Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Feminism, Paul and the Church (May 1993)

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by Allan J. McNicol
May, 1993

12At the outset let us acknowledge some obvious facts. Yes, in the past, (male) leadership in the church has been slow to affirm the crucial importance of the ministries of women as co-workers in the church. Yes, when one studies the roles that women filled in the churches founded by Paul, it is highly questionable whether an all-encompassing prohibition against women performing “public roles” in the assembly can be scripturally warranted. And, yes, there are powerful undercurrents within our society, informed by the philosophy of secular liberalism, that will continue to fuel the belief that there are no gender specific roles for people in institutional life anymore; and that includes the church.

Thus, for many, the absence of women in visible positions of leadership in congregational life in Churches of Christ seems hopelessly restrictive and antiquated. It is out of step with the whole drift of the times and we can reasonably expect that certain attempts will be made to correct this situation. The only question is what these corrections will be and what theological understanding, if any, will support such corrections.

As we move toward greater inclusiveness, it is with respect to the latter point that I would make two broad and cautionary comments. The first observation falls in the area of feminism and its relationship to Christianity. The second pertains to the understanding of the Scripture itself.

Feminism and the Church

We need to look closely at the context in which issues of gender have recently moved to the forefront of discussion in the church. Today, there is a major fault line in American Christianity.

On one side there are those who say that the traditional ways of viewing Scripture as giving permanent abiding teaching on many matters, including the role of women in family and church, have outlived their usefulness. Biblical arguments on the role of women in family are not plausible in the ordinary discourse of our pluralistic society. What the church should seek to do is to affirm the most enlightened contemporary experience and knowledge and, in conversation with a faith perspective, seek the goal of women becoming totally equal in an inclusive society. Paradoxically, while those who hold such views dismiss the Bible as “hopelessly patriarchal,” the goals of feminism are viewed as fully compatible with a true understanding of Christian faith.

On the other side there are those who claim that the dominant strains of thought in American society are antithetical to Christianity. The church must become an alternative community to the dominant ethos. It must renew itself through serious appropriation of the language, thoughts, and concepts of its foundational story found in Scripture. Christians cannot make the wider society live by biblical norms, but, as much as possible, they must distance themselves from society’s norms. The goals of feminism are no more a desirable end for which Christianity may be pressed into service to attain than any other social or political ideology that has come along from time to time. The church should find its basic foundation for the role of women in its own story. Christianity has stood the test of time. One can presume that there are fruitful models in Scripture that may provide viable alternatives for women to live and serve with integrity today.

Without question most leaders in Churches of Christ would place themselves in the latter camp of the cultural divide. But the problem is that many members of the church, especially among the growing educated and affluent groups, live and breathe within the outlook of the first perspective.

In an era of rapid change such people will not rest content with a few cosmetic changes in church practice that are currently being carried out in some congregations. For example, there will be calls to address God as “she” or ” “our mother” in the assembly. All of this will come as part of an overall strategy to reform the “culturally conditioned” language of the church and implement feminist agenda.

My initial word of caution emerges here. Church leaders must understand that the philosophies that undergird much of the contemporary call for inclusiveness in the church are totally incompatible with the historical Christian faith. Christianity cannot allow itself to be hijacked in the cause of another contemporary ideology. But one cannot fight something with nothing. Church leaders must spell out from Scripture a defensible doctrine of how women and men, made and restored through Christ in the image of God, should live and serve in the church today.

Paul’s Cautionary Comments

This brings us to Scripture. By general consent we come to Paul. He is the one New Testament writer who has developed a coherent strategy on this subject.

Paul’s teaching on how male and female relate to each other emerges as an integral part of his total theological framework. Paul understands that through Jesus’ death and exaltation God has brought into existence a community of the end-time: the renewed people of God. This community, the church, exists between two times: the time of the resurrection of Jesus, when God reclaimed the creation for himself by exercising his saving power, and the parousia, when the world will be totally subject to the risen Lord. In the time between the times it is the duty of the church to attempt to bring the world into full compliance with this new reality.

For Paul, the attainment of the believer to full fellowship with God entails not only an anticipation of Christ being all and in all at the end of history, but a restoration, in the present time, of what God intended for the creation in the first place. When Paul turned to his text on the subject (Genesis 2:4-15a) he saw very clearly that Adam was created before Eve. This chronological priority of the male in creation did not mean that the intent of the Creator was to make the male ontologically superior to the woman (Genesis 1:27-28; cf. Galatians 3:28-29; 1 Corinthians 11:11-12); but analysis of Paul’s writings does reveal that he believed that God gave to the male the responsibility of exercising authority over the household. Thus Paul anchors his teaching on the role of male and female in Christ in his doctrine of the new creation brought into effect by the Christ event. On the other hand, in Paul’s text, the woman in her otherness, as the one corresponding to the male (Genesis 2:18) brought companionship, care, and tenderness in her relationship with the male. In their complementarity in difference the male and female reflect the divine intent for the human family (Genesis 2:24). This model for the family was corrupted by sin resulting in a distortion of the relationship (Genesis 3:16). The distortion is readily apparent in fallen culture today. And we should remember that not only the woman fell but also the male! But in Christ the intent of the Creator in Genesis 2 is to be restored in the conduct of Christian families in the household (Colossians 3:18-19; Ephesians 5:21-24). What is true for the family is also true for the household of God.

In the restored people of God women may have a variety of different ministries. In Paul’s time they served as givers of aid, teachers, prophets, and missionaries. The opportunities for similar ministries today are unparalleled. But these ministries are to be exercised in the context of Christian households where the husbands or (male) elders function as the figures of authority.

In keeping with this theological perspective, in three places (1 Corinthians 11:3-16; 14:33-36; and 1 Timothy 2:9-15) the New Testament has Paul make cautionary comments regarding women placing themselves in positions of authority. In First Corinthians, during the time of prayer and prophetic discussion, Paul teaches that the women should exercise quiet decorum and not make interruptions. In First Timothy the comments on appropriate decorum are repeated and extended. There also the women are told specifically that they are not permitted to teach or contradict the male teacher (bishop?) giving authoritative guidance in the community (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7).

So there we have it. Scripture sets forth a model of male and female restored to the image of God as to how they serve him in their mutual ministries in household and church. Neither husband nor wife has a superior status. But at times they do have different tasks differentiated by gender. These tasks may vary depending on the socially accepted roles of women and men in a particular society. Changes in social roles can and should be accepted by the church. But accommodation to sociological factors does not negate theological truths.

We finish with our final cautionary comment. The ancient church canonized the teaching of Paul. If we intend to claim to be the ancient church restored, it necessarily follows that we must accept that verdict. Paul’s model of the restoration of male and female in a new relationship in Christ is intensely theological and cannot be separated from his wider theological framework. And why should we try to do that. We humbly submit that we can find no empirical evidence that increased societal acceptance of the ideological goals of feminism has resulted in deeper love, respect, and an enhanced self-image for the contemporary woman. As more and more we move toward an inclusive society it may be good if we keep that reality firmly in mind.Wineskins Magazine

Allan J. McNichol

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