Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Rail number 3: The role of women.

The third rail of the modern Christian church is the issue of the role of women.

When a pastor is courageous enough to mention a controversial man-woman-differences passage, for example about women being weaker vessels, the standard practice is to hit the passage quickly, almost in passing, and then spend the rest of the sermon beating up on the men regarding their considerable and neglected responsibilities to their wives. The theory seems to be that we can placate the women if we don't dwell on such passages too much, and if we spend considerably more time on the roles of husbands and on what jerks men are.

Who can blame them? Virtually nothing can cause deeper and more rapid divisions in a church. Not many people, pastors included, have an overwhelming desire to lean into a left hook.

Possibly no issue is more vexing or more contentious.

Still, there are those pesky passages.

And danger abounds. The history of Israel, Christ's treatment of the Pharisees, and the letters in Revelation teach us that:
  1. God will treat gently the church that errs despite an honest attempt to discern His intent from scripture and prayer.
  2. He will deal much less gently with churches that flagrantly and willfully ignore unambiguous instruction. Liberalism is not God honoring.
  3. He will also deal forcefully with those that impose rules and regulations that he never intended. Legalism is not God honoring.

The Gut Instinct Rule

Personally, I like the gut instinct rule, which is more biblically based than it sounds. And it is not really a rule, but more of a gut instinct guideline. We must employ a hermeneutic when interpreting these passages, and I think this is a proper one. It involves the technical subject of wiggle room.

Wiggle Room

Wiggle room is imprecise, but we know when it is exceeded. Wiggle room means that reasonable people, with the intent of interpreting scripture properly and not just to fit their agenda, can disagree. Views on eschatology fall into that category. Tolerating unrepentant homosexual activity does not.

Wiggle room does not mean that you can stretch the words in a passage to their most inclusive possible meaning and then drive through. Scripture is not written with the precision of a legal contract. Violation of the clear spirit of the words is as bad as violating the letter.

Since the bible is (a) inspired and (b) at times difficult, it then follows that God purposely made his word, in places, hard to understand. Why? I don't know. My guess is that it is more glorifying for us to dig into scripture and submit ourselves in prayer seeking discernment than just to follow a crystal clear set of rules.

With a scientific appreciation for wiggle room, we are ready for the gut instinct guideline:

On areas where there is no wiggle room, the church must hold firm. Prohibition on women pastors and elders is such an area.

The above is an example of a corporate regulation on church conduct and government. The worship service and leadership structure should reflect such clear biblical teachings in no uncertain terms.

There are also personal rules with no wiggle room, for example, the prohibition against adultery. Violations of such rules must not be tolerated by the church, either by policy or by ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away. They must be addressed proactively.

Where there is wiggle room we must again distinguish between the corporate and the personal. If it is a personal issue, then we must be tolerant, despite the negative connotations of that word.

It is when there is wiggle room and the issue is corporate that we find the thorny problems. What to do if reasonable God-fearing people disagree on an issue that affects the whole body, for example an issue of church order. You cannot accommodate both a belief that women should be silent and a belief that women are permitted to pray in front of the body. A decision has to be made.

Here we must, under the guidance of the elders and with input from the body, establish a tradition for the local church. They (the leadership) must do so after struggling mightily to discern God's instruction. They must cast aside bias and concern for role counts. The body must pray for wisdom for its leadership. And then, that leadership must announce and explain its conclusions unambiguously. Traditions are always subject to a periodic revisit, but for the next period, of whatever duration, the church's stance must be clear. Those who in good conscience disagree might leave. If they do, both they and the church should handle the separation with love, sadness, hope, and prayer.

With the gut instinct guideline in mind, let's look at a few troublesome passages. One of the more puzzling is from 1 Corinthians:

2I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
3Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. 6If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
11In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice--nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11:2-16)

One of the arguments brought to bear on this discussion is that the passage is (a) highly cultural and (b) possibly directed to a particular obnoxious group of disruptive and contentious Corinthian women.

There may be some truth to that. Some aspects, namely those that address personal appearance, appear to be so specific as to be arguably aimed at a particular group at a particular place and time. It is a red herring, however, to argue that if part of the passage has a cultural explantion then all of the passage does.

The wearing of head coverings is a personal issue. The possible cultural aspects provide enough wiggle room when it comes to head coverings in church, the relevant tolerance clause in invoked. No rule should be made regarding head coverings. We are simply saying God we are unable to unambiguously discern your instruction, so on this matter we are leaving it to each individual's conscience with the recommendation that they seek your will.

Verse 3 is clearly universal, not personal. And no matter how one interprets "head" it establishes a comparison:

God::Christ as Christ::man as man::woman

Here we must be speaking of Christ incarnate who voluntarily became "a little lower than the angels." And man cannot mean humankind, for its substitution renders the verse nonsensical.

I don't know what this verse means in detail, but it is clear that (a) it is universal and so cannot be ignored and (b) its only reasonable general interpretation is that a difference exists in the roles of men and women and (c) the difference between men and women is one that includes an aspect of authority, since that is evident in the God to Christ (incarnate) and Christ to man relationships to which the man to woman relationship is compared.

Verse 5 is also significant. It possibly repudiates those who would use other verses to say that women should be utterly silent in church, for it clearly indicates that there are times when a woman is vocal. The key is whether the entire passage, especially in the context of the complete epistle, must be taken as instruction on church order, not private behavior in the home. If this passage describes church order, then if there is a proper way for women to pray, then it is clear that woman may pray. However, one can also argue, reasonably, that in chapter 10 Paul is speaking of basic Christian behavior, At the beginning of chapter 11 he is writing not of church order but generically on men and women, and around verse 16 of chapter 11 he segues into church order.

I am of the former persuasion, that Chapter 11 is applicable in toto to church order. Thus I believe that it demonstrates that utter silence is not demanded of women in church. Other passages do place restrictions, I believe, on the manner in which a woman can pray aloud before the body.

However, I see this as a wiggle room issue. I can understand someone who comes to the latter conclusion, that this applies to women in private and therefore does not repudiate the view that women should be silent in church. A tradition is in order here. I would not join a church in which the women had to remain utterly silent. On the other hand, I could not say that they were categorically wrong or had crossed over into pharisaic legalism.

Note also that wiggle room should not accommodate inconsistency. It seems to me, for example, an interpretation of this passage that (a) demands women wear head coverings in church and (b) does not refute utter female silence is inconsistent because in reaches the first conclusion by interpreting the passage as applying to the worship service and the second conclusion by interpreting the same passage (indeed the same verse) as applying to private conduct.

So, to summarize my understanding of this difficult passage:
  1. We are unambiguously told that men and women have different roles, although those differences are not spelled out. Furthermore, v8 and v9 demonstrate that this difference was built into creation; it is not a result of the fall. The fall exacerbated the differences, and also made them contentious.
  2. The question of head coverings, hair length, etc. is difficult to understand because of possible cultural specificity. It is therefore best left to the conscience of the individual.
  3. Reasonable people might differ on whether v5 repudiates a regulation on utter and total silence for women in church. I think it does, with stipulations to be found elsewhere.

Another relevant passage is found in 1 Timothy:
11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim. 2:11-15)

Verse 11 certainly subject to some interpretation. One way to look at it suggests that women should be good students: they should pay attention (no talking in class) and be submissive to the instructor. Looked at this way, Paul must have had experience with women who were disruptive, for he clearly addresses women in particular, even though it is obvious that men should be good students as well. (Kind of like when I got married, the pastor, aware of rampant divorce in my family, said "David, marriage is a life-long bond." The specificity was not because the rule applied only to me, but based on history.) Another way to look at it is that Paul is providing additional restrictions on the freedom of women in a situation of public instruction. Be extra quiet. Do not be argumentative. Be in submission.

To me the latter interpretation "smells" right.

Verse 12 is totally unambiguous. No wiggle room. Women should not teach men, nor have authority over them. In this regard, she must be silent. Nothing can change the plain meaning of this passage, so there are no possible debates among reasonable people.

Alas, nothing is ever so easy. There is still the difficult question of when does a boy becomes a man? We are going to need a church tradition here, for the bible does not specify a precise age, although a compelling argument based on Jewish tradition can be made that 13 is a reasonable though imperfect cutoff.

I tend to agree. At 13, most boys have entered or are about to enter puberty. Some women argue that this is when they most need instruction from women, especially on how to treat girls and women. I could not disagree more. They know in theory how to treat girls and women. The problem is that culture and their male buddies (even in Christian schools) are telling them something different: Nod your head when a woman says you should treat us with respect. Go along with it. But we know the truth is that they are toys for us to play with. To me it is clear that boys need a strong man, one that they respect, to tell them how to treat women properly. To hear from a man the implications of the fact that both Adam and Eve were created in God's image, equal before God as persons while distinct in their manhood and womanhood.

But those are just common sense reasons. I have no biblical support. My input would be that women should not teach boys (in a formal Sunday school setting) above the age of 13. I believe exceptions occur (we hold back our older son who is autistic, because he is not ready for advanced high school instruction.) I would not leave the church if the elders stated that, after careful biblical consideration, our policy is that it is acceptable for women to teach junior high. I probably wouldn't leave if the church said it was acceptable for women to teach high school, although I would pull my boys out and put them in the adult Sunday school. I would leave if the church had female teachers in the adult class. All I can do, like everyone else, is to try my best to discern God's truth and then draw my line in the sand.

I have no confidence that I understand the application of verses 13-15. However, that is not relevant for this discussion. For even if I don't know what they mean, in this context, it is clear that they affirm that differences, traceable to creation, exist between men and women. More telling, those differences are used to justify the role distinctions of verses 11 and 12. In what manner they justify is not obvious, but the intent is clear, for Paul begins v13 with the word For. That clearly implies that what follows is a justification for what was just asserted.

Enough said. Go forth and argue.

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