PART 4—THE HANDMAIDENS CONSPIRACY
by Donna Howell (partly excerpted from my new book The Handmaidens Conspiracy)
We should never pull from a biblical text any potential meaning until we’ve taken the proper steps of interpretation. If we don’t take these steps, we’re guaranteed to arrive at a frequently twisted understanding of Scripture. First, let’s look at how easily this can confuse both those who are reading the Bible and their later audience (whether that be a congregation, a friend, or a coworker, and so on).
A cold, black-and-white sentence as read from a page in a book can have many different meanings based on the reader’s interpretation. Readers who are willing to interpret the Bible’s rules and guidelines for their own selfish agendas and then weigh down the rest of the Body with such miscalculated interpretations will find that the Bible can be a dangerous tool! Such skewed interpretation can—and has—been the road upon which scores of false teachers, preachers, and prophets have led millions of people into misunderstanding. To that, the Church agrees. Every Christian has heard stories of ministers who read Scripture, misinterpreted it (whether intentionally or unintentionally), and then made promises or cast judgments that fell flat when tested. Some of these ministers via televangelism and online media outlets like YouTube have done so to the detriment of listeners around the world—and I know I’m not alone in considering that a travesty.
Take the following sentence as an example: “I didn’t say he beat his wife.” (I am using an example outside the Bible, specifically because it doesn’t already have a biased interpretation behind it.) Now we will look at the emphasis as it is placed on each word in turn and observe how this small sentence made up of only seven words can relate at least seven different meanings:
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “Someone else must have said it, but you didn’t hear it from me.”
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “I didn’t say it at all. You’re making it up.”
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “I might have implied it, but I didn’t directly declare it as fact.”
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “I was talking about someone else when I told you that.”
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “He’s just mean to her a lot, but he doesn’t actually strike her.”
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “He beat that other guy’s wife.”
- I didn’t say he beat his wife: “He beats the kids and the dog.”
To add to this confusion, italics in the King James Bible are only meant as placeholders for when a word was later added to the English translation for flow. This rule first came into practice in 1560, when the Geneva Bible was produced. The Genevan Protestants at the time of John Calvin’s influence recognized that a word-for-word translation from Hebrew and Greek left some sentences in English stunted and hard to understand. (Really, no language can be translated word for word without a slight linguistic tweak for flow within the secondary language. Consider the Spanish tengo hambre. The word-for-word translation to English would be “have hunger,” but in a well-rounded translation to English, it means “I am hungry.”) Certain words were added to Bible translations merely to assist English readers in grasping the true meaning behind a sentence when the original Greek or Hebrew phrase, term, or idiom was incomprehensible or ambiguous without it. However, the Geneva Bible was tailored to readers within its locality (as opposed to a widely known form for all English speakers), and it caused errors and confusion. So in 1604, King James authorized fifty-four translators to complete a more accurate rendering. The project was completed in 1611, and the translators followed the model set by the Genevan Protestants. Readers of Scripture today cannot rely on italics to point to emphasis, because they are only present to show a linguistic tweak. Thus, every single word of the Bible must be interpreted without a specific emphasis until the proper interpretation methods are tended to.
If there were a sentence in the Bible that said, “I didn’t say he beat his wife,” and the reader was not willing to practice the most fundamental steps to pulling the true meaning out of what’s being said by the original authors, then that one blip of Scripture alone could mean at least seven different things, as illustrated above. Then a preacher can merely pick one of the seven interpretations, preach a message focused on that one interpretation, and convince an entire congregation (or nation) into believing the Scripture said what he believes it did—many times without even reading the Scriptures before and after it that likely assist in the overall interpretation (as I will address shortly).
Does this sound sensational? It shouldn’t. It happens a lot, actually. As one example: Many prosperity preachers have stood from their platforms and used James’ words, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2) as an explanation for why congregants don’t have the house, car, money, or other earthly providence they need or want. I’ve heard more sermons than I can count that use this verse to “prove” people don’t get what they want from the Lord because they just aren’t asking diligently enough. However, the very next verse following “You have not because you ask not” states the reason people don’t get what they want: They are asking for something that satisfies an earthly and temporal lust (James 4:3). So this prosperity message referring to earthly gain, when based on James 4:2, meets instant and outright cancellation by the next verse in sequence.
This is a preposterous error that can—and frequently does—pollute the Church’s understanding of truth. But sadly, misinterpretation is far more often a side effect of a cultural, societal, or circumstantial issue, and it can have a spiritual (and perhaps eternal) consequence. I’ll give another example using three fictional people: Sarah, Jenny, and Amanda (again outside of Scripture, as it will not have any preexisting or biased interpretations associated with it).
- Sarah is driving home one night when she is hit head-on by a drunk driver. Her injuries are life-changing and painful, and she is lucky to be alive. The accident was clearly the other driver’s fault, and she is left wearing the bandages. Her best friend Jenny visits her and tells her: “You poor, dear soul. I’m so sorry for the pain that driver has caused you. This is not your fault. I know you feel lost and lonely right now, and every bone in your body aches, but remember that God is not blaming you for the accident. The Holy Spirit has plans to use you greatly in ministry, and you can rise above this. God works in mysterious ways, and this might be one of them. He can use even this.”
- The following year, Sarah’s friend, Amanda, is driving home from a bar after “ten too many” drinks. She has driven drunk many times in the past, and has even run into a few mailboxes, so she is aware of the dangers of drinking and driving on a personal level. On this particular night, she runs a stoplight and crashes into a smaller car, immediately killing everyone inside. Amanda survives, but her injuries are life-changing and painful, and she, too, is lucky to be alive. The accident was clearly Amanda’s fault, and she is left with the guilt of ending several lives as a result of her selfish decision. In a wave of contrition, she vents to Sarah. Sarah says: “I remember when I went through this myself. My friend Jenny had the perfect advice for me. I’ll tell you exactly what she said. ‘You poor, dear soul. I’m so sorry for the pain that driver has caused you. This is not your fault. I know you feel lost and lonely right now, and every bone in your body aches, but remember that God is not blaming you for the accident. The Holy Spirit has plans to use you greatly in ministry, and you can rise above this. God works in mysterious ways, and this might be one of them. He can use even this.’”
- Jenny hears that she has been quoted and calls Sarah, irritated about the misuse of her words. In Jenny’s opinion, Amanda was irrevocably at fault, and she needs to feel the weight of the consequences over a drunken joyride, or else she might repeat the same mistake later on and potentially take another life. Jenny wouldn’t have minded at all if she had been quoted in circumstances that harmonized with the original intent. In fact, she would have blessed that situation, because it would have represented encouragement in despair from one innocent traffic victim to another. But in this specific application, Jenny’s advice was circumstantially twisted. Sarah explains that she “didn’t misquote anyone.” The words she gave to Amanda were exactly what Jenny had said, down to the very letter. Therefore, she can’t be accused of misquoting. Jenny acknowledges that her words were said correctly, but the application of them was distorted, and they therefore conveyed an erroneous meaning. She intended them for Sarah, in Sarah’s position. Just before she hangs up, Jenny says, “You haven’t used my words faithfully, and therefore you don’t have my blessing in the way you’ve chosen to quote me. I will have nothing to do with this.”
With the above scenario in mind, is it possible that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12 were meant for the congregations he was writing to, in their position, in those circumstances, and that applying them universally today is a misuse of the Word of God?
Later we will cite numerous places in other writings by Paul where he addresses women teachers, preachers, and even a woman APOSTLE, which infers that Paul was either a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:8), or the circumstances in which he wrote his letter to Timothy were local, special, not universal (we’re also doing a month of broadcast shows on SkyWatch TV currently that points out scholarship surrounding these issues and how seminarians understand this point). If Paul’s words were “normative” and applicable to all women in every city throughout the universe and into perpetuity, then women should not speak in church. Ever. Done deal. If, however, like Jenny and Sarah, Paul’s words were meant to apply in specific circumstances, then we need to apply his words only when those same circumstances are relevant today (and if not, then a LOT of men must also quit preaching IMMEDIATELY including single men [there goes a lot of youth pastors, Rabbis, and even senior pastors], husbands with only one child or less [again, goodbye to a ton of church leaders and seminary teachers who must resign their ministries tomorrow], and a huge list of other exclusions that PAUL wrote about and that we will be examining during this series as documented in the Bible and studied in the new book The Handmaidens Conspiracy). [For example, in Paul’s letter to Timothy, chapter 3 verses 2–13, Paul orders that male leaders cannot be: single; married without children or married with only one child; married with children who aren’t in complete subjection to his authority “with all gravity;” or married to wives who gossip. Further, a male leader must not be a recent convert without “good report” including a stable reputation even to those outside the church.] This list goes on and on and illustrates that, if 1 Timothy 2:11–12 applies as an “absolute” that women cannot be leaders in the modern Church just because “the Bible says so,” then 1 Timothy 3:2–12 applies as an “absolute” for hundreds of thousands of modern male Bible teachers, pastors, and seminary professors too because “the Bible says so.” Yet, how many single male pastors do we see today? How many of the married ones are are still waiting for the Lord to bless them with more than one child or with any child at all? How many have children who misbehave? How many are married with well-behaved children, but whose wives always have a big, juicy story to tell? How many are married with well-behaved children and submissive wives—and whose ministry and teaching are dead-on correct according to Scripture—but who aren’t accepted by their secular town folk?
None of these men is qualified to lead. Not one of them. Nope.
Sorry to break that to you. They all have to resign their ministries immediately or be considered apostates according to the Apostle Paul!
That is…unless we are able to acknowledge that 1 Timothy 3:2–13 was a “relative” regulation for men, which we will examine later regarding the condition of the church in Ephesus, which was so bad that Paul had no choice but to implement what Professor Gilbert Bilezikian calls a temporary “congregational martial law.” [i]
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Of course, we are not calling on a vast number of men identified by Paul in special cultural circumstances as unqualified to teach or preach to leave the ministry. The point is, anyone can cherry-pick and quote from the Bible. He or she can memorize every Scripture in the entire Word—but if the passages are not properly applied in a way that harmonizes with the original circumstances and intent, they can and often do convey distortion. This much we can all agree upon. And, a further critical point of this illustration is, if a preacher teaches in this way, he or she should not be surprised if or when God says, “You haven’t used My words faithfully, and therefore you don’t have My [blessing, anointing, approval, consecration, sanction, consent, etc.] upon the way you’ve chosen to quote me. I will have nothing to do with this message you’re giving.”
As a biblical support for this concept, consider 2 Peter 3:16b—which, although written by Peter, again refers to the writings of Paul, who is quoted as saying that women should be silent in church, never attend service with braided hair or pearls, etc.: “As also in all his [Paul’s] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” The ESV renders this: “As he [Paul] does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” As for a breakdown of what Peter’s words mean here, let’s look at the Barnes’ Notes commentary:
Speaking in them of these things—The things which Peter had dwelt upon in his two epistles. The great doctrines of the cross; of the depravity of man; of the divine purposes; of the new birth; of the consummation of all things; of the return of the Saviour to judge the world, and to receive his people to himself; the duty of a serious, devout and prayerful life, and of being prepared for the heavenly world. These things are constantly dwelt upon by Paul, and to his authority in these respects Peter might appeal with the utmost confidence.[ii]
I can agree that here, Peter is referring to the statements of Paul on these issues listed by Barnes’, and not necessarily to Paul’s words about women. However, if Peter is placing his “utmost confidence” in Paul’s stance on these matters—and, as Scripture proves and strengthens Scripture and all of the Word is “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16–17)—we can safely assume that Peter is placing his confidence in Paul’s teaching as a whole, and not only within this limited list. Barnes’ agrees with this interpretation (as follows), then goes on to explain that Peter was not accusing Paul of a poor writing style that nobody could understand, but simply that the truths Paul addressed are so intense that human minds will struggle comprehending them:
The true construction, so far as the evidence goes, is to refer it not directly to the “epistles,” but to the “things” of which Peter says Paul wrote [this would include all of Paul’s writings]; that is, not to the style and language of Paul, but to the great truths and doctrines which he taught. Those doctrines were indeed contained in his epistles, but still, according to the fair construction of the passage before us, Peter should not be understood as accusing Paul of obscurity of style. He refers not to the difficulty of understanding what Paul meant, but to the difficulty of comprehending the great truths which he taught [i.e., it’s not how Paul wrote, but what Paul wrote, that is hard to understand]. This is, generally, the greatest difficulty in regard to the statements of Paul. The difficulty is not that the meaning of the writer is not plain, but it is either:
(a) that the mind is overpowered by the grandeur of the thought, and the incomprehensible nature of the theme, or
(b) that the truth is so unpalatable, and the mind is so prejudiced against it, that we are unwilling to receive it.[iii]
So far, we have Barnes’ Notes commentary pointing to Peter’s open acknowledgment of Paul’s authority, followed by the suggestion that 2 Peter 3:16 may very well be referring to people’s minds being “so prejudiced against [the proper interpretation of Paul’s writings] that we are unwilling to receive it.” Yet, what Barnes’ says next really drives it home:
Many a man knows well enough what Paul means, and would receive his doctrines without hesitation if the heart was not opposed to it; and in this state of mind Paul is charged with obscurity, when the real difficulty lies only in the heart of him who makes the complaint.… An honest heart, a willingness to receive the truth, is one of the best qualifications for understanding the writings of Paul; and when this exists, no one will fail to find truth that may be comprehended, and that will be eminently adapted to sanctify and save the soul.…
Which they that are unlearned—The evil here adverted to is that which arises in cases where those without competent knowledge undertake to become expounders of the word of God. [In other words, “the evil here” is preachers who stand from a pulpit and speak for God without “competent knowledge,” which Barnes’ exposes to be, in part, a lack of understanding the culture at the time the book was written!:] It is not said that it is not proper for them to attempt to become instructed by the aid of the sacred writings; but the danger is, that without proper views of interpretation, of language, and of ancient customs, they might be in danger of perverting and abusing certain portions of the writings of Paul. Intelligence among the people is everywhere in the Bible presumed to be proper in understanding the sacred Scriptures; and ignorance may produce the same effects in interpreting the Bible which it will produce in interpreting other writings.…
And unstable—… The evil here adverted to is that which arises where those undertake to interpret the Bible who have no established principles…and of course nothing can be regarded as settled in their methods of interpreting the Bible.
Wrest—Pervert—streblousin. The word here used occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is derived from a word meaning a windlass, winch, instrument of torture [streble] and means to roll or wind on a windlass; then to wrench, or turn away, as by the force of a windlass; and then to wrest or pervert. It implies a turning out of the way by the application of force. Here the meaning is, that they apply those portions of the Bible to a purpose for which they were never intended. It is doubtless true that this may occur. Men may abuse and pervert anything that is good.…
Unto their own destruction—By embracing false doctrines. Error destroys the soul; and it is very possible for a man so to read the Bible as only to confirm himself in error. He may find passages which, by a perverted interpretation, shall seem to sustain his own views [in other words, a speaker who twists Scripture to say what he or she wants it to for their own agenda]; and, instead of embracing the truth, may live always under delusion, and perish at last.[iv]
Many thanks to Barnes’ Notes for this thread. It says it all better than I could have. Twisting Scripture can have eternal consequences. And as far as whether God would remove His anointing from a quote given out of context (including the cultural context!), I think that much is clear. In Peter’s words, such a practice will deliver a speaker “unto their own destruction.” This impression is further emphasized by the next verse in 2 Peter: “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness.” Well before a speaker has been “led away with the error of the wicked,” the Holy Spirit’s anointing will have been stripped from the speaker’s teaching, or else the leading away in wicked error could not have happened had it been sanctioned by Him in the first place.
Thus, we can safely conclude that if a speaker intentionally quotes the words of the Bible, God’s Word, out of context—whether that incorrect context is related to a language, cultural, societal, local, or historical issue—the Holy Spirit removes His anointing on that teaching, just as Jenny removed her blessing from Sarah’s misuse of her words in my earlier example…and if the speakers willingly continue down this path, they will “fall from [their] own stedfastness.”
So what do we do?
Because we are applying words written thousands of years ago to a completely different culture and time, we must take a moment to comprehend the process of getting information out of an ancient culture and making it relevant to our modern lives: understanding the “voice” behind the text. There has been a many-decades-long trend of speaking authoritatively about the stories and advice from Scripture without any thought about the background behind the Scripture, and without studying what the words really meant by those who wrote them. People have understandably complained for years that Church leaders take Scripture out of context, and they frequently do, but why does this happen?
For one thing, proper exegesis (interpretation) is not taught to the extent it should be. The backdrop of many verses often is not considered before the words are quoted, and the loss of meaning creates confusion. As I once heard from Minister Mark Chironna, “A text out of context is a pretext for a proof-text.” In other words, we can find biblical “proof” for anything we say as long as the context is missing. The result of this is nothing less than tragedy, and at times it escalates to heresy and blasphemy.
As it relates to the lost or believers who have been jaded by the Church, the misuse of Scripture only renders a greater disregard for any information of the Word that is true. Then, when the facts are later brought up, those burned by the first wave of confusion aren’t interested in being misled again, so they ignore the truth entirely, assuming everything is erroneous. They throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. It is then possible that they might hear a more accurate sermon or witness and close their mind to it because of the damage the misinformation of the past has caused.
This tragedy becomes far worse when other preachers and teachers pick up on the trendy form of ministering and repeat the offense. An entire religious and cultural worldview becomes skewed around popular forms and formulas. Young, sincere preachers stand at pulpits and repeat familiar lessons they’ve learned from their mentors involving verses taken out of context in the first place. As a result, generation after generation becomes so familiar with the newer (but less truthful) concept of the verse that the truth is gradually sapped.
In essence, because of this gradual phenomenon, that old friend by the name of “today’s culture” in fact does become the final authority on scriptural interpretation, which is deliciously ironic, considering it’s the contemporary grievance voiced by those today who say that women ought not to speak in church: They preach against allowing “today’s culture” to blur the lines of what’s right and wrong, but without studying the culture at the time of the original writing, they are only preaching what “today’s culture” has warped the Scripture to mean within the limited worldview of Western Christianity. Again: braided hair? No problem. We can throw that verse out. A woman minister? Never, because the Bible says… Paul’s words about women are incredibly high up on the charts listing misuse. As a disintegrating foundational piece that is serving to crumble the whole, I can see countries all over the world that have been detrimentally affected by this, and millions of women have likely been silenced as a result (though there appears to be no Pew Research Survey that addresses this specifically).
This type of teaching becomes what the world views as “church,” but it means little more to secular minds than an establishment of rituals while the living, breathing Word is cast to the wayside in trade for performance and showmanship. This becomes mounting “evidence” to the lost or jaded that the entire Word—and all the claims therein—is based on the product of wild imaginations.
We have to accept the fact that when the injury of misinformation is piled atop a Church that has for so many years accepted unanointed teaching because it’s the religious ministry practice to which they’re accustomed, we arrive at an equation that spreads distortion like a brushfire. Add to this years and years of the public’s cultural familiarity with and acceptance of the skewed ministry concept, and we arrive at a day when any teaching that challenges that norm is marginalized or written off as the ramblings of a nonconformist radical (or an “apostasy woman” as an online troll called me)—despite how much truth might be presented in the message. It’s an age-old social science: When people have largely adopted a way of thinking into their society and slowly built a universal worldview around it, they will not easily receive modifications to that worldview—even when it is based on inaccuracy. They don’t want to hear the truth, because that means letting go of all they’ve known or believed up to that point, so they hold on to what’s familiar, what’s comfortable, always referring to the others in their support group for confirmation of a path that is biblically incorrect.
In each book of the Bible, the “voice” behind the text is comprised of the original author, certainly, but ultimately the true voice is that of God, the first and last Author of His Word. As such, it isn’t just the writer we must know, but the circumstances at the time of the writing, as those details are imperative to understanding the complete message of God.
So, in the next entry I want to begin explaining standardized study guides scholars use when examining precisely how Paul’s words were relevant in his time, and how that applies to us today.
NEXT UP—Tools Theologians Use to Reach Accurate Biblical Interpretations
[i] Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 139.
[ii] “2 Peter 3:16 Commentary,” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, as shared by BibleHub, last accessed July 7, 2017, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/2_peter/3.htm.
[iii] Ibid; emphasis added.
[iv] Ibid; emphasis added.