What is the role of women in the church? Part two of a two part series.
By Doug Reed
To view part one in this series, click here.
Many today say that people who try to look at the new covenant woman in a new light are changing what the Bible says to fit our times and the way we think. Before we get worked up about a supposed attack on the Bible, we must realize that the paradigm of every generation for the last 2000 years has effected its interpretation of the scriptures.
Our paradigm will effect our understanding of the scriptures no matter how hard we try to avoid it. I heard that N.T. Wright, one of the worlds foremost first century historians and one of my favorite authors, tells his new students that 1/3 of what he will teach them is wrong. The trouble is he just does not know which 1/3 it is. Biblical debates would be a lot more peaceful if we all shared Wright's humility.
The challenge of our day is to think like the writers of the new testament. It is vital that we attempt to put the scriptures in their first century context. When Paul said, "Let your women keep silent in the churches," what was the context of that statement? What challenges was Paul facing when he made this command? When we seek to answer these questions, we can reach a probable explanation of Paul's seemingly contradictory words and actions.
The Jews of the first century lived in a society that was male dominated to the extreme. Even the pagan cultures that surrounded Palestine often held women in higher regard than the Jews of Jesus' day. For example, it was considered beneath a man to speak to a woman in public. Jewish men were called Sons of Abraham. Women, "The Daughters of Eve." Education was for men alone especially in theological matters. Jewish women were not allowed to sit as a disciple of a great teacher.
Men were considered more righteous than women simply because of gender. We see this is Herod’s temple. The various courts and sub courts in the Temple showed degrees of righteousness. The closer a person was allowed to the Holiest of Holies, the more righteous he was. In fact, a worshipper actually stepped up higher and higher until he reached the highest point in the structure, the Holiest of Holies. Jewish women were allowed into the second court of the temple, but they could not go beyond the court of the women. Only men could advance further. Thus flesh and blood were determinants of righteousness under the old covenant system.
New covenant grace was already breaking in during the ministry of Jesus. Those who were unacceptable according to flesh and blood were now acceptable. Women were no exception. Jesus talked to women in public. He referred to them as "Daughters of Abraham," and He allowed them to be his disciples. The Lord was absolutely revolutionary in His treatment of women.
The new covenant gift of righteousness was about to turn the entire Jewish world upside down. Suddenly, the Gentile had the same measure of righteousness as a Jew, so there could no longer be any distinction between the two. Likewise, a man now had the same measure of righteousness as a woman, so all self-righteous distinctions between men and women had to be lost.
No one understood the impact of the new covenant better than Paul. We see this in his astonishing words to the Galatians:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.(Gal. 3:28-29)
If Paul fully understood the new covenant grace of God, why did he at times tell women that they must return to the old covenant place of silence before men? Certainly, this would seem like a step back into what was passing away rather than a step forward into what was accomplished in Christ.
When we put Paul in his context, we can begin to understand what Paul said and did. Paul lived in a time of transition. In fact, the whole new testament was written in a context of transition. The old covenant was passing away and the new covenant was breaking forth. For example, the new covenant temple of the Holy Spirit was present though incomplete. At the same time the old covenant temple of God was still standing in Jerusalem.
Paul dealt with Gentiles who were entering into the fullness of the new covenant unhindered by the righteousness that was according to the Law. He also dealt with Jews who were zealous for the Law. They had one foot in the old covenant and one foot in the new. Paul's task was to keep the Gentiles from rejecting the Jews because they did not share in the Gentile freedom, and to keep the Jews from being offended by the freedom the Gentiles had in Christ.
We might think that Paul had forsaken the Jews and had a heart only for the Gentiles. However, Paul very much desired his countrymen to be saved. He was very aware that the Gentiles were partaking of Israel's spiritual blessings. Consequently, at times he gave instructions that if possible the Gentile's freedom was not to become a stumbling block to the Jews.
For example, in I Corinthians eight Paul tells the church at Corinth not to eat meat sacrificed to idols if it would offend their brother. Most likely it would be Paul's countrymen that would be offended by a Gentile eating meat sacrificed to idols. Similarly, Paul said concerning himself:
"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you." (I Cor 9:19-23)
This is why Paul had Timothy circumcised and why Paul himself participated in certain Jewish rituals. It was not wrong to participate in these things, but it was wrong to make these works a person's righteousness rather than the works of Christ. Paul allowed the Jews to keep their Jewishness intact. However, at the same time, Paul had to guard against the Judiazers who wanted to make the works of the Law the source of the Gentile's righteousness. So, we see Paul was walking a tightrope of almost unimaginable difficulty.
To illustrate, let's use an example from today. No Christian would say it is wrong to circumcise their child. That is a matter of personal preference we might say. Yet, if a Christian started saying that circumcising their child meant their child was going to heaven, we would be offended. A similar principle was at work in Paul's day.
Could this context in which Paul existed explain his seemingly contradictory statements and actions concerning women? It seems unlikely that a man so keenly aware of the implications of the new covenant would force women to remain under old covenant principles. Yet, at the same time Paul was deeply concerned for Israel. He knew the Jews would be offended by the Gentile's freedom. If a Jew came into an assembly led by a woman, he most assuredly would reject Christ. On the other hand, there would be purely Gentile situations where female leadership would be perfectly acceptable.
I admit I am speculating here a bit, but I think I am on pretty solid ground considering Paul's actions with issues such as meat sacrificed to idols, Timothy's circumcision, and Paul's own participation in Jewish rituals.
There are those today that say that we must go back to the way things were in the day of Paul. We must silence women in our assemblies. They must have their heads covered, and they must not partake of deep theological matters. Such thoughts show a profound eschatological misunderstanding of Paul's day. We no longer live in a day where the old covenant and the new covenant exist side by side. We live in a totally different context than the Jew/gentile context of Paul’s day.
We should not seek to go back to the transition period. The implications of the grace of God were being worked out in Paul's day, and they are still being worked out in our day. For example, Paul never dealt with the issue of slavery. In fact, there are places where he seems to endorse it. Yet, a natural consequence of the gospel is freedom and equality for all. What happened at the cross spelled doom for the concept of slavery, yet it was not until the nineteenth century that we in the United States finally grasped this concept.
Likewise, the cross changed the relationship between men and women. We are still working on this one, and we have a long way to go. Yet, the cross is the guarantee of victory.
Our cry should not be "Go back!" It should be "Go forward!" For God continues to reveal the glory of all He has accomplished through the death, resurrection of His Son in every generation.