Paul Casner wrote “Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath” in March of 2000, during his tenure as Involvement minister at the Preston Road Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas.
Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath
How Christ Helps Us Address the
Role of Women in the Life of the Church
- Jesus Christ as Lord of the Sabbath
- Christ and Scripture
- The Early Church and Scripture
- “Picking and Choosing”
- Jesus Christ, the Early Church, and Human Relations
- The Culture of the New Testament
- A Revolutionary Gospel
- The Church’s Struggle to Conform to the Gospel
- Peter and the Race Question
- The Question of Slavery
- Use of Biblical Texts Condoning Slavery in Churches of Christ
- Sexism and the Church
- The Early Church Begins to Honor Women
- Limitations on Women’s Role?
- A Hybrid Interpretation
- Different Roles or A Difference in Value?
Some weeks ago, during a Sunday morning worship service, my five-year-old daughter leaned up to my wife’s ear. She wanted to ask her Mom a question. Her question surprised my wife and, later, myself. “When will a lady preach?,” she asked. The question may have been prompted because, at the congregation where we previously worshipped, women play an equal role in the life of the Church. Our daughter has seen women leading singing, praying, reading, and speaking in the worship service. Maybe she senses that something has changed now that we worship at a different congregation, which allows only a limited role for women.
Regardless of why my five-year-old chose to raise the question, she is surely not the only child in our congregation to do so. What we say and do in Church plays an important role in the spiritual development of our children. When we teach them that men and women are loved equally by Jesus, they look at what we do in the worship service and other Church activities to see if our actions conform to our words. If I tell my daughter that she can never share her spiritual insights in a Christian worship service because she is female, will she believe me when I say that men and women are equal in God’s sight?
I believe our answer on the question of the role of women in the Church rests on issues that are as simple as this. What I hope to show in this paper is that there are clear scriptural and theological warrants for equal participation of women in the life of the Church.
Not many years ago, I embraced a severely limited role for women in Church and social life. I once demanded that my mother stop leading a prayer over our Sunday afternoon meal because a Christian man, meaning myself (not my father who had never renounced his Baptist leanings), was present. As a senior in High School, I chided the star of our women’s basketball team–a person who took great pride in her accomplishments–with biblical words emphasizing that women should be “keepers at home” (Titus 2:5).
I am now convinced that I was wrong in the limitations I have put on women in the past. I want my daughter and her male and female friends to know they are all valued by God and that they have the same opportunity to use their gifts to God’s glory. We cannot communicate this message unless our Church life is integrated on the basis of sex as well as race and other conditions of our births.
My thesis is that we are commanded by Jesus Christ as Lord of the sabbath and Lord of scripture to allow men and women equal roles in the life of the Church. I demonstrate this thesis by examining first Jesus’ attitude toward scripture and the early Church’s embrace of that attitude as the proper context in which to address the issue of the role of women in the Church. Next, I discuss some examples of how the early Church addressed the question of human relations in general, and the role of women in particular, in light of this context. I then draw my conclusions.
Because of time and space limitations, this paper can be nothing more than a beginning point for discussion. It is a first step, an attempt to move toward a Christ-centered view on this issue.
Jesus Christ as Lord of the Sabbath
The Bible commands us to recognize that not all words of the Bible are of equal importance. God has determined to use some statements in scripture as more intimate expressions of himself than others.
Christ and Scripture
Jesus, for example, calls the Pharisees of his day “hypocrites,” and “sons of hell,” and says “woe” to them, because they “give a tenth of . . . spices . . . But . . . have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).1 Jesus’ point is that some aspects of the written word of God are foundational while others, though due respect, are secondary.2
In Luke 6 Jesus chides the Pharisees again for accusing him of breaking the Sabbath, claiming that he alone is “Lord of the Sabbath,” the one who determines how biblical strictures should apply in any given situation (Luke 6:1-5).3 He makes the same point in John 7:53-8:11. Here the scribes and Pharisees appeal to scriptures prescribing death for adulterers (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22) and demand that Jesus obey these texts concerning a woman they have caught in the act. Jesus makes the symbolic gesture of taking his finger and writing–reminding the Pharisees that he is the one who wrote these words in stone for Israel and that he knows full well how to use them rightly. He then passes over the texts’ prescribed punishment and counsels forgiveness for both the woman and the Pharisees. In all of these texts, Jesus teaches that simply citing a text in the Bible is not enough to establish God’s word for any particular situation. Rather, the text must be used in a way that is consistent with the larger principles of God’s mercy and purpose in saving people.
But Jesus’ most telling exemplification of this principle is found in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and his Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). In the former text, Jesus cites Old Testament ideas and then reinterprets them for his time. For our purposes, the means by which he reinterprets them is key. He always uses God’s grace–as exemplified in saving Israel from slavery in Egypt and in coming to the world in Himself–as the means by which to recognize God’s eternal principles in scripture.4
For example, he refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and its stipulations for divorce. Then he says “I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery . . . ” His point is that a proper interpretation of marriage must be made in light of God’s faithfulness to Israel, not merely in terms of any particular Old Testament text. This is underlined in Mark 10:2ff., where Jesus says that the human elements of Deuteronomy 24–“Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you”–make it unsuitable to stand as God’s most important word on the meaning of marriage and the practice of divorce. Again, it is God himself in his acts of grace to humanity, here as exemplified in the human relationship of marriage, that has the final say on the text in question.
There are few recorded instances in the New Testament of Jesus showing anger. One of these instances was a situation in which the religious leaders in the synagogue tried to use biblical traditions about the sabbath as a basis upon which to criticize Jesus for healing on the sabbath. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at them in anger (Mark 3:5). The Pharisees were using scripture as a means to avoid confronting the clear commands of the Spirit of God concerning their duties to fellow human beings. Jesus expected the Pharisees and religious leaders to be able to understand that, in spite of biblical strictures, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4).5 Therefore, Jesus expects us to be especially careful when using the Bible to address questions of how we treat people. Such issues are near to his heart.
The Early Church and Scripture
The early Church learned to read the scriptures in light of Jesus Christ as Lord of the Sabbath. Note how, for example, the apostle Paul addressed his Jewish Christian opponents in this regard. They insisted that passages in the scriptures addressing circumcision, animal sacrifice, the keeping of the sabbath, and other matters must be maintained for all Christians–Jewish and Gentile. This was the only way to respect the wording of the law, they argued.
But Paul distinguished between those things of secondary importance in the preaching of the Church and those things of “first importance,” identifying the latter with the fact that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve . . .” (I Corinthians 15:3ff).6 When Paul argued this, his opponents charged him with failing to take every passage of scripture seriously (Romans 2:25-29; 3:1-8; 6:1-2, 15). But Paul responded that such an approach did not overrule the law. Rather, it fulfilled the law (Romans 3:31). It did so, Paul argues, because it was consistent with the larger purpose of the various passages in the law as understood in light of Jesus Christ.
Paul and the early Church were able to leave the trappings of Judaism behind because they read scripture not as God’s last word on every possible subject, but in light of the living Spirit of Christ to whom scripture was designed to witness. They show us that the larger purpose of scripture is to point beyond itself to the living Spirit of Jesus Christ as the ultimate criterion for identifying God’s speech.7
“Picking and Choosing”
Some might object that allowing Jesus Christ to be the Lord of scripture, and thus to be the interpretative principle by which we identify God’s message coming to us through scripture, is too subjective. They would prefer an approach in which we do not “pick and choose” among various texts in the Bible as God’s message for us today but rather take the entire biblical text on an equal level.
The first problem with this approach is that it resists the clear teaching of the passages of the Bible we have cited above. This includes not only the teaching of Jesus but that of Paul and others.
The second problem with this objection is that, practically speaking, everyone inevitably picks and chooses when they read the Bible. Because we are finite, sinful, people we tend to emphasize passages we like and de-emphasize passages we do not like. To claim that we can somehow read scripture from a perspective which is not conditioned by the culture in which we live and our life experiences is naive and denies the best insights of current philosophers and theologians.8 To deny that we read scripture in a way which makes us look good and our neighbors look bad is to compound our sin.
What we must decide therefore is whether we will do a good or a bad job of “picking and choosing.” To do a good job, we must submit our human tendencies to Jesus Christ as the sole Lord of scripture. We have no fear of falling victim to our subjectivity when we appeal to Him, the ground of objectivity (Colossians 1:17). As the song says, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”9
Methods of interpreting the Bible come and go with time. In the ancient world, Origen favored an allegorical means of finding the essence of God’s message in scripture. Thomas Aquinas, in the Middle Ages, approached scripture on the basis of Aristotelian philosophical presuppositions. Our American Restoration Movement has been thoroughly shaped in its reading of scripture by the Enlightenment philosophies of John Locke and Francis Bacon, as well as the frontier American experience of Thomas and Alexander Campbell. The “direct command, approved example, necessary inference” interpretative principle that resulted from these influences held sway in most of the Restoration Movement until the late twentieth century, when postmodern streams of thought exposed the weaknesses in Enlightenment thinking. Now our Churches are feeling the pinch, as they find themselves struggling to make sense of the message of scripture and finding no tools at hand to help them.10
The Bible itself claims that Christ alone is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The only way to avoid the sinking sand of various methods of biblical interpretation is to let Jesus be our sole guide in the methods we use and the way we use them.
What does this mean in practice? It means that whenever we read a passage in scripture, we do not simply take it at face value. Rather, we prayerfully compare what it says with the demands of the love of God that encounters us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Does the passage describe this love or offer an important insight into it? Does it help us address current problems or crises by reminding us of the hope that this love offers us? Does it enable us understand how to love others as Christ has loved us? If so, then we can be sure that this passage conveys God’s speech to us. If not, then we can reverently pass over the passage and assume that God has or has had other purposes for this passage. We can do all of this with Christ’s blessing, because this is the way he interpreted scripture and the way he commands us to do so. Only by reading the Bible in this way do we move beyond a mere scholarly encounter with scripture to a devotional encounter with God in Christ.
Jesus Christ, the Early Church, and Human Relations
The Culture of the New Testament
The early Church struggled mightily to address relationships between people–and biblical teachings on these matters–in light of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it recognized that the grace we have received in Christ revolutionizes what culture sees as the proper relations between people.
The culture of the New Testament was strictly divided according to class. And class was defined in terms of contemporary ideas of power, possession, and authority. Wealthy men of the favored races and backgrounds were generally at the top of the ladder in the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew worlds. Among their possessions were their wives, concubines, children, and slaves. Women who were not part of a male household were generally left to beg or to live a life of prostitution. Children who cut ties with their father’s estate were often left to beg as well (witness Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11ff). Male children were valued much more than female ones, who were often exposed to the elements at birth.11
Women in the wealthy class had few legal rights, were restricted in guardianship of their own children, and were economically dependent on their husbands. Marriages were arranged by fathers and potential husbands, with money often changing hands in these matters in the same way that other types of property were exchanged.12
Even women who were official citizens of the Roman Empire could not vote or hold substantial political office. Women in the sparse middle class usually spent their lives in agricultural labor or at the spinning wheels. Large numbers of women existed in the slave classes and had no legal right to marry, refuse sexual advances of men, or maintain relationships with their children.13
Women in their period of menstruation were considered ritually unclean in Jewish culture. Therefore men, especially men in religious occupations, avoided all contact with them. This facilitated severe restrictions for women in religious activities and religious education. They were rarely allowed to participate in formal religious instruction and often did not travel with men in groups. As biblical passages point out, initiating a conversation with a man in public was often considered out of line.14
These social roles developed because people were considered inherently unequal at birth. Those born Roman citizens were given a higher status than those born merely as Jews, for example. Roman citizens were believed to be favored by the gods, with Roman men more favored than Roman women, etc. The ancient world often used religion as a means to justify its discrimination on the basis of birth.
A Revolutionary Gospel
In light of Jesus Christ, however, Christians could see such religion as nothing more than a worship of self, idolatry. God’s new kingdom in Christ was, in Jesus’ words, to involve a radical reversal of worldly concepts of human worth. In God’s world what is now last will be first and what is now first will be last (Luke 6:20ff). To borrow the words of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Jesus’ death required a “revaluation of all values.”15
In light of this, Paul penned the early Church’s foundational statement concerning human relations. This statement is found in Galatians 3:26-29, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (a similar statement is found in Colossians 3:11).16
Paul bases this statement on his belief that the death of Christ has erased the distinctions of value which people place on each other, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-23). In light of this, Paul feels compelled to ask, “Then what becomes of boasting?,” meaning what becomes of human means by which people are valued? He answers, “It is excluded” and insists that God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, loving both equally in Christ (Romans 3:27ff).
Having said this Paul seems aware that, to some in his audience, such a statement seems to contradict some biblical passages about the favored position of the Jews. So he adds, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” Guided by the conviction that Jesus is Lord of the sabbath, and that all passages ultimately serve to witness to God’s saving grace in Christ, Paul feels his conclusions about the equality of Jews and Gentiles in Christ fulfill rather than contradict the Old Testament.
Such meditations on Christ led Paul to become an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13), inviting the Gentiles to join the Church and fighting so they could do so without first becoming Jews. Such meditations on Christ led Paul to counsel the Christian slave owner Philemon to consider treating his runaway slave and recent convert, Onesimus, as a brother rather than merely as property (Philemon 17ff). This was a radical idea in the ancient world, but one which Paul felt was demanded by Jesus Christ.
In short, Paul held that Jesus Christ died for everyone, making them equally loved by God. And if everyone is equally loved by God, we cannot tolerate their unequal treatment in the Church. The roles they play in the Church must ultimately conform to the degree to which they are loved by God in Jesus Christ.
The Church’s Struggle to Conform to the Gospel
Peter and the Race Question
Of course the early Church, being human and sinful, sometimes struggled to conform to Christ’s command in this regard. While making great strides in overcoming sin, they had not yet reached the goal (Philippians 3:12).
In Acts, for example, Luke tells us of how the Holy Spirit literally pushed Peter to share the Gospel with a Gentile, Cornelius. When God spoke to him in a dream about this, his first response was to cite scriptural designations forbidding touching unclean things. But God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:14). When Peter made his report about this to the Church in Jerusalem, he blamed the Holy Spirit so as to deflect criticism from himself, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us . . . If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us . . . who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:12, 17).
This passage underlines the fact that, in spite of the clear call of Christ to see people as equally loved by God, the Church was not always up to understanding the full implications of that call. The Church was sometimes blinded from seeing the import of the larger witness of scripture due to sin.
Peter himself was not always able to live up to that call. On one occasion, he ate and communed with Gentile Christians in Antioch. But when Jews from the Jerusalem Church came for a visit, he withdrew from the Gentile Christians out of pressure from his home Church. Paul publicly criticized him for this, claiming that he was acting inconsistently with the Gospel of Christ (Galatians 2:11-14).
Peter’s struggle underlines the fact that, in spite of the clear demands of Jesus Christ, the early Church was divided on the race question. The line of this divide could run between Jews and Gentiles in the Church. But often, as in Peter’s case, it could run through a single human heart. It is significant that both sides used scripture to support their views–just as Peter could tell God in a dream, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Yet the larger witness of scripture is clear that, in light of Christ, God intended them to learn not to call profane what God has made clean.
The Question of Slavery
Just as early Christians like Peter lived a life of contradiction on the issue of race in the New Testament Churches, there is tension on the issue of slavery. Paul, while counseling Philemon to see Onesimus as his brother in Christ, nevertheless sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner Philemon. In doing this, Paul pays lip service to the institution of slavery (Philemon 21).
There are other passages in the New Testament in which slavery is tolerated. In Colosians 3:11 we are told that, because of what Christ has done, we should no longer see people in terms of Greek or Jew, slave or free. Yet a few paragraphs later, we read that slaves are to obey their earthly masters in everything.
Similarly, in I Peter 2:18ff., slaves are told to accept the authority of their masters–not only those who are kind but also those who are harsh. Then it counsels slaves to endure their beatings with a Christian attitude, “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Use of Biblical Texts Condoning Slavery in Churches of Christ
Unfortunately, some in the Restoration Movement in the antebellum period in our country used these biblical passages on slavery as justification for the institution in the national and ecclesiastical debate on this issue. Alexander Campbell, while rejecting the institution of slavery, refused to state that slavery was sinful. And he based his refusal on the very passages that we examine above. He concluded in 1845, “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting it [slavery], but many regulating it. It is not, then we conclude immoral.” In fact, as Richard T. Hughes has pointed out, Campbell believed that “in certain cases and conditions,” it might be “morally right.” Campbell’s colleague Walter Scott agreed with him on this matter.17
Many congregations in the Church of Christ followed Campbell’s view and believed that raising the issue of slavery led to nothing more than a disruption of Church unity. A congregation in Carlisle, Kentucky chided an abolitionist minister, “we are living in peace & [sic] harmony, & do not wish our peace interrupted . . . if you have intended to introduce the question of slavery, you will . . . abandon that idea.”18
Richard T. Hughes has also pointed out that Benjamin Franklin, a leading Restorationist minister in the mid-nineteenth century, maintained that the Lord and the apostles never “gave a decision or opinion” on the issue of slavery. “If they didn’t discuss it, we won’t. Those who condemn us for ignoring it condemn Jesus and the Apostles. We follow them.”19
Today, of course, we wouldn’t dream of saying such things much less endeavor to maintain that the Bible teaches them. True, the early Church sometimes failed to live up to Christ’s command on the race question and counseled slaves to be submissive to their masters–and this counsel is recorded in scripture. Yet this does not mean that we should take these facts literally and see them as justification for subordinating one race to another. The reason we do not use these passages this way is because we have learned, slowly and painfully, that Jesus Christ is the Lord of scripture. Whatever does not conform to the love of God we encounter in him concerning the issues of racism and slavery is not God’s speech to us.
Sexism and the Church
The Early Church Begins to Honor Women
The issue of sexism is placed beside that of racism by Galatians 3. Moreover, many Gospel writers, especially Luke, emphasize that Jesus Christ died for women as well as men, and that therefore women served in the early Church as teachers (Acts 18:26), missionaries (Phil 4:2-3; Romans 16:3-4), prophets (Acts 21:9), deacons (Romans 16:1), and even apostles (Romans 16:7).20
The early Church clearly identified the issue of Jew-Gentile relations and male-female relations as part of a great mandate given to it by Jesus Christ concerning human relations generally. The seed planted by the Church on this issue paved the way for the improvement in women’s lot in the western world, the benefits of which we are enjoying today.
Nevertheless, some passages in the New Testament seem to limit the role which women play in Church life. Debate on the “women’s issue” in American Churches of Christ has often focused on these select passages.21How are we to address them?
Limitations on Women’s Role?
The standard passages which some members of Churches of Christ use to object to an equal role for women in the Church include I Corinthians 11:2-26 (with occasional references to the creation stories of Genesis); I Corinthians 14:33-36; Ephesians 5:22-24 (with a rough parallel in Colossians 3:18-19); I Timothy 2:8-15; and I Peter 3:1-6. A full exegesis of each of these passages is beyond the scope of this paper. It is clear that the passages do place some limitations on women. But it is not at all clear as to the circumstances, the nature, and the extent of those limitations. The scholarly jury is still very much out–and in all likelihood will remain out for years to come–on the exact meaning of these limitations. In light of this, I offer here a general approach to the passages which offers us solid ground because it is consistent with Christ’s Lordship of scripture.22
When we read these passages, we tend to treat them as the Jewish Christians of Paul’s day treated the letter of the Old Testament. In doing this, we fail to see that these passages were addressed to a culture that was beginning its walk of sanctification with Jesus Christ, whereas we live in a culture that has been in dialogue with the Gospel for almost 2,000 years.
This does not mean, of course, that our culture is in some way superior spiritually to that of the first century. Our culture is in some ways inferior to first century society. Nor do I mean to say that human culture is moving to a kind of moral climax within human history–as some nineteenth and early twentieth century western theologians (including Alexander Campbell) believed. Any given society may be somewhat better off on a particular moral issue than another.
But the modern west has in some ways plowed fresh ground in acknowledging human value and basic human rights. All one needs to do to grasp this point is to compare the lot of women and minorities in many streams of western society with the status of women and minorities in some Arab or Asian societies. It is important for us to realize that this has taken place in the west due in part to the influence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The insight that God loves all people in Christ has forced some streams of western culture, albeit grudgingly, to recognize that people should be valued equally as a consequence.23
It was the conviction that people are equal in Christ that helped promote learning in the ancient Church and kept the light of learning and study alive for all of western culture in the Middle Ages. It was this drive that helped fuel new speculation on the worth of humanity in the Renaissance and helped drive the insights of human liberation that undergirded the Reformation. The Enlightenment’s gains on the recognition of human rights and the equality of “all men” under God–as stated in the American Declaration of Independence–would have been infinitely less vibrant were it not for the Christian conviction of the equality of people in God’s eyes.
The Gospel helped stimulate abolitionism and the embryonic women’s movement in nineteenth century Europe and America–leading not only to the recognition of the humanity of African-Americans but also to the recognition of women’s right to guardianship of children, higher education, and the right to vote. It is the Gospel itself that has been a fundamental fuel behind all of these movements.
In light of this, does not Christ expect more of us today than he expected of a Church just beginning its walk with Him on these issues? Would it not be a mistake to transfer the wording of a few passages dealing with guidelines for women suitable for the first century into a setting informed by 2,000 years of dialogue with the Gospel of Christ on this issue?
Now this does not mean that Paul and others writing in the passages cited above were wrong in what they said. In terms of the situation they were addressing–a culture heavily mired in sin–they were quite revolutionary. To suggest that slave owners consider viewing their slaves as brothers or sisters in Christ rather than merely as property was a radical statement in its day. For Jesus to allow women to follow him as disciples and to commend Mary’s discipleship rather than Martha’s housework was a fundamental break with the culture of that time. For Ephesians 5 to proclaim that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church was an outrage to that culture because it implied that men should in some way be submissive to their wives just as wives should be submissive to them. For Paul to admit that women could pray and prophesy in the Church in I Corinthians 11 raised concern for many Christians and non-Christians in that culture.24
In light of the way that Paul read his own Bible, however, he would not expect us to set every word he offered on women’s role in concrete for all time. Instead, he would have us discern how he applied the Spirit of Jesus and the fundamental rule of Galatians 3:28 to various sinful situations–and then follow his example.
If, in a culture that considered women as property, Paul could call husbands to cherish their wives as human beings, what is the Spirit of Jesus calling us to do today? Are we allowing the words of scripture to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ or are we steadfastly pointing to the letter of the text and ignoring its more basic implications? The words of Paul to Philemon the slave owner haunt us today, “I know you will do even more than I say” (Philemon 21).
When we read of limitations placed on women in I Timothy or I Peter, for example, we should remember how permissive, even ground breaking, they were in their original setting–regardless of how the scholarly debate eventually concludes. We should also remember that–again, regardless of scholar’s conclusions–they do not represent a Church in full conformity to the Gospel of Christ. They represent rather a Church taking the first steps of sanctification, beginning to be cleansed from centuries of prejudice due to sin.25
The early Church could not possibly have placed all aspects of their lives in conformity to the Gospel immediately. Even in our day the Church has yet to obey, or even understand, the full implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To follow the teachings of texts like I Timothy 2:8-15 today is not to mimic every action they prescribe, but to look to the One to whom they point as He challenges us to face our sin in various cultures and circumstances. He alone is the living Lord of the sabbath.
A Hybrid Interpretation
Furthermore, as we address passages like I Timothy 2 we must also realize that we are not consistent in the way we have traditionally read them on the women’s issue. We embrace their apparent limitations on women, yet we ignore their commands that women pray with covered heads and refrain from braided hair, jewelry, and other things. We do not believe today that it is “shameful” for a women to speak in a public assembly of men as Paul’s culture did (I Corinthians 14:35). Even the strictest interpreters of these passages would not compel wives to call their husbands “Lord,” as Sarah called Abraham (I Peter 3:6).
We have removed these commands from their first century setting. We do not honor their original intent–an intent formulated in a situation which assumed that women were second-class citizens. The Spirit of Jesus working in our culture has made it impossible for us to see women in these terms today. Yet to maintain our reliance on the details of the text–what some have called our “bibliolatry”–we create a hybrid interpretation of the text that is virtually unrecognizable in terms of its original setting.
Taking these passages seriously means letting them say what they actually said in the first century rather than setting up a hybrid interpretation which avoids offending contemporary sensibilities. It means discerning how the Spirit of Jesus guided the people who wrote the passages to see the sinful structures of their society differently in light of Jesus Christ.
Different Roles or A Difference in Value?
Some would object that our contemporary discussion on the women’s issue differs from previous debates on slavery and race because it is possible for a woman to be loved equally by God and nevertheless fill a different role from men in society and Church. Cannot women be viewed as equal with men in kind while being called to a submissive role to men?, it is asked.
The only objective way to define what “equal” means in this discussion is to do so in light of how much a person is loved by God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible clearly teaches that men and women are loved enough by God that he gave his Son for them. As we have seen, this moved the early Christians to begin to allow women a greater role in the Church than was afforded them in society at large. The fact that the early Church didn’t always do this and didn’t always give women a role similar to men in Church life doesn’t mean we aren’t called to do that today. As we have seen, Peter was expected by God to place the races on an equal level but wasn’t always capable of living up to that command. Neither, according to the witness of the biblical text, were many of his Christian brothers and sisters.
The bottom line on this issue is that the amount of love a person is given by Christ in his death and resurrection should determine his or her status in society and their value in the Church. This love should determine the roles they play.26
In ancient society, having female prophets and female deacons made a clear point that Christ loved women and men with the same force. But will that do in our society?
In our visually-oriented, information age, women are regularly seen leading the way in medical, legal, and political fields. On the evening news, we hear Madeline Albright addressing the United Nations and Cokie Roberts interviewing her afterwards. The next morning, we drive to work listening to Diane Rehm on National Public Radio discussing Albright’s speech with leading ambassadors from Russia, Germany, and France. Britain has had a well regarded female Prime Minister and even countries that suppress women’s rights like Pakistan have had female leaders in the recent past. If in a day in which women were considered little more than the property of men Jesus dared to ask the Samaritan woman for a drink from her well, what does he expect of us?27
The roles which we give women in Churches of Christ today convey a message of value to ourselves and our world. This message is that a woman cannot preach or speak or lead in Church because she is not as good as a man. Like it or not, that is the message we are sending to the world. Regardless of how one interprets I Corinthians 11 and 14 or I Timothy 2, our practices are not consistent with the clear intent of the leading witnesses in the early Church or with the mind of Christ.
In our debate over racial equality in the 1940’s and 1950’s in this country, we initially insisted that blacks could be seen as equal with whites even if they were expected to fulfill different roles in society. African-Americans, it was believed in some sectors, were equal in God’s sight but called to fulfill a submissive role in society. The fact that they had to sit in the back of buses, enter through the rear of restaurants, and were often not allowed to gather publically or speak to white gatherings did not alter their basic equality, in our ancestor’s estimation.
We found out the hard way that such reasoning is fatally flawed. We found that those who are consistently placed in submissive roles because of their skin color or other traits with which they are born will inevitably be viewed as of lesser value. When society or Church assigns specific roles to people solely on the basis of the condition of their birth–be it skin color, height, weight, or sex–a value judgment is inevitably made. We have dispensed with the “separate but equal” doctrine in terms of relations between the races. It is high time we did so in terms of relations between the sexes.
What my little girl sees in her Church–a Church in which she is taught that only men are allowed to be spiritual leaders–is that God created women less capable of attaining spiritual maturity than men and are therefore second class. She learns that her prayers (and her mother’s and grandmother’s prayers) could never be edifying for the entire congregation, her devotion never an appropriate example, her study never enlightening. The little boys learn the same things about their sisters, mothers, and friends. We are doing the girls and boys in our Church an injustice by our practice.
We have much to offer our children if we recognize the power of Jesus to bring us an objective viewpoint in the midst of the subjectivity of the world; if we recognize his Lordship of the sabbath and of scripture. If we do this, our children can grow up with healthy views of themselves and healthy understandings of what the Church is all about. Seeing strong male and female role models in Church every Sunday morning will help them understand that the only workable family model is the model of mutual submission as demonstrated by Jesus Christ. Seeing men and women as partners in Church and family life will enhance their recognition of the fact that Christ values us all. This will help our children learn one of the Bible’s most important lessons, that the most powerful force in the universe is not that of the favored race, creed, or sex, but of the love which we encounter at the cross of Christ.
During the debates on this issue, many people speak of the “slippery slope,” which apparently refers to what might happen if we “give women too large a role” in public worship services and the like. Unfortunately, virtually none of the people who express these fears have been to a Church of Christ that embraces an equal role for women. I have seen such Churches and worked with them for most of the last decade. I’ve been to the bottom of the slippery slope. I challenge you to consider the healthy families of these congregations–the respect which husbands have for wives and wives for husbands; the quality of the kids that grow up often without the aid of many positive influences outside the Church. I challenge you to consider how the people of God are strengthened when they see sheer joy in the face of a female song leader on Sunday morning or a moving Communion devotional offered by a spiritually mature woman. How much more compelling the Gospel must be to children who see both Mom and Dad up front, contributing to the worship service!28
There is no need for us to miss all of this. All we need to do is take Christ’s hand and let him lead us.
2. Thomas H. Olbricht, He Loves Forever (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1980), 5-16; Olbricht, “The Center of the New Testament,” lecture in “New Testament Theology” course at Abilene Christian University, January 25, 1983.
3. For centuries, rabbis debated the true meaning of the biblical prohibition of work on the sabbath. In this instance, several Old Testament passages could be cited by those on various sides of the debate. For example, Exodus 34:21 forbids harvesting on the sabbath while Deuteronomy allows it only without tools. Jesus is apparently appealing here for the latter tradition in light of the grace of God. David L. Tiede, “Notes on Luke,” HarperCollins Study Bible, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 1967; David A. Glatt-Gilad and Jeffrey H. Tigay, “Sabbath,” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Fransisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), 954-955.
7. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, part-volume I,2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 503-506. In Barth’s view scripture does not so much contain the speech of God as it witnesses to the speech of the living God.
8. William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1989), 105-118; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 5-16.
9. On the objectivity of Christ Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, “Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security . . . the great military leaders of the past have gone, and their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes. But the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love, is still growing . . . In Christ there is no East or West, In Him no South or North, but one great Fellowship of Love thoughout the whole wide earth. Jesus is eternally right.” King, Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 56-57.
10. C. Leonard Allen, “Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and ‘The Organon of Scripture,’” Church History 55 (March 1986): 65-75; Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 1-18; F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), “Origen”; “Thomas Aquinas, St.” Hereafter referred to as Cross; Paul Casner, “A Study of Alexander Campbell’s Theory of Religious Knowledge as Expressed in His Debate with Robert Owen.” Unpublished manuscript, May 1988, 2-7.
11. TRE. Theologische Realenzyklopadie, herausgegeben von Gerhard Krause und Gerhard Muller Band XI, Familie-Futurologie (New York, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983), “Frau, Neues Testament – Praktisch-Theologisch,” by Hermann Ringeling, Ingetraut Ludolphy, Gerta Scharffenorth, Erika Reichle, und Christel Meyers-Herwortz; David L. Balch, “Household Codes,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992); 3:318-320. The Anchor Bible Dictionary will hereafter be referred to as ABD.
20. The Church has, in many ages and cultures, simply chosen to ignore these passages. The primary cause of this is that the Church did not tend, in these situations, to read the Bible in light of Christ as Lord of scripture.
The Romans 16:7 text deserves further comment. For years the Greek word here, Iounian, has been translated into English texts as Junias. The most natural rendering of the Greek, however, is “Junia,” a very common female name of the ancient world. In all Greek manuscripts of any literature extant from the ancient world, a male form of this name never appears. It almost certainly did not exist. However, due to the English Church’s concern with admitting the existence of a female apostle, a male name “Junias” was translated here and has become part of the English textual tradition. Some contemporary translations take note of this by either placing the proper translation, Junia, in the text or in a footnote.
In all likelihood, therefore, Paul refers to a female apostle, Junia, here. Of course, she was not one of the original twelve apostles, but was apparently among those generally designated “apostles” due to having a special mission of witness because they saw the resurrected Jesus (this is Paul’s justification for his apostleship, I Corinthians 9:1). “Apostles” in this sense included not only Paul but also Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus (Romans 16:7), and apparently others. Hans Kung, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future, trans. John Bowden (New York: Continuum, 1995), 121-123; C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 376-377.
21. Several important resources are available dealing with the history of beliefs on women’s role in Churches of Christ. See especially C. Leonard Allen, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church(Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1993), chaps. 4, 17, and 18. These chapters discuss, among other things, the number of female preachers active in the early days of the Restoration Movement; Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith, 375-384; Lynn Mitchell, “Women’s Role in Public Worship of Churches of Christ: A Hermeneutical and Theological Reflection,” in Gender and Ministry: Freed Hardeman University Preacher’s and Church Worker’s Forum 1990 (Huntsville, AL: Publishing Designs, 1990); Bill Grasham, “The Role of Women in the American Restoration Movement.” Unpublished manuscript. A shorter version of this manuscript was published as “The Role of Women in the American Restoration Movement,” Restoration Quarterly41 (4th Quarter, 1999): 211-239.
22. The standard literature includes Tikva S. Frymer-Kensky, “Women,” inThe HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier, rev. ed. (San Fransisco: Harper SanFransisco, 1996), 1219-1220; David L. Balch, “Household Codes,” in ABD, 3:318-320; Ben Witherington III, “Women (NT),” in ABD 6:957-961; C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1968); Hans Conzelmann, I Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987); Ernst Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998); A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing Company, 1990); Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991); Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann,The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, trans. Philip Buttolph and Adela Yarbro, ed. Helmut Koester (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972); Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1984); A. T. Hanson, The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982); David L. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, vol. 26 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981; reprint, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988); Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996).
It is not at all certain that even these passages place the kind of limitations on women that might seem to be the case from cursory reading. Several scholars have raised important questions concerning the interpretation of passages as apparently clear as I Timothy 2:11ff., as well as the idea of “male headship” that derives in part from this passage. See Tom Robinson, “A Community Without Barriers,” Unpublished sermon preached at the Manhattan Church of Christ, December 5, 1999; Carroll Osburn, ed., Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, 2 vols. (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993-1995); Grenz, 141, 171-172. It is notable that Grenz, a well known evangelical scholar, calls the argument of male headship as a basis for denying women ordination “highly debatable.”
25. The standard scholarly consensus as to the development of the early Church’s view on the role of women is as follows: 1) Jesus offered radical imperatives on this issue; 2) the pre-Pauline and Pauline Churches followed suit, offering opportunities for women that were unusual for their time; 3) Later works like Colossians and I Peter reflect a Church that was beginning to conform to the prevailing Greco-Roman model for women’s role in society, while maintaining important Christ-centered critiques of that model; and 4) in time, the Church unfortunately accepted the Greco-Roman model uncritically and the imperatives of Christ and Paul disappeared almost entirely. Movements in the direction of #4 can be seen especially in I Timothy and Titus. The general scholarly view therefore is that the early impetus of Jesus and Paul waned as the Parousia of Christ delayed and the Church slowly became acclimated to its culture. Balch, “Early Christian Criticism,” 166; Kung, 79-81.
Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.
_____ ., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Revised Edition. San Fransisco: Harper San Fransisco, 1996.
Aland, Kurt, ed. Novum Testamentum Graece. 26th Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979.
Allen, C. Leonard. Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1993.
_____ . “Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and ‘The Organon of Scripture.’” Church History 55 (March 1986): 65-80.
Bailie, Gil. Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad, 1999.
Balch, David L. Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series. Volume 26. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981; reprint, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
_____ . “Early Christian Criticism of Patriarchal Authority: I Peter 2:11-3:12,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 39 (1984): 161-173.
Barrett, C. K. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1968.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Part-Volume I,2, The Doctrine of the Word of God. Translated by G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, Editors. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956.
Best, Ernst. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998.
Casner, Paul. “A Study of Alexander Campbell’s Theory of Religious Knowledge as Expressed in His Debate with Robert Owen.” Unpublished manuscript, May 1988. In possession of Paul Casner.
Conzelmann, Hans. I Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Translated by James W. Leitch. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Cranfield, C. E. B. Romans: A Shorter Commentary. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.
Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Dibelius, Martin, and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Translated by Philip Buttolph and Adela Yarbro. Edited by Helmut Koester. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.
Fee, Gordon D. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
_____ . The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Freedman, David Noel, ed. Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Grasham, Bill. “The Role of Women in the American Restoration Movement.” Unpublished manuscript. In possession of Bill Grasham.
_____ . “The Role of Women in the American Restoration Movement.”Restoration Quarterly 41 (4th Quarter, 1999): 211-239.
Grenz, Stanley J. Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
Hanson, A. T. The Pastoral Epistles. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
Hughes, Richard T. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963.
Krause, Gerhard, und Gerhard Muller, hrsg. TRE. Theologische Realenzyklopadie. Band XI, Familie-Futurologie. New York, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983.
Kung, Hans. Christianity: Essence, History, and Future. Translated by John Bowden. New York: Continuum, 1995.
Lincoln, A. T. Ephesians. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing Company, 1990.
Meeks, Wayne A., ed. HarperCollins Study Bible. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
Mitchell, Lynn. “Women’s Role in Public Worship of Churches of Christ: A Hermeneutical and Theological Reflection.” In Gender and Ministry: Freed Hardeman University Preacher’s and Church Worker’s Forum 1990. Huntsville, AL: Publishing Designs, 1990.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Meaning of Revelation. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Antichrist.” In The Portable Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann, Editor. New York: Penguin Books, 1959.
Olbricht, Thomas H. “The Center of the New Testament.” Lecture in “New Testament Theology” course at Abilene Christian University, January 25, 1983.
_____ . He Loves Forever. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1980.
Osburn, Carroll, ed. Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity. Two Volumes. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993-1995.
Placher, William C. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1989.
Robinson, Tom. “A Community Without Barriers.” Unpublished sermon preached at the Manhattan Church of Christ, December 5, 1999.
Schnackenburg, Rudolf. The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991.