Monday, June 04, 2012

Starting Points

"When looking to interpret difficult passages, clear passages should help illuminate unclear ones."

How many of you have heard this bit of advice when being taught how to read the Bible? Maybe it's just my seminary education talking, but I know I've heard it an awful lot. There are definitely ways in which this is good advice. Unfortunately, I've learned over the years that determining precisely which passages are the "clear" ones that help with which other "unclear" passages is, itself, an act of interpretation. Indeed, it's a very important act of interpretation, as the passage you choose as your "starting point" has implications for a great deal of not only how you come to understand what the Bible teaches, but consequently in how you live out your walk with Jesus and the Church.

When it comes to matters related to women in ministry, many people immediately look to 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which such people take as Paul's absolute prohibition against women teaching in the church. When these people are later confronted with passages that seem, on their surface, to feature women in the act of teaching, the go back to their "starting point" and explain these other passages away in any number of ways. Moreover, they come back to the 1 Timothy passage and try to explain that it refers most directly to the idea that women should not hold church office (perhaps citing a couple of other passages that have bearing on the issue of church office, which aren't as strong in their prohibition against women, but do indeed seem, at least on the surface, to use male-exclusive language), allowing for the possibility of women "teaching" in non-office-holding roles.

It is no secret to long-time readers that I find this interpretive rubric to be unconvincing, despite my desire to fully acknowledge that 1 Timothy (and other potentially problematic passages) are indeed a part of the Bible that I hold to be sacred and authoritative. Thankfully, the Bible happens to be a rather large work, and thus there are other options from which to find a "starting point." When discussing women in ministry, my preferred starting point is Galatians 3:28, which reads: "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (CEB)

While those who use a different "starting point" argue that this passage refers exclusively to one's eternal destiny in Christ, and most definitely does not grant access to church leadership, there isn't anything in the context of Galatians that would indicate this. It is an interpretation that simply arises of out the fact that those opposed to women in ministry are using a different "starting point." But what if they're wrong? What if we used Galatians 3:28 as our starting point, and looked to interpret passages like the one in 1 Timothy in that light?

Taken at its most obvious level (a "plain reading," if you will) Galatians assures Christians that distinctions that may carry weight in the secular world do not have that weight among those who follow Christ. National boundaries are meaningless. The relationship between owner and slave is unimportant. The distinctions between male and female fall away. All have the same rights and privileges as a follower of Christ. Paul writes Galatians 3:28 as a summative statement that encapsulates the core of his theology, which he develops throughout the rest of Galatians. Indeed, if Galatians is (as many scholars believe) the earliest of the canonical epistles written by Paul, this fact becomes even more important, and it is even more natural to look at further developments of Paul's thought (including the passages often used against women in church office) through this lens, rather than the other way around.

This isn't the place to get into a lot of scholarly research, but indulge me as I cite two Evangelical scholars. The first is the late F.F. Bruce, who wrote that "Paul states the basic principle here; if restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus..., they are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28, and not vice versa."1 The second is David Scholer (about whom I've written before), who argues that the three pairs mentioned in the passage (Jew/Greek; slave/free; male/female) "represent three of the most important and critical social and status divisions in Paul's Greco-Roman culture," and that Paul's use of those social realities "could not conceivably have been employed in his setting without horizontal implications."2 To insist that the passage only has "vertical" implications (that is, related to God, as opposed to things here on Earth) is to fundamentally misunderstand Paul's point.

None of this is to suggest that Paul was a modern-day egalitarian. Paul was, of course, a product of his time. But given the patriarchy of his era, the fact that he not only penned words like these in Galatians (and I've not even scratched the surface of such counter-cultural texts), but also that he wrote favorably about at least a dozen different women who were involved with him in ministry becomes extremely noteworthy. The trajectory becomes clear. Women are by no means to excluded from church office, but rather are called to be full partners with men in the work of Jesus Christ!

This post is the first intended to tie in with "A Week of Mutuality," hosted by Rachel Held Evans this week (the week of June 4-10) at her blog, You can head to this link to learn more about the project.

1F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greet Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 190.
2David M. Scholer, "Galatians 3:28 and the Ministry of Women in the Church," in Covenant Quarterly 56:3 (August 1998), 10-11.

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