As a pastor, church members often asked me Bible questions: “What is a wave offering?” “Should women still cover their heads in church?” “What does the scarlet beast of Revelation represent?” Sometimes their questions were difficult, requiring me to ask for a little time to study before answering. Of course, I asked them to study too and share what they discovered, but when someone asks me a Bible question I cannot answer, it drives me to learn in order to satisfy my own curiosity. So serving as a pastor led me deep into my Bible.
My practice has always been to start my daily Bible study at the particular book and verse where I stopped the day before, and force myself to write something about it. It usually is not a lot of writing—maybe a paragraph or two, or even just a couple sentences. But over time, those small amounts of writing grew until I had amassed a significant volume of work.
After a few years of doing this, I began to feel guilty about leaving this work hiding on my computer, and thought I should put it into a book so others could benefit also. And thus was born A Simple Guide to Paul’s Epistles, a verse-by-verse journey through the writings of the apostle Paul, written specifically to be accessible to those who might not have the luxury of formal theological training.
The apostle Paul wrote a significant portion of the New Testament and was, therefore, single-handedly responsible for a vast amount of Christian theology. But his writings are so deep and culture-bound (as is the rest of the Bible) that people usually assign his writings to one of two extremes: either they say that Paul’s writings are so complex as to be virtually inaccessible, or easily accessible to anyone when simply taking the plain and obvious reading of the text. The reality, though, as usual, lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Paul’s writings are neither as simple nor as complex as others assert.
The apostle Peter stated that some of what Paul wrote is difficult to understand. And although time and study have clarified his writings in many ways, distance from Paul’s time and culture has only obscured his writings further. This is especially true of the particular circumstances Paul was addressing in his letters to the churches. We do not always clearly understand what situation caused Paul to write a specific part of his letter. But that situation, whatever it was, is critical to correctly interpreting the principles of how we should apply his words to our own lives. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul says that women should cover their heads, it makes a significant difference in our application when we recognize that it was a demand of modesty in Paul’s culture and time, and the principle we should draw from his statement is not that women must cover their heads but that all Christians should dress modestly so God will be glorified.
Jeff Scoggins is Global Mission Planning Director at the General Conference World Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD, USA.