Present-age relationships preserved but transformed

My argument is that the community  of Jesus’ followers is an embodiment of the new creation, the coming age that is already breaking into the present age.  In this community people now relate to one another in a new way.  They are no longer governed as they once were by first-creation distinctions such as Jew/Gentile, slave/free, young/old, male/female, etc.  When Paul talks about this in Galatians, for example, it seems to me that he’s not just saying that people of all kinds now have equal access to God through faith.  I believe he’s also talking about their standing within the community.  This is why, earlier in Galatians, Paul tells how he “opposed Peter to his face” when he stopped eating with Gentiles.  Paul says that the “truth of the gospel” was at stake in this interaction.  If the Galatian community was going to be one in which there were first-class and second-class citizens based on ethnic and religious identity, it was not a gospel community!

However, because the community of Jesus’ followers continues to exist within the first creation, its members must still honor and respect their existing earthly relational obligations.  And so, for example, as Paul writes to Timothy, those who are slaves should continue to show their masters full respect; even if the masters are believers, the slaves should not respect them less, but serve them even better because they are their brothers.  In other words, this earthly relationship is not obliterated but rather it is transformed. I would argue that in the same way, a wife should not show less respect for her husband if they are both believers, but rather a qualitatively higher kind of respect, because he is her beloved brother in Christ. I think many of Paul’s controversial comments about women need to be understood and interpreted as teaching this principle, as we’ll see when we get to them.

At the same time, a husband should show a qualitatively higher kind of love for his wife, since she is his beloved sister in Christ.  As I envision this, the husband striving to present his wife “spotless and radiant” (as Paul says in Ephesians) has to include wanting to see her develop and make full use of the gifts God has given her.  More about this later, too.

We’ll also need to consider whether, according to the Bible, there any basic relational obligations that men in general have to women in general, and that women in general have to men in general, and how these obligations will be both honored and transformed in the community of Jesus’ followers.

Striking a balance between the obligations of the present age and the freedoms of the coming age is, in my opinion, the key to resolving the vast interpretive question before us.  In the following posts I’ll start getting into the specifics.

As in marriage, so in the church? As in the church, so in marriage?

One thing all interpreters in this debate have in common, so far as I can tell, is the belief that the respective roles of men and women should be the same in marriage and in the church.  Those who call for restrictions on what women can do in the church argue that because the husband is in authority over the wife, men should be in authority over women in the church, and so women should be restricted from assuming roles in which they are in authority over men.  Those who oppose such restrictions argue that men and women are equal in the church (appealing, for example, to statements such as, “There is . . . neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), and that marriage, too, should therefore be “egalitarian” (to use a term I said I wouldn’t use).

What I wrote in my last post about the present age and the coming age suggests, however, that the respective roles of men and women will not necessarily be the same in marriage as in the church.  If marriage is an institution of the present age while the church is an institution of the coming age, then even if we do interpret the biblical teaching in such a way as to conclude that the husband is in authority over the wife (and that’s a complicated discussion in itself), we don’t necessarily have to infer that men will also be in authority over women in the church.  This is an idea that I will develop more in the course of our discussion.

But doesn’t the Bible itself say that there’s an analogy between marriage and the church?  Isn’t marriage supposed to be a “mystery” that reveals something about “Christ and the church”?  Yes, but note what specific analogy Paul draws in his letters:  husband is supposed to be to wife as Christ is to the church.  That is, Christ relates to men and women together in the community of his followers as husbands should relate to their wives (lovingly and sacrificially).  What Paul specifically does not say is that husband is to wife as man is to woman in church. So if the institution of the present age, marriage, can shed some light on the institution of the coming age, the church, it’s to show us that we are all together, men and women, the beloved of our heavenly bridegroom.  I don’t see a mandate there for restrictions on what women can do to honor and serve that bridegroom.

The Character of God’s Inbreaking Kingdom is Normative

A few years back I was asked by the church I was then pastoring to lead an adult class on the topic of women’s roles.  In preparation for the class, I went back into the debate between those who insist on and those who protest against restrictions on what women can do.  I’d read widely in this debate before, but this time I was struck by how each position could appeal to much in the Scriptures to support its viewpoint.  I realized that each group was taking one block of data as normative and explaining the rest of the data in light of it.

For example, those who took the restrictive position were taking certain of Paul’s statements as normative and explaining the many women in the Bible whom God seems to have called into roles that violated these statements as exceptions, understandable in light of their place and time and specific circumstances.  Those who argued against restrictions took the example of these women as normative and explained Paul’s statements as exceptions, understandable in light of their place and time and specific circumstances!

So which approach was right?  Was each side in the debate simply privileging certain data based on its own prior convictions, preferences, and presuppositions? Was it inevitable that all interpreters would do this, so that the debate could never be resolved?  In cases where the Bible seems to be ambiguous, so that interpreters of good will can legitimately differ, is it simply up to us to decide?  Or might there be, I asked myself, some overarching principle, organizing theme, or grand narrative arc in Scripture that allowed us to determine in large, disputed cases like this from the Bible itself what was normative and what was exceptional?

I decided to approach the class from the viewpoint that there is a grand design in Scripture that we can follow in order to determine what elements in the Bible are normative and what elements are exceptional.  As a rule most Christians  appeal to the life and teachings of Jesus as the normative part of the Bible and they explain more difficult parts in light of his teaching and example.  While I agree with this entirely, I’m going to try to take it a little further.  I see the life and teachings of Jesus as the culmination of God’s work, pursued throughout the course of the history of the divine-human relationship recorded in the Bible, to restore what was lost at the time of the first creation by bringing in a new creation.  Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” to describe God’s activity breaking into the present creation in order ultimately to bring about the new creation.  (I understand the term in this sense: the kingdom of God is present on earth wherever and whenever God’s will is done without resistance, that is, on earth as it is in heaven.)

The implications are that some elements in the Bible represent provisional arrangements that God has made to govern and regulate relationships in the present creation that’s awaiting renewal, while other elements represent arrangements that God is introducing as part of the inbreaking kingdom in order to bring about this renewal, and so they reflect God’s original and ultimate intentions.  The apparently conflicting data can be resolved by describing some of it as provisional and therefore subordinate to the remaining data that is original and ultimate.

Now I realize that some people will disagree with me about which arrangements belong in each category.  That’s an exciting discussion I’m looking forward to having.

But others may disagree with me about the grand organizing principle of the Bible.  They may counter, for example, that the Bible is actually the history of the several dispensations by which God has governed his relationship with humanity and the world, and that data relative to the current “church” dispensation (basically that found in the New Testament epistles, even more so than in the teachings of Jesus) must be privileged above data relating to any of the other dispensations.  There can be no resolution to the debate at this level.  In other words, if you’re going to come along for the rest of this blog, you need to be willing to engage my arguments within my understanding of the grand organizing principle, and not appeal to another principle to invalidate them.  Fair enough?