Saturday, February 10, 2007

Proper Application

I was engaged in a conversation with someone from church the other day. The conversation led from one topic to another, but started with a discussion concerning Brian McLaren and the emerging church in general, moved to a brief discussion concerning pastoral ministry and ended up briefly discussing interpreting and applying Scripture. When discussing applying the text of Scripture, the text in 1 Timothy 2:9 came up in the discussion, where women are instructed to dress “modestly and discreetly”.

“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” (1Timothy 2:9-10, NASB)

We were discussing the role of women in the church and I was emphasizing the fact that Scripture is very clear on its prohibition on women being in pastoral ministry. This launched us in the direction of discussing the literal interpretation of Scripture. This individual made the statement that he had the utmost respect for people who take this passage in Timothy literally, in other words, that women should not wear their hair in braids or wear any jewelry, though he tended to disagree with them taking it that literal. I briefly mentioned that the point of the passage was not to prohibit women from having braided hair, but on modest dress. His reply was “well now you are interpreting the passage”. Our conversation was being interrupted and I could not pursue further discussion on the matter to get clarification on his statement. But I walked away thinking “huh?” Well how else can you properly apply the passage if you do not first interpret what the passage says?

Listen, everyone interprets Scripture. Even those who are taking a passage literally are basically, interpreting it literally. The question is whether or not they are interpreting it correctly, and how literally should the passage be taken. The context must be studied in order to discern what the text says and this process should include determining who it was written to, and the historical background of the time it was written. In the aforementioned passage, the women during that time period would weave jewelry including gold and pearls into their hair. This called attention to themselves and their affluence, and was creating a problem because it was distracting people in their worship of the Lord.

The whole point of the passage centers on women not calling attention to themselves, especially in a sensual manner. That is the intent of the term “discreetly”. Instead, women should be focusing attention on behavior that exemplifies godliness. The intent of the passage is not to prohibit women from braiding their hair per se, but to avoid attire that focuses flaunting expensive clothing, and clothing that would draw attention to her sexuality. This, may I add, is something that needs to be preached from the pulpit of our churches more often than it does. Especially in this culture we live in today that is becoming very open with its sensuality.

The extent that a passage needs to be taken literally is extremely important for proper application. In the passage of 1 Timothy 2:9, it is possible for someone to abide by the criteria of literally not having hair in a braid, not wear any jewelry, but miss the point of godliness in their lifestyle. The whole point of the passage can easily be missed and degenerate into legalism.

For a prime example of a passage that is not meant to be taken literally, consider Matthew 5:29.

“29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
(Matthew 5:29, ESV)

Jesus is not commanding us to literally pluck out our eyes, but is using hyperbole to emphasize the seriousness of sin, and the voracity that we need to take in order to eradicate sin out of our lives. We should take every measure to remove and avoid things that cause us to stumble and fall into sin. Yes, go to great lengths to root out sin, but please, do not go out and search for sharp objects to gouge out your eyes!

But I think that this is something that is symptomatic of a problem that has become so widespread in evangelicalism. This mentality of hastily applying the text of Scripture in a dire attempt to be “relevant”, ignoring the doctrinal context treating it as if it is somehow less relevant and less practical. Passages that have a predominant doctrinal content are somehow deemed as less practical and less relevant than those that seem to directly relate to daily living. The common question posed today in too many evangelical circles is not “what does this verse mean”, but “what does this verse mean to me”.

This issue was discussed in an article by John MacArthur at Pulpit Live some time ago, What Does This Verse Mean ‘to me?. This is an excellent article, and if you have not already read this article before, I would encourage you to do so. To quote MacArthur:

“The difference may seem insignificant at first. Nevertheless, our obsession with the Scripture’s applicability reflects a fundamental weakness. We have adopted practicality as the ultimate judge of the worth of God’s Word. We bury ourselves in passages that overtly relate to daily living, and ignore those that don’t.”

As MacArthur points out, practical application is indeed important, but so is sound doctrine. What evangelicalism has done is place a false dichotomy between doctrinal and practical truth. Sound doctrine is practical!

It is tragic that Christians today treat doctrine as merely theoretical, dismissing it as impractical and causing unnecessary division. MacArthur refers to a book he read that actually had the absurdity to warn readers about preachers who emphasize “interpreting Scripture rather than applying it”. And I agree with MacArthur that this is very unwise counsel.

We need not fear any artificially misconstrued danger of irrelevant doctrine. No, what we really need to fear is an unbiblical and dangerous approach to relevance. The real travesty is the myriad of confusion that exists today as a result of lack of sound doctrine.

Solid biblical exposition has taken back seat to a pragmatic mentality of “what can I get out of the Bible to meet my needs”; what will seem to “work” in an individual’s daily life. Motives are more self-centered rather than God centered. No thought is given to the mind of God and what brings glory to God. In reality, the doctrinal application provides a sound basis for the practical application. If you read very carefully in the New Testament, you will observe, especially in the writing of Paul, the doctrinal foundation is given before launching into the practical application. God’s divine Truth provides the basis for behavior that honors Him. In the article in Pulpit Live, MacArthur draws on the example of the book of Romans. The first eleven chapters provide the foundation for dedication to Christ. Then beginning in chapter 12, Paul elaborates on the practical consequences of the theological basis outlined in the previous chapters of Romans.

You can observe the same pattern in Paul’s writing elsewhere. And it is this pattern that serves as the basis for transforming behavior. It is the primary challenge and utmost importance in biblical ministry to accurately and precisely expound the truth of Scripture. This is clearly evident in Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, and underscores the importance of precision in handling God’s Word in the life of those called to leadership in the church.

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
(2 Timothy 2:15, NASB)

Too many Bible studies focus on what the text means to the individual. Too many discussions are merely based on individual opinions. Before we make any application of the text of Scripture, we must first determine what it means. Then discussion can take place on how it applies to our lives.

I will end with this quote from MacArthur: “We don’t make the Bible relevant; it is inherently so, simply because it is God’s Word. And after all, how can anything God says be irrelevant?”

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