Why, It’s Mutual, Thanks

Every good student of Scripture knows that the clear teachings of God’s Word are the standard to which unclear (difficult, puzzling, incongruent) messages must be compared. The unclear passage ought never be discarded, but it can be harmonized with the clear teaching and tenor of the rest of the Bible. An example of this is the New Testament admonition that all believers are to greet one another with a holy kiss. We know that no guys in our fellowship do this, and most women don’t either (I’m a cheek-kisser because I was raised in Mexican culture and have spent most of my life with cheek-kissing Latinos; I’m entirely comfortable with it, but I know most of my friends aren’t). Because the point of Paul’s letters recommending male-to-male holy kisses is simply, and obviously, that we should greet each other warmly, we easily discard the literal in favor of the culturally appropriate “spirit” of things — a hug, a hearty handshake, a slap on the back, whatever. Ours is not a culture of “guy-kissing,” whereas Middle East cultures would have no problem with it. We understand the point here, and no one accuses the non-kissing, or non-foot washing, or non-communal living, of possessing a sinfully low view of Scripture.

The New Testament, particularly Paul’s writings, has been used to limit how Spirit-gifted women serve in the church, in society, and in the home. Some of those, while seemingly clear on the first read, are difficult to understand when compared to the massive evidence in the New Testament of male-female equality and mutuality. The hermeneutical principle that the less-clear be translated and applied in light of the more-clear has been too easy for hierarchialists, patriarchs, and traditionalists to jettison in favor of a wooden interpretation that, not coincidentally, favors them. These few verses, puzzling in their apparent incongruence with Jesus’ ministry and the bulk of NT teaching, are bandied about like so many police whistles and batons to stop women from assuming positions of leadership and to insist that they maintain constant submission to their male “head.” The application of these verses, then, becomes an exercise in How Not To Interpret And Apply Scripture, an exercise we would all shudder to find employed by church leaders in other areas.

The passages in the Paul’s New Testament writings that, on first read, prohibit women from teaching men, prophesying in the church, and serving as pastors and elders are very few in number: 1 Timothy 2 12:15, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and the passages in 1 Timothy 3 that describe elders/bishops/overseers in masculine terms. Lifted from their cultural context, they do seem to limit women, even to rebuke them. The idea of male headship comes primarily from Ephesians 5:22-33; an argument for headship from Ephesians 5 usually forgets 5:21 (“submit to one another out of reverence to Christ,” which confers absolute reciprocity and mutuality on the command to submit and doesn’t excuse either gender. Nor does it compel; the Greek word translated “submission” is one that indicates a self-giving, volitional manner of relating to others, not a dutiful response to command. And churches that insist that they don’t want their women to submit to EVERY man, just their husbands, may sound as though they’re incrementally more enlightened than other male supremacy groups, but the idea of submitting “only to their husbands” is presented as a duty and a command, and keeps women from accepting the “authority” of, say, male doctors or teachers. I’ve yet to hear Doug Wilson preach that men don’t have to submit to EVERY woman, only their own wives — but any limits on submission require reciprocity and mutuality to be faithful to the Scriptures.

Frankly, I’d love a world where there’s a whole lot more submitting, wildly and lovingly and volitionally extended one to another by a Church passionately seeking to live like Jesus. I’d also love to see widespread and enthusiastic acknowledgment that Ephesians 5 is written as an analogy, and not one that prescribes a husband’s priestly authority over his wife but a loving admonition for women and men to be conformed to Christ in the priesthood enjoyed by ALL believers. If a wife behaves badly, it is she who must go to the Lord in repentance; a husband behaves badly when he presumes that her spiritual “condition” is his responsibility, something for which he, as a husband, is solely held accountable for. We are each members of the Body, and each of us is accountable for our own walk with God while RESPONSIBLE for not harming others’. There is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, and he is more than sufficient. Regular guys need not apply for mediator status; the position is already taken.

Cherry-picking verses from First Corinthians in an attempt to silence women in church is a fruitless exercise in hollow proof-texting that ignores, as it must, the stunning mutuality Paul describes in the chapters before Chapter 14. Chapter 11 discusses women praying and prophesying in the church, which makes it puzzling, for those who seek to understand, why Paul seems to say later that women can’t speak in the church. In one place, they pray and prophecy; in another, they seemingly can’t — and the reason is clearly the cultural baggage that presumes shame on women whether they speak, don’t speak, or do much of anything else. Further, Paul’s “marriage manual” in First Corinthians 7 is a beautiful picture of marital mutuality, not unilateral authority:

Each man should have his own wife. Each woman should have her own husband.

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs. The wife should fulfill her husband’s needs.

The wife gives authority over her body to her husband. The husband gives authority over his body to his wife.

Couples should not deprive each other of sexual intimacy.

A wife is not to leave her husband. A husband is not to leave his wife.

If a Christian man is married to an unbeliever, he must not leave her. If a Christian woman is married to an unbeliever, she must not leave him.

Husbands might be saved through the wife’s faithfulness. Wives might be saved through the husband’s faithfulness.

(I see a pattern here, and it continues ’til Chapter 11, the “prohibitive” chapter:)

v. 11 For among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men and men are not independent of women. For although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God.

Does this sound like a prescription for unequal freedom and authority in marriage? If so, methinks that your theology is shaped not by Scripture, but by culture — by guys, not Christ Jesus, himself human.

Leave a Reply