I believe the most important teaching for family and church relationships comes from Jesus. I believe that my way of relating as a man to women and as a husband to my wife should meet the standards Jesus taught for all relationships. I expect to treat women the way I would want to be treated if I were in their place. These attitudes must take precedence over less Christ-honoring ways. I love God first, and then I love my neighbor – including those who are women – as myself. I treat women the way I would want to be treated. I should see women as sons of God with full rights of inheritance. At least I should do all of these things; though undoubtedly I fail much.
Here are some of the scripture passages that inform my understanding.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
When it came to how Jesus himself related to women, it is clear that he did not respect all the boundaries of his Jewish culture. For example, in his culture the students of a rabbi were all male. Women were not expected to sit at the feet of a rabbi; that was a man’s place. So what is Jesus teaching by his example in the following passage?
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed.a Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus did not send Mary to the kitchen (or wherever women were expected to be by Martha and her society). Ignoring the conventions of his day, He allowed her to remain as a student at his feet. This was not an isolated incident. Jesus interacted with people in a Galatians 3 way. He stretched or ignored the conventions of his day with regard to Jew and Greek and Samaritan, slave and free, pure and impure, or male and female when it suited his purposes. In addition to Mary and Martha, I immediately think of the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene, particularly Mary Magdalene being the first to see him alive after his resurrection. There are others.
Rikk Watts comments on this aspect of Jesus’ character in Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community:
When the occasion arises where he must choose between personhood and traditional behaviour, he always chooses personhood by affirming the faith, love, understanding, and wit of various women, showing compassion and even on occasion rebuking them just as he would a misunderstanding male. In the meantime, his interest in teaching woman cannot help but eventually precipitate change. In Acts, along the same lines and generally in keeping with cultural mores but with an ultimately liberating although not deliberately polemically or confrontational cast, the Spirit uses both men and women to continue the proclamation of the gospel.
In other words, Jesus’ agenda is not gender driven. It reflects instead the earliest words of Genesis: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27, NIVI). Women are not objects, nor are men the enemy: both are made in God’s image and as such the reconstitution of humanity by the Son of Man begins with their mutual restoration and continues with the mutual co-operation in the announcement and extension of that reign.
But what are we to do with the passages in Paul and Peter that seem to confirm patriarchy and a limited role for women in marriage and the church? There are numerous books and articles that explain these passages from various perspectives. I have found some to be very helpful – particularly more modern treatments that consider the historical context. While there are many other books and articles (more than I can recall), here is a list of resources that I have found most helpful on these subjects:
- Listening to the Spirit of the Text, chapter six.
- Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community
- The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament) by Gordon Fee. The commentary on First Corinthians is very thorough and fairly academic. No other commentary on First Corinthians has been so helpful to me.
- After Paul left Corinth by Bruce Winter. This is an excellent resource for understanding the historical context of Roman Corinth in the time of Paul.
- Women’s Service in the Church, a conference paper by N. T. Wright.
- The Hard Sayings of Paul by Manfred Brauch, which is also included in the larger work Hard Sayings of the Bible.
- Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation by Willard Swartley. This resource is fairly dense. Be prepared. It gives a very interesting and thorough historical discussion of biblical interpretation of four topics, including views of women.
- Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce Winter is another book on the historical context of Paul’s letters as it relates to women in ministry in Paul’s time.
The overall approach I take to these passages is to consider carefully the historical context and (as best as we can discern it) the reason for writing. We must be careful about generalizing for today from corrective passages written to dysfunctional groups of people in the first century. When Paul taught slaves how to be Christ-honoring slaves, he didn’t mean to endorse slavery as a Christian imperative. When Paul taught men and women how to be Christ-honoring husbands and wives in marriage as it was practiced at the time in Asia Minor, he didn’t mean to endorse a form of marriage in which women were considered hardly more than property as a Christian imperative. Jesus’ (and Paul’s) teaching on human relationships and the nature of life in Christ argues strongly for reworking our lives and cultures into forms that honor God’s intentions in Christ. As Jesus preached:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
-Luke 4:18-21, NIV
Paul worked within the structures of the day without endorsing them as normative for all Christians for all time. Gordon Fee summarizes the approach I believe we must take in Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community:
The net result of all this seems clear enough: that Paul does not tear down existing structures, but neither does he sanctify them. Everything for him begins with Christ, his death and resurrection, whereby he established the new order, the new creation. In the new creation, two things happen: the relationship between man and woman in the first creation is restored, but that relationship must be lived out under the paradigm of the cross. In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, not meaning that differentiation has ceased, but that both alike enter the new creation on the same footing, and thus serve one another and the rest of the church in the same way their Lord did — by giving themselves to the other(s) out of love. Ministry is thus the result of God’s gifting and has nothing to do with being male or female, any more than it has to do with being Jew or Gentile, or slave or free.
In love, I desire the best for others. I hope that they will be free to fulfill the purpose for which God created them – exercising the gifts that God has given. That means I desire women to be free to exercise their gifts and callings as God gives and calls.
I believe God has been stretching the church beyond patriarchy, but not stretching in a way that “breaks” us. His goal in this time is not to set all things right immediately, but to restore human beings into a relationship with him out of which the kingdom of heaven grows in and around and through us, His body. Our role is to be Christ’s ambassadors to those who need him, laying aside our cultural habits and preferences for the sake of reaching others in whatever manner will speak to them – at least as it is consistent with forsaking sin and maintaining clear conscience. The priority is the good news of the kingdom of heaven breaking into our lives here and now. It is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and hope for the hopeless.
Christ’s impact on society is revolutionary more than scandalous or chaotic: we are called to rework society under the guidance of the Spirit but also to live within cultural forms to promote the gospel. How one knows whether to revolutionize or to submit to a culture’s forms is not simple! The only reliable answer is to follow the leading of the Spirit of God; he sets our agenda. Timing for cultural change rests with him. It is beyond question that the kingdom of heaven will bring cultural change and justice. And yet it will not destroy culture or erase all cultural differences.
If patriarchy is not God’s plan… if, in fact, it is a sinful denial of the image of God in women that stands in the way of bringing glory to God and having the abundant life God desires us all to have, do we need to fight it and speak out against it wherever it may be found? I believe the experience of Christians in cross-cultural mission and the testimony of scripture indicates that we are not necessarily called to take this approach. And yet we are not called to complacency either; we are to prophetically speak the truth in love.
In scripture, we see examples of patriarchal societies being reached by God’s people. God’s people did not make patriarchy the number one issue to speak against. In scripture concessions are made to patriarchal social patterns a number of times. While the direction of change among people who come to God has consistently been to improve the lot of women from what it was before they became God’s people, it is clear that the abolition of all patriarchal patterns in a particular society has not been the only or even the leading priority. And yet those living in these societies were called to justice and the way of love, particularly those who had power. God’s messengers have not necessarily been called to scandalize societies or force into positions of responsibility women who are not called and qualified for the sake of “equality”, but rather to promote the good news of the kingdom of heaven. This good news leads to Jesus being in charge. He will lead his people into healthy change that brings peace and joy and justice to both men and women without complacency. A bruised reed he will not break.
At the same time, God’s messengers to a society have often confronted evil so great that it could not wait another day to be addressed. The Christian missionaries who campaign to abolish wife burning and enslavement of women in the sex trade are good examples of this. Those of us who go as God’s ambassadors must seek His guidance and embody His character. He is in charge; we are not. John Stackhouse’s book Finally Feminist is a helpful consideration of the idea that God’s agenda is not gender-driven.
Have God’s people been more a force to conserve evil or unjust social patterns or more a force for change leading to justice? We can say this: God’s people have not been ideal stewards of the kingdom of heaven, but God has accomplished through his people dramatic change for the betterment of society and justice for the powerless, including women. To the extent that we are faithful, God will lead us to be agents of change in the right places at the right times and in the right ways to bring about change that pleases God without bringing chaos to the societies in which we live. The coming of the good news of Jesus has consistently been good news for both women and men and leads any society that takes it seriously into great change.