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Temporary or Lasting?

March 20, 2004

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The Need to Contextualize

Two verses from the Bible may serve as a starting point to our topic. Paul asks in Gal 1:10, "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ"(we find the same argument also in 1 Thess 2:4). In 1 Cor 10:33 it seems as if he is saying the opposite. We should not cause anyone to stumble, "even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved."

These two verses point out some of the tension we experience when the gospel is communicated. We have to be faithful to God and his Word – and to the people we are called to minister to. Our faithfulness toward God has as a consequence that we never falsify or change the gospel itself. Our faithfulness to people has as a consequence that we constantly evaluate and change our methods and approaches. We meet people where they are.

Especially in missiology we meet the term contextualization. This was the topic of a conference in the Lausanne movement in 1978, and in the report from the conference – called the Willowbank report – we read, "No Christian witness can hope to communicate the gospel if he or she ignores the cultural factor."1 It is emphasized in the report that both the gospel message and the church itself need to be contextualized. Some of the challenge that is made clear to us both from the New Testament and from church history is that it is not always easy to draw a clear line between what is healthy and true contextualization, and what is false compromise or even syncretism. To work for true contextualization is a challenge we cannot avoid if we want to be faithful. In this work it is the Bible itself that gives us the guiding principles.

Let us look at a couple of more texts from the New Testament that illustrate this challenge. In Gal 2:11-14 Paul refers to an argument between himself and Peter. Peter had been eating with the gentile Christians in Antioch – until some men came from the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. Then he drew back and separated himself from the gentiles. And Paul accuses him of hypocrisy. But is not Peter merely doing what Paul himself does, according to his own words in 1 Cor 9:19-23? Is he not just acting as a gentile to the gentiles, and a Jew to the Jews?

A key to understanding Paul's reaction against Peter is the last part of Gal 2:14, where Paul asks Peter, "How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" When Paul writes about himself in 1 Cor 9, he is talking about an accommodation he has chosen himself. He voluntarily abstains from his rights. In Gal 2 we find Peter forcing others to abstains from their freedom and follow Jewish customs. This is a blow against Christian freedom that Paul cannot tolerate. We will later see that this difference between Gal 2 and 1 Cor 9 also is relevant when we study the exhortations in the Pastoral Epistles.

The contextualization has clear limits. We discover this in the ministry of Jesus himself. He lived in and was a part of the Jewish culture of his time, but at the same time he was highly critical of a lot of the traditions, values, and attitudes in the society. Also in the first church and Paul we clearly find that contextualization has limits. In many ways the church represented a counter culture, both in relation to its Jewish and to its Greek-Roman environment. What we unequivocally find is that the church stood firm in preaching the crucified and risen Christ, even though both Jews and Greek wanted something else (1 Cor 1:22-24). The church also had a unique fellowship, and it was exactly this uniqueness that made the church attractive. This demonstrates to us that the church is not always most effective when it functions like everybody else, but rather when it dares clearly to represent the values belonging to the kingdom of God!

When we have to decide what is lasting and what is not in the Bible, it may be helpful to ask some very simple questions:

  • Is there anything in the text itself that tells us that the actual exhortations are meant for those persons alone, that situation alone, or in other ways limited to that situation and/or culture?
  • Is there anything in the text itself – or elsewhere in the Bible – that tells us that these exhortations are expressions of God's lasting will, independent of time and place?

When we answer these two questions, it is obvious that when an exhortation is given with a reason stated, this stated reason is the main reason why the exhortation is given! I emphasize this because in the different interpretations of 1 Tim 2:12, a lot of people try to find some other reason for the exhortation than the reasons that are stated in v.13 and 14. Knowledge of the culture of the time may help us, but it is the text itself that is decisive. It is also worth pointing out that even if an exhortation is given in an actual situation – most exhortations in the Bible are – the content of the exhortations will normally still have lasting validity.

In addition to the two questions about the biblical text, it may be helpful – although the answer is not decisive – to ask:

  • How have these exhortations been understood in the church, and primarily during the first years of its history?

Conditional Exhortations?

Let us look a little closer at the New Testament exhortations. Some have claimed that the background for a lot of them is that the Christians need to be concerned with the reactions of the outsiders, that is, the non-Christians. Their negative reactions may hinder the spread of the gospel.

It is clear that Paul several times refers to the outsiders (see Rom 12:17, 14:16-18, 1 Cor 10:32-33, 2 Cor 6:3, 8:20-21, Phil 2:14-16a, Col 4:5-6, 1 Thess 4:11-12). When he makes these references, he assumes that there is some common ground, because God's law is written in every person' s heart (Rom 2:15). But his point is never that the Christians should accommodate to the norms or values of the outsiders. It is rather that the outsiders should be able to observe the integrity of the Christians – they live as they teach. In the lives of the Christians they should discover the qualities of God's kingdom.

This is even evident in the texts where Paul writes about decency and about shame and honor. A Norwegian New Testament teacher has written that words like ‘decency', ‘fitting', and ‘shameful' are words that "only have meaning in relation to the society in which they were spoken."2 In the debate about the ordination of women it is often claimed that we are not bound to what the Bible says is decentfitting or indecentunfitting, because our sense of decency changes from time to time and from place to place.

Several Greek words are used in the New Testament to express what is decent/fitting or indecent/unfitting. These words have different nuances of meaning. Some are used with a more neutral meaning than others, while others more directly express what is thought of as lasting ethical demands. The words never indicate directly that the exhortation is just temporary. I have written more extensively about this in a thesis from 1995.3 Here I have to be content with a very short conclusion: In the Bible God is the norm, even when something is referred to as decent or indecent. The rule is that what is called decent or indecent is God's lasting will. It is pertinent that Paul in Col 3:18 talks about what is fitting "in the Lord."

The culture around the Mediterranean was – and is – strongly stamped by shame and honor. The theologically liberal New Testament researcher Halvor Moxnes has written several articles about shame and honor in the New Testament. He asks, "Who is the "significant others" in whose eyes one seeks recognition?"4 He answers himself, "For the early Christians the answer was self-evident: it was God."5 Moxnes also demonstrates how the life of Jesus was the model for the lives of the Christians. Jesus freely chose "his shameful position as a servant (i.e. slave) and a humiliating death on his way to honor with God." In the eyes of God Jesus was lifted up and received the highest honor at the same time as he experienced the deepest degradation and shame in the eyes of men. The Christians had another frame of reference than other people in the society. The real shame is to be condemned, not by men, but by God. And the real honor is not to receive honor from men, but from God.

The Ethics of the Pastoral Epistles

A few words about the ethics of the Pastoral Epistles. It has been claimed, first by the German theologian Martin Dibelius, and later by a lot of others, that the ethics of these epistles represent what Dibelius called a "christliche Bürgerlichkeit" – a bourgeois Christianity. According to this view, the point with the ethics is peaceful coexistence with the surrounding society. Therefore, the ideals that are found in the Pastoral Epistles for a good way of life are ideals that are almost identical to the ideals that are found elsewhere in Hellenistic ethics. The background for this wish for a peaceful coexistence is that the hope of the immanent return of Jesus has vanished. The Christians have to come to terms with the reality that the life here in this world will last.

In an important book Philip H. Towner challenges this view.6 According to him, the goal for the Christian life in this world is not respectability and peace. The main point is rather that people may be saved. Towner agrees with the representatives of the bourgeois Christianity interpretation that we find an emphasis on the kind of life that even outsiders will recognize as respectable, but according to Towner the motivation is something quite different from a desire to experience peace. The driving force is mission. The Christians have to live in such a way that the task of the church, the proclamation of the gospel so that people are saved, is not hindered.

Towner has written an important book. His views have directly or indirectly influenced many of those who argue that the exhortations to men and women in 1 Tim 2 are meant to be temporary. But I think that even he is missing the mark in his descriptions of the ethics of the Pastoral Epistles. It is obvious that God's will to save is central in these epistles, and in Titus 2 Paul mentions several times the reactions of the outsiders to the lives of the Christians. Still, the concrete way of life, as it is described in the Pastoral Epistles, is not primarily grounded in the missionary task of the Church, but in God's will more generally. Paul writes about a life in accord with sound doctrine (Tit 2:1). In the exhortations to Timothy, Paul emphasizes that he must live so that he is approved by God, through correctly handling the word of truth (1 Tim 2:15). The right life is brought up "in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching" (1 Tim 4:6), and this is the word that teaches us how to live, and that even equips us for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Towner claims that the reason behind the exhortation is mission. And clearly mission is central. But let us quickly look at some of the actual reasons Paul states in his exhortations. We will take a few examples from 1 Tim. In his exhortations to the women in 2:9-15 we see that what he describes is the life "appropriate for women who profess to worship God." The teaching prohibition is grounded in creation in fall. In chapter 3 we see that the criteria for the selection of elders are given because those who are selected have to be able to take care of God's church (3:5). Paul talks in chapter 5 about the families' responsibility for their widows, and again the reason is what is pleasing to God (5:4). A little later he writes about younger widows that bring judgment on themselves through breaking their dedication to Christ (5:11-12). And in chapter 6 Paul emphasizes that godliness with contentment is a great gain, not because it leads to the respect of the outsiders, but because riches may lead into temptation and fall (6:7-10).

The question is then: If the reason for Paul's exhortations in the Pastoral Epistles is mission, why is not mission the reason he actually states as he exhorts the different groups in the church?

We may also ask another question, regarding the ethics of the Pastoral Epistles generally, and regarding the prohibition against women teaching or having authority over a man more specifically – and we are returning to an issue we brought up earlier in this lecture. It has frequently been argued that Gal 3:28 in principle gives men and women freedom to exercise the same ministry in the church. But out of consideration to the surrounding society Paul prohibited women in Ephesus to display this freedom fully through public speaking. The exhortations in 1 Tim 2:11-15 are thus understood as an actualization of Paul's statements in 1 Cor 9:19-23, a cultural accommodation for the sake of the gospel. We have already raised the question: If that is Paul's reason for the prohibition, why is it not the reason he uses in his argument?

Our second question is: If Paul compels women to abstain from their Christian freedom, is he not doing the same thing here in Ephesus as he accused Peter of doing in Antioch, according to Gal 2:11-14? It is one thing voluntarily to abstain from one's freedom and rights. It is also in order to recommend others to do the same. But it is quite something else to direct and force others to abstain from their freedom. I think I hear Paul rage against himself: How is it then, that you force the Christians in Ephesus to follow the customs of the non-Christian society?

If the reason for the prohibition is God's lasting will, because men and women are created differently, and because God has different plans for men's and women's ministry, the situation is quite different. Then it is not an encroachment on the Christian freedom, but an expression of the good will of God.

It is not always easy to determine what is lasting and what is changeable. Discussions can be very heated in many churches as we deal with questions about what are changeable methods and what are unchangeable theological principles. Because we have to be faithful to the people we serve, we meet them where they are, and we willingly change our outward forms and methods if it serves the gospel. Because we have to be faithful to God, we never compromise with what he has intended to be lasting principles.


1 The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, "The Willowbank Report" in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, revised edition, eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1992), C-162-92. The quote is from p. C-170.

2 Karl Olav Sandnes: ""Kvinnene skal tie i forsamlingen": Til forståelse av 1 Kor 14,33b-40 og 1 Tim 2,11-15" i: Gunnar Eikli (red): Kvinner, i Bibelen, i kirken, i misjonen. Oslo 1991, p. 84.

3 Leif Erik Nilsen: ""La oss leve sømmelig…": Om sømmelighet og hensynet til de som står utenfor i paulinsk etikk." Hovedoppgave i kristendom ved Norsk Lærerakademi, Bergen 1995.

4 Halvor Moxnes: "Honor and Shame", Biblical Theology Bulletin 23 (1993), p. 168

5 Moxens, "Honor and Shame", p. 174

6 Philip H. Towner: The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles, JSNT Supplement Series 34. Sheffield 1989.

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