“A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”
In other words, if you do not know the story behind a text it can be used to prove an idea the text doesn’t actually support. A good example of this in Holy Scripture is when St. Paul tells the women of Corinth to sit down, shut up, and be subservient to their husbands.
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?” – 1 Corinthians 14: 34-36
This has lead people to believe through the ages that St. Paul was just another one of those old white guys who wanted to oppress women. This has been used as a proof text by men who wish to justify their domination of women and by women libers looking to break the bonds of male oppression.
In reality St. Paul was one of the great feminists of the time and did more to make women equal to men than those around him. Without the proper context what other conclusion can you come to? And now a lesson in history….
Corinth was a major seaport located on narrow strip of land that separates the Corinthian Gulf from the Saronic Gulf. It was an important and bustling trade city. The city had many pagan temples that employed the services of temple priestesses in the oldest profession known to man. These priestesses were known as honey bees and their job was to raise money for the temple by providing their services. It was considered good luck and a noble thing to employ these honey bees.
Because the land was narrow it was faster and easier to pull small trade ships out of the water at Corinth and portage them across to the Saronic Gulf than it was to sail all the way around Achaia. There were companies that employed slaves to land ferry these ships across. The sailors on these ships enjoyed an extended liberty call and like sailors have done through the ages they engaged in all sorts of drinking, festivities, and debauchery, which included visiting the honey bees. The streets were filled with all kinds of deplorable activity.
The Jews are a people set apart by God. They have the Torah which tells them how to live in a right relationship with God and each other. Jews were easy to pick out in Corinth. The women were silent. They were veiled (we veil what we hold sacred) and they were subservient to their husbands. This made them stand out as being different.
Along comes this new religion, Christianity. Women were viewed more as equals. They no longer had to be veiled or be silent in church or public. They did not act like slaves to their husbands. The problem was that they fit into the Corinth pagan society a little too well and became hard to distinguish from their pagan counterparts. This led to the mistaken belief that the Christians were nothing more than just another pagan cult.
But as Christians we are called to be more like the Jews. We are called to be in the culture but not part of the culture. People should look at a Christian, as they can a Jew, and know that there is something different about them.
The context behind St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians was basically this;
“To avoid creating a scandal and leading the city to believe you are something you are not go back to acting the way the Jews do while you are in public and in church. It is far better to be mistaken for a Jew than it is to be mistaken as a honey bee.”
This is the same kind of thought St. Paul had when he said that he could eat anything he wants when questioned about the Torah’s dietary restrictions. It is not what goes into a person that makes him unclean but what comes out of a person. However, if eating meat brings scandal upon me I will refrain from doing so when I am with you.
How much more love and respect can you show someone than to change your ways when in their presence for their sake?
St. Paul never intended his instruction to be justification for domination over anyone and he certainly did not see women as second class people who should sit down and shut up.
Context means everything. It is something talking heads no longer concern themselves with.
As Christians we are called to be set apart from society. People should be able to tell us apart by the way we act, the way we speak, and the way we dress. Look around you. Can you tell who the Christians are or are more and more people starting to look like drunken sailors and honey bees.