When I wrote the first part of what is now becoming a series, I intended for it to generate discussion and responses. To some degree, it has done that. Nearly all of the responses I’ve received directly have been quite positive, by the way, with a few exceptions of course. However, from what I sense and hear about, I think one of the responses has been, not surprisingly, similar to responses generated by my articles addressing another type of systemic issue, that of unconscious racial prejudice. So, how are the responses similar? Avoidance, with the hope that the discussions will simply die down quickly and disappear. They won’t. Our younger generations (and many of their parents, by the way) simply won’t let that happen.
One of my advisors for this article is a very impressive young woman who just began her college career in an Ivy League school. She gave me this feedback: “My one suggestion would be to possibly include some of the positive reactions you received to the first article. I think many people don’t understand how big of a deal it was to so many women for you to say those things. I think it could help some of the older generation understand how deeply our hearts yearn for change and how strong our desires for validation are.” (I will let her speak for all the others – and there have been many.) What that in mind, I will do my best to keep all prejudices and biases of which we are generally unaware (unless we are the object of them) exposed on a consistent basis, at least the ones most pertinent to church life. They are hurting individuals within our fellowship and they are a hindrance to our effectiveness in reaching the lost. If we address them and change what needs changing, they can be a genuine catalyst for growth.
In this article, due to the length of material I want to ultimately include, I am going to limit my observations to the main things I am seeing, hearing and hearing about in response to addressing this topic. By far, the biggest needs to explore further fall within two basic areas. They will each be explored in two separate articles in the near future. One is the identity and relationship of leadership roles and authority. We are yet a long way from understanding this topic, and unless we understand the finer points of this one, we will not be able to make the needed progress in the realm of women leadership.
The other most pressing topic is that of understanding the importance of the cultural settings in place when the NT was written, and from there, what those cultural scenarios were and how they influenced the content we are reading 2000 years later. I made a statement in my first article that I believed was very fundamental, but I now view it as even more important to our continuing discussion. Here’s the statement: “The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.”
In that upcoming article on contextual considerations, I will include quotes from highly respected biblical scholars that will at least get us closer to seeing why and how these issues demand our attention. Prior to sharing those, we will have to deal with the topic of simplistic, flawed approaches to biblical interpretation that selectively choose which contextual issues to seriously consider and which to ignore. These fall within the realm of explicit and implicit sexist biases – which I will now take a moment to define more broadly.
In my first article, I described “systemic” in this way as it related especially to racial issues: “Calling anything systemic simply means that it so stamped in our psyche that we have it without being aware of it. In that sense it is somewhat like carrying a virus or having something embedded in our DNA string that may be unseen – until it becomes seen.” My good friend and wordsmith par excellence, Tom Jones, offered an observation regarding my use of terminology. He pointed out that technically, systemic refers to something system-wide (our whole society in this case), whereas “implicit bias” more accurately describes unconscious biases, expectations, or tendencies that exist within an individual. Of course, biases accompanied by ill-will or self-aware prejudices fall into the realm of explicit (intended) bias whereas the unconscious type are implicit.
To say that racism is systemic is to say that it is found throughout our system – in business, in education, in criminal justice, basically everywhere so that a person is affected it by it wherever they turn – not simply that it is something people are doing unconsciously or without awareness. However, I believe that we can for the sake of simplicity tie systemic and implicit bias together and legitimately say that that implicit bias is systemic in our society. It is in that sense that I have used the term systemic and will continue to do so, including in my references to gender bias and sexism. But for those who might aware of and interested in more technically accurate terminology, I include this brief explanation. With that now clarified, let’s move to the more practical examinations and applications toward which this present article is aimed.
Responses and Concerns Prompted by Our Discussion
Several things have become more obvious through the responses and questions I have received after teaching on and writing about male/female role relationships. One already mentioned is that we are indeed painfully unaware of cultural contexts of the first century in which the books of the New Testament were written. Some of that lack of awareness is simply due to not yet being exposed to its importance and its content. However, some of that lack is related to a faulty approach to hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) – and in some cases, that flawed approach is deliberately chosen to apparently avoid having our traditional interpretations questioned. Due to underlying explicit and implicit gender biases, males can be curiously disturbed by delving into this area. That issue I will address in much more detail in a later article, for it is a scary one and a dangerous one. All I can figure out is that somehow it threatens our manhood and brings the insecurities out of our carefully locked and guarded emotional closets.
A second area of awareness based on responses that I have received is that far too many of us seem almost incapable (at this point) of considering any type of leadership role without reading a worldly concept of authority into it. In my book, “Dynamic Leadership,” my first chapter was devoted to trying to help us distinguish roles and functions from positions and offices. Whether that had much effect I don’t know, but I do know that our worldly concepts are nearly impossible to shed, no matter what Jesus said and demonstrated about them. Our years in the world, with all of our experiences therein, established and reinforced our views of leadership and authority.
Then, in our earlier history as a church movement, we were led by a Navy Admiral’s son. In his attempts to tie his work in Boston to the so-called beginning of our movement, he prided himself in establishing what he (and then we) called “ordered” discipleship partner relationships. These were purposely designed to replace those previously called “prayer partners” relationships. The latter type provided a very reasonable approach to helping implement the many “one another/each other” directives in the New Testament. The former type provided Satan with an opportunity to promote the abuse of authority through these “one-over-another” relationship pairings.
In my opinion, this authoritarian approach to discipling ended up almost being the death knell of discipling, or nearly so. To me, this is beyond sad, for the biblical concept of discipling is what drew me into this movement in the first place, and a concept without which I do not believe that the evangelism of the world can be accomplished. The decline (near-demise?) of true discipling and our falling growth rate have tracked together, say what you want. Unbiblical, damaging discipleship (and the resultant absence of the right kind) is not the only thing on the list of what has negatively affected our growth, but I would put it at the top of the list – and almost everything else on that list is inseparably tied to the sins and failures of leadership. We must develop a much better understanding of Golden Rule leadership if we are to reverse some trends that badly need reversing. When we do broaden this understanding, the women’s role is going to end up inseparably connected to it.
A third area that has become more apparent is that far too many of us are lazy – and careless as a result. We don’t like to dig into deeper issues. We don’t even like to read anything that is not quickly and easily understood. Our younger generations raised in the electronic age can be especially guilty of this, although many of them are indeed avid readers and students – in and out of classrooms. Others of their peers don’t read much unless forced to in school or jobs – they love Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media platforms. They can handle a reasonably short You Tube video addressing serious topics, but if the time length indicator registers more than 10 minutes, they will hit the start arrow button reluctantly, if at all. The idea of digging into more technical writing almost causes them to hyper-ventilate. Because of that widespread tendency, I have been encouraged to put more and more of my writing into those briefer and more visual formats. While I’m willing to do at least some of that, complex issues cannot be understood without deeper study, and that includes reading slowly, carefully and even somewhat extensively at the very least.
If we are not willing to do that, we will simply scan what others have said until we find something with which we agree and latch on to it without expending the intellectual and emotional energy of studying for ourselves. Trust me, some have already stopped reading this article when it spread onto a second page! But based on passages like 2 Timothy 2:15, we can’t please God without being willing to pay the price demanded for learning spiritual truths, especially the more complex ones. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Since we are going to be judged by God’s Word, we had better be studying it – seriously! “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day” (John 12:48).
One dear sister in my own age category, a very accomplished student and teacher of the Bible, said something to this effect about my article. “I agree with what you have written, but my fear is that women especially will quickly buy into it just because you have said it and not as a result of their own study.” I couldn’t agree more and that thought disturbs me greatly. We cannot just follow what others have said, no matter how much we may like them or respect them. God is calling us all to be Bereans. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Please follow that example when reading what I and others say or write.
A fourth area brought to the surface by discussion our topic is how quickly we want to jump past principles directly to applications. This is closely related to area #3. Our attention spans are shot to pieces. If we don’t have ADD or ADDA or ADHD, we act like we do. Just give us the bottom line, Man, and let’s get on with it! What I said under Area #3 is certainly quite applicable here also.
Here is why I make this a separate, though related, category. One of the most frequent questions asked of me after my first article was published concerned specific roles that I thought women could serve in. So, Gordon, are you saying that women can be appointed as elders or evangelists; that they can lead churches? Those questions will have to be addressed in time but starting off the discussion by asking them is disturbing. We are dealing with a very sensitive area involving some interpretative complexities. The principles simply must receive our attention first, for without understanding them, how can we make applications that are biblically allowable and practically helpful?
Basically, all I said in my first article is that we needed to restudy the whole topic and that in my judgment, women were too limited and not utilized as fully as they deserved to be and as the church needed them to be. Some assumed that I was opening Pandora’s Box to anything and everything that the religious world was already practicing. Within that “some” were those saying “Amen!” and those saying “Oh, NO!” Let’s stop assuming and jumping to convulsions, and begin studying and talking. And let’s put a governor on our emotions, be they giddy excitement or red-faced anger.
A fifth type of response demonstrated just how resistant some are to the idea of expanding (again) the involvement of our sisters in more public church participation, and how that resistance is most often age-related. We did once expand their involvement, as mentioned in my first article, but now seem even more reluctant to consider doing so again. Although I have received some surprisingly strong encouragement from those in our older generations, all of the negative responses have come from those over 50 (maybe 60). Hence, my oft-repeated statement (to the chagrin of some) that some who were once new wine, willing to break old wineskins, have unknowingly become old wineskins themselves. If you find yourself thinking “Amen” when you read that, you are not one of them; if you find yourself feeling defensive, you are. Figure it out.
As a young minister in the Mainline Churches of Christ, I was often very frustrated with some of our older ministers and our lack of direction in churches. I appreciated what they had done in their years of service and I learned many things from them. But I saw the ineffectiveness of the then-current status quo and just couldn’t act as though I were oblivious to it. I was viewed by not a few as something of a rebel, but I was not a rebel without a cause. This drive to be a part of something where great things happened led me to leave my former church association (in which I was pretty well established) and become a part of what I then called the “Discipling Movement.” There were a few others of my age and background who followed a similar path but not many. Those who did were still young inside no matter what their wrinkles may have been on the outside.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today in our movement of churches. Our younger members are not going to be content with just “doing church” in the way that many of the older generation are. They want to change the world. Our young men and young women want to change the world. They are trying hard to be appreciative of all that we older ones have done in the past and remain respectful toward us, but they are not talking very openly about what they are really feeling about our status quo. I feel for them and I’m concerned about where they are going to end up if we don’t get back to a mission aimed at changing the world far more than we are now changing it. I am loath to think that they may feel the necessity of leaving our fellowship as I left mine when I was young, but I know that some already have. Therefore, I am going to begin quoting more of the responses I receive from the those in Generations X, Y and Z. I am also going to begin publishing some of their own writing containing their honest-to-God beliefs and feelings that we need to hear and seriously consider. So, enough editorializing! I feel better – on that point at least!
A Disturbance in the Force!
I close with a great quote I just saw in a Facebook post by my dear friend, Steve Hiddleson. It strikes a great note for ending a potentially disturbing article!
“The kind of teaching that I have been giving has disturbed some people. I am not going to apologize at all, because, necessarily, if I have been traveling along thinking I am all right and there comes a man of God and tells me that there is yet much land to be possessed, it will disturb me. That is the preliminary twinge that comes to the soul that wants to know God. Whenever the Word of God hits us, it disturbs us. So don’t be disturbed by the disturbance. Remember that it is quite normal. God has to jar us loose.”
Watch for the next article! It’s a’coming soon!
After I wrote three books in early 2016, I felt somewhat in a vacuum afterwards because I didn’t have any other area to pursue about which I felt passionate. Through a series of events, I discovered one and that led me to start a blog on racial issues. While I don’t think we have much overt racism in our fellowship of churches, I do think that we have far more systemic racism in our midst then we are aware of. Recently another series of events led me to delve into a similar area, that of systemic sexism. I agreed to be a sounding board and adviser to one of my sisters in Christ who was researching the subject, which started the ball rolling for me. To be honest, I was a reluctant adviser at the outset, but in time I became motivated to do a lot of my own study of male/female role relationships in the church.
Then, the region evangelist in my home region of the Dallas church, Derik Vett, asked me to teach a special series of midweek lessons on topics that he felt we really needed. One of these was on relationships in the church, and after we talked about my new area of interest, he encouraged me to make that aspect of relationships a part of the lesson. I just taught it Wednesday night. On the day before, I was finishing up my outline, which I write in some detail since we are sending them out via email after the lessons are taught. It occurred to me that such a detailed outline would be fairly easy to format into article form, which I did over the next few days.
The segment in my oral presentation Wednesday night was not too long, although the outline provided was longer. The article is even longer by quite a bit. However, it is not an exhaustive study of the topic and certainly not intended to be the “last word” on it. But it is intended to prompt some reexamination of the subject, and I believe it will. A number of individuals and groups in our fellowship of churches are currently studying the topic with renewed interest because the need is pretty obvious to many. Some may not appreciate a deeper examination of our traditionally held positions and practices, but most will welcome it. With that as a backdrop, I invite you to read the article and encourage your friends to do the same. God bless!
The Need For Discussion
Much discussion about the woman’s role is taking place in most church groups today who are identified as biblically conservative. That is certainly true of the ICOC group of churches, although most of the present discussion is taking place among the membership (especially the younger people) rather than among the leaders. Thankfully, some leaders and groups of leaders are delving into the subject. Several aspects of the discussion are much more important issues than most imagine. Although it is not the purpose of this article to dig into these issues too deeply, and certainly not to present a position paper for others to follow, I do want to prompt more dialogue on a subject that I believe is highly important right now.
Its importance is based on the fact that it involves one of the most visible current trends in our society, especially in the United States. Our young people are more influenced by trends than we older folks are, and although trends often go against biblical teaching, sometimes they prompt needed examination and re-examination of traditionally held views and practices. In my firm opinion, this area fits into the latter category. I have been thus motivated to restudy some of my own viewpoints recently, but this isn’t my first time to dig back into the topic. Quite the contrary. I have studied the role of women in the Bible for many years, although I have never been able to tie up all of the loose ends of the topic in a way that fully satisfied me – yet.
Some years back, shortly after Douglas Jacoby wrote an article entitled, “Wine, Women and Song,” I presented a similar lesson in the Boston Garden to the whole Boston church, which was followed by a presentation by Kay McKean, the congregational women’s ministry leader at the time. Doug’s lesson addressed three topics: social drinking in moderation, women’s roles and the use of instrumental music in worship. Mine addressed only the women’s role and is posted on my teaching website (gordonferguson.org). This present article will show that I have progressed in my teaching and conclusions on the topic since that original article. Continuing learning usually means changing some of our thinking. One thing about which we should totally agree is that this is a difficult subject and as such, dogmatism should be eschewed firmly.
Fear and Trepidation or Excitement and Adventure?
When we enter a discussion of these roles, I do so with at least some sense of fear and trepidation. It is a historically controversial area, and without spiritual guidelines being fully in place, one that often produces more heat than light. For whatever reasons, emotions are more likely to get hooked in contemplating this subject than in talking about most other biblical subjects. Like all such discussions that may take us in directions other than our traditional viewpoints, we need to tread carefully and spiritually. We also need to enter the learning arena with a spirit of excitement and adventure. Learning and changing are essential for us imperfect humans.
We cannot let our traditions keep us from examining and re-examining the positions that we hold currently. In our movement of churches, it took a painful re-examination before women were allowed to baptize other women, serve as ushers, and do any sharing at all in public worship services. Are we willing to be as open to discovering truth now as we were then, or have we reached the stage expressed by this somewhat humorous comment: “We have the truth in a wee small box and we have the keys to all of the locks!” May God protect us from such a mindset!
I am aware that a study of this subject has historically caused initially strong reactions and I’m sure will again. However, when we are dealing with areas that seem to fit into the “disputable matters” category (Romans 14:1), dogmatism, emotionalism and refusal to engage in such discussions are simply not spiritual responses. Although this article has been reviewed and encouraged by other respected teachers, I am speaking for no one but myself, but speak I will. Advice and input are always welcome and appreciated, but reactions aimed at stifling open discussion of potentially controversial topics are just not spiritual reactions or acceptable reactions. That being said, you are certainly invited to give me your (spiritual) reactions to this article. My best email address for responses is firstname.lastname@example.org. Disagreements are fine as long as we can disagree without being disagreeable. Capisce?
Hermeneutics – An Inexact Science
In order to restudy this topic, we naturally enter into the sometimes-challenging world of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). One of the most challenging aspects of New Testament interpretation is in trying to separate what is being taught merely because of the cultural setting from what is being taught as transcendent, enduring principle.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, women are told to pray and prophesy only with their heads covered, which we generally take to be based on the culture of the day in Corinth. Going bareheaded in that time and location indicated that the women doing so were loose morally. However, in Genesis 38:15, it was quite the opposite – the prostitutes covered their heads and faces. A comparison of those two passages makes it pretty much mandatory to view this practice as a matter of custom that varied in time and location.
But what of other passages – like 1 Corinthians 14:35?
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 – “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
The word “silent” here means absolute silence, and if applied generally, women could not even sing. As always, contextual considerations are essential. The word “women” here could be translated as women or wives – and contextually it has to be wives because they had husbands! In the immediate context, prophets are being addressed, so the most likely interpretation is that the wives of the prophets were interrupting them. Hence, Paul in essence says, “Don’t do it – ask them later at home.” I would never spend much time explaining this passage, given how clear the context is for those who can get past their preconceived ideas.
However, here is a similar passage with a context that isn’t so easy to interpret culturally.
1 Timothy 2:11-15 – A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Paul does use an argument based on the beginning of mankind, but does that make it transcendent in application? Could it be that he is addressing only the need in this location and not setting forth a principle for all people in all places for all times? “Quietness and submission” was a stock phrase used for any student in ancient times. Rather than limiting women in some way, Paul appears to be granting them status as equal students/disciples. Such was certainly not the norm outside Christianity, nor had it been in Judaism prior to that. Verse 12 may be laying out a limitation in which he basically uses “teach” and “authority” in a technical, capital T and capital A sense. It’s almost, in the opinion of some, as if he is putting some hedges up and saying, “I’m talking about women elders or women running the show like they do up the street at the temple of Artemis.” No, they should not be elders, but rather be “quiet” – in first century vernacular like any other student where “quiet” seems to have equaled “learner.” This fits perfectly with the word translated “authority” (authentein), for it is only used this one time in the NT and its very etymology suggests a very harsh and controlling type of authority.
Consider verses 8-10 of this same chapter in this same type of cultural light:
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
Should this passage be interpreted to mean that only males should pray and that only women should be concerned about modesty and discreetness in dress? Or does it make more sense to conclude that what is addressed about men and women is based on their particular sinful tendencies in Ephesus (lack of modesty on the part of women and praying without unity on the part of men)? Surely we should conclude it is the latter option and not the former.
Similarly, in 1 Timothy 5:11-15, younger widows had specific spiritual challenges with which to deal and were advised to remarry. This principle ties in well with 1 Timothy 2:15 – the need to be content with being wives and mothers, for that was the cultural practice and expectation of women generally. Taking that verse literally would mean that only married mothers would be saved. Literalism seems very positive when trying to support concepts that we are tied to emotionally, but it is in many biblical contexts a horrendous way to interpret God’s Word. The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.
What Type Equality?
Oddly, many discussions of the male/female role relationships in the church don’t pay much attention to Galatians 3:26-28, but it is indeed a very key passage in trying to understand those relationships.
Galatians 3:26-28 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Three examples of relationship areas are listed: Jew/Gentile; slave/free; and male/female.
All three were given biblical guidance in the NT, using principles that would help regulate these relationships in light of the then current cultural setting. Slavery was not condemned but rather regulated in passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2. However, Paul’s mentions of slaves are often similar to Galatians 3:28 in that slaves and free are to be regarded as equals in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:21-23; 12:13; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:11).
Surely these passages prove that Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free and males and females are equal in value before God and must be considered equal in value by each other in Christ. It doesn’t matter what our ethnicity, social status or gender is, for we are all equal in value as fellow disciples. But let’s take it a step further. Did God intend that other distinctions in these three areas continue in functional ways?
I think we can quickly agree that ethnicity or race shouldn’t have any bearing on how we relate in Christ, since we are all a part of God’s family as his children. I think we can also agree that God didn’t want slavery to continue, but only tolerated it for a time because it was so ingrained in the culture outside of Christ that it couldn’t simply be obliterated quickly by divine edict. The principles of Christ did in fact eventually overcome this cultural sin in most of our world and eliminated slavery in a return to God’s ideal will.
The real question is how much of what is said about the “place of women” in Scripture is similar to what is said about slavery, in that the customs of culture were recognized and regulated until such time as God’s original principles could be once again recognized and accepted? If God intended distinctions between slave and free to end, could he have intended distinctions between males and females to end? If so, then roles in the home and in the church should be entirely gift-based and not gender-based. More on that point will come as we continue.
Arrow and Target – God’s Provisional and Ideal Wills
The difference between God’s provisional will and his ideal will must be understood. A very helpful illustration of how the two “wills” relate was given to me through Michael Burns, one of the best exegetical teachers in our movement of churches. It involves seeing God’s provisional will as an arrow in flight toward its target, and the target represents God’s ultimate goal, or ideal will. Anywhere along its flight path, the teaching will be provisional, but when it hits God’s intended target his ideal will is then achieved. The eventual elimination of polygamy and slavery provide us with two excellent examples of the arrow/target analogy.
We know that the teachings about Jews, Gentiles and slaves fell within God’s provisional will. We have already mentioned the regulations about slavery within that provisional will, and many passages could also be listed that regulated Jew and Gentile relationships in the church. The whole of Acts 15 addresses some of those regulations, as do Acts 21, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. In time, the cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles lessened considerably, as would be logical after the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
In fact, as the writer of Hebrews described the legal replacement of the old covenant (the Old Testament covenant) by the new covenant, he predicted the practical end of the old covenant observations of customs. Hebrews 8:13: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Prior to this time, Jews were welcome to follow Jewish customs as a matter of their culture as long as they didn’t bind those customs on Gentiles or view them as salvation issues. Based on the Hebrews 8 passage, I think God provided a transitionary period that lasted about forty years, from the establishment of the church to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
Oddly, we now have some modern-day Gentiles in the church wanting to practice these customs, which is rather astounding to me. The Jewish Christians of the first century tended to hold on to their customs almost as firmly as to Christ, so it was Christ PLUS. Now some Gentile Christians of our day are returning to Christ-plus thinking. Strange indeed are the whims of those “Torah pursuant” folks! You would think that the Book of Hebrews, written to help Jewish Christians avoid returning to Jewish practices in the first century, might be equally effective in helping modern Gentiles avoid customs that were never meant for any Gentile in any age, ancient or modern.
But back to our topic. If God intended for distinctions between slave and free, Jew and Gentile to end, why would that not have been the case with males and females? We certainly wouldn’t argue that God-given regulations for Jews, Gentiles and slaves in the NT meant that God intended those regulations to be in force in all places for all times, would we? If no, how can we argue that the similar regulations for females are to be in force in all places for all times? I know that imagining the possible implications of such possible conclusions is causing some of my readers to generate stomach acid and elevate blood pressure right now but hang in there and keep your mind open!
Back to the Beginning
This might be a good time to go back to the beginning of all male/female relationships, to the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 3:16-19 — “To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Was this description of the consequences of sin for both males and females intended to be prescriptive (what should happen) or merely descriptive (what would happen)? If prescriptive, consistency would make it wrong for women to try to reduce their pain in giving birth and wrong for men to try to make earning a living easier. The most pressing question is whether Adam and Eve were equal before sin, and if so, would salvation in Christ provide us a return to spiritual life in a “Garden” state with God and each other in fully restored relationships? Just how powerful was the cross, in other words? Did it fully cure the curse or just partially cure it? I think Ephesians 2:6 has something to contribute in this regard: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” But we still haven’t answered the question about Adam and Eve enjoying full equality prior to the Fall.
What about this passage – does it show that man is somehow superior to woman and thus to be her leader?
So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
For starters, it was obvious even to Adam that he needed help – indicating that he was not the complete package within himself. (Help the boy, Lord!) But does the term “suitable helper” (“help meet” in the KJV) indicate a role that is somehow inferior or subservient to the man? Since this word in Hebrew (“ezer”) is often used to describe God as our helper, it cannot possibly imply such. That may well have been the assumed implication in the minds of most folks for centuries, but it is not implied by the word itself.
My own life experience of 75 years would suggest that females are more spiritual inherently than males – superior in that way at least. We men need help, and but for our wives, would be more of a mess than we are! I call my wife an angel sent from God to help me get to heaven, because she is clearly more spiritually attuned than I and I genuinely don’t think I could have made it without her influence in my life.
And then you have the origination of man and woman, their source material. Does woman being made from a man’s rib make her inferior to man – who himself was made from dirt? As the quote from the old commentator, Matthew Henry, puts it: “Women were created from the rib of man to be beside him, not from his head to top him, nor from his feet to be trampled by him, but from under his arm to be protected by him, near to his heart to be loved by him.”
Equality is suggested in more than one way by this passage in Genesis 2. Marriage produces a unity of oneness, a virtual parallel to what Jesus prayed for in all of his followers and illustrated by his complete unity with the Father (John 17:20-21). Further, his teaching caused his enemies to say that he was making himself “equal” with the Father (John 10:33).
The man was incomplete, needing help and the woman provided this aid as his partner. Their mutual nakedness and all that goes with it in marriage, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, makes them totally equal in both sexual desires and responsibilities. The concept that wives are designed by God simply to meet the sexual needs of their husband’s supposedly stronger sex drive is a sexist viewpoint and not a biblical one. It certainly has never been the case in my own marriage – my historically strong sex drive (though diminished by old age) has been more than matched by that of my wife (still is)! This sexist view, in my opinion, has significantly affected in a negative way the full enjoyment of the sexual relationship in marriage for many women. After all, our most important sex organ is the one between our ears!
But isn’t man the protector of woman, as Matthew Henry’s quote puts it? Often, yes – especially physically, for the male is stronger physically, and in some other areas, perhaps also stronger emotionally (more fitted for battle as one example). That being said, the woman’s emotional capabilities often provide the protection of the male’s limitations and weaknesses emotionally. We males are sometimes thought to be a bit “clueless” in some areas, and probably for good reason! In general, we are not as in touch with our emotions or the emotions of others as females are. Small children with boo-boos go first to their mothers to be comforted, understandably. Bottom line, the male is incomplete without the woman and the woman is incomplete without the male – neither of which makes one superior or inferior to the other.
Are Roles Gender-Based or Gift-Based?
A question that must be addressed in our discussion is whether roles in the church are determined by the spiritual gifts we have or merely by our gender? The gifts of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are not described in any gender sense at all. I don’t see any reason to confine the gifts of leadership or teaching to men, or the gifts of encouragement and serving to women. Some years ago, our Teacher Service Team was comprised only of men. When we discussed the possibility of adding women teachers, I was one of the most vocal in supporting such additions and suggested Kay McKean as one of the first women thus recognized. Thankfully, she was asked to join as several others have been since.
Of course, the discussions at the time focused on women teaching other women, but does God allow women to also teach men? In our physical family settings, you know quite well that women teach men – their husbands, their grown sons and grandsons, their brothers, etc. What about in God’s family? Acts 2 highlighted a very vocal role for them quite clearly:
Acts 2:17-18 — “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
Peter quoted Joel 2, which predicted that women would prophesy, and prophesy they did, as 1 Corinthians 11 amply illustrates. Philip the evangelist had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Of course, we can insist that they only prophesied to other women if we want, but we cannot prove it biblically. It is only an assumption. Interestingly, in my study of Restoration history (composed of groups like the Church of Christ and Christian Churches), early leaders accepted the idea of women in the first century church prophesying to mixed groups of brothers and sisters but explained it in two different ways.
One approach was to say that such practices only applied in the miraculous age and the other approach stated that the same principles would apply in any age. In the latter instance, the accepted practices were far from the apparent accepted principles. Women were generally quite silent in most of those early restoration churches, with the exception of congregational singing. That being said, there are recorded instances of women being “exhorters” in church services, which is likely surprising to many of us coming out of that background. Comments of male leaders in those settings showed that they thought one’s gift-set and not gender should determine their role.
Does Pragmatic Evidence Have a Place?
Whatever you make of the passage in its entirety, experience has taught me some valuable lessons in my marriage. One, gifts are far more important than gender in determining function. If the wife has a gift of understanding finances and the husband does not, she had better quickly become the financial leader of the family. If the woman has a much stronger gift of discernment (emotional intelligence), she had better use that gift to help her husband learn how to relate to people generally and especially to his own children. We could give other examples of giftedness, but whoever in the marriage has the best gifts in any given area, they should be encouraged to use them. My wife and I recognize our strengths and weaknesses as individuals pretty well by now, and we are submissive to the leadership of the one with the stronger gifts. We have learned that leadership in the home cannot be determined simply by gender; it must be determined by strengths in any area, “gifts” to use a biblical term.
Two, leadership is a matter of both gifts and training. It takes time (along with some sparks) to determine giftedness, but training must help develop the practical use of the gifts. The goal is to maximize the use of our combined gifts, which results in an effective leadership team. When I first started teaching about leadership in marriage, I was more gender-based in my thinking than gift-based. That has decidedly changed over the years. In a later phase, I agreed that the husband shouldn’t make the big decisions singlehandedly, but in the event of a tie regarding smaller issues (smaller in his opinion, of course!), he should break the tie by just making the decision.
Now, we make decisions as a team and if we reach a stalemate on issues that we both agree are big ones, we ask someone else in to help us decide. When we reach stalemates on issues that we both agree are small ones, we each pick a number between 1 and 10 to indicate how important our choice is to us, and whoever has the higher number thus casts the deciding vote. We heard someone say that this is how they broke ties but decided to start practicing it when we were once arguing about a restaurant in which to eat. In the midst of our disagreement, it dawned on me that if we eat three times a day, that adds up to well over 1000 meals a year. So, just how important could any one of them be? I am not going to overpower my partner about any decision, nor she me. Pragmatism in many areas is just common sense involving practical applications of the Golden Rule and the intent to obey what Paul said in Philippians 2:3-4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Making changes as time passes can be evidence of losing convictions and otherwise drifting away from the Scriptures. But gradual changes can also reflect practical learning experiences under the providential leadership of God. Consider these two passages in that light:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
The first passage implies that in our following of God’s Word, truths (application of truths) dawn on us. We don’t see and understand them immediately and may never understand exactly how and why they work, but in time their effectiveness becomes clear. The second passage promises that God will continue to reveal the practical application of his truths and keep us on a maturing track if we will cooperate by doing our best with what we know in the meantime. In both cases, time is necessary to produce a better understanding of some things. Thus, an element of pragmatism is built into the Christian system by God himself.
We Have Already Accepted Pragmatism!
I find it interesting that we as a movement of churches have continued to adapt our practices both consciously and unconsciously. Women were hired to be “in the ministry” fairly early on but limited in other ways. A couple of decades ago, we discussed and accepted the concept of women baptizing women, women serving as ushers and passers of communion trays, and as sharers along with their husbands in giving communion talks.
Gradually we began to accept more public types of participation. Married couples taught together about marriage and parenting principles. We may have prefaced such team teaching with the statements that the women were addressing women, but the men didn’t insert earplugs when the women were teaching, and I was often as convicted and inspired by what the women taught as by the men’s teaching (sometimes more so). My wife and I have taught as a team on subjects beyond those of family, and I have heard others do the same.
On at least one occasion, I was assigned a class in a leadership conference where I co-taught with a woman not my wife, my good friend Linda Brumley in this case. Our topic was forgiveness and since she had just written a book on the subject, I suggested that she take the majority of the class time, which she did. Everyone in that audience seemed pretty comfortable with the approach, and I certainly was. I didn’t see one person, male or female, blocking their ears with their hands or walking out! Linda is a great teacher and she taught a great class. Of course, the question is whether we “drifted” into these changes or gradually adapted to the culture changes around us without violating scriptures. I believe it was the latter.
Although it took me some years to learn how a husband/wife relationship works best, some are faster learners than I. One young married disciple, a husband and father to daughters, had this to say after reading similar material of another writer.
First, it brought to the forefront my personal reflection on how being a dad of daughters and no sons affects my role in God’s kingdom. I’ve at times lamented the lesser influence I may have because the people I can most influence in this world are female. Some Old Testament narratives and earthly culture suggest the notion I have failed in some way by not having a son. It’s hard for me to separate from that notion, and I’ve felt that certain scriptures and how I’ve understood them only perpetuate it. I cry as I type this, tapping into this feeling that frankly I’ve suppressed unknowingly. If I feel less valuable because of this notion, I can only imagine how my daughters (wife, mothers, sisters, etc.) feel. The transcending gospel message rejects this notion, and I need to take that thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.
I commend this young man for coming to recognize and deal with his own form of subtle sexism, because it is hurtful to others and to ourselves. I only pray that my material helps some of those who read it to see their own hang-ups and biases more clearly.
Are Women Inferior to Men?
That’s a more relevant question than you might imagine. Charles Darwin wrote that women were definitely inferior to men, falling into his evolutionary chain about halfway between children and men. I was raised in a full-blown Southern chauvinistic cultural setting in which I often heard statements like this as I was growing up: “If you let women get in the middle of this, you are going to end up with a mess!” After all, a woman’s place was in the home minding her own business, a business which consisted of taking care of the children, cooking, washing and ironing, keeping the house in order and providing sex. Such thinking was blatant and easily identified, and it laid the foundation for what has now become systemic sexism or systemic chauvinism. As such, it is embedded in our cultural thinking in much more subtle ways – at least to males, although not nearly so subtle to females.
We wouldn’t succumb to such antiquated thinking in the church, right? Ask the women. Ask especially the women under 40. They will be happy to provide examples of how they feel marginalized. Our leadership groups are typically male dominated, especially when it comes to making decisions about the direction of the church. For years, I have pushed to have the wives of leaders in leadership meetings of all types. I began asking for such as a result of my own pragmatic nature. I don’t particularly like business type meetings but have spent thousands of hours in them. Often, after spending a considerable chunk of time in a meeting of men only, I would go home and tell Theresa about our wonderful decisions. She would frequently say something like this in response: “You decided what? Have you thought about this, this, this and that regarding the women?” Nuts! Now we had to go back into another meeting and reconsider what had already been decided by us brilliant males!
Encouraging the wives of leaders to be included in leadership groups is not the whole story. We have single women who have the gift of leadership who would provide great insights from their perspectives. We have women in other situations who have such gifts and are exercising them in the world but are not invited to do so in the church. Although I favor our normal approach of having married leaders serve together in leadership roles, that is not always possible. Some have the gift whereas their mates do not. Should the mate with the gift always be excluded because their mate’s gifts don’t coincide with theirs? And then we have another loose end hanging out on this subject. What about when a leader’s mate dies or is otherwise incapacitated – what then? The male may often stay in leadership but the female who loses her mate usually doesn’t. Where is the logic of that, and more importantly, where is the biblical foundation for such? If you can’t identify that customary practice of ours as pure tradition, please keep thinking about it. We have many aspects of male/female role relationships in the church with which to wrestle, do we not?
If over half the church is comprised of women, how can we make decisions about them without them having a voice? The movie title, “Dumb and Dumber” is pretty apropos in describing our modus operandi when we don’t have women in leadership groups consistently. That basic pragmatism put me on the track of trying to promote female inclusion in leadership meetings. Then in time, another type of pragmatism found its mark in my head and heart. Women are just flat-out smart, and often smart in ways that males are not.
In the mid-1990s, I was asked to head up a committee to develop a curriculum for our movement’s Children’s Ministry. How I ended up in that role is still a mystery, for although I was a recognized teacher in our churches, I had no experience with the children’s ministry. Thankfully, my wife had quite a bit of experience and quite a bit of interest in it. Knowing that the best leaders are those who seek assistance from others who are more qualified than they, beginning with the advice asking stage, I started putting together our Kingdom Kids Curriculum Committee. We ended up with some couples, giving us some males (who were really good in this field), but the majority of the group were females (who also really knew their stuff).
We spent hundreds of hours together over the next several years, and it was one of the highlights of my ministry career. I knew less than anybody in the group about what we were doing, but I was a pretty effective facilitator. However, near the end of the project, I hit my own wall, and persuaded Sheila Jones of Discipleship Publications (DPI) to take over my role. She very expertly brought the project to a conclusion. By the time we had a conference in Los Angeles to roll out the curriculum, any remnants of chauvinism that would make me question the abilities of women in any fashion, subtle or otherwise, were gone.
Of course, some males reading this may be thinking to themselves that if women are so talented, why are they not in more high-powered positions of leadership in the world? Ask a black person that question. They know the answer. From their perspective, they will say, “It’s a white man’s world,” meaning a white person’s world. But the black women know that it is also a white male’s world. The reason those of color know the answer is because they have to deal with the same question about why more people of color aren’t in those high-powered positions either. Bottom line, our systemic racism and systemic sexism produces in the majority a mistrust, however subtle it may be. These systemic issues are as real as raindrops in a hurricane, but often so incredibly subtle that only the ones affected realize their presence.
Going back to my early chauvinistic roots and the idea that women in the middle of things will somehow mess it up, I have a big question. As I look at the history of our male dominant leadership movement, do you really think that including women in much more prevalent ways could have messed up things more than we males did? (Yes, of course I include myself – I’m a male leader!) Our military style leadership put us in a place that a single letter in the early part of this century set off a timebomb that had been ticking for years. Although we have recovered pretty remarkably in some ways since that explosion, our growth rate as a whole has all but stalled out. So, I repeat: do you really think that including women in a much greater way in our leadership would have done worse than we males have done? I rest my case! (Smile…)
Systemic Issues Abound
For the past year and a half, I have been posting articles on my blogsite about racial issues (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). One of the biggest challenges I have faced is in helping white folks who are not conscious of having racial prejudices understand that they still have views and reactions coming out of the systemic racism ingrained into our American society. Calling anything systemic simply means that it so stamped in our psyche that we have it without being aware of it. In that sense it is somewhat like carrying a virus or having something embedded in our DNA string that may be unseen – until it becomes seen. Thus, we get “woke,” to use a common term in the racial discussion realm, and then see what we have been missing without having realized it prior.
Systemically present ills are not reserved for systemic racism. We also have systemic nationalism, systemic politicalism, and systemic sexism. The latter is what this article is addressing. It can be found in various aspects of systemic ageism as well – a topic we will address shortly. Here is how one sister helped me to see my chauvinism (which I very much appreciated, by the way). She quoted a section from my book on Romans as follows:
The differences here are in the realm of opinion, to be sure, but how can you tell if an area is an opinion area? Good question, but not an easy one. When good brothers [and sisters…I asked Gordon if I could add “and sisters,” while lovingly chiding him, “See what I mean?”] who love God and his word have consistent differences on a given subject, we had better guard ourselves from having dogmatic attitudes. To one, a given issue may seem quite clear, but the issue may be not at all clear to another. In such areas, abide by your own personal conscience, but avoid dogmatism.
Another evidence of systemic sexism in our churches is the very resistance of some males to the idea of women teaching about their own role as a woman. The resistance sometimes takes the form of suggesting that our sisters don’t have the formal training necessary to write about deeper doctrinal or academic subjects. However, we seem to recognize that the validity of one’s training doesn’t have to be tied inseparably to one’s time spent in an academically accredited institution of higher learning – at least in the case of males. I don’t recall Jesus or his apostles having such credentials, Paul being the exception, but I do recall both Jesus and his original Twelve being discredited for lack of same. Some of the most educated people I have ever known were self-educated or educated in ways other than in the ivy halls of academia. That’s about the only way that we have in years past encouraged our women leaders to be trained. Are you starting to understand what the term “systemic” means? I hope so, for we cannot change what we do not see.
Who Should Have a Voice?
Speaking of comments about the role of women in the home or church, most lessons (whether oral or written) are given by men and not women, at least in our movement. Does that not strike you as being a bit strange? Imagine an audience of blacks and whites in which only whites addressed racial issues? Honestly, that is too close to what we have practiced regarding the women’s role to leave me feeling comfortable. Our US Diversity Group is more black than white, and in a recent presentation to a group of leaders, a few of the presenters were white but most were black. In an upcoming leadership conference, two of our US presenters will likely be black (one male and one female) and the only white presenter is married to an African American. Isn’t it obvious that this should be the case? Then why in the name of common sense should it always be the role of men to examine and explain the role of women?
Ephesians 5 – Proof Positive?
Ephesians 5 is a passage that has received much attention in arguing for male leadership in the home. Verses 22-24 do say that the wife is to be submissive to her husband and that he is her head. But are the issues really as simple as that? Not to me, and I speak from the position of having taught male dominance in my early marriage and ministry, but I now speak from the position of having been married for 53 years. In those decades, I have learned quite a lot about leadership in the marriage relationship, many of those lessons coming from my own mistakes and stupidity.
Here are some considerations that should totally eliminate any idea that Ephesians 5 supports the husband being anything like the “boss” of the relationship. For starters, verse 21 states that we should “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission goes both ways in any form of true spiritual leadership. Then, verses 25-28 require that the husband love his wife in a Christ-like, sacrificial manner that helps her be holy – loving her as much as he loves himself. If you can get anything akin to “boss-man” out of that, you must have used a crowbar!
Also keep in mind that Jesus was using the marriage relationship to illustrate his relationship to the church, not vice-versa. Ephesians 5:32-33 – “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Then you have to ask the question of this passage that we have asked of others. Is this one based on the then-current cultural viewpoints (in which women were often viewed as possessions – much like slaves were), offering the best regulations possible for that era, or is what was said intended to be understood as containing transcendent, enduring principles? I’m not settled out one way or another on this one – yet.
Many arguments pro and con have been offered in answer to my question. Two things I am pretty sure of is that Jesus’ relationship to the apostles fits into the equation and my 53 years of marital experience also fits into it. Regarding the former, Jesus was the Master, as God in the flesh, but he led his relationships with the apostles in a clearly discernable direction. His example shows us that all roles and relationships in God’s family are designed to move toward deeper friendships, shared responsibilities and equality through common purposes.
What Jesus taught about leadership is essential to understanding all roles and relationships in the church. Leadership is essential and followership is equally essential – no organization of any type can flourish well without both. But do we really understand the difference between spiritual leadership and worldly leadership? Given the fact that our movement was led in many of its early years by a military style leader, that question must be asked and answered. Listen to Jesus:
Mark 10:42-45 — “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Broadly speaking, authority is of two basic types: position only authority (as in “I’m the boss around here!”) and influence authority. Influence authority can be divided into two parts also, that of knowledge (expertise) and relational influence. We go to the doctor and do just about anything they (I wrote “he” at first!) say, not because they have any positional authority over us at all, but because we trust their knowledge, training and experience. Outside of professional fields, we are more likely to trust the advice of a close friend than the advice of someone we just met at a bus stop.
In the church, authority should never be positional only, although sometimes positional authority is needed in combination with influence authority. For example, someone has to set our schedules for spiritual group activities, but even those decisions are best made by a leadership team rather than one individual. My books, “Golden Rule Leadership” (co-authored with Wyndham Shaw) and “Dynamic Leadership” give ample attention to team leadership principles.
In the church, authority in leadership is mainly influence authority and as such, moves toward those deepened relationships, shared responsibilities and equality as family members working together for shared purposes. Jesus modeled this kind of leadership perfectly. Note his words and actions in John 13 and John 15.
John 13:13 – “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.” (note that he said this right after washing the disciples’ feet)
John 15:15 – “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
No Stumbling Blocks Allowed!
If the cultural setting of the first century helped determine the role of women, should the cultural setting of the 21st century do the same? In other words, if some are disturbed by a re-examination of the women’s role and the idea of change in our practices, should not that cause us to back off of the subject and let well enough alone? While the answer to questions like this one may be “yes” at times, the answer is not a simple one.
Generational differences have to be considered, and how the younger generations view women’s roles is far different than how those of the older generations generally do. Holding on to traditions is another consideration, and it is a fact that those who tend to be traditionalists are the older ones who don’t see their traditionalism clearly, if at all. A related sad fact is that aging all too often (not always) ends up with those who were once new wine, breaking old wineskins, now having become old wineskins themselves – but they don’t see it.
Don’t suppose that the younger generations in our churches don’t see this clearly in us, and don’t suppose that it doesn’t present a real challenge to them! Those of us who have traveled a lot and are prone to ask probing questions of the younger generations will tell you the same things. Some of their peers are leaving the church, feeling that they don’t have a voice. Even those on the ministry staff often share similar feelings but are reluctant to voice their real concerns. They do seem comfortable voicing them to me, perhaps because they know I am gung-ho about changing anything personally that will help me be more like Jesus and that will help others do the same. They will also tell you that some young men and young women are refusing to become a part of our fellowship because they think we are out of touch, and the women’s role is one of the main issues behind their conclusions.
So the End Justifies the Means?
Some of you are thinking about now that I am suggesting that being open to changing our ideas and practices to attract more people to our churches justifies compromising the Scriptures. I have zero intention of changing the Bible’s teaching to fit our society, but I have every intention of changing our traditions to fit the Bible’s teaching. At present, I am teaching a five lesson midweek series in my home region in Dallas on “hot topics.” One is about relationships and includes some of what I have in this article regarding male/female role relationships. Another lesson is about alcohol, drugs (with marijuana being legalized in more and more places) and sex. What I will teach will be clear (and thus offensive) to some, particularly when using Romans 1 to address sex outside marriage and homosexuality. The final lesson will be about conversion, and yes, there will be water in the plan – taught strongly and unapologetically.
That being said, I am advocating what Paul said (and practiced) about adapting to save as many as possible, for that principle fits all generations, times and places.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
Adaptations to cultural changes should be calculated carefully and knee-jerk reactions avoided. We shouldn’t be the first to institute changes that might be disturbing to the older generations, but we certainly should not be the last. Above all, we should be open to reconsidering anything from a biblical perspective that might make us more relatable to those we are trying to win for Christ.
Yes, I know that this subject and this article are disturbing to some. And I know that through Paul, Jesus taught that we shouldn’t cause the weak to stumble (lose their faith). But both Jesus and Paul caused many to grumble (and the difference between the two is huge)! Traditions and truths may or may not coincide, and when they don’t, viewing them as though they do was strongly denounced by Jesus in his earthly ministry. Some of our traditions are based on Scripture and some are not. Some are helpful and some are not. Whatever else may be said, a continuing pursuit of truth is at the very heart of the definition of a disciple – a learner!
A Final Plea
As I said near the beginning of the article, when I enter a discussion of the male/female roles in the church, I do so with some sense of fear and trepidation. Therefore, I humbly request of you several things. One, please understand that my critiques of us all (me included) are aimed at helping us become more like Jesus and like Paul, who did all they could to relate to and influence the masses for God. I am a fellow sinner, in need of much patience and grace from both God and my spiritual family. Two, please understand that I am not offering this article as the final word on the subject. Far from it. This is a complex topic and a controversial one. I am just requesting that we take it out of the closet and expose it to the invigorating light of renewed biblical investigation. Three, please understand that we are a family and that we must view and treat each other as dearly loved family members. All members of any family do not always agree on everything that affects them. We simply must be able to disagree without becoming disagreeable.
For sure I’m not implying that anyone who holds a different position or conviction on this topic than I do is a chauvinist or an oppressor of women, but those elements can be present to an appreciable degree in the church without our even realizing it. I keep using the term “systemic” because it best describes having some sexist underpinnings in our thinking without being conscious of it. I’m talking about all of us males, including me. When I wrote the section about influence authority via expertise, I used the example of our near certainty to follow a doctor’s orders in spite of the fact that they have neither positional nor relational authority in our lives. When describing that example, I used the male pronoun four times without even thinking about it (until I re-read it). I just used it again in writing this very paragraph but caught it and changed it! And yet in the past year, I’ve been treated by several female doctors, one of whom I trusted enough to cut me open and do hernia repair surgery. Even though our unconscious sexism is absent of evil intent, we may still make our sisters feel disrespected and marginalized. Regardless of where our deeper studies about these roles lead us in practice (which will vary as it does already), we are still brothers and sisters trying to be the best kids to our Father and each other that we can be. So, let the digging deeper process begin. That is all I am pleading for here.
The best closing verse that came to my mind is the following one, and it encapsulates the elements of my final plea quite well. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). God, please be our “Ezer,” for we need much help as your feeble children! We know that you describe yourself as both mother and father at times, and we long for all of your loving care and guidance, especially when our spirituality might be tested!
I was exposed to the now popular futurist teaching as a young person and accepted it as being true for many years. I did not know an alternative was available, and being biblically ignorant, saw no reason to question what I was taught. However, I did not like the impact it had on the leaders who taught it. They often seemed to be caught up in it to the point that they lost perspective of the average person’s needs for practical help in trying to live a spiritual life in a pagan society. They were more intrigued by trying to figure out dates and events of the end times than about how the world could be evangelized for Christ. My present opinion is that people have become materialistic to the point that they cannot envision anything good apart from this earth, including heaven! Also, the futurist teaching appeals to the emotions because of its “mysterious” elements, and many people are looking for mystical fancy rather than biblical fact.
The modern “end-times” prophets obviously focus much on their interpretation of biblical prophecy in both Old and New Testaments. Some groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have set many dates for the return of Christ, and once these dates had passed, they spiritualized the “return” in some way in order to save face. The apocalyptic style of the Book of Revelation has especially been twisted it into some bizarre doctrines. For example, the JWs interpret the 144,000 of Revelation 7 and 14 as being literally descriptive of an exact number of highly spiritual people who will go to heaven (which, by their own admission, does not include most of the Witnesses!). All of the end-times folks also take the “1000 year reign” mentioned in Revelation 20 as being literal, and assume much about that passage that is not even mentioned there – such as Christ being the one reigning. I will include more on numerology later on in the article.
The idea that Christ will reign on earth as a physical king is a widespread belief that crosses nearly all denominational lines. Not all groups believe exactly the same things about it, but the general outline they all accept. This system of interpretation, usually called “premillennialism,” was once rejected by many religious groups who have now come to accept it. The reasons for the current acceptance of the doctrine are not biblical ones, as we shall show. The doctrine of premillennialism, briefly stated, is the view that Christ will come back to earth at some future point and reign for a literal thousand years. A large segment who hold this view believe that, seven years before this return, the righteous will experience a rapture (catching up) from the earth while those left on earth will experience a great tribulation. The concept of such an earthly reign supposedly finds its foundation in Revelation 20:1-10. But in approaching this or other difficult passages, several fundamental rules of interpretation need to be kept in mind.
- Truth does not contradict itself. If two verses seem to do so, there is either a misunderstanding of one of the verses, or possibly both of them.
- Doctrine cannot be based on difficult passages without due consideration of less difficult passages on the same subject. To establish a theory on symbolic passages forces you to completely ignore literal passages which contradict it, and also forces you to apply figurative interpretation to obviously literal Scriptures.
- One does not have to know exactly what a difficult passage means in order to know what it does not mean. For example, a person could be unsure of the exact interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29, but at the same time, be absolutely sure that it does not teach proxy baptism for the physically dead. Too many plain passages render that explanation impossible. In a similar way, one could be somewhat uncertain of the precise meaning of some of the symbolism in Revelation, while rejecting the doctrine of premillennialism itself.
When I began to study the Bible in depth on premillennialism, I soon saw the vast inconsistencies in the teaching. I have read many writings on all sides of the issue, and have no doubt that my earlier indoctrination in premillennialism was not correct. Exciting it was, but accurate it was not! This view removes the book from its original setting of Christians being persecuted and killed in the early centuries of the church. What comfort would a “twenty-first century newspaper” type of prophecy bring to people being killed for their faith? Such an approach is filled with distortions of Scripture and fanciful interpretations cooked with a “dash” of Ezekiel, a “shake” of Daniel, “scoops” of Revelation and “pinches” from other New Testament books. In spite of its popularity, the view has little to commend it from a biblical perspective and many reasons to reject it.
Important Principles in Interpreting Revelation
To begin, God would not include a book in his word that could not be understood. To do so would be contrary to the very purpose of Scripture (Ephesians 3:2–5). Revelation, properly viewed, is an incredible book of impact. Because of its style and content, it is often called the “grand finale” of the Bible. Revelation’s literary structure, beautiful imagery, majestic visions, mysterious symbols and dramatic presentation of eternal truths make this book distinctive from all other books of the Bible.
“Revelation” is the English translation of the Greek word apokalupsis, meaning “to reveal or uncover that which has been hidden.” Revelation is classified as “apocalyptic” literature by scholars. Such literature was popular for about 200 years before Christ and for about 100 years after him. It has the following characteristics:
- It addresses those undergoing some form of persecution.
- It addresses the reader in the nuances and style of the language and time period in which it is written.
- It is dramatic and highly symbolic (expressed in visions and symbols).
- It is sometimes predictive, although the basic message is focused
The book of Revelation is similar to parts of Old Testament prophetic books such as Ezekiel and Daniel. In fact, much of Revelation cannot be understood without a basic knowledge of the Old Testament and its phraseology. But this relationship should not cause us to think that Revelation is the fulfillment of OT prophecy. Rather, it uses a similar style to describe the ultimate downfall of heathen nations and the exaltation of God’s kingdom. Similar symbols may be used in the OT books, but they are describing very different events – events separated by hundreds of years.
Apocalyptic language is used to create a dramatic effect. It appeals to the imagination more than the intellect. In times of persecution, those who are suffering need inspiration from hearing about God’s conclusive triumph over evil far more than academic pronouncements of doctrine. With this in mind, understanding symbolic language is much like understanding parables – get the main points and avoid over-analyzing the details. If more commentary writers and theologians followed this approach, sensationalistic interpretations would be greatly reduced, thus limiting the abounding confusion about Revelation.
No book in the Bible has resulted in more contradictory interpretations than the book of Revelation. It is likely that more false ideologies have arisen from a misunderstanding of this book than from any other portion of the Scriptures. In studying such a book, we would be better off to first consider what it does not teach rather than what it does teach! One rule must be remembered when studying any book in the Bible, namely that an easily understood passage must not be explained by a difficult or symbolic passage. We must let the “easy” passage interpret the “difficult” one. Therefore, Revelation should be studied in close harmony with the rest of the Scriptures.
The Use of Numbers in Revelation
I will use a section of my book, Prepared To Answer, that addressed the prophetic teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to clarify how numbers are to be viewed as symbolic and not literal. Most of the images in Revelation are also to be viewed as symbolic, since that is the very nature of the book. The explanation of numerology regarding the teachings of the JW’s will then help us understand Revelation 20 better.
To the Jewish mind, numerology was very important. Many numbers had well-defined meanings, and they conveyed spiritual lessons. For example, the number “1” carried the idea of unity. Think of the series of “ones” in Ephesians 4:4-6. The number “2” carried the idea of strengthening. Jesus sent out his early preachers two by two. Revelation 11:3 mentions God’s two witnesses. Then, the number “3” was the divine number (Father, Son and Spirit). Next, “4” was the cosmic or world number. In Revelation 7:1, you find four angels, four corners of the earth and the four winds of heaven.
Combine the divine number and the world number and you get “7,” the number of perfection. Thus, in Revelation 4:5, the seven spirits most likely refer to the Holy Spirit in his perfection. The number “6” was an evil, sinister number because it fell short of the perfect number. In America, many of our hotels do not designate a 13th floor. In that Jewish setting, they would not have had a designated sixth floor. The “666” of Revelation 13:18 carries with it the idea of evil and failure. The next significant number was “10,” which signified completeness (all fingers or all toes). You find this number often in the Revelation. A multiple of that number would be 1,000, denoting ultimate completeness. The 1,000 years in Revelation 20 show this kind of completeness, as a look at the references mentioned earlier will demonstrate.
The number of organized religion was “12,” calling to mind the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In Revelation 7, the twelve tribes are connected to John’s mention of the 144,000. If you take the organized religion number, multiply it by itself, and then multiply it by 1,000, the number of ultimate completeness, you come up with 144,000. Therefore, if you understood the way that numbers were used symbolically, you would expect this number to signify the ultimate number of a religious group. And we will see that this is precisely what is being done in Revelation 7. Finally, the other key number in Revelation is “3 1/2,” found as three-and-a-half years, forty-two months, 1,260 days, and from Daniel, a time, times and a half a time. This number, in whatever form, symbolized the period of persecution itself, an unstable time, but one with an end to it.
What about the 144,000?
With this explanation in mind, let’s look at the passages in Revelation 7:4-8 and 14:1-5. A careful consideration of how they are misapplied by the JW’s will help us see the fallacy of trying to make numbers (or other symbols) literal.
 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000,
 from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,
 from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000,
 from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000 (Revelation 7:4-8).
 Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.  And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps.  And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.  These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.  No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless (Revelation 14:1-5).
In chapter 7, the 144,000 are used to represent the church during the time of persecution. Earlier in this chapter, all of them were “sealed,” showing God’s protection of them. See Ezekiel 9:4 for this usage. Since the persecutors were often Jews, or were aided by Jews, it should be obvious that the twelve tribes were not literally the twelve tribes of the Jews. The ones being sealed, or being guaranteed God’s protection, were the Christians, those who were now a part of the new Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). When you look closely at the listing of these tribes, it becomes even more obvious that the list has been “spiritualized.” For example, the fourth tribe (Judah) is mentioned first, because that was the tribe out of which Jesus came (Genesis 49:10).
Also, we find Levi in the list, although that tribe was not normally listed, because they did not inherit a land area in the OT. But, since all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9), Levi here is to be identified with spiritual Israel, the church. Furthermore, Dan and Ephraim were excluded from the list, because Dan and Bethel (in Ephraim) were centers of calf worship under King Jeroboam. Therefore, they were excluded here. Finally, Joseph’s name is added, even though, in the OT, his sons were the tribes listed and not Joseph himself. But to the Bible reader, this name has only good connotations.
After the 144,000 are thus described in chapter 7, the next section (verses 9-17) goes on to talk about a great multitude that no one could count. This great multitude was composed of those who “have come out of the great tribulation” and are now before the throne of God (verses 14-15). Therefore, the 144,000 showed the church on earth during the persecution, and the symbolism taught that God knew every one of them and would protect them spiritually, even if they had to die physically. Therefore, the great multitude did not need to be counted, because they had passed from time to eternity. The lesson of the chapter was that God would be with them and ultimately get them to heaven.
In Revelation 14, we simply find a description of Christians, the 144,000 (all of the redeemed). They were not defiled with women (literally, virgins), showing spiritual purity (2 Corinthians 11:2) as opposed to spiritual adultery through idol worship (Jeremiah 3:6; James 4:4). They followed the Lamb by keeping his words (John 10:4-5). They were purchased by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28). As such, they were the first-fruits to God. Just as the first of all physical harvests was to be set apart for God (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), Christians are likewise set apart for the service of God (James 1:18). No lie was found in their mouths, but lying was one of the chief characteristics of pagan Rome and emperor worshippers (see Revelation 21:8).
Now, once we understand biblically who the 144,000 actually are, what should we say about the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation? Simply this: if they insist on making the 144,000 a literal number, then you insist on making their description literal. When you do that, the 144,000 would have to all be Jewish (from the twelve tribes), and they would have to be male virgins (had not defiled themselves with women). No Witness would agree to those things, but if the passage is to be taken literally, these points would have to be accepted, because the wording itself is quite clear.
What About Revelation 20?
The actual examination of Revelation 20 reveals some important facts: first, the text does not mention a number of things that people assume are taught there. The second coming of Christ is not mentioned. Christ is not mentioned as being on earth. No mention is made of anyone reigning on earth. A bodily resurrection is not mentioned; and finally, no one living in modern times is mentioned in connection with this 1,000 year reign. The persecuted of the early church are the ones who sit on thrones and reign with Christ. How can a passage which mentions none of these things be said to teach all of them?
Second, this passage is full of figurative symbolic language. If we insist on making the 1,000 years literal, why are not the key to the abyss, the great chain, the beast, etc. also literal? Actually, the Book of Revelation employs apocalyptic language, as it portrays (by means of symbols) the victory of God’s persecuted people over the Roman Empire. This type of writing was well understood in its day, although it may well be unfamiliar and strange to people today. The book dramatizes the victory of good over evil to bring hope to the persecuted saints of the first century. If the book really taught what many people advocate, it would have been of scarce comfort to those in the early church who were dying for their faith!
Now to a brief explanation of the passage: the binding of Satan (verse 2) was to stop him from deceiving the nations (verse 3). The text does not suggest that he would be tied in such a way as to be totally inactive (1 Peter 5:8). The nations as a whole had been deceived into emperor worship (see chapter 13:11-18), but the binding of Satan would limit this blasphemy for a thousand years (symbolic of a long period – see Deuteronomy 7:9; Job 9:3; Psalm 50:10, 90:4).
In verses 4-6, the persecuted Christians in the early church are promised a victory. Their cause looked as if it had been defeated, but here God assures them that Christianity would be vindicated. Their cause would be raised from the dust of defeat into a resurrection of victory. The souls under the altar (6:9) are now elevated to thrones as their cry has been heard and answered. See Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Isaiah 26:13-19 for the idea of a resurrection of a cause in victory. Revelation 20:5 calls this the “first resurrection” to avoid confusion with the general bodily resurrection at the end of time (1 Corinthians 15).
“The rest of the dead” in the first part of verse 5 (which is a parenthetical statement) are the non-Christians, the persecutors. Their cause lies in defeat for a long time-period (1,000 years symbolizes this period), but it will briefly arise at some future date (verses 7-10). Fortunately, this renewed deception of the nations is short lived, as Christ brings his judgment upon the wicked (verses 9-15).
Although this explanation seems logical to me, I claim no infallibility in my interpretation. The passage is a difficult one, and dogmatism is not urged in such cases. However, in spite of how Revelation 20 is to be explained in its various details, it assuredly does not teach the doctrine of premillennialism.
The Reign of Christ
The premillennialists claim that Jesus will not begin his reign until the time of his return (second coming). He will then reign on a literal throne in a literal Jerusalem for a literal one thousand years. When this concept is examined in light of Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah and its New Testament fulfillment, the idea is shown to be false. Zechariah 6:12-13 is one of the key passages disproving the validity of premillennialism. For clarity, we will quote from the more literal New American Standard Bible (NASB):
Then say to him, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Behold, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the LORD.
Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the LORD, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.’”
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus built his church, and that his church is God’s temple (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:11, 16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22). Now look back at the Zechariah passage in light of the church being the temple of God.
Christ would sit on his throne (Zechariah 6:13), and Acts 2:1, 32-35 says that he began occupying that throne on the Day of Pentecost when the church was established. He was to be a priest on his throne (Zechariah 6:13), and he is a priest now (Hebrews 4:14). This Branch was to rule on his throne while sitting (Zechariah 6:13), and he began sitting on this throne nearly two thousand years ago (Acts 2:32-35). Therefore, he is ruling on his throne now. Since he was said to be a priest on his throne, and he is a priest in heaven (Hebrews 4:14), his throne must be in heaven. In fact, he cannot be priest on earth, for Hebrews 8:4 says, “If he were on earth, he would not be a priest.” Therefore, his throne cannot be on earth.
Psalm 110:1, 4 also speaks of Christ ruling as a priest. In this case, his rule will last until his enemies are conquered. In 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 the Bible says, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Therefore, Jesus is reigning now and will continue to do so until the resurrection of the dead, at which point he will cease to reign over the Messianic kingdom as heaven begins. This truth is exactly opposite to what the premillennial doctrine teaches. They say he will begin reigning at his return, and Paul says he will cease! It should be mentioned that as a part of Deity, he reigns over heaven and all of its subjects, which includes all of the redeemed from all ages.
It should be obvious that Jesus is reigning in his spiritual kingdom now. In his earthly ministry he claimed that the kingdom was near, with a fulfillment of prophecy in mind (Daniel 2:44; Mark 1:15; Hebrews 12:28). This kingdom would come in the lifetime of some of the apostles and it would come with power (Mark 9:1). Power came when the Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). Therefore, the kingdom of the prophesied New Covenant was established on the day of Pentecost (although it was present in its preparatory phase when the King himself was present during his earthly ministry). After this time, the kingdom is spoken of as a present reality (Colossians 1:13; 4:11; Revelation 1:6). Furthermore, the kingdom is inseparably connected with the church in Matthew 16:18-19. Any future view of the kingdom is of necessity referring to the heavenly state after the church has been delivered up to the Father by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The Place of the Nation of Israel
The common “end time” prophets typically place a good deal of emphasis on the role of the present nation of Israel. However, such an emphasis can easily be shown to be mistaken. One of the first questions needing an answer is this: Will there be a restoration of Israel in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy? The answer is negative, for several reasons.
- Christ is already on David’s throne (Acts 2:30-33).
- The tent of David has been rebuilt (Acts 15:14-17). The saving of the Gentiles is in fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12, according to James, the Lord’s brother. The argument in Acts 15 is clearly that the tent was to be rebuilt before the Gentiles were to “seek the Lord.” Therefore, either the tent here is spiritual in nature (the church), or Gentiles are yet in their sins and the Great Commission is nullified!
- God’s promises to Israel concerning the land inheritance have all been fulfilled (Joshua 23:14). Notice that the boundaries God specified to Abraham in Genesis 15:18 were reached by the time 1 Kings 4:21 and 2 Chronicles 9:26 were written.
- God said, through Jeremiah, that Israel could not be made whole again (Jeremiah 19:11).
- Jesus promised that the kingdom would be taken away from the Jews (Matthew 21:33-43).
- The last state of the Jews would be worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45).
- God’s special people are spiritual Jews (Christians) and not physical ones (Romans 2:28-29; 9:6; Galatians 3:26-29; Philippians 3:3). Philippians 3:2-3 could not state the point any more directly nor bluntly, as Paul contrasts the physical and spiritual “Jews”: “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”
But What About Romans 11:25-26?
Does it not clearly state, “And so all Israel will be saved?” The larger context of the passage begins back in Romans 11:11. After establishing the fact that most physical Jews had always rejected God, Paul moves on to show how God intended to use even their wrong choices (Romans 11:11-24). Israel’s wrong choices and subsequent rejection has ended up being a blessing to the Gentiles. They had Jesus crucified, making salvation available. They drove Christians out of Jerusalem, which resulted in the Gentiles being able to hear the gospel. They rejected the message in each city to which the early missionaries preached, after which they preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). However, if the Jew’s rejection of the gospel ended up blessing the world, then how much more their acceptance would do for the world (Romans 11:15)!
Next, Paul expresses hope that the Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom will provoke the Jews to envy, causing them to reconsider the message of Christ (Romans 11:13-14). This section concludes with a warning to the Gentiles not to be prideful and self-righteous. They had not been a part of the olive root (Judaism) in the first place; they had been merely grafted in by the grace of God. The Jews had been cut off because of their faithless rejection of Christ, but they can be grafted back in again if they turn to Jesus in faith. The means of how they might be motivated to respond in this way is discussed in the remainder of the chapter (Romans 11:25-36).
Israel’s hardening is stated to be only “in part” until the “full number” of Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:25). Since it is partial, it has the possibility of being reversed. The key to a reversal is the coming in of the “full number of Gentiles.” Paul likely was referring to the completion of his own ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), resulting in more and more Gentiles in the church all over the world. In Romans 15:24, we find that his missionary plans were far from completion, for he planned to go all the way to Spain. Once this larger Gentile inclusion had occurred, all Israel could be saved in the sense being discussed in this context.
The word “so” in Romans 11:26 is from the Greek houtos, an adverb of manner, meaning “in this way.” “In this way” refers back to the envy-provoking process mentioned in Romans 11:13-14. (Paul refers to the same idea again in Romans 11:31). Therefore, when the Jews saw the growing number of Gentiles in the church of Jesus Christ, and the blessings from God that they were enjoying, those with good hearts would be envious enough to humble out and reconsider. In this way, they would be saved. The “all Israel” refers to those whose hearts would allow them to become humble and reconsider. It could not refer to every last Israelite coming to Christ at some future point – for a number of reasons.
For one thing, the “narrow road” will never be chosen by a majority from any nation, race, or population group (Matthew 7:13-14). This was true of the Jews even during their heyday, as the early part of Romans 11 establishes forcefully. Two, Paul had already expressed his hope that some would turn to Christ by being provoked to envy (Romans 11:14). Three, even if some future generation of Jews in the majority were to accept Christ, what comfort would that be to the scores of generations that had already died lost? Centuries have passed in which millions of Jews have rejected Christ and been lost as a result.
The key idea of “all Israel” being saved is that of hopeful potential, much like Jesus expressed: “I…will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added) and “By this all men will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35, emphasis added). Note that the quote in Romans 11:26-27 refers to salvation in Christ, which became available at the cross and will continue to be available to anyone who will accept the gospel in faith. The only plan of salvation that God has and will have to the end of time is this plan, which must be accepted individually! (See Acts 4:8-12.) He still loves the rejecting Jews and desires to save them, for his promises made to the patriarchs still stand. But his salvation can be based on nothing less than the blood of Christ accepted by bowing our hearts and knees to his lordship.
The Second Coming of Christ
Our next consideration involves the second coming of Christ. When he comes, there will be only one bodily resurrection of the dead as good and bad are raised simultaneously to be judged (John 5:28-29). All nations will be gathered for this great day (Matthew 25:31-34). Note that this is a judgment of every person within all nations, not a judgment of entire nations as nations, as some premillennialists claim. (Compare the wording of 25:32 with Matthew 28:19 in this regard.)
As stated in the first chapter of this book, there simply cannot be two separate bodily resurrections. If the righteous are raised on the “last day” (John 6:40), and the unrighteous are judged on the “last day” (John 12:48), both must occur at the time. We must allow the last day to really be the last day! When the last trumpet sounds, the dead are raised and the living are changed – in the twinkling of an eye, no less (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). If the wicked are raised a thousand years later, they will not be awakened by the last trumpet, for it will have already sounded! When it does sound, the physical universe will be destroyed (2 Peter 3:10-12; Revelation 21:1). Note that the OT passages that speak of the earth remaining “forever” mean only that it is “age-lasting.” Ordinances such as circumcision and the Levitical priesthood with its sacrifices are also called “everlasting,” but they are simply age-lasting (which in that case was the Mosaic Age.) See in chapter 13 of my book, Prepared To Answer, the related discussion under the heading, “The Sabbath, a Perpetual Covenant?”
Even the “proof text” for the premillennialist view of the rapture falls far short of actually teaching it:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, emphasis added)
What about the passage would make anyone look for a rapture of the righteous to heaven for seven years, followed by a return to earth for a thousand years? The explanation seems simple enough – we will go to be with the Lord forever, rather than him coming to be with us on the earth. The futurists want him to come and be with them on our little planet, but Jesus wants his children to be with him in his amazing heaven.
Does It Really Matter How We View the End-Times?
A final consideration might be a look at the real dangers of the premillennial view. Surely no one would argue that salvation is based on a perfect understanding of biblical prophecy! However, accepting the premillennial theories has some serious implications.
- Premillennial theory denies that Christ is reigning now, and therefore denies God’s eternal purpose in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11).
- It contradicts every passage that speaks of this present period as the last days (Acts 2:15-17; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 Peter 1:20).
- It makes Jesus false to his promises when he said that the kingdom was near (Mark 1:15).
- It alternates between Judaism and Christianity by reviving the OT sacrificial system during the thousand-year reign. However, that old covenant Jesus nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15).
- It demotes Christ from the throne of his majesty to the earth, his footstool (Psalm 110:1).
- It denies that Amos 9:11–12 is fulfilled and thus denies salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 15:14-17).
- It is the same mistake that the first century Jews made by expecting an earthly kingdom that was political in nature.
Paul said in Philippians 1:23 that he wanted to go be with the Lord, but the premillennialists in essence say, “Lord, you come be with us; we like it here.” Jesus makes it plain in John 14:1-3 that eternal rewards have absolutely nothing to do with this earth:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”`
NEW NOTE: 25 years ago, I wrote the following article about the women’s role, which I delivered in oral form for the Boston Church of Christ and later included as an appendix of my first full-length book, “Prepared to Answer.” The contents of this article marked a definite progression in my own thinking and teaching about the subject at the time. I have purposely left this article on this website as an illustration of my own willingness to continue studying challenging topics and to change my mind when convinced that my former views were incomplete and/or incorrect. While some might compare the older article to my current teaching in some sort of negative way, the comparison is actually quite a positive thing, demonstrating my own willingness to do what I am asking others to now do.
NOTE: This article was originally written long before the newest version of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible was published. I have substituted the 2011 version for the older version that this appendix originally contained. It is actually more accurate than the older one, although this is not always true in other passages. I have also slightly edited a few other things in the article, but very few.
I Timothy 2:8-15
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
As we examine this passage, the first thing that stands out is a focus on spirituality. Men were to be holy, without hot tempers and disagreeable attitudes (verse 8). Women were to be modest in dress, adorned by good deeds (verse 8—see also 1 Peter 3:1-6 for similar admonitions). Were these commands intended to be mutually exclusive? That is, were only men allowed to pray in any type of assembly? The word for “men” here is not the one denoting mankind, from anthropos, but a reference to males, from aner. If we take the affirmative, then were only women to dress modestly and to practice good deeds? How could you bind one as law and not the other?
Women did apparently pray in mixed groups, according to Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. We will look at the latter passage in detail later in this chapter. Clearly men were to be the leaders in public services, but that would not necessarily rule out women praying in some type of format (such as a group prayer). Keep in mind that the focus of these directives was on the spirituality of the men and women in the Corinth church and their characteristic areas of need. The men needed to be harmonious in their relationships with one another, and the women needed to be modest in their dress and demeanor.
Next, we see a focus on leadership. The teaching here is not based simply on the culture of that day, for Paul goes back to the creation story to make his point (verses 13-15). The women is to show “full submission” (verse 11), which is a leadership issue that does not in any way demean women. It has nothing to do with value, intelligence or spiritual capacity. Submission is a necessary ingredient of life in many areas, but it demonstrates strength and not weakness!
She is to learn in “quietness” (verse 11). The Greek word is not the one for “silence,” as translated in some versions and even in verse 12 in the older NIV. The NIV2011 gets it right. The word for “silence” is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34, as we will see later. Actually, quietness is the correct translation of hesukia, and it refers to demeanor rather than sound! In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, the same Greek word is translated as “quiet life” in this phrase: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business…” In 2 Thessalonians 3:12, it is rendered “settle down” in this sentence: “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” Then, in 1 Timothy 2:2, it reads: “…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It should be clear that being quiet is a matter of character and behavior, not of audibility.
In verse 12, the women are forbidden to teach a man in a public setting in a manner which gives her authority over him. She can do some teaching in more private settings (with a submissive spirit, of course), for Priscilla had a part in teaching the eloquent Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). The real issue is having authority over a man, and in my judgment, she has the freedom to do many things without assuming authority. A wife has the freedom to do many things without assuming the authority of her husband. Why would the role of women in the church be different in principle from the husband/wife relationship?
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
To those with the more restrictive view of the woman’s role, this passage seems to be proof positive of their position. Of course, the charismatics think that this chapter is also proof positive of their position on the use of miraculous spiritual gifts. But looking at passages without a consideration of their context produces all sorts of erroneous conclusions. Therefore, let’s look at this text in its context.
Note that women were to be “in submission as the law says.” The law here is likely a reference to the last part of Genesis 3:16, which reads: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This desire for her husband is a negative in the context, perhaps a reference to her desire for his position. Compare the use of the word “desire” in Genesis 4:7. At any rate, the submission enjoined in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is enforced with a reference to the Law, the Old Testament.
But just what did the Law allow generally in the case of women? Actually, it allowed a good deal more than the casual observer might think. It allowed Deborah to be a judge, and to lead in battle (Judges 4:4-10). On the latter point, was her leadership allowed only because no man was willing to lead? Probably, but she exercised this leadership in a team situation with Barak, and I am confident it was done with a submissive demeanor! The Law also allowed Huldah to be a prophetess whose advice was sought by male leaders in 2 Kings 22:11-20. It allowed Anna to be a prophetess also, as seen in Luke 2:36-38. Whatever else may be said, the Law did not rule out women leadership, even very prominent leadership. Therefore, it would be risky to make too broad of an application from this passage!
In verse 34, absolute silence with no speaking at all was being demanded. Both the context and the meaning of the Greek word make this idea clear. The word is sigao, and its other usage will demonstrate the point. In Acts 12:17, the same word is translated “quiet,” but the context shows what it means: “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison…” Then, in Acts 15:12, it says “silent”: “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”
This command is found in an overall context of orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Our word for “silence” is found three times in this section, and in each case it means absolute silence without any speaking at all. In verses 26-28, those speaking in tongues were told that no more than three could speak at any assembly, one at a time, if an interpreter were present to interpret. If no interpreter was present, the tongue speaker was told to “keep quiet” in the church (from the word sigao, absolute silence). In verses 29-33, the prophets were told that no more than three prophets could speak at any one assembly, one at a time, and when the next to speak was given a revelation, the one speaking “should stop.” (Again, this is the root word sigao—no speaking at this point.) Finally, in verses 34-35, the women were to “remain silent” in the churches (also from the root word sigao).
If this command were taken literally, with no attempt to determine the context, women would be forbidden to make any sounds at a public assembly. Of course, no one would interpret it in such an extreme way, but the reasoning is normally something like this: “Well, it cannot mean that the women are forbidden even to sing.” Why not, if we insist on taking the passage at face value, with no real attempt to determine the meaning in its context?! The word sigao means exactly that silence. It should be obvious that I do not take the traditional restrictive view, but what is the meaning of this directive in its context? Some questions raised and answered will be helpful in discovering the meaning.
One, who were the women being discussed? They were women who were disrupting orderly worship, acting disgracefully, and not in submission. (Surely all the women present were not guilty of such behavior!) They were married women who could ask questions of their own husbands at home. From looking at 1 Corinthians 7, we know that there was quite a contingent of singles in the church at Corinth. However, only the married women are given the directive in chapter 14. At this point, many people will say “other women are included too.” Of course, they have the liberty to say it, but we should keep in mind that it is their opinion and nothing more. God certainly appears to be addressing women with husbands! The word translated “women” is the Greek term gune, which can be translated either women or wives, depending on the context. This context seems clearly to be directed at wives, and not women generally. Further, these women appear to be a specific group of wives, the wives of the prophets and perhaps of the tongue speakers as well.
Two, what was their wrongful speaking? They were asking questions of their husbands (who were speaking), and thereby interrupting the assembly. In this contextual situation, it was disgraceful to speak in the church. However, to apply the passage more generally would be assumptive, and it would demand absolute silence on the part of women in assemblies if we stuck with the meaning of sigao. Unless the context is taken into consideration, you would have to forbid women even to sing! Therefore, 1 Corinthians 14 is dealing with a specialized situation which has little to do with the role of women generally (except to teach them not to disrupt services by asking questions).
It is tempting for those who want to reach their foregone conclusions without dealing with the context to take a very simplistic view, such as “See, it plainly says that women must remain silent in the churches, and we need to simply accept that statement for what it says!” Those who take that approach often claim that an explanation like the one used in this present article is explaining away the clear and obvious truth.
However, they themselves are accused of the same thing by the Pentecostals even within this same chapter! The Pentecostals quote verse 39, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Then they say that all of the explanation about why people do not speak in tongues today is simply a dodge of the obvious truth! The point is simply this: just because a doctrine must be explained contextually and in some detail does not make it wrong! Simplistic explanations of involved issues may sound good, but the conclusions thus reached may also be quite erroneous! Many examples of simplistic explanations which are quite wrong can be cited, including such false teachings as salvation by faith only, the literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, and many, many others.
1 Corinthians 11:3-16
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
In contrast to 1 Timothy 2, this passage has much to do with the issue of customs in the first century in the city of Corinth. At this time in Corinth, the wearing of a veil signified that the woman was an upright person, but the absence of a veil demonstrated the very opposite. Immoral women went without veils. Evidently, some Christian women were appealing to their elevation in Christ (Galatians 3:28) as an excuse for dismissing this customary dress for women. This connotation of the veil, or the lack of a veil, was a matter of custom at that time in that place, because back in Genesis 38:14-15, Tamar wore a veil, which apparently was the custom of prostitutes, since she was posing as one. Obviously, customs change with time.
What is the veil under discussion? The word for “cover” is from the Greek katakalupto, designating a woman’s artificial covering. The word for “covering” in verse 15 is another Greek word, peribolaion, which refers to the hair as a natural covering. If you tried, as some have, to make the covering of the earlier verses the same as this one, then only bald-headed men could have prayed or prophesied, according to verse 4! Paul’s point in verse 4 is that it is no more appropriate for a woman to refuse to wear her customary attire than for a man to wear a woman’s garment (not that the men were really doing that). He states that if the women were going to discard the veil, then they might as well cut their hair (like the prostitutes) or even shave their heads (like the women accused of adultery).
What about the angels of verse 10? Although the question has little relevance to our discussion, it is a matter of curiosity. One good possibility is that the angels are good ones, who serve Christians (Hebrews 1:14). They would be offended, as would God himself, by the sisters’ rejection of their veils, which were a “sign of authority.” Another possibility is that these angels are bad ones, who lost their lofty positions with God because they did not stay in their submissive roles (Jude 6). If that interpretation is the one intended by Paul, the sisters had better learn from the angel’s example of disobedience!
Thus far, what are the lessons for us in our setting? One, men and women are different by design, and this difference is not to be denied either by dress or appearance. In verses 14-15, the issue seems not really the length of the hair, but the blurring of the sexes. That is always wrong, no matter what the specific customs may be. Two, custom is not to be discarded if the discarding hurts the influence of Christians with those whom they are trying to evangelize. If all prostitutes wore red dresses today, then Christian women should not wear them.
The most relevant issue in this text for our study involves the praying and prophesying of the women. In what context were they doing these things? If you were to take 1 Corinthians 14 out of its context, as many do, you would be forced to assign 1 Corinthians 11 to a setting where only women were present. Difficulties are readily apparent with such an assumption. For one thing, 1 Corinthians normally places the use of these particular spiritual gifts in a context of corporate worship (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28; 14:3-4). For another thing, the passage speaks of both men and women praying and prophesying. By what principle of interpretation can you limit one and not the other? The principle of assumption? Finally, why would women praying and prophesying need a “sign of authority” on their heads if the authorities to whom they were to show submission were not even present? Surely women did not have to wear veils with other women in a private setting.
I have no problem in assuming that their practice was based on the presence of supernatural gifts in the church and that women are no longer divinely directed to preach to a mixed audience (especially in view of 1 Timothy 2). But this passage strongly militates against the highly restrictive interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 which would prohibit the sharing of a personal testimony. She cannot teach men the Bible in a public setting, thus taking an authoritative role, but sharing with a submissive demeanor is another matter, and I think a permissible one.
Several other areas of judgment about how to apply the principles of the woman’s role need to be briefly addressed before closing this appendix. Can women serve as ushers and distribute communion to the assembly? It seem clear that such actions are issues of serving, not of exercising authority, unless a woman were the appointed leader in one of these functions and had to assume leadership over men. Our practice is mainly to use non-leader brothers for serving communion, as a way to encourage them as good disciples of Jesus. To use women for the same reason is an excellent practice. The lead usher should be a man, but women can surely serve as ushers.
Is it permissible for women to participate with men in chain prayers in devotional settings? As long as a man is in charge of the overall session, giving the instructions regarding procedure, then the women would not be in a leadership position. If they can comment in a Bible class setting with men and women present, then they can direct their comments to God in the presence of brothers and sisters. If men never hear women comment or pray, they are missing some very special spiritual encouragement.
How about women baptizing other women—is that permissible? For some reason, this question stirs up a lot of emotions for some people when they first hear of this practice. But the reaction rises from an emotional concern more than from a Biblical concern. Matthew 28:19-20 commands disciples to make other disciples, baptize them, and to train them after baptism. In the past, women have been able to do only two of the three things mentioned here. Why? Tradition! We have always said that any disciple can baptize, in contrast to the denominational practice of allowing only the clergy to baptize. But what we evidently meant is that any male disciple can baptize! It is time we followed our own statements. The Bible is totally silent on the subject, which allows us some freedom to choose. The practice does not necessarily give a woman authority, but even if it did, the authority would be over another woman. Can a woman baptize a man? Since the act can bond us in a special way, as seen in 1 Corinthians 1:14ff, it might not be an expedient practice. If men are present when women are baptizing women, a brother should be in charge of the overall activity. This will eliminate misunderstandings. But the practice of women baptizing those with whom they have studied is a very good one indeed!
Most Bible readers assume that Apollos was re-baptized as a part of being taught the way of God more adequately by Priscilla and Aquila. Let’s begin by reading the end of Acts 18 and the beginning of Acts 19.
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 18:24-28)
1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1-5)
In spite of the normal assumptions, much discussion has occurred about whether Apollos was in fact baptized at this point. The text does not say so, nor does it say anything more generally that would necessarily imply it. A related question is whether the apostles or even the 120 in Acts 1 and Acts 2 were re-baptized. If they had come into a saved relationship during the ministry of Christ (and they had – John 15:3), then his dying would not have made them become unsaved. John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), called in Acts 19:4 a “baptism of repentance” which had to be followed by belief in Jesus. Since the Israelites were born into a covenant relationship with God, the forgiveness through John’s baptism was not the forgiveness of initial salvation, but rather the forgiveness of repentance for those in the covenant, much like prayers on the part of Christians accomplish today (1 John 1:9).
My opinion is that those who had experienced John’s baptism before Christ died and maintained faith in him were not re-baptized. I don’t think the 3,000 baptized on the Day of Pentecost included the apostles. If the principle is true that those receiving John’s baptism before the cross and remained faithful would not need a re-baptism, then Apollos would not have needed another baptism. However, John’s baptism would have been invalid if experienced after the cross, for it was superseded by Great Commission baptism, and that was likely the case of those described in Acts 19:1-5. The probable scenario is that Apollos was baptized with John’s baptism before the cross, but then taught and baptized the dozen men in Ephesus with John’s baptism after the cross, which was no longer valid. Hence, Paul re-baptized them with the baptism of the Great Commission. The whole issue is mostly a moot point, for it cannot be applied in any way to those living today. Even if John’s baptism remained valid for men who were baptized before the cross and who maintained faith in Jesus, no such person is alive today! Therefore, while such discussions may be interesting, they tend to produce more heat than light, and have no direct application today. However, in the interest of honest inquiry, I am glad to provide the answer that seems to me most likely correct.
Like many readers of Facebook, I have tired of reading about politics long after the last election was held. Each of us has a right to our political views and preferences, and each of has the choice to vote or not vote as American citizens. We are never going to agree on politics, and the history of politics in this country is ample proof of that. I have lived in or through 16 different presidents in office. As a country, we tend to vote one party in for two terms and then the other party for two terms. That says that as a nation we are not convinced that either of the main parties has the solutions to our problems.
As disciples of Christ, our focus must be on his kingdom over all other kingdoms. But since I live in the kingdom of America, I have a type of dual citizenship and some responsibilities and opportunities within each. In the United States, I have the responsibility to pay taxes, but no opportunity to avoid them legally. I have the opportunity to vote, but not the responsibility before God. It is a choice. If I choose to vote, I have to make a choice which party to vote for.
For starters, let me shock some of you by saying that I didn’t vote in the last election. Some are disturbed by that, but disturbed for different reasons. Some are disturbed because they assume that I would have voted for their candidate of choice. But what if I had voted for the other party? Then you would now be less disturbed that I didn’t vote! Others are Americanized to the point that they feel like I’m just not a good citizen of the US or I would have voted. Although I obviously disagree, at least I see your disturbance as being based on principle alone.
I’m not disturbed by those who voted for either party nor by those who did not vote. You have the right to do either, and I respect your rights. Please respect mine in this instance. My main concern is always going to be a matter of my primary focus as a disciple. I simply cannot become overly focused on the things of this world and please God. Stated more bluntly, I cannot become overly focused on the things of this world and be saved. This is a serious matter. We could make quite a long list of things in this life that can become too much of a focus, and it would include far more than politics. But it would include politics. Read the following passages and contemplate what they are saying to us:
1 John 2:15-17
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
2 Timothy 2:3-4
3 Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.
1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
If our main focus is on the kingdom of heaven, and not on human kingdoms, how do we react to man’s kingdoms as citizens of them? The Bible makes that point quite clear as well.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
1 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
1 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
1 Peter 2:13-17:
13 Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority 14 or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15 For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. 16 As God’s slaves, ⌊live⌋ as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor.
In spite of all of these passages, Facebook is replete with those who claim to be Christians continuing to register their strong support or strong dislike of the party now in office, and especially the president of that party (and thus of our nation). I have, as many others have, selected the option to no longer follow those on my friends list who are consumed by politics. I still consider them friends and I love them, but I am concerned for them and will no longer subject myself to reading material that I don’t believe to be appropriate for disciples.
Sooner or later, we all have to decide whether we are going to allow our thinking and feelings to be governed by our emotions and human logic or by the Bible. Regarding the latter, even among those who claim to believe it and accept it as authority, the lack of really knowing its contents shows up all too often, especially when mixed with strong emotionally based opinions. Like it or not, everything that goes on in your life and mine, and in our world, falls into one of two categories. Either God allows something to take place or he directly causes it. We humans cannot know for sure if God’s active agency is involved or his inactive (yet allowed) agency in any given situation. But whatever the case, he is still in control. Many passages can be used to show this principle. Here are but a few among multitudes:
Lamentations 3:37-38: Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?
Daniel 2:21: He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.
Daniel 4:17: The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.
When Nero was the Emperor of Rome, and both Paul and Peter were destined to be executed by his government, they still wrote that he should be obeyed. You may choose to reject what the Bible says and accept your human wisdom, but I am not about to do that. I may not like a lot of things that God allows, but since he is God, that is his business and not mine. Either God works all things together for spiritual good in the lives of those who love him or he doesn’t (Romans 8:28). Either he can or he cannot – and if the latter, the Lord of lords and King of kings is in that case subject to the power of human beings. That latter thought is perfectly ludicrous, but we each must decide if God is God and ultimately in control or not. I’m fully decided.
A couple of additional biblical thoughts may prove helpful. When Jesus started his ministry, his ability to do miracles astounded the Jews. They hated the Roman government and believed it to be totally godless and should be taken out of power at all costs. Their early reaction to Jesus wasn’t surprising. John 6:14-15: “When the people saw the sign He had done, they said, “This really is the Prophet who was to come into the world!” 15 Therefore, when Jesus knew that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain by Himself.” Jesus had a different agenda than trying to straighten out the kingdoms of the world, as he made clear. John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.”
Jesus spent his life, death, and all time since trying to get people to focus on the kingdom that lasts forever, his spiritual kingdom where our real citizenship must be as disciples. We can feel as the Jews did, that the prevailing government should be put out to pasture. The term “impeach” is being bandied about repeatedly. If God decides that our current president should come out, do we believe that He is capable of getting that done? If God has allowed him to be in there for a reason, do we really think we can do what we think should happen no matter what God is doing in the whole situation?
As a young preacher, I heard a popular older preacher say that if God didn’t punish America for her sins, he was going to owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah! I picked up on that and have repeated it through several decades, and during the whole time, our nation has been in increasingly moral decay. What if God has decided that enough is enough with the downward spiral of our nation’s sins and is going to use the current setting to deal with it? (A scary thought for us all!)
We have nearly lost all touch with the morality of the Bible in this country. The Nazis destroyed six million Jews over a half century ago and we are still talking about it. In the US, about one million babies are being killed in their mother’s wombs every year, and it is so accepted that few even discuss it anymore. Or do we no longer believe what Psalm 139:13-16 clearly says: “For it was You who created my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, and I know ⌊this⌋ very well. 15 My bones were not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all ⌊my⌋ days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began.”
We could add many statistics to this one regarding the true state of sinful America, but the point is that we do not know what God is doing right not and we won’t know until it’s done. In the meantime, I suggest that we focus on the kingdom in which our true citizenship lies (Philippians 3:21), and let God run the world, our part of the world included. For those of us in the ICOC, we have prided ourselves in following the Bible as a whole and not picking and choosing what parts we would accept while rejecting the rest. But when it comes to the subject of politics, is this not exactly what we are doing? Honestly, I wish it was the only area in which we were doing this, but that’s another sermon for another day. Please, please, please deal honestly with the passages in this one article for now!