Another present-age consideration that doesn’t matter in the coming age: male and female

As we read through the Scriptures we discover that whether a person is a man or a woman is one more consideration that doesn’t seem to matter to God as He looks for agents of his inbreaking redemptive work.

God reminds the Israelites through Micah, “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” Miriam is called a “prophetess” in Exodus when she leads a song after the Red Sea crossing (NIV has “prophet” but the Hebrew form is not surprisingly feminine), and she and Aaron insist in Numbers (their words are true, even though their motives are unfortunately bad) that the Lord has spoken through them as well as through Moses.

Deborah is similarly describe in Judges as a “prophetess” and it’s said that she “judged Israel”: “The Israelites went up to her to have their disputes settled.”  In this capacity she was performing a function that would belong to Israel’s later kings.

When David’s general Joab pursued a rebel leader to the city of Abel and besieged the city to capture him, a “wise woman” negotiated with Joab from the city wall and arranged to turn over the leader (actually, throw his severed head over the wall) so the city would be spared.  She was functioning the way a city elder would, identifying a wise solution to a difficult social problem at the city gate. (In this case the gates were closed because of war so the walls served the same function.)

When the law of Moses was rediscovered in the temple during Josiah’s reign and God’s impending judgment was recognized, the king told his highest officials to “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people.”  They went to Huldah the prophetess, even though Jeremiah and Zephaniah were also prophesying in Jerusalem at this time. She responds authoritatively, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says . . .”

We see similar examples in the New Testament: women accompany Jesus, learn from him, provide for him, and care for his crucified body; Philip’s four daughters prophesy; Phoebe reads Paul’s letter to the Roman church; Junia is identified in that letter as an “apostle”; etc.

Even though some interpreters try to parse these women’s roles finely to show that in some way they conform to Paul’s supposed prohibition of women in authority roles, the basic fact is undeniable: God uses women just as well as men throughout the Scriptures as agents of his inbreaking redemption.  So why shouldn’t they be allowed to serve as similar agents today, without restriction?

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptues

More present-age considerations that don’t matter in the coming age

We saw last time that primogeniture is a present-age consideration that does not matter in the coming age, even as it breaks into the present age. There are many other present-age considerations that don’t matter, either, as God looks for willing people to use as agents of his inbreaking redemptive work.

One of the laws in Deuteronomy says that “no one of illegitimate birth nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation” (23:2). This law was likely intended as a deterrent, to discourage births outside of marriage and ensure that children had loving, responsible parents. But even though illegitimate children could not even enter the assembly of the Lord (that is, participate in public worship in the tabernacle and temple, the basic expression of community membership), God chose to use Jephthah, an illegitimate child, to be one of the judges who delivered the people of Israel from their enemies. (Jephthah is notorious for offering his daughter as a human sacrifice after his victory, and while this shows his regrettable ignorance of God’s ways, it doesn’t negate the way God used him to deliver Israel; Jephthah is called one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews.)

The law of Moses teaches deference to the aged.  “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Leviticus 19:32). In keeping with this teaching, Elihu waits to speak to Job until after all of his older friends have spoken. Nevertheless, God uses David to defeat Goliath, even though, as Saul objects, “You are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” Two of the most godly reforming kings of Judah, Joash and Josiah, assumed the throne at young ages.  Paul told Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.” Instead, Timothy was to use the gift that was given to him through prophecy when the elders laid their hands on him–the inbreaking coming age trumps present considerations.

The people of Israel were supposed to observe a strict separation from Gentiles. Nevertheless, God used many Gentiles as agents of his inbreaking redemptive work. Rahab protected Joshua’s spies and was instrumental in the conquest of Jericho. In the book of Judges, Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, killed the fleeing general Sisera to complete the defeat of Jabin’s armies. Ruth saved Naomi’s life and ultimately became the great-grandmother of David and an ancestress of Jesus. The Persian emperor Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans to return from exile; at one point in Isaiah, Cyrus is even identified as one expression of the “servant of the Lord,” whose ultimate identity is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus himself observed how God showed his reality by rescuing the widow in Zarephath and healing Naaman the Syrian in the time of Elijah, when more faith was found in these Gentiles than in the people of Israel.

Well, I think you see where this is going, but we’ll look at God’s use of women as his agents of inbreaking redemption in the next post.

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

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.

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?

Defining the Terms

In this blog I will use the term “non-restrictive” to describe the position that there should be no restrictions on what women can do in the church.  I will use the term “restrictive” for the position that women, because they are women, should be restricted from doing certain things.

Why not employ the more widely used terms “egalitarian” and “complementarian”? I find these terms less useful because they contrast two things that are both good and that aren’t really opposites. (Kind of like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” in the abortion debate. The real issue there is whether abortion should be legal or illegal.)  Those who feel there should be no restrictions on what women can do still agree, for the most part, that men and women are complementary beings who will go about doing even ostensibly the same things in characteristic and different ways.  Those who feel there should be restrictions still agree, for the most part, that men and women are equal in status and dignity. I want to keep the focus on the actual question at stake.