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Should Culture Dictate the Interpretation of Scriptures Regarding Women?

This morning I relished the developing plot of my latest Christian novel as I ate my traditional bowl of granola for breakfast. My interest piqued when the characters turned to a discussion on truth, which has recently been a topic of interest in our family, as discussions on the nature of truth seem to be cropping up in many a movie of late. I, therefore, read on with keen interest. Not surprisingly, the secular character argued that each generation should determine what is true for itself; after all, absolute truth doesn't exist. I began considering this view of truth in light of how more and more modern Christians seem to be interpreting the Bible. Just this past week, and on two separate occasions, I heard Christians nonchalantly dismiss the apostle Paul's strong words regarding the role of women in the church. Their reason was simply, "Oh, that doesn't apply in our culture, of course." "Really?" I thought to myself. Granted, our cultural adamantly argues that holding a view of the Bible that says women are to submit to their husbands is chauvenistic at best, say nothing of the culturally unacceptable idea of a biblical mandate that women should not teach or have authority over a man in church. But, does that mean that God's truth is susceptible to reinterpretation simply because cultures change? I want to carefully consider in this article what the Bible does say about women in leadership in the church and whether or not Christians have fallen prey to the fallacy that Biblical truth should also be interpreted and determined by each generation's culture.

Throughout much of history and in countless cultures women have been treated unfairly, disrespected and abused as the dominant sex sought to maintain control. Sadly, some Christian men have used Scripture as a defense for the ill-treatment of their wives, and wives, in turn, have felt helpless in light of passages that require submission. No wonder then that many women bristle at any hint of teaching that includes submission, silence, or inferiority to men. Modern women, therefore, often attempt to reinterpret clear Biblical teaching on women into something they feel is a less offensive understanding of what God must have meant. Is this actually necessary though? I don't believe it is.

In order to consider how one interprets Scripture on the role of women in the church, we must first know what those passages are. One of the more controversial ones would be 1 Timothy 2, where Paul instructs his protégé Timothy who oversaw the leadership of the church in Ephesus and possibly other churches throughout Asia (1:3). Think of 1 Timothy as a manual for running a church. After speaking regarding the modesty and decency of Christian women, another culturally unpopular topic, Paul says in verses 11-12, "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" (NIV). Not surprisingly, those words irritate and offend many. Although Paul's words certainly appear to be firm and straightforward commands, surely those words don't apply to such a civilized and educated society as ours. Does a cultural explanation exist? To gain understanding we must always remember--context aids interpretation.

Unlike many an authoritarian leader who makes demands just because, Paul offers an explanation for those particular instructions that transcends culture, time or even a specific church. In verses 13 and 14 he offers an explanation for such a firm command. "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner." In other words, Paul says that the reason women are not to teach or have authority over a man but must be in submission goes back to the very God ordained and created order for man and woman. That God created man first wasn't accidental. That God created woman from man wasn't either. Furthermore, when that perfect order was disregarded in the garden by Adam, who set aside headship for passivity, the propensity for woman to be deceived by her feelings led the world into sin.

Many a sermon has compared the Corinthian church with the American church in terms of sinful influences and culture. It was to this very church that Paul again asserts his straightforward commands regarding the behavior of women in the church. 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 says,

...As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.

This passage specifies that these instructions regarding women are for all the congregations of the saints and that the commands come directly from God. I suppose one could attempt to dismiss that statement by saying that the apostle referred to all the churches at that point in time and that culture, not to all churches throughout time. Whenever a doubt over the interpretation of one passage exists, other related passages should be considered, always being careful to interpret Scripture with Scripture.

Going back a few chapters in 1 Corinthians we find a rather confusing but related passage that also addresses the behavior of women in church. Chapter 11 verses 3-16 speak of men and women and whether or not their heads should be covered in church. Although I don't care to unravel that particular conundrum in this article, I would like to point out some key things. First of all, regarding whether or not women are truly to be silent in church, verse 5 refers to a woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered and how instead, she should do so with a head covering. This seems to indicate that a woman doesn't have to be altogether silent in church as 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 seem to indicate. What accounts for this difference? Perhaps the difference in the instruction about a woman praying and prophesying under the inspiration of the Spirit could be that praying and prophesying are not seen as teaching, which indicates authority. As long as the woman acknowledges her role as a woman under the authority of man, she has limited permission to speak. With regard to the commands for women to be silent, those seem to be in reference specifically to teaching or preaching, which indicates authority. In such a case, a woman must not cast aside the God ordained order of authority within the church by speaking. Also, if she has a question, she should acknowledge her husband as her authority by waiting till at home to ask her questions. All three passages follow the same principle of God's established order for authority but focus on different practical applications.

A key principle shines forth in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 as the overarching reason for how a Christian woman should behave in church. This key principle again transcends all cultures, time or individual desires. It again goes back to creation. It says,

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God...A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

Again we see that the order of creation was intentional and that woman was specifically created for man. Paul's instructions for women, whether in the home or in the church stem from this design--God, Christ, man, woman. Does that order insinuate that Christ isn't equal in value and worth as God the Father? Certainly not and neither does it insinuate that woman isn't equal in value and worth as man! But surely all would recognize that the Son has different roles and different ways that He uses His abilities than the Father, and so it also is with man and woman. Philippians 2:5-11 speaks of how we're to manifest the attitude of Christ who, although equal with God, "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped," and as a result "God exalted him to the highest place." If Jesus, though equal with God, was willing to humble himself and submit to the Father, why should women find it so offensive to emulate their Savior in submitting to their husbands? Difficult? Yes. Offensive? No.

I believe the Matthew Henry Commentary clearly summarizes the point Paul makes by saying,

If she was made out of the man, and for the man, and made to be the glory of the man, she should do nothing, especially in public, that looks like a wish of having this order inverted. 2. Another reason against this conduct is that the man is the image and glory of God, the representative of that glorious dominion and headship which God has over the world. It is the man who is set at the head of this lower creation, and therein he bears the resemblance of God. The woman, on the other hand, is the glory of the man (1Cor. 11:7): she is his representative.

Offering further instruction on this God-ordained order but in the context of the home, Paul says in Ephesians 5:22-33,

submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church...Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Paul describes a beautiful picture of the husband and wife portraying for all the world the kind of relationship that Christ has with His church. The one submitting to the other while in turn being lavished with love and care--united as one and committed to each other. Do you understand the significance of this profound mystery? It is at the heart of the very reason God hates divorce (Mal.2:16). Would Christ ever reject His church? Likewise, the marriage relationship should reflect that same order, roles and constancy. Doing so glorifies God.

Every company requires an order in leadership to function harmoniously. So also, the world God created requires a leadership order, that when followed, glorifies God and brings harmony in the home and in the church. This order isn't meant to be offensive or cruel but beautiful and for our good. Today, marriages are often full of discord as the husband remains passive and seeks his own selfish pleasures while the wife strives to rule the roost. It's commonly said now-a-days, "Marriage doesn't work, so why bother getting married?" The world and so often Christians attempt to go against God's perfect order for marriage only to discover the results aren't pretty. But, oh, to see a marriage that follows God's design...happier people can't be found. Our Creator truly knows best.

I have now highlighted the central passages on the role of women in the church and the home and the underlying principle behind these teachings. At this point I want to turn to the common Biblical arguments that some make in order to conclude that the Bible doesn't forbid a woman to be in authority over a man or teach a man in the church. Remember, the diligent student of God's Word interprets Scripture by Scripture, knowing that God's Word doesn't contradict itself. So, if women are indeed to be in positions of leadership over men in a church, one of the roughly forty passages that refer to overseers in the church must suggest that possibility. Instead, in the detailed qualifications for overseers and deacons found in the entire chapter of 1 Timothy 3, as well as Titus 1:6-9 Paul refers to men again and again, never once opening up the possibility for women leaders. It specifies that they be men of one wife and that their wives be worthy of respect. After Titus is instructed to finish the task of appointing elders in every town, Paul says, "An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man..." Every other reference to elders, deacons and pastors in the church fail to mention that women were ever included in those positions of authority.

"But wait," some might say. "What about Phoebe? The apostle Paul praises Phoebe as a servant of the church. He then goes on to instruct the church to receive her "in a manner worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me." (Rom.16:1-2) The apostle calls this valued saint a servant or diakonos in the Greek, the very same word that is used for deacon in the aforementioned passages on leaders in the church. Does the use of diakonos mean that Phoebe was a leader in the church with authority over men? Was she indeed a deaconess?

To answer that question, we must understand the contextual use of the word diakonos. To do that we first need to understand the concept of contextual interpretation. Allow me to explain this concept with a brief consideration of the English word head. According to The American College Dictionary head has forty-four different definitions with uses among nouns, adjectives and verbs. To simplify I'll mention only two. One is the "upper part of the human body." Second is "the position of leadership; chief command; greatest authority." When we see the word head in a sentence, how do we determine which of the forty-four meanings the author intended? (i.e. The lump on his head ached. or The head of the company led the meeting.) Generally context makes the definition abundantly clear. The same word but used differently.

Similarly, Greek words often have multiple meanings. Diakonos, for example, literally means, "to run on errands." It also means, "an attendant, i.e. (gen) a waiter (at a table or in other menial duties); spec. a Chr. teacher and pastor (techn. a deacon or deaconess):--a deacon, minister, servant." Jesus frequently used this word when he spoke in the gospels of the greatest among you being the servant of all, as well as in his parables about servants. Likewise the same word is used when Mary, the mother of Jesus, tells the servants to do whatever her son instructs them to do at the wedding feast when the wine ran out. In the early church, the same word is used for the title deacon when instructing on the requirements for men who might have that role in the church. How do we know that the diakonos Mary instructed at the wedding feast were "attendants or waiters" rather than deacons in a church? Context makes it abundantly clear.

Was Phoebe a servant in the church of God who did countless admirable acts of service for her Lord or was she a literal leader, i.e. deaconess in the church? I see no reason from the context of Paul's praise of her and in light of his clear instructions found elsewhere to conclude that she was teaching or having authority over men in the church. The fact that Paul needed to specifically instruct the church to aid her in her work would further indicate that she didn't have authority of her own by which to readily expect support. Perhaps, because of these reasons, the many Bible translators through the ages have chosen to translate diakonos as servant and not deaconess with regard to Phoebe.

Some of my more learned readers might at this point introduce a litany of the other women throughout the Bible and specifically in the early church who notably served in the ministries of the church. Anna prophesied over the baby Jesus. Paul commends Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis as women who worked hard in the Lord. He exhorts Euodia and Syntyche to put aside their differences and praises them for having contended by his side in the "cause of the Gospel." (Phil.3:2-3) Numerous general references to the role of women and their impact for the cause of Christ crop up in the book of Acts. Even Timothy's mother and grandmother are acknowledged by Paul for the impact their sincere faith had for the kingdom of God by instilling their faith in a son and grandson who would impact the world. The apostles and God clearly value the many services of women. As evidenced by these examples, God gifts women greatly and uses them mightily in the Body of Christ.

The question then is, do these examples of praiseworthy women in any way contradict the instructions on not teaching or having authority over a man in the church? To answer that question, let's consider another example found in Acts 18:24-26 of a woman who some suppose had authority over men and taught men in the church-- Priscilla.

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

Several assumptions are made from this passage. In the book of Acts we're told of churches that began in and met in people's homes. Some assume that Priscilla & her husband invited Apollos to their house-church. The second assumption is that Priscilla was a leader in that house-church as evidenced by her "explaining" the way of God to Apollos. Before jumping to such assumptions, let's consider the passage further. This much we know: It describes a husband and wife team sharing the Gospel in the hospitality of their home. The writer makes no mention of other parties being involved in this discussion. Furthermore, any speaking that Priscilla does is under the authority of her husband.

By looking at the word explained in the Greek we gain a clearer picture of what took place in their home. The Greek simply means declared. It is a completely different and unique word from the word teach that Paul forbids women to do in the church with men. Not one New Testament writer uses the general word for teach in reference to a woman except for Paul when he says that women should not teach men. When Paul instructs the older women to teach the younger women, a different word is used--one that means to instruct. Therefore, I don't think it is happenchance that Paul also uses a unique word to describe the conversations that took place between Priscilla, her husband and Apollos. One can only definitively conclude that a husband and wife team declared the Gospel with Apollos in their home. Scripture never says that a woman can't conversationally answer for her faith to a man or share the Gospel with a man, especially if she's doing so in the presence and with the help of her husband. Why jump to other unsubstantiated conclusions on the interpretation of this passage, unless one desires to reinterpret other plainly spoken Words of God such as are found in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians?

As stated earlier, God clearly values and desires to use His female creations in tremendous ways. God created men and women equal in value and worth, which is seen in the garden when God, after creating Adam and Eve, states that they were very good (Gen.1:31). The Creator fashioned both by hand in His image. We're also told in 1 Peter 3:7 that men and women are co-heirs with Christ. Clearly differences exist though between the two sexes and as such, differences in roles also occur. When God Almighty spoke the world into existence or knelt in the dirt to form man and performed the first surgery to masterfully create woman from man, He did so with infinite knowledge of how all the elements of His creation should fit harmoniously together. God established an order based on His perfect wisdom, and that order reflects the nature of the Creator Himself.

In the garden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat from every tree without reservation, save one. The one that was off-limits was so for their own good. Was God cruel for setting this one parameter on their activities? Certainly not! I contend that God has gifted women equally with men that they might impact others for Christ, has provided for their love and care knowing their design, and has greatly valued their contributions to the furtherance of His kingdom, but He has placed two parameters on how they should function on this earth. Those guidelines are that wives must submit to their husbands, and in the context of the church, women shouldn't teach or have authority over men. In so doing, God the Creator is glorified. Are such parameters truly so loathsome?

I've heard it said that God has gifted me greatly as a teacher of His Word and that men could benefit in the church from my teaching. Regardless of whether or not that is true, I trust that my Savior knows best about how His gifts should be used. Opportunities to use my gift of teaching among women and children abound, and so I've never felt hindered from serving my Lord in a significant way. So also, Christian women everywhere should seek to use the unique attributes and gifts God has given them within the beautiful order God created.

According to our culture, one with authority deserves respect and honor, and the servant gets overlooked. Christianity is counter-cultural. Jesus said he did not come to be served but to serve (Mt.20:28). If Jesus accomplished the greatest of all our heavenly Father's work by coming to earth as a servant, women too can impact their homes, the church, and the world while still submitting to the parameters God established. Our culture says that a stay-at-home mom needs to "get a life." God calls the raising of children, the management of the home, hospitality and helping those in trouble good deeds (1 Tim.5:10). Consider once again the highly praised Phoebe. How blessed to be described as a "great help to many people."

Cultures may change, but God's truth doesn't. Although some instructions in God's Word were specific to a given culture or time, the truth on each subject remains steadfast. Our culture might try to dictate what is best for women, but when the Bible says that its gender roles find their origin in God's created order itself, Christians must not dismiss such clear instructions. After all, we know that they come from a loving heavenly Father. Despite the consensus that each new generation determines truth for itself, the Christian must continue to carefully interpret Scripture with Scripture as an absolute, unchangeable bedrock for life.

(written by Marci Julin July of 2014)

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