Paul’s Teaching on Women: Cultural or Transcultural

In Christian RealTalk, Scripture by Antwuan Malone

When it comes to the roles of women in ministry, there are two main views. The complementarian suggests the roles of men and women in life, marriage and worship are distinct in nature, yet complementary to each other. This view commonly rejects women ministry leadership in the church. The egalitarian viewpoint suggests the roles of men and women are indistinct and equal. As such, the egalitarian believes the Bible supports women’s freedom to exercise leadership in ministry. Both views have significant scriptural evidence. A few will be examined here.

Egalitarian View

Paul’s writings on women are clear-ish. The question we face today is, was he writing to a particular culture, time and period, or should we take his words apply them to Christianity in all cultures. William J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis attempts to show Paul’s writings as cultural. His book talks about the “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” which is a fancy way of saying that the scriptures are not frozen in time, but can be interpreted through all cultures and time periods. The point is that following the literal words of the bible may not always achieve the redemptive purposes it intends. For Webb, the principles guarding the redemptive-movement hermeneutic reveal the purpose Paul’s words concerning the roles of women as cultural.

Another observation often pointed out by egalitarians is found in the passages where Paul talks about women and slavery in the same context (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1). Most Christians – complementarian or otherwise – will agree that slavery is not a practice the Bible condones. However, in those passages, Paul is instructing the slave to obey his master, rather than instructing the master to free the slave. This is interesting because advocates of slavery used these passages to justify their ideas. For them, Paul uses slavery as a theological analogy, which is to say that slavery “was viewed as an abiding and eternal principle because the Bible portrays Christ as a slave/servant in the texts that discuss slavery.”

Webb explains in his book that theological analogies are often neutral or cultural despite their focus on Jesus. For him, slavery can be a theological analogy and not be a transcultural system. The same could basically be said for the passages about women.

In any case, the reasoning follows that if the complementarian is ready to accept the passage of slavery as cultural, how can they justify viewing the roles of women as transcultural when they are contextually bound.

Complementarian View

The complementarian recognizes differences Paul arguments for women and slaves. In Benjamin Reaoch’s book,  he quotes Webb, “When the biblical text addresses human sociological structures, there is a significant possibility that the theological analogy is intended to motivate behavior with existing structures without necessarily endorsing the structures themselves as transcultural.” to show Paul is doing in the slavery passages. In them, Paul is motivating submission (behavior) not the structure of slavery. But complementarians don’t think that applies in the passages concerning women’s roles.

Unlike the slavery passages about slavery, Paul backs up his thoughts on women’s roles with the created order (1 Timothy 2:8-15, 1 Corinthians 11:3-14). This raises the stakes because it means Paul is not simply instructing female behavior. He is expressing his desire to protect God’s original intent for the roles of men and women. By referencing the second and third chapters of Genesis, Paul may well be speaking to God’s preferred definition of male and female roles, not his own. Complementarians believe this gives Paul’s literal words about women and their roles absolute authority and makes them transculturally true. Reaoch explains, “When the analogy is working from the human realm to the divine realm, it is quite possible that the human illustration is cultural. However, when a divine characteristic is given as a pattern to emulate, then the presence of an analogy gives no basis for concluding that it is cultural.”

He concludes:

When metaphors of slavery, monarchy, primogeniture, or right-handedness are used to describe God or Christ, it is a human illustration that is used to describe a divine characteristic. An element from the culture is being used to describe God or Christ, whereas in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11 the nature of God and Christ is used to demonstrate the pattern for male-female roles. The two sets of analogies are functioning in markedly different ways.

As Reaoch mentions, Ephesians 5 presents a reasonable symmetry. In it, Paul is primarily protecting the great parable that is the marriage of Christ and the church as it is reflected in humanity – namely in the roles of women and men. The complementarian would conclude that a disruption to the way God intended women to complement men (as is laid out in Genesis) should be avoided in any culture or age. Such an understanding is carried along by the complementarian when considering other passages concerning the role of women in worship and home affairs.

So Now What…

I admit that I am undecided in the matter. The egalitarian and complementarian present two compelling, opposing views. But if I had to choose today, I’d say the complementarian response to the egalitarian is unconvincing for a couple of reasons.

First, complemenatarians are over-relying on Paul’s use of the created order to substantiate his commands. For me, the significance of the created order only makes sense as an analogy of man and woman for God and humanity. Man (created by God) symbolizes God, and woman (born out of Man) symbolizes humans. God has exclusive authority, and so, Man too has clear and exclusive roles and authorities.

However, there are many other analogies of the God/human relationship throughout biblical history, some of which lasted for a particular time period. The God/Israel relationship is meant to symbolize a God/human relationship. The Hosea/Gomer relationship is meant as an analogy of God and Israel (and thus, God and humanity) as well. Both have come and gone. Then, there is Christ and the church (of Jews and Gentiles). While there are redemptive truths in all of these, they are all cultural or dated. Useful. but dated. A slight change in the interpretation of the analogy (to fit current culture) allows one to hold on to the truths they are originally meant to reflect, which is what is most important.

Second, much like the way God used Deborah in the book of Judges, he uses women today to fulfill many of his ministerial purposes. He has done so throughout scripture. There are wonderful ministries performed by women throughout the Bible, many of which have been of great benefit to men.

Thus, it is more important to adhere to the redemptive-movement hermeneutic principles when approaching verses like those concerning the roles of slaves, women, and marriage as it encourages listening for the spirit of the text, rather than the literal interpretation of it.

Where would you say you lean on this matter? Are you closer to being a complementarian or egalitarian?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.