Reviewing “Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church”

Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, from the series Sources of Early Christian Thought is a terrific contribution to any library of biblical interpretation texts. The editor and translator, Karlfried Froehllich, has organized the material into ten chapters. The first chapter is an extended introduction. This is followed by translations of texts ranging from the pre-Christian Rabbis, to Origen, to Irenaeus  and  concluding with Tyconius.

The most valuable portion of this text is the certainly the Introduction. Within the Introduction, Froehlich provides a review of the manner in which different groups have sought to understand and interpret the Holy Scriptures. Beginning with the Jews, he reviews the Jewish canon and Jewish hermeneutics. Following this he takes up a review of three primary witnesses to methods of Jewish interpretation: the Rabbis, the Qumran community and the Diaspora. Though this portion in particular is a little dated (the author refers to the council of Jamnia prior to the work by Lewis which disputes certain assumptions), it is nonetheless quite helpful becaue it provides a glimpse into how these formative groups viewed and treated their Holy Scriptures. Specifically, Froehlich describes with some clarity the purpose of the Rabbis and how they were seeking to use the Scriptures to help solve legal questions and facilitate daily living; and how the Qumran community was preoccupied with an eschatological approach and the Diaspora were influenced strongly by their Hellenistic culture. While these groups do not provide the modern Christian with a definitive method for approaching the Old Testament, they do however cast a great spotlight on a specific principle which will addressed momentarily.

In treating the first century and first generation Christian interpreters, the author seeks to highlight the importance that allegory and specifically typology played—particularly in reference to Paul. However, the most important point of this section is taken from the following statement: “Emerging as a community independent of Judaism, Christians of many backgrounds now started to appropriate the Jewish Scriptures as thesir own, being taught to read them as a hidden witness to God’s new covenant with humankind in the Lord Jesus Christ” (p.10). This seems to be particularly important for the modern Christian in that it provides an example to follow emulate—taking ownership of the Scriptures and seeking to make them your own, relative to your own culture and circumstances.

There are essentially two principles that one can easily understand by reviewing the pre-Christian communities and the leading thinkers of the first four centuries is really quite simple: first, it was largely dictated by their culture and circumstances that the group was facing. Second, there is clearly not a divinely inspired method with which the modern interpreter can grab hold of with a great deal of confidence.

Beginning with the second century, the great diversity of opinions on and approaches to the Scriptures began to reveal itself. So much so, that a dual approach began to develop that was based largely on geography. It is in many respects surprising to find the great diversity that existed then. It is equally alarming today to find the lack of appreciation, if not fear, for diversity among some groups of Christians. For that matter, that same negative attitude and approach towards diversity in interpretative methods was cemented generations earlier. For the modern Christian, the question remains: how to deal with the difference of opinions and approaches to interpreting and understanding the Scriptures. For now, these questions remain unanswered. However, one thing can be made certain, the clarity that many people find comfort in is actually much more cloudy than they may realize.

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CONCLUSION

CONCLUSION

Over time, it would seem as if some of the more recent interpretations with regard to the Adam and Eve story, recovering favorable accounts of women in leadership roles, and clarifying notes in Galatians 5:13–18 would correct the reading lens for Scriptures where Paul and Peter defer to the law and tradition with respect to women’s behavior and roles, such as in 1 Peter, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy.  Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley sum it up well by saying, “Paul understands freedom not as the opportunity to pursue one’s own interests but to be even more at the service of others.”  The focus has for too long been on order in the church, instead of why the order in the church is important – if anything is going to be a stumbling block for someone to come to know Christ, it certainly should not be the body of Christ.  Not only do women still need to temper their freedom with consideration and respect for culturally accepted behavior so as not to be a stumbling block to men, but men need to do the same so as not to be a stumbling block to women.  The fact ought to be recognized that cultural appropriateness is not defined for all times by the Greco-Roman culture and Jewish law and tradition of those times.  Instead, it is defined by the norms associated with that culture.  As more join the voice to have one set of membership privileges and allow the Holy Spirit to determine giftedness for roles, the more likely the concept will be attributed with increasing validity and influence.  The pressure to consider this perspective for the Churches of Christ as well as for other religious groups with the same restrictive policy will grow.  If and when the one set of membership privileges becomes the pervasive culture in American churches, transitioning to this perspective may become a matter of necessity of a congregation’s survival.  Now is the time to exchange restrictions for women for freedom for all in serving the cause of Christ.

 

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SEARCHING THE FORMATIVE TEXTS: FREEDOM

SEARCHING THE FORMATIVE TEXTS:  FREEDOM

One of the passages in Scripture that receives a great deal of attention in supporting freedom in selecting roles is Galatians 3:26–28, which includes what some have called the pre-Pauline baptismal formula  used during baptism:  “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians was a letter authored by Paul sometime between the late 40s to early 50s to the churches in Galatia.  Apparently, sometime after Paul’s evangelism in this area, other Christian missionaries had impacted these churches with the idea “…that people’s access to Christ required that they obey the Mosaic law, or at least some of its major requirements, including circumcision.”  Paul’s letter was mainly to assert that “… the life of God’s people is now meant to be Christ-centered and not Torah-centered.”  He explains that the law had served its purpose as a disciplinarian (Gal 3:25), which was meant to be temporary, until faith (Jesus Christ) had come (Gal 3:26).   Paul then reminds them of their baptism in Galatians 3:27.  Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans expand on this by stating that “new believers took off their old clothes when entering the waters of baptism and put on new garments after coming up out of the waters.  This symbolized the reality that the believers had cast off their old lives and were now new creations in Christ, alive to a new kind of existence.”  Paul continues in Galatians 3:28 by clarifying that all are one in Christ:  Jews, Greeks, slave, free, male, and female.  Although the verses in Galatians 3:25–27 seem to have alignment between various theologians, who normally might have points of disagreement, Galatians 3:28 has been the subject of various polemics.  

One of the major proponents that this verse has implications of equality in women’s roles

is Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  She states that “the legal-societal and cultural-religious male privileges were no longer valid for Christians…; it allowed not only gentiles and slaves but also women to exercise leadership functions within the missionary movement.” Dale Martin goes a step further by stating that “… it is misleading, from a historical point of view, to read Galatians 3:28 as addressing equality.” He explains that over the centuries, it has had significant shifts in its interpretation.  More specifically he states that throughout the ancient church it referred to “…the abolition of the sexes, to ascetic asexuality,…and the overcoming of the division in unity.”  Regarding Piper and Gruden, even though they concede on men and women being joint heirs in Jesus Christ, they deny that it should affect social roles.  This is in light of 1 Peter 3:1–7 that includes verbiage regarding women submitting to their husbands as well as verbiage including the concept of being joint heirs in Jesus Christ:  “In other words, Peter saw no conflict between the ‘neither-male-nor-female’ principle regarding our inheritance and the headship-submission principle regarding our roles.  Galatians 3:28 does not abolish gender-based roles established by God and redeemed by Christ.”   This interpretation omits the frame of context expressed in 1 Peter 3:1, “Wives, in the same way [as slaves to their masters, and as Christ to his abusers], accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct,…”  Again, a recurring theme was the cause of Christ.  The reason for the submissive role or balancing act was due to the male sensitivity to women, especially their wives, behaving in a manner that was counter-cultural for the secular social roles of women of that time.

Gruden, in a separate work, seems to present a more encouraging view of Galatians 3:26–29.  In the process, however, he seems to be unaware that the implications of what he is saying is counter to the point that he thinks that he is making, which is to state that these verses should have no impact on women’s social roles.  He states that “to say that we are ‘one’ means that we are united, that there should be no factions or divisions among us, and there should be no sense of pride and superiority or jealousy and inferiority between these groups that viewed themselves as so distinct in the ancient world.”  What he does not realize is that those kind words as well as pointing to creation order, instead intelligence or ability, do not adequately camouflage a superiority-inferiority dynamic that he states that should not occur.  Schüssler Fiorenza would probably refer to this superiority-inferiority dynamic between the two gender roles as a “…a social construct of oppressive power relations.” These would be the same oppressive relations involved in much of the past and present “legitimate” atrocities previously mentioned.  

The irony of these polemics seems to be that a passage in Scripture seeming to be about a lesson to the Galatians about liberty from the law and welcomed lack of a hierarchical status in Christ has been countered with references to the law and creation order.  Of all the counter strategies used to discourage, these two would seem like the two most obvious to avoid, and, yet, they are still used and somehow deemed reasonable and valid arguments by many.

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INTERPRETIVE PRINCIPLES AND CONCLUSION ON THE TEXT

INTERPRETIVE PRINCIPLES AND CONCLUSION ON THE TEXT

There are three keys that will be helpful in proceeding towards the most accurate interpretation and understanding of these texts. First, there is no worthwhile evidence which suggests that the two different texts represent instructions for separate assemblies—Paul was in fact referring to one general or generic assembly in each of these passages. Referring to the two passages in chapter eleven (11:2-16 and 11:17-34), Paul does not use his customary Περὶ δὲ (which would indicate a response to a written question or concern) in either verse two or verse seventeen. This would seem to indicate that he is responding to information that was shared by some of his visitors from Corinth. In 11:2 Paul praises them for maintaining the traditions; while in 11:17 he says that he will not praise or commend them. The use of the word παραδοσισ in verses two and twenty-three connect these two passages together under a single theme. After discussing the troubling idea of pagan worship in 10:14-22, Paul gives his attention to proper Christian worship in 11:2-14:40. Because there is such a clear symmetry, and because there are no breaks in thought or context, the appropriate conclusion here is that Paul is referring to the same general assembly.

Further, the content of the text assumes that Paul is referring to a public and mixed assembly. Paul is focusing on male and female relationships within the context of praying and prophesying (activities that take place during the Corinthian worship). Prophesying is never intended to be a private experience but for the entire gathered church. It is something that happens “through believers in the context of the church where prophecy may be evaluated” (14:23-29). Additionally, 11:16 clearly demonstrates that this was a concern for the entire assembly, not merely a portion of it.

Also, if in 11:2-16 (where Paul affirms women praying and prophesying), he was supposedly referring to a divided assembly, then why would it be necessary for Paul to instruct women to pray and prophesy with their heads covered. If there were no men present in this assembly then there would be no reason to honor her husband or father by keeping her head covered. For Paul, the issue of head-covering is based solely on public propriety and scruples (i.e the honor/shame phenomenon). Simply put, the restriction Paul places on the women is “coherent only in a public setting,”

Second, there is no reason to conclude that Paul would ever forbid in chapter fourteen that which he has just permitted in chapter eleven. It is difficult enough to entertain the idea that Paul would contradict himself in the first place, however, to do so in such proximity and on such a weighty matter makes the idea preposterous. As much as Interpretation #5 may appear to be reasonable (perhaps even the most reasonable), it must be rejected because it cannot adequately answer the tension between chapters eleven and fourteen.

The third interpretive key is that any interpretation which suggests that Paul does not authorize women to pray and prophecy in chapter eleven ought to be rejected as fundamentally flawed. First of all, there is no hint, or evidence, of any disapproval in Paul’s comments concerning women’s participation as prophets and prayer leaders. In fact, it is worthwhile to draw our attention back to Acts 2:17-18 where Peter clearly expressed an expectation for a female prophetic voice. Also, Paul’s leading comments which introduce this passage reveal a total approval of the actions of the Corinthians. He was commending them for the way in which they maintained the traditions that had been handed down to them. Clearly, among those traditions was the active practice of prophecy—from both males and females. Paul’s only corrective was for them to ensure that they adhered to the cultural decorum of honoring their heads.

1 Corinthians 11:10 provides additional noteworthy evidence. When Paul directs men to pray and prophecy he says that a man “ought not to cover his head” (11:7). However, when he directs women on how to pray and prophecy he does not mention covering their heads. Instead, he says that ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς (they should have authority on their head). Why the difference in the language? Why not just say that men should not cover their and women are to cover their head. This interesting caveat should not be dismissed lightly. In fact, it seems to be worth an extra measure of scrutiny. The principle word, authority, is εξουσια; and it is in the active voice, not the passive. If it were in the passive then it ought to be translated and interpreted to indicate that while wearing a covering she wears the sign of her husband or father’s authority. The key is that the authority does not belong to her. Instead, since it is in the active voice the translation and interpretation changes to describe her as the one having the authority. This is certainly an awkward and challenging translation. Help is found by looking to Paul’s other uses of authority in 1 Corinthians. Of the nine times Paul uses this word (in 1 Corinthians) eight are clearly in reference to the person having the right or authority to make a choice. For example, between 9:4-9:18 Paul uses the word five times referring to his rights as an Apostle. In the same manner it seems that Paul is stating that the woman who is properly covered has the right to pray and prophecy in the assembly.

Assuming that there are no additional (viable) points to consider and that all the information has been brought forth by the literature, then we are at something of an impasse. While some of these options seem to have more validity than others, it is clear that each potential interpretive choice carries objections and difficulties that cannot be answered—at least not fully answered. An observation worth noting at this point is that any conclusion reached must be approached with caution and not a great deal of confidence. To do otherwise idles on foolish, considering that the learned scholars that have weighed in on the issue are not close to an agreement (they can’t even narrow the choices to three or fewer).

This having been said, the fundamental challenge with these two texts is that if 14:34-35 are taken literally or at face value there is a stark contradiction with 11:5, where Paul clearly authorizes women to speak (in the form of prophesying and praying). If we accept that Paul did indeed write these texts, then there must be an explanation for 14:34-35. In other words, he could not have literally meant that 1) women are not permitted to speak in the assembly and 2) that was the normal expectation for all the churches of the saints. At this point, we return to the aforementioned problem that no interpretation distinguishes itself apart from the others. This leaves the modern interpreter with the daunting task of identifying the interpretation that has been picked apart the least by the scholars— not exactly the most promising method of scholarship.

One option remains (which I, Jeremy endorse): that the text in 14:34-35 is an interpolation by a post-Pauline editor. It should be said immediately that this interpretation is taken with a great deal of trepidation and concern. What follows are the three “factors” that led to this endorsement. It is conceded from the start that each of these following is subject to valid scrutiny.

  1. The text in 14:26-40 makes more sense without vss. 34-35. Without these verses the passage has a greater flow and cohesiveness. With them included it appears choppy and disjointed.
  2. Without a certain understanding on what Paul would have meant, we are left with an obvious contradiction to 11:5. As has been demonstrated, any attempt to explain this contradiction is met, at best, with difficult arguments to reconcile; and at worse, the interpreter is left performing biblical gymnastics which lacks textual integrity and further distorts the understanding of the text.
  3. 14:34-35 contains language and idioms that are foreign to confirmed Pauline texts. For example, the manner in which Paul referred to the law has previously been discussed.

At the most basic level, the one certainty which can be concluded from this study is that to use 14:34-35 as a proof-text to prohibit women from utilizing their spiritual gifts in the assembly is misguided and actually limits the involvement of the Holy Spirit.

With regard to 1 Timothy 2:11–14, in John Piper and Wayne Gruden’s work, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:  A Response to Evangelical Feminism, they advocate that this text is clearly supportive regarding the restriction of women’s roles and state, “We would say that the teaching inappropriate for a woman is the teaching of men in settings or ways that dishonor the calling of men to bear the primary responsibility for teaching and leadership.”  In order to do this, one would need to make a few interpretive decisions.  This is the actual text: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  The first interpretive decision is that the creation story was an historical event.  The second one is that the first born’s higher status was not a cultural tradition but a God-ordained higher status that should still be honored.  The third one is that “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 meant the twenty-first century meaning of authority, and fourth, with regard to women leading or teaching men that “deacon” with regard to Phoebe in Romans 16:1 meant deaconess, not deacon.  

Regarding the Adam and Eve story, Steven L. McKenzie has suggested that the Adam and Eve story in Genesis was an attempt to offer an explanation of assigned gender descriptions and roles in society by stating that man was created first and then woman as a companion.  He refers to it as an explanation rather than an historical account since “…it is unlikely that the story in Genesis 2–3 was ever intended to be understood as an actual set of events.  The symbolic nature of the story would have been clear to its original audience from the names of its characters.  Adam and Eve were not proper names in ancient Israel.”  Adam’s character was symbolic of humankind for all men, and Eve’s character was symbolic for all women.  The implication here is that the order of creation was important.  The first born was traditionally favored and more privileged.  Although the intent of this explanation might have been more of a description of why things were the way that they were, some have interpreted this explanation as a prescription of the way things should be, which was what was offered in ancient Greco-Roman era.  

Concerning the word “authority,” in 1Timothy 2:12, it is derived from the word, authenteo, which would imply an aggressive means of taking over or dominating.  This would seem to be inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, regardless of whether or not someone were male or female, and regardless of ancient or modern times, but especially within ancient times. 1Timothy 2:12 seems to imply that women and men were being taught within the same room by a man and that a woman might have previously taken over a class from a man.  Since men at that time were very sensitive to being offended by women, it seems as if Paul had to constantly remind the women of etiquette based in the traditional law or culture of patriarchy in order for them to be considerate of the men’s feelings.  Even though social roles within the church were supposed to be based upon charismatic giftedness, Paul’s expectation was that they would temper their freedom with the etiquette infused with the same law and tradition from which they had been set free.  One of the main drivers of this balancing act,  Schüssler Fiorenza asserts, was that “Christian mission caused social unrest because it admitted wives and slaves as well as daughters and sons into the house-church, even when the pater familias was still pagan and had not converted to Christianity.”   This type of balancing act or Pauline etiquette was not exclusive to the relationships between women and men.  Other examples are found in Acts 16:3, when Paul has Timothy circumcised prior to spending time with the Jews, in 1 Corinthians 8: 9–13, when Paul instructs them not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols if it would cause another with weaker faith to stumble, and in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, when Paul acknowledges his freedom in Christ but chooses to temper that with becoming like those he desires to be saved.

Regarding “deacon” versus “deaconess,” Schüssler Fiorenza states that “Phoebe is characterized by the masculine form of the title diakonos [deacon].”  This would be as opposed to the feminine, deaconess, whose role was to minister to women.  What seems to support this view of the masculine deacon is that the same word, diakonos, is also used by Paul to describe himself (Eph 3:7; Col 1:23), to describe Tychicus, a male minister in the Lord (Eph 6:21), to describe Epaphrus, a male minister in the Lord (Col 1:7), to describe Timothy, a male servant expected to instruct the brothers and sisters (1 Tim 4:6), to describe the criteria for deacons (1 Tim 3:8), as well as the same word to address the saints, bishops, and deacons in his greeting to the Philippians (Phil 1:1).  

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INTERPRETING THE TEXTS

INTERPRETING THE TEXTS

There is no shortage of possibilities that have already been offered and argued concerning this problem. The purpose of this essay is not to add to that list. Without additional information coming to light it seems clear that the full range of alternative interpretations have already been shared. At this point we will endeavor to “weed through” the explanations, highlight the arguments for and against each and then attempt a determination based upon those arguments.

It’s helpful at this point to realize that the primary interpretive challenge is to locate the best understanding that permits women to pray and prophecy according to 11:5. Again, as was just mentioned, we are working with the assumption that Paul would not have contradicted himself in such a glaring manner (and especially in such proximity). So the question remains, what exactly did Paul mean when he said that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission as the law says?”

The explanations are listed in no particular order.

  1. Paul is quoting opponents in Corinth who are maintaining a traditionalist perspective. According to this argument, Paul understands that when he affirmed women’s right and responsibilities to share their spiritual gifts in 11:5, he is doing so in contradiction with some traditionalists in Corinth—particularly among the Jewish Christians. In this case he is quoting and responding, as was his habit. The quote is 14:34-35, and his response is found in 14:36, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Of particular note is that in this instance is that the pronouns are masculine. With that being said, Paul’s retort makes a little more sense: “Or was it from you (men) that the word of God came? Or are you (men) the only ones it has reached?” In this case, Paul would be clearly arguing against, presumed traditional Jewish Christians who believe that the women should have no role in the assembly.

However, one of the main difficulties of this interpretation is that there is no actual indication that 14:26 is addressed only to men. That the Greek uses a masculine gender pronoun does not necessarily preclude Paul from including women in the discussion. Also, according to D.A. Carson, this argument does not meet Paul’s standard criteria and pattern for providing a quotation of and a subsequent defense. Specifically, Carson states that this would be the longest quotation from Paul’s opponents in the letter with the shortest response. With Paul’s writings there is simply no example or precedent for a quotation with such a detailed argument. According to Carson, when Paul quotes an opponent it is usually short and then followed by a “sustained qualification,” and Paul’s response is unambiguous in the context.

  1. The text is simply a concession by Paul, in order to accommodate cultural mores and/or rabbinic practices. Paul was simply following the normal accepted practices of the synagogues, where women did not take an active role, so that he would not offend any of the Jewish Christians that were worshipping in Corinth. While their native Greek counterparts may have not been disturbed by a woman’s voice in the assembly, Jewish decorum and cultural etiquette created difficulties for female involvement. To further this point it is important to note that at no time did Paul (in this text or in 1 Timothy 2:8ff) ever state or imply that it was sinful for a woman to speak; he specifically says that it is shameful. In this regard it can be argued that Paul sees this issue similarly to head-covering in chapter 11—a matter of honor and shame.

While this argument is viable and these evidences are noteworthy, they are not without difficulty. In 14:34, Paul uses the weight of the Law to reinforce his point (though strangely for him, he does fail to offer any specific quote). Would Paul make references to the Law to support a claim that is in opposition to what he has just previously written? This seems unlikely. Also, when Paul does refer to the Law it is in relation, not to his honor and shame argument, but instead that women should be in submission.

  1. Paul is arguing that women are not to participate in the judging of the prophets. In this instance his prohibition is specific and limited to prophecy (and perhaps speaking in tongues). In fact, the wider context of the passage seems to be pointing in this direction. More specifically, Paul is admonishing the Corinthian church to maintain order in the worship, particularly when it comes to their members sharing their spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. Paul directs them to ensure that there are interpreters present and other prophets available to weigh what is said (14:28-29). It would stand to reason that when Paul prohibits women from speaking, the specific context would be instrumental in a proper interpretation. Thus, the prohibition is aimed at (and limited to) women who would seek to interpret tongues and/or weigh prophecies shared with the church.

It would seem that Paul was allowing women to prophecy (11:5) but not permitting them to weigh the prophecy because this would involve them in a teaching function in the assembly. And in accordance with Paul’s direction in 1 Timothy 2:12, it is clear that women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men. Also, women are not allowed to ask questions during this time because that may be perceived as judging.

However, there are difficulties with this interpretation. First, it is problematic to conclude  that prophesying, which Paul allows in 11:5, would not be considered teaching (presumably because it is done under the auspices of spiritual giftedness), while the weighing of prophecies would be considered teaching or having authority (which would also be a manifestation of the gift of prophecy). At best, that conclusion is troublesome. Second, in order to connect the judging or weighing in 14:29 to what Paul states in 14:34, one must skip past 14:33a, which can be viewed as presenting a closure to the discussion—and 14:33b then would be the beginning of a new topic, sentence or line of thinking. Thirdly, the verb lalelo (to speak) is also deserving of consideration. This interpretive choice inherently defines lalelo to include only speech that involves weighing or judging. Not only is this not the dominant definition, it is entirely inconsistent with the manner in which Paul has been using the word.

  1. Paul is specifically censuring the incessant shouting and wailing of women that were known to be a part of Greco-Roman cults in Corinth. The internal evidences alone indicate strong influences of pagan cults in the Corinthian church. Making this connection to those same influences in this regard is not difficult. And it is possible that  lalelo (to speak) may simply refer to unintelligible speech or babbling.

However, this having been said, the context does not necessarily agree with this assessment of lalelo. Instead, it seems that the context argues for intelligible speech. And again, this is not the normal definition of the word. Other than asking questions (14:35), there is absolutely no textual evidence which would suggest that any women were being disruptive. Nevertheless, assume that Kroeger’s assertions are accurate; and Paul was responding to a group of women who transferred their pagan rituals from their previous religious practices into the church assembly. This still fails to explain why Paul would enjoin this directive to all the “churches of the saints.” Are we to conclude that cultic babbling and wailing was also a troublesome point of contention in the churches in Jerusalem?

  1. Paul is prohibiting all public speaking, whether inspired or uninspired, by women that would cause them to exercise any leadership in the assembly. This interpretive approach is likely the most common among the fundamentalist “branch” of evangelicals. This is particularly true within the mainstream Churches of Christ. In a modern context, this prohibition is extended to include all forms of audible communication so that women are not allowed to ask questions, lead prayer, lead in singing (in any fashion), read Scripture or share any spiritual gift.

Of course, one need not look far to find difficulty with this interpretive approach. To take such the censuring to such an extreme, either invalidates Paul’s previous comments in 11:5 or renders Paul as inconsistent and contradictory—condemning what he just affirmed and encouraged. Any value with this interpretation rests solely on the extent to which it can be reconciled with 11:5.

  1. The text in question, 14:34-35 is a post-Pauline, scribal interpolation. Early in the

textual history of 1 Corinthians a scribe added a marginal gloss to the text so that it may be harmonized with 1 Timothy 2:8-15. At a later date the text was placed in its current location. The Western manuscript provides evidence that some scribes inserted the marginal gloss after verse 40 (at the end of the chapter); which would make sense to place it at the end of the chapter if it was being included after the text was already written. It seems clear that at some point a scribe decided to insert the two verses into their current location, and in the process created a multitude of interpretive dilemmas that have yet been resolved. There are three specific evidences supporting this interpretation. First, it is in direct contradiction to 11:5; and explaining the contradiction requires, at best, biblical gymnastics. Second, the two verses interrupt the flow of the context. Third, the phrase “as the Law also says,” is foreign to Paul.

While this interpretation is argued well by its defenders and has ample evidence in favor of it, there is no textual tradition that supports the claim for these verses not being original. Every manuscript available today includes these verses.

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SEARCHING THE FORMATIVE TEXTS: RESTRICTIONS

SEARCHING THE FORMATIVE TEXTS:  RESTRICTIONS

Two of the preeminent texts on this issue—1 Corinthians 11:4-16 and 14:34-35 (which, along with 1 Timothy 2:11-14, are the primary texts which restrict women in their and activity in the church—particularly in public leadership roles).  Regarding the context and setting for the texts in 1 Corinthians, the letter itself reveals much of the context of these passages. Throughout the course of the letter, Paul is dealing with several different issues that the Corinthian church appears to have been struggling with. Paul seems to have learned about these many issues from two different sources. First, a letter had been sent from the Christians in Corinth. Second, some representatives from the church in Corinth had visited him—likely either Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17), or messengers from Chloe’s household (1:11).

Paul maintained a patterned formula for responding to a question or issue raised within the letter. This formula is brought out for the first time in 7:1 when he writes: Περὶ δὲ ὧν ἐγράψατε (now concerning what you wrote). He also uses the Περὶ δὲ (now concerning) formula in 7:25; 8:1; 12:1 and 16:1. Each of these indicates a new question, idea or issue that he is seeking to address. For example in 7:25, he writes to the unmarried women; in 8:1 he changes to write about food offered to idols; in 12:1 he moves to spiritual gifts and finally in 16:1 to the collection for the saints.

The two passages, 1 Corinthians 11:4-16 and 14:34-35, are imbedded within two different, yet thematically connected units of scripture. We’ll begin with addressing the context of chapter eleven. In this chapter Paul takes up two separate issues (head coverings and the Lord’s Supper) that are linked together by the phrase Ἐπαινῶ ὑμᾶς (I praise you). In 11:2 Paul begins his comments on head coverings with Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς (Now I praise you). In 11:17 Paul begins his rebuke for mishandling the Lord’s Supper with Τοῦτο δὲ παραγγέλλων οὐκ ἐπαινῶ (Now with these instructions I do not praise you). 

Concerning the complicated issue of head coverings, Paul praises them because they had remembered what he had taught them and dealt with the issue in a proper manner. And in such a diverse locale as Corinth, the use of a cultural symbol of head covering may naturally become a point of contention within the church. It is for this reason that Paul is commending or praising the manner in which they handled this issue. Paul then goes on to elaborate and provide specific direction. Concerning the men, he says that they are to uncover their head while praying and prophesying so as to honor their head who is Christ (11:4, 7). Contrary to the men, women are directed to pray and prophesy with their head covered so that they might properly honor their head who is man (11:5, 10). For Paul, the issue is cultural and was one of honor or dishonor. The proper cultural respect (i.e. honor) must be shown to one’s head. For man, he must honor Christ; and for woman, she must honor man. Though the principle of honor and dishonor was primarily a cultural manifestation, Paul also draws from the creation in order to illustrate his point (11:8-10). However, in 11:11-12, Paul is quick to remind the reader that woman’s position relative to man should not be taken advantage of. Paul’s overall point with this commentary is to ensure that the Corinthians understand the necessity of honoring one’s head because of the way God created humankind as male and female (11:3, 7-8). As a result, the woman must be sure that when she does pray and prophesy she does so in the culturally accepted manner of honoring her head—by covering her own head.

Following his rebuke for mishandling the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), Paul transitions into a longer discussion on the use and abuse of spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14). In doing so he uses the aforementioned Περὶ δὲ (now concerning), indicating that he is responding to an issue that was first brought up in a written correspondence from the Corinthian church. It seems clear that the misuse and misunderstanding of their spiritual gifts was a significant concern for Paul. In chapter fourteen he addresses the problems in the context of their public assembly together (i.e. 14:23, 26) that may also include outside visitors who are not among the church (14:24).

Paul is most concerned with two particular spiritual gifts—speaking in tongues and prophesying (14:27-33, 39). Concerning those who would speak in tongues he gives the direction that at most two are three should speak and in so doing they must take turns and there must be an interpreter present (14:27-28). Concerning prophesying, he gives similar directions that no more than two or three should speak and that there should be another prophet available to “weigh what is said” (14:29). In 14:34 Paul provides specific prohibition for women who would speak in the assembly (women are to remain silent). Paul attaches to his direction, a general directive in 14:33b that the instructions are consistent throughout all the church of the saints. He offers two explanations in support of his directive. First, it is a matter of submission—as if to say that for a woman to speak in whatever context he has in mind, would violate this principle of submissiveness to man. Second, he refers back to the cultural phenomenon of shame; saying that it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church” (11:34-35).

Based upon this brief highlighting of these two passages it is clear that a contradiction exists. In 11:5 Paul assumes (and even approves) that women will be active participants in the assembly and will engage in prayer and prophecy. The only issue is that they adhere to cultural mores of honoring their head. However, in 14:33b-35 Paul provides a clear directive prohibiting women from speaking at all in the assembly, commenting that this is the standard behavior for in all churches. Is Paul forbidding in 14:33b-35 what he just approved in 11:5? Assuming the answer is “no,” then how should these texts be understood? And further, what (if any) direction does this leave for the modern Christian today relative to women’s roles?

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Churches Are Like Families

Church’s are like families.  Not necessarily a comforting thought.

In “How Your Church Family Works,” Peter L. Steinke describes how all families, be it a congregation or a home, works with the reality of anxiety. As Steinke observes, “Put people together and inevitably anxiety will arise.” A number of variables can trigger anxiety. For example, a new minister, declining membership, financial strategizing, changes in worship styles, long-range visioning, and death in the church family.  However the anxiety arises, it will flow and settle in a relationship system in potentially predictable ways.  Typically, the most responsible and most vulnerable people are affected most. Thus, this book is particularly useful to clergy, like me, who are prone to be the ones taking responsibility for everything that happens.

Steinke explains that congregations have patterns and roles of relating that “handle” anxiety. For example, someone works really hard to make everyone else happy.  Someone else “acts out” to get attention and assert control in the midst of uncertainty. Someone else quietly removes himself to stay out of conflict. Someone else floats along thinking eventually “God will work it all out,” hoping to shield himself from feeling the tensions.

The author also points out that understanding how people and systems are interconnected can make us aware of more helpful ways of responding to the situations we face as a church. Specifically, it is important to recognize that there is more going on in any situation than what is immediately taking place.

We all need to be reminded, and Steinke consistently does so, that anxiety is not only inevitable, it is also not necessarily bad. Anxiety is the energy and friction we have when operating with others in the midst of change. As a child, we’ve all gone through, in one form or another, “growing pains.”  Change is painful. Still, the pain of change gives a person the chance to grow stronger.  In a similar way, anxiety can lead to life-giving, relationship-enhancing outcomes when handled purposefully and properly.  In fact, stress on a system can indicate that the system is not working well and needs to be adjusted.

The author notes that we can respond to anxiety in two basic ways:  reactively or purposefully.  For example, shock at the news of a death is a reactive response.  We don’t practice or prepare for shock.  However, when we limited ourselves to our reactions, only ever reacting to stress and anxiety in the same way over time, we can establish life-draining behaviors that hinder a system. It is not healthy to live “shocked” for the rest of one’s life.  Other responses are called for to live well after the tragedy of death.

Two basic reactions are at work in each of us:  we are prone to a) alienate ourselves from others or b) lock-on to others. The healthy person is able to “self-differentiate,” that is, balance these poles by being with others but not so connected that he or she “loses herself.”

It is clear that this “theory” might help us choose intentional ways of structuring our church practices and relationships. For example, gossip is an unhealthy, and often times reactive response to anxious situations. It establishes “triangles” which erects and reinforces barriers; barriers which can dismantle trusting relationships needed for a church to function well. Open, honest, direct communication is important.  So a church, aware of this, might foster “covenants of communication” between staff members and within church committees. Gossip would be named and avoided. Or, to promote self-differentiation, a church might cultivate practices of “staying with ourselves” in which we claim our feelings, emotions, and ideas in conversations; rather than blame or impose ourselves on others.

The book is full of wisdom on leadership, identifying actors and roles in emotional systems, and navigating church-specific practices with systems theory.  I found the book insightful, helpful, and illuminating (albeit a little dry and tedious reading).  While no theory can ever fully explain a situation, it can provide an orientation to human relationships which fosters attention, sensitivity, self-awareness, and commitment to the well-being of all.

Thanks so much to the best Portland Wedding Florist for sponsoring my blog. Our generous sponsors my the blog possible. Thank you!

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