Present-age considerations in the New Testament

In recent posts we’ve been seeing how, in the First Testament, God’s inbreaking redemptive activity wasn’t limited by present-age considerations such as primogeniture or the youth, sex, social status, or ethnicity of the redemptive agent.  What happens as we move into the New Testament?

As the new creation is inaugurated, God forms a new covenant community that embodies his inbreaking work by pouring out His Spirit on “all flesh,” that is, upon redeemed people without distinction. We see this most clearly in Peter’s quotation from Joel on the day of Pentecost to the effect that membership in the community and possession of the Spirit do not depend on considerations such as whether a person is male or female, young or old, slave or free:  “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”  Paul writes similarly in Galatians that “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith . . . There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Spirit-filled, “charismatic” ministry becomes not an exceptional occurrence, but the norm within the inbreaking community.   In the New Testament we thus see God gifting and using young people, servants, Gentiles and women in positions of spiritual ministry and leadership, and insisting on their full privileges within the covenant community.  (At the same time, people in all of these groups are told to continue to respect the first-creation order in which they are still living.  But in keeping with the gospel of grace, this respect consists in their heart attitudes and gracious conduct, not in their ineligibility for spiritual leadership roles.)

Timothy is told not to let anyone look down on him because he is young, but to set an example for other believers.  Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”  All of the seven deacons chosen in Acts to assist the apostles in the distribution of food have Greek names and are likely (at this point in the movement’s growth) Gentile converts to Judaism who have come to believe in Jesus.  Shortly afterwards Gentiles will be welcomed directly into the community.  (This happened to such an extent that Paul could specify to the Colossians that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus were his only Jewish co-workers!)  And as I noted in my last post, women had active leadership roles in the new community.  Phoebe read Paul’s letter to the Romans; Priscilla and her husband Aquila were Paul’s valued co-workers and hosted a church in their home; Paul says that Junia is “outstanding among the apostles”; Philip’s four daughters were prophets; Nympha hosted the church of Laodicea in her home.

To me the record of God using women in precisely the kind of roles that some people would restrict them from is so clear and consistent throughout the Scriptures that the only remaining question is, “Then how do we account for those controversial sayings in Paul’s letters?”  I’ll start looking at those next time.


Present-age considerations that do not matter in the coming age: primogeniture

Raphael, Samuel Anoints David

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.