Chapter Three: The Role of Women in the Church and Family: The Issue of Biblical Hermeneutics

Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice
by Robert K. Johnston

Chapter Three: The Role of Women in the Church and Family: The Issue of Biblical Hermeneutics

It is almost impossible for the interested individual to keep abreast of the burgeoning discussion among evangelicals on women's place in the church and Christian family. Stirred by the steady stream of feminist literature which has caused a revolution in Western society, and prodded by the more liberal wing of the church which opened up the discussion on the ordination of women twenty or more years ago, contemporary evangelicals have become increasingly interested in reevaluating the role of women.*

*Books such as Marabel Morgan's The Total Woman, Virginia Mollenkott's Women, Men, and the Bible, Helen Andelin's Fascinating Womanhood. Don Williams's The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church. Larry Christenson's The Christian Family. Gladys Hunt's Ms Means Myself. Paul Jewett's Man as Male and Female, Letha Scanzoni's and Nancy Hardesty's All We're Meant to Be, Elisabeth Elliot's Let Me Be a Woman, and George W. Knight's The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women have taken varying positions and have been widely read and debated in evangelical circles.1 Bill Gothard, through his Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, has offered teaching on the subject of women's rightful place to thousands, as have Francis Schaeffer, Howard Hendricks, and Tim LaHaye. Evangelical periodicals such as The Other Side (July-August 1973), Right On (September 1975), Post American (August-September 1974), Theology. News and Notes (June 1975), and The Wittenburg Door (August-September 1975) have devoted whole issues to the topic of women2 Other journals like Christianity Today. Moody Monthly, Logos, The Reformed Journal, Eternity, Vanguard, and Sojourners have published repeated articles on the issue3 Daughters of Sarah has come into being to provide for evangelical women who believe Christianity and feminism are inseparable4


As the discussion has proceeded among evangelicals, sides have been drawn.5 One faction is represented by supporters of the Evangelical Women's Caucus like Nancy Hardesty, Lucille Sider Dayton, and Virginia Mollenkott. The other, by such otherwise disparate individuals as George Knight, Elisabeth Elliot, and Larry Christenson. The one side argues that a Christian woman in today's society should be ordained to ministry if she possesses the gifts and has the training. It also holds that wives should join their husbands in egalitarian relationships characterized by mutual love and submission. The other side argues that a female in today's "liberated" society is still a "woman" and as such should fit into God's ordained and orderly creation, fulfilling her role of submission and dependence in church and family without impatience on the one hand or servitude on the other.

From the earliest days of the current discussion, it has been recognized that the question regarding the role of women within the congregation and the family is largely a matter of Biblical interpretation. Krister Stendahl gave voice to this in his important essay The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics written in 1958.6 Donald Dayton expressed a similar position in his article in the Post American: "the real question-at least for most Christians [is]: Which of these views (the hierarchical or the egalitarian -- or perhaps a synthesis of the two) has the clearer grounding in scripture?"7

Use of the Bible as the source of authority in the debate has brought mixed approaches and results. Feminists have tended to emphasize the broader affirmations of the gospel which stress oneness in Christ. Traditionalists have usually centered on specific passages of advice in Scripture such as Ephesians 5:22 ("Wives, be subject to your husbands") and 1 Timothy 2:12 ("I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent"). Feminists have turned first to the Gospels and Acts; traditionalists to the epistles. Given such differences in approach, it is not surprising that in regard to the interpretation of specific Biblical texts, contradictory opinions have arisen at almost every conceivable place. Does man's "headship" as referred to by Paul relate to his rank in "authority" or to his role as "provider" and "source"? Is Paul's use of Genesis in his discussion of woman's place illustrative or foundational? Is the curse in Genesis 3:16 descriptive or prescriptive?*

*Such questioning seems endless once begun. Is the Biblical picture normative (with .its male predominance), or are there deeper principles implicit in the texture of the Biblical fabric which make male authority a cultural, and thus relative, affair? Is the first-century life-style prepared or happenstance as it correlates with revelation, or perhaps some of each? Is it significant that Jesus was a male and appointed only, male disciples? What is the significance of Jesus' "revolutionary" attitude and actions toward women? Does "subordination" imply inferiority? Is the order of creation normative or has it been superseded by the fact of redemption? Can the Trinity serve as a model of submissiveness within a context of equality? Does the fact that woman was made for man imply a hierarchy? Is the use of the masculine gender for .4 still significant for us today? Was the advice by Paul concerning women meant to be applied universally or was it a response to a localized need? Is it important that women in the Old Testament were prophets, but never priests? What is the meaning of words like authentein (I Tim. 2:12) and exousia (1 Cor. 11:10)?

Are the arguments Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11 meant to pertain to all men and women or only to the husband-wife relationship? Does Galatians 3:28 refer to a woman's "spiritual privilege" of being saved, or does it refer to her position and activity in the church and Christian family as well? Are women more easily led astray than men .

(1 Pet. 3:7)? Does the fact that man was created first, according to Genesis, matter? When Paul speaks about women, is he referring to all women or only to wives (remembering that women in those days married young)? Do all the details of Paul's advice to women apply equally today? If not, how do you decide what is normative? Such questions are basic to understanding a Biblical position regarding women in the church and family and are answered variously by each side in the debate.


Both sides have grounded their positions in Scripture, but because of differing understandings of the text, they have reached opposite conclusions

The issue of women's place in the church and family provides us another illustration of the general problem facing the evangelical church in America today. That is, how can evangelicals maintain their theoretical paradigm of Biblical authority while subscribing to contradictory positions on a variety of significant theological issues? What is at stake in the discussion of women is more than the surface issue, important as that is. What is being challenged by the continuing debate is the nature and efficacy of Biblical authority itself.

If evangelicals are to move beyond their current impasse, a clarification concerning their method of understanding Scripture must be made. For behind the apparent differences in approach and opinion regarding the women's issue are opposing principles for interpreting Scripture -- I. e., different hermeneutics. Here is the real issue facing evangelical theology as it seeks to answer the women's question.

In order that readers can appreciate this fact, I will do three things in this chapter. First, I will present further descriptions of the contrasting positions -- the egalitarian and the traditionalist. In doing this, I will state as fairly as possible composite views of the arguments of major representatives of each approach. With this as background, I will then discuss certain assumptions in Biblical interpretation currently surfacing in evangelical circles. Finally, I will offer suggestions for an adequate hermeneutic together with indications of its helpfulness in the discussion of women's role in the church and family. The issue of women's rightful role can prove instructive for the theological task of the church more generally, particularly as it focuses the issue of Biblical authority at the point of an adequate method of Biblical interpretation

An Egalitarian Position

What is the nature of woman? Genesis 1:26, 27 recounts how God made man as male and female in his image. Man and woman were to be a fellowship of equals like the fellowship within the Godhead (I. e., the Trinity) and were given joint responsibilities (Gen. 1:28). The second creation narrative (Gen. 2:18-23) reinforces this basic point, portraying woman as being from God like man, as well as one with him, I. e., flesh of his flesh. With the fall, the subordination of woman to man becomes a reality, the first example of exploitation in human relationships. Now Adam names his wife "Eve" (Gen. 3:20), and God describes her future relation with Adam as one of authority and submission (Gen. 3:16). This "curse" is not applied to all women, but is sheathed in the context of husband-wife relationships. Moreover, it is clear that in Christ there is a new creation, superseding the conditions of the fall:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Gal. 3:28] ]

Through faith by grace, the equality of male and female in human relationships is restored (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

This new creation was demonstrated in Jesus' life, as he broke with the existing hierarchical structuring of male-female relationships and treated women as equals (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 11:27-28; 13:10-17; 21:1-4; Mark 5:22-42; 16:9; John 8:3-11; 12:1-8). Within the church, similarly, women, like men, were early converts and the description of the first-century church suggests that women were engaged in significant ministry within it (1 Cor. 11:2-16; Rom. 16:1-16; Col. 4:15; Acts 2:17-21; 5:14; 8:12; 9:1-2, 36-42; 12:12; 16:12-I5, 40; 17.4.34; 18:2-3, 24-28; 21:9; Phil. 4:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:11;.5:1-16; 2 Tim. 1:5; Tit. 2:3). Moreover, the New Testament teaches that every Christian, is to grow into maturity in Christ and to exercise fully the gifts she or he has been given. No sexual distinction is hinted at (2 Tim. 1:6-7; =aRom. 12:6-8; 1 Pet. 4:10; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; Matt. 25:14-30).

Those passages in Scripture which seem to speak against this fundamental position of equality between men and women (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; Eph. 5:21-33; 1 Pet. 3:1-7) must be understood as follows:

1. Our existing translations are often biased against women (e. g., in 1 Tim. 2:11, "in silence" [KJV] should rather be translated "quietly" [NEB]) or archaic (e. g., in Gen. 2:18 a "help meet for him" [KJV] does not mean a subordinate "helpmate").

2. Although the fact that man and woman are to be partners in fellowship was largely overlooked in patriarchal Israel, there was even there a depatriarchalizing tendency (cf. Song of Solomon; Exod. 20:12 and Deut. 5:16: "Honor thy father and thy mother" [KJV]; Judg. 4-6). This is continued in the New Testament (Gal. 3:28).

3. Christians shared the cultural attitudes of the first century regarding the position of women in a manner analogous to their attitude toward slavery (cf. Eph. 5:21-6:9 where Paul expresses the reciprocity of marriage in terms acceptable to the Ephesians' cultural attitudes and the obligation of slaves and masters in a similar manner).

4. In Scripture, the understanding and application of revelation is a historical process (cf. Mark 10:3-5). We recognize this in relation to Christianity's influence on the emancipation of slaves. We must similarly apply this recognition to the issue of women's rightful role today.

5. Paul's letters are addressed to specific people with special problems which called for particular responses which were correct for that situation but must often be translated into underlying general principles if they are to be applicable to us today (e. g., 1 Cor. 14:33-40 probably refers to uneducated married women disrupting the order of worship by asking questions; 1 Tim. 2:8-15 may be a response to immature women believers teaching heresy in the church).

6. Paul's advice regarding women in the church must be correlated with his description of what women actually did in the early church (see above for references).

7. We must beware of reading twentieth-century nuances into first-century advice (e. g., "head" in 1 Cor. 11:3 is probably not meant to designate a hierarchy but to suggest woman's "source" or "origin" as portrayed in Gen. 2).

8. Those who want to interpret Scripture "literalistic ally" must be consistent in their approach. Yet few, if any, literalists are willing to do this, for they recognize that this is to treat Scripture anachronistically. (Cf. John 13:14; 1 Tim. 2:12; 5:23; and 1 Pet. 3:3. In these texts, Christians are commanded to wash one another's feet; women are prohibited from teaching men; wine is recommended as an aid to digestion; and women are told not to braid their hair or wear jewelry.)

A Traditionalist’s Position

In discussing the role of women in marriage and worship, we must begin by looking at where the Bible speaks specifically to the issue, not just at passages with more general import. Regarding women in ordained ministry, there are three such didactic passages which apply to the situation (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33b-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). These texts prohibit the church from allowing a woman to hold a teaching/ruling office Moreover, the passages transcend cultural relativity for they-are grounded in reasons always germane to man and woman: God's eternal order and purposes for men and women as reflected in creation, as well as the fall of Adam and Eve (1 Tim. 2:13-14; 1 Cor. 11:7-10; 14:34). In Ephesians 5:22-33 Paul argues for a hierarchical relationship within the family, basing his insight once again on the fact of a universal creation-ordering, one of headship and subjection. Peter similarly argues for the wife's submission to her husband, basing his advice on the Old Testament paradigm of Sarah. There is no hint that the hierarchical structuring of marriage is to be considered only an interim solution (1 Pet. 3:1-7).

As for those passages which suggest that women can publicly pray and prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5; Acts 2:17-21), it must be observed that these acts of worship are distinct from authoritative speaking, teaching, and ruling and are therefore to be allowed. Similarly, women may be involved in diaconal tasks and non-authoritative teaching functions outside the worship context (Rom. 16:1; Tit. 2:3-4; Acts 18:26; 1 Tim. 3:11; 5:9-10).

Using as a guide these passages which deal explicitly with the question of women's rightful place, it is possible to avoid making erroneous deductions from other passages in Scripture which deal with more general concerns related to women. Galatians 3:28 has become almost foundational to the cause of feminism, because egalitarians have not followed this principle. If they would, they would recognize that the key to understanding this verse is "in Christ." Although there is spiritual unity and equality "in Christ" (I. e., coram Deo), among mankind in the church and society there remains a necessary structuring of male and female relationships. This is symbolized by Paul's injunction concerning uncovered and covered heads (I Cor. 11). An analogous situation to woman's voluntary limitation of Christian freedom for the sake of order and stability is Paul's advice to refrain in some situations from eating meat (1 Cor. 8:13; cf. 9:19). Receipt of Christ's full inheritance must await the second coming. The temporal order (our life in the world) is not yet synonymous with the baptismal order (our life in Christ). Woman's interim position of subjection does not imply inferiority, however. One has only to compare it with Christ's voluntary submission to, yet equality with, God the Father.

There are other considerations worth mentioning:

1. No one in present-day evangelicalism took feminism seriously until it became a dominant theme in our secular, humanistic culture.

2. Certainly males predominate in Scripture. The exceptions only prove the rule. Furthermore, Jesus chose only men as his disciples and therefore as the leaders of his church. To argue for a Biblically based "feminism" is inconsistent with the entire posture of Scripture.

3. Culture is not happenstance, but prepared by God. Israel with its patriarchal system was peculiarly designed by God as his vehicle of divine truth. Moreover, in "the fullness of time" the gospel came. Thus, Christianity holds that Biblical patterns are significant and normative. They reflect the mystery of the divine order. To man is confided the task of ruling; to woman the task of serving

4. The symbolism of the relationship of God to his people (Hosea) and of Christ to his church (Eph. 5) demands a male officeholder in the church and a male authority in the home. Only in this way is divine authority, dominion, and supremacy adequately portrayed. We are not free to tamper with the Biblical imagery without losing some of the mystery.

5. The virgin Mary exemplifies the ideal woman in her voluntary submission and response to the will of God.

6. The principles of obedience, submission, and authority are clear in both the Old and New Testament. The teaching regarding a hierarchy in male and female relationships is only one aspect of a larger and necessary ordering of all reality that extends into the Godhead itself ©£ Christ's obedience and submission to the Father and the Holy Spirit's subordination to the Son). In the created order, this hierarchical structure provides each level of being its proper responsibility and privileges -- archangels, angels, men, women, children, animals, etc.

Hermeneutical Assumptions Presently Surfacing

As these egalitarian and traditionalist positions have been argued, implicit hermeneutical procedures have been used by adherents in both camps. Whenever people read the Bible (or any other piece of literature for that matter), they make use of certain underlying interpretive principles -- I. e., hermeneutical procedures. Often this interpretive framework remains unclarified, but it is always present. In the case of the current debate among evangelicals over woman's place in the church and marriage, however, the challenge of conflicting viewpoints has brought what otherwise might have remained implicit methods of interpretation to light. Moreover, problems within evangelical hermeneutics have become apparent in two areas: (1) the issue of "culture," and (2) the tendency toward inconsistency. Why these issues are of particular concern is that procedures of interpretation presently in use threaten to undermine the full authority of the Biblical record -- a cardinal tenet of evangelicalism as we have already observed.

1. The Issue of "Culture"

In current discussions on women's place in the church and family there is the tendency among egalitarians to take a dualistic approach to Scripture, isolating the time-bound from the universal, the human from the divine, the rabbinic from the Christian. There is among the traditionalists a parallel tendency, that of spiritualizing Scripture by treating it ahistorically. Rather than viewing Scripture as being timebound, it is now understood as timeless truth. The dualist stumbles over the Bible's humanness; the spiritualizer, over Scripture's "supernatural" nature. The former seems overcome by Scripture's timerelatedness; the latter seeks to deny this time-relatedness any real significance. Neither approaches Scripture as at one and the same time fully and completely God's-Word-as-human-words. Both seem unwilling to give themselves over to a fresh round of exacting, detailed research, for they are convinced already that God's Word or the human words are clear.


a. A Dualistic Approach

Virginia Mollenkott states concerning Paul's advice to women: "My training as a literary critic simply will not permit me to indulge in interpretations which depend on evidence which is not yet available." Those who want to deny that Paul at times considers women inferior do so in opposition to the clear evidence of certain Pauline statements. Convinced that certain Biblical texts allow only a chauvinistic interpretation, she concludes that though she respects Paul greatly for his central affirmation about humanity (Gal. 3:28), his words at other times fall away from that central vision. Something has interfered. She says, "I have called the interference a distortion caused by the human limitations of the human channel." Rather than consider that Paul's writings on women might have been culturally (mis)interpreted for centuries, Mollenkott instead concludes that some of Paul's arguments reflect his "rabbinical training and human limitations."8 "There are flat contradictions between some of his theological arguments and his own doctrines and behavior," she says.9

This position that there is a Pauline self-contradiction is also taken by Paul Jewett in his book Man as Male and Female. He believes that the inconsistency between Paul's arguments for female subordination (e. g., 1 Tim. 2:8-15) and his fundamental awareness of Christian liberty (Gal. 3:28) can only be resolved by recognizing "the human as well as the divine quality of Scripture." Paul's historical limitations, particularly his rabbinical background, affect his Christian insight. For example, Jewett notes that 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 commands women to cover their heads:

any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil.

He finds it a "curious idea" without foundation in text or context that this injunction was meant only for that particular situation in Corinth where prostitutes did not wear veils or long hair. Conflating Old Testament practice (Gen. 38:15) with first-century Greek society, Jewett would have us understand that, perhaps, prostitutes were veiled. He concludes that Paul considered the custom of head covering part of the apostolic tradition which he had previously given the Corinthians (in 1 Cor. 11:2, Paul commends the Corinthians for maintaining "the traditions even as I have delivered them to you"). "Thus," concludes Jewett, "the apostle elevates the relativities of culture to the absolutes of Christian piety:"10

There are difficulties in Jewett's interpretation which even the summary reveals.11 For example, the "traditions" referred to in verse 2 might better be taken as the central truths of the Christian faith given previously to the Corinthians by Paul in oral form, for verses 13 and 16 suggest that Paul did not consider his injunction concerning women one of the central tenets of the faith. Rather, it was based on current mores.

Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? .. If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. [1 Cor. 11:13, 16]

The cultural situation in Corinth cannot be so quickly ignored. Again, -reevaluations of the meaning of kephale (head) and exousia (authority) are not considered. But what is more important than any particularr interpretive oversight is the underlying hermeneutical principle Jewett's argument reflects. Jewett, like Mollenkott, would functionally discard those portions of Scripture which reflect human limitation, even while keeping them in the canon. Rather than struggle to understand the cultural background of the text and the alternate meanings suggested by recent historico-grammatical research, Jewett is content to judge the text as reflecting Paul's rabbinic conditioning and disregard it. It is as if Paul was a split-person, unable to resolve his conflicts of sexism and Christian liberty in a consistent manner.12

What is basic to both Mollenkott's and Jewett's positions is too facile an exegesis of key Biblical passages. They have accepted traditional interpretations rather than reevaluating the evidence in search of an underlying consistency in Paul's position.13 Behind this willingness to allow traditional interpretations to remain normative is the hermeneutical principle that the interpreter can separate that which is human from that which is divine in Scripture. The Reformation principle that "Scripture interprets itself" (sacra scriptura sui ipsius interpres) is taken to mean that Scriptures which seem to conflict with the central affirmations of the gospel and the example of Christ himself are to be discarded, rather than in its original sense that there is a unity in Scripture as Biblical texts mutually interpret each other. This is, however, to set humanity over Scripture as the final arbiter of what is inspired and authoritative for Christian practice. Scripture is in danger of losing its normative nature.

Traditionalists, like Harold Lindsell, have been quick to challenge such an approach, for it undercuts Biblical authority.14 But feminists as well, like Nancy Hardesty, are aware of the implications of this position and have sought alternate approaches:

Unlike some feminists, I do not rest my conclusions on any supposed contradictions within the writings of Paul, or between Paul and Jesus, on any alleged "rabbinic interpretations," or on the cultural relativity of any text. I see no difficulty in harmonizing all of the Bible's teaching on this subject nor in harmonizing feminism with the teaching of Scripture. I do not disagree with any teaching of Scripture on this issue. I disagree, rather, with the distorted interpretations based on patriarchal social patterns and neo-platonic philosophical systems which men have used to obscure the radical message of the Gospel and to oppress women.15

Whether a feminist position is as consistent with Scripture as Hardesty believes is open to further discussion. But she is certainly :correct in rejecting a dualistic hermeneutic. The principle of "consistency" demands not the dismissal of seemingly contradictory texts, but the ongoing reevaluation of traditional interpretations in search of distortion.

b. A "Spiritualizing" Approach

Egalitarians are not the only ones experiencing difficulty in understanding Scripture as time-related. Where some feminists reject what is time-bound, extrapolating "the essential, unconditioned truths by discarding what ... [they consider] nonessential," some traditionalists make Scripture's time-relatedness similarly of no account by claiming that "revelation is available in a pure and unambiguous form."16 This can only be done by minimizing the gap between the centuries; the interpreter forgets "to what extent Paul's words belong to a certain situation."17

Elisabeth Elliot (Leitch), for example, believes that the Biblical world view and culture, with its patriarchal system, was "peculiarly designed and chosen by God as a vehicle of heavenly truth"

Are we to assume that if first century Semite culture" had allowed it Jesus would have appointed women apostles and addressed God as Mother? Or shall we find in God's choice of the Judaic framework of reference, in Old Testament times as well as in New Testament ones, the sovereignty of God? For it was in "the fullness of time" that the Gospel came. It was the first century that is for the Christian Church normative.18

The first century is normative? By this is Elliot suggesting, for example, that the Abolitionist movement was un-Christian? That Europeans are correct to greet one another with kisses while Americans are guilty of acting non-Biblically? That we should begin to wash one another's feet? Such positions follow, it would seem, from taking first-century practices as normative. Moreover, if the patriarchal system in the Old Testament is understood as ordained by God to reflect his self-revelation, what of an absolute monarchy, or perhaps a theocracy, which Biblical authors similarly considered to be God-ordained? Why are sexual politics timeless while national politics are relative to time and place?

In her recent book Let Me Be a Woman, Elliot finds the key to woman's timeless place in marriage and worship in such specific references as "For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." (1 Cor. 11:8-9) "Some texts," Elliot allows, "are susceptible of differing interpretations, but for the life of me I can't see any ambiguities in this one."19 Biblical commentators who have struggled with the meaning of Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 11 must wish the situation was as clear-cut as Elliot maintains. Only by taking Paul's words out of both their immediate text and their cultural context is such a stance possible. Elliot has spiritualized Paul's words, taking only their surface meaning, making them timeless and mysterious in their full intent. She finds them to reflect "a divinely inspired principle" and are therefore "not negotiable."20

Thomas Howard takes a similar approach. He, too, sees the Biblical picture of male predominance as normative:

the burden of particular aspects of the splendor of the Divine Image, including authority and primacy, has been placed upon the shoulders of the man; whereas the answering burden has been placed upon woman-the echo, or antiphon, to the man's aspect, without which his authority and primacy are solitary and sterile. This pattern is implicit in the whole fabric of biblical narrative.

Exceptions to this ordering in Scripture are so embarrassingly few, Howard feels, that they only reinforce the basic fact.

It was not just a random happenstance that Yahweh picked a patriarchal society to exhibit His Name in. He didn't take His cues from them: He prepared them, and ordered them, to exhibit, in the structure of their social and political and domestic and cultic life, the deepest mysteries divinity and humanity.21

Howard looks at the overall picture in Scripture and finds a pattern in Biblical times that is meant for all.times.

What lies, in part, behind Elliot's and Howard's common desire to maintain the "mystery" of God's hierarchical ordering is the ecclesiastical position they adhere to. With C. S. Lewis, whom they quote with respect on this point, they believe that women cannot be" priests," for the priest is to represent God. God, as they would have us know, consistently portrays himself to us as a male. Similarly the Bible uses the church's subjection to Christ as a symbol of marriage. Christians should not negate these symbols by allowing women to represent God's Word in the pulpit and sacrament or by proclaiming the validity of egalitarian relationships. To tamper with Christian imagery concerning God or his church is to destroy the sense of the "mystical" which Christianity should contain. "The Church of England," Lewis asserts, and analogously the American Episcopal Church which is Howard's and Elliot's chosen home, "can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element."22 The timeless is maintained out of a desire for the mystical, the mysterious, the opaque. Such a theological and ecclesiological position has a long cultural heritage in Christian tradition, but it must not imperialize Biblical interpretation by becoming the sole authoritative stance from which the Biblical witness is read. When this happens, Scripture loses its normative position over Christian tradition.23


Jewett and Mollenkott arrive at their dualistic hermeneutic partly out of their cultural attachment to women's liberation. Howard and Elliot come to their "spiritualized" hermeneutic out of a need to buttress their high church liturgical commitment. But to conclude that only cultural and ecclesiological considerations determine these approaches would be untrue. G. C. Herkouwer, in his volume Holy Scripture, describes both the "dualist" and the "spiritualizer" and in .the process suggests an additional common motivation for these faulty approaches to Scripture's cultural character. He states:

one may not . . .devise from the beginning a "method" that guarantees the safety of the road of faith. One such method is that of deduction [the "spiritualizers"] , which seeks to prove as conclusively as possible that Scripture exceeds all timerelatedness. Another is that of induction [the "dualists"], which often runs the risk of bogging down in a "canon of interpretation," applying a critical yardstick to God's Word and preventing a true listening to the Spirit's voice to the churches. It is the abiding Word of God alone that tests and accompanies all study of Scripture; it challenges and encourages us to continue on this road, critically weighing all human words about God's Word, with the expectation and certainty shared with the church of all ages that the "jewel" of the gospel will not be lost in a new and still unknown future.24

It is this fear of losing the "jewel" of the gospel which helps to account for Jewett and Mollenkott becoming dualists, and Elliot and Howard becoming spiritualizers. Given society's growing recognition that men and women are equal, is the gospel to retain its power if it remains tied to a hierarchical structuring in which women are seen as subservient and dependent? Given the mystery of the gospel proclaimed in the symbolism of church and family, can Christians afford to dilute its strength in their desire to accommodate the latest cultural fad? Both dualist and spiritualizer believe they are protecting the gospel. But ironically, by undercutting Scripture's authoritative and culturally directed message, they end up by diminishing its power.

The evangelical interpreter of Scripture must approach the Biblical text critically, yet faithfully. Dualists expect an integrity from the text, but it must also be an integrity of the text. Spiritualizers expect of the text a cultural relevance, but they must also allow for an original cultural relatedness Evangelicals must subject the text to the literary-critical fate of all writing. They must affirm that they do not know in advance what Scripture says. Instead of locking themselves in to what was formerly believed to be the correct interpretation of a passage, they must remain humble before Scripture as God's-Word as-human-words. This evangelical hermeneutic does not guarantee one "the safety of the road of faith." Rather it demands faith, both in the gospel per se and in its authoritative organ of communication, Scripture. Faithful as they approach the Biblical record, evangelicals are confident of its reliability, clarity, and sufficiency. To recognize that Scripture is culturally directed and time-related does not call into question such a stance. Instead, it is the necessary posture for those who would stand reverently before God's-Word-as-human-words.'s.25

2. The Tendency Toward Inconsistency

In addition to the improper handling of Scripture’s cultural-directedness, there is a second area of hermeneutical concern in contemporary evangelical discussions of women's role in marriage and ministry. This is the marked propensity among evangelicals to be inconsistent in their handling of the Biblical sources. This inconsistency takes two major forms: (a) a selectivity in the texts considered germane to the issue, and (b) an unwillingness to apply uniformly the same hermeneutic to both the issue of women in the church and the issue of women in marriage.


      1. Selectivity in Texts Considered

Egalitarians and traditionalists accuse each other of manipulating the message of Scripture by picking and choosing which aspects of the Biblical record they want to notice. And there often is truth in their assertions. Rather than a consistent, nonpartisan, thorough reading of Scripture which seeks liberation from the pressures of "feminism" and "traditionalism," both sides tend to approach the Bible through a predetermined "interpretive filter."

An obvious example of such filtering is Billy Graham's discussion "Jesus and the Liberated Woman." In the article, Graham discusses the new prestige that Christ brought to women. But using two proof texts, Genesis 3:16 ("To the woman he said, `I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing . . .' ") and Titus 2:4-5 ("and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands"), he nevertheless concludes: "Wife, mother, homemaker-this is the appointed destiny of real womanhood."26 Graham overlooks the fact that this is at best a half-truth of Scripture. He has turned the "curse" in Genesis 3:16 into an eternal principle, and has centered on the role of "homemaker" in the text from Titus, to the exclusion of other Scriptural data. Mary, for example, is singled out appreciatively for her unwillingness to be just the homemaker (Luke 10:42). What of Paul's desire that the Corinthians remain single (1 Cor. 7:8)? What, too, of the group of women who left home (and family!) to join Jesus' followers in traveling from town to town with him (Luke 8:2-3; Matt. 27:55)? Again, how is a text like Luke 11:27-28 to be correlated with Graham's assertion that whatever else it describes, the New Testament declares that the "main job" for females is "the womanly assignment of wife and mother" 27

As he (Jesus) said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and

said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts

that you sucked!." But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear

the word of God and keep it!" [Luke 11:27-28]

Jesus was not belittling Mary; he was suggesting that real womanhood goes beyond being a wife and mother. Again, it is true that the Bible commands women to bear children. But both mother and father are given joint responsibility for the children (cf. Eph. 6:4; Ps. i03:13). Finally, Proverbs 31 describes the ideal wife, it is true. Yet how foreign is its description from Graham's ideal American "homemaker"-purchasing land, acting as a merchant, making "her arms strong." What is our traditional cultural pattern and what is Biblical have been conflated by an editing of the Biblical record.28

Such screening of Scripture is found among evangelical feminists as well. Kay Lindskoog, for example, concludes that "Paul's Bad News for Women" is in reality good news. "Surely," she says, "Paul was not endorsing the short-sightedness of his own culture any more than he would endorse the excesses of ours."29 Unfortunately, when we look more closely at the basis for this conclusion we find it is largely lacking. At first glance she seems to tackle the problem texts for her position. But while purporting to ground her conclusions in a careful exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (where women are told to be silent, submissive, and plainly attired), Lindskoog actually limits her discussion of 1 Timothy to pointing up the incongruity of traditional interpretations and concluding, "we must admit that Paul is not his clearest in this passage, to say the least."30 Concerning 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 (where women are told to keep silence in the churches), Lindskoog limits her remarks to the need for order in the churches, omitting any discussion of Paul's specific injunction regarding women. Her selective analysis of Ephesians 5 points out the need to begin the discussion with verse 21 ("Be subject to one another . . .") and then proceeds to concentrate on verses 25ff, which stress the husband's self-giving love. What is conveniently ignored are verses 22 through 24 which deal with the wife's subjection to her husband.31 The safest way to be sure Scripture supports your position is to ignore those passages you don't like." Concentrate on "husbands loving your wives" and "doing all things decently and in order" and perhaps others will overlook the fact that you have bypassed injunctions to women to be silent in worship and subject in marriage.

A more sophisticated screening of Scripture is carried out by others who claim that we must look in Scripture for the "locus classicus" of a Biblical doctrine and concentrate on its teaching, interpreting all else in light of its truth. Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty use this principle fully in their book All We're Meant to Be:

The biblical theologian does not build on isolated proof texts but first seeks the locus classicus, the major biblical statement, on a given matter. . . . Passages which deal with an issue systematically are used to help understand incidental references elsewhere. Passages which are theological and doctrinal in content are used to interpret those where the writer is dealing with practical local cultural problems. (Except for Gal. 3:28, all of the references to women in the New Testament are contained in passages dealing with practical concerns about personal relationships or behavior in worship services.)33


Here, and in other egalitarian literature, principle is given priority over application; admonition is given preference over description.34 What is dangerous in such a procedure, though it admittedly works in many cases, is the implied epistemological claim that objective, impersonal statements are of a somehow higher order of trustworthiness than the more personal and relational aspects of Scripture. Do we need systematic argument in order to be fully confident of the meaning of God's revelation? Is it not true that Paul's "purely" theological insights are, on closer inspection, responses to the cultural crises and life situations of young churches facing concrete problems, and that his "purely" practical advice has within it a theological dimension?35 Paul neither "did theology" in an abstract, academic manner nor "proffered advice" devoid of theological undergirding. Both his "systematic theology" and his "practical theology" are more accurately part of his one and the same "church theology."

The richness and variegation of the New Testament message must be maintained.36 There is nothing endemic to the text which suggests that "epistle" is a superior form to "Gospel" as a medium for communicating God's truth. An evangelical Biblical theology must listen equally to the theology of the synoptics, of the epistles, of Acts, and even of Old Testament Wisdom literature. The importance of recognizing the authority of multiple Biblical witnesses must be maintained if interpreters are to avoid twisting the Biblical record to support outside aims.37 Paul Holmer is correct in warning against evangelicals treating the Scripture as if it were a literary and metaphysical and casual gloss on a literal and systematic structure that it otherwise hides. The everlasting search among evangelicals for that structure, that is literally true and that is interconnected, makes Scripture often look like an introduction into a better theological scheme that lurks within it.38

Such a danger is almost inevitable for those who search out the "locus classicus."39

Whether through an arbitrary selectivity concerning which texts are treated, or through a selectivity regarding which aspects of a text are thought relevant, or through a selectivity according to the literary genre and method of presentation, evangelicals on both sides of the controversy concerning woman's rightful role have too often truncated the Scriptural message. In the process, the authority of Scripture has been undercut, the full Biblical message being limited by some predetermined interpretive grid.

b. Inconsistency in the Application of Hermeneutical Procedures

In the interpretation of Biblical themes, selectivity in the texts considered is one danger. A more curious inconsistency is the unwillingness by some evangelicals to apply their hermeneutical method equally to the question of women in the church and to the question of women in the family.

Harold Lindsell, for example, in his book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, finds the position of Paul regarding women exercising leadership and teaching/preaching functions in the church to be an expression of the needs of his cultural situation. It is not to be considered as normative for the church today. He states, furthermore:

The Bible does speak rather specifically about male-female relationships for those who have been regenerated. Paul is the great advocate of Christian freedom, saying that in Jesus Christ, "There is ... neither male nor female . . ."

Lindsell concludes that women's roles in the church should not be. judged in terms of sexual classification but by "what a particular woman with certain talents, strengths, and weaknesses can do. 401 When he discusses women's role in marriage, however, Lindsell asserts that the Pauline teaching for the Christian requires the husband to be the final authority in decision-making in the home. "The man was made head over the woman (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23).... that teaching is very strong."41 On the one hand, Paul's teaching on women in worship is understood to be culturally directed and no longer binding on Christians today; on the other hand, Paul's teaching on women's place in marriage is said to be timeless. Yet the texts reveal that the Pauline arguments are similarly based on (or illustrated with) an analogy with the creation accounts. George Knight is correct:

This creation order and its correlatives of headship and subjection appear in each passage [dealing with woman's ruling/teaching function in the church] just as they provide the one and only foundation for the role relationships in marriage. To dismiss the role relationships in the church in regard to the teaching/ruling function as simply cultural would carry with it the dismissal of the analogous role relationship in marriage as also cultural. Lindsell is not that consistent; Scanzoni and Hardesty are!42


A second example of this same unwillingness to carry through on one's method of interpretation to include both facets of the women's question is Gladys Hunt's bestseller, Ms. Means Myself. She states her hermeneutical procedure in the preface:

The rules of biblical interpretation require that we give any passage the obvious meaning the author intended in the context in which he writes. Secondly, Scripture must interpret Scripture.43

In chapter two, which is tellingly titled "The Side Issue," Hunt takes up Paul's advice that women should be silent in the church. She begins by painting redemptive history in which male and female were created equal, but in which sin also entered, allowing moral perversion and female discrimination. In Christ, however, woman is again treated as an equal, as Jesus' life, the early church's ministry, and Paul's theology (Gal. 3:28) declare. Furthermore, what inequality there was in the Biblical world must be contrasted with the stark situation for women among Israel's neighbors. With this Biblical background, Hunt suggests, one can begin to understand Paul's words. But only as (1) the cultural situation Paul addressed, (2) the wider argument in the text, and (3) the other relevant statements by the same author are noted can the interpreter do full justice to Paul's instruction. Moreover, Hunt believes that we cannot be slaves to a faulty church tradition. Doesn't common sense demand that women's gifts be used? Such is an outline of Hunt's argument and her conclusion follows logically: "cultural adjustments" must be made if these texts are to remain meaningful today.44

However, when Hunt turns from "The Side Issue" (why is woman's service to God less basic than other of her activities?) to the real thing-the marriage relationship-she forsakes her hermeneutical procedure for a superficial reading of Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:21ff. She concludes that husbands are to lead, and wives are to follow. Because they are "one flesh," they can best operate as an entity in a hierarchical relationship.45 No reason is provided for this assertion, except the common sense of the interpreter. Aside from the questionableness of this culturally based argument that two people must have a leader, Hunt fails to be convincing because she forsakes her quite adequate method of interpretation for a "literalistic" misunderstanding of the Scriptural text.

A consistent reading of the Biblical record would seem to demand that either an egalitarian or a traditionalist posture be argued in relation both to women in marriage and women in the church. Because all of Scripture is culturally directed -- i. e., because all of it was written for a particular situation and out of a particular context-the evangelical cannot use the issue of culture to distinguish between arguments for women's place in marriage and her place in the church. Similarly, the recognition and right use of gifts would prove as applicable a criterion for judging women's suitability for leadership in the family as her suitability for ordination to ministry. A predetermined understanding of woman's rightful roles too often dictates such choices, as well as the more general method of interpretation evangelicals choose. Wanting to question a traditional notion, evangelicals make use of the full range of hermeneutical procedures. Content to maintain the tradition, those same evangelicals at times resort to a simplistic reading of a text that distorts its intended meaning. Consistency, along with a hermeneutical openness, must be an evangelical goal.

Hermeneutics and the Role of Women

The current controversy over women's place in worship and marriage can be healthy for the evangelical church, for only as a position is argued passionately and under pressure are its possibilities fully explored. As long as both sides remain open to new insight, the discussion should spark a testing of tradition and current practice by God's-Word-as-human-words. But such an optimistic prognosis concerning the current debate is dependent on both sides taking their hermeneutical task more seriously. It is necessary, therefore, to sketch out in conclusion some interpretive principles which might assist in answering questions about woman's place in marriage and church.

1. A text must be treated within its full unit of meaning. The reference to wives being subject to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24) can be adequately understood only in terms of the mutual subjection commanded in verse 21, the sacrificial love of the husband prescribed in verses 25-30, and the unity of the marriage partners, verses 31-33. The phrase "be subject to your husbands" depends for its meaning, in other words, on the total scope of verses 21-33. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is to be understood as part of Paul's summary concerning public worship which begins with verse 26 and continues through verse 40. Seen in this context, Paul's specific advice concerning women not speaking within a worshiping congregation takes on the more primary meaning that all is to "be done decently and in order." (verse 40)

2. Some translations must be corrected for their sexist bias "In the New Testament, masculine nouns and pronouns have often been substituted for the nouns and pronouns common gender in the original Greek."46 For example, 1 Timothy 3:1 reads in the King of James version: "If a man desire the office of a bishop ...... It is better rendered, "If any one desires . . . ." There are other instances of biased translation as well. Phoebe is labeled a "servant" (KJV) in Romans 16:1 and a "succorer" (KJV; the RSV has "helper") in Romans 16:2, although the first word of description, diakonos, is elsewhere usually translated "minister," and the second, prostatis (a noun which occurs only this once in the Bible), has a verb form which is translated "rule" or "be over" in other New Testament texts (Rom. 12:8, KJV; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4, KJV; 5:17).47

3. The literary form of a passage must be understood if it is to be adequately interpreted. We must keep in mind that Gospel and epistle are not sociological tract or disinterested treatise. The very nature of "letters" which were intended to answer specific questions about particular issues in the life of the churches in Corinth and Ephesus (the context of 1 Timothy) should make the reader extremely cautious in deducing universal principles from Paul's advice. Such deductions must stem from an appreciation of the intended meaning of the text which is mediated through specific literary forms. For example, Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 11 makes use of rabbinic methods of argument common in his day. This fact, when recognized, helps the interpreter focus upon Paul's real intent, while refraining from overinterpreting the "rabbinic" supports Paul includes to buttress his point. A recognition of Paul's methodology does not lead to a dismissal of the text, but to a proper understanding of its meaning.

4. The historical context of a passage helps the interpreter understand both the function and the meaning a text had in its own day. Did the actions and words of Jesus and Paul function to reinforce the status quo in regard to women, or were they "liberating" even in their own day?48 When we consider the evident inferior status of women in Biblical times (cf. Ecclus. 42:13-14: "Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good, and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace"), the meaning of the New Testament's advice to women changes drastically.49 We must ask whether we are not being unfaithful to the Biblical message if we use Scripture's liberating words to impede the leavening process they were meant to have. As to the meaning of a text, it is not proper to give to Biblical language a current-day nuance that was foreign in its day. Consider a word - "head" (kephale.• 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23); if "head" did not have our modern metaphorical sense of "decision-making" in Paul's day, we cannot assign to it that connotation. Again, the meaning of 1 Timothy2:8-15, which places various restrictions on women's dress and speech, depends not on our context, but on the double background of Paul's Judaism (where women were exempted from learning) and the situation at Ephesus (where untrained women who had submitted to heretical teachers seem to have been seeking to spread their beliefs, perhaps like the hierodules in the service of the temple of Diana, cf. 2 Tim. 3:5-7). Rabbinic law and Greek custom, as well as particular situations being addressed, add necessary background and coloring to a correct understanding of the 1 Timothy text.

Also possible is a misuse of the cultural context of a given text. Hardesty and Scanzoni, for example, conclude that the text in Ephesians 5 could not be teaching support for a hierarchical marriage relationship "because the dominant-husband submissive-wife model of marriage was the norm in the societies of that time. There would have been no reason to tell wives to submit to their husbands, or to tell husbands they were the heads."50 In order to be Pauline, it must be "new," they feel. But surely, Paul could as easily be arguing the need for a return to the regnant pattern after a false application of Christian freedom in the young church as he could be proclaiming that which was at variance with his culture. To accept an interpretation of a text because it is new or distinct from dominant cultural patterns is a faulty hermeneutical procedure.

5. The immediate context of a passage should be considered before one looks at other parallel texts. Perhaps a negative example of this principle can be instructive. George Knight, in his discussion in Christianity Today on woman's place, finds 1 Corinthians 11:8 and 9 (woman was created "for man") to be of timeless significance.51 He bases his conclusion on a correlation of that text with Genesis 2:23, 24 and 1 Timothy 2:13. What he fails to consider is the immediate context of these verses (1 Cor. 11:11-12), where Paul qualifies them, lest this phase of his argument regarding women's head coverings be misunderstood. Similarly, in his discussion of 1 Corinthians 14:34 (women keeping silent in the church) in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Knight chooses to turn to 1 Timothy 2:11-1 for his interpretive key ("what is prohibited is teaching with particular reference to men"), rather than to 1 Corinthians 14:40 which summarizes the immediate discussion by commanding that "all things should be done decently and in order." When he does consider the immediate context, Knight focuses on the preceding argument in verses 27 and 29, rather than on verse 35 which completes Paul's direct advice to women and sets the issue squarely in the context of "asking questions."52

6. The author's explicit intention, methodology, theology, and practice, as understood in other Biblical texts, can provide helpful interpretive clues Paul's specific advice concerning women in the church and family can be better understood if it is viewed as part of his larger intention to bring order to the Christian community. Only in this way can the church's witness to the wider society avoid being compromised and its life together as a fellowship be strengthened (cf. 1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:5; 1 Cor. 14:33). It is evident from Paul's advice concerning circumcision in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 that Paul did not see the maintenance of the status quo as a goal of the church. However, it is also clear from his discussion of slavery in Philemon that Paul's method for social change was characterized by caution and orderliness. Perhaps Paul's theological statement of equality in Christ found in Galatians 3:28 can help the interpreter focus on the particularity and cultural-directedness of other of his advice (e. g., 1 Cor. 14:34-35). Finally, the extensive description of Paul's ministry which is found in Acts, as well as the mention of current church practice within his epistles, shows Paul's attitude toward women through his action (cf. Acts 16:13; 17:4; Tit. 2:3; 1 Cor. 11:5; Rom. 16:1-16).

7. The Bible has an overarching consistency despite its multiple theological foci. Thus, all interpretations of given texts can be productively correlated with wider Biblical attitudes, statements, themes, and descriptions If husbands are to duplicate Jesus' attitude toward leadership (Eph. 5:25ff ;1 Pet. 3:1), they might consider Matthew 20:25-28:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Anyone who finds Paul's advice regarding women to be straightforward and clear might do well to recall the statement of 2 Peter 3:16 that there are in Paul's epistles "some things" "hard to understand." In his study Woman in the Church, Russell Prohl correctly places his discussion of the specific texts which relate to that issue within the larger Biblical themes of creation and redemption.53 Other Biblical themes, such as the doctrines of God and the church add further insight into the discussion of women's rightful role. For example, though male imagery is predominantly used, nowhere does Scripture suggest (like texts from Israel's neighbors) that God is to be thought of literally as male. Again, if the church as the body of Christ is ordered according to gift rather than gender (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12; Eph. 4), what is the significance of this fact for female members in our age with the apparent gift of preaching? Finally, the Gospels describe women as being significantly involved in declaring the faith (John 4; 20:15-17; Matt. 28:9-10).

8. Insight into texts which are obscure must be gained from those which are plain. Here is a key hermeneutical principle for the interpretation of women's place in the church. Ordinarily, hermeneutical procedure would dictate that theologians seeking guidance on this topic should first turn to the three passages which speak directly about this area (1 Tim. 2; 1 Cor. 11; 14). But all of these texts are extremely difficult to interpret: crucial words remain obscure (e. g., authentein; exousia); the addressed situations are difficult to reconstruct; the "surface meaning" contradicts other Pauline material; and the methods of argument reflect cultural thought-forms no longer in use. Given these difficulties in interpretation in the texts that seem most appropriate, the plain descriptions of Jesus' interaction with women and the stylized but readily interpreted accounts of woman's creation in Genesis take on increased significance.54

9. Scripture should be read in faith for faith. The goal of Scripture is to help its reader "put on the Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 13:14; Eph. 4:13) Any teaching regarding women must, therefore, square with the truth of the gospel and the world's hope "in Christ." Christ's victory over sin and death has brought with it new possibilities for redeemed humanity. Galatians 3:28 ("there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus") cannot be used reductively as grounds for dismissing other texts, but neither can it be ignored. Redeemed humanity in the church and Christian marriage should mirror creation's new order in Christ. Moreover, faith is not only the goal of Biblical interpretation; it is also the means. For as Christians we come humbly and receptively to the text, believing in the Bible's authoritative message for us. A controlled subjectivity is our goal. Our predisposition of faith should allow us to let the text speak normatively in our lives.

10. Interpreters of Scripture should seek the help of the Christian community, past and present, in order that insights can be shared, humility fostered, and biases of culture and theological tradition overcome. The Christian community can be wrong in its interpretation of Scripture, as the church's former position on slavery indicates. Only the church, past, present, and future, can correct private presuppositions and cultural bias. Such a correctional process is currently attending the discussion of women in the church and family. Augustine's definition of woman as man's helper in procreation has been rejected by most of the church as sub-Biblical. So too Aquinas's argument for female subordination based on the fact that she is the "weaker vessel," misbegotten and less rational.55 But to criticize the theology of past generations is relatively painless. To admit the possibility of similar cultural and ecclesiological limitations in ourselves is more difficult. But such seems to be the case presently where those in the Reformed (Knight) and Lutheran (Reumann) traditions remain resistive to women being ordained, while those out of Holiness (Dayton) and Baptist (Lindsell) traditions do not.56 Has personal background influenced exegesis on this point?57

11. Scriptural interpretation must allow for continuing actualization as necessary implications are drawn out. What is being claimed here is the fact of progressive understanding, not of ongoing revelation. Obvious examples of this need which have surfaced previously are the church's doctrine of the Trinity and the Christian Abolitionist movement. Both are rooted in the Biblical text, though both go beyond it in their exact formulations. They are necessary implications which theological controversy and new cultural situations have brought to light. The changing role of women in the church and family would seem to be another example of this principle. It is no longer a man's world in North America. E.R.A., birth control, Title IX, and the like, have brought a new consciousness of women's rights and possibilities to the contemporary Christian. Given this outside stimulus, the church has begun to reevaluate its stance toward women. A key aspect in this is the hermeneutical task of setting forth Scripture's implications for women in our day. Those opposed to change claim that culture has determined the church's interpretation of the Biblical text. Although this is true in some cases, it need not follow from taking one's context seriously. Instead of being determinative of its interpretation, culture can serve the church by being the occasion for renewed reflection and debate. A progressive understanding of Scripture. should be continual as situations alter, allowing new implications of the text to come to light.


Does such a critical, yet faithful, approach as that outlined above imply that only the expert can arrive at an adequate Biblical understanding of the role of women in the church and family? It is true that evangelicals, following after the Reformers, confess the clarity (or "perspicuity") of Scripture. But by this, they do not mean an "objective" clarity which demands no interpretation or translation. Rather they seek to emphasize by this creedal stance that Scripture's purpose -- its message of salvation -- is accessible to all and is not limited to the clergy.

The need remains for ongoing work in interpreting Scripture, if the Bible is to be normative. Our discussion above has highlighted this fact in regard to the issue of woman's role. Such reflection is necessitated not only because of our own faulty frames of reference, but also because God's Word comes to us in the concrete form of historical language (which is not always self-evident). Moreover, such interpretation, if it is to prove fruitful, must be based on a correct methodology, i. e., an adequate hermeneutic. This chapter has sought to address this need. Receptive attention and faithful research must have an adequate methodological undergirding. Although Scripture is available to all and sufficient unto salvation for those who read attentively, a proper hermeneutic is necessary so that private interpretations can be corrected and fresh stimulus gained for the ongoing theological task of the church.

As we turn in the next chapter to consider the evangelical church's role in society, we will see that matters of a correct theological understanding of social ethics-one resting in Biblical authority-do not hinge so much on the issue of Biblical hermeneutics as they do on the matter of conflicting loyalties to ecclesiological traditions. Just as evangelicals have reached an impasse in their Biblical understanding of woman's role in the church and family because of an inadequate methodology for interpreting Scripture, so evangelicals have failed to reach a consensus in their discussions of social ethics because of their various commitments to differing theological traditions. To ask whether evangelicals are Dispensational, Reformed, or Anabaptist is to discover in most instances their understanding of the church's role in the social arena as well. Therefore, where attention to hermeneutical concerns has dominated the constructive suggestions of this chapter, an evaluation of the direction a dialogue between the competing theological traditions must take will provide the following chapter its overall direction.

As the first chapter indicated, constructive evangelical theology is a dynamic blend of Biblical, traditional, and contemporary sources, all operating in such a way as to insure the continued place of Scripture as one's final authority. In practice, this will lead to different emphases and approaches on each new topic. On the issue of women, evangelical theologians must give more attention to hermeneutical concerns. In chapter V, we will note that an evangelical answer to the question of homosexuality centers at the point of the church's interaction with contemporary society. Regarding matters of social ethics, it is the interaction between competing traditions that holds out the most promise for helping evangelicals to move beyond their current impasse.



1.Marabel Morgan. The Total Woman (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revel, 1973), Virginia R. Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977); Helen Andelin, Fascinating Womanhood (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1963); Don Williams, The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church (Van Nuys, Calif.: BIM Publishing Co., 1977); Larry Christenson, The Christian Family (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1970); Gladys Hunt, Ms. Means Myselj(Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1972); Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, Al1,We're Meant to Be (Waco: Word Books, 1974); Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1976); George W. Knight, III, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977). Note: although Helen Andelin is a Mormon, her book (and workshops) has been widely subscribed to by evangelicals and is thus included here.

2. New Wine tried to counter what they felt was an un-Biblical feminism by devoting a whole issue to "The Restoration of Manhood" (October 1975).

3. For example, George W. Knight, III, "Male and Female Related He Them," Christianity Today 20 (April 9, 1976):13-17; Winnie Christenson, "What Is a Woman's Role?", Moody Monthly 71 (June 1971):82-83; Charles Simpson, "The Home: Heaven or Earth?", Logos 4 (September-October 1974):13-15; Virginia R. Mollenkott, "Church Women, Theologians, and the Burden of Proof," The Reformed Journal 25 (July-August 1975):18-20 and (September 16, 24-29; David Scaer, "What Did St.Paul Want?", His 33 (May 1976):12fF ; "Beyond the Barriers and the Stereotypes: All We're Meant to Be" (a Vanguard interview with Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty), Vanguard, March-April 1975, pp. 13-16; Virginia R. Mollenkott, "A Challenge to Male Interpretation," Sojourners 5 (February 1976):20-25.

4. Daughters of Sarah prints the following position statement in its pages: We are Christians; we are also feminists. Some say we cannot be both, but Christianity and feminism for us are inseparable. DAUGHTERS OF SARAH is our attempt to share our discoveries, our struggles, and our growth as Christian women. We are committed to Scripture and we seek to find in it meaning for our lives. We are rooted in a historical tradition of women who have served God in innumerable ways and we seek guidance from their example. We are convinced that Christianity is relevant to all areas of women's lives today. We seek ways to act out our faith.

5. For example, Thomas Howard and Donald W. Dayton, "A Dialogue on Women, Hierarchy and Equality," Post American 4 (May 1975):10; Elisabeth Elliot Leitch, "Feminism or Femininity?", Cambridge Fish 5 (Winter 1975-76):2, 6; Carl F. H. Henry, "The Battle of the Sexes," Christianity Today 19 (July 4, 1975):45-46; Nancy Hardesty, "Women and Evangelical Christianity" in The Cross & the Flag, ed. Robert Clouse, Robert Linder, and Richard Pierard (Carol Stream, Ill.: Creation House, 1972), p. 71.

6. Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics trans. Emilie Sander (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966).

7. Howard and Dayton, "A Dialogue on Women, Hierarchy and Equality," pp. 12-13.

8. Virginia R. Mollenkott, reply to Sharon Gallagher, Sojourners S (March 1976):37-38; idem, "A Challenge to Male Interpretation," p. 22.

9. "A Conversation with Virginia Mollenkott," The Other Side, May-June .1976, p. 22. Cf. Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible, pp. 94106. Her chapter is entitled "Pauline Contradictions and Biblical Inspiration."

10. Paul Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 134, 138, 118.

11. Cf. Phyllis Alsdurf, "The Role of Women Within the Body of Christ," March 1976, pp. 6-8 (typewritten) for a helpful discussion of .Jewett's exegesis.

12. Jewett, Man as Male and Female, pp. 112-113.

13. In this regard, Mollenkott acts at cross-purposes with another of her basic hermeneutical principles-that consistency should be assumed if possible. She says: "One of the best guidelines is what theologians call the analogy of faith, or what I call assuming a book hangs together. In this connection I ought to be willing to give the Bible the same respect I give Homer or The Divine Comedy or Milton. So if I find a passage in Paradise Lost that seems to run counter to everything else in Paradise,I immediately suspect my reading and try to find a reading that is coherent with the rest of it." Unfortunately, Mollenkott then turns to a discussion of women in Scripture and says, "So when I see a few passages that seem to come down on certain members of the human race or seem to humiliate or reject them, I am going to be very slow to say that the vast majority of passages (which say the opposite) are wrong. When we find a passage, a spirit which runs all the way through the Bible-at that point I know which one is for all time and which one for the hardness of our hearts"

("A Conversation with Virginia Mollenkott," pp. 7475). What escapes Mollenkott is the fact that the hermeneutical principle she enunciates does not suggest dismissing a passage because of "the hardness of our hearts," but rather reevaluating it with fresh, exacting, detailed research seeking a thread by which the "book hangs together."

14. Harold Lindsell, "Egalitarianism and Scriptural Infallibility," Christianity Today 20 (March 26, 1976):45-46.

15. Nancy Hardesty, letter in Christianity Today 20 (June 4, 1976):25.

16. Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, p. 14.

17. G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 188.

18. Leitch, "Feminism or Femininity?", p. 6.

19. Elliot, "Let Me Be a Woman," p. 22.

20. Elisabeth Elliot, "Why I Oppose the Ordination of Women," Christianity Today 19 (June 6, 1975):14. Elliot takes a similar uncritical view of Genesis 2, seeing its intent as being to describe more specifically the chronology of the creation of man and woman (ibid, p. 13). Similarly, Elliot views Paul's admonitions to women about praying and prophesying as "clearly exceptions to the rule of silence" (ibid., p. 14). Cf. "A His Interview with Elisabeth Elliot," His 34 (January 1978):18-24.

21. Howard and Dayton, "A Dialogue on Women, Hierarchy and Equality," p. 9.

22. C. S. Lewis, "Priestesses in the Church," God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 234-239.

23. For example, Elisabeth Elliot's claim that "the pronouns referring to him [God] in Scripture are withoutexception masculine" (Elliot, "Why I Oppose the Ordination of Women," p. 16, emphasis added). Cf. Isaiah 49:15; Matthew 23:37.

24. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 239. 25. Cf. ibid., pp. 213-239.

25. Cf. ibid, pp. 213-239.

26. Billy Graham, "Jesus and the Liberated Woman," Ladies’Home Journal 87 (December 1970):42.

27. Ibid., p. 114.

28. Graham's "cultural Christianity" finds a strong echo in his wife's comment concerning women's ordination in Christianity Today: " `clergywomen'? I have serious reservations. I think if you study you will find that the finest cooks in the world are men (probably called chefs); the finest couturiers, by and large, are men; the finest musicians are men; the greatest politicians are men; most of our greatest writers are men; most of our greatest athletes are men. You name it, men are superior in all but two areas: women make the best wives and women make the best mothers!"

Ruth Graham, "Others Say ... Women's Ordination," Christianity Today 19 June 6,1975):32.

29. Kathryn Lindskoog, "Paul's Bad News for Women;" The Other Side, July-August 1973, p. 11.

30. Ibid., p. 10. It is interesting to notice that one can almost predict a person's stance by her or his delimitation of the relevant text in both 1 Corinthians 14 and Ephesians 5. Is the text to be considered 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, or is the wider context of proper decorum and order necessary to its meaning? Does Ephesians 5:22 begin a new paragraph, or must we begin with Ephesians 5:21 which discusses mutual submission? Cf. George W. Knight, "The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling

Functions in the Church," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18 (Spring 1975), and Lindskoog, "Paul's Bad News for Women."

31. Cf. David and Elouise Fraser, "A Biblical View of Women: Demythologizing Sexegesis," Theology, News and Notes 21 (June 1975):18. The Frasers similarly ignore Paul's advice to the wife in the discussion of Ephesians 5. On the other side, Gladys Hunt, in her discussion of Ephesians 5 which is meant to support a hierarchical understanding of family authority, conveniently ignores Paul's advice to the husband. See Hunt, Ms Means Myself, pp. 97ft: 32. Cf. John Alexander, "Thinking Male: Or How to Hide Behind the Bible," The Other Side, July- August 1973, pp. 3-4, 43117.

33. Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be, pp. 18-19. Cf. "A Conversation with Virginia Mollenkott," p. 73; Howard and Dayton, "A Dialogue on Women, Hierarchy and Equality," p. 14; Jewett, Man as Male and Female, pp. 142-147.

34. This is faintly reminiscent of Edward J. Carnell's The Case for Orthodox Theology, which argued that some parts of Scripture must take priority over other parts. In particular, the New Testament is to :interpret the Old Testament; the epistles are to interpret the Gospels; systematic passages should interpret the incidental; universal, the local; and didactic, the symbolic. See Edward J. Carnell, "Hermeneutics," The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1959), pp. 51-65. It is interesting to note that Carnell finds Romans and Galatians the supreme interpretations of the revelation of God in Christ. Several Biblical feminists similarly find Galatians 3:28 the "theological breakthrough" that is determinative of their interpretation of liberation in Christ. Cf. Jewett, Man as Male and Female, p. 144. .

35. William L. Lane, "Task Theology: The Transcultural Character of the Gospel," paper presented at the southern sectional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Bowling Green, Kentucky, February 1976.

36. Cf. James W. Jones, "Task Theology and Dogmatic Theology," Spring 1976 (typewritten).

37. A classic instance of this danger is Gerhard von Rad's Old Testament Theology, which reduces the message of Wisdom literature to that of a response to Heilsgeschichte. In Wisdom in Israel, a later volume, von Rad tries to rectify this error.

38. Paul Holmer, "Contemporary Evangelical Faith" in The Evangelicals, ed. David F. Wells and John D Woodbridge (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), p. 77.

39. A variation on the "locus classicus" approach is the desire to judge Scripture by "what Jesus said and did" ("A Conversation with Virginia Mollenkott," p. 75). What is not made explicit is the assumed identification of Jesus with a certain theological formulation of women's place. Aside from the fact that this merely shifts the problem from discerning what the "epistles" mean to finding what the "Gospels" say, it also reflects the same propensity for a "canon within a canon." It is now Christology, rather than systematics, that is thought normative over the Biblical witness. Cf. Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be, pp. 85-87.

40. Harold Lindsell, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (Washington, D. C.: Canon Press, 1973), pp. 146-150.

41. Ibid., p. 132.

42. Knight, "The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions in the Church," p. 89.

43. Hunt, Ms Means Myself, p. 12.

44. Ibid., pp. 25-39.

45. Ibid., pp. 90-103.

46. Rey O'Day Mawson, "Why All the Fuss About Language?", Post American 3 (August-September 1974):16.

47. J. Massyngberd Ford, "Biblical Material Relevant to the Ordination of Women," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 10 (Fall 1973):677, notes that in the LXX the masculine form prostates (fem. prastatis) is used of stewards (1 Chron. 27:31), officers (1 Chron. 29:6; 2 Chron. 8:10), governors (1 Esd. 2:12; 2 Macc. 3:4). See Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be, p. 217.

48. Howard and Dayton, "A Dialogue on Women, Hierarchy and Equality," p. 14.

49. Lucille Sider Dayton, "The Feminist Movement and Scripture," Post American 3 (August-September 1974):10; Mollenkott, Women,, Men, and the Bible, pp. 9-33.

50. Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be, p. 100.

51. Knight, "Male and Female Related He Them," p. 14.

52. Knight, "The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions in the Church," p. 89. For a more helpful model, see Williams The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church. In this book Williams considers all of the Pauline references to women, placing them first within their immediate context in the epistles.

53. Russell Prohl, Woman in the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 20-23.

54. Cf. Marchiene Vroon-Rienstra, "Women and the Church," Dialogue, January 1977, pp. 7-11.

55. Paul Jewett has an excellent, brief review of several classic theological statements regarding women in his book Man as Male and Female, pp. 61-82.

56. Knight, "The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions in the Church"; John Reumann, "What in Scripture Speaks to the Ordination of Women?", Concordia Theological Monthly 44 (January 1973); Donald Dayton and Lucille Sider Dayton, "Women as Preachers: Evangelical Precedents," Christianity Today 19 (May 23, 1975); Lindsell, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

57. Even with the sharing of insights through commentaries and books, biases remain. To give one further example, Dorothy Pape provides us her 370-page personal journey through the New Testament, In Search of God's Ideal Woman (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976). She quotes commentators widely and provides strong evidence against a traditionalist position. But she nevertheless claims that her book is "not meant as a brief for women ministers" (p. 45). Rather, it is simply a defense of "great women missionaries [who] were not necessarily out of God's will" in their teaching and preaching and evangelizing (p. 207). It is hardly surprising to discover Pape is herself a missionary out of a tradition in which women have historically been denied ordination. Such an example, though more obvious than some, should remind us all of the need for a basic humility in our claims to let Scripture speak authoritatively. We must be willing always to be corrected and then to act on what we hear.