Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Bible and the Nature of Woman

[Note:  this is another reposting of a piece I wrote for the Take Heart Project.]

The message of most forms of Christianity is that women are in some way or other subordinate to men.  Women cannot be ministers or elders.  Women are to be "helpmeets" to their husbands and to be under male authority.  This is the traditional way of reading the passages in the Bible that mention women, and many Christians who think they are just reading the "plain sense" of the Bible are unaware of how much the way a passage reads to them, is informed by tradition.

I'd like to re-examine God’s plan and purpose for women.  The best place to start is at the beginning– Genesis 1. What is the first thing the Bible says about women?

“And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and . . . over all the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth.” Gen. 1:26-28.

Is there any distinction made here between the male and the female? No, what we see is identical treatment of the man and the woman, and identical status of the man and the woman before God. He formed them both to be in His image and to have dominion, and then he told them to be fruitful and multiply and rule the other creatures.

Of course we must be careful not to take these commands in an unqualified state. The life and writings of the Apostle Paul make it clear that not every individual must “be fruitful” by having offspring. Indeed, in the New Testament, being “fruitful” in terms of having children is not mentioned; what is important is “bearing fruit,“ which means good character and good deeds that help grow the Kingdom of God. Nor does “subdue the earth” give us the right to mistreat our fellow creatures; we are to be good stewards over the creation. But what I want to note here is that Genesis Chapter 2 must be read in light of Genesis Chapter 1. The woman, no less than the man, is given rulership. There is no hint in Genesis 1 that the man is to rule over the woman.

It is in the next chapter that we see the words “help meet” (please note that these are two words, not one):

“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him an help meet for him.” Genesis 2:18.

It is important here to note that the name “Adam” is simply the Hebrew word for “human.” Genesis 5:2 says, “Male and female He created them, and blessed them, and called their name “adam” (human) in the day when they were created.” Woman is not an afterthought that God happened to have. When God made the “adam,” the male and female human were in God’s mind from the beginning. But he created one “adam” alone at first, for a reason. Genesis 2:19-20 says that God deliberately brought the animals to the adam to name them, “but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.”

God then causes the adam to fall asleep, and he takes “one of his ribs” (the original Hebrew says “from his side”), and makes a woman. She is made of the exact same substance as Adam, so that he cannot claim her nature as different from his in any way. Adam recognizes what God intended him to recognize– that no other creature is of Adam’s own nature, but this woman is. And this is where the word “man” as in “male” is first used by Adam in regard to himself, ”This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” v. 23.

But what does “help meet for him” really mean?

The word “help” is the Hebrew word “ezer.” It means “help,” but not in the modern English sense of “assistant.” The word actually refers to someone who renders strong aid to someone who needs it. Most of the other times that the word “ezer” is used in the Old Testament, it refers to God. In Psalm 33:20, for instance: ”Our soul waiteth for the Lord; He is our help (“ezer”) and our shield.” An “ezer” is not someone who is subordinate to the one helped. God as “ezer” is above the humans who cry for Him to be their “help.”

But the woman is not a “help” from a superior position, as God is, so the text in Genesis 2 adds a modification. The woman is a “help meet for him.” ”Meet” in the KJV is an old word meaning “suitable to” or “corresponding to.” The Hebrew word is “kenedgo,” which literally means “facing him,” or “as in front of him.” The idea is that here is a help (strong aid) that is not above Adam, as God is, but is face-to-face with him. Equal partnership is strongly implied by this phrase.

God makes the woman because one “adam” alone is not good. The “adam” needs a strong aid that stands face-to face with him. God wants the “adam” to recognize this strong, face-to-face aid for what she is, so God makes sure the “adam” knows that this being is not like one of the animals, but is of his own substance and nature. Genesis 2 then concludes with a parenthetical– that it is because of this manner of creation that man and woman are to join in marriage and be “one flesh.” There is still no hint of subordination of Eve to Adam. In fact, the later subordination of the woman to the man is clearly shown in Genesis 3:16 to be the result of sin.

Some Bible teachers will tell you that because Adam was made first, and because he named the animals, this means he was in a position of authority over Eve. But the Bible clearly shows that the reason God had Adam name the animals was not because of authority, but because God wanted to show Adam that there was no “facing-him-strong-aid” to be found among the animals. And even if naming something implied authority over it, Adam did not name Eve till after the Fall– in Genesis 3:20. When Adam said, “She shall be called Woman, for she was taken out of Man,” he was not naming the woman. He was simply distinguishing both himself and her from one another as male and female. The Hebrew word for “called” in that verse is a different word from the word used when he “named” the animals and (after the Fall) “named” Eve. If the idea of “naming” has any meaning of “authority” at all, then it is interesting to note that Adam did not name Eve until after sin had entered the world and after God told Eve, “he shall rule over you.” (Notice, too, that God did not give a command to the man, “See that you rule over her,“ but merely made a statement to the woman, “He shall rule over you.“ Male rule, like thorns and thistles and pain in childbirth, was a consequence of the Fall, not a command of God.)

Nor is there any indication that being made first put Adam in authority over Eve. If being made first implied authority, then the fish and the birds would rule the land animals, and the land animals would rule the humans! No, God made the human alone at first so that God could show the human how much he needed an “ezer kenedgo.”

Many Christians would reply here that 1 Timothy 2:12-15 says that a woman can’t teach or have authority over a man because Adam was made first and Eve was deceived.  They use this passage to interpret Genesis 2 and 3 and conclude that a woman was made to be subordinate.  Some read this passage to indicate that women are more easily deceived than men are.  But since the early chapters of Genesis do not actually say this, reading a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 back into them is against the principles of Bible interpretation I outlined in my last post.

The 1 Timothy 2 passage actually starts in verse 11, where Paul says, “Let the woman learn.” Women were not allowed to learn theology in either ancient Judaism or ancient Greek cultures, and even Roman women did not usually receive more than a very basic education. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written in Ephesus, where there would most likely be women of all three backgrounds in the church. Paul qualifies the word “learn” with “in silence and all subjection.“ The word “silence” there is the Greek word “heschusia,“ which doesn’t mean absolute “silence” but simply “quietness.” (It is the same word Paul uses a few verses earlier in 1 Tim. 2:2, when he says “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.“) The word for “subjection” is the noun form of the word used in Ephesians 5:21, “submitting yourselves to one another.“ It conveys the idea of voluntary yielding or cooperation, and though it is often used in the sense of yielding to authority, it does not always convey that meaning. The two words used together convey the kind of attitude any student should have, of quiet receptiveness and yielding to teaching.

The word “usurp authority” that Paul uses in verse 12 is not the Greek word for normal authority, which is “exousia.” This word is “authentein,” and its meaning had to do with taking dominion over or dominating another. If Paul had meant that women could never have any legitimate authority, he would have used some form of “exousia,” not “authentein.” The two words are not synonymous.

Verses 13-14 then go on with “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” Paul may be using the creation order to make the point that because Adam was made first, it is especially inappropriate for a woman to take illegitimate authority over a man– but as we have seen, there really is nothing in the story of the creation that makes the woman subordinate to the man either. They were created with equal authority to rule the creation, with her as his “face-to-face strong aid.” But another point, and one that fits especially well with Paul’s statement that a woman should be allowed to learn, is that Adam’s being formed first apparently goes hand-in-hand with Adam’s not being deceived. What does being formed first have to do with not being deceived? It makes sense in this context that Paul may have meant that being formed first meant Adam had more learning and experience than Eve, and that this prevented Adam from being deceived. Adam had, after all, named the animals. He would therefore have seen and named the serpent. He, much more than Eve, was in a position to recognize the serpent’s words for what they were. (If anything, this makes Adam more culpable, which may be why Paul places the responsibility for the Fall on Adam, in Romans 5:12.)

Be that as it may, this passage in 1 Timothy 2 does not say that woman is to be subordinate to man because man was made first. It does not say that all women are easily deceived. It simply says that Eve was formed later and was deceived. This Epistle is Paul’s advice to Timothy on principles of correct conduct and order, in a church threatened by false teaching (1 Tim. 1:3 & 3:15). In that context, Paul counsels that women be allowed to learn the doctrines of the faith and that they should not seize dominion over men. Should we go further than this and say Paul was making a blanket prohibition against any woman ever having an authoritative teaching position in any church? Paul himself said in 1 Corinthians 4:6 to “not think above what was written.” To say that forbidding women to take illegitimate authority, also means that they can have no legitimate authority, or that this is because they are more easily deceived, is to go way above and beyond what is actually written.

[Note:  I have done a five-part analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that begins here and is a more in-depth analysis of those verses.]

I must also address here 1 Corinthians 11:7-8, which many Christian read as saying the woman was made for the man and is therefore secondary to him, and that while the man is the image and glory of God, the woman is only the glory of man.

First of all, that word “for” does not mean “for the use of” as in “I made a cake for you.” The word in the ancient Greek means “for the sake of” or “because of.” This is exactly what Genesis 2 says– the man needed to not be alone, and the woman was made because he had this need. She is not “for” the man’s use, she is “because of” his need. This does not imply any subordination of the woman. On the contrary, the one who needs help is the one in the weaker position, not the one who comes to give help! This does not mean Paul is saying men are subordinate to women either– but it does say a lot about the interdependence God intends men and women to have to one another.

Secondly, as far as “glory” is concerned– we are accustomed to think of this word in terms of the splendor and divine beauty of God. But 2 Corinthians 3:18 says that all believers shine with this kind of glory: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (Emphasis added.)

This passage is not about that kind of glory, for it would be in direct contradiction to 2 Cor. 3:18 to say men have God’s glory but women have man’s glory. No, there is another meaning of the word “glory” in the ancient Greek, and that has to do with reputation, or the good opinion of others.

This passage has to be read in the light of the rest of 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthian church was a large, cosmopolitan center in the Roman Empire, in which a large number of cultures mingled and which had a reputation as the “Sin City” of those times. The young church was comprised of peoples from a variety of backgrounds, and at the time Paul wrote the letter this church was struggling with a variety of matters, one of which was its reputation in the eyes of the community. It helps to understand that the cultures of Israel, Greece and Rome were honor-shame cultures. They tended to think of behavior more in terms of honor and dishonor, in contrast to our way of thinking in more terms of right and wrong. It wasn’t enough, for instance, for a woman to be faithful to her husband; she had to avoid even the slightest appearance of loose morals. This means that women did not go out in public alone; they did not talk to men who were not their husbands, and so on. A woman’s behavior was a direct reflection on her husband’s reputation, and when we see the word “glory” in a text that contains words having to do with honor and shame, we know that the meaning of “glory“ in that text is within that honor-shame context. From the context of 1 Cor. 11, it seems extremely likely that “reputation” is what Paul is talking about when he says “glory.”

Paul starts this section of his letter by praising the Corinthians for keeping the “ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” (verse 1.) This word “ordinances” is translated as “traditions” everywhere else in the New Testament, and it means the ways in which human cultures work out the Scriptures in practical applications. Paul uses this word sometimes negatively (Colossians 2:8), and sometimes positively, as in this passage; but “traditions” are clearly not on the same par as God’s commandments and are to be repudiated whenever they clash with the revealed will of God.

1 Cor 11 is mainly about whether women should cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in public, and Paul speaks of this matter in terms of tradition and not commandment. The passage is full of the kinds of words that communicate the honor-shame culture: ”disgrace,” “proper,” “dishonor,” and so on. It is in light of this that Paul speaks of man being “the image and glory of God.” Paul does NOT deny the truth of Genesis 1:26-27 that male and female are both the image of God; he does not say the woman is the image of the man– but Paul has to deal with the very real fact that in that culture, a woman’s behavior was viewed almost entirely in terms of how it affected her husband (or if she was unmarried, her father). The woman’s deeds, in the eyes of the culture, reflected not on God, but on the man in her life. In that culture, the only women who did not cover their heads in public were prostitutes. This is why Paul says women should wear head coverings, in order not to be seen as prostitutes in that culture, and thus to bring shame on their husbands or fathers.

The point is that “glory” as Paul uses it here is not about the nature of man or woman at all– it’s about cultural reputations. The principle that applies today is that we should not act in ways that reflect poorly on our loved ones. But we do not live in an honor-shame culture. Since God looks not on the outward appearance but on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), we need not follow the practices of those Middle-Eastern cultures that focused so much on outward appearance that even innocent actions (such as simply talking to a man who is not your husband) were deeply frowned upon. In any event, the wearing of head coverings was part of that culture, not part of ours. The view of woman as being only important in relation to her husband and father was also a cultural, not a divinely sanctioned, thing. Jesus always treated women as valuable individuals in their own right, regardless of how talking to a woman in public was viewed by his disciples or anyone else! (See the story of the woman at the well in John 4.) Paul gave weight to matters of reputation when necessary for the growth of the church, but he, too, treated women as valuable individuals in their own right (notice, for instance, all the women he honors by name in Romans 16).

Today a woman may give glory to God by her deeds in ways that were not possible then. Her nature as the image of God is no longer obscured by ancient cultural ways of thinking about women. Christian women can be assured that they were not created to be subordinate to men, but to be their equal partners from the day God made them.

[More analysis of 1 Corinthians 11, including the "man is the head of woman" text, will be covered in my upcoming reposting of my "The Bible and Male Headship" series from the Take Heart Project.]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Taking the Bible Seriously

From time to time I will be posting selections from things I have posted elsewhere.  This is from a piece I wrote for the Take Heart Project (which, due to trademark issues, will be changing its name to the No Longer Quivering Foundation).   The original essay can be found here.

There are those who will suggest that any method of interpretation that does not take each passage of the Bible at its "plain sense" or "face value" is not taking the Bible seriously, or is motivated by a desire to "weasel out" of certain scriptural requirements.  In response to this, I offer a modern-day parable. 

A certain company had been in business for 100 years. The founder of this company, before he retired, had written a letter to all employees, and had asked that this letter be read aloud every year, at the time of the annual picnic, so that all employees for years to come could know what the founder’s vision was. The letter contained a lot of things about the company’s vision and policies, as well as solemn requests never to lose sight of goals like customer service, quality of product, and so on. One of the policies in the letter was this: “Every employee who works here will be held to high standards as to the treatment of horses. Employees must stable their horses in the company stables and make sure the beasts are well rubbed-down and supplied with adequate food and water. Buggies are to be drawn up neatly in the stable-yard. Under no circumstances are horses to be left between the buggy shafts all day.” Because of this letter, the current leaders and employees of this company believed firmly that they were to travel to work by horse– that automobiles were against the founder’s intention, and therefore, the company policy was that if you were caught driving a car to work, you would be immediately fired. When asked by the city leaders why their company had never replaced its stables with a modern parking facility, the leaders pointed proudly to the plain text of the founder’s letter. “We are only maintaining the principles upon which this great company was founded,” they said. “We take our founder at his word, and we are against anyone who doesn‘t take his message seriously enough to follow exactly what it says.” 

You may be shaking your head right now and saying, “I get the point of your parable, but that’s not how I read the Bible. I know some things in it were just for the people back in Bible times. But you can‘t just toss out whatever you don‘t like as being only cultural!” 

So I want to look for a minute at the things most Christians do take as “only cultural” in the sense of not following them as literal commandments to practice today. Some of the Apostle Paul’s letters end with what appears to be a direct command — “Greet one another with a holy kiss.“ But most of us don’t kiss other church members when we meet them. Are we “dismissing” the command as “only cultural”? Perhaps not. We do understand the spirit of love with which Christians are supposed to treat one another. We do greet one another with cordiality and even affection when it‘s appropriate. But we don’t feel that people need to kiss one another in church the way they did in Paul’s day. 

What about I Tim 2:8 — “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands”? Most of us will admit that the men in our churches do not lift their hands every time they pray. Or when I Peter 2:17 exhorts us to “honor the king,” we don’t feel it is against the will of God that we have a President and not a king– even though nowhere in the Bible is it ever mentioned that people should be allowed to vote. 

No one actually reads and follows all of the Bible according to its “plain sense” meaning, all the time. We all pick and choose what we read as meant to be literally practiced today, and what we don’t. Does this mean that no Christian takes the Bible seriously? No– it means that we all try our best to read the Bible in a way that honors what we feel it is truly teaching, without getting distracted by the way those teachings were practiced in Bible times. We may not lift our hands to pray, but we do try to be holy in our prayer lives. We may not have a king to honor, but we do try to honor our earthly leaders. The real question is, are the methods we use consistent? Are we certain we are understanding what the Bible is actually teaching as we read it, so that we don’t miss the actual meaning that God intended to impart? Are we consistently using good principles, principles supported by the Scriptures themselves, in reading the Bible? For it is in doing this that we are truly taking it seriously. 

The Scriptures do give us an actual example of a God-inspired apostle reading the Bible in terms of the truth being taught rather than the literal, plain-sense meaning. In I Corinthians 9:9-14, Paul begins, “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written.” He goes on to talk about the labor he and the other apostles have labored in, as they spread the gospel, and concludes with, “Even so hath the Lord ordained, that they which preach the gospel should live by the gospel.” If Paul, inspired by God, could interpret a passage of the Scriptures in terms of the timeless principle that a laborer is worthy of his wages, rather than strictly in terms of how oxen were treated when treading grain, how much more can we do so, in this age where we have tractors rather than oxen– but laborers in the gospel are still worthy of our support? 

So how do we do this? Do the Biblical writings themselves give any more clues as to how they are intended to be understood? 

First of all (as I have touched on here ), to understand the Bible as inspired by God is to understand it as one big story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration (both in terms of individual relationship with God, and in terms of community before God). Every book and passage in the Bible should be looked at as being, in some way, part of this story, with Jesus as the focal point. Jesus said in John 5:39-40, to Jews who were seeking to kill Him, “[You] search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of Me. And ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” We must be careful not to think that eternal life is in the Scriptures; it is in Jesus, and in His redemption of mankind. Everything in the Bible has some part in that great story. 

Second, the Scriptures themselves gives us place-and-time markers to help us understand them. For example, the opening of the Book of Hosea reads like this: “The word of the Lord that came unto Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. . . “ Similarly, the first verse of Philippeans: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi. . . “ Almost every book in the Bible begins with words along these lines, and these statements are there for a reason. They make it plain that books of the Bible were first of all God’s message to the specific people mentioned, in a specific location and culture, at a certain point in time. Those people, those places, times and cultures, need to be taken into account. Only after we understand how the message would have been understood by those people at those times, can we be certain we‘re not being distracted by things they took for granted. In the story we started with, the company employees needed to understand that the founder’s letter assumed certain things about the culture, and thus was not giving a command about those assumptions. In the same way, we need to see that often the writers whom God was inspiring to write a Biblical text, are assuming, and not commanding, things having to do with the cultures they were writing in. 

This means Christians should take the Bible seriously enough to study those ancient times and cultures, and the meanings of words in the original languages, in order to understand what the original audience was intended to understand. Bible handbooks and dictionaries can help with this. Christian leaders go to seminaries and consult Bible experts in order to help their congregations with this. But all of us, expert and layperson alike, are just human. We all have personal biases that we also need to take into account, to make sure we’re not reading our own preferences into the text as well. If we understand those biases, it can help us be aware of where we (or even a Bible expert!) might be missing important meanings. 

Most of us know to be careful of our own, 21st-century cultural biases when reading the Bible. But for evangelical Christians, we also need to be aware of the opposite: many Christians today have counter-cultural biases. There may be values in our own modern culture that are actually inspired by God’s truths. We must be careful not to allow prejudices against the “world” to make us disregard these without even considering them.

For example, Christians nearly universally read the Bible today with the understanding that our modern anti-slavery morality is good and comes from the overarching messages of scripture. All humans belong to their Creator and therefore cannot be owned by one another– even though it wasn’t very long ago that "face value" readings of the Bible were used to justify owning slaves. There may be other moral values of modern culture that are more in line with the Bible's teachings than we may realize. We must try to hold our biases in both directions, out of the way. 

In any event, the thing to remember is not to lift a Bible passage out of its original context and make it mean something that looks like “plain sense” to us, but would not have been understood that way by them. For example, in Genesis 38:8-10, where Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” to avoid raising children that would be considered his brother’s, the ancient Hebrew reader would have seen Onan’s crime as defrauding his brother’s widow of her rights in that culture, and then lying about it. He only pretended to fulfill his duty, by publicly taking her in marriage– but then privately refused to honor the obligations he had taken on. Their focus would not have been on birth control; they would have seen the story in terms of fraud, breach of covenant, and deceit. Onan used birth control as a means to defraud his wife and dishonor his deceased brother.  The passage does not actually say that God is against birth control. 

A third help to interpretation is this: the writers of the Bible often say things within the Scriptures themselves about their intentions and what we are to understand them as trying to do. For instance, John 20:31 says that the Book of John was “written that ye might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through His name.” And Paul, going on from his point about not muzzling the ox in I Corinthians 9, speaks at length of what he believes his apostolic calling is all about. In verse 17 he says it is all because “the dispensation of the gospel has been committed to me.” He goes on to say that “unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews . . . to them that are without law, as without law. . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Just as we would be missing the point of the Book of John if we failed to see how everything in it points to Jesus being the Son of God through Whom we have life, so we would be missing the point of Paul’s letters if we didn’t understand that he intentionally adapted his message to the cultures he was ministering to. Paul’s teachings, therefore, about believers’ conduct in the church, in the home and in the outside world, must be viewed as practical advice for functioning in that culture, at that time, as a redeemed community (part of the great story of redemption) in such a way that they would be good witnesses of the gospel to the surrounding cultures in the time they were written. In the first century, for example, that would mean that slaves were advised not to harm the witness of Christ by rising up against their masters. But as we discussed earlier, this doesn’t mean Paul was setting forth God’s approval of the institution of slavery itself. 

Paul took certain cultural factors for granted in his letters, and assumed his readers would do the same. The message, after all, was first of all God’s message to them, not to us. What were the cultural understandings of his society? They included slavery, male domination, the rule of Caesars, circumcision as a religious practice of devout Jews only (and never, as is common today, by non-Jews as a simple medical procedure), and so on. These assumptions should not be turned into commands to us to follow the same cultural practices– any more than the company founder in our parable intended to communicate that his employees were always to use horses. Rather, within those cultural norms, the factory owner was giving principles of the right treatment of property and animals, as well as policies for order as employees were coming to work. Paul’s teachings regarding practical Christian living must also be viewed in terms of such principles as well. 

This principle of adaptation and change within changing cultures, is one that is repeated throughout the Bible. God spoke in one way to Abraham in Abraham’s time, another to Moses when He gave the Law, another to David as king, and another still to the Church. All the things God spoke fit together in the great story– but each message was adapted for the people who originally heard it, in the times that they heard it. 

God accommodates His message so that those He speaks to can understand it within their own frames of reference– and so that He may move them in the direction of the final, complete redemption that is the goal of the great story. Just because the writers of the Bible speak in terms of certain cultural understandings, does not make the cultures they found themselves within, “Biblical cultures,” in the sense of those cultural norms being God’s will for all cultures, for all people, or for all times. There will be no such culture until we attain final glory. But all cultures can be changed from within by the timeless truths of love and justice that are the core of the Scriptures. 

Finally, the Bible presents itself to us as a group of different kinds of writings. Some are historical narratives, some are letters, some are poems, some are prophecies. It’s important to read each kind of writing according to what it is. In the Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Song of Solomon, for example, we are reading poems or poetic narratives, filled with metaphorical, poetic language. We need to be sure to read these as poems, and not in the same way we read Paul‘s letters. Similarly, in the historical narratives, we are presented with people acting in certain ways. Some of their actions are meant to be examples for us to follow, and others are meant as warnings. We must follow the clues provided by the narrative voice in the story we are reading, to determine whether to approve or disapprove of the actions of the people in the stories– and we must not read our understandings from other texts into passages that in and of themselves, say nothing in terms of that understanding. Abigail, for instance, in I Samuel 25, is presented by the narrator as “a woman of good understanding and beautiful countenance (v. 3),” and David tells her that he believes “the Lord God of Israel . . . sent thee this day to meet me (v. 32).” There is not a hint anywhere in the story that Abigail is doing wrong in going against her husband’s wishes and taking matters into her own hands, when her husband’s wishes are selfish and sinful and will result in harm to the entire household. To see Abigail (as some Christian groups do today) as an ungodly, rebellious woman, is to read things into the story that simply are not there. 

Each part of the Bible needs to be read on its own, for what it itself says and not for what we think (or have been taught) it’s supposed to say. Though Christians can and should fit it into its place in the great story as a whole, it must fit as itself, and not as something it is not. When we read into a part of the Bible, something it doesn’t say, it can twist our idea of the great story as a whole– and the great story of the creation, fall, and redemption of all people of all races, male and female, in Christ, should be taken by Christians very seriously indeed. 

If we follow these principles, then we are indeed taking the Bible seriously– for its real message and not a false idea of it. We are not dismissing anything as “only cultural’ — but we are taking cultural assumptions into account. It may be harder, it may take more work, to understand it this way, but reading the Bible for what God meant it to say, is worth the extra effort. 


For more information, see The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

More information of my view on the Bible's "plain sense" meaning can be found here.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Does The New Testament Teach that Women Should Be Housekeepers?

Here’s Titus 2:3-5 in the NIV (1984) translation:

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be
slanderers or addicted to much wine,but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the
younger women to love their husbands and children,  to be self-controlled and pure, to
be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will
malign the word of God.

Here it is in the King James Version:

The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false
accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the
young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet,
chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God
be not blasphemed.

And in the New American Standard:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips
nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good,  so that they may encourage the
young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible,
pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of
God will not be dishonored.

All three versions make it sound like what Paul asking Titus to do is make sure young
women learn to be homemakers, or housekeepers.  On the basis of this verse, many
Christians today say that a woman’s God-given special domain is the home-- that God’s
ideal is that women marry, stay home and keep house.   But the actual Greek word
there does not mean “busy at home” or “workers at home.  The KJV “keepers at home"
is much closer, but only if we understand that the word “keeper” in the age of King
James did not mean someone who stayed in a place and kept it clean.  

The actual word is “oikouros,” a combination of the word “oik,” meaning "house," and
the word “ouros,” meaning "guard."  The word for the "gardener" whom Mary Magdalene
thought she was speaking at the Resurrection (John 20:15) was that same word "ouros"
combined with the word for "garden."  Mary Magdalene asked the man if he had moved
the body.  Why?  Because he had the authority to do so!  Being the "ouros" of
something was a position of responsibility with accompanying authority.  The “keeper of
the garden” was not merely the man who pruned the shrubbery.   He had the power to
take bodies out of the tombs and put them back again.  He guarded and protected the
tombs and managed the interment of the bodies.  He was in charge of the garden.

“Oikouros" – “guard of the home” is not about being "domestic." The same word “guard”
in verb rather than noun construction, is part of "phroureo" in 1 Peter 1:5. "Phroureo"
combines "phr" ("before" or "above") with "oureo" ("to guard/watch") and means "to
watch over." 1 Pet 1:5 in the NIV translates, "shielded [phroureo] by God's power."  God
is our “Ouros.”  This is not a word that implies subordination.

The statement in Titus that women should "guard the home" was based on the
historical/cultural understanding shared between Paul and his readers (in this case,
Titus) that the home was considered the wife's special domain.  In the first-century
Greco-Roman culture, the pater familias (ruling father) was the chief authority in the
family—but when it came to the actual running of the domestic side of the household,
he deferred to his wife.  This understanding is also present when Paul says in 1 Timothy
5:14, “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes
and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.”  (NIV 1984-- The New American
Standard renders it “keep house.”)  But the word translated “manage their homes”  or
“keep house” is actually that same word “oik” for house combined with “despotes,”
which means “to rule”!  Paul was telling Timothy that younger widows should marry and
rule their houses, which was the cultural expectation.

This cultural expectation is reflected in the repetition of the thought in both 1 Timothy
5:14 and Titus 2:5 that the purpose for Paul’s teaching  is “so that no one will malign the
word of God” or “to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.”  Paul expresses in both
verses this same basic idea, in light of which he counsels in Titus 2:5 that women
should be “subject to their husbands” (the word does not mean “be obedient,” as the
KJV translates it, but is the same word used in Ephesians 5:21-22 meaning “voluntarily
yield.”)  Paul, Timothy and Titus all understood that the surrounding culture expected
wives to be obedient to their husbands (although, as I said, the husband deferred to his
wife in the running of the house).  Paul was counseling that wives instead voluntarily yield to their husbands as a Christian act, for the sake of the good name of the Christian

This is clearly seen when looking at Titus 2:3-5 in its immediate context. Paul goes on in
Titus 2 to talk about two more groups: young men and slaves. At the end of each
section he repeats, in slightly different words, the same concept: In verse 8 he says that
if the young men will be self-controlled, then "those who oppose you will be ashamed
because they have nothing bad to say about us." Then in verse 10 he says that if slaves
will please their masters and not steal, then "in every way they will make the teaching
about God our Savior attractive."

Paul was interested in how the gospel message appeared to the surrounding culture.
That's what he was telling Titus: to make sure everyone behaved themselves according to
the bounds of propriety. Otherwise, the young church in Crete might fail.

Some Christians, misreading the KJV where it says "so that the word be not
blasphemed," think the verse is saying that wives not being submissive is somehow
directly "blaspheming" the word of God. But the context shows that this is not what Paul
was talking about.  He meant that if wives were not submissive to their husbands, the
surrounding culture would think there was something wrong with Christianity.

In order to give no offense to the non-Christians surrounding the young churches, Paul
asked both Timothy and Titus to make sure that women were doing their culturally
mandated jobs.  This included authority to rule, protect and guard their homes.   He was
not saying that the cultural structure of pater familias and subordinate wife was God’s
own mandate for all time.   And he certainly was not saying that God’s divine plan and
design for all women in all ages was that they be housekeepers.

Update: August 2012:

I must correct one point in the above.  It seems that many manuscripts do have “oikourgos,” “working at home.” According to Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “oikourgos” is a combination of “oikos, (house) and a root of ergon (work).” Vines’ then goes on to say, “Some mss. have oikouros, watching or keeping the home (oikos and ouros, a keeper).” There is a slight textual variation, therefore, that can go either way.  But even if what Paul originally wrote was “working at home” (which is not certain), this does not erase the historical context and the immediate literary context of the passage. Nor does it fundamentally alter the meaning. Paul was telling Titus to advise people in different walks of life to do their culturally-perceived duty. For wives, this included both working in (or guarding/keeping) the home and being submissive to their husbands. As I went on to say, the immediate context proves this is the case, as Paul gives Titus the same advice in different words to give young men and to slaves– do your duty as society expects you to, and it will give the gospel and its followers a good name.

What Paul is certainly not doing is telling women that God designed them as cooks and house cleaners, and that’s what they should always do. If that’s what he had meant, he never would have sent Phoebe as his spokesperson to bear his letter to the Romans (Romans 16:1-2), or commended so many other women for working hard for the gospel. Nor do I believe he was advocating husband-rule as a divine mandate, any more than he was advocating slavery as a divine mandate.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Gender Roles and Responsibility – Part 2

In Part 1 I said, “Ultimately, we are all responsible for ourselves and our own actions.”  This means we cannot be ultimately responsible for anyone but ourselves.  Even with our children, our goal is to teach them self-responsibility so that they can become full adults.  Responsibility for ourselves is foundational to maturity and emotional health—but feeling a burden of responsibility for things we ultimately cannot be responsible for, is foundational to dysfunction.  And that includes responsibility for other people.    

Galatians 6:2 (NASB) says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” The context is helping one another with our individual needs, temptations and stumbling blocks.  Then Galatians 6:5 goes on to say, “For each one shall bear his own load.”  This is in the context of our life work in the kingdom.  The word “burdens” in verse 2 is the Greek word “baros,” which means difficulties, troubles.  This word is usually used in the Bible to refer to daily, temporary sorts of loads, such as problems we face.  But the word in verse 5 translated “load” is the Greek word “phortion,” which usually referred to the freight load of a ship or other large job-related load.  Christ used this word when He said, “My yoke is easy and My burden (phortion) is light.”  Matt. 11:30.  I believe the juxtaposition of the two sentences, just three verses apart in Galatians 6: “Bear one another’s burdens. . . Each one shall bear his own load,” is saying that while we can help one another with our daily troubles, we are, at the end of the day, each responsible only for our own life and our own life’s work-- and no one else’s.   

In the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) each servant was responsible only for the sum of money he himself was given by the master.  The master did not ever question a servant about money he had given to another servant.  1 Corinthians 3:12-15 also shows each person being responsible for what he or she builds on the foundation of Christ; no one else can build for her.   We have duties towards others that we need to fulfill (see 1 Timothy 5:8, noting the gender-inclusive context, especially of verses 4 & 16), but those duties are part of our own life’s work.  Taking another’s duties and responsibilities on ourselves as if they were our own, or making someone else’s life our own responsibility, can drive us to mental and physical exhaustion.  

So let’s look at the underlying messages within some male-hierarchical Christian teachings.  Do they work within this principle of self-responsibility, or not?

I’ll start with the men.  Men are taught that to be a man is to be born a leader.  They are given final power to make all the decisions for the marriage and the family.   Here’s one way this message works out in practice. The purpose of the recently released movie Courageous is, according to its own website, to encourage men to be “bold and intentional leaders of their homes, marriages and children.”   But part of the text of the "Resolution" male movie-goers are encouraged to sign after seeing the movie says, “I do solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife and my children.” 

“Full” responsibility for his wife and children.  This is more than simply being a “bold and intentional leader.”  A man who signs this Resolution will certainly want to teach his children to love God with all their hearts, minds and strength, as the text goes on to say—but what if he does teach them, but they choose otherwise?  Whose responsibility is it?  The responsibility of the man who has signed the Resolution.  Or what if it’s only that the way his children love God with ”all their minds” doesn’t look like what their father thinks it should look like?  Suppose, for instance, they decide to be theistic evolutionists instead of young-earth Creationists?  Whose responsibility is it to decide just how they should love God with “all their minds”?  You guessed it—their father’s.   The Resolution's text says he promises to train his children to “live responsibly.”  But it never asks him to promise to teach them to become responsible for themselves.  And what about his wife, who as an adult should already be fully responsible for herself?  The man takes full responsibility for her also.   This is a recipe for dysfunction.  The only way to be able to take full responsibility for someone else is to control them.   Men who follow this Resolution as it is worded,  must become micromanagers and authoritarians—to do otherwise would be to abdicate “full responsibility” for some of their family’s actions.

I want to emphasize that not all complementarian families fall into these kinds of dysfunctional responsibility issues.  I hope that many men who sign this Resolution will acknowledge the impossibility of fulfilling it, give themselves and their loved ones over to Christ, and let Him bring them peace and freedom.   But the text of the Resolution actually says one human being can and should take “full responsibility” for others.  This is the idea that is being spread as part of the gender-roles doctrines being taught in the movie Courageous.

Here’s another teaching I have heard:  that in a Christian marriage the man is to his wife as Christ is to the church.    Ephesians 5:26-27 says that Christ sanctifies the church, washing her with the water of the word, and presents her to Himself.  Therefore, according to this teaching, it is the husband’s job to sanctify the wife, washing her with the water of the word, to present her to Christ.  This is the idea behind the teaching that the husband is the “prophet, priest and king” of the home, even as Christ is the Prophet, Priest and King of the church.  Gone is the Protestant understanding of the priesthood of all believers.  The husband steps between the wife and Christ as intermediary.  Her spiritual cleansing and growth becomes her husband’s responsibility, rather than her own before Christ.  Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge no one has yet taken this passage to mean that the husband is his wife’s Savior, even though the passage directly says in verse 23 that Christ is the Savior of the church who is His body.  To apply this “man is to wife as Christ is to church” teaching consistently, would mean to make the husband savior of the wife!  But even though these teachings do not actually go that far, is a human man really capable even of being his wife’s sanctifier?  Is she not to trust Christ for this?  Can she not walk with her Lord as men do?  Is this not giving a finite human being responsibility to bear another’s load, contrary to Galatians 6:5?

Going on, then, to the woman.  Men are called to be husbands and fathers—but in addition to these callings, God also has individual callings for men.   Men relate to God with this understanding, knowing that they are valuable to God not just for their roles in other’s lives, but for the work they themselves are called to do.  But what happens to a human being, made in the image of God, when you tell her that her true purpose and calling is as a wife and mother?  What happens when you tell a woman that her true purpose in life is to support a man in his calling, raise her sons to their callings, and teach her daughters to support their own man in his calling someday?  What happens when she feels she has no right to seek God for an individual calling of her own?

I used to believe that as a woman, I was born to dedicate myself to the fulfillment of a man’s responsibility to his calling, to dedicate myself to his life’s work and his well-being in that life-work, and to give myself to my children.  Though I worked outside the home, I considered that job of no real importance other than to help with the family finances.  Though I aspired to write books, I considered that to be a sideline that I might get to follow someday, but of no great importance in the scheme of things.  In other words, contrary to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, I did not build on my own foundation in Christ , but gave myself to building on my family’s foundations, even to the neglect of my own.  Contrary to Galatians 6:2-5, rather than just helping with family burdens, their life-loads were just as much mine to carry as theirs.  

Did this bless my husband?  No.  It drove him crazy!   If he ever felt less than completely happy and fulfilled, I felt that I had failed.  His emotions, his well-being, were my responsibility.  He was not free to have ups and downs, or to get upset at life's troubles.  If he did, I blamed myself. 

If a woman’s life is entirely subsumed in the life’s work of other people, she comes to feel herself responsible, not for herself, but for one or more others.  If her man is not uniformly strong and confident—guess who feels responsible?  She does.   If her children are not perfectly obedient, content and focused on God, guess who feels responsible?  She does.  Even if her man has taken the Resolution and pledged full responsibility for her and the kids—the only one whose well-being and happiness the wife does not feel responsible for, is her own.  In fact, she is often given the subtle message that to think about herself at all is selfishness and sin.

Check out this light-hearted story at No Longer Quivering about a wife whose marriage is now free from these expectations.  One morning recently, her husband poured himself a bowl of cereal, not realizing that in the Southern spring weather, sugar ants had invaded the cupboard:

Outraged my darling was, scowling and frowning, showing me the bowl and complaining he might have eaten a few ants. He was upset. I looked at the bowl, looked at him and laughed before telling him that it was okay, the ants would just add a little needed protein to his breakfast. Plus they are organic.

But back in my old submitting like crazy fundamentalist days I would have apologized, whipped that bowl from his hands, washed it, sterilized it, rushed to the store to get fresh cereal, apologized again for not being a proper enough wife to keep ants out of his cereal and served him a fresh bowl. And I would have done it meekly and humbly.

The wife and husband are now both able to relax and joke about the situation.  But think about what she’s saying about her “submitting like crazy fundamentalist days” – it is a perfect illustration of dysfunctional shifting of adult responsibility. The husband is the one who likes this cereal; he eats it; he opens and closes the box. Under the husband-authority paradigm, it is nevertheless the wife’s responsibility that the box gets closed properly so that the ants don’t get in. She has to constantly be checking up on him, following up on his actions as if he were a child. She has to be upset that he didn’t look at his cereal before pouring it (or even before taking a spoonful!), so that he didn’t notice the ants.

While being told that all responsibility in the home is the husband’s, the wife assumes responsibility for her husband so that he is absolved from being a functioning adult in the realm of eating breakfast.

Isn’t it wonderful and refreshing for a wife to be able to place the responsibility for eating ants squarely on the shoulders of the person who actually was careless enough to eat them?

I don’t believe it is God’s plan that the responsibility for a man’s happiness rests not on himself but on his wife, while the responsibility for a woman’s walk with God rests not on her but on her husband.  And as for the children—what sometimes happens is that their parents come to feel personally responsible to the extent that it is up to the parents that the children come to Christ.  Rather than showing them the love of Christ and trusting them to Him, the parents fear that any tiny slip-up in discipline, or any input into their children’s lives from a non-believer, or any deviation from devotions and churchgoing, will result in their children’s path straight to hell.  It's fear-based parenting.

Fear like this is often based on feeling responsibility we know in our hearts we are incapable of handling.  Only Christ can save.  Only Christ can sanctify.  Only Christ can bring fulfillment and well-being.  To try to take responsibilities that we cannot fulfill, is to tie ourselves into knots inside.  And that can make us very unpleasant people on the outside. 

Again, I’m not saying that all non-egalitarian marriages fall into these traps.  But I am saying that the potential is there, whenever we give too much power to one human being and relegate all others to a lesser status.  Romans 12:3 says, "Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but think of yourselves with sober judgment."    We need to recognize the extent and the limits of human responsibility, and of human power.  Not to do so hurts everyone-- men, women and children alike.