Dear Church: How Letters to the Early Church Still Ring True Today

Margaret —  March 22, 2013 — 9 Comments

Dear Church: How Letters to the Early Church Still Ring True Today

We're about to the cross the finish line for the 40-Day Bible Reading Challenge as we read through The Message Bible. Up next, we're going to be diving into a bunch of Epistles.

The majority of the New Testament is made up of Epistles (all except the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation). These documents are written for a specific occasion or event. Epistles often shed light onto a doctrinal disagreement or address a behavior that needs correcting within the early church.

On the surface, the Epistles may seem straight-forward, but sometimes these letters aren’t always easy to interpret. [Tweet this]

For example, read 1 Corinthians 11:6 on the topic of head coverings:

“For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”

There are several different ways to interpret this passage:

  • The text has no applicability to modern believers and is merely cultural.
  • The head covering stands for hair and women should wear their hair long.
  • This is applicable still today and head-coverings should still be worn in worship settings.
  • It is a symbol that stands for something in the modern world.

We have brothers and sisters in Christ who interpret this passage in these different ways. While it may change the way some people dress during worship services or choose to wear their hair, the passage doesn’t subtract from the transforming truth of who Jesus Christ is and came to save—everyone. [Tweet this]

When studying the Epistles, you will come across passages that are difficult. I encourage you to approach the text humbly and read several articles, commentaries, and Bible dictionaries that offer the different interpretations of the Scripture. Also, discuss the passage with friends.

As you dive into the Epistles in the next few days, notice the context of each passage.

Here are 7 Things to Remember When Studying the Epistles: [Tweet this]

1)     Epistles are letters meant to be read publically; letters are meant to be read by those to whom they’re addressed. Differences appear in an epistle like Romans and a much more personal letter, like Philemon. Yet both are useful for the Church today.

2)     The Epistles were written to Christ-followers as they grow and live in the Body of Christ. While many of the instructions contain timeless truths, they must be read in historical and social context.

3)     Many epistles or letters contain these six parts (with some exceptions):

  • The name of the writer
  • The name of the person or people the letter is written to
  • A greeting
  • Thanksgiving
  • The body of the letter
  • Final greeting

4)     Epistles were written as occasional documents (for a specific occasion) and in the first century—which makes interpretation trickier than other genres. As you read, find out the occasion for writing—consult a Bible dictionary or commentary for assistance. For example, for the book of Philippians, Paul was imprisoned and the Philippian church sent him a generous gift.

5)     Because these letters are written for specific instances, they are not written to be complete Christian theology. (Sorry, not even Romans!). While there is theology mixed into these letters, they must be taken in context with the time they were written and the occasion for which they were written, not as completely doctrinal treatises.

6)     Try and read each letter as it was meant to be read--in one sitting.

7)     You may find yourself running across passages that you struggle to understand or interpret. If you get tripped up over unfamiliar phrases or practice, remember the point of the letter still rings true for the Body of Christ today. If you are still stumped, consult a few commentaries, Bible dictionaries, or trusted resources for insight.

Dear Church: How Letters to the Early Church Still Ring True Today

"Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to do good. Be friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle." Romans 12: 9-10 #LIVEWONDERSTRUCK [Tweet this]

What tips do you have for friends reading the Epistles? How has the New Testament resounded with you over the last couple days-- any sacred echoes?

9 responses to Dear Church: How Letters to the Early Church Still Ring True Today

  1. Heidi S. Messner March 22, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Many of the theological debates today are founded in and exclusive to the epistles. Thank you, Margaret, for reminding us that the Epistles are not meant to build a theology from, yet there are powerful theological truths found within them that we can wed with the rest of the Word to ensure sound doctrine.

  2. Thank you!!!! Thank you for reminding us that we don’t base out theology soley on the epistles!! There’s good stuff in there (obviously) but I want to know how it truly applies to me now. Gods word us living and breathing and SO big. Why do we try to make it small…

  3. Susan, so glad it resonated with you!

  4. We’re studying I and II Timothy in church and its great to take stuff like “the man of one wife” and go back to the story of Rachel/Leah/Jacob and understand cultural practices vs. God’s intentions for us. Some concepts in the epistles are new, but others have examples in the Gospels and OT, which is great because the OT doesn’t get “thrown out.” (“These things were writte for our learning…”) God really wants us to use the whole Bible. Thanks for this post!

    PS I’m a “head-covering wearer,” so I laughed a little bit when I read the beginning of your post, lol. 🙂

  5. Margaret, those 7 tips for reading the epistles are really good to keep in mind. Well-put.

    One I’d add is that the writers of the epistles assumed the readers and listeners already had a firm grasp of the life of Christ, and for us to meet that same assumption we should have a firm grasp of the four Gospels. It’s tough to make sense of Romans, etc., without knowing what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have to say.


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