The conversation we began yesterday about women and the Bible shows how many of us are trying to understand the intent of God for gender-based roles in the home and church.
Together we have seen how followers of Christ divide over the interpretation and application of statements made by the Apostles Paul and Peter in some of their pastoral letters to first century churches.
In the interest of coming together around another idea that divides us, my guess is that most of us would agree on the biblical story leading up to the pastoral statements of Paul and Peter. I think we can agree, for instance, that,
In Creation Eve was made as a “helper” to Adam and that in the Old Testament, “helper” normally describes God as our “helper” (Gen 2:18; Psalm 70:5).
In the Fall when God predicted that men would rule over women it was part of the curse on sin that included weeds and thistles in the field, multiplied pain in childbirth, and death for all (Gen 3:16).
In the Patriarchal period that followed the biblical record shows how men used and misused their strength to dominate multiple wives, children, and servants. Yet the Lord did not always expect women to submit to their husbands. At one particularly difficult moment of family conflict, God told Abraham to defer to Sarah’s demands (Gen 21:9-12).
The Law of Moses required children to honor their parents but did not directly order a wife to obey her husband. Instead the laws of Israel regulated male-run institutions. It’s also true, however, that when men refused to honor their marital covenants, Mosaic law granted divorce to even the lowest women in society (Exod 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14).
During the time of the Judges when “everyone did that which was right in their own eyes”, the Lord raised up a wise prophetess and judge by the name of Deborah to deliver the people of Israel.
In the period of the Kings A woman by the name of Abigail resisted the stubborn pride of her husband and saved her family from death (1Sam 25:18-24). Later King Solomon, in spite of multiplying wives for his own pleasure, wrote a tribute to the virtuous woman (Prov 31). His description describes a woman of honor and strength who traveled outside of her home to buy, sell, and supplement the income of her family.
The prophet Joel foresaw a day in which the sons and daughters of his people would be filled with his Spirit and speak in the behalf of God (Joel 2:28-29). Later the Apostle Peter quoted Joel’s words to explain what was happening on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18).
With the coming of Messiah , however, we have the most important perspective of all. By Jesus’ example and words, he taught that anyone who claimed authority in his kingdom must become as a servant (Luke 22:25-27).
Only with some of the Pastoral letters of Paul and Peter do we find women being directly instructed to be submissive to their husbands and quiet in the church. In these same passages we are told that husbands are the head of their wives as Christ is the head of the Church (Eph 5:22-31). But in other places Paul teaches the equality of men and women in Christ (Gal 3:28; 1Cor 7:4) and acknowledges women praying and prophesying in church (1Cor 11:5). In 1Timothy 5:14 Paul instructs young mothers to be “keepers” of the home– a word which literally means “to be master (or head) of a house.”
At this point our agreement may temporarily end. Some suggest that Paul is writing to specific situations with sensitivity to first century Jewish and Greek customs. Others say it’s evident that Paul’s counsel is not “local” and “time-sensitive” because he links his counsel back to issues of the original creation and character of God.
Still others say that the problem we are having all but goes away if we would only reflect the appropriate attitudes and accountability.
Imagine, for instance, what would happen if the men and women of the church responded to one another with mutual respect and Christ-like love? How many organizational issues would shrink in significance if elders and deacons saw their role in the terms that Jesus called for?
Then picture the same thing happening in the home. What if men did not press the issue of whether their wives were being submissive, but instead focused on the fact that Paul urges them to love their wives as Christ loved the church? What if, after looking carefully at what God asks of husbands and wives, both conclude that an inspired Paul was just using different words to urge both men and women to do the same thing: sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the other?
In summary, unless we remember the big story behind Christ-like attitudes and accountability, specific statements the Bible makes about gender-based roles in the home and church can seem overwhelmingly confusing and even self-contradictory.
That’s why it’s so important for us to find perspective from the story of the complementary ideal of Creation; the prediction (not prescription) of the curse; the servant attitudes Jesus modeled and taught us; and the accountability to God that comes with the principle that “to whom much is given, much shall be required” (Luke 12:48).
(If men have been given a certain kind of strength that, especially in pre-modern/pre-tech times, enabled them to dominate and rule their homes and communities, then we can be sure that God will hold men accountable for how they use or misuse that strength.)
Seems to me that with the right attitudes (i.e. mutual love and respect) the issues of “authority,” “power,” and “control” become very small. On the other hand where individuals (men or women) combine the strengths they’ve been given with self-centered, abusive attitudes, and an unwillingness to be held accountable– the best kinds of organization in the home, church, or business ultimately fail.