20 Applying Scriptural Teaching

This chapter brings into focus the issue of faithfulness to the teaching of Jesus and his apostles—faithfulness here and now in the twentieth century. A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ, and a Christian’s life, as a part of the body of Christ, is built upon the foundation of the apostles. Faithfulness to Jesus involves more than being faithful to his teaching and to the teaching of those he commissioned to be his apostles; but it does include being faithful to that teaching. To claim to be a faithful follower of the teacher and then to set aside his teaching is to fall far short of the faithfulness which Jesus called for. Yet one must learn to be faithful to him in some circumstances very different from those of the first century. Life in a technological society seems far removed from life in the time of Jesus. The teaching of a man who never traveled farther from his home than three to four days’ journey by foot may appear to offer little in the way of practical guidelines for the lives of men and women who can fly quickly and easily from continent to continent. Men and women of today need a faithful restatement of Jesus’ teaching which shows them how it applies in their own lives. Formulating such a restatement requires a clear understanding of scriptural teaching and of God’s intentions underlying that teaching.

To understand the scriptures in such a way that their teaching can faithfully be applied in different circumstances involves more than merely understanding the meaning of the words on the page. In one way, the distinction often made between explaining the text of scripture (exegesis) and relating the text of scripture to our particular circumstances (application) is a helpful one. It is analytically possible to distinguish the various operations one performs in explaining the text, such as translating the Greek or Hebrew into a modern language or studying the customs which make it possible to grasp the significance of various scriptural statements and actions, from the operations one performs in applying the text, such as understanding the contemporary situation and its requirements. Because this distinction between exegesis and application can be made, certain questions of applicability arise which can best be treated separately from exegetical questions.1 There is, though, another way in which this distinction is not only artificial but misleading. If the scripture is God’s teaching, if it contains his word to us, then whatever it says is directed to us. God intends his commandments and counsels to form our lives. We do not really understand the words of scripture unless we know what God is saying to us through them. The world’s greatest and most scholarly exegete could easily misunderstand the scripture completely if he failed to grasp what he was expected to do with what God has said.*

Observing the artificial aspect of the distinction between exegesis and application helps to clarify something that is obvious in scripture study: Other than mere technical observations on language and history, it is rare to find anything which might merit the term “pure exegesis.” In the very way the text is explained, most “exegesis” betrays the exegete’s own understanding of how one should respond to the text. By its very nature as God’s word, scripture calls forth a personal response from those who encounter it. Even in the most scholarly exegesis, the exegete’s own stand as a person before God is normally visible. This is simply a manifestation of a more fundamental reality: Scripture is addressed to contemporary man personally, and therefore cannot be properly understood as merely an ancient text or a specimen for the history of religions. There is no “neutral” interpretation of scripture, acceptable to Christian and pagan alike, which succeeds in fully understanding the scripture.2 The study of scripture cannot be approached adequately in the same way as the study of secular history or biology. It is the study of God’s word to his people. In studying scriptural teaching it is not enough to be attentive to what was said to Christians of the first century. We must also listen carefully to what God is saying to us here and now.

What Is Its Meaning for Now?

It was observed in the previous chapter that three elements should be considered in the formation of any approach to the roles of men and women: (1) the human reality (how human beings operate, both in their common humanity and in their differences as men and women); (2) the circumstances in which any approach is to be lived out (varied circumstances will often require some differences in shaping men’s and women’s roles); and (3) the ideal which shapes our approach to personal relationships. (The first two elements—the human reality and the circumstances—do not completely determine our approach to the roles of men and women; we could form those roles differently depending upon the ideal we have.)

The first two parts of this book treated the scripture and its teaching about men’s and women’s roles. Scripture gives us an ideal for these roles, as well as authoritative teaching about God’s intention for them. It gives us a vision of God’s purpose for the human race, his understanding of personal relationships in the body of Christ, and his pattern for the roles of men and women. The third part of the book began by considering the human reality. A review of modern research indicates some real differences between men and women—differences corresponding to the vision for the human race which scripture presents, but differences which a modern technological society often fails to take into account, thereby neglecting an important element of the human reality. The two chapters which followed this review of modern research considered contemporary circumstances within which Christians must live their lives and form a good approach to the roles of men and women—circumstances formed both by the development of technological society and by modern ideologies.

The present chapter takes up the question of scripture interpretation, namely, how to approach the difficult task of faithfully interpreting and applying the ideal presented in scripture in a vastly different set of circumstances. One should not underestimate the differences between our world and that of Jesus and Paul. The change from their times to ours has been drastic. Consequently, our modern circumstances pose a major challenge to applying much of the scriptural teaching. It is not only on the isolated issue of the roles of men and women that this challenge is felt. Rather, contemporary circumstances challenge any attempt to apply scriptural teaching in a way that would shape a distinctively Christian life. The problem of scriptural application is heightened by the fact that the social environment poses an obstacle to adequately taking into account many elements of human nature, such as age and sex differences or the need for stable relationships, which would need adequate expression even if one did not have scriptural teaching.

Application of scriptural teaching is even further complicated, however, by the misconceptions which many Christians have about what is entailed in applying that teaching. People often presume that the only possible kind of application is one which is uninterpreted and unadapted, such as the application one would make of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” People often presume that the teaching found in scripture must be expressed and lived out in the twentieth century in a way identical to how it was in the first. This sort of application appears to impose a set of traditional practices upon twentieth-century society which no longer make sense in the modern social framework. Because applying scripture in this way can seem both unreasonable and undesirable, many modern Christian thinkers reject such an application of scriptural teaching on men and women. In doing so, however, they often presume that various elements of the scriptural teaching (such as roles of men and women, or the order of relationships) can therefore not be applied at all, or that only certain selected elements of the scriptural teaching can be applied (for instance, the fundamental equality of men and women). Some also assert that the Lord does not intend them to be applied. Most of those who pursue this sort of approach say that it is necessary to look to the present reality of life in the modern world in order to discover which scriptural teaching is to be accepted and which is to be rejected.

Four of the most significant arguments presented in support of the view that the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women is inapplicable are (1) “the gap between the centuries,” (2) “the signs of the times,” (3) “the development of doctrine,” and (4) “the current practice of the Christian churches.” While these arguments are often used against making any application, or for making only a very selective application, of these passages, they need not be taken as such. Rather than indicating that the passages should not be applied, these arguments instead point to the need for the right kind of application—one which takes various important factors into account. Before more fully considering the question of application, these four arguments should be examined in order to clarify what they actually do and do not mean.

The Gap between the Centuries

The phrase “gap between the centuries” summarizes a line of thought in scripture interpretation which is applied to many areas, including the roles of men and women. According to this line of thought, one of the most significant results of “scientific” history in the nineteenth century was to make modern man aware of how very different the present age is from that of Jesus, or from any other period of history. Too much has happened in history for it to be possible to return to the times of Jesus or to reproduce his times today. The modern mentality, modern circumstances, and modern culture simply make it impossible. Nor is it even desirable. History, according to this approach, is God’s history. Or, the history of the church is God’s history. If God has formed a new age, we ought to accept that age and live within it. It would be mere Biblicism or Fundamentalism to attempt now to do exactly what the scriptures direct. We cannot play “First Century Bibleland” or “First Century Semite” as though we were identical in mentality and situation to the people whom Jesus and Paul addressed.

This approach can be taken in two fundamentally different ways. One way points toward developing an understanding of how to apply the scriptural teaching so that, realistically taking into account our changed circumstances, we do not proceed as though what the scriptures taught were framed to speak immediately to our situation or to a situation that was precisely like ours. The second way, however, ultimately uses “the gap between the centuries” and the need for using “hermeneutics” to say that modern man should not apply various elements of the scriptural teaching at all.3 Someone who takes this second way reads the New Testament passages on the roles of men and women and develops “hermeneutical problems” which prove to be insuperable, and which relegate the passages on the roles of men and women to the category of interesting Christian history.4

At the risk of oversimplifying positions that are frequently stated in highly complex formulations, it is helpful to understand the second way of using “the gap between the centuries” as the view of those interpreters of scripture who do not wish to be found in the position of attempting something in a technological society which was more harmonious with traditional societies. In part, these interpreters wish to avoid that position because such an endeavor seems to them a very difficult, if not impossible, task. In part, they wish to avoid that position because they have accepted the ethical principles of modern ideologies and can no longer accept certain scriptural principles. More specifically, they are commonly conditioned by the principles of the dominant academic culture of modern society and by what is deemed acceptable within that culture.

The difficulties these interpreters have with different elements of scripture extend beyond the questions of social structural teaching in the New Testament, reaching at times to very fundamental questions of doctrine. But it is especially in the social structural teaching—in fact, in most of the New Testament teaching on personal relations—that this second use of “the gap between the centuries” determines the interpretation which many people give to the scriptures. Social structure is an area where it is clear that a commitment to the basic principles of modern society and culture forces people to ignore scriptural teaching, or at least to find a way of reading it without feeling that they should actually apply it. In effect, to approach questions of social structure according to the second use of “the gap between the centuries” is to say that Christians should be converted to the thinking and behavior of the present age and culture with respect to these questions, rather than that people in the present age and culture should be converted to Christian teaching. Because this position was more fully treated at the end of Chapter Eleven, here it is enough to say that, while the truths highlighted in observing “the gap between the centuries” may point to the need for adaptation of scriptural teaching to a new age and new circumstances, they do not establish the Christian validity of conversion to that age, nor of setting aside the scriptural teaching.

To deny that “the gap between the centuries” points to setting aside scriptural teaching is not to deny that it has real significance. Its significance, however, is to be found in its first meaning, mentioned above: to highlight the importance of developing an understanding of how this first-century teaching is to be applied in twentieth-century society. Once the intention of that teaching as it was given in scriptural times is understood, one must still face the challenge of following it today in some markedly different circumstances. Mastering that challenge is not an easy task. For instance, Paul’s teaching on justification was addressed to a controversy caused by the difference between Jew and Gentile in the early church. Can this teaching be applied directly to a late medieval controversy over faith and works, or to a modern controversy about activism and spirituality?5 Even when we understand what Paul originally meant at the time he taught, do we know how to use his teaching in our modern circumstances? In the present case, how does Paul’s teaching on the roles of men and women actually apply to us today, and how can we apply this teaching so that we will not be doing something which God never intended? Questions such as these must be taken into account very seriously in the study of biblical teaching in any area. A correct use of “the gap between the centuries” alerts us to such questions, and points to the need to specify the differences between the original context and our present circumstances. Specifying these differences can then enable us to gauge both the situation of application and the adaptations needed in order to faithfully follow the scriptural teaching today.

In summary, “the gap between the centuries” points toward the need to take our drastically altered circumstances into account when applying scriptural teaching. When understood properly, however, it should not lead us to dismiss the scriptural teaching or selected aspects of it as inapplicable today because they are at odds with the social principles of modern society and culture.

The Signs of the Times

Another principle which is sometimes used as an objection to any application of biblical teaching on the roles of men and women is “reading the signs of the times.”6 The phrase itself is drawn from Matthew 16:3. It is often used today, however, in a manner quite unlike the way Jesus used it in that scripture passage. Its three most common meanings are:

  1. observing what is taking place in the world so that we can deal with it effectively; being familiar with what is happening in our society and with what things may indicate societal trends;
  2. seeing the major movements and trends in our society as being indications of God’s will, or of what we should accept; deciding that we are being “spoken to” by the movements and currents of opinion in our times (“spoken to” in the sense of being told what we should accept and follow);
  3. searching human history and experience for prophetic signs of God’s will; discerning God’s plan through spiritual signs—which is often a way that goes against contemporary movements and currents of opinion.

The third meaning most accurately describes what Jesus meant by “the signs of the times” in Matthew 16:3. “Reading the signs of the times” was a matter of prophetic interpretation. Only those with faith and spiritual discernment could perceive and understand a sign. Many people today, however, cannot distinguish among these three meanings of “the signs of the times.” Since they do not know how to distinguish between the mere observing of societal trends and the actual discerning of prophetic signs, they are unable to see how the third meaning differs from the first or second.

The second meaning or approach is the dangerous one. If the disciples of Jesus had accepted the second approach, they would have become either Zealots or collaborators with the Romans. Looking at the social movements and currents of opinion in our times as “signs of the times,” as messages from God that we should accept and follow, is a way of bestowing authority on society and modern culture and of destroying the Christian’s ability to judge whether he should go along with his culture and society or go against them. In the final analysis, it leaves Christians helpless to avoid society’s sins, or at least society’s overall unfaithfulness to God. Those who use this second sense of “the signs of the times” as a guideline for applying the scriptural teaching on men and women actually end up accepting the judgment of modern culture and society as their authority, and submitting scriptural teaching to contemporary societal standards. In the light of those standards, many reject the attempt to apply scriptural teaching to the present times, holding that because the times have changed, the Christian understanding of men and women and their roles must change correspondingly. They also assert that this is God’s will.7

People who have adopted the first meaning of “the signs of the times” have suggested that we might identify the current feminist movement as a sign from God for the church.8 The feminist movement, they point out, does not come from nowhere. It is motivated by some genuine needs. Its rapid growth indicates that there is “fertile soil” for its development in the needs of women today, soil that Christians must understand and approach in the right way. Clearly, they say, simple traditionalism no longer works in a technological society.

Those who make these observations have a real point. Observing such needs in society and noting what responses these needs are evoking can be very helpful. While one can profit from these observations, it also becomes clear at this point that the first approach to “the signs of the times” is inadequate as a total approach. Having noted certain societal patterns and trends, and having recognized genuine needs which those trends express, this approach provides no way of determining what we as Christians should do in response to those needs. It is often at this point that people slip unobtrusively into the dangerous second view of “the signs of the times,” that is, they accept the general societal response as a sign from God. Yet reading God’s prophetic signs is primarily a matter of spiritual discernment, not sociological observation. This is strikingly true in regard to modern social trends in the area of men’s and women’s roles. The feminist movement, viewed from a spiritual perspective, is a good case in point.

To begin with, the feminist movement is a societal movement. Christians who get caught up with women’s liberation or with women’s rights organizations, or who are simply influenced by the broad currents of feminism in our times, are coming under the sway of non-Christian ideologies and authorities. It is not difficult to discern in many “Christian feminists” a tendency to identify more with the feminist movement than with the body of Christ. Their primary commitment is to convert the body of Christ to feminism, not to convert the feminists to Christ. This is not true of all Christians who support the feminist position, but it is the case with a large number of them.

Secondly, much that is born of the feminist movement, especially the more radical sectors of it, is straightforwardly immoral from the Christian point of view. The feminist movement provides much of the active support these days for abortion, homosexuality, “sexual freedom,” and legislation that is destructive of family life. Is that fact purely coincidental, or are the principles behind the movement so fundamentally hostile to God and his order that the same principles which lead to a denial of the roles of men and women lead as well to abortion and sexual immorality? A study of the arguments used in the movement to deny sex roles and arguments to justify sexual immorality reveals, more often than not, that the same principles are invoked.9 The lack of respect we have previously noted for both the facts of scripture and the scientifically established facts of men-women differences is, perhaps, an indication of the spirit from which much of the movement comes. So, too, is the remarkable tendency in some feminist exegesis to justify Eve and identify with her in her course of action in the Fall.10 There are, in short, indications that should make Christians hesitant about seeing the current feminist movement as a sign produced by God, even when they can see the needs which give rise to it.

Trends in society, even when based on responses to real needs, are not necessarily “from God.” One can learn much from observing the view which scripture itself takes to trends in its first-century society—a view which corresponds with the third meaning of “the signs of the times,” that of spiritually discerning God’s prophetic signs. Many contemporary Christians pass over important elements of the scriptural view and thus leave themselves unable to spiritually discern the trends of modern society. Paul makes the following statement about the pagan society of his day:

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. (Rom 1:18–31)

According to Paul, the denial of God leads to immoral conduct. Since our current society is likewise characterized by an increasing unwillingness to acknowledge, honor, or give thanks to God, we might expect immoral conduct to follow. A similar statement is made in Timothy about the characteristics of the last days:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. (Tm 3:1–5)

Such elements would all qualify as indications by which we can spiritually discern what is happening today in our society in general, and in societal approaches to the roles of men and women in particular. Recognition of these elements does not have to lead us to a total rejection of our society as if it were thoroughly evil, with no redeeming features or values. But if we are unable to perceive these elements and to recognize that we are dealing with a non-Christian society—one whose products are mixed in their origin and mixed in their result—we will regularly be deceived.

Recently, a major American company produced a book on population control which was used in a number of schools until it was withdrawn under threat of a lawsuit.11 The book contained suggestions that the Pope be tried for crimes against humanity because of his opposition to abortion and sterilization. Presently, there is enough protection for Christians in the United States to handle such a blatantly hostile attack on Christians for holding their own moral positions. But it is worth observing and being warned by the kind of hostility that exists. This hostility is surely one of “the signs of the times” that Christians need to notice. A non-Christian society cannot be expected to preserve Christian values. Until recently, enough moral sense had been inherited from the time when Western society was part of Christendom that Christian values could still be honored. That time, however, is rapidly passing. If Christians persist in seeing worldly movements and currents of opinion as “signs of the times”—as signs of God’s will, worthy of as much attention as authoritative Christian teaching—Christianity will not last long in modern society.

The signs of the times” must be read and discerned from a spiritual perspective. This leads to a better understanding of the times and circumstances in a way that allows the scripture to be more faithfully and effectively applied in a different situation than that for which it was written. However, to read “the signs of the times” in a way that causes scriptural teaching to be ignored or eliminated is to seriously misread the signs of the times. It is a way of missing the purpose of God (Lk 7:30).

Development of Doctrine

Another principle often cited in rejecting any application of scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women is the principle of the development of doctrine.12 Those taking this approach observe that Christian doctrine has developed, that it is not stated or approached in identically the same way now as it was in scripture. If doctrine has developed throughout history, they reason, why should there not be a further development of doctrine now which would allow us to see that the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women no longer applies—indeed, that much of it must simply be set aside as belonging to an earlier stage of doctrine? As new circumstances have arisen, they say, we have reformulated doctrine about men and women. Therefore, we are no longer bound to its earlier formulations which insisted upon certain practices.

Those who use the development of doctrine in this way often combine that principle with a particular way of interpreting scripture’s teaching on the roles of men and women. They attempt to distinguish the “core” or “timeless” elements of the scriptural teaching (such as the equality of men and women) from the conditioned application of it (such as role differences in first-century society). This is a hazardous approach to interpretation which can subtly lead to various pitfalls (see Chapter Fifteen).

The idea of the development of doctrine received its classic formulation by John Henry Newman as a tool to distinguish between true and false developments of Christian doctrine.13 Newman observed that various Christian practices, institutions, and teachings had changed a great deal in the course of history. Even the most literalist contemporary interpreter of the New Testament sounds very different from the New Testament itself, and the modern church and Christian life look very different from their first-century counterparts. Newman observed that living things tend to develop: The mature tree looks different from the sapling, but it is still the same tree. Similarly, Christian doctrine had developed as it confronted new languages, thought forms, intellectual problems, and social problems, and also as people pondered it and saw its implications more clearly. Christian doctrine has to develop in order to stay alive and meet the challenges of new conditions and new opponents. In fact, doctrine has to develop in order to stay essentially the same in changing circumstances. In Newman’s view, such development is inevitable, healthy, and to be expected.

Newman’s approach to development of doctrine, however, and that of modern writers who would ultimately set aside the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women are two different matters.14 Development of doctrine is one thing; reversal of doctrine is quite another. The theory of development of doctrine as expounded by Newman concerns the reformulation of doctrinal statements and their application to new circumstances. It is a theory that explains how a doctrinal position can evolve while remaining essentially the same. Newman, in fact, expended much effort trying to state criteria for distinguishing developments that preserve the original doctrine from ones that corrupt it (e.g., continuity of principle, preservation of type, logical sequence, etc.).15 Development of the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women may be possible, or even inevitable, in Newman’s sense of the term. But one cannot speak of a “development” of doctrine if Christian teaching at one point in history directly contradicts authoritative Christian teaching of an earlier period. If Christian teaching at one point stated authoritatively that only men should hold the governing authority in a Christian community and that the husband was the head of the family, it cannot later hold that women, too, may be heads of the Christian community or that the wife may be the head of the husband (or that a family does not need a head). Such a fundamental change in authoritative Christian teaching would not be a development of doctrine, but a reversal of a previous position.*

As well as reformulation of doctrinal statements for new circumstances, development very often involves translation from one conceptual system or mentality into another. Scriptural teaching need not be bound to a Hebrew mentality or to the mentality of a traditional society. There is, however, a fundamental difference between faithfully translating what the scripture says into a different mentality or thought pattern and actually changing the message to make it more readily acceptable to those who have a different mentality because they disagree with what the scripture teaches. Some writers speak about “de-patriarchalizing” the scripture (or the Genesis account or particular doctrines in scripture)—that is, translating it into terms which are free of all “patriarchy.”16 On the face of it, this idea may sound acceptable. But when people approach scriptural teaching with the idea that it should come out a certain way (for example, free from patriarchy), they run the risk of determining their results from the very beginning. The scripture itself must indicate whether or not a particular element is essential to its message. Scripture does not enjoin the social order of the times of the patriarchs, nor even the order of traditional society per se. Yet it does enjoin certain approaches to roles and social order which some people label “patriarchy.” To eliminate those approaches is not to translate (and thereby develop) scriptural teaching. It is to change it.

Language is a form of life. Much of the Christian message needs to be translated in order to be understood. But at the same time, as in many other areas, people encountering Christian teaching need to learn a new language in order to understand all that is being said because they are encountering new realities and a new way of life. To give an example from a different area, someone who wants to learn how to be an electrician has to learn a new “language” in order to be able both to communicate about a new way of doing things and to master a new area of reality which was previously unfamiliar. For someone in twentieth-century technological society, learning to understand the scripture can be furthered to an extent by having scriptural teaching “translated” well. At times, however, learning to understand the scripture is more like learning a new language, because it involves learning a new way of life. In other words, translation is not the only approach to meaningful communication or to explaining scripture. Conversion and exploring new terrain are also essential.17

Scriptural teaching can undergo various sorts of changes. Some teaching can be dropped for the present in some societies because there are no longer circumstances in which to apply it (for instance, the teaching on slavery). The understanding of some teaching can be developed in an attempt to apply it in circumstances which differ from those in which the teaching was originally given. The understanding of scriptural teaching can also be developed as new questions or new thought forms are encountered, and that teaching needs to be translated or reformulated. But there is a great difference between development or reformulation of doctrine and reversal of position. Going from the view that Jesus is Lord and the Son of God to the view that Jesus was a great religious genius may have pleased some Hegelians, but it was not a development or reformulation of doctrine. It was a fundamental change in teaching and a shipwreck of faith. To stress the point made earlier, to maintain now that wives can be the heads of their husbands (or that families should have no head) or that women as well as men can govern the Christian community (or that the Christian community should have no governors), would much more adequately be described as a reversal of the scriptural teaching than as a development of it.

When it is correctly understood and applied, the idea of the development of doctrine can be very valuable. It can lead to a helpful reformulation of doctrinal statements for new circumstances which often involves translating the teaching of scripture into our very different modern mentality. Yet when people invoke development of doctrine as a principle which allows them to reverse or eliminate significant portions of authoritative Christian teaching, they are seriously abusing that principle, and are in danger of undermining the authority of scripture.

The Current Practice of the Church

A fourth argument which is often brought against any application of scriptural teaching, and which often moves toward rejecting all applicability of that teaching, is based upon the current practice of the Christian church.18 The argument runs as follows: With current Christian practice so much at variance with the scriptural teaching anyway, why should we choose the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women as a place to hold the line? In other words, why should we vigorously object to the leveling of role differences between men and women when so many other chapters of scripture are already either a “dead letter” or are very embarrassing if someone should make the mistake of reading them aloud in church?

Among the scriptural teachings that most Christians are not following (and do not seem about to follow) are:

  • Christians should have no contact with a fellow Christian who has fallen from the faith or has been guilty of serious sin. (Cor 5:9–13)
  • Christians should not go to law with one another before non-Christian judges. (Cor 6:1–11)
  • Christians guilty of serious and unrepented sin should be expelled from the congregation. (Cor 5:1–5)
  • Christian women should not be adorned in an expensive way, wearing costly jewels, etc. (Tm 3:9; Pt 3:3)
  • No one should be chosen an overseer, elder, or deacon whose children have not been raised to be good Christians and to be obedient. (Tm 3:4; Ti 2:1–2)
  • Intercession should always be made for the governing authorities. (Tm 2:1–2)

These are a few of the scriptural teachings which are so concrete that one can easily tell whether or not they are being followed. There are other prescriptions which, though less concrete, are often more serious, but are also not being followed. These include the teachings that the Christian people should be of one mind and of the same judgment (Phil 1:27; 2:2), and that they should provide for one another’s material needs (Acts 4:32; Cor 8:1–15).

This “current practice” argument is also used when other issues are raised. In the following quote, a Gay Liberation writer applies the same argument to a different issue:

Christian theology has changed in the last nineteen hundred years. Let’s look at some of the things forbidden or sanctioned by our churches at the present time. I quote from the King James Version of the Scriptures. We read in Timothy 2:11–12, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Also, “a woman is not to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” If the church began a crusade against women teachers based on this scripture, what would happen? How many female Sunday school teachers and missionaries, women preachers, and evangelists, would the church lose if it followed Corinthians 14:34–35? Will the church turn away hatless women from its doors, following Corinthians 11:2–16? Should the church reconsider its position on slavery, remembering that the apostle Paul commanded servants to “obey in all things your masters” (Col 3:22)?

My list could go on and on, and few of us would disagree with the church’s lack of a strict interpretation of the scriptures in such incidents. Yet, I wonder how theologians can overlook entire passages, passages that pertain to the majority, while seizing upon a few verses in the Bible that condemn the homosexual minority.19

Here, the writer is arguing that if many other church practices do not square with scriptural teaching, the passages forbidding homosexual practices should not have to be applied now, either.

There is a specifically Roman Catholic version of this argument. This version is expressed in the view that since the Roman Catholic Church has already deviated from scriptural injunctions concerning the roles of men and women, there is no reason not to expect further changes in the future.20 Two examples of this deviation which are sometimes given are the practice of now allowing women lectors in the liturgy, and dropping the requirement of headcoverings for women in church. Those who make this argument see both changes as being in conflict with Pauline injunctions. Whether or not they actually are in conflict with Pauline injunctions is a debatable question, but that is not the question here. The immediate concern is with the “current church practice” view which holds that if the (Roman Catholic) church, in its highest pastoral authority, allows deviation from the scriptural norms, this deviation must be seen as a precedent which justifies further deviation.

The key issue at hand is how to approach the current practice of the Christian churches. On one level, the answer is simple. While every Christian church understands the scripture to be the canonical (i.e., normative) word of God, every church recognizes its current practices as reformable.* Even the Roman Catholic Church, which has many leaders and members who tend to approach its history as if every decision expressed in its official legislation were guided by the Spirit, does admit to the possibility of reforming that legislation so as to bring it more into accord with the sources of scripture and tradition. Those who would advance current Christian practice as an argument for actually setting aside the teaching of the scripture are approaching the variance between the two from the wrong end. Current church practice may point to the need for (and may often represent) a faithful adaptation of the scripture’s teaching to present circumstances, an adaptation which avoids rigid and senseless legalism. However, current practice should not be taken as grounds for dismissing scriptural teaching. Rather, it should be easy enough to assert that current Christian practice is reformable and ought to be reformed.

To some degree, reforming current Christian practice might be an answer to the conflict. However, few serious Christians today would see that as a solution. They know instinctively that Christian church life in the modern world would not allow such an approach. They know that there are some important underlying reasons why the passages cited earlier are not currently being applied. To take one example, the teaching that Christians should not go to law with one another before non-Christian judges simply cannot be taught and lived in most Christian churches. Most Christian churches are not set up in such a way that a Christian, living a normal life in society, would know who else in society is a practicing Christian. Neither do churches often have judicial procedures of their own for settling grievances or disputes among their people. Not only is there no way for people who are “wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood” (Cor 6:5) to exercise that kind of role, but the idea of doing so would normally not even occur as a possibility. One reason for the difference between the New Testament pattern and the current pattern is the changed situation in the modern world. For historical reasons, modern Christian churches, sociologically speaking, function more like religious service institutions in a technological society than like a people or a community. Most Christian churches have long ago given up their systems for “deciding between members of the brotherhood”; and their court systems, when they have them, are simply for deciding matters within the church institution.

In order for the churches to make use of many of the passages in scripture, more is needed than a mere decision to want to conform to scripture. The life of the Christian people must change in order for the scriptural passages to make sense. Modern Christians would have to live the kind of life which the early Christians did—that is, a communal life, a life as a people. As they would do so, more and more of the scriptural passages would be perceived as practical, helpful advice, not direction that could be followed only in a legalistic way because it no longer applies or makes sense.

Unfortunately, most people end up viewing the scriptural passages which Christians do not currently follow as an argument for not following other passages as well, or they follow scripture legalistically in defiance of other Christians. However, the current church practice of not following those passages would be more accurately viewed as an argument for changing the life of the Christian people so that “space” can be provided where scriptural teaching can be reasonably and faithfully applied, and so that the life of the Christian people can become the truly communal life which the Lord meant it to be when he first called people out of the world to be his body, a people, a consecrated nation. Rather than changing the current practices of the church or arguing about which passages in scripture we “have to” follow, the task should be seen more as one of renewal of communal life in the church.

The Intent of Scripture

While “the gap between the centuries,” “the signs of the times,” “the development of doctrine,” and “the current practice of the church” should not lead someone to dismiss the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women as no longer applicable and therefore not to be followed, it seems clear that each of these four arguments raises genuine objections against an application of that teaching which is inadequately designed for modern circumstances. Even though these objections are often framed imprecisely or incorrectly, and certain unjustifiable conclusions are drawn from them, they do express a very real concern. We must resolve the significant question of applying scripture to our present circumstances: When should we accept and adjust to our current situation, and when should we view it as an obstacle to our obedience, and overcome it?

The question of scripture’s applicability surfaces a variety of issues. One issue is whether or not certain scripture passages can be applied to us at all. The issue is clearly raised by a passage such as Deuteronomy 23:1 (the exclusion of eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord). This regulation, which was binding under the old law, is superseded under the New Covenant—as prophesied in Isaiah 56:3–5, and as seen in Acts 8:26–29.

A second issue is whether an entire passage is applicable, or whether only certain of its elements can be applied. For example, with certain Old Testament purity laws (such as in Lv 15), the element of “being holy” continues to apply to Christians today, although the ritual prescriptions need not be followed.*

A third issue is, can a given passage be applied directly or only by analogy in the life of the Christian people? This issue is squarely raised in considering the passages addressed to masters and slaves. Because the institution of slavery no longer exists in our society, these passages cannot be directly applied. On the other hand, they might be validly applied in an analogous sense. For instance, they could be applied to employer-employee relationships, insofar as services are required and rendered in a relationship that is often not freely chosen.

A fourth issue is whether or not a particular passage requires interpretation in order to be applied. “Interpretation” here refers to the process of finding and stating the twentieth-century equivalent to the first-century teaching. For instance, Peter 2:13 exhorts Christians to be subject to the emperor. Because today there is no emperor, the intent of the passage must be interpreted in order to determine its application. Most Christians would teach that this passage is intended to apply not solely to emperors (which would leave Christians under a president free to be insubordinate), but to all sovereigns. Using the word “interpretation” carries with it some problems, as there is an important sense in which all scripture needs interpretation. Yet there is a further level of interpretation required by “Be subject to the emperor” (when there is no longer an emperor) that is not needed for a passage like “Children, obey your parents” (when there are still both children and parents).

A fifth issue is that of adaptation. Some passages must be adapted in order to be applied (or to be applied well), while other passages need no adaptation. An adapted application of a passage might be illustrated with Galatians 6:6, “Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches.” This passage probably means that students should provide their teachers with food, clothing, etc. In our days, students would be more likely to pay their Christian teachers, who would then buy “all good things” for themselves. Most Christians would say that such an adaptation allows the meaning of the passage to be carried out more effectively in modern circumstances, and is a good application of the passage.21

A sixth issue is whether a given passage can be applied in our present circumstances, or if circumstances must be changed and a “space” created in order to make the application. For instance, Hebrews 10:25 exhorts Christians to gather together with other Christians, but there are Christians in some places today who could not apply this passage without either creating a body of Christians with whom to meet (that is, without evangelizing), or moving to another city or village.

Varieties of Passages

In view of these issues, we can distinguish six major types of scripture passages according to how they are applied. (1) Some passages simply do not apply any longer; we do not really need to consider obeying their literal meaning in our present circumstances. The passage from Deuteronomy 23:1 mentioned above would be an example of such a passage. (2) Only certain elements of some passages can be applied today. This would be the case with certain Old Testament purity laws. (3) Some passages are only applicable by analogy. The master-slave passages mentioned earlier illustrate this type of passage. (4) Some passages must be interpreted or adapted in order to be correctly applied. At times, what is needed is interpretation (as with Pt 2:13 above), while at other times, an adaptation should be made (as with Gal 6:6 above). (5) Some passages which should be applied once they are interpreted (or perhaps even without interpretation) cannot actually be applied until we change our circumstances. The example from Hebrews 10:25 is relevant here. This fifth type of passage will be considered more fully below. (6) Some passages apply today just as they stand—in a direct, uninterpreted, unadapted way. For instance, the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is to be applied as immediately today as it was in the days of Moses. Exegesis might be needed to clarify the meaning of “commit adultery”; teaching might be needed as to how to obey the commandment well; but no interpretation or adaptation is required in order to apply it in our modern circumstances.* One is still not permitted to have sexual intercourse with a person married to someone else, nor are married people allowed to have sexual intercourse with others besides their marriage partners.

In the preceding discussions of “the gap between the centuries,” “the signs of the times,” “the development of doctrine,” and “the current practice of the church,” it was noted that many writers oppose applying the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women as though all of it had to be applied in a direct, uninterpreted, unadapted fashion (the approach to the sixth type of passage mentioned above). In rejecting this sixth approach, they generally advocate the first or second approach, which would say that the passages either no longer apply at all, or that only certain elements of them can be applied. They argue that scripture passages on the roles of men and women are inapplicable as written because the social structures which made sense of them no longer exist. We cannot, they say, apply these passages directly, nor should we try to do so any longer. According to such a view, unless we feel called upon to remake society and to reverse the trend of technological society’s social change, we must acknowledge that the scriptural passages are no longer capable of direct application. In other words, having rejected what they might call a “literalist” or “Fundamentalist” or “Biblicist” approach to the scripture, they conclude that little if any of the scripture in this area can be applied today.

Unfortunately, those who distinguish only two alternative methods of application—“Fundamentalist” and “little if any at all”—end up obscuring some important issues (and in the process misuse the term “Fundamentalist”). First, they fail to recognize some of the other important types of application mentioned above, such as application by interpretation or adaptation, which responsibly take into account the context and intention of the passage, the change in circumstances from the first century to the twentieth, and other such important factors in applying scriptural teaching.

Secondly, their dichotomy completely overlooks the issue presented by the fifth approach to application: changing our circumstances in order to apply the teaching in scripture. There is, in short, a major additional option, often not considered—namely, changing the lives of Christians so that the passage can apply. However, this option raises a further question: If our drastically changed modern circumstances present serious objections to applying a passage from scripture, how do we decide when we should obey a passage by overcoming those circumstances, and when we should acknowledge that a passage no longer applies, or that only certain elements of it apply, and leave it at that? After all, we do not want to find ourselves piously restoring the institution of slavery so that we could again apply the passages on slavery.

The choice of a criterion raises the question of authority and obedience. Those who believe the authority of scripture to be supreme and submit themselves to it will find the answer in scripture itself as far as scripture gives guidance.22 They will see the issue first of all as a question of the intent of the commands and instructions in the scripture. If we hear our father say, “Do not cross the street,” we must ask whether that command was intended for this particular street (because it has a great deal of traffic) or for all streets. But also, if we hear our father say that he wants us to save money, and we do not have any money at the moment, we must ask whether our father’s command can be disregarded since we have no money to save, or whether involved in his command is the command to make some money so that we can save money.

If we are going to be obedient, we must accept the principle that the one who gives the command is the one who determines what the command means and what constitutes obedience to it. We may not always be able to ascertain what the person who gave the command actually means, but once we do, we must abide by it—if we are going to be obedient. Were we to say to ourselves, “My father clearly meant that I should never cross streets because I am not ready for that; but I want to cross this street; now I have to decide whether to cross it or not,” we would not be acting in obedience. The question should already be decided for us by our father’s command. In short, we should discern whether or not something in the scriptural passages on the roles of men and women is applicable to our circumstances (and whether we should accept our circumstances or seek to overcome them) by following the intention of those passages. Scripture may not always clearly show the intent behind the command, but when it does, the issue comes down to a question of whether to obey or to put another standard over that of scripture.23

The fact that the question of the applicability of scripture is frequently an issue of obedience is often not adverted to by those who make the dichotomy between “Fundamentalist”* application and “little if any” application. This is the case because they do not hold that scripture is to be obeyed. Many of these people would hold that even if one were able to clearly understand the meaning of scripture and recognize that it can indeed cover our circumstances, one would not have to follow it. Many of them would maintain that our culture, or the principles of our society, or perhaps Marxist ideology, should have a higher authority for us than parts of the New Testament. Some would hold, for example, that no matter how clear the scriptural intentions concerning homosexuality might be, Christians today are not obliged to obey them. Perhaps, they would say, these passages should be seen as containing some truths, maybe the truth that homosexuality is not ideal, but it is not necessary to obey them—even though the apostle Paul clearly meant that all Christians until the end of time should avoid homosexual acts.

In order to accurately grasp the intention of the scriptural passages on the roles of men and women and their applicability to our current situation, we have to be sensitive to the different kinds of scriptural material involved.

The question of scriptural interpretation is to be taken differently when we are talking about something (1) presented as a fact, or (2) described as a significant event, or (3) taught as instructional material, or (4) given as a prophecy. When we interpret a fact in scripture (such as the relationship of Jesus to the Father) or an event (such as the resurrection), our interpretation is more a matter of understanding what happened and seeing its significance for us than of “applying it.” Or, when we interpret a word which God spoke to an individual or a group (for example, Jeremiah’s words to Zedekiah before the fall of Jerusalem), we are trying to see how God dealt with a particular situation in the past, and to ask whether it can give us some insight into how he will deal with a similar situation in our lives. We might describe this process of “interpretation” as discerning how the particular prophecy “applies” to our lives, but “application” would be used here in an analogous sense. However, when we are dealing with instructional material that concerns our way of life, whether that material includes specific commandments or simply teaching about the wise or good way of living, then we can ask about the applicability of that material in the proper sense of the word “application.” We can ask whether such teaching applies to our situation and, if so, how it applies. Theories of interpretation (hermeneutics) can often be confusing because they lack clarity about the different ways in which the nature of scriptural material affects the process of interpretation.24

Characteristics of New Testament Teaching on Roles

The New Testament material on the roles of men and women can be more fruitfully discussed with these distinctions in mind. The first nine chapters of this book laid out the New Testament pattern of roles. They also laid out the teaching behind that pattern, and discussed its intent. This material does not need to be repeated, but it will be helpful to summarize here some of the essential characteristics of the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women. This will help clarify scripture’s intention, and prepare for a resolution of the issue of application raised earlier: When do Christians accept their circumstances and acknowledge that the scripture no longer directly applies, and when do they seek to overcome obstacles presented by our circumstances in order to obey the scriptural teaching?

  1. The New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women is clearly a teaching. It does not consist merely of facts or events (such as the fact that Jesus chose only males to be his apostles, or that both Priscilla and Aquila instructed Apollos), or of some patterns (for example, that only men were chosen for the presbyterate in the early church). The New Testament also contains a good deal of teaching. This teaching contains some directives in the form of apostolic rulings or instructions. It also contains some fundamental doctrine concerning God’s intention for the human race and his purpose for men and women. In other words, the New Testament teaching contains some more or less clear directives and a statement of God’s intention.
  2. The New Testament teaching is also exemplified in a pattern of relations between men and women. That pattern is visible for both husbands and wives and for leadership roles in the early church. It contains some variations, but it also contains some fundamental uniformities. We are dealing, then, with a structure to the life of the early Christians which was universal in certain features, but flexible.
  3. The New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women is not merely a collection of “timeless truths,” but it is closely linked with God’s purposes. The New Testament recognizes that at times, for example, when “hardness of heart” prevails, the Lord allows something to happen that is not in perfect accord with his intention. But God’s intention always remains. Hence, although in some ways it is possible to extract from the New Testament teaching on men and women some universal principles for relations between the sexes, the New Testament teaching is linked to God’s purpose and intention for the human race. When human beings accept God’s will and receive power from him to fulfill his will, they will move toward forming a body in which the life of humanity as God intends it to be is visible, and in which men and women relate to one another as God desires.
  4. The New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women concerns something which is human and not simply something which is related to a particular historical situation. It is a teaching on sexual differentiation, something God created into the human race because of his purposes for humanity. This fact is clear in the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women. The New Testament teaching gives directions not for one particular era or situation, but for all time—for men because they are men, and for women because they are women. The New Testament teaching is confirmed in this respect by modern study of the differences between men and women. Family life and sex differences may have to be lived in some very different circumstances in the twentieth century, but technological society has not effaced the reality of sexual differentiation. The New Testament teaching concerns something which has not changed, both in the sense that the reality of sexual differentiation remains despite the societal changes, and that the teaching concerns God’s purpose for the human race as sexually differentiated. It is not merely a teaching about handling the way sexual differentiation affected life in the first century AD.

We are confronted with a situation today in which circumstances make it difficult to apply the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women. But we are also confronted with a teaching in scripture which presents itself to us as applicable as long as we are still men and women and as long as we want to correspond faithfully to God’s purpose for the human race. We may need much wisdom on how to apply it so that it is life-giving and so that God’s intention can be truly accomplished. But if we are truly going to submit ourselves to scripture and allow the scripture itself to instruct us as to how it intends itself to be taken, we have to seek a way of applying it. The real issue is not whether to apply the scriptural teaching, but how to apply it.

Some Principles of Application

The arguments opposing any twentieth-century application of the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women that were discussed earlier in this chapter are not good reasons for setting aside the teaching itself. They do, however, raise important considerations for any application of the New Testament teaching. “The gap between the centuries” does not indicate that Christians should do whatever our culture or times believe is right, but it does mean that they must deal with the difference in historical circumstances. “Discerning the signs of the times” does not mean that Christians should allow contemporary social trends to signal to them that scriptural teaching no longer needs to be followed, but it can legitimately mean that societal currents and trends should be observed as indicating what factors should be taken into account or dealt with. “The development of doctrine” does not mean that Christians can change scriptural teaching to fit in better with their new circumstances, but it does mean that they must find a new way of understanding and teaching it so that it takes adequate account of the new circumstances and modern mentalities. “The current practice of the church” does not mean that Christians should fall into line with the way Christians are not yet reaching full faithfulness to the Lord’s teaching, but it should indicate that the life of the church has to be changed in order to provide “space” to apply many of the scriptural teachings. In summary, these four arguments should not lead Christians to set aside the scriptural teaching, but they do clarify the task of applying that teaching.

Being faithful to the New Testament teaching involves developing what could be called a pastoral approach to applying that teaching. A pastoral approach includes understanding what the New Testament is teaching, understanding the differences in circumstances between then and now, and developing a way to state and follow the teaching in different circumstances. A pastoral approach is more than a matter of understanding what the scripture is saying. It is also a way of responding to what it says. The following elements should be included in a pastoral approach to applying the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women today:

  1. We need to create a space* within which it is possible to follow the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women today.

We cannot, without experiencing a great deal of trouble, begin to live those roles by simply and directly obeying the scriptural teaching in our existing circumstances. A Christian who attempts to do so will experience a lack of support—increasingly so as technological society develops along its present course. Moreover, Christians will often find it difficult to express the Christian teaching on the roles of men and women because they spend most of their lives with people who neither understand nor accept the scriptural approach. Even in the family, it is often the case that a husband or a wife cannot count upon the other to accept the same approach. Christians face the choice of accepting the way others do it or seeming to look and act very strange.

Of course, this is not only the case for the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women. It holds true also for basic Christian sexual and business morality, and for many other Christian teachings on personal relations. Even Christian churches cannot decide simply to follow the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women without deciding to do more—that is, without deciding to reshape their lives in a fuller way. If they fail to do more while trying to hold on to the scriptural teaching, they will find themselves holding literally to scriptural prescriptions in a legalistic way that does not make sense to people. Moreover, they will constantly come up against cases of application for which they have no clear criterion, such as what constitutes the kind of teaching that women cannot do.

To properly interpret and adapt the teaching of scripture for modern circumstances can be important steps in solving these problems. But in themselves they are not enough. Of primary importance is creating a space within which it is possible to live the Christian teaching. To put it in a more scriptural way, a space must be created within which it is possible to become a Christian people, a people with a life together and with a social structure. Living the Christian teaching on the roles of men and women means more than just keeping a few rules of order. It means preserving, or developing, a way of life which uses the differences between men and women positively, as an advantage to human life. It means restoring some elements to Christian living that are more natural to the human race than some of the patterns developed under the influence of technological society. It means becoming a people who are able to determine what their way of life should be like, rather than being a people who are formed by the influences of society because they cannot hold out against them. Living the scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women should involve, first of all, living the scriptural teaching on being a new humanity.

  1. The scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women should be applied primarily within the Christian community rather than within society as a whole.

One of the “decisive arguments” sometimes directed against maintaining the early church approach to the roles of men and women is the argument that it is impossible to apply such an approach—or, much more to the point, to get such an approach accepted—in modern Western society. Some people would say that there is a close relationship between the position of women in the Christian community and the “emancipation” of women in society. Accordingly, if we accept the view that women should be “emancipated” in society, then we should adopt the same principles among Christians. Such a view, however, rests on the underlying assumptions of a Christendom mentality.25 In this mentality it is assumed that Christian teaching is teaching for society as a whole because, it is argued, society is the Christian people (everyone is, or ought to be, Christian). But it is no longer the case in the West today that society is the Christian people. Neither is it true that modern Western society accepts Christian principles and Christian teaching.

Yet it is true that the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women is not solely “for Christians.” Like almost everything else in the New Testament, this teaching is God’s purpose for the entire human race. Moreover, the New Testament teaching on roles is founded in the teaching on creation, and not solely in the teaching on the new age begun in Jesus. However, the New Testament at no time assumes that non-Christian society could be expected to follow even the basic moral law, much less the kingdom morality of the Sermon on the Mount, without first turning to God the king and accepting the Son whom he sent (Ti 3:1–7). While in one sense Christian teaching may be for everyone, Christians should not expect the world to accept Christian principles without being Christian. To place such an expectation on society only makes sense in Christendom.

Instead of assuming a Christendom mentality which no longer applies to our society, we would do well to observe and learn from the example of the early church. The early Christians realized that they lived in a society which did not accept Christian principles. They recognized that the “world” and the Christian community were two distinct realities. Christians were supposed to live in the world, but were not to be of it. Neither were Christians to be surprised if they became a target of hostility from the world (Jn 15:18–25). Rather, they were to expect to operate on a different set of principles inside the Christian community than they would use outside it.26 There is a different set of principles for personal relations among brothers and sisters (the brethren, adelphoi) than for outsiders (Col 4:5; Cor 5:9–13), much as any family has a different set of principles for “the family” than for outsiders. In fact, many New Testament teachings on personal relations are practical only when applied in relationships with others who accept the same principles. To take one example, the principle of fraternal correction will function successfully only among those who accept this principle. (If one reproves someone who does not understand or accept reproof as a way of dealing with wrongdoing, that person will experience reproof as insult or criticism.) On the question of the roles of men and women, the early Christians expected to differ from both the Pharisaic Judaism of their Palestinian homeland and the Greeks of the Hellenistic environment in cities of Asia Minor. In the same way, Christians today should be ready to differ from the people around them on the roles of men and women.

There is a further reason for differing from the approach of modern society to the roles of men and women. Contemporary society is structured primarily along functional-technological lines. Vital community life, however, is never successfully structured along those lines. Community, in the Christian sense of the term, is formed around relationships, and it accepts principles of age and sex as good human principles for structuring role differences in society. Every real community in modern Western society, no matter how good it may be at living among modern Western people and sharing many of their cultural expressions, will have to be different in many basic principles of personal relationships. Otherwise, the members will be forced to give up much of the health of their community. It is not beyond the ability of human beings to follow a different set of principles in one situation than in another. Members of minority groups do so, as do most workers who live according to different principles at home than those they work by in the office. It is simply a matter of training in what is appropriate for a given situation. Christians can certainly acquire this kind of training.

  1. The approach to the roles of men and women has to be adapted to the circumstances of the modern environment, and to the individual cultures within which that approach is lived out.

Christians must be both faithful to the basic teaching and approach of scripture and realistic about the situation in which they live. Either they have to leave technological society and form special enclaves that operate according to a different socioeconomic system (like the Amish), or they have to learn how to live as a people within technological society itself. If they choose the latter, they must, even in their family and Christian community life, adapt themselves wisely to their secular environment. Adapting to modern circumstances, however, is not the same as accepting or being formed by the principles of modern technological society. The fundamental shape of Christian community life must be determined not by “the world” (in this case, modern technological society), but by the teaching of scripture. Yet twentieth-century Christians, even when they are faithful to scriptural teaching and know how to preserve a way of life and a community that are distinctive, will look different than first-century Christians. Their way of life in community will need to be lived in a way that is viable within a modern technological society. Faithfulness and adaptation depend on many specific decisions which need the wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Neither scripture itself, nor scripture and tradition together, can provide all the needed guidelines as Christians face new situations, especially in a rapidly evolving technological society. The Christian people also need leaders who know how to lead them under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These leaders must be able to teach with genuine faithfulness to the Lord’s own teaching, and teach with wisdom and discernment about how to be faithful to the same scriptural commands in different circumstances.

  1. Today’s approach to the roles of men and women has to be incorporated into pastorally shaped teaching.27

The word of the Lord was not only for the first century—it is contemporary. Genuine Christian teaching concerning the roles of men and women does not mean educating Christians in the first-century life. Christian teaching is not a history course or an antiquarian pursuit. The very teaching of the Lord’s word must embody its application. It should include the wisdom which can make faithfulness to the scripture life-giving, not a constrictive legalism. Genuine Christian teaching, even genuine Christian teaching of the scripture, is not exegesis in the sense of simply stating what the scripture meant for those who first heard it. It is teaching which comes not only from the written word of God, but also from the present revelation of the Holy Spirit. Genuine Christian teaching is not merely God’s word for then. It is God’s word for now.

555*To say that something is “the meaning” or “the real meaning” of a scriptural passage normally involves making the covert claim that the way it would be comprehended by those who first heard it, or by the human author, is of higher value or more faithful than any other meaning. Even to distinguish between “its meaning for then” and “its meaning for now” would be most easily understood as implying that “its meaning for now” is not something really “in” the text, but something we are adding to it. Christians have traditionally believed that the primary author of scripture is God, and hence that scripture was not fully comprehended even by its human authors. If this is so, the meaning for now (if we can discern it) is just as much its real meaning as its meaning for then.

This chapter does not directly raise the issue of typological and spiritual meanings of scripture (except in the footnote on p. 572). Such approaches to interpretation, however, further question the validity of the claim that the human author or his original audience were the ones who understood “the real meaning” of the text.

555†The statement that the words of scripture are directed to us today should be qualified by the observation that certain parts of scripture’s teaching are addressed directly to one group within the Christian community rather than to another. For example, the teaching addressed to children is not directed to parents, nor is the instruction for married couples directed to single people. Yet most of the teaching in scripture is intended for all Christians, and those parts addressed to certain groups within the Christian community are still intended to speak to those groups today.

566*The teaching of the church Father Vincent of Lérins exemplifies the understanding of development of doctrine which expects development, but opposes a reversal of doctrine:

Let there be growth . . . and all possible progress in understanding, knowledge and wisdom, whether in single individuals or in the whole body, in each man as well as in the entire church, according to the stage of their development; but only within proper limits, that is, in the same doctrine, in the same meaning, and in the same purport. (Commonitorium 23.1; PL 50:640)

570*In making such a statement, a distinction should be made between those elements of current church practice which are doctrinal and those which are customary or disciplinary. Doctrinal elements would normally be regarded as being of divine order, or as bearing such authority that they cannot be changed. Disciplinary elements can be reformed; yet to assert that such current practices are reformable is not to deny that the church has authority to make disciplinary decisions.

572*New Testament writers and the early Christian Fathers would probably not have accepted these first two categories as described here. They probably would not have thought that any Old Testament passage would be without application for Christians. In order, however, to establish their position, they would have had to use typology, allegory, and other types of interpretation that are not commonly used today (e.g., Cor 9:9–10; Ep. Barn. 5–16). They also would not have been inclined to say that only certain elements of Old Testament passages would be applicable today. They would have said that the holiness laws were fulfilled in Christ and their reality is observed today by Christians even though the more ancient forms are not used (cf. Col 2:17; Heb 10:1). Traditional Christian teaching would make a stronger point about applicability than is made in this chapter. It would say that all the scripture is applicable (Tm 3:16). This chapter simply uses some illustrations that would be the normal contemporary Christian approach to the Old Testament.

574*This does not rule out the existence of interpretive issues connected with the commandment (e.g., whether concubinage violates the commandment, whether or not the commandment also comprehends lust or other kinds of porneia [Mt 5:27–30]). Nonetheless, there is a clear area in which the commandment applies without the need of interpretation or adaptation—in a way that is not true of Pt 2:13 and Gal 6:6.

576*Those who do not think that many areas of scripture should be followed today frequently use the term “Fundamentalist” as the other half of their dichotomy because the term has a disparaging connotation. They use it vaguely to designate anyone who seeks to apply the scriptural teaching today more than they do. In fact, however, one does not have to be a Fundamentalist to believe that scripture is the highest authority, to be followed whenever its intent covers the circumstances. This is official Roman Catholic and Orthodox teaching, as well as the official teaching of most Protestant churches. See the discussion “Is This Fundamentalism?” in Chapter Fourteen, pp. 352357.

580*“Space” often means “social environment,” but it has a broader meaning. We need to see that the conditions are present for an intelligent application of scriptural passages. For applying passages on men and women, the right social environment is needed (because roles are social), but certain social structures are likewise needed.