Bad theology and biblical misinterpretations kill people. We’re seeing that now during this coronavirus pandemic when pastors keep holding large church gatherings because they believe that it’s God’s will, that “the Bible says it and that settles it.”
Teaching that subordination of women is God’s will is also bad theology that kills bodies, minds, and spirits. Teaching male dominance supports violence against women. It leads men to feel they have “authority” to do anything to women’s bodies and women not to question them. Interpreting certain passages in 1 Timothy and Titus to silence women in the church is misinterpretation of the Bible, stifling the minds and spirits of women and harming the whole community.
For these reasons, I’m deeply grateful to biblical scholars like Dr. Christopher R. Hutson and for his new commentary, First and Second Timothy and Titus. Although some people say that we should just throw out passages in 1 Timothy and Titus that are still used against women, I agree with Hutson that we need responsible interpretations of these passages so they won’t continue hurting people. Hutson writes that dismissing such passages as “hopelessly mired in misogynistic, patriarchalist ideology” is throwing “out the baby with the bathwater,” resulting in “fundamentalist patriarchalism” continuing “to bathe each new generation in centuries-old bathwater.”
Instead, Hutson presents an egalitarian, or biblical feminist, interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12, one of the passages most often used to silence and subordinate women. The egalitarian view begins with a “broad understanding of the gospel as challenging all forms of domination and oppression” and approaches “texts like 1 Timothy 2:11-12. . . as anomalies.” He cites ancient and modern Christian communities who have affirmed the “giftedness of women” as preachers and church leaders because they look “through the wide-angel lens of the whole NT rather than squinting through the peephole of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.”
Hutson’s book is needed today because “patriarachalists” still “use this text to perpetuate presumptions of privilege in all areas of society.” Hutson refers to the term “kyriarchalism” (from Greek words meaning “rule of lords”), coined by theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to emphasize the intersectionality of all forms of dominance. Hutson writes: “Attitudes regarding male domination intersect with attitudes about slavery, tyranny, racism, colonialism, and any other claim that some categories of people have a God-given right to dominate other categories. Read superficially, the Bible often becomes a tool of oppression rather than of liberation and redemption.”
This commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (PE) is especially relevant to the liberation of churches from male domination. “The PE are central to debates about whether women should be ordained and to what ministries,” Hutson writes. “Most Christian leaders, men themselves, have applied the PE to reinforce male dominance in the church.” Hutson’s commentary discusses problems with the traditional translation, interpretation, and application of passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and states that there have always been alternative interpreters supporting female church leaders, with an increase in these voices in the twentieth century. As one of these strong alternative voices, Hutson interprets this passage as an exception for the specific cultural context of an eastern province in the early Roman Empire but not a general rule for all Christians in all places and times. “Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are gifts bestowed by the Spirit for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12). Should we spurn such gifts when they come wrapped in bodies that do not meet our expectations?” He identifies a crucial question for reading the New Testament: “How do we distinguish the core message of the gospel from the cultural package in which it was wrapped before it was handed on to us?”
Hutson states that although ministers usually read the Pastoral Epistles as “guidelines for organizing and evaluating churches,” he argues “that these letters are guidelines for forming and evaluating ministers.” Thus “ministerial formation” is the focus of his book; “it is a commentary on a collection of letters about how to be effective ministers of Christ Jesus.” This focus makes it a practical, as well as scholarly, commentary.
In the “Theological Issues” sections of the commentary, Hutson offers his own “exhortations to young ministers, tapping into 2,000 years of Christian tradition about spiritual and ministerial formation.” He encourages readers to explore our own and other traditions to be effective in our teaching of the gospel in the midst of current cultural trends and philosophical questions. This book is an excellent illustration of his own advice to bring depth to our teaching and preaching with wisdom from our spiritual ancestors.
Drawing from the Pastoral Epistles, here is more advice Hutson offers ministers:
(1) “The proper place to begin your ministry is self-examination and confession, gratitude for God’s mercy, and prayer for your most cantankerous opponents. This goes against the tendency to read a vice list judgmentally by picking out whichever sins do not tempt us (or our donor base) and decrying them as reprehensible.”
(2) “If you would read Scripture properly, attend to the ethical demands of the texts. Help people see how the text challenges and corrects behavior, and put your understanding into practice yourself. No sophisticated theology will matter if people cannot see how it makes a difference in your life.”
(3) Don’t begin teaching “with any arrogant certainty that you have comprehended the meaning of Scripture, much less Deity, so as to expound the deep things to your hearers.”
(4) Ministers “must begin by acknowledging that we do not know God fully and open ourselves to rebirth. Engaging issues from a posture of false certainty is likely to result in fruitless debate. But if we engage issues as opportunities to reexamine our assumptions, we may discover new dimensions to faith.”
(5) “Consider the specific cultural context in which you are now living. If your congregation prohibits a woman to ‘teach or presume authority over a men,’ does that have a positive or negative impact on how non-Christians in your town view Christianity?”
(6) “Your task as a minister is to help Christians become morally upright people and to help your congregation identify leaders who will be unimpeachable.”
(7) “A leader should cultivate other leaders. If you think of yourself as indispensable, you may cut off the creative energy that will keep the group going in the next generation.”
(8) “The thoughtful minister must discern between earthly rules of domination and the gospel call for liberation. You cannot serve two masters. . . . You must shatter all forms of domination and exploitation that prevail in the present age.”
Hutson practices what he teaches through his research, writing, and classes at Abilene Christian University. He follows the gospel call for liberation. For seven years he has served on the board of Equity for Women of the Church, an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. He contributed two articles that are excerpts from this commentary, “Putting the Cultural Cart Before the Christological Horse” and “Flaunting Wealth, Flaunting Virtue,” to the Equity for Women in the Church blog. Also, he wrote a chapter,“‘Heavenly Zeal’: The Call and Mission of Old Elizabeth,” for a soon-to-be-published book, I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Equity for Women in the Church.
I highly recommend First and Second Timothy and Titus to all who want to follow the liberating call of the gospel to transform church and society. Hutson states that the book is for “hard-core Bible” students, “seasoned scholars and ministers,” and “ministerial students.” I recommend it also to Bible study groups and to all Christians. While the book is erudite, quoting ancient sources from Artistotle to Epictetus to Hippocrates and Christian commentators through the centuries, Hutson’s clear, engaging style makes it also accessible to general readers. This commentary is especially important in our day when many still use the Pastoral Epistles to stifle the gifts of women and others. Hutson demonstrates that the Spirit is “an equal-opportunity gifter.”
Christopher R. Hutson, PhD, is professor of Bible, missions, and ministry and is associate dean for academic programs and services in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University. Among his research interests are the letters of Paul in their social contexts and issues pertaining to women in ministry, which he approaches through studies of biblical texts and American religious history. He is a co-founder of the website gal328.org, which pushes the issue of gender justice specifically within Churches of Christ.