This series of articles is the result of a request for a study on the topic of Women in the Church, from the standpoint of the evidence and witness of Scripture. It is presented here in commemoration of Mother’s Day (May 10th upcoming), though the question of the role of women (and of gender-distinctions of any sort) in the Church is applicable for Christians at all times and in all places.
This, of course, is a complex and controversial subject, which requires careful and unbiased treatment. I intend to discuss the most relevant passages of Scripture—particularly those in the New Testament—in an honest and objective a manner as possible. However, this should be considered only a starting point. It is hoped that the articles of this study will be enhanced and supplemented by other voices and viewpoints—by women, fellow sisters in Christ, including scholars, authors, and those serving in ministry—who can lend their perspective (and experience) to the subject.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this subject, like many in the Church today, is the wide gulf which exists between ancient and modern worldviews—that is, between the ancient Near Eastern (and Greco-Roman) world and modern Western society. The Scriptures were written and took shape within the former, not the latter; and, with each generation, each passing decade, the modern cultural and religious perspective becomes further removed from the ancient thought-world which served as the matrix for the Scriptural message. Well-meaning Christians today, who attempt to bridge this divide, often fall prone to two different kinds of distortions:
- Interpreting Scripture to accommodate the modern view, or
- Making the modern view and practice conform with what is believed to be the ‘correct’ view of Scripture
Great harm (and error) can result from each of these tendencies, when approached carelessly or without proper concern for the true Christian spirit. When dealing with a particular passage of Scripture, a careful and faithful approach, in my view, requires the following (in order):
- Seek to understand the passage, as best as possible, in terms of its original literary and historical context
- Compare the passage with the Christian message as a whole—i.e. as preserved in the Gospel, the New Testament writings (including the Old Testament background), and (early) tradition
- Interpret and apply the passage in light of our modern context, as expressed in various forms or practical situations
In these articles, I will be focusing primarily on the first of these steps, though without neglecting the last two. However, ultimately I leave it to the reader to address the third step, according to his or her conscience and the insight of the wider Community.
My approach will be to begin with the passages in the New Testament which relate most directly to the subject—namely, the several key passages from the Pauline letters, which I will be discussing in detail in the upcoming articles. Next, I will supplement this study with a brief examination of the remainder of relevant references in the Pauline corpus, followed by: (a) a discussion of several relevant passages in the Gospels and other New Testament writings, (b) a brief survey of the Old Testament evidence, and (c) a concluding look at the witness of the early Church outside of the New Testament.
The main Pauline passages to be examined in some detail are: (1) 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, (2) 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, (3) Galatians 3:28, (4) Romans 16:1-2, and (5) 1 Timothy 2:11-15. For many traditional-conservative commentators and Church leaders, the Pauline instruction in 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15, etc, provides the authoritative (and definitive) word on the subject. Whether or not one ultimately adopts or accepts this view, it is necessary to take the following interpretive factors and questions into account:
- The force and extent of Paul’s authority with regard to the instruction in his letters—is it directed at the particular circumstances of his audience, or is it meant to be taken as an (absolute) instruction for all believers?
- The weight and value of the particular passage in relation to the rest of the teaching and instruction in Paul’s letters.
- Paul’s particular instruction in relation to the rest of the New Testament witness (especially the sayings and teaching of Jesus)
- The critical question of the authorship of the Pastoral letters (and Ephesians), whether these are to be regarded as authentically Pauline or pseudonymous—does it make any difference with regard to the authority of the instruction in these letters?
The next article (Part 1) of this series will deal with the first Pauline passage indicated above—1 Corinthians 11:2-16.