Christians through the centuries have viewed the scriptures as a unique book (or collection of books). They have believed that the scriptures come from God in a way that no other book has. They have said that God is the author of scripture and that scripture is his word which he has spoken through human beings. If these statements are true, or even if they contain some truth, a person’s approach to the scriptures cannot be merely detached or scholarly. Each person is approaching a book which is intended to address him or her personally; in fact, it is a book in which God is addressing him or her personally.1 Scripture is not simply interesting data or thought. By its very nature, it calls for a response. Therefore, the way a person talks and thinks about scripture is itself a religious response. The approach people take to the scripture is an important part of the way they approach God. This fact may be disguised behind phrases like “Contemporary Theories of Inspiration,” “The New Hermeneutics,” “A Realistic Interpretation of the Scripture,” “Biblicism and Fundamentalism.” But it is nonetheless true that the way people read the scripture involves their response to God. From the Christian point of view, the question of the authority of the scripture is a question about how to approach God himself.
Few would deny that the scriptures teach about the roles of men and women. The question remains, however, how a person will respond to that teaching. Many people in secular society will catalog the views of scripture on this subject under such headings as “First-Century Thought” or “Approaches of Pre-Industrial Cultures” or “Ideas from Great Religions.” They will, in other words, file them away as interesting specimens of human thought, or even as possible examples of significant human wisdom—products, perhaps, of religious genius.2 However, such people will not decide that something is true on the basis that it is taught in the New Testament.
Others, who consider themselves to be Christians, will take a similar approach. They will catalog the scriptural views under headings like “Paul’s Opinion” or “Primitive Christian Thought.” These people will, in other words, respect the scriptures as worthy of great attention, as important sources or data from which their opinions will be formed, as opinions which they would not want to blatantly contradict; yet they too will not hold a viewpoint or adopt an approach on the basis that it is taught in the New Testament. All of these people might give the scriptures weight, authority in the sense of something to which one should pay attention and be influenced by, but they will not give them authority in the sense of being the highest norm for their minds and lives. The position of scripture, once ascertained, will not be automatically decisive for them.
The question of authority is concerned with scripture as a norm or criterion for the beliefs and way of life of Christians. The scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women has a normative aspect. It involves questions of fact, but it is primarily the presentation of instructions for how Christians should conduct themselves. Even where possible facts such as God’s creation of the human race as male and female for his own purposes come into the teaching on men and women, their acceptance as facts rests upon the authority of scripture for determining the beliefs of Christians. The issue, then, is whether the scripture ought to determine the way people think and act in the area of the roles of men and women.
The question of authority not only differs from the question of content—that is, what the scripture teaches—but it also differs from the question of application. The scripture could, for instance, teach a consistent approach to the roles of men and women with the highest authority, and its teaching still might turn out to be inapplicable to all peoples subsequent to the industrial revolution. It might not even be addressing the situation of modern people. Part Three of this book will treat questions of applicability. The question of authority, however, is distinct from the question of applicability. The question of authority concerns personal response.
The traditional Christian view has been that the scripture (both Old and New Testaments) has highest authority for the beliefs and life of Christians.3 This means that Christians ought to change if they discover that their beliefs contradict those presented for acceptance by scripture or if they discover that their way of life does not conform with that directed by scripture. The word “authority” is not a traditional word to describe the scripture.4 It is, however, commonly used in modern theological discussions of the nature of scripture.5 To say that the scripture has the highest “authority” in this case does not necessarily mean that there are no other authorities or that there is nothing else which also has highest authority. Some would hold, for instance, that tradition, reason, or personal revelation likewise have highest authority. In the sense used here, highest authority means that there is nothing which should cause Christians to contradict or otherwise set themselves at odds with scripture.6
A more traditional word for describing the claim scripture has upon the Christian is “canonical.” The word “canon” means “rule” in the sense of a “yardstick” or “ruler.”7 Something which is canonical is a standard for measuring or judging something else. In this sense, the canonical scripture is the standard against which all other opinions can be measured. If something is at odds with scripture, it is not Christian and therefore for a Christian not true.
The authority of scripture, in the traditional approach, is grounded in its origin. The scripture is composed of writings which come from God.8 They contain the highest revelation of God and of his intentions for the human race. The scriptures are not merely human books or collections of human opinion, although they are also these things. They are books which contain God’s revelation of himself. When people deal with scripture, they deal with God himself—the creator of the universe, the one who has all power in heaven and earth, and who knows all things. They are dealing with the one whose opinions count, whose word is automatically truth because he knows everything, and because he does not lie. God himself is a rock, and his words are faithful and true. Therefore, anyone who does not approach the scripture with fear of the Lord either does not know what the scriptures are or does not know who the Lord is.
There are two words which have been commonly used to describe the origin of the scripture as from God: inspired and apostolic. The New Testament books, the part of the scriptures with which we are primarily concerned in this book, were written by inspiration with apostolic authority and are therefore accepted as canonical for the Christian faith.
“Inspired” means that the New Testament writings are given by God. They are the product of the Holy Spirit, inspiring the human authors to write these books. To make this basic point, the different approaches to scriptural inspiration do not need to be discussed.9 Here it is sufficient to say that the collection of books called scripture are writings which have been described as inspired by God (cf. 2 Tm 3:16), meaning that they were given through the work of the Holy Spirit and can be counted on to give truths from God. Human beings actually wrote the scriptures, and the scriptures bear many marks of the human personalities of their authors, but these works were nonetheless written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and this inspiration guarantees their truthfulness.
“Apostolic” is a second word that is important for understanding the New Testament’s origin in God. In this case it designates the way his inspiration is mediated through authoritative human beings. The New Testament has been handed down as a collection of apostolic writings. Whether this means that the writings of the New Testament were actually penned or dictated by one of the apostles is a question that is not crucial for our concerns. It suffices here to say that the term “apostolic” at least indicates that the work in question comes to us under apostolic authority; that is, it comes to us as the teaching of one of the apostles. The apostles are the foundational authorities of the Christian church (Rv 21:14), and the foundational authorities of Christian teaching.10 They have a unique authority, the highest authority after Christ. They were delegated by Christ to do whatever was needed to establish the Christian people after his resurrection and ascension, and that role included teaching (Mt 28:19–20). They therefore exercised Christ’s authority and did not hesitate to speak with his authority (2 Tm 3:6–15; 1 Th 4:1–2). Clement of Rome, a contemporary of the apostles and a man taught by them, summed up their position in this way: “The gospel was given to the apostles for us by the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus the Christ was sent from God. That is to say, Christ received his commission from God, and the apostles theirs from Christ.”11
Reading some contemporary scholarship on scripture leads to approaching the apostles as though they were merely early Christian thinkers, limited men like all other men. Most scholars discuss Paul as a theological thinker, or evaluate John’s opinions, or reflect on the origin of Matthew’s views, and so forth. To do so is unavoidable, both because scripture scholarship is a secular discipline, and because the human authors of scripture did stand in human history under historical influence, and they were limited men of a particular age in history. It is sometimes helpful for a Christian to look at them in that way. But if this view dominates, one loses the Christian perspective on the apostles—namely, that they were given the foundational authority to establish the Christian people and they were delegated the authority of Christ to teach, and were often equipped with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do so. A collection of the books that represent the apostolic teaching has therefore become the canon for the Christian people.
“Inspired” and “apostolic” have been chosen here to describe the scripture insofar as it originates in God. They have been chosen because they are two of the most common terms used in Christian tradition for this aspect of the scripture. Of the two, “inspired by God” is the more important term. It should, however, also be observed that the books of the scripture were probably not received as canonical simply because their inspiration was discerned or their apostolicity was well attested. Very commonly books were eliminated because they did not teach unquestioned orthodoxy. They were discerned, in other words, on the basis of their content. That too was seen as a sign of their origin from God. The fundamental point, however, is simply that scripture has been given the authority it has because it has been understood to be from God and to be reliable as an expression of his mind.
Sometimes this understanding of the nature of scripture is attributed to Protestantism, while Catholicism is often said to substitute the church for the scriptures. However, Catholic teaching on this point is no different than most Protestant teaching that holds to the authority of scripture.12 Both Catholics and Protestants stand on the same ground in approaching the scripture as authoritative truth from God. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on Divine Revelation (sec. 11), makes this point very clear:
The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20:31; 2 Tm 3:16; 2 Pt 1:19–21; 3:15–16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.
Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures. Thus “all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:16–17, Gk. text).13
In Catholic teaching as well as in Protestant teaching, nothing can overrule or contradict scripture—not pope, council, inspired prophet, or great theologian.
There are many questions connected with the authority or canonical status of scripture, not the least of them why these twenty-seven books and only these twenty-seven books are contained in our canon and should be regarded as having highest authority.14 Christian theologians have traditionally answered these questions in various ways. The fundamental point, however, is that we do have a canon, and the books in that canon have the highest authority for a Christian because they have been given by God through the Holy Spirit. This is a faith position (like all faith in Christ or in his word). Christianity is based upon the recognition of God speaking in the words of men. The acceptance of the canon is also a first principle. It determines to a great extent what someone will claim that Christianity is. If someone does not accept the New Testament as canonical, or only accepts something in the New Testament as canonical, that person will come up with a different religion. That religion may preserve some faith in Christ, and it may be properly termed “Christian” by historians or sociologists, but it will be different from traditional Christianity. The New Testament as a whole is foundational for faith in Christ.
If the New Testament is a collection of inspired apostolic writings that are the canon, then it has the highest authority in the life of a Christian. It presents words from God, the Lord of all, and it must be believed and obeyed. To use a term from the New Testament (2 Cor 11:4), Christians must “submit” themselves to it.15 They must submit their minds, indeed their whole lives, to it. That submission includes both believing it where the scripture proclaims a fact about the Christian faith, and obeying it where the scripture indicates the Lord’s desires. Christians must respond to scripture as something with authority in their lives, in such a way that it is enough for them to know that scripture has taught something in order to accept it and follow it. Scriptural teaching is not merely one of many opinions, viewpoints, or theologies. It is the standard against which all other opinions must be measured. If other views do not correspond, they must be rejected.
The concern here is not primarily with an intellectual position, but a question of how people should orient their lives. One can easily begin to approach scripture as a source of opinion or a justification for different propositions, taking a stance in regard to it as a thinker who makes use of scripture. While Christians must think about scripture, they may not stand over it, using it for their purposes. Approaching scripture is approaching the Lord himself. It should be received as a message from the Lord. The appropriate attitude is one of submission—the submission that should mark any relationship with the Lord. Righteousness demands submission to the Lord.
Contemporary society, however, does not value personal submission. Rather, it teaches that the ideal, the highest position a human being can attain, is that of personal autonomy. The human being who decides for himself, who is creative, that is, who devises novel opinions or viewpoints, the human being who is “adult,” taking the responsibility to make his own decisions—this is the human being who is valued.16 By contrast the ideal for a Christian is to submit totally to God, to be molded and formed by him, to desire first and foremost to be what God wants. The Christian is the servant (doulos—slave) of Jesus Christ; perhaps a voluntary servant, but a servant nonetheless (Rom 6:16–23).17 He is the person whose life does not belong to himself, but who has given it completely, his mind included, to another—his Lord.
Many modern Christians have lost not only the sense of the dignity of submission to the Lord but also an understanding of how to submit. They no longer have an instinctual understanding of the importance of obedience as an aspect of personal loyalty to God, and of how obedience grows out of personal devotion to him. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Obedience and love go together. But loving obedience is not content merely to keep the explicit commandments that are solemnly enjoined. Loving obedience also means eagerness to follow his preferences as well and to be formed by all of his desires. Christians who show loving obedience want their lives to be formed by the Lord’s desire, so that it is pleasing to him even in the smallest respects. Moreover, loving obedience is active obedience. It does not wait for the Lord to make his will known but seeks out the Lord’s will. It is eager to discover where the Lord has a preference, and to follow it. Concretely, obedience means comparing one’s mind and one’s thinking with the Lord’s mind and thinking as found in scripture. Obedience means changing one’s mind when it is not in harmony with the scriptures and changing one’s life when it is not shaped by God’s desires as revealed in the scriptures. This attitude does not deny that God can reveal his will in other ways, but it does emphasize that he has revealed his will in scripture, and that one must at least be eager to follow what is stated there.
Christians are often tempted by a selective submission. Some scriptural teaching is very attractive to them, and they find in themselves an admiration and a willingness to submit to it. Modern Christians usually find it easier to feel enthusiastic about Christian teaching about God’s fatherhood or about love of others. Some scriptural teaching, however, contradicts their desires. Some may even repulse them. To be sure, often the difficulty is genuine uncertainty about how to respond to some part of scripture. Often a person may know that the scripture is saying something on a given subject, but can be uncertain how to understand or apply what is said. Despite some uncertainties, for most Christians there remains much scriptural teaching that is sufficiently clear, or could seemingly become sufficiently clear with more investigation, but which they find themselves unwilling to submit to. The genuineness of submission is tested precisely at these points. They prove that their submission is genuine, and not a mere pretense, when they submit to the Lord in something which is personally difficult and which may lose them the respect of the world around him. A Christian may be uncertain about how to submit, but should not be selective about submission.
Some people today would dispute the notion that submission is the ideal for the Christian. They claim that such an ideal is opposed to the Christian freedom proclaimed in the scriptures. Yet the submission being described here is closely related to true Christian freedom. Paul is the great apostle of Christian freedom, but the Christian freedom taught by Paul is not the same as the freedom extolled by modern man. For the modern mentality, freedom is the ability to set one’s own standards, to submit to no person, to chart one’s own course. The freedom Paul teaches about comes in Christ and through faith in him.18 It is a freedom defined primarily in relationship to the Mosaic law. The two great epistles of Christian freedom, Galatians and Romans, are concerned with questions about the need for Gentile Christians to conform to the Mosaic law, especially in its ritual provisions. Christian freedom as taught by Paul, then, is first of all a freedom from the ritual provisions of the Mosaic law, at least for the Gentiles. But it is also a freedom from the (Mosaic) law in its entirety as the way to enter into the full relationship with God and the full status as his people. Behind this change is an understanding that the purpose of law is not to give life but to reveal sin (Rom 7:7–12). Life, relationship with God, power to live the Christian call, come through faith in Christ and through the Spirit of God given to us.
The freedom that Paul teaches is not, however, a freedom to disobey the ethical prescriptions taught in Old and New Testament alike, much less a freedom to set our standards and to submit to no one.19 There was a temptation to abuse Paul’s teaching in that way, but Paul understood that temptation as providing an opportunity for the flesh, that is, an opportunity to follow our own will and desires (Gal 5:13). Paul expected freedom to operate in precisely the opposite way. It should produce an ability and a desire to live the kind of life which not only fulfills the commands of the law but which proceeds to an even more complete and demanding love. It is a freedom to submit to God and to do his will with a more perfect submission than had existed under the law, when the commands of God were written on tablets of stone and not on the heart (2 Cor 3:3). It is freedom from the law, but a freedom that is meant to put us into a direct relationship of obedience to our Father as his sons and daughters (Gal 3:23–4:7). In fact, the same Paul who insisted so strongly on freedom could also insist strongly on obedience, and could act as a disciplinarian, commanding respect for his own authority because his authority and discipline were spiritual, conferred on him by the Lord Jesus under the New Covenant (1 Cor 4:18–21). Freedom is another area in which contemporary man is ready to find contradictions in Paul, contradictions that never existed in Paul’s mind. Here again, the contradictions are not in scriptural teaching. Rather, they arise when the scriptural texts are interpreted using a modern understanding of freedom alien to the scriptural mentality.
Submission, then, does not conflict with “freedom” in the scriptural sense. It can be undercut, however, by an approach to freedom which leads Christians to understand their lives in terms of their own rights. The discussion of the roles of men and women is often framed in a way which stresses the need to give women their rights and which urges them to claim or defend their own rights. At first, such an approach was used to claim for women basic legal protections and constitutional guarantees. Presently, it is often used to orient people toward seeking a kind of personal independence and individualism which conflict with the spirit of Christian teaching. We can often hear, for instance, that basic human rights include making one’s own decisions, being independent upon reaching adulthood, expressing one’s own opinions, developing one’s full potential, having as much opportunity to do a particular job as anyone else. Moreover, we are sometimes told that these rights are violated not only when the government takes them away by force, but even when a group of people freely decide to establish their common life on different principles.
The term “rights” is a legal term, indicating something which gives us a claim in court. “Rights” in this sense is an ancient term, and can be found in scripture. The broader idea of basic human rights, or of the rights of man, was formulated later in human history as a way of developing certain principles for framing the constitutions of modern states.20 The origin of this approach will be discussed in Chapter Nineteen. This broader concept has much utility, especially as a protection for individuals in a pluralistic state which cannot presuppose a shared view of fundamental social and ethical questions. The term “the rights of women” is certainly appropriate in discussions about how legal protection should be given to women in contemporary society. However, when that legal rights framework is brought into a Christian discussion, it normally orients the whole discussion in a direction that is alien to the basic Christian context. It leads to a frame of mind in which people become oriented primarily to their own welfare, it leads them to even make demands on the Lord himself. In short, the legal rights framework used as a basis for a Christian discussion leads away from an attitude of submission, of eagerness to find out what the Lord is saying, and of readiness to accept and obey his will.
Legal rights, then, is not the proper basic framework for issues concerning the people of God. The “constitution” of Israel, and that of the Christian people, rests on an entirely different basis than those of modern states. The scripture does not speak about “the rights of man.” From the scriptural point of view, we have no intrinsic and inalienable rights. Women have no rights, but men have no rights either. Human beings are God’s creatures, totally at his disposal. In the book of Isaiah, the Lord says,
“Woe to him who strives with his Maker,
an earthen vessel with the potter!
Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in travail?’”
Thus says the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker:
“Will you question me about my children,
or command me concerning the work of my hands?
I made the earth,
and created man upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.”
The “constitution” of Israel was based upon a covenant relationship between God and man, a covenant which God gave and men accepted.21 The basic framework is not one of rights but of promises and commandments: the promises of God as to what he would do for his people if they were faithful to the covenant, and the commandments of God as to how his people should relate together and to others. The protection of “strangers” (that is, of resident aliens), for instance, was not based on “the rights of the strangers.” Rather, it was based upon God’s commandment to his people: “Thou shalt not oppress the stranger among you.” God is a sovereign creator. His commandments are not based on rights that he must recognize, but on his own nature (including his goodness) and his purpose. His commandments express his plan for his people as an unfolding of his purpose in creating the human race. This is not to deny that often his purposes and his commandments can be understood by considering the way he created the human race. It is to deny, however, that a discussion with God can properly be conducted in terms of rights, or that a Christian’s basic understanding of the roles of men and women can be. To think in those terms puts human beings in a false position, and induces them to call God to account for how he respects the rights of his creatures. The framework of a Christian discussion should simply be: What does God want for the human race? What does God want of men and women? Those who approach him in that way will be in a much better position to hear his word.
To speak so strongly of submission is not to ignore all the various problems in attempting to submit to scripture. Scripture can be difficult to understand. It can require some effort to grasp the meaning of what the scripture teaches about the roles of men and women. It can also take work to grasp scripture’s intention in a particular passage. For instance, someone who approaches an instruction meant only for one situation as though it were meant for all of life would be making a significant mistake, as did the child who turned out the lights on his parents because he misunderstood the command “always turn out the lights when you leave the room.” It is by no means true that someone who disagrees with the approach taken in this book must be rebellious toward God. Many good Christians differ simply because they understand the scripture differently. Nor is it always easy to apply the scripture once it has been understood. The New Testament was written in a very different situation than ours, and we often do not know how to do what it says. Nevertheless, if we approach the scripture submissively, with an eagerness to do everything that the Lord desires, we are in a much better position to solve these problems and to understand God’s way. The scripture is meant to be read in the fear of the Lord and in humility. As it says in Sirach:
Those who fear the Lord will not disobey his words,
and those who love him will keep his ways.
. . .
Those who fear the Lord will prepare their hearts
and will humble themselves before him.
Submission to scripture should not be approached in a rigid or inflexible way. In the minds of many people, the term “submission to scripture” conjures up a picture of scripture as a huge law code, a set of commandments, in which everything is a directive. Not everything in scripture is a commandment. The scripture is a collection of many different types of writing. It contains commandments, but also teaching, maxims of wisdom, poetry, and what we might call disciplinary decrees.22 Some of scripture is based upon what could be called “implied social structure.” So far in this book, all these types of scriptural literature have been considered. All of scripture is to be approached with seriousness and submissiveness. All of it is there for shaping our lives. But not all of it is intended to shape our lives in the same manner. Major mistakes can be made in approaching a poem or an ironical or hyperbolic statement as though they were laws from the Code Napoléon. A few reflections on the different types of scriptural literature should make the point clearer.
- The commandments in scripture should be taken as commandments. When the Lord says, “Thou shalt not steal,” people had better not steal. Moreover, they had better not redefine “stealing” in such a way that something can be judged as acceptable under our definition, but still falls under what the Lord forbids according to his definition.
There are differences among commandments. Some commandments concern basic righteousness and must be approached with tremendous seriousness. Others are commandments of right order, commandments designed to order life in a better way. These do not have the same weight (Mt 23:23). For example, the directives about man-woman subordination in scripture are not on the same level as the Ten Commandments and cannot be treated with the same gravity. Yet recognizing different weight to different commandments does not mean that we need only obey some of them. All commandments are to be obeyed.
Some people apply a traditional distinction between faith and order to most of the New Testament teaching about the roles of men and women, holding that these roles are matters of order, and the Christian people can change matters of order whenever it chooses. Some order can be changed, but in the New Testament, as in the better Christian teaching of all ages, matters of order or discipline can also be matters of obedience to the Lord if he is the originator of the order or if he simply stands behind the order. In fact, commandments such as that to honor one’s parents could be considered as commandments of order, yet they are basic and inviolable.
- Commandments should be taken as they were intended. Some commandments about the roles of men and women are clearly intended by the scripture to be universal for all Christians—not merely for Christians at a particular time, or in a particular situation. For instance, the directive for the wife to be subordinate to her husband and for the husband to care for his wife is a commandment for Christians as long as there is marriage. If anything in scripture should be approached as a commandment this should.
- Submission takes on a different character when its object is teaching, prophecy, poetry, or the other genres of scriptural writing that are not simply commands. The submissive response to a command is obedience, but the submissive response to other forms of speech is not always obedience. If, for instance, a woman were to approach the portrait of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31 as a set of commands to be obeyed, she might end up with a physical collapse. Proverbs 31 is intended to serve as an ideal or model, not a point-by-point command. Similarly, the teaching in scripture about Adam and Eve and God’s purposes in creation is, for the most part, not easily “obeyed.” Nonetheless, it is supposed to mold Christians’ minds, so that they can see the area with God’s vision. These genres of scriptural writing can help form the lives of those who are submissive to them, and they can mold their lives as firmly as commandments; yet submission to them is expressed differently than submission to commandments.
A special type of submission to scripture should have a fuller consideration because of its relevance to this subject. This case concerns submission to New Testament patterns of church order. For centuries Christian theologians have studied the patterns of community or church order in the New Testament (and beyond the New Testament) to discern a pattern which they could view as authoritative for the following generations. Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and almost every group of Christians have used this method to justify the approach taken to order and government in their denominations. Even now, few Christian theologians would say that New Testament and early church patterns have no validity as standards for Christian life today. Moreover, the early Christians themselves believed that many of their patterns of community order came to them from the Lord and that they were obliged to follow them.23 Indeed, for Christians who still respect scriptural and traditional patterns of order and who do not feel themselves free to order the life of the Christian people however seems good to them, one of the weightiest arguments against having women as elders or ministers or priests is the argument that Christ himself chose only men for this position.
Recently, however, there has been a stress on the variety of patterns and approaches to order in the New Testament.24 Some have correctly pointed out that the approach to ordering the life of the Christian community taken in Jerusalem in 35 AD and the approach taken in Corinth in 60 AD appear to have been somewhat different. The approach to ordering community life that we see in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and that which we see in the Didache are likewise different in important respects. The conclusion which some draw from this observation is that different Christian communities today can take different approaches, including different approaches to such questions as the ordination of women.
The recent approach of noting variety between New Testament churches has something to recommend it. This can help avoid a “blueprint” approach to following New Testament patterns.25 The early churches may even have approached the roles of men and women somewhat differently. As was discussed in Chapter Five, some writers have held that there was a difference between the roles of men and women in Jewish Christian communities and those roles in Gentile Christian communities, although the evidence is far too weak to make such an assertion confidently. It is possible, then, that the early Christians did have two patterns of community order for women: one which included deaconesses and active service for women, and one without these features.
The evidence that some early Christian communities were free to order their church life somewhat differently does not lead to the conclusion that Christians today can take a fundamentally different approach to men’s and women’s roles. First, the stress on different patterns of community order was developed in the context of trying to deal with differences in forms of church government, for example, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational approaches. The approach was developed, that is, for investigating an area in which few explicit scriptural directives are given, and in which Christian teachers for centuries have had to rely on tracing the pattern of how it was actually done and teaching the pattern they had traced as the correct form. Second, the observation about the existence of different patterns in the early church only applies to certain levels of a given question. Thus, there may be something to the view that some churches had one bishop presiding over the community and others had only a presbyterate, but there is no question that some men presided over a Christian community, and that the community was expected to be subordinate to them. While differences in approach existed, there were also uniformities.26
Third, on the subject of the roles of men and women, one finds a basic uniformity of approach concerning both the husband being head of the family and the elders or heads of the community being chosen from among the men. There is no credible instance which is different or which would suggest that a different pattern might have been followed. Communities may have structured leadership roles of women differently. One community may have had an order of deaconesses, while another may have instead relied on some of the widows. One community may have had a chief deaconess, while another may not have had one. One community may have assigned a deaconess some teaching functions that another community may not have allowed. But on many points, especially the most fundamental ones, no variation can be shown. Paul can even appeal to the universal practice of the churches on the issue of headcoverings, a practice where one might expect a variety of approaches (1 Cor 11:16; 14:36). Finally, and very importantly, the basic uniformity of pattern is also accompanied by the explicit directives in the New Testament both about husband-wife order and about the governors of the community being men, and the latter appears in the closest thing we have to an authoritative book of church order (1 Timothy). In short, in the area of the roles of men and women, submitting to the New Testament patterns of basic order for the roles of men and women does not entail a simplistic or over-rigid type of “blueprint ecclesiology.”27
Submission to scripture, even obedience to clear commandments, should not happen legalistically. Thus, it is not enough merely to hear a command and put it into practice; rather, the intention behind the commandment must be understood. The hazard of failing to grasp the underlying intention of a command is well illustrated in the practice of a certain religious community, which had carefully observed an old rule in its constitution that community members were not permitted to eat chicken. At the time the constitution was written, chicken was a great delicacy; the rule was intended to help community members achieve simplicity of life. Until recently, the members of that community ate the most expensive meats in good conscience, while carefully avoiding chicken—often one of the cheapest meats in recent years. A further example of the need to grasp the intention of a rule concerns practices designed to observe the prohibition against braided hair in 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3. In some Christian groups, women never wear braided hair in any sense (not even pigtails on the little girls), in order to obey that scriptural directive. Their desire to obey the Lord may be very commendable, but it does seem clear that the kind of braided hair that was being discussed in the passages was a luxurious style of headdress, not simply any manner of braiding hair. The intention of the passages is to prohibit luxurious adornment, not to eliminate what most people nowadays would understand by “hair braiding.”
Avoiding legalism also involves recognizing exceptions. At times, it might be right for a Christian to breach good order because circumstances make that the only reasonable course. If a husband and father has mental disabilities a wife might have to assume the role of head of the family, while a similar disability in a wife might require the husband to mother the children as well as to father them. The story of Deborah in the Old Testament is a canonized story of an exception from the normal order of the roles of men and women. Finally, avoiding legalism also means employing good judgment in determining the relative importance of different scriptural prescriptions. Not everything is important enough to die for. It is worth dying rather than burn a pinch of incense in worship of an idol (Rv 14:9). But it is not necessarily worth irreparably damaging a marriage in order to preserve a correct scriptural pattern of roles for men and women in all respects.
Avoiding legalism, however, does not mean following the “spirit” of the biblical teachings rather than the “letter,” in the sense sometimes given to those terms.28 When Paul talked about following the spirit rather than the letter of the law (2 Cor 3), he meant Christians following the law written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit rather than simply following the external code. Sometimes, however, the phrase “following the spirit of the biblical teachings” is used to refer to a process by which one does not really follow the biblical teachings at all. Rather, one finds certain values or principles in those teachings which one follows in one’s own way. Someone operating in this vein “follows the spirit of the biblical teachings” on the roles of men and women, for instance, by valuing both men and women and by seeing the mutual responsibility in relationships which involve men and women. It is then suggested that as long as one is trying to follow the spirit of the teachings, one can avoid being literalistic about actually having the husband be the head of the family. By the same principle, one can also (as some have suggested) follow the spirit of the commandment against adultery by not having sexual intercourse with any married people whom one did not love.29 “Following the spirit of the biblical teachings,” then, can be a phrase which ultimately means not following the biblical teachings at all, but merely selecting aspects of them and obeying only what one thinks is important. It can be a way of avoiding submission to the Lord’s word.
Neither does avoiding legalism mean disobeying directives in the scripture in order to avoid turning the gospel into law. Some currents of theology would want to make the gospel the key interpretative principle of the New Testament, seeing everything else as secondary. These theologians stress the gospel as freeing us from the law, and they resist any efforts to approach the New Testament as law. In many respects, these currents emphasize important elements of the New Testament. They attempt to synthesize New Testament teaching in a way which preserves Paul’s teaching on grace and faith. But the gospel certainly involves the lordship of Jesus, and the gospel is received in repentance and a commitment to obedience to the Lord. Our righteousness may not save us, but that does not mean that obedience can be eliminated from the Christian life. The scripture also talks about “lawlessness” (anomia). In fact, 2 Peter 3:15–17 sees this lawlessness as often expressing itself in scriptural interpretation and as leading to ruin:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.
The very difficulties of scriptural interpretation can sometimes undercut submissiveness to the Lord in scripture.30 Often Christians feel (with good reason) that they do not know what the passages mean, how they were intended, or how they can be applied in a responsible way. In this area, as in others in the Christian life, eagerness to obey can make someone scrupulous or confused, and there is the possibility of committing a foolish mistake in an effort to obey. Such a possibility should not lead to replacing eager obedience with a cautious skepticism. It should rather produce a desire to balance eagerness with wisdom. The Lord is probably more pleased with someone who makes a foolish mistake in attempting to obey scripture than with someone who requires that everything be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt before considering obedience. At the same time, submission to scripture does not mean trying to compile a distinguished record of foolish mistakes. No one will probably ever be flawless in obedience, but the Lord is asking for a relationship with him which involves desiring to do his will, doing it as it is understood, asking for his light, and actively seeking to grow in wisdom and the understanding of his will. An attitude of submissiveness to God’s word can easily become legalism and a burden, but it does not have to be. It can be a loving, trusting desire to do the will of the Lord, who for our sake died and was raised that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him (2 Cor 5:15).
The approach taken in this book runs the risk of being labeled “Fundamentalist.” A brief discussion, therefore, would be helpful for understanding the meaning of the term “Fundamentalist,” and for evaluating the validity of applying that label to the approach taken here.
The term “Fundamentalism” was coined in the course of the anti-Modernism struggle in the early part of the twentieth century. It arose among American Protestants who, for the most part, had been influenced by the broad movement termed “Evangelicalism.” The Evangelical Movement had arisen in the eighteenth century, and was characterized by a stress on the gospel and on calling people to a conversion to Jesus Christ. Closely linked to these stresses was an emphasis on the scripture as both the authoritative word of God, and the main instrument for Christian conversion and growth. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Evangelical Movement had influenced significant segments of most of the main Protestant denominations in the United States and Great Britain.
In the course of the nineteenth century, biblical criticism, the study of comparative religions, and evolutionary theories began to challenge many of the traditional views about the scripture and about the authority of biblical revelation. As a result, the movement which is sometimes called “Protestant Liberalism” or “Modernism” arose as a way of altering Christian doctrinal and moral tenets to better accommodate them to what Modernism understood to be scientific evidence. Fundamentalism arose as a countermovement to Modernism.31 In an attempt to secure the basis of the Christian faith, Fundamentalists laid down what they considered to be the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith, and attempted to defend them. While fundamentals varied somewhat in their formulation, they generally included doctrines such as the inspiration, inerrancy, and supreme authority of scripture, the Trinity, Jesus Christ as true God and true man, the Fall, the atonement through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the second coming, the new birth in the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell.32 Fundamentalism grew directly out of an Evangelical environment and background, and formulated the fundamentals in the way an Evangelical Protestant would (rather than the way a Catholic or an Orthodox or even a traditional Lutheran would). Yet, in order to maintain a proper perspective, it is helpful to realize that Catholic Church leaders were fighting much the same battle against Modernism–Protestant Liberalism at the same time.33 Pius X, the pope most identified with the anti-Modernist struggle, would have accepted the main points of the Fundamentalists, even if he would have formulated those points differently.
As Fundamentalism developed, the more conservative spokesmen assumed prominence and added to their defense of the fundamentals a vehement attack on evolutionary theories. Partly because of the growth of the more conservative wing of Fundamentalism, and partly because of the bad press given Fundamentalism, many Evangelicals and other conservative Protestants who believed in all the fundamentals distanced themselves from the name “Fundamentalism” and from those who claimed it. The “Fundamentalists” gradually received a reputation for being anti-intellectual, politically conservative, belligerent, and legalistic. They also became identified with their opposition to “critical” methods of scriptural interpretation. How far this reputation is justified is not relevant to this discussion. The point is that the term “Fundamentalism” became a symbol of a certain approach, especially in scriptural interpretation, much as the term “the Vatican” symbolizes for many a religious bureaucracy and ecclesiastical power politics.34
Thus, the term “Fundamentalism” could be used in a variety of ways. First, it could be used in the technical sense as referring to an early-twentieth-century anti-Modernist movement within Evangelical Protestantism (and to those who identify with that movement today). Secondly, it could be used in a symbolic way, referring to all those who are opposed to biblical criticism, or, relatedly, to all who approach the scripture in a somewhat “uncritical” way. Or it could be used in yet a third way: as a term of abuse for someone whom one considers to be more conservative than oneself. In this third sense, “Fundamentalist” is applied somewhat freely to categorize a great variety of opinions that people do not like. Briefly examining each of these senses of the term can aid in clarifying some of the issues involved.
First, it is important to recognize that there is, in fact, a technical sense of the term—there was an actual historical movement called Fundamentalism, and there are still many people who identify with that movement. Many churches today can properly be termed “Fundamentalist” in this technical sense (or “Fundamental,” as many of them tend to prefer). Most Classical Pentecostals, for instance, are Fundamentalists in this sense. A failure to recognize the existence of this technical sense of “Fundamentalism” can lead to a great deal of confusion in the use of the term. For instance, believing that scripture teaches that there should be differences in the roles of men and women can easily earn one the label “Fundamentalist.” However, historically speaking this would, in fact, be a particularly inapt label. Many of those who were historically Fundamentalists (anti-Modernist, conservative Evangelicals) were, paradoxically, among the first to ordain women and to argue for a less traditional role for women.35
More common than this first meaning, however, is the second use of “Fundamentalist”—as a way of referring to certain approaches to the interpretation of scripture. Someone can be called a “Fundamentalist” because someone else regards his approach to interpreting the scripture as too conservative or uncritical. The following are approaches which seem to provoke being called a Fundamentalist:36
- Those who do not seem to fully accept or fully use modern methods of scriptural criticism will often be termed Fundamentalists by someone who considers them too uncritical either in their overall approach or in a given exegesis. Among the things which will commonly elicit such a label are approaches which seem to interpret the scripture without an adequate sense of literary form (such as interpreting the book of Jonah as a historical narrative), or which seem to fail to adequately ascertain the author’s intention (for instance, by holding that women should not wear braided hair on the basis of 1 Tm 2:19 and 1 Pt 3:3). Here it is helpful to observe that people can be called Fundamentalists because they have rejected certain critical methods or principles after a great deal of thought and scholarship or because they are not too educated in scriptural interpretation and simply take passages out of context or use facile proof-text approaches.37
- Those who hold what could be called a conservative view of the historical facticity of narrative sections of the Bible or of the inerrancy of the Bible in its statement of fact (scientific and historical as well) are often termed Fundamentalists. Those who hold that creation actually happened in six days, that a whale did swallow Jonah, that every discrepancy between accounts has to somehow be harmonized, will often be considered Fundamentalists for holding such views. Those who call them Fundamentalists will sometimes view the problem as a failure to adopt proper methods of biblical criticism (not understanding the literary form of Jonah, for instance, and thinking that it is a historical narrative). Sometimes they will view the problem as simple traditionalism.
- Those who hold that the scripture should be obeyed when it gives a command without considering questions of applicability will often be termed Fundamentalists. The label can be applied not only to those who forbid women to wear braided hair but likewise to those who object to homosexual relationships on the basis of scriptural commands. On the other hand, it is not likely to be applied to someone who is a pacifist out of obedience to their understanding of scripture—thus showing that the term is normally used for those who are adopting what would be viewed as a conservative position.
One person, of course, could take all of these approaches or only some of them. Frequently, one or all of these approaches will be described as “reading or interpreting the scriptures literally.”
There is a historical reason for calling these three approaches “Fundamentalist.” In the anti-Modernist controversy, the Fundamentalists opposed many of the critical methods and positions, considering them an expression of Liberal Protestantism or Modernism. It should be pointed out, however, that other opponents of Modernism (for example, the Catholic Church) took the same positions. The above three approaches to scriptural interpretation were as characteristic of the dominant Catholic method of scripture interpretation before the Second Vatican Council (or at least before Pius XII) as they are characteristic of the Fundamentalists. Hence, it is historically somewhat unfair to label all opposition to biblical criticism as “Fundamentalist.” Nonetheless, such labeling is common.
The above three approaches do not characterize the argument of this book. One of them concerns matters which are not central to the discussion of the book: the issue of historical facticity and inerrancy. The remaining two, however, are central to the discussion of the book. It is, however, possible to hold that scripture teaches a difference in the roles of men and women without disregarding questions of literary form, or ignoring the intention of the author, or neglecting principles of sound biblical scholarship. As the Note on Method on exegesis pointed out, this would be as obvious now as it was twenty years ago if it were not for the amount of politicization that has entered the discussion in recent years. It is also possible to hold that the scripture should be followed in its teaching without ignoring questions of applicability. The following chapters raise the issues in the area of applicability (see especially Chapter Twenty).
The approach taken in this book is not “Fundamentalist” in either the technical/historical sense of the term, nor in its approach to the interpretation of scripture. There remains, however, a fourth use of the term by which the approach taken in this book could be labeled “Fundamentalist.” That is, the term could be used in a derogatory way as an epithet for certain opinions regarded as being conservative or even reactionary.
There are at least two reasons why the term has become a frequent although inaccurate slogan. One reason is simple ignorance. Many people know little or nothing about Fundamentalists and have not really thought through the issues, but they know that the term “Fundamentalist” can be used to describe someone that seems more conservative than they are. They may inaptly label a book such as this one “Fundamentalist” because they disagree with its conclusion, e.g., “anyone who can come up with such a conclusion must be a Fundamentalist.” There is a second and more important reason for this use of the term, however. Many who use the term in an inaccurate, derogatory way have come under the very strong influence of secular humanism (Liberal Protestantism, Modernism). They use the word as a term of abuse to discredit their more orthodox opponents. These people interpret scripture as a book which does not have God as its author in any significant sense, and as a book without real authority. Their approach to interpretation comes out of a line of thought which has compromised the fundamentals of the faith (including the articles of the creed and the commandments), and that seeks to interpret scripture in a way that allows that compromise. Often, they will label the approach taken in this chapter to the authority of scripture as “Fundamentalist.” However, if this approach is Fundamentalist, almost all of Christian tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike—is Fundamentalist.
Simply accepting the need to submit to scripture should not be enough to qualify one as a Fundamentalist. The question of the authority of scripture, however, is a particularly difficult and controversial one today. As has been seen, there are many ways in which the authority of scripture is disregarded without seeming to be. The following chapter will continue the discussion on the authority of scripture, and will treat more fully the ways in which that issue enters into the contemporary discussion of the roles of men and women.
334*This chapter focuses on the question of scriptural authority. Many of the same observations might be made about the authority of Christian tradition or church authority depending on the view of the normativeness of tradition or of church bodies that one holds. The issue of Christian teaching authority, however, can be adequately discussed in terms of the authority of scripture, and will be the focus of this chapter.
335*A discussion of the normative nature of the scripture raises a number of questions, among them the question of the kind of authority the Old Testament has. The range of this book does not allow for a treatment of the various issues involved. It is enough here to observe that the New Testament books present themselves as a unity with the Old. The submission of Christians, however, is preeminently to the New Testament. They submit to the Old Testament as it is interpreted by the New Testament and by Christian tradition. For this reason, the principles discussed in this book will apply most readily and directly to the New Testament.
336*Two other terms are also commonly used for referring to scripture’s origin from God: (1) revelation, (2) the Word of God. The scripture contains revelation, but not all of it originally came to man through revelation (much of what is related in scripture could have been known through experience, e.g., the historical narrative); therefore, the term “inspiration” is better than “revelation” for characterizing in an overall way how scripture comes from God. The result of inspiration is that the scripture is the Word of God, but there is some ambiguity here, in that certain parts of scripture could be said to contain the Word of God in a more direct sense. Prophecy or the gospel message, for instance, are sometimes described in scripture as the Word of God, while genealogies and annals never seem to be. Hence, “inspiration” is the word used here for an overall characterization of scripture, but the other two words are acceptable. The above comments should not be confused with the view that the scripture contains the Word of God or revelation but is not the Word of God or revelation.
343*In relation to God, we have no rights. This is not meant to deny, however, that many speak about human rights in a way consonant with scriptural teaching. God did create the human race according to his purposes, and even sovereign states are not free to treat human beings in whatever way they wish. This fact can be expressed in terms of “rights.” The discussion in this chapter is elaborated in the context of the authority of scripture, not in the context of constitutional rights and modern states. To import terms from the latter discussion into discussions about the life of the Christian people leads to a subtle attitude of unsubmissiveness, and leads to calling God or the scripture to account.
346*The patristic distinction was between fides (faith) and mores (sometimes translated “morals”). Mores, however, meant more than what recently has been covered in moral or ethical theology. Mores referred to a whole way of life and included matters of social structure and community order. The scripture and the Fathers understood Christian revelation to include all of those matters. In recent centuries, the term “discipline” has been used by some theological traditions to refer to those matters of church life which have not explicitly been made a matter of revelation, but which are subject to disciplinary regulation by Christian authorities. If such a distinction is used, all matters of order cannot automatically be classified as disciplinary. See Congar, Tradition and the Traditions (London: Burnes and Oates, 1966), 10, for a good discussion of this.
350*The formulation here sounds much like Lutheran theology. This is somewhat unavoidable in that Lutheran theology has been the origin of much of the modern theological concern to avoid legalism and to avoid turning the gospel into law. However, traditional Lutheranism and the best in modern Lutheran theology have by no means fallen into lawlessness or the neglect of obedience. The traditional Lutheran concept of the “third use” of the law, the use which instructs us how to live in a godly way as distinguished from the use of the law in civil society and the use of the law to accuse and lead to grace, would be the locus of concern for this paragraph. To summarize the point in terms of the traditional Lutheran distinction, avoiding legalism does not mean eliminating the third use of the law. On the other hand, there are clearly currents in modern Lutheranism which would follow precisely the pattern of thought referred to in this section. However, their approach is only superficially Lutheran. Rather than representing a traditional Lutheran approach, or Luther’s approach, they instead are representing in Lutheran guise a modern desire to find freedom from standards other than self-chosen ones. Moreover, this phraseology is not limited to Lutherans. For an example from Catholic and Anglican writing, see S. Brown and R. Corney, “Responsible Use of the Scriptures,” in Pro and Con on the Ordination of Women (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 48–49. The debate within Lutheranism is exemplified in the exchange between Theodore R. Jungkuntz and William H. Lazareth on the “Third Use of the Law” in Confession and Congregation (Valparaiso: Valparaiso University Press, 1978), 12–15, 48–56, 57–59. Further clarification is found in an exposition of the Lutheran confessional position by Jungkuntz entitled “The ‘Third Use of the Law’: Looking for Light on the Heat” in Lutheran Forum 12, no. 4 (Advent 1978): 10–12.
355*The phrase “reading/interpreting the scriptures literally” is an unfortunate one, however, as it is beset with unclarities. It could be understood to refer to those who favor interpreting scripture solely in the literal sense, as contrasted with the spiritual senses or “fuller senses” (sensus pleniores) of theological exegesis, or perhaps as contrasted with accommodation. Yet those who are against “Fundamentalism” (and who define a Fundamentalist as one who interprets the scripture literally) are themselves generally in favor of interpreting the scriptures in the literal sense (as contrasted with the other senses mentioned above). More commonly “reading the scriptures literally” seems to be a more shorthand way of defining Fundamentalists as those who take some of the above approaches to the interpretation of scripture (see, e.g., Gregory Baum, in “The Bible as Norm,” in New Horizons [New York: Paulist, 1972], 36, for such a definition). Historically, however, this definition is also somewhat inaccurate, since Catholic, Orthodox, and Liberal writers can also often take passages out of context, ignore the intention of the author, and manifest other critical failings. In fact, one of the most widespread incidences of disregard in exegesis for the intention of the author is to be found among those who practice “liberationist” exegesis. The term “interpret the scriptures literally” is also very inexact and confusing as a description between Fundamentalists and others. James Barr takes issue well with the “literalist” stereotype in The Bible, 171ff., and Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 40ff., observing that real Fundamentalists frequently do not “take scripture literally,” especially in comparison with biblical critics. Moreover, many are ready to find spiritual meanings in the text and move beyond the literal sense.