November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
TOJ: Homosexuality and women’s roles are the divisive issues in the Western church, and much of the debate is predicated on what scripture says, what authority scripture has, and how to understand inspiration. Pauline texts in particular have undergone much scrutiny and critical analysis in discerning how we are supposed to live as a church, what biblical gender roles are, are gender roles even biblical, and what is a biblical family. Could you talk a little bit about your hermeneutic key in reading Paul, and more specifically, how is it possible to read liberation and equality within the Pauline text?
CK: When I first was reading Paul as a young Christian, I had a proof-text approach to reading scripture, taking a verse that seemed relevant and then skipping to the next verse that stuck out to me while basically ignoring all the inspired material in between as if it were blank space. I went through a period where I was reading, like, 40 chapters of the Bible a day, and I was using that pace to read through the New Testament once every week. As I did that, I got more and more familiar with the writers, including Paul, and as I would read Paul I realized that if I’m going to take a particular text seriously, I can’t skip over the verses in between. I have to read them in context.
So when Paul says in Romans 1:7 that he is writing to the Romans, that verse that claims that he’s writing to the Romans is just as inspired as the rest. And to take it seriously I realized that I had to take seriously the cultural setting that he was addressing. I couldn’t know everything that was going on in the church in Rome and in Corinth, but I could know something so I could understand better what Paul was addressing. And there were details that I could understand better from knowing the ancient culture. That began the long process in me studying ancient culture in order to know what the text was saying.
Now in the case of the two issues that you raised. I’ve come to different conclusions on the two issues. I believe that all that scripture says is for all times but not all scripture is for all circumstances. And so, often we need to find out what the circumstances are so that we can apply the text to analogous circumstances.
I think the two issues you raise are an interesting test case because in some ways they push us in two different directions. In the case of gender roles, you have different texts that point in different ways, which suggest to me they are addressing different kinds of circumstances, different cultural issues, rather than prescribing particular gender roles for all cultures. By contrast, on the matter of homosexual behavior, all of scripture, as far as I can see, speaks against its acceptability with the same voice.
In regards to gender roles, in Proverbs 31, you have a working mother who is extolled: part of her virtue is that she does textile work and she is a merchant. With I Timothy 5, the mother is basically the matron of the home because I Tim 5 is not addressing ancient Israelite culture but is instead addressing Ephesus, which is was dominated by Hellenistic Greek culture.
Sometimes the Biblical writers are upholding something in their culture for the sake of witness, but it is not something that would compromise principles that scripture requires. For example, it was very important in their culture for wives to be submissive to their husbands; if they weren’t, it would be viewed as subversive to traditional family values, which was something the Romans and other people in charge sometimes got very uncomfortable with. At the same time, Paul doesn’t compromise anything Christian by telling wives to submit their husbands, especially when you read it from the previous verse. The verb is borrowed directly from the previous verse, submitting yourselves one to another as to Christ. Christ gives us an example of being a servant and calls all of us to serve one another, so calling wives to submit to their husbands is not a compromise of Christian values; it is just that Christian values go beyond that and also call husbands to submit to their wives… and all of us to submit to one another. Elsewhere Jesus calls us to serve one another; ancient culture didn’t really have a category of mutual servanthood, but Jesus has given us a new model to follow.
So sometimes the apostles accommodated expectations in the culture in a way that wouldn’t compromise Christian values. At the same time, they sometimes had to go up against the culture, or to side with a particular option where there were several options within the culture. I think that’s the case that we have in Romans 1. In the Gentile world there were different views of homosexual behavior and in fact among Greeks it was very widely accepted, most commonly in the form of bisexual behavior. For Paul to take a specific and contrary position on that is for Paul to go against the specific trends of the culture that isn’t simply for the sake of getting along with one’s neighbors.
For Paul to argue his case based on “nature” (an argument also used by some philosophers against homosexual behavior) does not relate to modern arguments about genetics and predispositions (important as those studies may be), but about how the male sexual organ was designed (“intelligently designed,” to use a current phrase) to fit the analogous female organ for a particular purpose. The context of Paul’s argument from “nature” is a more Jewish argument from creation. God made us “male and female” in His image in Genesis 1; Paul says in Romans 1 that we distorted God’s image by worshiping idols (1:19-25), and ultimately ended up distorting our own complementary sexuality which was designed to reveal God’s image. (Compare his argument in Eph. 5 how the “one-flesh” husband and wife union should reflect Christ’s spiritual unity with His church.)
At the same time, while Paul makes a strong argument, we shouldn’t miss its context: Jewish people viewed idolatry and homosexual sin as specifically Gentile vices. After Paul condemns these (and his more conservative hearers are saying, “Amen!”), he shows how all of us are under sin (Rom 1:28-32). His argument here deals with sin, but it is also a set-up to force all of us to deal with our own sin, so Paul can go on to tell us about the one who came to save us all from our sins. That is what Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about!
TOJ: So when we talk about Gender and Sexuality, the distinction between homosexual behavior in the church and the issues of gender roles is an important one…
CK: I think it is important to clarify because the issues are so often linked in people’s minds, and what that has done in some of the more conservative circles is that it has caused a backlash against women’s ministries and gender egalitarianism.
By contrast, saying that we are equal, or that we are to mutually submit, is not saying that we are the same. That is, it does matter with what gender God created you as far as sexuality is concerned; it does not matter with what gender God created you as far as spiritual gifts or service to the Lord.
TOJ: In terms of egalitarianism, Evangelicals often do view feminism and egalitarianism as a threat to the church. I’m wondering where you think the Evangelical church misunderstands how Paul’s mandate for how marriage is to be structured, or if he even tells us that specifically as to how marriage is structured? What is central of Paul’s admonishment in Ephesians?
CK: In terms of Evangelical positions, the views are very much divided, but probably the more dominant approach is a more traditional approach than the one I am articulating. Nevertheless, I did a very rough and informal survey of statistics on different denominations and seminaries, and concluded that it wouldn’t be fair at all to act as if there is just one “evangelical view,” because there are a whole lot of evangelical egalitarians.
Looking at Ephesians 5, Paul is writing this letter probably in Roman custody. He knows very well that one of the things that the Romans are upset with are Eastern cults, whether they are dealing with Judaism, the cult of Isis, or Christianity as a form of Judaism. Of the things that the Romans were upset about, especially they are upset about Christianity subverting the social order by undermining Roman family values. Given the nature of Roman society, Roman women were far more likely to convert to these groups then the men were, and the men often reacted with hostility to some of these groups.
So it was important for the Christians as an apologetic, as a part of their lived witness to their culture, to show that they didn’t undermine what was positive with Roman culture, in terms of their family values. And you see this concern explicitly in the Pastoral Epistles. In I Timothy and Titus it says for slaves to respect their slaveholders so that the name of God won’t be blasphemed. Or that wives or other groups should do such and such a thing so that the word of God won’t be dishonored.
What’s of interest in Ephesians 5 is that Paul takes and adapts the very household code that was used from the time of Aristotle; I don’t think there’s any question about that. A lot of time people will make comments about texts without being very familiar with the ancient world or the ancient texts. Or, they have read something here and there but they haven’t immersed themselves in ancient literature. But just this week I was going back through some of my sources on women and antiquity, and the views many men in antiquity held concerning women. And to be sure, some women were highly respected and some men were respectful towards women. But the options for women in that culture differed vastly than options for women today. When I say that culture, I should probably say “those” cultures because Roman culture tended to be a little freer than Greek culture and some of the other cultures differed in regards to women. But even among Romans, it was a quite different world than today.
Aristotle’s household codes basically told the head of the house how he was to rule his wife, his children, and his slaves. And it addressed them in that sequence, like in Ephesians and Colossians. But Paul qualifies the code in several ways in regards to the wife in Eph 5:22-33. First of all, he starts by predicating the wife’s submission in verse 22 on mutual submission in verse 21… submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ. In verse 22 there is no Greek verb; it’s borrowed from verse 21, hence can’t mean something essentially different from what it meant in that verse. The wife’s submission is an example of believer’s submission to one another.
Secondly, Paul doesn’t just tell the male head of household how to treat his wife, children and slaves. Instead he addresses wives, children, and slaves even before the male head of the household, and he calls on the wives for voluntary submission.
Third, he doesn’t tell the husband how to rule his wife, he tells the husband how to love his wife.
Fourth, when you see how Paul defines submission, around verse 33, Paul sums up these verses by saying, “see to it that the husband loves his wife and the wife respects her husband.”
Moreover, the people who get stuck on verses 22-33 often are inattentive to chapters 6:5-9 where it addresses slaves and slave holders. In Eph 6:9, Paul tells the slaveholders to treat the slaves the same way that the slaves submit to the slaveholders. He is calling for mutual submission between slaves and slaveholders—which ultimately would undermine the very institution of slavery! And now we’re all happy to affirm that principle when it comes to slaves and slaveholders, although 200 years ago that was a big debate.
But when we are dealing with Ephesians 5:22-33, which is a part of exactly the same context of the household codes, mutual submission is more controversial! Of course, mutual submission between wives and husbands wouldn’t abolish the institution of marriage the way it would abolish slavery. But it would undercut the hierarchical, patriarchal approaches to marriage that dominated in antiquity, so it would transform the institution of marriage.
Husbands held the authority in that culture, and Paul worked within the culture. But saying that we should submit (in non-abusive, non-dangerous situations) to those in authority is not to say that ancient authority structures (like kings and slaveholders) must be maintained today; indeed, mutual submission points us in a different direction. Paul elsewhere talks about being in submission to authorities; I Peter talks about submitting to the king. So it is appropriate to submit within appropriate bounds, but submitting to authority structures is not going to look the same in every culture; for example we don’t need to say that submitting to all authority structures means we need to submit to the Roman emperor. We don’t need to say that when Peter submits to the king, we must reinstate the monarchy so we can obey that. (Long live King George, right? I actually don’t think high taxes on our tea were Biblical cause for a revolution, but we still don’t have to reinstate the monarchy to fulfill the principle that is being articulated in that passage.) The principles were articulated in a certain way, because a certain culture was addressed. It’s the same that they wrote in Greek, which presupposed certain cultural strictures; they learned the principle and then learned how to apply that principle today.
Some people don’t like to get into the cultural background very much, but if you don’t take into account cultural background in a situation, you are left with a lot of absurdities. For example, in most churches they don’t require women to wear head-coverings, even though it’s specifically stated. Five times more often than that it is stated that we are to greet one another with a holy kiss. Well, we can greet one another lovingly without necessarily greeting one another with a kiss. A kiss was what was used in that culture for intimate friends and family members to express affectionate greetings. In the same way, in regards to specific situations being addressed in scripture, a lot of people don’t want to take that into account. But, how many of us take up offerings for the church in Jerusalem each week? I Corinthians 16 demands that. 2 Timothy 4 says go to Troas and get Paul’s cloak. Most of us recognize that that is a command specifically to Timothy, but to read scripture consistently we must recognize that I Corinthians was written to the Corinthian Christians and Romans was written to the Roman Christians, and so forth.
We need to take that into account in our interpretations, and then seek to extrapolate principles from what we learn there, and determine how they apply in our setting. Granted, there are some people who agree with me on my hermeneutic and then won’t agree with me on the application anyway, and I understand that. But at least we’re on the same page.
But many people don’t even want to take the time to look at this—that scripture deals with real people and concrete issues, and we need to hear the story that is really going on there.
TOJ: Could you talk a little bit the cultural context and application of the I Corinthians text that addresses women’s roles?
CK: In I Corinthians 14:34-35, there’s been considerable debate surrounding this, because there is such a sharp disjunction that some have argued that it was not in the original text. Because it’s present in all manuscripts and located here in most of them, I don’t think this is the most likely solution. Others have argued that Paul is quoting the Corinthians and refuting them; again, I don’t think that’s the likeliest solution. Another solution is that the women are getting carried away with spiritual gifts and then Paul is limiting them with that; I don’t think that is the issue either because earlier in I Corinthians 11:5 Paul says that women are allowed to pray and prophesy, so I don’t think that Paul is limiting them regarding spiritual gifts.
Some people have said that the issue here is teaching. I think that is the least defensible explanation of the text because there is nothing in the context that could suggest that interpretation. Such an interpretation is based on reading I Timothy 2 into it, which is something that the Corinthians could not have done because that letter was not written yet, and even if it had been, they would not have access to it.
Another popular interpretation is that it refers to women judging prophesy, but judging prophesy is only one of many issues in this context. In this context, it says that all who prophesy are to judge, and we know from earlier in the letter that women can prophesy.
I think the most likely approach is based on what it says right there in the text, which is, if they have any questions, let them answer their husbands at home. And that seems like a very odd statement unless the women are asking questions. Paul can’t be restricting all kinds of women’s speech, and hardly anybody would say that today because if we did women couldn’t sing in church. (Who wants to just hear us men in congregational singing?) Almost nobody restricts them completely, and Paul surely didn’t either—earlier in I Corinthians 11, women pray and prophesy. So what is being restricted here? It seems to have to do with the asking of questions, which is now to be done at home.
I saw that in the text a number of years ago and wondered what in the world could have precipitated the women to be asking questions in church, until I was reading an essay some years ago by Plutarch, an ancient writer, in an essay about lectures. In a public lecture setting it was customary for people to interrupt with questions, and this is found a lot of places other than in Plutarch’s writing—in the Tosefta, Aulus Gellius, etc. And in settings where teaching was going on, people would ask questions, but there were certain kinds of questions that were considered rude, and those were particularly unlearned questions. The women were on average less learned; although we do know of some learned women back then, men were about 10 times more likely to have a given level of education than women of the same social class.
In terms of understanding the Torah, boys were taught to recite the torah. Girls might learn some by hearing it in their family or in the synagogue, but they weren’t specifically targeted with that—they didn’t seem to become disciples of rabbis, and so forth. There’s a possibility that the women are asking unlearned questions; he’s inviting the husbands to give their wives private tutoring in a sense. He’s not oppressing women but asking them to something quite progressive in the culture. Plutarch, in another of his essays, actually says that the husband should take an interest in his wife’s learning, and he thinks he’s very revolutionary for thinking that, pointing out that most men didn’t think their wives were smart enough to learn anything. Also be reminded that Greek men were around 12 years older than their wives, on average.
But then Plutarch suddenly spoils everything and says that if you don’t teach women then they produce nothing but base passions and folly. Which is kind of like what Josephus says because he says let them obey their husbands for their own good and says not to take testimony from them because they are not reliable because of the instability of their gender.
I could talk about Philo and a bunch of other ancient writers too, but in the case of Paul, another issue may have been, although things were improving in the culture, many people still resented women speaking in the presence of men, without their husbands, especially in a public setting.
TOJ: 1 Tim 2 is a passage where Paul specifically prohibits women from teaching scripture. What social contexts should we consider in our exegetical approach to this passage?
CK: The 1 Tim 2:11-12 passage advises women to learn quietly, much as 1 Cor. 14:34-35 implies, that is, no interrupting lectures with questions, just as all novices in that era were forbidden to do. It also does prohibit women from teaching the Bible, and is the one text in Scripture that does so. Yet it also belongs to the one set of letters where we specifically learn that false teachers were targeting women (1 Tim 5:13; esp. 2 Tim 3:6-7); is this a coincidence or might not the prohibition have something to do with the local situation? The women were probably especially widows who owned homes in which the false teachers could establish alternative house churches. The false teachers would have targeted the women for the same reasons noted above: as a rule, they were less educated than men.
Many note that 1 Tim 2:13-14 goes on to cite Scripture to support the case. Yet although Paul often makes universal arguments from Scripture, he sometimes also applies them to specific, local situations. His earlier reference to Eve’s deception is an analogy not with women but with the entire Corinthian church (2 Cor 11:3). His earlier reference to Adam being created before Eve is used to justify head coverings (1 Cor 11:7-9), which were expected for modest women in some eastern Mediterranean cultures (and used to cover all their hair). If this passage makes a universal analogy, it implies that all women are more easily deceived than men, and therefore ought not be allowed to teach (passing on that deception to others). This would imply women’s universal intellectual inferiority, an ontological, genetic claim. If this passage makes an analogy for the local situation in Ephesus, it implies only that the women in the Ephesian church were more apt to be deceived than the men. Given the cultural limitations in most women’s education in that culture, this approach is easier to fathom.
Because the rest of Scripture overwhelmingly supports women’s ministry, it seems more respectful to Scripture as a whole to view the one text that seems to specifically forbid women from teaching the Bible as addressing a specific rather than universal situation. In cases where there is genuine disagreement among believers as to the meaning of some texts, it is important that we respect one another. But as in other such cases, those who disagree should not prohibit many who feel called by God, based on an interpretation of one or two passages when other passages overwhelmingly support their calling.
TOJ: Earlier you talked about the two hot button issues, and differentiated the issues of women’s roles and homosexual behavior, demonstrating that scripture’s voice is unified in prohibiting the latter. Could you talk a little bit about your pastoral approach to the issue of homosexuality and the church and how you understand having scriptural integrity as a scholar and not compromising pastoral care?
CK: I have not found persuasive any of the arguments contending that Biblical prohibitions of homosexual behavior were merely a cultural accommodation—they in fact run against much of the culture of the Biblical world, certainly in Greek culture. At the moment it appears to me as though some well-meaning scholars are trying to find justifications for something that is condemned wherever it appears in Scripture.
On the one hand, that is no small matter. We dare not teach people that God accepts particular kinds of behavior when the one clear moral revelation God has given us, namely Scripture, teaches that God does not accept such behavior. We often see God’s people in Scripture being overtaken by the values of their culture, until finally God wakes them from their obliviousness by judgment. Some denominations are now verging on splitting over the matter, so it is a major issue.
On the other hand, we need not to blow the debate out of proportion or miss its larger context. Without doing careful calculations, estimating off the top of my head, I would guess that the texts we are debating make up about 1/1000th of Scripture. This issue has come to a head in bringing denominations to the point of splitting, but it is not an isolated issue; it belongs to a larger pattern of whether we and our churches will fear God enough to obey Scripture even when it challenges our culture and our comfort, or whether we will find a way to make it say what we want. Homosexual behavior is being debated openly, but heterosexual sin is even more pervasive in the church, and we need to be even-handed in how we address them (and other sins).
We also need to be pastorally sensitive. If a heterosexual in our church falls into sexual sin but is deeply repentant and wants to get on with serving God with his or her whole heart, we believe in grace. If a heterosexual in our church is living in habitual sexual sin, it is time to explain that the gospel of Christ comes to liberate us from sin, not paper it over with a smiley-face; we might even need to follow Biblical steps toward church discipline, or at the very least make it clear that the person should not allow this behavior to be associated with the church.
Yet sometimes we treat homosexual sin differently from heterosexual sin. Someone whose sphere of temptation is different from our own is not inherently more wicked than we are; nor is temptation in itself sin. Sin needs to be addressed, but it needs to be addressed consistently. To give an example: one brother in a congregation I pastored was deeply committed to Christ; I learned in time that his sphere of temptation was homosexual, but he was living a celibate life and doing everything he could to live in a way that honored God (better than a number of heterosexuals with their behavior). To give another example: over the years in ministry, I have had people confide in me that they had homosexual relationships in the past (yet were basically heterosexual), yet they were afraid to confide in anyone in the church (once word got out through gossip, they feared they would be shunned). Had it been a heterosexual sin, or some other sin, they would not have had the same fear.
On the other hand, some people will object that it is too much to ask a person to remain celibate if they are, and so long as they are, exclusively homosexual, complaining that this is too much to ask of anyone. But this is not dealing with a fair deck either. I was 41 when I married, and God expected me not only to remain celibate while I was single, but also to keep my thoughts pure. I had to pray and fast a day every week to maintain that purity. It wasn’t easy. In the African-American church circles where I am, 60-70% of the church is women, which means that a lot of godly women have a very rough time finding husbands. Yet those who are willing to submit to Scripture keep themselves pure. To cast the net more widely: my wife was a refugee for 18 months in the forest; her family’s house, with all their photos and almost everything they owned, was burned. Yet God called on her to forgive, and she and her family even had to help someone in need from the other side of the war in their country. Many of my friends in northern Nigeria have lost close friends to martyrdom. My point is that we all have tests, and some tests are harder than others. God calls all of us to overcome, just like He called each of the seven churches of Asia Minor with their different trials.
Such advice is not going to please some people on either side of the debate. I want to be humble and open to correction. But it seems to me that Scripture calls us to be both pastorally sensitive and also not to permit what God forbids. Jesus held high a standard: If you want to follow Me, you must follow to the cross. His disciples all failed—and He loved them and was patient with them anyway, and all but one finally did come through. Christ’s way is a narrow way—but if we believe that He is Lord, He has the right over everything in our lives. And He can give us the grace to live that life, no matter how challenging or difficult, by the power of His Spirit. Lord, please remember us all with Your grace and strength!
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Craig Keener is the Associate Minister at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, Philadelphia (NBC) and frequent lecturer and teacher in New Testament, New Testament Background and Biblical Interpretation, in ministry and academic settings in the U.S. and Nigeria. He serves as Professor of New Testament Studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of many books including: The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Paul, Women and Wives, (Hendrickson,1995); and Marries Another (Hendrickson,1991).