In his essay in the volume Two Views on Women in Ministry (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), Thomas Schreiner argues that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man . . . for Adam was formed first, then Eve,” should be understood in light of the principle of primogeniture, or supremacy of the firstborn. This, he says, was an established principle of Hebrew life and culture and it provided the lens through which Paul’s readers (who were either Jewish or familiar with the Jewish Scriptures) would have understood his words. “The reversal of primogeniture” he adds, “explains why the stories of Jacob’s primacy over Esau . . . and Joseph’s rule over his brothers are so shocking” (p. 291).
Now it is true that God does legitimate primogeniture as a cultural principle for his chosen people. The firstborn son was to be given a double share of his father’s inheritance. These extra resources would enable him to carry on the family’s name and holdings as the leader of the next generation. In a context of polygamy, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 forbids a man from giving the “rights of the firstborn” (including the double share) to the younger son of a favored wife if his firstborn is the “son of the wife he does not love.”
The reason given is interesting and informative: the actual firstborn is the “first sign of his father’s strength,” literally the “beginning of his strength” or the first fruits of his virility. We are on culturally and scientifically different ground here; there was not yet an appreciation for how the man and the woman both contributed to the formation of the embryo. The belief, on an agricultural analogy, was that the man simply provided the “seed” that then grew within the woman. We won’t pause here to engage the complicated question of how and why God would accommodate such a partial understanding when he established the way of life for his chosen people. The bottom line is that the patriarch of the clan was to be honored as an earthly representative of the creative, life-giving God, and his firstborn son was similarly to be honored as a manifestation of the way in which the patriarch imitated and reflected the activity of God.
This much said, we must hasten to add that the stories of Jacob and Joseph aren’t the only shocking ones in the Old Testament for people who, in light of God’s own commands like the one we’ve just considered from Deuteronomy, expect the principle of primogeniture to be honored. God chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his ten older brothers, Manasseh over Ephraim, Gideon over his older brothers, and David over his seven older brothers. What’s going on here? Should primogeniture be honored or not, and if it should be, why does God disregard it with such reckless abandon?
My explanation would be that primogeniture is an important principle of the present age. (The association with the “first fruits of the father’s virility” anchors this principle firmly to the present age, which is concerned with marriage and procreation.) But primogeniture is not of concern for the coming age. God seems to disrupt the principle so commonly precisely to show that what he’s doing is not of the present age; it represents the coming age breaking in.
Indeed, in the community of the coming age, we are all first born. The author of Hebrews calls us the “church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” This is one of those cases where an attribute of Jesus, who is the “firstborn of all creation,” is transferred to the community of his followers.
So, in keeping with the paradigm I’m developing, I’d say that we need to balance the responsibilities of the present age with the freedoms of the coming age. If you are an earthly firstborn, you should accept and embrace a leadership role within your family, and expect your younger siblings to honor you and cooperate with you as you carry out this role under God. If you are not the firstborn, you should offer this kind of honor and cooperation to the firstborn, who is the leader of your generation of the family. If you are a Christian, you should be notable for your good attitude in this respect. At the same time, if a group of siblings are all believers, in terms of the coming age they are all “firstborn,” and so they should all do whatever they can to help one another use their gifts and opportunities to the fullest to advance God’s kingdom. They should submit to one another out of love and practice servant greatness towards each another. No ministry calling should be denied to a younger sibling in the kingdom of God on the basis that they are not the firstborn. A firstborn can legitimately defer to a younger sibling even when it comes to the “right of succession” in the leadership of a ministry that a previous generation of the family has established.
I think you can easily see the implications for the question of whether there should be restrictions on what women can do in the church. Perhaps some would find these implications shocking. Just like God’s choice of Jacob and Joseph.