The key texts of the New Testament concerning the roles of men and women present a consistent teaching. Each text has its own point of origin and its own perspective and content, but together they sketch out what can be accurately described as the New Testament approach. These key texts are chiefly Pauline, composed in response to problems that arose in the context of the mission to the Gentiles and the Jews who lived among them.1 Thus the teaching in the New Testament on the roles of men and women originates in the context of the movement of Christianity from Palestine to the Gentile world of paganism and diaspora Judaism. While the debate over circumcision and Jewish ritual was the center of attention for Christians living in the Gentile world, it was by no means the only issue. The roles of men and women seems to have been another.
That teaching must now be placed more clearly against its background. The setting, intent, and purpose of New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women must now be considered. Is this teaching simply the result of cultural influences, rabbinic and/or Hellenistic? Is it simply an attempt to deal with a given social environment? Is it, in short, “just cultural”? Or does this teaching flow from a distinctively Christian understanding of the human race and of what human beings are supposed to be? Is it based on revelation?
The New Testament does see the roles of men and women, at least in certain respects, as of basic importance to God’s work of redemption in Christ. Furthermore, the New Testament sees Christian teaching in this area as distinctive, and not only accidentally so. It is distinctive because the roles of men and women as taught in the New Testament are an integral part of Christian teaching. This does not mean that the teaching on the roles of men and women is the most important part of the Christian message. However, this teaching is something more than an unreflective assertion of cultural prejudice or unconscious influences. It is also more than an attempt at accommodation to a given social structure. As some would express the point, the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women has theological grounding. To illustrate this, it is helpful to explore three areas: (1) the position of the teaching on personal relationships as a central focus of the New Testament, with the teaching on the roles of men and women as an integral part of that teaching; (2) the relationship of the teaching on the roles of men and women to rabbinic tradition and Greek culture; and (3) the criteria for deciding whether or not teaching of this kind is “just cultural.”
The fact that the New Testament consciously teaches an approach to personal relations involving certain social structure teachings, and that it grounds many of those teachings in God’s work of creation as restored by Jesus, gives us a better perspective from which to view claims that the Pauline teaching on the roles of men and women was simply taken over from rabbinic teaching.
Neither Jesus nor the early Christians saw themselves as rejecting the Judaic religion or the Judaic revelation. Jesus viewed himself as a teacher belonging to Israel who was teaching the true understanding of God’s righteousness. The early Jewish Christians saw themselves as Jews who were zealous for the law, but who believed that the messiah had come, that he would come again, and that they were already living in the messianic age in which the Spirit had been poured out. Paul viewed the Gentile Christians as grafted on to the tree of Israel. All the early Christians saw that the Jews as a whole had rejected God’s word for them in rejecting Jesus, the one whom God had sent. The early Christians held that the larger body of the Jewish people was, once again, not responding rightly to God. But they did not therefore completely reject Judaism as a whole. Nor did they reject the Old Testament. Jesus, Paul, and all the early Christian writers viewed the Old Testament as simply the scriptures—the authoritative writings that contained God’s revelation. They believed that it was important to have the right interpretation of the Old Testament. They also believed that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and much of the scribal tradition did not know what God’s righteousness was. But they did not therefore give up on the Old Testament.
Neither did the early Christians reject all the Judaic thought of their time that could not be found strictly in the Old Testament. The New Testament doctrine of angelology and demonology, for instance, cannot be found simply in the Old Testament,8 and there is no evidence that the early Christians thought Jesus or the apostles had invented this doctrine as a new revelation. Christians accepted it as a doctrine from other teachers of the time. There are even passages in the New Testament that refer to uncanonical writings such as the Assumption of Moses and the Book of Enoch as being in some way authoritative (Jude 1:9, 14–15). On the other hand, the early Christians did not simply accept everything in the Judaism of their time. Jesus took a clear stand against the “tradition of the elders” and many scribal teachings and interpretations of the law in matters such as purity, sabbath teaching, association with sinners, and divorce. Paul likewise clearly rejected some central rabbinic opinions, though his teaching had many rabbinic parallels. His opponents were at one point described as both believers (in Christ) and members of the Pharisaic party who were unhappy with his views (Acts 15:5). Paul was a convert who had probably been a rabbi, and he was still able to describe himself as a Pharisee on occasion (Acts 23:6). However, he also clearly taught the difference between Christianity and much of rabbinic Judaism on a number of points.
There are two possible grounds for holding that Paul was simply carrying over his former rabbinic teaching when he taught about the roles of men and women. The cruder version would hold that Paul’s teaching is Judaism and not Christianity because it is founded in Old Testament teaching. The other and more common view is that Paul’s teaching on men and women is rabbinic because there are parallels to it in rabbinic writings.9 However, both Old Testament foundations and rabbinic parallels are to be expected, since the early Christians viewed themselves as teaching a variety of Judaism correctly understood and interpreted, and they based this teaching on the Old Testament. Furthermore, they did not reject all the later developments in Jewish religious teaching held by their contemporaries, but selected those they viewed as right. The early Christians were not duty-bound to avoid everything any rabbi ever thought. In fact, one principal objective of many New Testament writings was the clarification of which rabbinic thoughts and teachings were in accord with Christian teaching and which were not. If Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the one who fought against Judaizing and against imposing the entire Mosaic law upon Gentile converts, did not have authority in his scriptural writings to say which Jewish teachings were in accord with Christianity and which were not, a contemporary writer impressed at finding some parallels in Paul to rabbinic writings is not going to turn out to be a safer guide or a greater authority.
In their teaching on the roles of men and women, the early Christians were more similar to the rabbis than different, because they accepted the whole Old Testament even while having some principles for deciding how various parts of the Old Testament applied in the new age (such as Mt 19:3–9). Moreover, despite what centuries of controversy on both sides might have one believe, the Christians and the rabbis were fundamentally of the same religion. But, at the same time, the early Christians were clearly different from the rabbis (and not always where modern writers would like them to be different). Where Christians saw the need for a distinctive approach, they had one. Their differences from Judaic and rabbinic teaching about men and women can be summarized in the following main points:
- Spiritual status. The primary difference was the one summarized earlier in the discussion of Galatians 3:28: In Christ all believers, Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, are one and belong fully to the new humanity. Their spiritual status as sons and daughters of God is identical.10 In a larger context, this means that Israel “according to the flesh” could no longer be viewed simply as the people of God, excluding Greeks and others. Nor could the social structure based on teaching designed for Israel “according to the flesh” be simply upheld. Hence, the various gradations of spiritual significance which the law made according to social role and descent were outmoded. It was no longer the case that only a free male of pure Israelite descent could have full privileges in the civic and religious life of “Israel” and greater access to God. Birth no longer determined spiritual privilege or status. As a consequence of this fundamental shift, the New Testament taught that women were partners with men in spiritual life, that men and women were to be loved alike with full care, that women were expected to bear as full a responsibility as men for conducting themselves rightly toward the family and community order. The New Testament taught also that women could pray, prophesy, work as missionary and pastoral workers, and take an active role in the work of the Christian people.
- Order in relationships. The second difference is one that contemporary Christian writers often have the most difficulty perceiving, namely, that the Christians were much more disciplined as a people in their approach to personal relationships than was the Jewish nation as a whole. The Christians were not more disciplined than the Essene-Qumran sect, which had a rather different approach to community discipline. But Christian teaching on community life laid a heavier stress on order and subordination than did most contemporary Jewish practice. Their teaching on subordination was not paralleled among the rabbis, nor was it found in the Old Testament in the same way. At the same time, Christian teaching strongly emphasized mutual love and service, and sacrificial love (related to the example of Christ and his cross) in a way that was not foreign to Judaism but was characteristically stronger among Christians. These two teachings—subordination and mutual love and loyalty—create a much stronger emphasis on relationships than do either the Old Testament or Judaism. Christian teaching about personal relations and social structure can be seen as a teaching about the restoration and strengthening of relationships, especially the redeemed community relationship and the family relationship.
- Marriage. The third difference, the change in approach to marriage, could be viewed as a subpoint of the second. Jesus took a stricter approach to marriage and the husband-wife relationship. He did not favor polygamy and divorce, and thus he strengthened the marriage bond. In addition to following Jesus’ teaching in this area, the early Christians put a greater stress on mutual love and spiritual service between husband and wife than did the Judaism of their time. While Jewish teachers did not neglect to teach husbands to love and respect their wives, they did not teach men to regard their wives as their spiritual partners the way the early Christians did.11 In other words, even though the Jews had a very strong approach to the marriage relationship in comparison with most pagans, the early Christian approach strengthened the marriage relationship even more.
In comparison with paganism, the early Christian approach was clearly Jewish. But by comparison with the rabbinic approach to Judaism, the Christian approach was distinctive. It was distinctive in a way that many contemporary Christian writers, with their own individualistic, non-communal approach to life, find difficult to understand. It was even stronger on relationships and order in community than were the dominant currents within Judaism.
The point that concerns us here, however, is the fact that the Christian approach was distinctive in regard to rabbinic Judaism. Distinctiveness does not mean that everything corresponding to rabbinic teaching was avoided in the pages of the New Testament, any more than it means that everything corresponding to Old Testament teaching was avoided in the pages of the New Testament. The existence of New Testament teaching which agrees with rabbinic teaching does not rule out the New Testament having a distinctive approach. The writers of the New Testament were quite able to decide to approach an area differently from the rabbis, and they often did so. Distinctiveness rather means that when the New Testament teaching on a subject is put together, it exhibits an approach that at some points is significantly different from the rabbinic approach. One who asserts that a particular piece of New Testament teaching is simply rabbinic and not Christian has to show not only that there are rabbinic parallels, but also that the teaching in question is at odds with Christian teaching in the minds of the New Testament writers. Failing that, it would be better to ask why modern minds have difficulty accepting some teaching that is both Christian and rabbinic.
The perspective provided by seeing that the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women is grounded in central New Testament teaching on Christian personal relations and social structure also illumines the relationship of the New Testament teaching to Greco-Roman society. If the key texts are passages which give the mind of the New Testament writers, then the evidence drawn from an analysis of those passages shows that the motivation for the core of New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women was not adaptation to the culture or surroundings. Rather, the motivation was faithfulness to a tradition of revelation of God’s purpose for the human race in its social structure.
There is, of course, some evidence of cultural adaptation in the New Testament teachings on the roles of men and women. Paul may have applied the principle of missionary adaptation in this area (see 1 Cor 10:32–33; 1 Cor 9:17–23). The teaching on headcoverings for women is one likely example of such adaptation. The early Christians and perhaps diaspora Jews before them were probably adapting the Jewish custom of the veiling of women in daily life to the Greco-Roman environment. Consequently, since women did not go veiled in daily life in the Greco-Roman world, the Christians restricted the custom to worship situations, the one time they felt it to be essential, and hence to the privacy of their own gatherings. It is possible that the role of women in service in the Christian community is another adaptation, because our evidence for the degree of active service for women comes from Gentile, not Palestinian or Jewish-Christian, environments. Many have held that this indicates that Gentiles and Jewish-Christians approached this area differently and, hence, that the approach of the Gentile Christians represents an adaptation to their environment.12 This view is by no means established, since it rests upon the lack of clear evidence for how the Jewish-Christian communities approached service by women. Yet it is possible, and, if true, it would be another example of cultural adaptation. However, the core of the Christian teaching on men’s and women’s roles—the insistence that the governing authorities in family and Christian community should be men, the insistence upon expressions of role differences in certain situations, and the basic patterns of family and community life in terms of the roles of men and women—shows no evidence of arising from cultural adaptation. Rather, the New Testament upholds this core of teaching as part of a view that the order in the Christian community is based upon God’s purpose in creation.
Here it is worth stressing that the New Testament could have drawn the line in a different place if adaptation to local customs was the main consideration. In other words, Paul and the other early Christians could have taken a different approach with respect to their environment than the one actually advocated in the pages of the New Testament if it had seemed right to do so. The rule about headcoverings in the form stated by 1 Corinthians 11 was not a Greek, Asian, or Roman Custom. Neither are there such parallels to the custom about women speaking in the assemblies in the form in which the custom is stated in 1 Corinthians 14. The rulings in 1 Corinthians 11 could have been omitted without causing any scandal to the local Gentile population. In addition, Greeks and Asians allowed priestesses and permitted a greater participation of women in the leadership of religious services and even of religious associations themselves. In other words, Paul and the other early Christian leaders were in an environment in which they would have taken a different position if adaptation to local custom was the primary principle they were following. Instead, they held out for an approach that made Christians different from their neighbors on a number of points, and they did so out of conviction that they were following God’s way.
The New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women can more safely be understood as drawing a line in how far Christians can go in adaptation, rather than as primarily motivated by adaptation. Some of the key texts bear signs of being something like standard teaching, that is, teaching given on a variety of occasions to help people with areas of their lives, rather than teaching which is especially designed to handle particular problems. The household code passages, for instance, are probably in this category. However, in other passages the writer is attempting to deal with a specific situation or is countering a specific trend. Both of the passages in 1 Corinthians seem to be in this category, as do some elements of the passage in 1 Timothy 2. The language used in all three of these passages is the kind used when someone is taking a stand. It is more emphatic, using more personal authority than is normal for standard teaching. The corrective character of these passages comes to especially vigorous expression in 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Corinthians 11:16, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Corinthians 14:36, and 1 Timothy 2:12. Moreover, as was indicated in Chapters Seven and Eight, the motivation in these passages seems to be a concern for subordination as upheld in the practice of all the Christian churches. In other words, these passages take a stand against some trends or threats within churches in a Gentile environment. The stand they take shows evidence of being an assertion of something regarded as basic Christian teaching on social order.
Many questions arise at this point. What approach are these passages countering? Were people in the Corinthian church advocating women praying and prophesying in worship services without headcoverings and taking part in instructional situations without observing “good order”? Were Christians in Asia Minor saying that women should perform some of the leadership functions of the elders in the community, especially giving authoritative teaching, or saying that women should become elders? Some have suggested that the passages are countering Greek cultural influences, and that one can see here the effect of the secular women’s “emancipation” currents upon the early Christians.13 Others have suggested that the problems being addressed in the passages arose from the conclusions some of Paul’s converts drew from his proclamation of freedom in Christ. Others have held that the teaching countered a movement that could be labeled proto-Gnostic, a movement which leads to the kind of emphasis on women characteristic of Gnosticism. These latter two positions could be merged together, since Christian teaching like Paul’s may well have been a factor giving rise to Gnosticism.
This whole question is complex and goes beyond what can be adequately discussed here. For our purposes, two observations are sufficient. First, one is dealing with problems stemming from a Gentile environment, an environment that was open to approaching the roles of men and women more loosely than Paul or other early Christians would find acceptable. The evidence is strong that Greco-Roman society was undergoing a weakening of traditional customs in the area of men-women roles and family life. This looseness may well have been part of a general weakening of social structure in Greco-Roman society, especially in Asia Minor and Greece, and could well be the background for both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. Second, whatever these influences from Gentile society might have been, the passages in question were taking a stand against them. The early Christian teachers were being pushed to a point beyond which they believed it was not right to go.14
In attempting to understand New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women in relation to the Gentile environment which served as its context, one is confronted with an impressive array of influence and cultural adaptation theories. The very variety of these theories and their failure to harmonize with one another, even at times within the same author, gives the impression that many scholars are saying, “but the early Christians must have been adapting themselves to their culture.”15 Many of the theories are plausible, at least superficially. In the final analysis, however, they are not borne out by the evidence. There is no positive evidence for them in the New Testament, whereas the New Testament does give strong indications that the decisive factor in the formation of the early Christian approach to the roles of men and women was faithfulness to a tradition of teaching on men, women, and social order that came to Christians from Judaism and was transformed in accordance with the gospel message. The New Testament shows evidence that the Christians were adopting a consciously distinctive approach.
They were clearly distinguishing themselves from the society surrounding them and the influences that worked on them. The early Christians held a consciously distinctive approach and, whether or not their approach satisfies those who may disagree with it, it cannot be dismissed as simply a matter of adaptation, reaction, or unconscious influence. Of course, it is always possible to say that the early Christians were “culture-bound” and therefore could not have devised an alternative to some of the basic points of their teaching about men and women. To be sure, it probably would not have occurred to them to come up with the approach of eliminating all role differences in family and society—the alternative that the contemporary environment proposes. However, it is not difficult to guess what the early Christian teachers would have thought of this modern Western alternative if they could have seen it—provided that they were sincerely committed to their own principles and not holding them merely out of a conscious or semi-conscious rationalization. They might not have very readily known what strategy to take in contemporary society, but the principles they used to decide how to approach Gentile society in their time would not have let them simply adopt a “no differences between men and women other than those indicated by competency” approach, even for reasons of cultural adaptation. They would have to abandon their fundamental principles in the area before they could begin to consider such an approach.
In summary, the evidence points to the view that the early Christians deliberately took a distinctive approach to the roles of men and women in relationship both to the Gentile environment and to rabbinic teaching. The Christian approach was distinctive in somewhat different ways in relation to each. The Christians built upon the Jewish tradition in the full conviction that it came primarily from God’s revelation, but they produced a distinctive understanding of that tradition based upon their understanding of the proper approach to interpreting the Old Testament as well as upon their understanding of the coming of the messiah and the requirements of the new age of the Spirit. As a result, their approach to the roles of men and women was different from that of the rabbis. They based their approach to the Gentile environment, however, on another set of principles. While there are some traces of cultural adaptation in the sense of modifying practices inherited from Judaism, there is more evidence of the early Christians taking a stand against Gentile practices. In most aspects of personal relationships teaching, they followed an approach which saw pagans as subject to uncleanness, to their own desires, and to evil spiritual influences. Hence early Christians saw pagans as unable to judge well about what is true righteousness (Eph 4:17–24; Lk 22:24–27; 1 Th 4:1–8; Ti 3:3–8; etc.). The approach of the early Christians to the area of the roles of men and women cannot be characterized simply as yielding to outside influences or as simply reacting against different cultures. The New Testament teaching on roles is not simply the sum total of the influences on the early Christians. Rather, this teaching is a distinctive approach of its own. It combines a respect for the authority of Old Testament revelation, an awareness of the change produced by the coming of the messiah, and a sensitivity to the need for some adaptation to different circumstances. It is a distinctive teaching, consciously faithful to a basic approach.
The New Testament presents a consistent, distinctive approach to roles of men and women, one that is grounded in the basic truths of God’s purposes for history. Yet that approach is very often dismissed as “just cultural” or as “culturally conditioned.” Often this view is expressed in terms of positions discussed earlier in this chapter, positions which too easily assume a simple cultural influence. As has been seen, it would be a mistake to view the New Testament writers as culturally naive individuals who did not deal with the cultural issue at all. To the contrary, the teaching on the roles of men and women was developed precisely as the New Testament writers attempted to deal with the cultural issue, and they did so from a set of teaching principles. Nonetheless, because of how the term “cultural” is used in much contemporary thought, the understanding outlined thus far cannot explain the whole issue. The very framework behind phrases like “just cultural” or “culturally conditioned” must be considered and related to the previous discussions in this chapter.
The term “culture” can be used in two significantly different ways. Sometimes it is used in a universal sense, as when one speaks about “the advancement of culture.”16 In this sense, “culture” refers to human social life insofar as it is developed by human beings and not simply given in an instinctual or semi-instinctual way by “nature.” “Culture,” however, can also be used in a particular sense to refer to the way of life of individual cultures, for example, the Palestinian Jewish culture or the contemporary American culture.17 In this sense, the term “culture” often refers primarily to those characteristics which are particular or unique to a given culture. When people speak of something as being “just cultural,” they normally mean that it is part of one culture and not considered a necessary part of any culture.
Two major categories of cultural elements can be distinguished: those which belong to social structure and those which are matters of social expression.18 Social structure is more fundamental than social expression. Something is a matter of social structure when it is a matter of the basic patterns of human life. The institutions, values, and principles of a society go into making up its social structure. Some elements of social structure which have already been discussed in earlier chapters include marriage and the way it is formed, the value placed on love in the New Testament, the order of subordination in marriage, and Christian community. By contrast, something is a matter of social expression when it concerns the way an action is carried out in a particular culture. Languages and gestures, art forms, and the minor ceremonies which mark off different areas of human life from one another are all matters of social expression. Some such matters already discussed in previous chapters are braided hair, headcoverings, and silence in assemblies.
Failure to distinguish between social structure and social expression often causes confusion. Discussions often take place in reference to matters of social expression, and the conclusions from these discussions are then mistakenly applied to matters of social structure. This results in distortion. For instance, in one culture, respect to elders may be expressed by bowing to them upon meeting; in another culture, respect may be expressed by not speaking to them or acknowledging their presence until the elders speak first. On the level of social expression, these two cultures could be seen as completely different in this area, since what is done in one culture is the opposite of what is done in the other. Yet on the level of social structure, these two cultures might actually be rather similar, since it may well be the case that in both cultures respect is being given to the elders for the same basic reasons. The different expressions of this respect might indicate some fundamental differences in value, but they might not. So too the variety of cultural expressions in the area of the roles of men and women can often mask a great similarity in basic structures. In other words, social expression can be likened to the “language” of social structure. The same social structure can often be translated into many different forms of expression.
Another important distinction in cultural matters or customs is between matters of little fundamental importance and those of greater importance. In considering the roles of men and women, people will often say, “that practice was just part of the culture of the day,” or “that was just the custom of the day,” or even “that was just traditional.” This usage is illustrated by the sentence, “The essential justification for the wearing of veils was simply social custom.” Although inaccurate, this statement manifests well a common attitude. The word “simply” (it could be “just”) implies that since one can put the wearing of veils into the category of custom, tradition, or “culture,” one is justified in approaching it as being of little significance, as something that can be passed over as one goes on to deal with matters of real importance. To be sure, some customs, traditions, and cultural practices have less importance than others. Yet some customs, traditions, and matters of cultural distinctness are part of the fundamental practices of a people. They are so important that they are foundational to a people’s way of life, as well as of far-reaching consequences to the quality and success of that life. This is true of matters of both social expression and social structure, although it is normally more true for the latter.
The issues before us in the area of the roles of men and women are indeed questions of social customs or culture, but it is not enough to categorize them as such, to say a few things about cultural influences and parallels, and then move on to something “more important.” The real issue has to do with the place of those customs, traditions, or cultural matters in the life of a people. Ethics are customs, but they are customs which define a way of life held to or followed with commitment. The United States Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man are statements of modern customs in government, but they would not be considered “just customs” or “just traditions” by the people in the United States or in France, even by those in opposition to them. Shaking hands might be considered “just cultural” in the United States, but the American Constitution is surely on a different plane. The same is true of some cultural expressions. Burning incense before idols was “just” a social custom in the ancient Roman world, but many Christians became martyrs because they refused to take part in it. A modern man might be amazed at the importance given to a gesture which seems to him of such little significance. But one who cannot understand how significant this “gesture” was cannot be said to have grasped Christianity at all, for he has missed one of the most central values in all Christianity, and along with that the significance of a custom which expresses this value.
The attitude of many modern people toward cultural questions is formed by two basic approaches, apparently mutually incompatible but actually often coexisting in harmony. These approaches are (1) cultural relativism and (2) the view that modern Western culture is superior to earlier, less advanced cultures.
When one who has taken an approach of cultural relativism, saying that something is “cultural” means that it is thereby relative and hence has no intrinsic authority. According to this view, one culture is as good as another, and therefore one culture’s practices are as good as another’s. Cultural relativism has entered into modern Christian thought in an influential way. It is not uncommon to hear Christians dismiss the subordination of the wife to the husband as “a Jewish custom” or “a matter of the culture of the ancient world.”19 The conclusion one is left to draw from these labels inevitably is that the custom has no authority in our lives because it is based on something relative and hence valid only for another culture. The same point is often made also about matters of sexual morality. Scripture’s ban on homosexual intercourse is seen as a restriction that comes from another culture and is therefore not universally valid. Even belief in God and Christ are often viewed as expressions of the religious consciousness of a more primitive culture or a particular society. For example, a noted Christian feminist who began by dismissing the authority of scripture in the area of the roles of men and women has recently drawn the implications of her principles in the area of belief in Christ:
A logical consequence of the liberation of women will be a loss of the plausibility of Christological formulas which reflect and encourage idolatry in relation to the person of Jesus. . . . The prevalent emphasis upon the total uniqueness and supereminence of Jesus will become less meaningful. To say this is not at all to deny the charismatic and revelatory power of the personality of Jesus (or of other persons). The point is, rather, to attempt a realistic assessment of traditional ways of looking at and using his image.20
The other approach to cultural questions is the view that our culture is advanced, or that as cultures evolve they improve, and therefore our culture is somehow “higher” than Jewish culture in the time of Jesus or than medieval society. This view allows one to ascribe such practices as a distinction in the roles of men and women to the cultural prejudice of a more primitive state of society. This attitude is well expressed in the following quote from a feminist writer:
It is not surprising that Paul did not see the full implications of this transcendence. There is an unresolved tension between the personalist Christian message and the restrictions and compromises imposed by the historical situation. It would be naive to think that Paul foresaw social evolution. For him, transcendence would come soon enough—in the next life. The inconsistency and ambivalence of his words concerning women would only be recognized at a later time, as a result of historical processes. Those who have benefitted from the insights of a later age have the task of distinguishing elements which are sociological in origin from the life-fostering, personalist elements which pertain essentially to the Christian message.21
In other words, society is now at a more advanced stage of evolution, and the experience we have gained from living in this society enables us to distinguish the more primitive and sociologically determined elements of Christian teaching from those that are truly advanced. Such a belief in social evolution is logically inconsistent with cultural relativism. In fact, however, the two approaches quite often coexist in the same person: Cultural relativism is used to dismiss something from the past, and belief in the “advanced nature of our society” is used to justify modern practices over past practices.22
For the Christian, the view that cultures are evolving and progressing is problematic. An evolutionary view is more convincing when applied to the history of technology; there has been a clear progress in man’s ability to master the natural environment and produce material things. Whether or not there has been a corresponding social or moral evolution to a higher level is debatable. A Christian who maintains Christian standards of judgment independent of the current opinions of society would, in fact, have to raise serious questions about the progress of our society. Neither cultural relativism nor a view of cultural progress which places our society at the pinnacle of human achievement can be automatically accepted by a Christian, no matter how prevalent these views are in our society.
If, as was said earlier, Christianity comes as a new way of life with its own teaching on righteousness and goodness and with a social structure of its own, then Christianity has to be seen as a culture of its own. The claim of the New Testament, translated into contemporary terminology, is that Christianity is God’s culture, that is, the revelation of God’s views on the way human beings should live their lives. In other words, Christianity teaches a human culture that is in harmony with God’s purposes and nature. Although the New Testament does not use the word “culture,” it recognizes the cultural implications of its message. It recognizes that conversion to Christianity requires a radical change in a person’s or society’s way of life:
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:17–24)
Moreover, the New Testament has a term for the social and cultural system in which Christians live that is not explicitly formed in Christ, and that term is “the world.” Sometimes the term “world” in scripture simply means all created things. But more often it is used to designate non-Christian society with all of its cultural ways. Against this society the scripture takes a firm stand:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever. (1 Jn 2:15–17)
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 Jn 5:4–5)
The scriptural opposition to the world is not an opposition between spiritual things and material things (or divine things and created things), as opposition to the world often came to mean for later Christian writers. Rather, scripture speaks about an opposition between God’s people living in God’s social order according to God’s way, and the non-Christian peoples living according to their own customs. It is an opposition between two social groupings and two cultures (even though one cannot say that all non-Christians form a united social grouping and culture).23 Later Christians gradually lost a consciousness of the scriptural meaning of opposition to the world as all members of society gradually became members of the Christian church. First the Roman Empire and then other nations converted to Christianity and began to transform their cultures according to Christian values and principles. As a result, a “Christendom mentality” developed which saw a particular set of nations and the Christians as the same. Much of the modern discussion on the roles of men and women is still based upon the unconscious assumption that what is acceptable in society should be acceptable among the Christian people. If society accepts a new principle such as the elimination of role differences between men and women, the Christian people should accept that principle too.24 However, a scriptural perspective should allow the Christian to see more clearly that the culture and ways of modern society do not have to be his. In fact, they cannot be his if he is to have friendship with God.
From the standpoint of New Testament teaching, a spiritual principle is at issue here that has serious consequences. The principle is this: The form a human culture takes depends on its spiritual relationship to God. When a human culture does not explicitly acknowledge the one true God and follow his ways, it will end up in perversion of true righteousness. This perversion will include distortion of sexual morality and family life. Paul puts it this way:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them. (Rom 1:18–32)
There is spiritual peril for Christians, then, in accepting the culture in which they find themselves and in approving the practices of the nations they live in. The New Testament called people to give up their old culture and to find a new one in Christ, and that call is still the same today. This does not mean rejecting everything in the old culture. But it does mean gaining enough spiritual separation from that culture so as to be free of its intellectual authority and influence. It also means gaining the ability to distinguish between good and evil in the culture according to the teaching of God rather than according to the accepted standards of the culture itself.
Christianity, then, forms a culture of its own.25 However, this does not mean that it has only one cultural expression or that it cannot be incarnated into and transform a variety of cultures. At various times Christianity has looked native to Jews, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Germans, Filipinos, Americans, Chinese, Bantus, and most of the major peoples of the world. Christianity can be translated into many cultures, expressing itself through a variety of languages, art forms, and social manners. Christianity does not have to bring Latinization or Westernization along with it. At the same time, as Christianity is translated into various cultures, the essential Christian way of life, social structure, values, and principles have to remain the same. Otherwise the result is not a translation but a new message. God’s culture can be expressed in some very different ways, but it still has to be God’s culture that is expressed in those ways. Christians cannot be content merely holding beliefs about certain doctrinal facts and then, in all other respects, living like those around them. Although Christian cultures can be expressed in a variety of ways, there are limits.
Christianity cannot indiscriminately take on all the expressions of a particular culture without modification. Burning incense to “the gods” is a cultural expression, but it is a cultural expression that is closely linked to idolatry. In the same way, baptism is a cultural expression that cannot be severed from Christianity. Christian worship can indeed take on a great deal of the surrounding culture. Its language, music, poetic expression, and often its ritual can become acculturated, but Christianity cannot take on every cultural form or abandon everything from its Judaic roots. Moreover, the need for missionary adaptation should not blind us to the fact that one culture can be superior to another in various ways. Some cultures are poorer in means of expression, or handle human emotions less successfully, or are less capable of material survival than others. Thus there are more principles of cultural adaptation than the principle of accordance with God’s teaching. Many of the issues involved in adapting the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women to a variety of cultural expressions go beyond the scope of this book. However, the last two parts of this book will dwell at some length on the problems presented in adaptation to the kind of environment produced by the modern way of life developed in Western society since the technological revolution. The question will be twofold: (1) how to remain faithful to the way of life and social structure (the culture) taught in the New Testament while living in a very different social environment, and (2) how to incarnate that culture in fitting expressions.
The above discussion on culture puts us in a better position to evaluate the modern quest for elements of Christian teaching that are not historically or culturally conditioned. Trying to determine whether or not a teaching is historically or culturally conditioned is not helpful in evaluating its worth, since everything human is historically and culturally conditioned. The real issue is this: Among the historically and culturally conditioned teachings we find before us, which have God’s authority behind them? Which are expressions of his ways, his character, and his purpose for the human race? When it comes to a conflict, which has more authority: a human culture, or the culture that God taught through Jesus and his apostles? The recent attempt to separate culturally determined elements from timeless truths in the area of Christian personal relationships and the roles of men and women has been just as much a failure as was the liberal attempt in the nineteenth century to identify the progressive, timeless elements of Christianity. Both attempts failed for basically the same reason. The reason is not, as is sometimes stated, that the enduring truths simply cannot be distinguished from cultural elements that are not essential to the Christian teaching. Rather, the reason is that when the scripture is allowed to speak for itself, it becomes clear that it is precisely those elements in it that many modern people would like to expunge as time-bound and culturally determined that the scriptural writers considered most central and fundamental. In consequence, modern writers who set out to disengage Christian teaching from culturally determined elements end up by canonizing the approach of their modern culture and using that as a standard by which to judge the teaching of scripture. They do this because they cannot find any standard within scripture that would allow them to accept the elements they want to accept and reject those they want to reject.
The cultural question for Christians should be very different from what it is for contemporary people who are not Christians. Contemporary Christians should be seeking to preserve the culture revealed by God while they live among people whose way of life is no longer compatible on many points, including many of the most fundamental ones, with what God has taught. This involves sorting out inherited cultural traditions so that the Christians can see more clearly what came from God’s revelation and what was accumulated from a particular culture and history. This also involves understanding what the distinctive Christian approach should be and how to wisely translate it into contemporary society so that Christians can be all things to all men—that they might by all means save some (1 Cor 9:22).
265*This point was clearly brought out in the course of the controversy in the Church of Sweden during the 1950s concerning the ordination of women. E. Sjöberg, writing in favor of women’s ordination, clearly acknowledged, but dismissed, the strong theological reasoning in the Pauline passages in these words:
In the Report—in which the shaping of the exegetical section was primarily my responsibility—it was not stressed strongly enough that Paul’s assessment of the role of women in the service of worship builds upon a concept to which he himself attached decisive and fundamental significance. The Report points out, to be sure, that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul refers to the order of creation itself in support of his view. But that should have been emphasized more strongly. Paul is trying to find the most forcible argument available in order to show that his view is based on the order of nature and of creation. The order of representation expressed in the model God–Christ–man–woman and the consequences which follow therefrom have absolute validity according to Paul. To break with that would be to break with God’s order and with that of nature. For Paul this is not a pragmatic question but a question of principle, and a matter of deep religious conviction.
The reason this fact was not more strongly emphasized in the Report was that the committee did not seriously consider the possibility that Paul’s view in this matter would be cited in the contemporary debate as a generally valid Christian view, normative for all times . . .” (cited in Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, 7–8).
Sjöberg had the great merit of clear-sightedly recognizing the exegetical facts and of putting the issue where it actually is: How are we going to respond to Paul’s teachings?
267*Most of the personal relations teaching in the New Testament is based on the new social order that the early Christians envisaged and lived in. Much, if not most, of the personal relations teaching is teaching for life in the body of Christ, not universal ethical principles. To be sure, the early Christian view was that everyone ought to be converted and become part of the body of Christ. But nonetheless most of the personal relations teaching in the New Testament is more accurately described as teaching on how to love brothers and sisters in the Lord who you live with as members of one body because you have been redeemed by Christ, belong to him, and have been filled with the power of the Spirit to love God and other human beings in a new way. It is not a teaching about what can be expected of all men simply by virtue of its universal validity.
There is evidence that the early Christians would have seen some of their teaching as being what we might call universal ethical teaching. Romans 1:18–32 and 2:12–16 show indications of such a view, and in this Paul was possibly continuing a line of thought familiar to us from rabbinic writings which attempted to trace out the commandments obligatory on Gentiles because they were given with the Noachic covenant to all men and not just to the Jews with the Sinaitic covenant.7 However, much of the New Testament teaching on personal relations was based on the Pentateuchal teaching about what should obtain between covenant brothers in distinction from what should happen in relating to those who were not part of the people of God (cf. Dt 15:1–6, 12–18, 23:19–20; Lv 25:35–46). To be able to make this distinction implies that understanding a social structure like the people of God is essential to understanding how to conduct oneself in relation to others.
269*In evaluating rabbinic parallels, one also cannot rule out the existence of Christian influence on rabbinic thinking, both in the sense of being formed by Christian teaching, and in the sense of reacting against it. Since the rabbinic texts are later, and for the most part attribute the relevant opinions to rabbis later than Jesus and Paul, the parallels could as easily argue for Christian influence on rabbinic thought as for the reverse.