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On the occasion of
Martin Luther King Day
A Man who had a dream,
He saw and proclaimed the intentions of his great God
to the world of his day.
There is perhaps no doubt that a great deal of confusion exists within The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod concerning the question of Womens Role in the church. We receive conflicting messages from various sections of our church body. At Concordia Seminary, where I am currently a student, there are faculty members who would endorse women teaching theology in colleges. On the other hand, Concordia Theological Seminary has professors who publicly endorse a policy where womens suffrage is considered contrary to clear biblical teaching. The CTCR (Commission on Theology and Church Relations, 1985) document on women in ministry makes statements such as Men are created superordinate and Women are created subordinate, which is variously interpreted depending on ones local setting. Those who advocate groups such as Christian News consider this topic the litmus test for orthodoxy. Thus they take upon themselves the self-proclaimed role of policing our synod, fully equipped with hidden tape players, cameras and secret ambassadors who sneak into meetings to uncover heretics, especially rostered ones! Other groups such as Voices/Vision hold regional conferences in order to restudy the biblical text, and many advocates of this group would publicly state that our synod has not been faithful to the teachings of Scripture, and many have concluded that all ministries of the church should be open to women. Many congregations dont yet have womens suffrage, and other congregations have female elders and presidents. In such an environment is there any wonder that there is confusion?
I would like to be able to promise that at the end of this paper and conference all your questions will be answered and the confusion will have gone. Unfortunately, such assurance would be ill founded in light of the scope and complexity of this topic. The primary goal in this paper is to guide all persons of faith toward a more meaningful and responsible reading and application of the Bible, especially in relationship to the biblical teaching of womens role in leadership and Gospel proclamation in the church. In addition, I hope to bring clarity to some of the underlying issues and to prompt new questions for consideration. At the onset of this paper I affirm unequivocally that I regard the Bible as the authoritative Word of God for the church of each generation. Responsible, careful readings of the text should guide the church in faith, practice and doctrine.
I have chosen to structure my comments into four main divisions. First, I will succinctly summarize how Scripture has historically been read in the LCMS to arrive at the conclusions our synod officially endorses on womens role in the church.1 Discussion then moves toward interpretive models to assist readers in the discipline of faithful readings and applications of the Word in their lives. My thesis assumes that how one reads the Bible is inextricably related to how one arrives at teachings drawn from the Bible. In other words, different methods of reading Scripture will result in different interpretations and applications of Scripture. The third main section of this paper will be an evaluation of the LCMS reading of 1 Cor. 11.3 and 1 Cor. 14.33b-35 by way of presenting a different reading of these texts. The conclusion will articulate some of the challenges which face us as a community of God attempting to faithfully read and apply Scripture in the 21st century.
The current LCMS teaching on womens role in the church as articulated in the 1985 CTCR document is succinctly summarized in the following paragraph:
Women are created in the image of God and are equal members of the priesthood of believers by faith in Jesus. Based on the first creation, God has placed women in a position subordinate to men and men in a position of superordinate to women. 1 Cor. 14.33b-35 and 1 Tim. 2.11-15 clearly teach that in the church, women are not to teach or have authority over men. This refers specifically to the public teaching and proclamation of Gods Word. Because of the first creation, men are appropriate for leadership positions and are the only appropriate persons for the Pastoral office and all its functions, including the oversight and supervision of the teaching of the Word and administering of the sacraments.
The current teaching is supported by three biblical pillars, identified here as the pillar of order, the pillar of headship and the pillar of authority/silence.2
1. Order principle: 1 Cor. 11.7-9, man did not come from woman, but woman from man... (1 Timothy 2.13-14), Adam was formed first... (cf. Gen. 2.20-22) and Eves having been deceived in the fall... (Gen. 3.6), ...yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you (Gen. 3.16).
2. Headship principle: man is head of woman... Ephesians 5.22; man is head of woman... 1 Cor. 11.3; The law... 14.34. (The creational pattern of male headship requires that women not hold the formal position of the authoritative public teaching office in the church, that is, in the office of pastor. CTCR, p. 37)
3. Authority/Silence Principle: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent (1 Tim. 2.11-15), women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says (1 Cor. 14.33b-35). (The apostolic restriction in 1 Tim. 2 pertains to that teaching of Gods Word which involves an essential function of the pastoral office. CTCR, p. 34.)
Thus, the primary verses which support the LCMS teachings of womens role in the church are Genesis 1-2; 3.6, 16; 1 Tim. 2.11-15; 1 Cor. 11.3-9; 14.33b-35; Eph. 5.22. A comprehensive evaluation of these theological passages is needed. Within the larger scholarly world, many helpful exegetical and theological works are available which need our careful reading and attention.3
The appeal to Scriptures authority and how one interprets and applies Scripture are in some ways two sides of the same coin. This is to say that the authority of Scripture as the witness to the transforming and redeeming power of Jesus Christ can be jeopardized if ones reading of Scripture doesnt reflect this Gospel life-giving core. Consequently, the responsibility which the church has in handling Scripture and discerning proper applications of its directives is greatly increased. How the church reads Scripture, how the church embodies Scripture becomes a reflection of the transforming work of God active in and through the body of Christ. How then do we read the Bible while allowing the text to speak out of its ancient setting and while simultaneously allowing the text to speak a fresh word for us today? How can we be called into the texts agenda, instead of imposing on the text our own agenda? How do the divine intentions of Scripture become for us the privileged and authoritative perspective? And finally, what guides our reading and contemporary application of the Bible?
To address these important questions, I will suggest an interpretive methodology which considers four circles of contexts which guide us toward a responsible reading of the Bible. The first three circles of context are the literary context, historical context and canonical context. Together they form an interlocking unit with a dynamic and interactive exchange with the goal to provide an informed, balanced and responsible reading of Scripture.
The first two interpretive circles of context, the literary and historical contexts of Scripture, focus primarily on the original literary and historical settings out of which the Scriptures were written. The literary context considers the varied literary forms and conditions of the message considering issues of literary devices, authors intent and the like. The historical context looks deeper into what can be inferred about the real life setting of the original writing. To ignore the original literary and historical context of an ancient text may actually lead to a distorted reading of the text resulting in missing important meaning for today. Thus, before asking what does this say to me? one must first ask, How did the text function authoritatively in its original setting? Answering this question primarily comes through understanding the multifaceted issues of the literary and historical settings. The third circle of context, the canonical context, takes the interpretive process one step further. Its primary interpretive function is to ask the question, How does the text function authoritatively for the church today? The canonical approach to biblical interpretation seeks to allow each text to be heard and balanced against the entire canonical witness acknowledging that although our time and place has changed, Scriptures continue with universal significance and authority. [Here the author offered a graphic representation of the relationship with Literary Context and Historical Context as two circles side by side and slightly overlapping. These were enclosed within a much larger circle labeled Canonical Context.]
The first essential task in understanding the literary components of the Bible is to determine what words are included in a given text. This task is not always so obvious. For most, that means relying on the linguistic experts in the field of textual criticism. These experts meticulously evaluate Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of biblical texts which were copied and recopied by ancient scribes. Based on rigorous and strict controls, textual critics establish what they believe to be the most accurate Hebrew and Greek readings in existence. Because there are no original manuscripts in existence today, the textual experts work with thousands of copies of manuscripts, no two exactly alike. This fact comes as a surprise to many Christians today. Nevertheless, such a reality should not discredit the reliability of the text. The vast majority of the differences are small or obvious copy errors, and no discrepancies detract from the overall message of the Bible or alter major doctrinal teachings. Among the better known variant readings are the endings to the Gospel of Mark. Some ancient Greek texts end at Mark 16:8, some end at Mark 16:20, while others simply have what is called the shorter ending. Most study Bibles will refer to such variant readings of a text in the margins or notes.
Because most people are not trained in textual linguistics and do not have a working knowledge of the ancient languages in which the Bible was originally written (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), the majority of Christians today must rely on translations of the Bible. There are dozens of modern English translations of the Bible with differing emphases. The translators attempt to bring an accurate reading of the text. However, due to the changes in word meanings and cultural distance from modern times, differences of opinion are inevitable. Therefore, certain biases exist in translations. Awareness of translation biases is important in the selection of a translation from which to read and study. In general, it is best to select a translation which was completed by a committee with a variety of Church traditions represented.
Closely related to the translation of the text is the actual meaning or range of meanings of words or phrases. The Greek and Hebrew languages sometimes used words with various nuances not understood or reflected in English translations. Due to this reality, to some extent the translator becomes interpreter as well. One contemporary example with considerable scholarly discussion is what Paul meant by the Greek term kephale, typically translated as head (e.g., Eph 5:23; 1 Cor 11:3-16). When we use the word head in English, it is commonly understood to mean an anatomical appendage or sometimes metaphorically ones brain. Also, head is a common metaphor for one who is a leader or director over someone (e.g., boss, CEO, decision maker). Occasionally it is used for the end or top of an object or the beginning or source of a river. We know which meaning to apply based on context. For example, the head (source) of a river is never viewed as a decision maker or leader.
When Paul used the Greek term kephale, it actually had a much broader range of meaning than our modern use of the word head with 25 figurative uses alone. The most common figurative uses in the first century included: source of life, beginning, base, origin and starting point. In particular, it was not at all assumed to be most commonly used as boss or leader as it is today. Therein lies a great challenge for translators and readers of Scripture alike. Should one assume a 21st century meaning for a word which may not have meant the same in its ancient linguistic usage? Paul could have been using the term kephale in a number of ways.4 One challenge of biblical interpretation is to attempt to determine a meaning or cluster of meanings based on context and Pauls use of the term elsewhere.
In conjunction with meanings of words are grammatical concerns which arise from the original languages. For example, one passage often quoted in isolation is Eph 5:22, Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Although not apparent from English translations, there is no verb in this sentence. Literally the Greek says, wives to your husbands as to the Lord. Grammatically, this sentence cannot stand alone and must draw its verbal sense from the preceding verse (Eph 5:21), Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Translations such as the NIV which separate 5:22 from 5:21 with a sub-title and new paragraph, mislead the reader and distort the grammatical structure of the text which ties these verses together. Another grammatical consideration is that the verb be subject in 5:21 is a modifying verb to the main verb of Pauls discussion beginning in 5:18, ...be filled with the Spirit.
This example also illustrates one of the most basic yet often overlooked steps for responsible Bible reading. Each passage must be read in its larger literary context. Sustained and careful reading of the whole chapter or book of a particular verse provides the reader with a more informed understanding of the entire sense of the passage. Pauls directives to wives in Eph 5:22 can only be understood within Pauls larger discussion of the Spirit-filled and Spirit-guided marriage as characterized by mutual submission, self-sacrificial love and respect as described in Eph 5:18-33. Pauls discussion of Christs total self-sacrificial giving up of self and relinquishing of rights out of love for his own body, the church, is the analogy which Paul lifts up for husbands. Christs full submission of self for his body, the church, becomes the guiding metaphor for how husbands should relate to their wives to whom they are united as one body. There is absolutely no basis from this text to support the popular teaching of our day that Paul is telling women to obey their husbands because the husbands as head of the house are the spiritual leaders and decision makers of the family. Careful readings of texts in their larger literary unit is the best remedy for such practices of proof-texting or reading into the text something that is not there.
Identifying the genre of biblical literature is another necessary step toward understanding how a particular text functioned and how it should be read today. Genre refers to the various literary styles and motifs of literature. The Bible contains a rich variety of genre: poetry, prose, gospel, letter, apocalyptic, historical narrative, proverb, drama, parable, hymns, prayers and more.5 This rich anthology of literature in the Bible is unlike any other ancient collection of writings. Such variety creates for the contemporary reader an additional interpretive challenge, however. The type or form of literature one reads will shape how one reads the text. In other words, sensitive readers understand that the content (what is said) of a passage is shaped and understood by the literary form (how it is said) of the passage. For example, apocalyptic literature (e.g., Daniel and Revelation), although common in the ancient world, is a genre relatively unknown to the average North American reader. Therefore, it is very important to understand something about the unique function of such literary forms in the ancient world in order to understand how the content of the literature might have been read and understood in the early Christian Church. Identifying the significant link between content and form will significantly shape how such apocalyptic literature is read as meaningful for us today.
Another literary genre common in the New Testament is the genre of letter. All the New Testament letters were written to people in the first century Mediterranean world addressing specific concerns of those unique early church settings. Most of the New Testament letters were also occasional letters, which means that the letters were pastoral responses to specific written or verbal requests and questions of the recipients. Understanding the unique features and purposes of the letter literary form will shape how one reads what was actually said in the letter. This leads naturally to the second circle of context for biblical interpretation, the historical context.
During a recent trip to India I was staying with good friends who practice the orthodox Hindu religious tradition. They were eager to have me visit one of their traditional Hindu temple sites, and I accepted their invitation. Upon arriving, it became apparent that a significant gathering of Hindu priests was taking place in preparation for worship and dedication of gifts to their gods. My friends understood that because of my Christian convictions I would not worship their gods nor offer gifts to their gods, but I agreed to walk with them as they participated in their temple ritual. Part of their Hindu worship tradition was to purchase flowers or fruit which have been dedicated to the gods and to place them at each god or goddess statue. While we were preparing to purchase fruit, I began to wonder what would happen if my friends offered me a banana to eat, or what if we took some of the bananas home for dinner? My wonder turned to internal tension as I wrestled with how I should respond to my Hindu friends. In the middle of this bustling Hindu religious site of Madras, India, in 1996, I had to decide whether to eat the banana dedicated to idol gods or not eat the banana. Then it struck me ... Corinth! This is what the small Christian community faced in Corinth in AD 55, should they eat the meat that had been offered to the idol gods or not eat the meat? 1 Corinthians 8 through 10 took on a whole new world of meaning and significance for me that day. Yet more than anything I walked away from that experience understanding more deeply than ever that when we read Scriptures we are engaging in a cross-cultural experience. The revelation of God in Scripture comes to us in history, not apart from it. When we read the Bible we are entering a world very different from our own, and to deny or ignore the historical particularities and specifics of the biblical text could result in great interpretive havoc. Responsible readers, therefore, will be attentive to how the historical realities at the time of the original writing might influence how we apply a given text today.
Each document in the Christian canon reflects both a general and a specific historical setting, as well as the particularities and life settings of each human author. One primary task in the interpretive process must be to identify the historical circumstances that shaped the varied writings of Scripture. This process will not only inform an understanding of the text, but it will also heighten awareness of the historical distance which exists between the text and the contemporary reader. This realization should not diminish the authority of the text or be construed as a barrier to understanding the text. Rather, acknowledging the historical particularities of the text should result in a more responsible reading of the text in at least two important ways. It should enable one to appreciate certain otherwise difficult discussions (e.g., head coverings in 1 Cor 11:2-16) as well as enable one to avoid anachronistic readings leading to irresponsible contemporary interpretations and applications.
Any reading of the Bible should consider both general and specific historical particularities of the text and the stated concerns of the biblical author as well as its chronological placement in the life of the author. For example, in 1 Tim 5:3-16 Paul has a lengthy discussion for the church at Ephesus concerning widowed women under the age of sixty. They were not to be placed on the list of widows because their sensual desires would alienate them from Christ and bring them condemnation. Pauls requirement for such a widow was to remarry and be concerned with children and a household. Interestingly, Paul himself in another New Testament letter recommends the exact opposite for women (1 Cor 7:32-35, 39-40). Paul directs the unmarried and virgin women in Corinth to stay single so that they may give all of their energy to the work of the Lord rather than being anxious with the affairs of the household and a husband. Such biblical examples illustrate clearly that even Pauls varied audiences required different directives depending on the specific historical situations and/or spiritual crises which they faced. As third-party readers who only have access to one side of ancient conversations, we must take great care to hear and handle the text with integrity.
General historical information concerning the ancient Mediterranean world can also provide necessary insight for drawing out deeper meaning and significance of a text. This is especially helpful when reading a narrative text such as John 4. The interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan women takes on deeper significance when we understand that in their world women did not have the prerogative of divorce, yet men could divorce their wives for virtually any reason. Reading the text from our perspective sees this woman as immoral at best. However, reading the text from her actual situation in the ancient world gives a different perspective to her situation: the contemporary reader can see her rather as deeply wounded and vulnerable. General historical information about divorce laws helps us to make a more accurate evaluation of the interaction between Jesus and the woman as well. Although bridging the historical and cultural gap between the ancient world and our own is no easy task, the sensitive reader can benefit greatly by careful and repeated readings of the text itself, along with a good study Bible and Bible dictionary.6
Sensitivity to the literary and historical contexts of the Bible along with a close and careful reading of a text will enable a clearer understanding of the authors original intent and specific concerns which prompted its writing. Such a method of study will respect the distinct life or voice of each biblical passage while simultaneously answering the question, How might the text have functioned authoritatively in its original setting?
Informing ones reading of the Bible with sensitivity to both the literary and historical contexts of individual texts is both a vital and necessary component in biblical interpretation. Nevertheless, any study of the Bible which stops at this point remains incomplete. It is the third circle of interpretation, the canonical context, which bridges the gap between what the text meant and what the text means today. The primary function of canonical context is to answer the question, How does the text function authoritatively for the church today? The canonical circle of context insists that Scripture, as the authoritative written word of God, continues to shape and inform the identity and life of the church. This focus especially relates to the theological questions of how we relate to God and understand ourselves in relationship to God and to the ethical questions of how we relate to one another in the Christian community and to the world. This level of biblical interpretation invites the reader to go beyond the cognitive study of Scripture to the far more difficult task of embodying the Word and allowing its imperatives to come alive within. Biblical information becomes personal and corporate transformation.
The function of the canonical context of reading a text is absolutely essential in the interpretive process if we hope to engage the ancient text with our contemporary setting in order that the ancient text may speak a meaningful and fresh word to each new generation and social setting. Permitting the text to be alive and fresh does allow for the ancient text to take on a new and/or modified meaning different from its original meaning. Those who with pride display the bumper sticker, God said it, I believe it, that settles it, probably feel uncomfortable with such a notion, yet in practice none of us read and apply literally each word of Scripture as this popular slogan implies.
By way of example, let us evaluate 1 Timothy 2.9-10 where Paul gives directives to the women at Ephesus that they are not to braid their hair, wear pearls, gold or expensive clothing. If one were to consider the literary and historical issues around this text, answering the question, How did the text function authoritatively in its original setting? seems fairly straightforward. Paul meant what he said! Yet should this text function in the same way today even though our social setting is significantly different from ancient Ephesus? Should this passage become a dress code for women for all times and places? Is there something inherently evil about pearls, gold, braids and expensive clothing? Most of us quite frankly never get to the point of asking such questions. We simply discount this passage as culturally conditioned with very little personal trepidation over the moral and spiritual implications of not changing our behavior to fit the specifics of this text.
The problem with this common approach to biblical interpretation (which everyone uses either consciously or unconsciously) is that every word of Scripture is culturally conditioned and culturally relevant. All of Scripture was shaped by its original historical settings, varied literary forms and even by the specific thought patterns and languages of the human authors who wrote and the communities to which they addressed. Therefore, on what basis (beside external sources such as intuition, experience and/or tradition) do we distinguish which texts are so conditioned by their original situation that they no longer speak to us in the same way from those ancient texts which transcend their historical particularities and should be understood as normative teachings for all times and all places?7 How can the inspired authoritative words of 1 Tim 2:9-10 be meaningful and fresh for us today? Or can they be?
The function of the canonical approach to biblical interpretation addresses these types of questions and assist us in making more responsible and consistent decisions concerning whether a text is normative for all times or a limited text.8 One basic principle of a canonical reading is to study the entire canonical witness on any given theological or ethical question. This comprehensive approach usually identifies either a consistent witness, a diverse witness or an isolated witness. If a consistent witness arises throughout the canon, then one can be fairly certain that the witness should be understood as a normative theological or ethical teaching for all times and places. For example, Gen 1:1 states that God is the Creator of the universe. If one were to evaluate this proposition canonically, one would identify that there is indeed a thematic consistent witness throughout the Bible that affirms this basic theological teaching about God. Even though the canonical witness comes to us through diverse literary forms speaking to a variety of historical particularities over a period of 2000 years, the message is the same on this theological pointGod is creator. Therefore, Gen 1:1 should be understood as teaching a normative and universal theological and canonical teaching for all times and all placesthe Jewish and Christian God is Creator of the universe. This universal application becomes the texts first and only meaning.
There are, however, many instances where a diverse witness results from a canonical inquiry. When this results, one must allow the diversity and ambiguity of the texts to stand. This guards against distortions of any given text which can occur when premature harmonization is attempted or when we read into the text something that is not present. Instead of trying to deny or harmonize the variety of voices in the biblical witness, a responsible reader will understand that this canonical diversity is best explained when investigation of the actual historical particularities of each situation is understood. For example, Scriptures diverse witness to womens participation in Judaism and in early church leadership has received significant discussion in recent years. Although there are a few passages which when read in isolation seem to exclude women from church leadership (e.g., 1 Tim 2:11-12; 1 Cor 14:33b-36), the larger canonical witness presents womens actual involvement differently (e.g., Deborah, Huldah, Anna, Priscilla, Syntyche and Euodia, Phoebe). Therefore, when we discover a diverse witness in Scripture on any given ethical or theological concern, we should ask the literary and historical questions necessary to understand what circumstances prompted different directives in the first place.
There will also be those instances where a text is in fact an isolated witness. One such example is Acts 19:12 which as a narrative history describes how Pauls handkerchiefs and aprons were used to heal people. One can safely conclude in this instance that such an isolated text is not to be understood as a central, normative teaching of the canon which should guide and inform church practice, policy or faith expression. Thus, any practice of selling healing hankies because the Bible says so should be questioned. An isolated text like Acts 19:12 is still included in the authoritative canon, but its voice must be placed in balance and perspective with the more central, thematic and prominent chorus of the whole canon.
The benefits of reading the entire canonical witness on any given theological or ethical question is to bring perspective and balance to each specific text and consistency in the treatment of various texts. This method of reading Scripture also functions as a corrective to those who develop a theological or ethical teaching by relying on a limited or isolated canonical witness. Such limited readings are in danger of distorting or misrepresenting the more prominent canonical witness.
Finally, as I have already mentioned, a canonical reading of any given text encompasses, considers and integrates both the literary and historical elements of a biblical passage to inform how a text should take shape in the life of the church today. This essential connection between these three contexts is necessary because of the inherent nature of Scripture as inspired literature embedded in history. This integrated approach to biblical interpretation acknowledges that a meaningful word for today cannot be understood apart from their original historical setting and inspired literary forms. This integrated approach also functions to bring balance to our reading of texts and perspective to any given text, especially isolated texts and canonical readings render more theologically shaped readings of the canon.
To disregard the literary form, historical setting and canonical voice of a text such as 1 Tim 2:9-10 could easily turn this text into a proof-text to support a normative, timeless dress code for all women for all time and all places. Thus, the simplistic interpretive method God said it, I believe it, that settles it prevails, and the church ends up with a biblical teaching claimed by interpreters as authoritative because the Bible says so. I would suggest that to apply this text in the same way that it was applied in first century Ephesus actually takes the life out of the text. The text becomes distorted into law instead of Gospel and tragically results in both Scripture and the church losing the transforming witness intent of the Word to the world of our day.
I will now turn my comments toward two specific texts: 1 Corinthians 11.3 and 14.33-36.
As already mentioned earlier, these texts have been important both historically and today in the LCMS to support the synodical teaching which limits the ministry of women in the church. I have chosen the Corinthian texts to address more fully because of their contextual placement in one of Pauls letters. Thus, I can more succinctly reflect on two texts within the same historic and literary context.
(1). Introductory Comments and Background to 1 Corinthians. Introductory and contextual background to the Corinthian correspondence is important as we address any specific text in the letter. Both 1 and 2 Corinthians were personal letters written from the Apostle Paul to a first century church struggling with a variety of problems. This factor alone is critical and often overlooked in biblical interpretation. Paul was primarily a pastoral theologian who wrote real letters to real live people in a variety of different social settings in the Greco-Roman world in the first century. The nature and content of Pauls letters reflect that he was a pastoral theologian always in the state of asking, How does the Gospel address this particular situation? Paul demonstrates a dynamic interplay between the Gospel and the particularities of each historical situation. He gave directives and teachings to his congregations, evaluating each situation on its own merits (e.g., the different directives which he gives to widows in Ephesus and widows in Corinth).
The first letter to the Corinthians was one of the earlier letters of Paul written about AD 53-54 to a congregation he had founded a few years earlier and is indeed one of the earliest extant documents in our New Testament. Thus, although dating issues around the Pauline letters are complex, this letter to the Corinthians was probably written as Pauls fourth extant letter, after only Galatians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Thus, this letter was written only about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Pauls letters were written to small emerging congregations still closely associated with their Jewish roots and communities characterized by loose structures of organization. This is important, especially as we discuss early church emerging structures of leadership and church office. The church did not come into existence with formal and defined leadership structures as we have today (e.g., ordained clergy, elders, deacons, DCEs, deaconesses, etc.). Structures of office emerged in the early church, with most of the New Testament documents reflecting a functional understanding of ministry. Paul consistently connected the giftedness of one to functions of leadership. Paul most often uses quasi-technical terms such as sunergo and kopiao to describe a persons leadership role in the community. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul does not refer to formal office; rather he exhorts the congregation to submit to and to give recognition to the household of Stephanas and others for their leadership and ministry among the Corinthians.
You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work (sunergeo), and labors at it (kopiao). I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition (NIV 1 Cor. 16.15-18).
Paul regularly uses these Greek terms (sunergo, kopiao) and their cognate noun forms to describe his own Gospel ministry and the Gospel ministry of women and men in the early church. Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis (Rom. 16.6, 12), Prisc[ill]a and Aquila (Rom. 16.3), Urbanus (Romans 16.9), Timothy (Rom. 16.21), Titus (2 Cor. 8.23), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2.25), Clement, Euodia, and Syntyche (Phil 4.3), Philemon (Philemon 1), Demas and Luke (Philemon 24) and Apollos and Paul (1 Cor. 3.9).
When studying the Corinthian correspondence, one must be sensitive to the authority and leadership patterns as reflected in the Corinthian correspondence itself. The Corinthian church pattern of verbal leadership in worship (1 Cor. 11-14) and church discipline (1 Cor. 5) was communal, not hierarchical. Authority for ministry rested in the spiritual giftedness of an individual rather than in a function of an office.9
Corinth itself was cosmopolitan in every way. Economically wealthy, religiously diverse and sexually preoccupied, this diversity was present in the Christian community as well. Crispus and Sosthenes had been/were Jewish synagogue rulers (Acts 18.8, 17; 1 Cor. 1.1, 14). Erastus was city treasurer (Rom 16.23). Gaius, a home owner (Rom. 16.23; I Cor. 1.14), and Stephanas, a home owner (1 Cor. 1.16; 16.15), were probably wealthy believers. We know that most of the believers were not wealthy ( 1 Cor. 1.26-29; 11.22). Both Jew and Gentile believers composed the church (1 Cor. 1.22-24). We also know that there were mixed marriages (i.e., believers married to unbelievers 1 Cor. 7.12-16). It can also be deduced that many believers must have been converted from pagan religious sects in the community based on Pauls extensive discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8; 10).
The specific issues Paul addresses in the Corinthian letters came to him through verbal reports from Chloes people and others (1.11; 5.1-13; 6.1-8; 11.2-34; 15.1-58), while other concerns were written in a letter which Paul had received from the Corinthian church (7.1, 25; 8.1; 12.1; 16.1, 12). Thus, this letter is not a general letter but rather an ad hoc or occasioned letter which was written in response to specific verbal and written reports from the Corinthian community in the middle of the first century. Rhetoric throughout the letter indicates a strong local opposition to Pauls apostleship and authority (4.16-21; 7.25, 40; 9.1-27; 14.37-38; 15.8-11). Paul criticizes the Corinthians for numerous church factions and divisions (1.12-17); jealousy and quarrels (3.1-4). Paul continues with directives for specific situations: reports of a sexually immoral man (5.1-13); lawsuits among believers (6.1-8); marriage (7.1-24); virgins (7.25-40); questions concerning eating idol meat (8.1-11.1); questions about head coverings for women (11.2-16); divisions at the Lords Supper (11.17-34); disruptive use of spiritual gifts (12-14); and issues around the resurrection of the dead (15.1-58). The sheer number of ethical and practical concerns Paul addressed indicates a complicated and challenging situation. Some scholars have suggested that the ethical and practical crisis was amplified or created by an underlying theological misunderstanding about the end times (eschatological misunderstandings; 4; 7; 11; 15) as well as a misunderstanding of the proper function of the Spirit, especially in relationship to gifts and knowledge.10
It is in this general historical situation communicated through a letter that Paul makes two directives concerning women in Corinth (1Cor. 11.2-16; 1 Cor.14.34-36). Both of these passages fall within a larger structural division of the letter beginning in 11.2 and completing with 14.40. These four chapters take up a number of issues related to worship, including verbal disruptions, use of spiritual gifts, how members treat one another especially at the Lords supper and so forth.
(2) 1 Corinthians 11.2-16. 1 Cor. 11.3b, ... man is the head of woman ... is placed within a larger discussion specifically addressing a worship service setting beginning in verse 2 and concluding in verse 16. As already noted, Paul was a pastoral theologian who wrote this letter to address specific issues and concerns that had come up in the Corinthian congregation. Therefore, before we ask the question, What does this text say to the LCMS denomination in 21st century America? we must first ask the questions, What was Paul originally addressing in this text? and How did this text function authoritatively in its original historical setting? In other words, what in the world was going on in Corinth which prompted Paul to write these directives in the first place? Asking these basic questions will provide for us one of the most important keys toward understanding how the text is meaningful for us today.
I will take the time to read through this text in its entirety with the disclaimer that in the history of scholarship, this text has been notoriously difficult to understand, especially in terms of the details and cultural specifics behind the text. It is one of those intriguing texts which makes sensitive readers aware of the historical and cultural distance which modern readers have from ancient Corinth. Even though there is some ambiguity in this text, there is clarity in terms of the primary reason why Paul wrote this text in the first place.
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband (man) is the head of his wife (woman), and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head - it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious - we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11.2-16 NRSV)
So, why did Paul write this text to the Corinthian congregation in AD 54? In other words, what in the world was going on in the Corinthian worship service that prompted him to write these directives? Pauls sole concern here is for propriety in worship specifically related to the wearing of head coverings for men and women in the Corinthian worship service. Women were to wear head coverings when they prayed and prophesied in worship (11.5), and men were not to wear head coverings in worship when they prayed and prophesied (11.4). Pauls expressed concern was not over the question of who has authority to publicly lead the congregation in prayer and prophecy. Pauls expressed concern was not to set up a leadership hierarchy where men function in leadership in worship in ways that women did not. By way of discussion of his main concern, the proper wearing of head covering, Paul assumes and affirms the Corinthian practice that both women and men, through Gods empowering and authority, built up the church in the public worship service as they used the gifts that God had given (see 11.1, esp. 11.10, 12.28; 14.1, 3-5, 18-19, 24-25, 31, 39; 14.26, 40). However, the situation of women and men praying and prophesying in the worship service became a problem when the Corinthian women took their new-found freedom to the extreme of removing their head coverings, a cultural symbol of decency, sexual modesty, gender differentiation and respect. It is often overlooked in this passage that on three occasions Paul directs men to pray and prophecy without their heads covered, which indicates that perhaps this wasnt simply a womens problem but rather a gender-bending situation of some type. Women were throwing their head coverings off, and men were covering their heads, which in that social setting would be great cause for disruption in the worship service.
Another relevant question is the function of prophecy in the Corinthian worship service. This is especially important since prophecy is a term which we do not use regularly in the LCMS, and in the minds of many prophecy simply refers to predictions about future events. Is this the type of utterance that Paul is addressing here? Although Paul does not expand on that question in this specific text (11.2-16), we dont have to go far to find the answer to how prophecy functioned in public worship in Corinth. In the larger context of chapters 11-14, Paul provides for us a lengthy discussion on the function of prophecy in the early Corinth worship setting. In these chapters Paul describes prophecy as words that are understandable, words which build up the church, words which edify, bring consolation, encouragement, words that instruct others and words that convict unbelievers of their sins leading them to worship God and leading them to declare that God is really among you (see esp. 12.28; 14.1, 3-5, 18-19, 24-25, 31, 39). In the Corinthian worship setting prophecy was the spiritual gift which functioned to proclaim the Gospel in public worship. That seems to be specifically why Paul highlights its function as the most important verbal gift! To suggest, as many have, that prophecy was a form of public speech that was secondary or less authoritative than what we call today the pastoral sermon cannot be substantiated by 1 Corinthians. Such levels of authoritative speech or distinctions in formal proclamation are foreign to the context of Pauls discussions in this letter. Prophecy was authoritative speech in the worship service in Corinth, and the broader context of 1 Corinthians clearly indicates that women fully served in this authoritative verbal prophetic role in Corinth in AD 54.
Of special mention here is that Paul affirmed this within a culture which for the most part devalued women and did not want women to learn or to be present in a public way. Most certainly the ancient culture would have been offended by womens public participation in any type of mixed gender group. It is in that larger cultural setting that Paul affirmed and promoted a worship service where women as well as men proclaimed the Gospel together. The public worship service in Corinth was not only countercultural but would have been offensive to the culture! One prominent scholar of our day, Wayne Meeks, summarizes the text in this way, In brief, he [Paul] leaves unquestioned the right of women, led by the Spirit, to exercise the same leadership roles in the assembly as men but insists only that the conventional symbols of sexual difference, in clothing and hair styles, be retained.
After completing a thorough literary and historical inquiry resulting with a solid sense of how the text originally functioned and what it was originally addressing, one must then tackle the questions related to how this text relates to the entire canonical witness. Are there other texts in the canon which address a similar situation? Is there a consistent, normative witness throughout Scripture which calls for women to pray and prophecy in worship with their heads covered and men to pray and prophecy in worship with their heads uncovered? Well ... no, there is not! In fact, responsible interpreters would soon identify that this text has neither a consistent nor a diverse witness in the canon. Rather, it stands as an isolated text. Its function was to provide a unique set of directives, addressing a very specific situation in Corinth concerning the practice of head coverings in that time and that place. One must be exceedingly careful in drawing out direct application for other Christian worship settings, especially those which are culturally and socially distanced from that of first century Corinth. There may be settings in the Asian continent where the practice of head coverings is in fact similar to that of ancient Corinth, and thus this text would have more direct applicability to that setting. To apply this text today in North America in the same way that Paul intended it to be applied in first century Corinth would be disastrous and in fact would be a misuse of Scripture creating a Gospel witness to the surrounding world which would be meaningless.
I would suggest that this glimpse into the life of one early Christian congregation should challenge any practice in the LCMS which limits the Gospel proclamation in public worship based on ones gender. Paul did not make such limitations or promote such a practice in Corinth in AD 54, even though he had every cultural reason to do so for the sake of decency. Paul develops in chapters 12-14 the factors which determined the appropriate and authoritative proclamation of the Gospel in worship. They were threefold:
1) Appropriate Gospel proclamation has its source in the Spirit as manifest in human persons, male and female, which make up the body of Christ on earth.
2) Appropriate Gospel proclamation must be shaped and motivated by self-sacrificial love in deference to the rest of the body of Christ as defined in 1 Corinthians 13.
3) Appropriate Gospel proclamation must be done in an orderly way which enables the active participation of each member. Their participation should be defined solely by the spiritual giftedness which they use in order to edify and build up the larger body of Christ.
Pauls overarching goal for the worship setting at Corinth was for the edification of all present through the orderly use of each persons spiritual gift. The order of worship was structured around Gods gracesGods gifts as manifest in the community. Thus, I conclude that any contemporary reading of 1 Cor. 11.2-16 used to structure the variety of functions of worship around ones gender instead of around the gifts of God as present in the community needs to be called into account as a flagrant misuse of this text.
Before going on to 1 Corinthians 14.34-36, I would like to address the phrase man is the kephale of woman within Pauls larger discussion of head coverings. The LCMS reading of this phrase man is head of woman is succinctly summarized as a phrase to teach male priority in worship and in the home. Yet, if Paul understood the phrase man is head of woman to mean male leadership or priority, then Pauls actual directives to the men and women in Corinth make no logical sense. Paul does not say, man is the head of women, therefore a male person is to lead the worship through prayer and prophecy. Paul does not call women to give up their leadership function of prayer and prophecy to men in worship. Quite the contrary; Paul says, man is the head of woman, therefore, women, when you lead worship verbally through prayer and prophecy, you must wear a head covering. Men, when you lead worship verbally through prayer and prophecy, you must not cover your heads.
This inconsistency between the LCMS reading which teaches a hierarchal structure of male leadership and Pauls own directives where such a hierarchy is foreign suggests that we have misread Paul on this point. This is an instance where a literary and lexical study of other possible meanings for the Greek term kephale (head) must be undertaken. Such a study would indeed indicate a wide range of meanings for kephale in the first century context and should inform future studies and application of this text.
(3) 1 Corinthians 14.33b-35. Let us now turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 14.33b-35, which in many ways becomes easier to understand in light of the work we have just completed with 1 Corinthians 11.2-16. Literarily 1 Cor. 14.33b-35 comes near the conclusion of the four-chapter discussion of issues related to worship. Paul outlines a number of directives which have arisen from abuses in the church at Corinth: head coverings, the Lords supper, spiritual gifts. In relationship to the abuses Paul presents in chapter 14 a lengthy discussion of prophecy and tongue speaking in the public worship service. Paul concludes this four-chapter discussion with final directives involving other abuses, as described in 14.26-40. It is within this smaller literary unit that Paul makes this statement:
Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their (own) husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14.34-36)
Now, when read in isolation, this text seems to be about as clear as any text could possibly bePaul is calling for the subordination of women and the silencing of womens verbal participation in public worship. As I have already mentioned, this is in fact the current LCMS reading of this text. The logic goes like this: This text clearly teaches that women are subordinate and women are not to speak in worship. Therefore women do not have access to any of the functions of ordained clergy. This is considered a normative, timeless dictum for all times and all places.
My first critique of the LCMS reading is simply this: Paul did not write this text in isolation; therefore we should not read it in isolation. Before drawing contemporary applications, one must first ask basic literary and historical interpretive questions. What is the immediate and larger literary context? What specifically is Paul addressing in Corinth? In other words, what in the world was going on in Corinth that would make Paul say that women should be silent?
The larger literary context begins in chapter 11.2 and concludes with 14.40. Perceptive readers will immediately be struck with the apparent contradictions with 11.2-16 where Paul affirms and supports the verbal participation of women with authoritative prayer and prophecy in public worship. As already demonstrated this is supported further by the teaching throughout chapters 12 and 13 where all the gifts of God are understood to build up the entire community, especially verbal gifts which bring edification. Therefore, since Paul has already allowed that women do speak with authority in the Corinthian worship service, then the most responsible conclusion one would come to is that Pauls silence text in chapter 14 must be understood as a limited text addressing a specific situation which arose in the Corinthian worship setting.
The next step in the literary inquiry is to look more closely at the smaller literary unit beginning in 14.26 and concluding in 14.40. The introductory (14.26) and concluding (14.39-40) phrases which frame this unit continue to support the full participation of all people based on spiritual giftedness. Between these framing verses, Paul presents directives to three specific groups within the Corinthian worship service who are causing verbal disruptions. First, he addresses tongue speakers who speak without interpretation and cause disruption (14.27-28). In that specific case, he silences tongue speakers. Then Paul directs his comments to prophets who speak out of turn and in doing so are causing disruption (14.29-33). In that specific case, he silences prophets. He then moves to a third group and silences them as well. This group is the women, and since the immediate context has clearly been to silence verbal disruptions in contrast to normal active speech, we must ask the appropriate contextual question. What verbal disruption is Paul addressing to the women? I would suggest that Pauls own resolution to the problem in 14.35 is the most important interpretive key for understanding this text. Pauls comments in 14.35 direct women to ask questions to their own husbands at home. This clearly implies that women were asking questions in such a way as to disturb the public order of worship. Therefore, in this case Paul silences women, as he has already done to the prophets and tongues speakers.
This reading of the text eliminates most of the contextual difficulties and fits with the overall participation of women in Corinth and with Pauls ministry and teaching elsewhere. Women were given the opportunity to learn and participate in worship with men, both of which were uncommon practices in the ancient world. During the process of this new social integration, questions arose and confusion resulted. Therefore, this text should be understood as a corrective or limited text which dealt with a specific problem which arose within the Corinthian worship service. In this text (14.26-40) Paul silences prophets in some cases. Paul silences tongue speakers in some cases. And Paul silences women in some cases. The verses framing these silence passages affirm the full participation of all in the worship setting and reflect the teaching as found throughout the entire letter of 1 Corinthians and elsewhere in Paul. It is almost as if Paul went out of his way to include the framing passages (14.26, 39-40) in order to insure that the three silence passages would not be lifted out of their context and heralded as dictums to stifle the work of God through the Spirit in the body of Christ, the church. Such twisting of Pauls words was a problem in the first century with Pauls own contemporaries (1 Peter 3.16) and should serve as a warning to every generation of Christians to read Paul carefully, theologically and with great humility, acknowledging our own inabilities and limitations.
After determining the literary and historical contexts of 1 Cor. 14.26-40 and coming to the best and most responsible first century reading of this text, one must then enter into the final hermeneutical step of canonical inquiry. This step especially assists the contemporary church in determining how 1 Cor. 14.26-40 should take life in the church today. Is there a consistent witness in Scripture which would suggest that women are not to ask questions in worship? Does Paul cite the Law in other places to place this restriction on women in worship or to teach that women are subordinate? Are other New Testament writers concerned about the orderly participation of tongue speakers and prophets in worship? Are there other passages in the canon which call for women to be silent in worship? A canonical inquiry asking these types of questions would conclude that there is not a consistent witness nor even a diverse witness. Rather, it is virtually an isolated text. In the entire canon there is only one other text, written ten years later, which calls for the submissive and quiet posture for women when they learn in the worship at Ephesus (1 Tim. 2.11-12). This may indicate that the situation at Ephesus had women who in their desire to learn were disrupting the worship setting. Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of 1 Timothy 2.9-15 indicates that there are many other features to the Timothy passage which stand unique and indicate that the situation was in fact quite different than the one in Corinth ten years earlier.
The reading of this text as presented here does not altogether answer all the inherent difficulties of this text. There are actually five different readings of this text supported by scholars today, which reflects quite simply that this text in its larger context is not a clear text. There are a variety of exegetical, grammatical, textual, historical and contextual challenges one faces when reading this text. This is a text which I have spent a great deal of time with throughout the past decade, and as I have wrestled with the many difficulties in attempting to understand what this text meant and what it means for us today, I have come to the conclusion that I may never know with certainty what this text was specifically addressing. Although I do believe that the reading I have presented today is the best reading of the text, I am acutely aware that I have had three different readings of the text over the past ten years. I do not share this to indicate a carelessness in my attempt to read this text. Rather, I share it because any person who has worked long and hard with this text would come to that conclusion because it is a difficult text. Any person or institution which cites this text and makes the blanket statement, now isnt this clear... is not playing fair with the text of Scripture at this point. One can only come to that type of flippant conclusion by reading it in isolation with absolutely no sensitivity to the larger varied contexts.
Although I may not know exactly what specifically this text was addressing, I can say with more confidence that I know what the text is not saying. 1 Corinthians 14.33b-35 is not teaching that women cannot publicly proclaim the Gospel in public worship services. Paul already has allowed that they do (1 Cor. 11.2-16)! In addition, 1 Corinthians 14.33-36 does not mean that women cannot be ordained pastors. I would argue strongly that when Paul wrote 1 Cor. 14.26-40 he wasnt even remotely addressing the question of who can be ordained clergy at the church at Corinth. There is no evidence in this text or anywhere else in 1 Corinthians that Paul was giving directives about office in the church. Rather, the context leads us to a different conclusion. Paul was addressing three specific instances of verbal disruptions in the Corinthian worship service, and to resolve the crisis he silences three different groups in some cases. He goes out of his way to frame his entire discussion with directives that all should use their gifts (14.26, 39-40).
My second critique of the LCMS interpretation of this passage builds upon my first. The conclusions drawn do not consider either the immediate or larger literary context of these verses. In the larger context Paul assumes and affirms that women through the empowering of God in the Spirit spoke authoritatively in worship. In addition, the immediate literary context is that Paul silenced three groups of people because of three types of verbal disruptions. This immediate literary context has never been a part of the discussion of 14.33b-35 in the LCMS, and its omission reflects a hermeneutical carelessness which is inexcusable! In addition, the LCMS interpretation does not take seriously the varied contextual and grammatical difficulties inherent in this text. In my judgment, to suggest that 1 Corinthians 14.33b-35 clearly teaches women are not to be ordained clergy is simply reading into the text something that is not there.
My third critique of the LCMS interpretation is related to the larger questions of the hermeneutical method used when reading any given text of Scripture. The LCMS historic and current interpretive method has been to cite 1 Cor. 14.33b-35 alongside of 1 Tim. 2.12-14 with disregard for the unique and quite different settings of each text. This cut and paste hermeneutic, more sophisticatedly called proof-texting, of two isolated passages from two occasioned letters and concluding with a normative application for all times and all places is problematic for a number of reasons. Before two isolated directives from Paul given at two different times to two different settings are lifted out of their original contexts and patched together, one must fully understand Pauls original intent for each on their own terms. The actual crises and unique and varied issues of Corinth in AD 54 as presented in 1 & 2 Corinthians are different than the crisis that the church at Ephesus faced over a decade later, and thus the directives are different as well! Any patching together of 1 Cor. 14.33b-35 with 1 Tim. 2.12-14 as if they are addressing the same issue should be viewed with suspicion.
I hope that this exercise of working through 1 Cor. 11-14 has above all emphatically highlighted the importance of reading texts within their varied contexts. Informing ones reading of the Bible with sensitivity to the literary, historical and canonical contexts of individual texts is essential when we wrestle with the questions of what a text meant and how a given text is to be applied today. As I said earlier in the discussion, one of the interpretive realities is that for the ancient text to engage and communicate to our contemporary setting it may take on new and fresh meanings different from its original meaning. This presents the modern reader of the Bible with one of the greatest challenges of biblical interpretation. On what basis do we determine which texts are so conditioned by their original situation that they no longer speak to us in the same way and those ancient texts which transcend their historical particularities and should be understood as normative teachings for all times and all places?
As already suggested, one of the best ways to evaluate whether a text is normative (e.g., God is creator) is whether any given passage can be supported thematically, consistently and theologically by the rest of the canonical witness. Those witnesses which are consistent in Scripture should always shape how any given isolated text should be read, no matter how clear any given isolated text appears. When a diverse witness results, greater attention must be given to the historical particularities which shaped each individual text in the first place. Isolated texts should be identified, yet handled with exception care and caution, never drawing from them normative teachings for the church in every time and every place.
Up to this point in my discussion I have suggested that there are three circles of context which must be held in connection with one another for responsible biblical interpretation to take place. This essential connection between the historical, literary and canonical contexts is necessary because of the inherent nature of Scripture as inspired literature embedded in history. Thus, sola scriptura holds central place in this hermeneutic model. Nevertheless, the task of biblical interpretation encompasses more than these three contexts. Biblical interpretation involves more than the lexical and literary study of words, phrases and paragraphs (literary context). Biblical interpretation involves more than a cognitive understanding and sensitivity to the historical setting and nuanced cultural realities which shape any given meaning of a text (historical context). Biblical interpretation even goes beyond the boundaries of the canon (canonical context).
In short, biblical interpretation involves more than the biblical text because it involved you and me, the church. The fourth circle of context of biblical interpretation is the composite of all persons who make up the church. Men and women in each generation and each cultural setting open these pages of Scripture written thousands of years ago to settings radically different from their own, and they attempt to read the words of Scripture afresh for their unique settings. What characterizes the community of believers who read and apply the Word of God shapes every reading and interpretation of the text. The church is not an objective, non-biased, unreceptive participant in the process of biblical interpretation. This is a reality which we cannot escape, nor should we try. It is by Gods design that the context of the church is where biblical interpretation takes place. The words of Scripture take on life as each generation in its varied cultural setting reads the text as a fresh word for its unique setting.
Gods mode of inspiration was not a divine word by word declaration from a distant heaven recorded by an unreceptive hand resulting with the definitive Christianity 101 rules and regulations booklet. Rather, the Word of God came to individuals and faith communities in the midst of life and struggle, and Gods Word comes to us as their story unfolds on the pages of Scripture. Through this faith conversation with God ancient Israel and the early Christian community found identity, purpose and direction. Thus, when we come to the task of biblical interpretation we are in a similar way carrying on the same tradition. When we read the biblical text, we are continuing that same conversation with that same God. The living Word is the biblical text, and as the church engages with and embodies Scripture, the church then becomes the living Word to the world around.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he invited them to a new way of understanding who they had become. Paul audaciously said to the Corinthiansand now to us: Do you not know that you (pl.) are Gods temple and that Gods Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor. 3.16, also 6.19-20 ). You are a letter of Christ, ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of fleshy hearts (2 Cor. 3. 3). You are the letter of Christ, ... to be known and read by all (2 Cor. 3.2).
This fourth circle of context necessary for biblical interpretation then is the living community of believers who profess Jesus as their Lord and through prayer, discussion and study develop the capacity to discern the Spirits guidance in the task of biblical interpretation. The reality of this fourth context provides great hope that the words on the pages of the Bible will always be a fresh and convicting word, yet this fourth context also complicates enormously the process of biblical interpretation. Biblical interpretation becomes far more than reading words on pages. If it were simply about reading the Greek and Hebrew words and understanding the varied cultural and historical realities in which the text were written, then we as a church body would simply call upon the experts to be the objective gatekeepers of biblical interpretation. But biblical interpretation never happens in that type of objective, sterile environment. The church has not been nor will it ever be an unreceptive, disengaged, detached participant in the process of biblical interpretation. What this ultimately means is that biblical interpretation is never simply about citing a few verses to support ones position. It requires a community who through discernment wrestle with how any text should take life in the church of their day.
The history of biblical interpretation in the church should perhaps correct any illusion we might hold that would suggest that appealing to a given Scriptural passage can guide the church toward a faithful rendering of the text for their setting. The stark reality is that such appeals to Scriptures authority have been used by the institutionalized Christian church in countless atrocities, not the least of which were to persecute and kill Jews, kill thousands in holy war, burn women suspected of witchcraft or for using pain relievers in childbirth, kill doctrinal heretics and torture and enslave Africans. The claim that the Bible says so has armed countless Christian interpreters with tools of oppression and enslavement, thereby subverting the life-giving good news of Gods redeeming love in Jesus Christ and distorting Gods intent for the churchs role as the New Creation. Such examples should stand as a warning to each generation of believers to position themselves in a humble posture, acknowledging their own inability to always hear and/or apply clearly Gods intent from biblical texts.
Perhaps a contemporary illustration may assist us in understanding some of the unique challenges which this fourth circle of context presents for the LCMS today. If Hermann Otten were here today as my dialogue partner, he would argue with zeal and passion that women are to be silent in the church based on 1 Timothy 2.12-14 and 1 Cor. 14.33b-35. These biblical texts and the interpretive method which he utilized justifies in his mind this reading, and he heralds it as authoritative because the Bible says so (which, I might add, it does!). He would argue that my approach to biblical interpretation is flawed and the circles of context which I have suggested today are absolutely irrelevant categories and simply reflect a sophisticated guise to take away from the clear teaching of Scripture. In much the same way, I would argue that his hermeneutic is simplistic, flawed, unbalanced, inconsistent and misguided. It would no doubt be an interesting discussion! We would both appeal to Scripture as authoritative. Yet our readings of the very same Scriptures would be in sharp disagreement.
Why would our readings be different and how would this ever be resolved? Our readings would be different because first of all, we utilize different hermeneutical methods. Second, our readings would be different because the biblical witness itself presents diverse points of views. And third, our reading would be different because we are human beings who bring ourselves to the task of biblical interpretation. Hermann Otten and I both bring to the task of interpretation our personal experiences, backgrounds, reputations, ethnicity, age, economic status, educational level, cross-cultural experiences, marital or parental roles, ecclesiastical traditions, human reason, health, disappointments, fears, prejudices and even our gender. I am a woman and he is a man. That is perhaps one item we actually might agree on!! All of these realities influence and shape how all of us read the text.
If one is aware of this reality, then one is in a good position to develop a self-conscious strategy for reading with a critical awareness of ones own predetermined positions and ideologies. In addition, one will more likely be in a position to nurture a teachable, gracious and submissive posture toward other voices in the interpretive arena. On the other hand, those who are unaware, deny or ignore that what they bring to the text shapes their reading are far less likely to be self-critical and much less needful of entertaining different readings of the text.
So I ask you, my dear friends, how would the conflict between Hermann Ottens reading and my own ever be resolved by appealing to Scripture? Mr. Ottens refuge would be to appeal to the LCMS historical resolutions and the CTCR booklet and from his perspective the case would be closed. His reading would be given the official seal of orthodoxy, and there would be no reason whatsoever to continue biblical study or discussion of this topic! Yet, I do not find comfort or confidence in his refuge. Rather, I find myself at a very different place on my journey.
I invite you on this day, January 17, 2000, a day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, to use your imaginations. Imagine for a moment a Christian community in the year 2000 that both doctrinally and in practice endorses the institution of slavery. White members of this Christian community own black members. This community finds a safe refuge in citing their historic teaching that subordinates black persons to white. They herald clear biblical passages which support their community practice. Slaves obey your masters. Isnt that biblical passage clear? they might with orthodox fervor preach to the pagan world of our day. This Christian community also has Africans as members who have come to believe deeply that their skin color really does matters. Of course, they understand that blacks and whites are equal members of the priesthood of all believers by faith in Jesus Christ. And by all means, black persons have eternal salvation and are created in the image of God. Its just that they were created different. You know, equal, but different. Its just that a black person is not yet fully redeemed in this world; that will happen in heaven. They were created to be subordinate to their masters. The Bible says so. They were created to obey their masters. The Bible says so. And I might add that the Bible does say so! Just imagine ... this little Christian community attempting to communicate the Gospel in Portland, Oregon, on January 17, 2000.
Would they be faithfully embodying the Gospel to the social setting of Portland today? In what sense would their life as a community be a letter of Christ ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of fleshy hearts? In their attempt to preserve the clear teaching of Scripture would they have missed the heart of the Gospel? Just imagine....
We are at a crossroads in The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod. We will make decisions today, tomorrow and throughout this year that will affect which direction our synod will proceed with the question of womens and mens roles in the church. We can decide to continue down the path that the LCMS is currently on. We can find a safe refuge in citing the historic teaching of the LCMS. We can herald back to clear passages which call for the silence and subordination of women to men. We can continue to teach that ones chromosomes really do matter. Of course, we would teach that women and men are equal members of the priesthood of all believers by faith in Jesus Christ. And by all means, women have eternal salvation and are created in the image of God. Its just that they were created different. You know, equal but different. Its just that a woman is not yet fully redeemed in this world; that will happen in heaven. Women were created to be subordinate to men; the Bible says so. Women were created to submit to men; the Bible says so. Women were created to be silent in the church; the Bible says so. And if we choose, we can even go well beyond our historic doctrinal positions. We can even print and distribute seminary recruitment publicity, specifically designed for high school boys, which through metaphor teaches that a male seed is the criteria for ones capacity to implant the Word of God in the church (could you imagine that!). We can continue to be complacent. We can continue to be indifferent. We can continue to sit back and let politics go on as usual. We can continue to foster and allow an environment of fear and intimidation to grip our synod so that questions will be stifled and different readings of the text will not be published nor entertained for discussion. We can continue to bite and devour one another, and as we journey together down this road, The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod will eventually cease to exist. We will have lost our capacity to embody the Gospel to the world of our day. We will have lost our capacity to faithfully and responsibly interpret Scripture in ways that bring life, hope and truth to the North American setting in the 21st century.
Conferences discussing the biblical teaching on the institution of slavery are no longer necessary in the North American Christian context. It has been resolved. It was not resolved by coming to an agreement over the nuances of a Greek or Hebrew word or even by acknowledging that the ancient culture did shape directives given in the biblical text. It was resolved because black and white believers got on their knees together. They prayed to God together. They began to listen to one another and to confess their sins to one another. They began to earnestly seek discernment in how certain biblical texts should be applied in the world of their day. And through this process of journeying together, their hearts were transformed and they came to believe that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the very heart of the Gospel, no matter how clear a few passages might be.
One modern scholar, Stephen E. Fowl, wrestles deeply with the sobering history of how the church has misread Scripture and then reflects on the challenges that this presents for communities like our own who are attempting to faithfully apply biblical teachings for a new day.
Because the history of interpretation is both exceedingly diverse and sometimes wrong (as in the case of biblical justifications for slavery), discerning what constitutes continuity with those who have preceded us in the faith will always be a matter of selective retrieval, debate, and argument.... For a community to be able to carry on such discussions without fragmenting or lapsing into violence not only requires some knowledge of the past, it also requires people with the imagination to see new ways of being faithful in the present. Discussions of this sort require a community schooled in the habits of disciplined conversation, prayer, and discernment.
At the turn of the next century, the 22nd century, there will be no need for a conference discussing the biblical teaching on the role of women in the church. It will be resolved. Free conferences such as this give me a little hope that perhaps The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod may be around to see the turn of the next century. But that will not happen, my friends, unless we stop in our tracks now and take a long ... critical ... and honest ... look at the current environment in our denomination. Then we need to get on our knees as men and women and pray with one another. Listen to one another. Confess our sins to one another. And perhaps as we journey down that road together, our hearts will be transformed, and we will be able to discern with great clarity and confidence what Gods Word teaches concerning women and men in the church for our day.
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