Straying from the context

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I don’t have much intelligent to say about the recent CofE vote. These days I’ve learnt better than to blog when riled up about something. But I do have a comment about the use of Scripture.

Eddie quotes Jon talking about the verse beloved of those in the “yes”-camp, “in Christ there is no male or female”. He makes some good points, that we should listen to the whole counsel of Scripture, that we need to consider it alongside the fact that Paul did write 1 Timothy 2, and so on. And one really bad one: that we need to consider the verse in context.

Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that we shouldn’t be pulling verses out of context to use as weapons against others. But at the same time we should not be more locked to the context than the Biblical authors were themselves. What do I mean? Here’s the verse:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul was writing, as he does in most of his letters, to a church riven by racial and religious division, encouraging them towards unity, reconciliation and life together. It’s a big theme, if not the big theme in Paul’s writing. And Paul is eager to make the point that Jews and Gentiles are “all one” in Christ. That is the context.

But consider how Paul makes this point. He doesn’t just speak to the specific context, that of Gentiles and Jews. He deliberately widens the discussion to talk about slaves and free, male and female. There’s no need for him to do this; that’s not what the passage is about. Paul is taking a general principle (that all are one in Christ), and demonstrates that it has wide application—that there is no distinction of gender, religio-ethnic group, social status—to enforce his narrow point about unity between Jews and Gentiles. It’s a good piece of rhetoric.

So to insist that the general principle should be considered in the “context” of Jewish-Gentile unity is to put the cart before the horse—or to put it another way, “all are one in Christ Jesus” is the context, the bigger context, because that is precisely why he says what he says about Gentiles and Jews.

Yes, listen to the context. But when authors stray from the context to make a point, listen to that too.

(So, how do we reconcile this with 1 Timothy 2? Good question, but it’s not what I’m writing about here.)