This page is part of the basic guide to the participatory study method designed by Henry Neufeld. You may want to start from the outline of the method or at the introductory description. This page will only describe methods that are peculiar to this particular type of Biblical literature.
Letters (or Epistles)
I use the term “letter” throughout, but the common churchy term for a letter has been “epistle” for a very long time.
The material in this section applies to interpreting the following Bible books:
- Pauline Epistles to Churches
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- Pastoral Epistles
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- Philemon (I choose to include this here, even though it is generally not included)
- General Epistles
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
Epistles are simply letters written by some of the early church leaders to people under their spiritual care. I hesitate to use the term “pastor” to refer only to the letters to Timothy and Titus, because all of these letters result from a pastoral concern. The focus is on responding to, or anticipating, certain problems in the church and providing guidance for those situations. In some cases this guidance is in the form of correction or rebuke; in others it is in the form of encouragement. Sometimes passages explain certain doctrinal issues.
None of the Bible is written primarily as theology, though some things come close. Most Christian theology is built primarily around statements in the epistles, especially the epistles of Paul. Hebrews (for those who do not accept Pauline authorship) comes in a close second. But even when we are dealing with the theological passages in these epistles, we should remember that the writer is responding to practical issues in the life of the church. In other words, the doctrines presented or explained are those doctrines the churches or individuals need to understand in order to effectively live the Christian life.
It is important in reading those portions of the epistles in which the author is making theological or doctrinal arguments, for the reader to be careful to read precisely what is there. For help in this process, see my additional essay, Reading Precisely.
Key Questions about Background
The key questions you want to ask about the background of an epistle are:
- Who wrote it?
- Who was it written to?
- What were the circumstances under which it was written?
A letter can be a response to a particular situation or it can be simply a newsy update. It is often important to know what questions are being asked if one is to understand the answers. In particular, Paul has clearly received some questions from the church in Corinth, and he responds in the letter we call 1 Corinthians. Trying to understand what question he must be answering may help you understand the answers he is giving.
- When was it written?
This is for broader background. When we understand the immediate circumstances, we have most of what we need to understand the letter. But knowing the date of the letter can help us answer both those questions, and tell us something of where the broader church was at the time of the letter.
In the Central Loop
The Central Loop is described in The Participatory Study Method.
In studying epistles, you will find the greatest use for skills such as word studies, detailed outlining, and for Greek students, diagramming, phrasing, and detailed parsing of particular words. This is because when we are trying to understand logical (or sometimes not so logical) arguments, we need to get a precise understanding of each word, its relationship to the phrase, and that to the sentence, paragraph, and the entire subsection of the letter.
Most inductive Bible study methods are focussed on precisely this type of study. But you can also get much more from a letter by looking at it somewhat like a piece of a story. Around that piece, you will build the rest of the story. Who wrote it? Why? Who was he writing to? In understanding the letter and getting a feel for the story behind it, your imagination will play a key role. Don’t be afraid to try to imagine these other elements.
Besides the standard set of ideas from the central loop, I suggest some specific exercises below that apply to letters.
- Make a Comparison Chart for the Letter’s Recipients
The following chart is expanded from the one in the introductory description.
Corinthian Church Your Church Solution? Divided into factions Problem with spiritual pride Sexual immorality Disorderly worship services Doctrinal drift
Try to be honest in looking for your church. Don’t pretend it’s worse than it is, but do recognize your own faults as well as those of your church. Try then to use your strengths as a starting point to build up your church and overcome your weaknesses. Most of the epistles are written to churches, groups of churches or church leaders. You will generally find that there is something, usually many things, that are relevant to your situation.
Letters are a wonderful option for group study and discussion, especially when a cross-section of church leadership participates.
- Imagine that you are one of the recipients, and write a reply
If you are studying as an individual, you may decide just to write out the main points. In group discussion, ask for points from the group, and write them on a dry erase board. You don’t need to get wordy in the letter, but try to get both the points you would make, and the tone in which you would make them. Then ask why.
- Write a letter based on the same themes to your own church, as though it comes from the author of the letter
Again, if you are studying individually you may want to write a point outline. In a group, outline both the points and the tone, and think about the priority. Supposing you only had space to make three points, which would they be (think of having to present the letter on one page or on a small airmail letter)? What if you could only make one, and that one on a postcard? What would it be?