The Common Good

Paul's Teaching on Women in Context

Do you often find comfort and insight, even direction for your life, through a careful study of scripture? Do you believe that God's truth is found in the pages of the Bible? Do you trust that as you reflect on scripture, God's Spirit works to lead, heal, and inform your life? If so, you stand in a long tradition of Christians who turn to scripture to know the mind of God.

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While Christians hold scripture as supremely authoritative, there are times when the message of scripture is difficult to grasp. Understanding scripture often requires more than simply reading the words on the pages. Interpreting God's Word demands much effort and careful study on our part. And reading scripture in a community of Christians makes the process even more complete. Iron sharpens iron, and one Christian sharpens the understanding of another (Proverbs 27:17).

To grasp the full meaning of scripture-to discern God's intent in our lives-also requires understanding the historic and cultural context, the specific situations to which the words had original meaning, so that we might determine the moral and spiritual principles that have application for us today. Here is one example. The Bible says if your hand offends you, cut it off. And, if your eye offends you, pluck it out (Matthew 5:29-30). For most of us, our eyes and hands have offended us, though few have, mercifully, eliminated these important body parts. Why? Because we recognize the hyperbole of scripture-that scripture often uses extreme language to suggest a serious situation, i.e. sin. An accurate interpretation of scripture does not always demand a literal or unquestioning obedience to every word.

Interpreting scripture correctly also involves discerning the difference between the moral teachings of scripture and the historical Bible culture-a culture in which nearly half of all people were slaves and women were subservient to men. Consider the example of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Here Paul exhorted the women in Ephesus to learn in silence, so that their teaching would no longer lead people astray, thus limiting the abusive authority to which the Greek word authentein applied (1 Timothy 2:11-12). The moral principle is not silencing women for all time, for this would prove contrary to Paul's own service beside women leaders like Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe, the Elect Lady, Apphia, Chloe, and others. The point of the passage is that those who teach should teach sound doctrine-the exercise of which is healthy authority. And, the usual Greek word for authority is exousia not authentein. Remember, Paul sent Priscilla back to Ephesus to help Timothy manage the deception and false teaching that was troubling this church (2 Timothy 4:19). Priscilla had established herself as a teacher (Acts 18:26) and perhaps Paul sent her back to instruct the false teachers troubling the church in Ephesus.

Or again, Paul silences the chatter of married women in Corinth (1 Corinthinans 14:34-35). The point of this passage is not that women were speaking, but that their chatter was (like the tongues speakers also mentioned in this passage) distracting to those who might otherwise hear the gospel. In fact, all of 1 Corinthians 14 concerns orderliness in worship that the gospel might be preached without distractions. The highest good for Paul was giving many an opportunity to hear and believe the gospel, a priority that was compromised by the chattering of women. Paul was more concerned that the gospel receive a wide hearing than he was for women's freedom in Christ to speak in the synagogues.

Friends, scripture must be read for its primary emphasis not for its attendant features. The point of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 was that the teaching of the gospel should be a priority in the churches, and those who teach should teach sound doctrine. Paul affirmed the authority and leadership of women, provided that their leadership was neither domineering nor abusive (1 Timothy 2 :12); that those who teach would understand and advance the truth concerning the gospel (1 Timothy 2:11

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