Monday, December 26, 2011

Forgotten Women in Church History: Julian of Norwich

The Christian hermit is a well-known medieval image: a person who sought solitude and prayerful contemplation beyond even what the monastic life could offer. In the early centuries of the church, hermits, both male and female, often lived in complete seclusion in the desert, near other hermits for protection but entirely away from civilization. In fact, female ascetics who lived this way outnumbered males by a ratio of two to one.

Desert asceticism declined as Christianity pushed northwards. While male hermits often chose caves or huts in the forest, female hermits, for their own safety, inclined more towards solitary rooms attached to cathedrals or churches, where the ascetic could have complete privacy but also the protection of the religious community. Women who lived in this way were called “anchoresses.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was an anchoress who lived in a small cell built into the wall of St. Julian’s church at Norwich, England. She took the name of the church as her own; her real name is unknown. Very little is known about her life. When she was thirty she became ill to the point of death-- the last rites were even said over her. But on her deathbed she began experiencing a series of visions focused on the Passion of the Christ and the love of God for humanity. She recovered and wrote a book about her visions, her experiences in prayer, and her theology. Revelations of Divine Love is considered to be the first book in English written by a woman.

Julian became well-known as a counselor, and many came to hear her wisdom and receive her advice. Though she called herself “a simple, unlettered creature,” she was actually familiar with the writings of theologians and was more learned than she was prepared to admit. Like many women of her time, she found it was not acceptable for a woman to claim learning for herself or any basis from which to teach-- but she countered those who criticized her writings, because as a woman she was not allowed to preach, by saying that she was not preaching, but only being a witness to the light she had received.

Julian is remarkable in that she was possibly the first Roman Catholic writer to conceive of God as both Father and Mother. She wrote:

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. . . I understood three ways of looking at motherhood in God: the first is the creating of our human nature; the second is His taking of our human nature (and there commences the motherhood of grace); the third is motherhood of action (and in that is a great reaching outward, by the same grace, of length and breadth and of height and of depth without end) and all is one love. (Ch. 59)

The mother can give her child such from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the Precious Food of true life. And with all the sweet Sacraments He supports us most mercifully and graciously. . . This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself, that it can not truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of Him and to Him who is true Mother of life and of all. To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge — and this is God….The kind, loving mother who is aware and knows the need of her child protects the child most tenderly as the nature and state of motherhood wills. (Ch. 60)”

Julian was not saying that God was female, but like Hildegard of Bingen, whom I wrote about here, Julian elevated womanhood by showing how the nature of God can be seen to include both male and female attributes, supporting the understanding that both male and female are made in God’s image. Jennifer A. Hudson summarizes:

“If women potentially share in the awesome creative and life-sustaining power of the Godhead and, likewise, the Godhead shares in the creative and life-sustaining power of women, then Christ as Mother reflects a gender-balanced nature within the Godhead, as He became a man through His incarnation. Moreover, Julian distinctly refers to Christ as ‘God our Mother,’ yet at the same time employs the use of the pronoun ‘He.’ [Julian’s understanding of] God fully encompasses masculine and feminine qualities.”
Jennifer A. Hudson, Medieval Forum.

Julian was never formally canonized but is commemorated in the Catholic Church on May 13 each year. Six centuries after her death, she was proclaimed “the greatest theologian for our time” by respected writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. If you have ever heard the quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” you have heard the words of Julian of Norwich as she entrusted her fears for the world she lived in, to the God of love.


Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Tucker and Liefeld, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), p. 152-153.

Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature

Lectionary: Resources of the Episcopal Church

Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Biography by James Kiefer

New World Encyclopedia

Julian’s writings on the “Motherhood of God.”

Medieval Forum

About Julian of Norwich

Sunday, December 18, 2011


This time of year I get really busy. There’s shopping to do, holiday cooking and baking, Christmas cards, gifts to wrap and ship, and of course the exactly right Christmas tree (always a Douglas fir at our house) must be found and cut down at a U-cut tree farm by the whole family. I love living in the Pacific Northwest, where Christmas trees are grown for the whole country. It means we can cut our own fresh tree every year without paying a fortune.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was a kid, with nothing to do at Christmas but wait for it to come. But I still love Christmas. Sitting in the dark just looking at the sparkling tree glistening with tinsel and colored lights, my husband’s arm around me as we listen to carols on the stereo, fills me with that indescribable glow that’s one part anticipation, one part family warmth, one part a sense of peace and one part chocolate chip cookies.

I remember how magic Christmas was when I was little and believed Santa was going to come down the chimney. I always left some cookies out for him, plus a little treat for his reindeer too. When I stopped believing in Santa, there were some years when Christmas felt-- well, empty. It was fun getting gifts and all, but when Christmas had been magic, it was a real let-down when suddenly it wasn’t anymore. The wonder was gone, and with it, a lot of the joy.

I never said “Bah! Humbug!” But deep in my heart, part of me said, “Ho, hum.” All the presents were-- well, when it came right down to it, they were just more stuff. And Christmas was a fun day, but still it was just another day. The rest of me convinced myself to be happy with my gifts and grateful to be with my family; but there was this disappointment. Why did I have to grow up and lose the magic and wonder?

I shared earlier, on my birthday post, how I became a Christian at the age of 15. One of the most amazing things about that was how the next year at Christmas, the magic was back. And the wonder was stronger than ever. It’s hard to put into words what Christmas has been for me since, and is for me now.

When the lights go out, and the tree is twinkling in the dark-- or when I go outside and stare up at the frosty stars in the chilly night sky-- I think about the light of the world coming to the world, shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcoming it. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” That son was the Word, who was with God and who was God, and who was in the beginning with God. How could the Source and Foundation of all being become one of us? How could the bright center of the universe live and walk and breathe and die here with us? It’s astonishing, really, in ways I can hardly express.

But I like to think that for one instant that night, the world was silent in breathless amazement-- and then a baby's cry rang out over the roofs of Bethlehem.

Christmas has a weight and depth in my mind and heart that it didn’t have even when I was a child-- for the story of the baby Jesus was to me then just a pretty tale and a lovely song my mother sang to me. Now it’s more than magic-- it’s a miracle, and it is recreated every year by the sparkle of lights, the smell of pine, the taste of cookies, and the anticipatory gleam of those shiny packages that I know will make me happy watching my loved ones opening them-- and my loved ones happy watching me.

This is my last post till after the big day. I’ve got lots and lots still to do. But I hope that however you celebrate Christmas, and even if you don’t celebrate it at all, you will feel a little bit of “peace on earth, good will towards men” as the season turns from darkness back to light.

Merry Christmas. Or Happy Holidays. Greetings of the Season. Whatever it is for you, be blessed this holy week.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Galatians 3:28 Cannot Mean

(NOTE: I'm going to write today in terms of blunt logic. If I come across as harsh or "unwomanly," please remember that it was Aristotle, and not Christ, who denied logic to women. Nothing I say is to be construed as an attack on anyone. I am merely taking a certain reading of a certain portion of Scripture to its inherent conclusions, to see if it makes sense.
- KR Wordgazer)
Galatians 3:28 reads: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Many Christians read this verse in a very limited sense, saying that in order to reconcile it with such “clear” restrictive passages as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, we have to understand the above verse as applying only to our standing before God in salvation. We are all the same at the foot of the cross, the saying goes, but in the church and in the home, God has set forth male authority.

Galatians 3:28 cannot mean that gender is not important to what men and women can do in the church. So they say.
A man involved in a conversation on a blog I was reading put it this way: being “in Christ” is one thing, but in our everyday living, in our homes and church congregations, male and female roles are defined by God as separate. Only men may lead the congregation. Only men may lead their homes. Women may teach other women or children, but they may not lead or teach men. And yet, he assured me, these “separate roles” are still “equal.” Men are not superior to women, and women are not inferior. They are equal. They only have different “roles.” Somehow it escaped him that the “roles” are completely, irrevocably and unchangingly unequal, and that being permanent and tied to one’s personhood at birth, they are not really “roles” at all. They are castes.

I keep asking myself this question: why do Christians who believe like this have to keep insisting that they do not believe men are superior and women are inferior? Is it not because everything they teach and practice contradicts this idea? Men are not superior– but they are leaders and in authority by divine right. Women are not inferior– but they are to be subordinate to men without escape. Where is the equality, then? In name only. It’s a word to make us all feel better, and nothing more.
Did Paul really mean that in Christ there is not male and female, but in the church male authority and female subordination is to be carefully observed? So does that mean the church is in Christ? Or not? Does being in Christ only happen when we get to heaven?

What, then, do we do with verses like this one?

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10; Emphasis added.)
The “good works” must be spiritual, heavenly works only, and we are exempted from such earthly good works as feeding the poor or visiting the sick. If being “in Christ” when it comes to “there is not male and female” has no practical bearing on what males and females can or can't do every day in their churches, then how can being “in Christ” have any practical bearing on what Christians do in any part of their lives?

And if this earthly-heavenly split applies to male and female, does it not also apply to Jew and Greek and to slave and free? Paul mentions them all in the same passage. Was Paul saying, “In Christ there are no racial distinctions, but in the church we’d better make sure the races stay properly separated”? Was Paul saying, “In Christ there is neither slave nor free, but in the church we’d better keep class distinctions intact and make sure everyone knows their proper place”? If this is what Paul really meant, then earlier in Galatians 2:11, why did he rebuke Peter for not eating with the Gentiles? Peter was only observing the distinctions he had learned, in a gathering of the church.

But if this is not what Paul meant, then how could he have meant the opposite when it comes to race and economic status, from what he meant when it comes to gender? No racial distinctions in the church, and no economic distinctions either– but we must keep the gender distinctions as long as we live on earth!

Does that make any sense?

Unless that makes sense-- then that is what Galatians 3:28 cannot mean.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Is the Bible a "Toxic" Book?

As I mentioned in my last post on the doctrine of accommodation, I find it very interesting how often non-Christians and strict literalist Christians agree on what the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) actually says-- and how often I disagree with both of them.

I have heard atheists often talk about how the Bible is an abysmal failure when it comes to morality and ethics-- particularly when it comes to issues like slavery, tribalism and patriarchy, all of which they say the Bible supports.

I have seen Bible literalists live lives of rigid, spiritually abusive dysfunction-- and heard them claim that the only reason I’m not living like they do is that I’m “lukewarm,” that I only want “Christianity lite” and am unwilling to take the Bible seriously.

And I have had people who were once strict literalist Bible followers but have become atheists, tell me that the basic teachings of the Bible are destructive and harmful. They have told me that the reason they had to leave Christianity is that they followed the teachings of the Bible to their logical conclusions. Christianity, they say, is a toxic religion, and the only way to practice it without toxicity is to ignore the toxic teachings of the Bible.

And yet (once I left behind the strict Christian sect I was once part of) I have found it possible to remain a Christian and to continue to take the Bible seriously-- and I don’t believe it’s by ignoring the parts of it I don’t like. I have found peace and strength in Christ and healing in the pages of the Bible. Perhaps I should be mistrusting my own experience? And yet it is my experience, and no less valid than anyone else’s.

So here’s the question:

Are those of us who follow a gentler version of Christianity really just deceiving ourselves about the real truth of what our religion is about? Are we not following Christ’s instructions wholeheartedly, and thus escaping the destructiveness of our religion by not “doing it properly”? Is the Bible, when it is taken seriously and followed as Christians believe (or should believe) it is meant to be followed, really a toxic book that will lead inexorably to either a life of misery and fear, or to self-preservation through ultimately rejecting the whole faith package?

In answer, I’d like to look first at two underlying assumptions made by non-Christians and by strict “purist” Christians, that are at their roots basically the same foundational idea. This is the basic window through which many people see Christianity and the Bible, without in fact noticing the window at all. We don’t tend to notice the things we look through-- we notice what we’re looking at. Because of this, Christians and non-Christians alike end up with the same idea of what the Bible is about-- and following the Bible in this way is seen as the obvious and only way to practice serious Christianity.

So here are the two related assumptions:

Non-Christian Assumption: If there were a God and the Bible were really God‘s book, God would have made sure the people He spoke to in the Bible understood that slavery, tribalism, patriarchy and so on are wrong. The Bible would, in effect, have taught the original peoples who received the writings, to think the way we do now about morality and social ethics.

Christian Assumption: The Bible tells us about Jesus, of course, and how He died for our sins-- but the main point of the Bible is to be a guidebook on how best to live. Jesus is our perfect example of obedience to God, and the Bible, if we read it carefully, will reveal to us God’s instructions for how to live in every area of life.

But are these correct assumption to make?

I’m not going to tackle the question of whether there is a God or not, here. But from the perspective of belief in God-- is it appropriate to say that the nature of the Biblical revelation is an impartation of morality and social ethics, and that since it doesn’t impart these things as we think it should, it cannot be anything other than a primitive, human book?

Is it appropriate to say that the basic nature of the Bible is to be a divine guidebook of instructions on how to live in each area of our lives?

What if the Bible is, fundamentally, neither of these things?

Theologian N.T. Wright, in his sermon-essay “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” puts it like this:

“[W]e have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. . . . . People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules . . . .

“If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ . . . distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not. . . . My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it. . . .

“The writings written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are . . . mostly narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative? Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”
[Emphases in original.]

This change in approach to Biblical understanding is about more than just making sure to read the Bible according to historical and literary context; I have talked to ex-Christians who told me that they did do careful research to find the original authorial intent-- but still found themselves in a misery-inducing way of practicing their faith that they eventually had to abandon or be destroyed by.

It’s also more than just avoiding legalism. I have talked to ex-Christians who told me that they understood completely that they were saved by grace, through faith; that they never felt the need to prove their devotion to God by following the Bible in terms of rules; and yet still, as they sought to practice their faith as they believed the Bible taught, they were tossed onto the shoals of an utter exhaustion of self-sacrifice and self-denial. In short, at the end of the day they felt as if they had no “self” left. And this, they are still sure, is what Christianity and following the Bible are all about; and why they ended up leaving.

What this is, is like taking off one pair of glasses and putting on another, or changing the kind of glass in the windows you look out of. Through different windows, everything looks different.

The difference is narrative theology over systematic theology.

In systematic theology, all the things in the Bible are categorized systematically to make up a set of principles and rules for living. There is nothing wrong with categorizing and systematizing the Bible; systematic theology has its uses. It can be very helpful, for instance, to look at every place where the Bible mentions one specific subject, to get an overview of how the Bible as a whole treats that subject. But I believe narrative theology should come first, as it yields a better Christian understanding of the whole of the faith. Narrative theology should govern systematic theology, and not the other way around.

Narrative theology recognizes that taken as a whole, the Bible is primarily a story: the story of God's interactions with humanity, with the story of Christ in the center as the focal point. Looking at it as a story means that you interpret each thing in terms of where it belongs in the plot; and you see a progression in the human understanding of the nature of God from the earlier to the later books.

Viewed as a story-- a collection of ancient books written at different times, but all centering around God’s ongoing actions in the redemption of humanity-- the differences in ethics and moral values, as understood by the various cultures in which the books arose, becomes less troubling. If God was primarily interested in coming in to us in human flesh, in order to restore us to unity with one another and with God-- then God might choose to work within human cultural systems to effect gradual change, and to gradually change human values to come more into line with the ideal of universal human love-- but that would not need to be God’s highest priority. Accommodation in this sense might, in fact, be seen as a better way to effect real ethical change over the long run.

When the viewpoint is that the Bible is primarily a way to find God’s will and obey it, then in any particular passage, the question is, "what is the God-endorsed best way of living, and how am I to follow it?" Or perhaps (in the Old Testament particularly) "Does this rule apply to me; is it ok if I don't follow it?" (And it is possible, even if we believe we’re living in grace, to still approach the Bible primarily in this mindset.)

The other viewpoint focuses on God's plan: "What was God trying to accomplish in this particular part of the Story? How did people understand God then? How did Jesus change that understanding of God, and how can I be part of what God is doing now?"

The first way values obedience for its own sake, and self-sacrificial obedience especially. But to see this other way is to see obedience only as a means to an end. If God wants us to do something, why does God want us to do it? This view says that though Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross was certainly in obedience to the Father, the bigger picture for Jesus was the “new covenant in my blood” which was what he was doing it for. And the point of the New Covenant is that it brings us into the New Creation, in which we are united with Christ and our hearts become a home for the Father; where we are no longer led by the law, but by the Spirit. Self-sacrifice must have a redemptive reason: it doesn’t exist for its own sake. If self-sacrifice for the sake of another is not helping either us or them, then it’s the wrong solution.

The systematic way tends to sum up Christianity in terms of two words: “Yes, Lord.” The narrative way uses a different two words: “Christ rose.” That’s the point of the Story. Christ identified with me in death so that I could identify with him in life. I’m putting my trust in him and am becoming part of the New Creation. It’s not that I don’t obey God-- but I believe God is only interested in our obedience in so far as it leads to the higher goal of bringing humans into harmony with the life and love of God. What God wants-- God’s ultimate goal-- is to love and be loved by us, and that we would love one another.

This change in viewpoint also changes the way we interpret the texts. Instead of seeing each bit of scripture as a command or principle that reveals God’s will for how we should live, we look at each bit of scripture first in terms of where it fits into the whole plot-- and only afterwards do we ascertain how to apply its principles in our own lives. And because Christ’s coming is central, and central to Christ’s teachings are the commandments “love God with all your being/love your neighbor as yourself” -- we look at Christian practice primarily in terms of whether it helps us to better love God, others and ourselves. Practices that are harmful and destructive to ourselves or to others, then, cannot be the intention of the text and should be jettisoned.

Christ’s coming brings the New Creation, and the New Creation changes the way we are to relate to one another. 2 Corinthians 5:16 says we are no longer to look at one another “according to the flesh.” If any interpretation of Scripture results in our focusing on the flesh in the way we view one another-- for example, granting privileges or making restrictions based on race, sex or economic status-- then it doesn’t fit the big picture, or the direction in which God is leading humanity, and we need to examine our interpretation. Contrary to what many Christians will tell us, changing the way we see and follow these sorts of texts is not disrespecting the Bible-- in fact, it is treating the Bible with more respect. If the Bible really is mainly the Story of how God created humanity, prepared the world for the coming of the Christ, then came, died and rose again so that we could walk in new life-- then it is when we see things in terms of that new life that we are really following the Bible.

But to those looking through the old glasses, all they can see is what looks like disobedience and blatant disregard for what they see as God’s revealed will for how we are to live. If the Bible says, “wives be submissive to your husbands,” it has to be because God’s will for marriage has to do with husbands being in charge and wives following their lead. It can’t be because husband-rule was part of the way life was at that time, and that women had no power to fight it and would only damage their own freedom and the message of the New Creation, if they fought it. It can’t be that the passage was telling the husbands, who alone had any power to change things, that it was their responsibility to lay down their power as Christ laid down his, in order to raise up their wives as Christ raised up the church. But through the new glasses, that passage is about a Spirit-led change of direction for first-century marriage so that Christians could begin to realize the New Creation in their family relationships.

For non-Christians and ex-Christians-- I can understand why you think the Bible supports slavery, tribalism and patriarchy. But perhaps you can also understand my perspective as to why I think those were incidental to, and not part and parcel of, the Bible’s message.

And I do think my new glasses fit me rather well.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Why Do I Like the Doctrine of "Accommodation"?

Accommodation, a common theological doctrine, “refers to the need for God’s revelation to be adapted (accommodated) to human capabilities of understanding and reception.” Essential Theological Terms by Justo Gonzalez.

Most Christians operate under some form of an understanding of accommodation. Even the most literal modern Christian reader will agree that when the Bible refers to the sun "coming up," it is using human terms, not divine terms, of relating to the earth's movement around the sun. Accommodation is an idea believed by early Church fathers such as Augustine, and Reformed theologians such as Calvin-- thus, it is not a new idea. But the gist of it is that God did not, for the Hebrews' (and later the Greek Christians') own sake, make them throw out their entire culture and everything they understood about government, slavery, male-female relations, etc. Instead, throughout the Scriptures God sowed seeds of a more loving, more freeing way of thinking that began to bear fruit in those cultures and continues to do so today.To understand the Scriptures as an interaction between God and humanity is to understand that God's voice must of necessity speak through the limitations of the views of the culture in which the interaction happened. That the limitations of human understanding are preserved in the Scriptures, is hardly surprising. The doctrine of accommodation is what makes it possible to understand the Bible as the result of an interaction between the inspiration of God and the writings of human beings.

Without this understanding of accommodation, modern non-Christians find it impossible to take the Bible seriously as any kind of model for modern faith and practice. The non-Christian generally sees the Bible as solely a product of its culture. They understand that the Bible comes from a variety of ancient cultures over a long period of time. They also understand that the cultures were violent, racist, patriarchal and often uncivilized by today’s standards-- and they don't see any reason to look more deeply than that. They're not looking for the voice of God speaking through and to patriarchal peoples; they aren't looking for the voice of God in the Scriptures at all. All they see is the voice of primitive humanity in ancient religious writings, steeped in ancient, barbaric cultures-- and that's that.

This understanding isn’t helped by the fact that many literalist Christian readers, in the name of “inerrancy,“ tend to forget about accommodation as well: They view the Bible as if it were a “memo from the Boss” (Metacrock’s phrase) dictated this morning and left on our desks. They tend to discount the role of humans in the writing of the Scriptures, seeing them as mere conduits for a word-for-word transmission of the message directly from God. Such a message must be viewed to be as timeless as God is; therefore, the perspective of human culture doesn’t matter. Whatever God appears to our eyes to have said to the church at Ephesus or Corinth is the same thing God is saying to us today. It is very difficult to be consistent with this idea, however; most Christians do not actually follow Paul’s command to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” but instead view it as merely a principle of showing love to another; but in many other areas, such as women not being church leaders, they believe anyone who thinks there might be a cultural element that has passed away, is rebelling in his or her heart against the “clear command of God.” This kind of thinking has led many sects of Christianity to retreat from the modern world into a sort of first-century holding-tank where practices and ideas from Bible times must become our own way of life.

Non-Christians, seeing this, are confirmed in their belief that the Scriptures are only a set of barbaric, primitive writings-- and they view with horror the idea that anyone would want to give the Bible any place of authority in their lives. Both the non-Christian and the Bible literalist, then, view with suspicion any Christian who gives the doctrine of accommodation more of a place by taking the historical-cultural context into greater account. But I find that understanding the Bible as God’s story, told through human writers within human mindsets, makes the Bible a thing of beauty and wisdom for my life. I am not stuck trying to follow first-century cultural mindsets as if they were the will of God. And I am not required to reject the Bible as having anything worthwhile to say today.

It seems to me that seeing the Bible as entirely the work of humans, or almost entirely the work of God (with humans as little more than pencils in His hand), yields pretty much the same result. Each sees only one side of the coin. They see opposite sides-- but what they each end up with is a half-coin, with only one face-- and thus with no real spending power.

I believe that the way to treat the Bible with the most respect is to try our best to understand what the original, human authors understood themselves to be saying, taking into account their human limitations. That way, we do not fall into an inadvertent re-formulation of a passage's meaning based on our own modern mindset (or our lack of understanding of shared Ancient Near East assumptions). And we can focus on the inspiration of God that still speaks to us today.

That's what "accommodation" is all about.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Being Thankful

It seems appropriate to do the traditional thing today and say what I'm thankful for. Here goes, then:

I'm thankful for my health, my comfortable (if small) home, and for the love of my sweet husband and children, my dear sister, my extended family and my friends.

I'm thankful that I learned how to break the cycle of codependency and dysfunction in my family, so that my children are growing up feeling freely loved, without control or guilt.

I'm thankful for the Internet and for all the interaction and connection with people I would never otherwise have known.

I'm thankful for authors who have made an impact on my life, opening my mind and heart: J.R.R. Tolkien, Wendy and Richard Pini, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Diana Wynn Jones.

I'm thankful that despite our hardships, we have never had to go hungry.

I'm thankful that I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest: for firs and ferns, mushrooms and morning glories, oceans and mountains.

I'm thankful for the presence of the Spirit of God in my life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thoughts on the "Quiverfull" Movement

A grass-roots movement has been growing for the last 20 years among evangelical/fundamentalist Christian families. Using a literalistic approach to the Bible, these families withdraw from modern culture into a strict patriarchal structure where birth control of any kind is eschewed and fathers control an ever-growing brood of children, home-schooled by a submissive wife. Considering children to be a “quiver of arrows” in the culture-wars over “family values,” people in this movement describe themselves in many terms. “Quiverfull” is perhaps the most convenient.

This movement defines Christianity largely in terms of the raising up of “godly families” to lift up God’s standards to the surrounding culture. Women are asked to lay down any individual hopes and dreams, for the sake of motherhood as their “highest calling.” The wife is there to support the vision and calling of the father, and the children are to do the same until (if they are boys) they become fathers themselves, or (if they are girls) they are given by their father to a husband, so that they can fulfill their own call to motherhood. Women can also have a ministry in this movement of teaching other women to be good wives and mothers-- but all of a woman’s existence revolves around these roles.

But as we look at Jesus’ practices and teachings, and the practices and teachings of the apostles, we simply don’t find anything to indicate that the kingdom of God that they preached about consists of, or is to be ushered in by, the raising up of “godly” families-- or any evidence that this is what the kingdom consists of for women.

The best way to determine the main message Jesus preached is to look at His words at the beginning and the end of each gospel: the words that set up and wrap up His earthly ministry. Matthew 4:17 encapsulates Jesus’ basic message like this: “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” In a nutshell, Jesus taught that His listeners should listen to His message and change their ways, for a new kingdom was coming and was already among them. Most of the rest of what He taught was either a fleshing out of what He meant by “repent,” or of what He meant by “the kingdom of heaven” -- or both.

Luke’s gospel sums it up best. Jesus began His ministry by teaching that the Scriptures about the coming of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Him (Luke 4:18), and wrapped it up by saying that He had completed “what was written” about Him, and that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations. . . and ye are witnesses of these things.” Luke 24:47-48.

Jesus’ message was that He was bringing in the kingdom of heaven through His life, death and resurrection. The kingdom, He taught, was a new way of simply being in harmony with God, a new way of living in God’s abiding presence (John 15:10) which would grow and mix with all of life until it had changed everything. (Matt 13:31-33) The kingdom is characterized by loving our enemies (Matt 5:44), laying down power and authority (Matt. 20:25-28), and putting our trust in Christ (John 3:15). Jesus said nothing whatsoever to His disciples or to the people along the lines of “Now go and marry godly women and raise up children to be arrows for the kingdom of heaven, to raise up God’s standard in the culture around you.” He said instead that His followers were to “go and make disciples” to follow Him as he had taught them. Matt. 28:19. In a patriarchal society that was very focused on fatherhood, Jesus consistently taught that human fatherhood was not to be the focus of His disciples: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Matt. 23:9.

Paul showed throughout his ministry that he had dedicated himself to this message and no other. 2 Cor. 5:20; Gal. 1:8. The only other injunction that was laid on Paul (besides being an ambassador calling, “be reconciled with God”) was that he should “remember the poor.” Gal. 2:10. And though Paul taught principles for the conduct of marriage and family, he did not treat marriage or family as anyone’s “high calling” -- rather, he taught that marriage was one option only, for both men and women: “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.” 1 Cor. 7:8.

If the calling of women as Christ’s followers is a call to homemaking, marriage and motherhood-- if women’s place is to serve their families and support their husbands in their callings-- then what can we say about Christ’s words to Martha in Luke 11:38-42? Martha was working in the kitchen to prepare a meal for the men while Mary joined the other disciples and sat “at Jesus’ feet” (which meant to be taught as a disciple -- see Acts 22:3). Martha was fulfilling everything this teaching says it is a woman’s role to do-- but it was Martha, not Mary, whom Jesus rebuked for focusing on what was not “needful.” And it was Mary whom He defended as having chosen “the good part.” Jesus said nothing to either of them about getting married, having children, and supporting their husbands’ callings. Instead He commended Mary for choosing to sit with the other disciples and be a disciple herself.

Homemaking, marriage and family are simply not held up in the Scriptures as the focus of the kingdom of heaven for anyone-- and women as well as men can be co-workers in the gospel (see Phil. 4:3). Many women traveled with Jesus in His earthly ministry (Luke 8:2-3), and Paul commended many women in Romans 16 for their discipleship. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever told these women that they should be home having children and taking care of the house.*

I believe the idea that Christianity is about getting married and raising up children to be “godly arrows” in warfare against worldly cultures, is a distortion of the gospel that Jesus brought, and of everything He came to do. In Him men and women alike are set free. I would encourage anyone who wants to follow Jesus, to stick with what Jesus actually taught, and not to be distracted by what Paul would have called “another gospel.”

*Paul did tell Titus that younger women should be taught to love their husbands and children and be "keepers" of the home-- but that word was the same word used for the "keeper" of the garden where Jesus was buried. It did not mean "homemaker" or "housekeeper," but "guard/watcher." And he said this should be done so that the gospel movement would not get a bad reputation in the surrounding (patriarchal) culture they were trying to reach-- not so that women would be restricted to "keeping the home" and nothing else. Titus 2:4-5 (compare with Romans 16:1-15).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Forgotten Women in Church History: Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was one of the most powerful abbesses of medieval times. She ruled a Benedictine convent on the Rhine in what is now Germany. Hildegard is best known for her “waking visions,” in which she beheld a brilliant light and received revelations from God. Corresponding with kings, bishops and popes long before the Reformation, Hildegard pleaded for reform within the clergy, and her writings begged readers to look to the Scriptures as their authority and to Christ for salvation, rather than to priests. In addition to her visionary writings, theological treatises, plays and music, Hildegard also wrote books on medicine and nature. Her book on what is now called gynecology, from a female perspective, was possibly the first of its kind.

The tenth child of a well-to-do family, Hildegard was committed at birth to the newly-formed women’s wing of a Benedictine monastery. In time she became the abbess herself. She was probably subject to migraines, which accounted for the sensation of brilliant light she had during her visions, but not for the wisdom and beauty that she was able to impart to others.

Hildegard’s visions included a vision of the Trinity as “living light” in which “fire and light” surround a “human figure.” She often used the Latin feminine form “sapienta Dei” (“Wisdom of God”) to describe Christ, equating Christ with the female figure of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. In a time when women were regarded as being by nature inferior to men, Hildegard suffered from self-doubt and a sense of inferiority-- but she never doubted the truth of her visions, which did not take part in the binary masculine-vs.-feminine of the theology of the times. Instead, she saw the nature of God as containing both masculine and feminine aspects in balance, and the female form as a source of creative power in its own right, rather than as simply a receptacle for male procreation. Hildegard’s views raised women above the limitations imposed on them through male-centric theology.

For 13 years, beginning in 1158, Hildegard traveled from monastery to convent to city cathedral, preaching to monks, nuns and clergymen alike, imparting her visions and wisdom. She claimed to carry messages directly from God, warning against a “supposed sanctity” that sought reputation and a good name rather than true service and good works. Though she herself embraced her monastic calling, she was against children being committed to it against their will, as she had been.

Hildegard was one of many women of her age who found that though the church officially limited her teaching authority to other women only, her visions, considered to be a direct impartation from God, carried her over those limitations and gave her a vehicle to impart not only her visions, but all of her creativity, knowledge and ideas, to the church as a whole.

Towards the end of her life, Hildegard opposed her ecclesiastical superiors by allowing a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried on holy ground, saying that God had revealed to her in a vision that the burial was to be allowed. When the church ordered the body exhumed, Hildegard, fully convinced that the man was forgiven by God, hid the grave so that they could not locate the site and remove the body. For this she and her convent were forbidden communion and the singing of hymns. Hildegard appealed the ruling to higher church authorities and was eventually exonerated.

But Hildegard was no mere rebel. Throughout her life, she did what she believed was right, regardless of cost to herself-- and yet she upheld church leadership and order, and opposed those sects considered heretical in her day. She was, in every sense that we use the words today, a church leader-- and one full of integrity and worthy of respect.

Sources: Women’s History

Fordham University: The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen

Other Women’s Voices

Medieval Forum

Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Woman and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Zondervan Publishing House, 1987, pages 149-151.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

5-Step Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - Conclusion

In Part 3 we did the first half of Step Five of my analysis: an examination of the meaning of the original Greek words and grammar. Finally, now, we come to the conclusion-- my interpretation, in which I will go phrase by phrase from the Concordant Literal translation used at the end of Part 3.

“Let a woman be learning in quietness with all subjection.”
There is a question at this point as to whether Paul is referring to “woman” as a collective or as singular. The switch from the plural “women” in the preceding verse to the indefinite singular “woman” in this verse appears to indicate a change of subject. Paul therefore may be no longer talking about "women" in general, but about "a woman" in particular. If so, he does not name this particular woman, so whether he means women in general, or one specific woman, cannot be conclusively stated. However, there are very good reasons to think he might be talking about just one woman, which I will detail below.

In any event, since “Let be learning” is the only verb form in the entire passage which is in the command form, I believe this sentence is the controlling sentence of this passage. Whatever else Paul says, he says in view of the need for “a woman” to "learn." In a society where women were largely denied education, Paul’s command that she is to learn sounds a clear counter-cultural note. “Quietness” and "subjection," according to their Greek meanings, do not denote silence and subordination, but rather that she should have an attitude of receptivity and willingness to yield, as is fitting for any student.

“Now I am not permitting a woman to be teaching nor yet to be domineering over a man, but to be in quietness.”
Notice that Paul does not say, “Timothy, do not permit a woman.” Nor does he say, "A woman is forbidden." Instead, Paul uses the word “I” and puts the verb in present tense, indicating a current action. Since Paul looked upon the church at Ephesus as uniquely his church, and since Timothy’s ministry there is a temporary measure during Paul’s absence-- and since Timothy’s main role was to stop false teaching-- I believe Paul is giving Timothy Paul’s own authority to act for Paul in a specific situation of false teaching by “a woman,” the effect of which is to domineer over “a man” (indefinite noun again). It is unlikely Paul is making any kind of policy about all women being forbidden to teach, or to teach in church meetings, because the facts are on the table that Paul did indeed permit women to teach and commended them for teaching. Junia was “outstanding among the apostles,” and it would be impossible to be an apostle (one who has the role of planting churches) without teaching church groups about Christ. And Paul simply cannot be forbidding women to “have authority” because that is not what the word “authenteo” means. What is clear is that false teaching is a real problem in the church at Ephesus and that Paul’s main purpose in writing to Timothy was to deal with this issue.

As I mentioned, it is the norm in Koine Greek, when one refers to “woman” and “man” together, that they are married to one another. Given the Greek construction, Paul could be saying, “Now I am not permitting this certain woman to be teaching-and-domineering over her husband, but to be learning in quietness.” If Paul is talking about women in general, and not a particular woman, it is a puzzle as to why he switches from the plural “women” in verses 9 and 10, to the singular “a woman” in verse 11. Be that as it may, I will also take into account that Paul might be speaking of “woman” in a generic sense, meaning “all the women in the church.”

“For Adam was first molded, thereafter Eve, and Adam was not seduced.”
As I stated in Part 3, I believe Paul is using Adam and Eve an example. The word “for” in the Greek includes the meaning “for example.“ Also, Paul specifically states in 1 Cor. 10:11 that he considers the Old Testament stories to be “for an example” and “for instruction” to the Christian churches. He says nothing about using them to “ground” a teaching of his, in order to render that teaching timeless and universal. In 2 Cor. 11:3 Paul specifically refers to Eve as an example, in a situation having to do with a particular circumstance of false teaching that he was afraid would deceive the Corinthian church. His reference to Eve there has nothing to do with “grounding” anything Paul is saying in order to make it timeless and universal.

It is most likely here in 1 Timothy 2 as well, that the reference to Adam and Eve is being used as an example only. There is no particular reason to believe that the Creation order set up a pre-Fall authority hierarchy of Adam over Eve, which Paul is claiming should be followed in this letter to Timothy. There is nothing in the actual Creation texts that says so. The only real way to read a Creation-order based hierarchy in Genesis 1 and 2 is to read it in from 1 Timothy 2:11-15. To then use the Creation-order hierarchy you have read into Genesis, as a “grounding” of hierarchy in 1 Timothy 2, is circular reasoning: Genesis 1 and 2 say there’s a hierarchy because 1 Timothy 2 says so, and 1 Timothy 2 says there’s a hierarchy because Genesis 1and 2 say so. But that only works as long as you stay inside the circle.

The emphasis on Adam being “first molded” is more significant in light of the fact that “Adam was not seduced.” That is what the actual text of 1 Timothy 2:13-14 says. If we then look at this in light of the controlling idea “let a woman learn,“ the most likely idea is that since Adam was made before Eve, he had learning (experience in naming the animals, for example) that Eve was lacking. Adam, unlike Eve, had seen the serpent before, because he had named it. Because of this, he was "not seduced" (or "deceived"). He still sinned, but not through deception.

The situation is probably similar in the problem Paul is addressing. An unlearned woman or women are teaching deception because she/they have not had adequate learning before beginning to teach.

I don’t believe Paul’s idea here is to blame Eve for the first sin, because in his letter to the Romans he places the responsibility squarely on Adam. Here he says that Eve sinned because she was deceived, but Adam sinned even though he knew better. The situation for women in Ephesus parallels this. They have not been permitted to learn and therefore, like Eve, they have become deceived.

(Paul may also, as a side note, be asserting this orthodox idea of the order of creation in refutation of the proto-Gnostic teaching that Eve was created first, that the Fall was a good thing, and that Eve was the wise one who led Adam into enlightenment. But in any case, it all appears related to the “teaching-and-domineering” of an unlearned woman or women.)

“. . . yet the woman, being deluded, has come to be in the transgression.”
Here is the phrase that supports the notion that Paul is talking about one woman in a current situation. Since Paul was a teacher and a scholar, we must believe that he chose the exact verb form he meant to use. This verb form refers to an ongoing state of affairs that continues into the present. But how can he say of Eve, “she has come to be, and still is, in the transgression”? And why does he first speak of Adam and Eve by name, but then switch to “Adam” and “the woman”?

There is a common grammar structure in Koine Greek where a statement will begin with an indefinite singular noun (such as “a woman”), and then the noun will be repeated with a definite article later on. When this happens, both nouns are to be construed as referring to the same person or thing. An example of this occurs in John 4:7-9: “A woman of Samaria” in verse 7 is the same person as “the woman of Samaria” in verse 9. So when Paul says “the woman” instead of “Eve,” the grammatical construction refers back to “a woman” in the preceding sentence.

The only way Paul could be speaking of Eve as still being in transgression, is if he is referring to Eve in a typological sense as representing all women, with Eve’s sin as a type for all women’s sin. He does do something like this with Adam in Romans 5. So it may be possible that he is doing that with Eve here. But it’s also possible that he is talking about a particular woman but not referring to her by name, out of grace, in order to protect her.

“Yet she shall be saved through the child bearing, if ever they should be remaining in faith and love and holiness with sanity.”
We can only assume Paul knew what he was doing in switching from “she” to “they” in the same phrase. The two pronouns could not both be referring to "women in general."

“She” can mean either Eve, or a particular woman who is practicing false teaching and domineering over her husband. “The childbearing” (or "the chilbirth") refers to the bearing of the “seed of woman” as referred to in the Adam and Eve story-- ie., the Christ. So-- if this is about one particular woman who is in transgression, “they” probably means she and her husband together. If this woman will join with her husband in faith, love and holiness with clear-headedness (rejecting the false teaching), she will be saved by Christ, out of her current transgression.

If “she” means Eve, then “they” probably means the women of the church-- her daughters, who, if they continue in faith, love and holiness with clear-headedness, will bring the salvation that comes through the birth of Christ, to Eve (as a metaphor for womankind).

But in any event, there is no compelling reason to interpret these verses as saying, "Let women keep quiet, for God forbids them to ever teach or have any authority over men in the church. Women's role is to learn and to teach other women, but they can never teach men, because they were created second and moreover became deceived. But they will be saved from deception if they will accept their place and have babies in submission and holiness." This is simply not what the passage says.

The question that remains is, why did more accurate readings become so obscured? I think there is a reason for that.

Recent research indicates that during the earliest years of the church, when believers were meeting in houses, women had prominent roles in house leadership. The house was, after all, the woman’s particular domain. 1 Corinthians 1:11 refers to “those of Chloe’s household.” And Colossians 4:15 says “Greet Nympha, and the church that meets at her house.” These women were almost certainly leaders of house churches. If not, Paul would have been extremely remiss in greeting only the hostess of a church that met at her house, but neglecting to greet the actual leader!

But over the years, churches began to grow too large to meet in homes, and at the same time, as Christianity became more accepted, it also became more organized and structured. The idea of women doing anything in public was still shameful in much of the culture. Desiring to spread the gospel, churches followed the advice of Paul in fitting in with the surrounding cultures except in areas of conscience. “What shall we do with our woman leaders?” was the thought on the mind of the church as a whole. It became convenient to find a Scriptural basis for women not teaching-- and by this time, Paul’s letters had been around long enough for the situations in which he wrote to begin to be forgotten.

The rest, as they say, is history.

So. . . Having interpreted the Scriptures in this way, it still remains to find its application for us as part of the New Creation kingdom of God, living in the modern world. Even though Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are most likely a situational mandate referring to a particular policy he set for a particular church at one particular time, this is still part of the God-inspired canon of Scripture, and there is still something we can learn from it today.

I believe there are timeless principles that are being conveyed even within this time-bound passage. Once we understand what Paul was probably really saying to Timothy, and what Paul probably wasn’t really saying-- then we can then figure out how Paul’s words might apply to us.

Here are the principles that I think we can deduce from this passage, which can be applied today:

1. All Christians, male and female, are to be taught the basic doctrines of their faith.

2. The doctrines of the faith are to be received in a quiet, receptive, yielding state of mind.

3. It’s important that a Christian learn the basics of the faith before attempting to become a teacher of others.

4. Teaching that domineers over others is not acceptable.

5. A person who is “deluded” or “deceived” can still be saved by Christ.

What I cannot see in this passage is any reason to restrict all women in the church today, as Paul restricted women (or a woman) in first-century Ephesus. The situations that existed in first-century Ephesus do not exist today. Christian women today are not uneducated; they are not influenced by the worship of Artemis, and they are not imbibing the teachings of gnosticism.

Which brings us to principle #6: Church leaders can set policies for their individual churches, to deal with specific situations there at specific times, which need not apply to all churches everywhere.


I am indepted to Cheryl Schatz's website, Women in Ministry, for her insights into this passage.

Monday, November 7, 2011

5-Step Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - Part 3

This series continues here with Step 5: Determine the most likely meaning of the passage in question, with a view towards the meaning of the words in their original language, along with grammar and construction.

I'll start with the word meanings, grammar and construction. This gets pretty detailed, so if you get bored, feel free to wait for Part 4, where I'll do the "determine the most likely meaning" part.

I'm not a Greek scholar myself, so I'm indebted to Suzanne McCarthy and Philip Payne for their information on the words and grammar of this passage of Scripture.

But the place to start is with English translations. Here is the passage in the KJV:

11. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
12. But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
13. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
14. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
15. Notwithstanding, she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

Here is the passage in the TNIV:

11. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.
12. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.
14. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
15. But women will be saved through childbearing-- if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

How close are either of these versions to the wording in the actual Greek?

In verse 11 the KJV says “in silence,“ but the Greek words do not denote absolute silence, but means something more like “in quietness” or “in peace.“ The KJV also uses the definite article “the” before “woman” in verse 11, and before “man” in the second sentence. In the original, there is no definite article here before either “woman” or “man.” In the absence of a definite article, a noun can mean one general thing (“a woman”) or a collective set of things (“womankind”) or a particular thing (“this certain woman”). The grammatical construction of a particular passage will give additional clues as to which is meant.

The TNIV uses the indefinite article “a” to denote this, and renders “silence” more accurately as “quietness.”

It’s also important to notice that the word “learn” is the only word in this passage that is in the imperative (command) tense.

In verse 12, the word translated “suffer” or “permit,“ is a Greek word that usually connoted a temporary state of affairs. In the tense Paul uses, it does not imply “I never permit” so much as “I am not giving permission.” It is not worded as a command, but as a statement of what “I” -- Paul-- does.

Both these translations avoid “exercise authority” in verse 12. Some translations render it this way, as I mentioned in Part 2-- but the Greek word for the normal use of authority is not used here. The Greek verb is “authentein” (authenteo in the verb conjugation). This word appears only once in the New Testament, in this verse. No Greek dictionary or lexicon gives “have authority” or “exercise authority” as a possible translation of this word. Here are the possible definitions from a well-known lexicon:

1) one who with his own hands kills another or himself
2) one who acts on his own authority, autocratic
3) an absolute master
4) to govern, exercise dominion over one

Clearly what “a woman” is forbidden to do is not simply to “have authority.” The TNIV renders it “assume authority over” and the KJV says “usurp authority over” -- both of which are closer to the actual verb meaning-- to seize authority that has not been granted, to domineer. Also, that conjunction word between “teach” and “usurp authority” in the original is a is a word that links the two verbs together, giving them the same weight in the sentence. “Teach” by itself is not what is being addressed here. It is “teach-and-domineer,” as a unit.

Verse 13 is fairly terse and simple. Adam was formed first, then Eve. The issue is not what this verse says, but how Paul is using this information.

In verse 14, Neither version above accurately renders the verb tense in “was in the transgression” or “became a sinner.” Both of these are past tense, denoting something that happened in the past. But the actual verb tense is the perfect tense, and is better rendered “has come to be in sin.” The perfect tense refers to a present, ongoing state of affairs-- implying not only that “the woman” (and the definite article does appear in the original this time) not only was in sin, but still is. Note also that while both Adam and Eve are referred to in one sentence, in the following sentence it switches to “Adam” and “the woman.”

In verse 15 the TNIV takes what in the last sentence are actually two distinct pronouns (“she“ and “they“), and puts in the word “women” for “she,” obscuring the difference which is clear in the original. The KJV does accurately show the Greek pronouns here: “she” shall be saved if “they” continue in faith, etc. It is not common in Greek any more than in English to switch from a singular to a plural pronoun in the middle of sentence when referring to the same noun. Paul was an educated man and a scholar. It is very unlikely that he would have made such an amateur mistake. Since the original says first “she” and then “they,” Paul is almost certainly referring to two different nouns from earlier in the text-- not the same one.

The Greek also includes the definite article “the” before the word “childbearing.”
“Childbearing” can also be rendered “childbirth.” “The childbearing” is most likely to mean not just childbearing in general, but a specific childbearing or childbirth. In fact, since the passage makes reference to Eve, whose “seed” was to “crush the serpent’s head,” it is quite likely that Paul is referring to “the childbearing” in terms of this “seed”-- that is, the birth of the Christ. The word “saved” here is a word that means “spiritual salvation.” It is the word commonly used when speaking of what Christ came to do for humanity. Having a baby cannot save anyone. But the birth of the Child can save everyone.

We must also note that the words for “woman” and “man” in the Greek could also mean “wife” and “husband.” There are no separate words for “wife” or “husband” in the Greek. In fact, some English translations say, “I do not permit a wife to teach . . . a husband.” It is actually the norm in Koine Greek, when a man and a woman are being discussed together in the same passage, for the reader to consider them related by marriage (since there are no separate words for “husband” and “wife” in the Greek.) The translators must do their best with the context, to figure out which is meant. But when a the context is ambiguous (as this one manifestly is!) it’s hard to be sure.

Finally, there is the word “subjection,” which is the noun form of the verb “hupotasso,“ meaning “to yield, give in to, cooperate with.“ In the voice in which it is used here, it carries a connation of voluntary yielding. Twice in the Epistles it is used in this voice to denote an attitude all Christians should have towards one another (Eph. 5:21, 1 Peter 5:5). The word does not mean “obedience” -- there is another Greek word for that which Paul distinguishes from this word. He never uses the Greek word for “obey” as an instruction to wives or women about husbands or men.

Now, to bring this all together, here is a translation from the Concordant Literal New Testament, which closely follows the Greek in terms of singular and plural pronouns, actual verb tenses, etc.

Let a woman be learning in quietness with all subjection. Now I am not permitting a woman to be teaching nor yet to be domineering over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first molded, thereafter Eve, and Adam was not seduced, yet the woman, being deluded, has come to be in the transgression Yet she shall be saved through the child bearing, if ever they should be remaining in faith and love and holiness with sanity.
So-- having looked closely at the original Greek, what is the most likely meaning of this passage? That will be covered in Part 4.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

5-Step Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - Part 2

Part 2 of my analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 focuses on Step 4 of a five-step process that takes literary and historical context into account before honing in on a reading of the actual passage in question. Afterwards, before proceeding to the last step, I will talk a little bit about how this process casts in doubt the traditional, restrictionist view of this passage as being Paul's actual, intended meaning.

So on to Step 4: Determine the place of the passage in question within the purpose and literary context of this particular book of the Bible.

This book is a personal letter written by Paul to his "true son in the faith," Timothy. It is not intended, therefore, to function in the same way the "general" letters do, as exhortations to whole congregations. Timothy was Paul's most trusted delegate in his mission. Paul's purpose in writing this particular letter to Timothy is given in chapter 1, verse 3: "as I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain persons not to teach false doctrines any longer." Later, Paul expands upon this purpose in chapter 3, verses 14-15: "Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household." The church is being viewed as a "household," which in those days meant a large family unit that functioned as both a family and an economic enterprise. Paul's purpose, then, is to instruct Timothy in a temporary mission while Paul is away: to stop the spread of false doctrine and to make sure the church is acting in such a way as to be a healthy family unit and a productive center for the spread of the gospel. (Note that though this letter has been denoted as a "pastoral" epistle, for the purpose of instruction to a young pastor-- that is not Timothy's actual function or mission at the time of this letter. Paul is clearly intending to return to a church he considers a special charge of his own. He is not turning over leadership of this church to Timothy; in fact, there are already local leaders in place. But Paul wants Timothy to make sure the local leadership of this church, in the form of "overseers" and "deacons," is are properly qualified and functioning as they should. There was no such thing as a "senior pastor" at this stage in church development. Churches were run by groups of leaders, checked in on by an apostle like Paul. But Timothy will not be this church's "overseer." Timothy's mission is temporary.

Paul's letter is set up as follows:

Greeting and purpose statement: false doctrine
Paul's view of his own former errors and God's mercy
Charge to Timothy to hold onto faith and a good conscience
Instructions regarding prayer and worship with an eye to the community being allowed to "live peaceful and quiet lives," and with an eye to the desire of God that all people "be saved and come to knowledge of the truth."
The verses in question (I'll get back to those in Step 5)
Qualifications for overseers and deacons
Reiteration and expansion of purpose statement
A quotation of an oral tradition regarding the nature of the Christ (true doctrine)
Description of false doctrines that are a problem at Ephesus with exhortation to Timothy to repudiate them and teach true doctrine
Treatment of elders, and the maintaining of a "list" of widows to receive care
Exhortation that everyone take care of their own dependents "so that no one may be open to blame."
The problem of younger widows
Instructions to Timothy to give honor to the local leaders who are doing right and to rebuke those who are sinning.
A brief aside about Timothy's own health
Instructions to give to slaves
A warning to be on watch for money-loving as a motivation for false teachers
A command to Timothy to keep himself pure and to exhort the rich not to put their trust in money
A final exhortation about guarding against false teaching

So that's the letter as a whole, and where the passage fits into it. And here's the main areas where I think the traditional reading is incorrect.

The traditional/restrictionist reading is inconsistent in its interpretational methods. While insisting on the timelessness of "I do not permit a woman to teach," the traditional reading treats the verses immediately preceding, about men lifting their hands when they pray and women not wearing gold and pearls, as cultural and temporary. The traditional interpretation extracts the principles of these verses (men should pray in a holy manner and women should dress modestly), and keeps those, but not the “plain meaning,” which involves the lifting of hands and a prohibition against certain kinds of clothing and hairstyles.

The restrictionist reading then insists that in spite of the culturally-bound nature of the preceding verses, the prohibition against women teaching is not cultural and temporary, but timeless. The reason given for this is that Paul “grounds” the prohibition in the creation order by citing the Adam and Eve story. This is done without adequate justification as to how the creation story makes the prohibition timeless. Readings such as “Adam was in authority over Eve even before the Fall” or “because Eve was deceived, all women are easily deceived” involves reading meanings into Paul‘s words, and into the Genesis account, that are not supported by the actual texts.

Second, the traditional reading is inconsistent in that it discounts the "plain meaning" of the verses immediately following, which (if read according to "plain meaning") say that women are saved by having babies. It then insists that the “plain meaning“ of "I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority* over a man" is: "no woman shall be a pastor or an elder," or "no woman shall give a teaching 'from the pulpit' during a church service.“ These are actually not “plain” readings of the text at all-- but even if they were, it is problematic to insist that we have to take these verses for exactly what the restrictionists claim they say, when the restrictionists themselves do not follow the plain meaning a few verses later. Instead, they say women will be "saved" from being deceived if they accept their role as child-bearers. They are unwilling to contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone, even for women-- so they change the meaning of "saved" and "through" and "child-bearing."

The traditional/restrictionist reading, through these inconsistencies, reveals an ongoing cultural bias against women having power in the church, which bias colors the interpretation. Women are allowed the benefit of the doubt when a passage's "plain reading" might appear to rob them of salvation by grace, but when a passage appears to rob them of full participation in the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit, who was "poured out on all flesh, on your sons and daughters" in the New Covenant-- this reading flatly denies women.

There is no place in this restrictionist reading to question whether Paul, who considered the church at Ephesus his church and was giving Timothy instructions for managing it in his absence, might actually have been saying, "This is the course of action I'm taking at this time to deal with these problems in my church. Please follow them while I'm gone." There is no room to take into account that Paul's own perceived mission was to present true doctrine, and to make sure the gospel message did not become distasteful to the surrounding culture-- which might have resulted in particular procedures, specifically for this church at that time, designed to make sure uneducated women learned correct doctrine and did not embarrass the men in an honor-shame culture. The restrictionist reading refuses to take into account that Paul did not give these instructions in a general letter to all churches, but in a personal letter to his closest right-hand man-- and that if he'd really wanted to restrict women from any authoritative or teaching roles, he should have rebuked the women that he mentions in Romans 16, rather than commending them!

But this five-step method is set up to take all those things into account, before proceeding to determine the most likely, author-intended meaning of the passage in question. Stay tuned.


*The translation "exercise authority" is also problematic; but that's an issue for Step 5.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

5-Step Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - Part 1

This is an example of the method I think is most likely to render an understanding of a particular passage of the Bible, which is most likely to capture the author's original intent. It's not perfect or foolproof, but it's a five-step method that thoroughly examines a text according to historical and literary context, word meanings, and place in the Bible canon. Hopefully, it will be helpful, whether or not you agree with every idea.


Preliminary note: Based on the hermeneutical principles I think are most likely to render an accurate reading, I follow these basic ideas when looking at this passage:

A. I will look at the passage primarily in terms of narrative theology. Narrative theology says that what the Bible primarily is, is a story: the story of God's interactions with humanity, with the story of Christ in the center as the focal point. Looking at it as a story means that you interpret each thing in terms of where it belongs in the plot; and you see a progression in the human understanding of the nature of God from the earlier to the later books. The passage will be looked at in terms of where it fits in the Great Story.

B. The writer will be speaking from within his own cultural mindset, and God will accommodate His revelation to that mindset while at the same time sowing seeds for a greater understanding of the Great Commandment, "love God and love one another."

With this in mind, here are the first three of my five steps.

Step 1: Determine where this book of the Bible fits into the conversation centering around the Great Story.

The elements of the Story are: Creation; Fall; Covenant Community of Israel; Redemption through the Christ; Covenant Community of the Church; Consummation at the End of the Age. This book is part of the "Covenant Community of the Church" part of the Story. The conversation centers around what this New Covenant community is to be like. The main thing that characterizes the New Covenant Community is that rather than being centered around one chosen nation, it is centered around faith in the Christ. Therefore, the importance of who you were born to be (Jew or Gentile) has become obsolete. A central text that explains this new mindset is found in 2 Cor. 5:16-17 - "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. . . If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come." The Old Covenant Community was distinguished by laws that set it apart from other nations, and within that community, there were further settings apart of priests and Levites as special classes. In the New Covenant, every "tribe and language and people and nation" is "a kingdom and priests." (Rev. 5:10) There is no special class of people, no chosen nation. Acts 2 shows the inauguration of this "kingdom" in the pouring out of the Spirit on "all flesh," male and female, young and old. 1 Timothy's place in the story is as part of this New Covenant.

Step 2: Determine the larger context of the letter within the writings of its author.

Since the letter purports to be from Paul, and is in any event part of the canon of Scripture, a mainstream hermeneutic accepts it as canon and tries to fit it into its place. A major principle of literary interpretation is that the position of a writer on a particular topic is found by looking at all of his/her writings together. Paul's letters have many things to say about women; 1 Tim 2:11-15 is just one piece of the puzzle. But before working on what Paul is saying about women, it is important to take into account his own view of his general mission. A business's "mission statement" gives us a foundation of what a particular business considers its purpose for existing, which is essential to an understanding of that business. Paul, too, had a “mission statement.” What did Paul consider to be his purpose in preaching and writing?

Paul gives his mission statement in 1 Corinthians 9 and in Galatians 1. In Galatians 1 he tells the story of his "call by God's grace" and how he believes the gospel he preaches is directly from God. He expresses his commitment to the accurate transmission of his message by saying, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God's curse!" In 1 Cor. 9 he speaks of being "compelled" from within to preach, but also about how he adapts his message and his own behavior to the hearers: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . to those not having the law I became like one no having the law. . . I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some." (v. 20-22).

Paul, then, is concerned about two main things: the transmission of a “pure” gospel message, and ways to render the message acceptable to the different peoples and cultures who he wants to receive it-- which means, in part, that he and all believers must behave in ways that enhance, and not detract from, the message. Almost everything he writes has one or both of these goals in mind. Undergirding all of this is his idea of love as the very center of the gospel (1 Cor. 13). (Note how 1 Timothy fits in here: "The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." - 1 Tim. 1:5)

Step 3: Determine the historical and cultural context of this book of the Bible.

Acts 19 tells us quite a lot about Ephesus, which is where Timothy was ministering when Paul wrote this letter to him. First of all, Paul spent at least two years there, and probably longer. The church at Ephesus is special to him; in fact, possibly more than any other church that Paul founded, the church at Ephesus was Paul's church. Second, Ephesus was famous for its temple to Artemis (Diana), the virgin goddess. Pagan worship in Ephesus was therefore centered around female priestesses. Third, it appears from this particular letter that by the time Paul wrote it, the teachings of Gnosticism were in their early development and gaining ground in the city. One of the teachings of Gnosticism was that Eve was created before Adam and that her act of giving him the fruit was an act of wisdom and goodness; that Eve was superior to Adam.

In the midst of all this, Christianity itself was viewed with suspicion by many. There were rumors that when Christians partook of the Eucharist in secret, they were actually performing acts of cannibalism. They were accused of seeking to overturn the established authority structures, etc. At the same time the Jews were accusing the Christians of being lawless and lewd.

Another prime consideration is that both Jewish and Greek customs forbade the education of women. Although there was a movement towards greater liberty among upperclass women in Rome, this was not prevalent in communities like Ephesus, far from Rome where Greek customs still prevailed. Although the worship of Artemis was carried out largely by females, and though Gnosticism was teaching forms of female supremacy, Ephesus was a city in which ordinary women were largely denied education. Women coming into the young Christian church, therefore, would be likely to be uneducated, influenced by Artemis-worship, and attracted to doctrines of female superiority in the rising Gnostic beliefs.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Birthday, My Faith Story

Today is my birthday. So today I'm going to talk about my belief in God, where it comes from in my life. I don't like to use the word "testimony" because that word is so commonly used as if it were a sort of sales technique, giving a testimonial as to how well the Product - Christianity - worked for you so that others will try it. That's not the point of this at all. I simply want, on this day that's important to me, to express myself about this thing that's foundational to my own life. And that's all-- no strings attached.

My parents went to church when I was very young, but later they stopped and became agnostics. I don't have any memories of meeting God in a church context at all before the age of 15. What I do remember, though, as a young child, is feeling that invisible Hands were reaching down to me in love. I remember asking my mother if she had ever felt this, and she said yes. I remember her singing to me, simple songs like Away in a Manger and Jesus Loves Me. I remember the pure, simple faith in her eyes, her voice. There was no coercion, no law, no hierarchy in my mother’s faith-- just love.

When I was a little older, my mother became convinced by intellectual arguments against Christianity and left the faith for a while. Years, later, she returned again to her earlier faith. She told me when I was grown up that she had continued to feel God's presence throughout her agnostic years. Every once in a while she would feel in her heart as if God were saying, “You’re being silly, you know. I’m still here.” In the end she listened to her heart.

However, by the time I was 8 or 9, both my parents were agnostic, and I was following firmly in my parent's beliefs-- or lack thereof. This ended abruptly when we visited Carlsbad Caverns when I was about 11. Looking at those huge caverns, so beautiful, which were there and had been beautiful before any humans even knew they were there, I had the sudden overwhelming conviction that there had to be a God. I can't explain it intellectually, really. It's just that it seemed absurd to me that something so awesomely, overwhelmingly beautiful was unintentionally so. I just knew that Someone had to have planned it, and Someone had to have enjoyed its secret beauty long before humans ever knew it was there. But that's as far as things went. I felt that there had to be a God. Whether it was the god of any particular religion, I had no idea.

When I was 15 my older sister came into my room one afternoon and said, "I've been studying and looking into it-- and I'm convinced that Jesus had to be who he said he was."

Well, I didn't know what to think-- but that shook me. My sister was someone I trusted, had always trusted implicitly. If she had come to this conclusion, then it was a reasonable viewpoint-- it couldn't just be nonsense. I had to find out for myself if there was something in it.

So I agreed to go to church with her. And when the service was over, there was an invitation to come to the front and be prayed for. My sister grabbed my hand (I wasn't at all sure I wanted to go, but I followed her), and we went to the altar. . .

And there was a Presence there. Unmistakable, overwhelming-- and It simply was there, being Itself, and what was I going to do about it?

There wasn't really a question of, "are you the same Being who used to reach down to me with invisible hands?" I knew it was. And though the Presence used no words (I still don't receive words, just impressions or deep"knowings" that I have to translate into words)-- if I could have translated what the Presence was communicating, it would have been "I Am."

Which, after all, is what was communicated to Moses so long ago.

Not that I thought about that. I didn't know the Bible. But I had met this Being at an altar in a Christian church, upon considering the option that Jesus might be who he had said he was (that is, the Son of God.) This was the same Being I had met as a child, here in this church. But I have never, then or now, been the type to rush headlong into anything. So I walked away, thinking about it. I still had a lot of questions about God and Christianity.

A week later, on Easter Sunday, I was back in church again. As we sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” I felt the Presence again. I said, silently, to the Presence, “But I still have all these questions!” The very air seemed charged with fire as I felt God ask me, “Will you trust Me? Even with all your questions?”

“Yes,” I whispered. And my heart was changed. There are no words to describe what that felt like, except that I was set free of myself-- and somehow found my real self at the same time.

Weeks and months later, as I began to research and examine the questions I still had, I found answers that satisfied. Perhaps you would say that I was biased, at that point, towards theistic answers-- and I suppose that's true. But I found that the basics of Christianity could make sense to my mind and not just my heart.

It was only later that I was drawn into a coercive, law-based form of Christianity of hierarchy, control and submission. But when I finally freed myself of that, there was my old faith-- the faith of my mother, the invisible Hands of my childhood, the faith of my 15-year-old self -- waiting for me still.

So here I am, 48 years old today. Here we are, me and God. I doubt, from time to time-- as anyone must, who does not insulate themselves to never talk to anyone outside their faith community-- but I can no longer isolate myself that way. So I listen to everyone I can, as I would want to be listened to-- it is part of doing to others as I would have done to me. And sometimes when they see no sense in my faith, it shakes me. But still I am drawn to Christ like a moth to a flame. Still the beauty of Christ and Christ’s story sings in my deepest heart. In the end, I can no more deny it than I can deny my own soul.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ's Relationship with the Church? Conclusion

Part 1 of this three-part blog post refuted the idea that marriage is an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church. Part 2 showed that Christ’s glorification of the church to become “one flesh” with Him is the main point of Ephesians 21-33, and this was the illustration Paul had in mind to transform marriage as the world understood it then, into New Covenant marriage in Christ.

This last part attempts to ask the question that might arise: “Maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but isn’t marriage a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Typology is a concept mentioned several times in the New Testament. According to the online Holman Bible Dictionary:

“Typology involves a correspondence, usually in one particular matter between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament with a person, event, or thing, in the New Testament. All elements except this one may be quite different, but the one element selected for comparison has a genuine similarity in the two different historical contexts. . . Typology, a comparison stressing one point of similarity, helps us see the New Testament person, event, or institution as the fulfillment of that which was only hinted at in the Old Testament.” [Emphasis in original]

As Holman states, when the word “type is used in the New Testament, it refers to one element of something in the Old Testament being a pattern for something in the New. Adam is a “type” of Christ-- but only in the sense that Adam was the one man through whom the curse of sin came, and Christ is the one Man through whom the gift of salvation came. But Adam is not like Christ in other respects-- in fact, it is the “not like” comparisons that are emphasized in Romans 5:14-16.

The New Testament does not actually call any of its own introduced concepts (such as Paul’s concept of New Covenant Christian marriage) “types” of anything else. However, if, in spite of this, perhaps there is some justification in seeing typology in Christian marriage-- for in verse 32 Paul does seem to use it as a pattern that hints at something else which will be the fulfillment. However, if marriage is a type, the hint will not be like the fulfillment in every respect, but in one, limited respect only. And the text itself will show us what is.

The marriage relationship is not like Christ’s relationship with the church in every sense. And the sense given by the text is not authority and subordination, but oneness. Marriage is like Christ and the church because both relationships become “one flesh” relationships. In other respects, marriage is not like Christ’s relationship with the church. Marriage is not like Christ redeeming from sin and the church being redeemed, or like the church worshiping and Christ receiving worship. I have heard husbands say they believed it was their job to cleanse their wives and present them before God as Christ does the church! But that is not the point of similarity given in the possible typology here.

Just because Christ is shown doing or being something for the church in the Ephesians 5:21-33 text, does not mean that husbands are to do or be the same thing for their wives. The text says that Christ is the church’s “Savior,“ but (thankfully) I have never heard a husband claim he could step into that role! But neither does the text say marriage is like Christ leading and the church following. Though the text does say wives are to submit (voluntarily yield), it says nothing about husbands (or Christ) leading. Instead, it talks about husbands (and Christ) loving. Husbands, like Christ, are understood to be in a position of authority-- but exercising that authority is simply not in view in this text. Just the opposite, in fact. Husbands are told to give themselves as Christ gave Himself-- and Christ gave Himself to crucifixion, laying down His power and authority. In light of this, it doesn't make sense to say that the husband-authority exercised in worldly marriages of Paul's day was somehow intended by God to continue for all time. Christian marriage in the New Covenant was not intended to be viewed in terms of authority, but in terms of laying down authority and raising up the one under authority.

So if there is any typology in Ephesians 5:21-33, it is the typology of “one flesh.” To map husbands to Christ in any way not given by the typology, is to go beyond the text and to risk husband-idolatry, placing husbands in the place of Christ in their wives’ lives. And to give the worldly authority of husbands in Paul’s day, to all husbands for all time, is to wrongly map the human to the divine.

To sum up, then:

Human marriage is not, and cannot be, an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church. Instead, Christ’s relationship with the church, as shown in the text, is the illustration for New-Covenant human marriage.

Our Western understanding of literary structure leads us to want to see the main point of Ephesians 5:21-33 as wives’ submission to husbands (because it is the first and last thing mentioned), followed by husbands loving wives-- and the rest as more or less mere commentary on those two points. But this is not how Paul intended it to be read. What he wanted was that the Christians in the church at Ephesus (and in the other churches to whom this letter would be circulated) should see their marriages as needing to imitate Christ’s descent from glory in order to raise up the church to glory. He wanted them to see that one-flesh unity between a husband who raised up his wife, and the wife who was raised up, was the goal of Christian marriage.

If in this sense marriage is a type, pointing to a fulfillment when Christ comes again, in His one-flesh unity with the church, then this, and nothing else, is the point of similarity of the typology.

There is no justification for stretching the text to make marriage either a type or an illustration of Christ’s authority over the church.

This passage is simply not about the marriage relationship being intended by God as an authority-subordinate relationship. That is the understanding of marriage that Paul had to work with in his audience’s minds-- but that’s not where he left it. Ephesians 5:21-33’s teaching on marriage is about changing that view of marriage to one of unity and love-- the kind of love that could transform the authority-subordinate nature of first-century Ephesian marriages, into what God desires for marriage in His New Covenant kingdom: oneness, companionship and mutuality. So when Christians insist on husband-authority in marriage, they are actually going in the opposite direction from where Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was trying to take the church.

This is not about either rejecting or accommodating modern culture. Christians tend to focus entirely too much on that. But the question is not, “what is the world doing now, so we can do the opposite, right or wrong?” The real question is, should we turn back to a first-century worldly understanding, or move forward into the New Creation kingdom of God?