In the book review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I comment on a great overarching question in the book: is there a cookie cutter way according to Scripture that women should live in all eras? To answer this question, we must first know when something applies to all people at all times or when it only applies to the particular group of people that specific book of the Bible is originally addressing.

I am currently studying 1 Timothy 2 and am having to face this issue when I read statements such as "let women learn quietly with all submissiveness" (v. 11) or "women should adorn themselves...not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire" (v. 9). Is this saying that my gender inhibits my ability to ask questions at church or that I can't wear a strand of pearls or buy clothes from the Loft? Below are two principles to guide you as you study Scripture and face similar interpretative questions.

  • Learn about the original audience and the situation being addressed. The books of the Bible were not written in a vacuum. Knowing that Paul wrote to Timothy while he was shepherding the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:1-3) and that this church struggled with false teachers and many who were departing from sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3-7, 18-20) helps me to have a context for what was going on and what the author addresses. How do you gather this information? What helps me is reading the surrounding context or the entire book to gather an overview of the original audience and their situation. The introduction section of a commentary is another great place to find this information.

  • Question how the passage fits in with the rest of Scripture. Scripture does not contradict itself, and if it seems to in certain places, this indicates that further study of the passage(s) is needed. How does Paul's instruction about women not teaching men but remaining quiet jive with descriptions of Priscilla & Aquila both teaching Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) or with Timothy's mother and grandmother instructing him in the faith (2 Tim. 1:5) or with the number of women whom Paul directs greetings to as fellow laborers when he writes to the churches (2 Tim. 4:19-21; Rom. 16:1-16)? Reading in light of the whole council of God helps determine what is meant for a particular situation and what is meant for all time.

Obviously, Scripture communicates unchanging principles for how we should live: women submitting to their husbands, cultivating a gentle spirit, and dressing modestly. In Paul's day, not wearing braids or costly jewelry were part of what it meant to be modest. Today, it would be wearing skirts/shorts that actually cover our backsides and avoiding tops that bare cleavage. While the principles do not change, how they are applied in each culture and era may differ. As we study and interpret Scripture such as 1 Corinthians 11 when Paul instructs women to wear head coverings when they pray, we must ask whether the instruction is situational or an unchanging principle, which may require us to do some digging in the Word and to ask questions in order to learn the answer!