During black history month in the United States of America, a place where not very long ago Africans were not Americans but were the slaves of Euro Americans, I went to church. The preacher preached right through I Timothy 5:17 - 6:2, verse by verse.
The context here is important. The preacher is himself Euro American, and male, a husband. He grew up in New York but is preaching on Valentines Day in Texas. And his text is by another Euro male (a Roman citizen writing in imperial Greek as a Jewish male elitist, purist, who's converted to a sect of Judaism that he once tried to crush politically) to another Euro male (a late-circumcised half-Jew Greek) on how to order an assembly (a synagogue, an ekklesia) of people consisting of half slaves and half women.
(White, Euro American friends of mine invited me to this church this day in this place; there are others like them, like us, in the audience but no Africans or African Americans among us, not even one. I'm going to make a big deal out of my own personal context here so perhaps you'll be willing to consider yours with me. A number of bloggers - you included - can and do look at the text that I heard preached on Sunday. Each one of us, yes you and me, read the text through our own gendered, and our own raced, lens. We have history, histories. We either want change, need change, or we resist change. We sift the text. White, Euro Males tend to let the text be -- to read it as authoritative twenty centuries later in the place where they are on top. They -- and some of you -- tend to be in the top positions in their assemblies, whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. They -- and some of you -- tend to take the top place in their marriages over their wives. They -- and some of you -- tend to hold the top positions in their places of employment. They -- and some of you -- tend to read the text as normative for them. But, thankfully, none of us can use the text now to justify slavery, as it was used for so long until just recently. Thankfully, we all have to sift through the first-century text that has been used, once upon a time, to sanction African slavery among us! We have Black history, and this is our black history month. We can remember. So listen in, with me, to this pastor sifting now.)
"The elders in the first century," said the pastor in America in the twenty-first century, "were men only." And he added, "If I had written this, there would have been women elders too. But notice the principle of honor - double honor - for those in senior positions." (I Timothy 5:17)
"Paul has Timothy turn with him to a principle of the Jewish scripture for the way a congregation was to treat elders and pastors," he added. "I'm from the City, so what do I know about oxen and muzzles and treading grain? Notice, however, the principle of allowing the ones doing work for others to benefit from the work." (I Timothy 5:18)
"Here the writer takes much care to describe the care in keeping elders on the hook. Let's include youth pastors and senior pastors and all paid leaders today in this principle." (I Timothy 5:19, 20, 21, 22)
"Now we come to a parenthesis in the text. It's direct advice from Paul to Timothy about using alcohol, using wine. I don't know why Paul put that in the text and why he put that here exactly. It seems to be the principle of best-known medicine." (I Timothy 5:23)
"Now Paul comes back to the points he was making earlier. The principle is that nothing leaders do will ultimately be in secret." (I Timothy 5:24, 25)
"Today, we don't live in a society with slaves. When this was written, half of society was enslaved. The text gives us a principle analogous to our current situation but, of course, it's different. We don't live as slaves or as slave owners. The principle we can make is to the workplace, to being employees, to having a boss. We can give honor to our bosses, 'all honor.' And if we're a boss who is a believer, then there are principles of honor for us too." (I Timothy 6:1, 2)
Notice the humility of the pastor preaching. Notice his appeal to the text and his appeal to his own context now - so far away, as if reading somebody else's mail. Notice too our legacy of whites and blacks reading the texts now, in different places, during our black history month.
(Suzanne's Bookshelf has been linking to a number of bloggers' posts on the issue of using the texts to justify gendered positioning in the twenty-first century: here, here, and here. These are worth reading for more on this principle of sifting for principles. The sifting principle -- which also is used by white euro males -- must be used by African American women; for example, here's a scholar and preacher, Dr. Naomi Franklin, who introduces the principle of sifting a text.)