts can be legitimately reinterpreted. The parable of the Good Samaritan has something to say about black - white relations in America, even though Jesus (and Luke) didn’t have had that in mind. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously reappropriated Amos’ call to justice and righteousness for his time. Joel’s promise that “sons and daughters” would prophesy was reappropriated by Peter (and Luke) in Acts 2 to describe what was happening in his day, and it can be legitimately pressed into service in our world, when injustice against women even in church is being finally brought into the light.

     Preachers have long done this, “borrowing” texts to shed light on issues and questions in their own worlds. Preachers have always used (hopefully) sanctified imagination to let the text speak to the worlds in which they have preached. If you’ve ever heard (or preached) a sermon on Jesus stilling the storm, and made some point about Jesus stilling the “storms” in our own lives, then you know what I mean. In fact, that’s possibly the primary way we recognize a “good” sermon — it finds contemporary meaning in those old texts.

     I’m preaching this week on a few verses from the first chapter of Revelation. Revelation is maybe the “death of the author” capital of the Bible. We’ve tended to imagine that John’s intended meaning is so deeply buried  under an avalanche of figurative, symbolic language that there’s no point in even trying to recover it, and so throughout church history we’ve let our imaginations run wild. It makes for a vivid warning that a radical “death of the author” approach to the Bible can produce fanciful and even harmful interpretations. 

     In my sermon on Revelation 1, I’m zeroing in on something we know about John — that he was a political dissident, exiled to the island of Patmos. I’ll try to show from the text what a dissident looks like, and why as believers in Jesus we all should have a bit of dissident in us What John intended when he wrote Revelation matters. But I seriously doubt I’m in danger of being exiled or imprisoned for my faith. Still, there are certainly situations where faith might cause me to be on the outside looking in, so to speak. So we can put his words to work in our worlds, informed by what he intended to say to his world. 

    The Medieval church read the Bible according to four “senses”: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The last three together were known as “spiritual” senses. This kind of reading was one of the things Luther wanted to reform, but I think it was just a way to try to sort of standardize a way of reading the Bible that comes pretty naturally to us. So in the Medieval church you might read a text like Psalm 114:1, “When Israel went out of Egypt,” in this way:

Literal — a reference to the time when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. This is the intended, historic meaning of the text. It’s important to note that Medieval theologians insisted that it was necessary to get this sense right, because it was the foundation for the other three senses.

Allegorical — The reader is looking for types that connect the text to other biblical ideas. In this text Moses would be a type of Christ, leading God’s people out of Egypt to the Promise Land, just like Jesus leads us out from sin and into grace and salvation. The Red Sea, which parted for Israel to walk through, might be a type of baptism, through which Christ leads us to salvation. It’s important to note that the allegorical sense often leads to the moral. (Paul thinks this way.) 

Moral — This sense answers the question, “How should I act?” In this text, if Israel leaving the bondage of Egypt is like humanity being delivered by Christ, then we might ask how we can leave behind sin and pursue holiness.

Anagogical — This is probably the least familiar sense to modern Bible readers. It comes from the Greek word that means, “to lead.” The Medieval church wanted readers to ask , “Toward what does this text lead me?” In the case of Psalm 114, you might answer that the text in its anagogical sense is about the believer’s journey toward our own Promised Land, heaven. Many hymn writers have found just such a meaning in the story of the Exodus. The anagogical sense points us toward heaven.

   I don’t think it’s all that important to know the terms for these senses. Here’s the point I’m trying to make; the author’s intent matters. But it should also lead us to discern what more a text might be saying to us. 

     In Acts 15, the church is gathered to discuss an important issue for their world — non-Jews coming to faith in Jesus in huge number. On what basis should these non-Jews be admitted? Are there behaviors they need to renounce? Should they be required to follow Jewish laws like circumcision?

     James, Jesus’ brother, hears the arguments. And then he quotes Scripture, specifically Amos 9, in which the prophet looks forward to a time in which God will “return” and “rebuild” the “ruins” of “David’s fallen house.” He’ll do this, Amos says, “that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name.” Amos wasn’t imagining the situation Acts 15 precisely. He was speaking to his own time and place. But James was able to see the significance of Amos’ words for his own world: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”

     Here’s why the death of the author doesn’t work for Scripture: its Author isn’t dead. God has revealed his intent to us clearly, and his intention to save human beings has never changed. It wasn’t fanciful for James to see in Amos’ words a God who was still committed to rebuilding his people and put his name on non-Jews as well. It isn’t fanciful for us to expect that God will still speak to us through those ancient texts about his intentions as well. In fact, it’s imperative that we read the Bible that way.

     So, yes, what the authors of the biblical texts we read intended matters. But it doesn’t matter in an academic way. When we understand what the authors intended, we also understand how to read Scripture expecting to hear God’s word for our time and place, as well. 

     In the next post, though, I’d like to talk about how just “doing what the Bible says” can be problematic.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Modesty: The Bible Doesn't Always Mean What We Think It Means

 The summer before I started seventh grade, I was old enough to start joining in the activities of the teen group at church. Camping trips. Bowling. Trips to Gatlinburg. It was all pretty exciting.

     I still remember Mom dropping me off at church for my first activity with the teenagers. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember showing up and immediately some of the kids a year or two older than me starting to give me a hassle.

     See, I was wearing shorts.

     No one had told me this was a problem. But the other kids knew. One of the young adults who helped lead the teen group took me aside and explained that, no, we didn’t wear shorts on youth group outings. Modesty, you know. The Bible says dress modestly.  

    Within a couple of years, we had other group leaders and shorts were OK. But I was a little confused by that. If the Bible says dress modestly, and shorts aren’t modest, then why was it suddenly OK to wear them? Then I went to a Christian college in the early 90s, and shorts were immodest again. That was maybe one of my earliest brushes with how tricky reading and interpreting the Bible can be. You learn, don’t you, that well-intentioned people can define the same word, even a biblical one, in different ways? That it’s harder to just read the Bible and do what it says than we sometimes pretend.

     You still sometimes hear Christians talk about modesty, though it’s less about shorts anymore. I find it troubling that the modesty debate among Christians almost always has to do with what women wear, and how men might potentially be affected by that. As though some Christian men think that it’s the responsibility of women to read their minds and anticipate what might cause them to have lustful thoughts. As though Christian men aren’t told to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, regardless of what women might wear.

     And I’m thinking of all this because of our ongoing consideration of how we read the Bible. To me, the various ways that I’ve heard modesty in dress discussed in my lifetime is a really live example of how we have to be very careful in understanding the Bible — and especially in burdening other people with what we think we see there. With a little work, we may discover that it doesn't say what we think it says.

     No one disputes that 1 Timothy 2:9 is translated, in part, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety….” The King James Version, which has influenced the church in any number of ways, says that women should “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety….” The word we translate “modestly” or “modest” there has to do with shame; they are to dress with a proper sense of shame. The words that follow have to do with self-control, sobriety, sensibleness, and good judgment. They are to carefully consider what they choose to wear, and why, and use good judgement in their choices. 

     But here’s where we run into trouble. Paul most certainly doesn’t mean that women should consider their hem length, or how much skin they display. The women he was addressing didn’t have those kinds of choices in their wardrobe. They weren’t debating a sleeveless dress, shorts and a t-shirt, or a burqa. Styles in clothing, including hem lengths and how their bodies were covered or visible, were more or less chosen for them. 

     Besides, modesty had a different standard in Paul’s day than in ours. Roman cities had public baths, and by Paul’s day many of them were unisex. Only the extremely wealthy and powerful had private toilets; most people took care of business in public latrines in which privacy was non-existent. 

     The toilets of first century Ephesus are well-preserved, and consisted of long marble benches with holes cut  in them, protected from the weather by covered porticoes on three sides of a rectangular pool of water. No dividers, no private stalls, no gender separation. Apparently the toilets were a place to socialize, talk business, and even to receive dinner invitations! If you owned slaves, in cold weather you might even send one down to the public latrine ahead of you to warm your seat! (Though on a busy day, a cold seat wouldn’t be a problem!)

    It also might have occurred to you to ask, “Why just women? Shouldn’t men dress modestly, too?” In fact, Paul does address the men in the verse before, where he writes, “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.” He transitions to the instructions on women dressing modestly by saying, “Likewise….” That means he thinks his instructions to women in verse 9 and following are similar in some way to these instructions to the men in verse 8.

     The connection is in verses 1-2, where we have, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” He goes on to talk about how this kind of life pleases God, who wants people to be saved. Through their prayerful, peaceful, quiet lives, the church cooperates with God’s intention to save people.

     For men, that means prayer instead of anger and dispute. For women, who wouldn’t have had much opportunity for that kind of thing, Paul wants them likewise to show their peaceful and quiet lives by the way they dress. Modestly, decently, and with propriety. 

     But then look at what comes after Paul’s insistence that women dress modestly — advice on hairstyles! So Paul has an opinion on women’s clothing and hair? Well, yes, because Roman women displayed their status by wearing elaborate hairstyles woven with gold, precious stones, and so forth. Paul goes on in the next verse to warn against expensive clothing, and says that the women shouldn’t “decorate” themselves that way, but instead, “with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” 

     So when Paul says “modesty” he doesn’t mean the same thing we usually mean by it — though our use of it in a phrase like “a person of modest means” is pretty close. Paul means that the women of his day shouldn’t draw attention to their wealth and status by expensive and ostentatious hair and clothing, which would only serve to set them apart from women of more modest means — including those who might not yet have heard the gospel. He fears that such displays might be every bit as divisive and counter to the gospel as men angrily disputing with one another. Instead, women should “adorn themselves” by doing good — which is much more helpful to the spread of the gospel. (Some Roman writers contemporary to Paul complained about the amount of time women “wasted” on their hair, time that could have been put to better use.)

     Might these verses have something to say about clothing choices in our time? Of course. We certainly may and should consider how the way we dress — including how it might challenge typical modesty standards — could get in the way of the gospel. But don’t use a text like this to try to shackle a child or teenager or adult to your own standards of modesty. And don’t pass off your own responsibility to guard your thoughts and treat people with respect and honor by policing someone else’s dress. No one in our world thinks victim-blaming is acceptable, no matter what they’re wearing. 

     And note that, by biblical standards, clothing that we call modest might be anything but. It still must be recognized that flashy, expensive, extravagant clothing (for men as well) can set us apart from others — and sometimes that’s exactly what we intend. In what ways might that compromise God’s intention to save people?

     In the next post, we’ll consider how to get information on the cultural background of the Bible.