Masculinity Lost: A Reflection On 1 Timothy 5 | CBE International

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Masculinity Lost: A Reflection On 1 Timothy 5

On November 11, 2015

Complementarianism has long been noted for the damage it does to women as a result of its staunch insistence on gender hierarchy. However, this theology can also be incredibly damaging to men. To be blunt, complementarian beliefs can infantilize men. They can promote pride and ego while squashing humility and self-sacrifice. Worst of all, some adherents to complementarianism decentralize Christ as the core of male identity and in the bigger picture, human identity.

Complementarians claim that men are entitled to primacy in the church, home, and workplace by divine design. In the same breath, some complementarians accuse Christians who do not define themselves by a complementarian gender binary of failing to uphold the inerrant truth of Scripture.

Bias

According to complementarians, male primacy is not only biblical, it is the unquestionable, clear, and timeless truth of Scripture. Some complementarians fail to admit how interpretation, privilege, and bias affect their hermeneutic of gender roles.

Often, bias is viewed as a bad thing when reading Scripture. However, we must remember that there is no such thing as a completely pure, objective biblical hermeneutic. Without a doubt, my own experiences influence how I read Scripture. The question is, have I allowed these biases to override the biblical text?

A personal story will prove enlightening. In 2013, I was diagnosed with a mild seizure disorder. I was out of work because of my health. My wife was pregnant and on bedrest, and I could not financially provide for my family. I spent months lying on a couch, barely able to walk, a side-effect of the crippling dizzy spells caused by my medication. We were living off disability checks and food stamps. Because I had been raised a complementarian fundamentalist, I hated the situation. Yet, in many ways, my experiences during that time would unmake my false masculine identity. 

In the wake of my illness, I reread the Gospel of Matthew. I observed the consistent upheaval of expected roles in this gospel and was inspired to shed the last vestiges of complementarianism that clung to me. I emerged, a man committed to pursuing a Christ-centered identity.

I am now a stay-at-home dad and blogger. I spend time reading Scripture and examining various complementarian claims on my blog. In doing so, I emphasize the role of personal bias in the meaning-making process of hermeneutics.

My personal experiences empower me to read Scripture afresh. Because I am no longer trying to uphold my own "masculinity," I can instead discern what the text has to say about who I am in Christ. I am free to consider context and history, even when they challenge my preconceptions of a passage.

1 Timothy 5

This is illustrated well by comparing my interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:1-16 with a possible complementarian reading of the same passage. 1 Timothy 5 has been used by some complementarians to shame men into embracing a hyper-masculine identity and ego fueled by female submission and job performance/financial success.

Some complementarians take a fairly simple approach to this passage. Verses eight and fourteen are treated as the interpretive crux, barring women from leadership positions. They can use verse eight to argue that a man must work, provide financially, and be the physical and spiritual head of the household.

Likewise, using verse fourteen, complementarians can argue that this male role is defined against that of a female, who must be a wife, mother, and submissive manager of her husband's house.[1] Some have even used it to argue that "stay-at-home" dads are worse than unbelievers, because home-based parenting is an exclusively feminine role.[2] However, it is important to note that not all complementarians agree with this interpretation.

These claims have no basis when the verses are read as part of a larger whole. Consider that, beginning in 1 Timothy 5:1-2, the passage lays out an ethic for the treatment of all within the church as a family. This theme is developed throughout the chapter. Specific details are provided on just care of widows in the church. 

According to verse five, a "real widow" (i.e. someone the church body has an obligation to care for) is one without any family. If a widow has living relatives, those relatives are responsible for her care. In fact, contrary to patriarchal code, a widow should even seek out female relatives to care for her so the church can better focus on those with no recourse (v. 16). 

All of this influences my reading of verse eight:

"[W]hoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."

In context, it seems to me that this verse is actually about caring for widows. One need not do hermeneutical hoop-jumping to make sense of this statement. If caring for widows is the job of the church, then caring for widows within your own family--a microcosm of the church according to Ephesians 5-6--is also a Christian duty. Consider Jesus' words to his disciples in Luke 6:32:

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them."

Likewise, a home and a family fails its duty as a microcosm of the church when it abandons its call to care for a widow--and Scripture tells us that a person who abandons such a duty is worse than an unbeliever.

Conclusion

When we consider the passage as a whole, we see that this passage appears to have nothing to do with defining masculinity. The only way to even make such an argument is to:

  1. insist that the context of the verse is irrelevant,
  2. assert that a meaning completely alien to the ignored context is actually what God intended to say,
  3. and claim that the person arguing this has authority to decide what is and isn't inerrant, timeless, and propositional truth in Scripture.

I'm going to assume that the reader can see why this is problematic.

My assertions are further upheld by placing 5:14 in this context. While it is hardly disputable that this passage commands young widows to marry, have children, and manage households, this is no flat statement.

It is important to note that this admonition is connected to a very specific set of circumstances. Gleaning from verses 9-15, it seems that there was a situation in Ephesus involving young widowed women. Like the idlers who caused discord and strife in Thessalonica (2 Thes. 3), these young widows were creating controversy in the community by promoting disunity, gossip, and sexually licentious behavior. 

This suggests that 1 Timothy 5:14 is part of a section (9-15) intended to address a specific situation at a specific time in Ephesus. There are certainly lessons we can take from it, but one of them is not an absolute feminine gender role in the church and home.

We can recognize several relevant lessons while paying appropriate attention to the historical circumstances behind 1 Timothy 5:

We are charged to pursue Christ-like love in Christian community (vv. 1-2). We are called to care for the poor and disenfranchised among us (vv. 3-8). We need to live peaceably and we ought not promote antagonism or ignore the importance of the "other." We should not pursue our own goals, but instead should pursue Christ's kingdom purpose in our homes and communities. And we can conclude that none of this can be accomplished when we denigrate others, talk poorly of them, and promote an ethic that is not rooted in the crucified Christ (vv. 11-16).

It is important to note that both my reading of the passage and one possible complementarian interpretation include a biased approach to Scripture. Both make claims that exclude the opposing hermeneutic. Both are made by persons seeking the will of God. So, I propose a set of questions by which they ought to be judged:

  1. Which reading is more consistent when 1 Timothy 5:1-16 is read as a unified whole?
  2. Which enables men to embrace Paul's vision of self-emptying Christ-likeness as presented in Philippians 2?
  3. Which one is most consistent with God's elevation of the weak, vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized--especially women--throughout Scripture?

I leave it for the reader to discern.

Notes

[1] Steve Farrar, Anchor Man (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) pp. 61-64, 102-104.
[2] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL:Crossway, 1991) pp. 371-383.

Disclaimer: This post has been modified from its original version in order to acknowledge the diversity of complementarian perspectives, approaches, and interpretations.


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