Saturday, November 24, 2012

Optics: Timothy and Church Structure

For many hundreds of years now, Paul's writings to Timothy have been understood to provide for us a template for the structure of church polity and leadership. Overseers, (variously Elders or Bishops) and Deacons are described in some detail, as to their character and reputation and from that we would understandably tend to derive that all churches must have those offices in some form or other. But there is one facet of the text that might modify that somewhat. I alluded to it when I mentioned reputation.
You see, I believe that one of Paul's primary motivations is that the message of the Gospel would not fall into disrepute. And therefore the optics of how the church conducts itself are very important. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because of his calling as an apostle (read: missionary!) he has an abiding desire that the church should grow. Secondly, the first century church was already being maligned by people who didn't understand their message, (for example, the communion service was thought by some to be cannibalistic) and from that misunderstanding persecution was mounting against us. There is obviously no need to make that situation worse.
So, although reputation (optics) is alluded to only twice, (that I saw) I believe it to be an underlying motivation or theme of much of what he says to Timothy, especially because one of the prominent references is an instruction to slaves. Now from our position in history, it might look as if Paul is endorsing slavery. But what we are really seeing is something very subversive. He's actually treating slaves as people, equals, who are enjoined, for the sake of the Gospel, to continue in their labours, almost as undercover agents, to allow the message to spread --the culture around is not ready for them to seize their freedom. I believe the same underlying concern for optics is at the root of the rather troubling instructions Paul gives about women: this is what the culture around will understand; this is the cost of change that the cultural market will bear.
Fast forward to today. If we used that message to slaves to keep on practising slavery, our reputation in the world would be terrible. Similarly churches that literalistically suppress their women likewise suffer censure from a culture that has evolved (and not by chance either --much of that evolution has come from the Church itself!) past first century values.
Taking it even further, based on the same legitimate desire for good optics, I would argue that even the church structure promoted by the writings to Timothy, comes into question in the present day. In my last post, oh Theophilus (I couldn't resist that!) I complained of the idea of trying to be 'biblical' and adhering to the Societies Act only as window dressing. What I argue here is that it seriously looks to me as if for the sake of good optics, so that the Gospel can continue to spread, we should govern ourselves in a way that is understandable by the culture around us, and not cling to a structure that is rooted in the past. And I think Paul would back me up.

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