Not long after I became a Christian, I heard about the Jesus Seminar. At first I was completely taken aback; then I realized through studying that there is a wide spectrum of opinion in the field of Bible scholarship, and there was no good reason to abandon my faith in a supernatural Creator and His Son, our Savior. At that point I became an amateur scholar; “amateur” meaning that I am not in a position to learn Greek and Hebrew at this stage in my life, so I must rely on the work of those who are skilled in these languages. Even if I started learning the original Biblical languages now, I would probably not live long enough to become an expert myself. I have collected more books than I have shelf space for, and spend far too much time reading theology blogs. I may have reached that place known as “information overload.”
We live in an age where numerous English translations of the Bible are available to us. Other than a few translations that were developed with a particular agenda (the New World Translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses comes to mind), any given passage read from any genuine translation will have the same meaning to most English speakers. The newer editions of the New International Version have become controversial because of their alleged “gender-neutral” language revisions, but the objections tend to sound like emotional reactions rather than reasoned, studied positions. Not having studied the newer versions of the NIV myself, I do not yet have an opinion. I use the 1984 NIV Life Application Bible and the Holman. I intend to explore newer versions of the NIV in the future, and will not be forming an opinion on this issue until I have.
Good exegesis – the extraction of meaning from the text – depends upon several factors. Who is writing, and who is the audience? Is the writer speaking of historical events or being philosophical? Is he using metaphor, or describing a physical being? Is the writer quoting someone else, or expressing his own thoughts? What were the cultural norms of the time and place? Most difficult of all for me: what did these words mean to the first people who heard them, and do they mean the same to me today? Or, to put the question in another way, did the Apostle Paul really mean that all women for all time will never be qualified to speak in church? Of all the debates that I have listened to or read transcripts of, none seem to be hotter than the proper role of women in the church today.
Opinions range from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some believe that Paul’s instructions to the churches of his day were given because women were not educated, or because there were problems related to a specific group of women who were creating disruption. Others say that those instructions are permanently in place, regardless of the abilities or educational level of women in our culture. What do we do, then, with passages that indicate that there were women actively involved in and working in Paul’s ministry team? Were they cooks and dishwashers? The text does not lead me to think so. Were they there to minister only to women and children? The text doesn’t say, although that is a good possibility.
I will not pretend to know the answer to these questions. I do know the danger of taking one verse of Scripture out of context and building a doctrine around that one verse; you get a disjointed, muddled, inconsistent understanding of Scripture. As a woman with a desire to know Truth, I must admit that I have some particular struggles with Scripture. As I read through Paul’s writings, I frequently encounter phrases that apparently were clear to the original audience, but leave me in the dark. I will use 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 as an example. Within that passage there are questions that arise. Some take this passage so to heart that they expect women to wear scarves over their heads in church and look down on men who keep their hats on; yet, as we read through the end of that passage, was that what Paul really meant? It doesn’t appear so. In verses eight through ten, what does he mean by this reference to the angels? What about them? So is this passage about scarves and hair, or is it about something completely different? The footnotes in my study Bible indicate that this was a cultural issue between people coming from the Hebrew tradition merging with people coming from Gentile cultures; that Jewish men and women were looking at Gentile men and women and making assumptions about them based on their hair or head covering. Paul’s statement in verse sixteen indicates that this would be the correct understanding of this passage. Then I wonder, where did the information used for the footnotes come from, and is it reliable?
I will say this: given the proliferation of prosperity preachers and false prophets like Harold Camping, there are many men who should not speak in church either. I have also encountered men who believe that the option to divorce an unfaithful spouse belongs only to men, and that if a woman has a philandering husband she is obligated to tolerate it. After all, taking Jesus’s words at absolute face value, that is what the text says.
What, then, shall we say when several qualified people disagree over what a particular passage means? Unfortunately, it causes some to fall away from the faith, becoming critics and skeptics, rather than to persevere and seek the counsel of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the question this leads to is, what if one person insists the Holy Spirit told him one thing, and another insists that the Holy Spirit told her another?
I won’t pretend to know the answer to that question either. Having listened to much debate on the subject, and having read transcript after transcript of debates that center on the meaning of the original Greek in context, all I can do is sigh.
Did Paul know that his letters would survive for nearly two thousand years, translated into languages that did not even exist in his lifetime? Did it even occur to him that his writings would be canonized? I don’t believe we can know the answer to this question. When Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim 3:16) that all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, many people do not understand that he was talking about the Old Testament. Those were the only Scriptures in existence during Paul’s lifetime. What of Paul’s statements prohibiting women from serving in positions of authority over men, or even from asking a question in church? It should be apparent to us that church in twenty-first century America is far different from church in the first century. Are we trying to hold on to traditions? How do we separate tradition from truth?
For the sake of the Gospel of Christ, I would not take up a battle flag in church. But if applying a rigid application to 1 Timothy 2:11-13 means that well-qualified women are prohibited from teaching men who are new believers, or from sharing the Gospel with men, I think we’re in troubled waters. Our culture offers women all of the same educational opportunities afforded to men; Paul’s world did not. Women can read and study the Word of God themselves. Considering 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, many of us are self-supporting and do not have husbands at home to ask questions of. Many women have husbands who couldn’t name ten books of the Bible. Even in Paul’s day that was true. Or, in the greater context of that entire chapter, are we missing something?
The elephant in the room, as it were, is the erosion of the power of God working among the body of believers today. I only know the times in which I live, and cannot speak from personal observation about times past. I frequently hear of a small group of people becoming unhappy with their pastor, or with leadership of their church, and starting one of their own. Some of those have not turned out well. I know of a group who left a local Southern Baptist church several years back. Their leader eventually proved to be the molester of a child, leaving his little flock in a bitter and disenchanted state. I am aware of one Independent Baptist pastor who supports polygyny (the specific word for the family structure of a man with more than one wife) and blogs about it. He believes this to be God’s model for the family. He no longer has a congregation, which indicates to me that his congregation wasn’t buying it. He has alienated some of his own family. Yet another young man I know seemed to always be seeking “more”. He kept seeking new experiences, moved to a pentecostal denomination, went to seminary, became a pastor and eventually left his wife and four children for other men.
I have worked hard on this blog post, not really sure of the direction my thoughts were going. I said all of this to say that the church in Western society is in disarray. Too many believers are following wild winds. On one hand I would send out a call to all Christians to study their Bibles and fall in line with Biblical doctrine. Then on the other, I realize that at the heart of the problem lies intense disagreement over just what that entails.