Understanding how we read and apply the Bible


The following is some of the text of a Bible study I did a while back. it don’t go down so well in some quarters…

(indebted to Scot McKnight and the Blue Parakeet for the shape of my thoughts)

Miriam and Deborah – God’s servants under the more general theme of women of the Bible is so vast: when I looked at the breadth and depth of the material; the subject; the themes, the themes within themes, that doing the subject justice will take hours, and could perhaps even be a series in its own right.

I want to set out some of the key texts for discerning whether women should have active ministry roles open to them by looking at text those which describe what women actually did in the OT the NT. Since women functioned as prophets, apostles, teachers, and leaders, I want us to think about, and then explore the following argument: the texts that appear to prohibit women having active roles within the church should not be accepted as timeless advice for today.

For instance, Miriam was a prophet and a leader. Deborah functioned as a judge, prophet, and a mother in Israel, so she was a spiritual, military, and political leader. (we will come back to these in more detail in a moment). Huldah spoke the word of the Lord as a prophet, and Esther ruled as a queen. The dawning of the new creation in the ministry of Jesus represents a leap forward for women in ministry. In the new age of the Spirit there will be even more female prophets (Acts 2:17). And women did not only function as prophets; they were also apostles, as the example of Junia shows (Romans 16:7). Phoebe occupied the office of deacon (Romans 16:1-2), which likely had leadership dimensions. Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:26), and hence functioned as a teacher and a theologian.

So, what about texts that limit women in ministry? Given the example I have briefly mentioned above, the requirement that women be silent (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) cannot be a command for all time, for elsewhere Paul commends women for speaking. Where does this leave us? Some scholars argue coherently that the restriction (of 1 Corinthians) was a temporary measure due to disturbances in the Corinthian church. The prohibition against women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 has a cultural component. Is Paul responding to ‘new Roman women’ who were arguing for male subordination to women and who dressed in sexually provocative ways? What Paul emphasizes here is that women should learn before teaching, and so the restrictions on women teaching are temporary and are to be lifted once women are educated. The storyline of the Bible as a whole, and the examples of what women did in the scriptures lead me to the conclusion that ministry and leadership roles should be opened to women.

This raises critical questions of interpretation and rightly reminds us that there are scriptural texts that are uncomfortable for all of us. Our own tradition can squeeze out what the Lord actually says, so that we domesticate the text to fit with our pre-formed notions. Our traditions should be respected and consulted, but the scriptures, not tradition, constitute the final authority. Nevertheless, pride of place often goes to tradition, so that a novel interpretation must be defended quite convincingly to overcome the tradition, especially if the tradition, if it is virtually unanimous, represents the interpretation of many generations.

So, as we study this evening let us ensure our traditions always stand under the scriptures, for they function as the final authority.

Let just think about this for a moment, before we press on. Should we greet one another with a holy kiss? Must we drink wine if we have stomach aches? Obviously not. But is there no instruction for us in these commands? Isn’t there a principle in the commands that applies to today? We learn that we should greet one another warmly in ways that fit with our culture. And if we have stomach problems, it is fitting to use medicine. We cannot return to the first-century world, so our efforts should be in translating the biblical word into the twenty-first century.

How should we apply Jesus’ instructions on riches? Too often we ignore Jesus’ words on this matter altogether. Should we give up our wealth as the rich young ruler was called to do? I would argue we are not necessarily called upon to practice literally what Jesus said to the rich ruler. In this matter (another subject in its own right) we have to consider the biblical theology of riches in Luke-Acts. If we read Luke-Acts as a whole, we see that Jesus’ view of wealth must be assessed from more than one text.

For instance, when Zacchaeus was saved, Jesus did not command him to give all his money away. The Lord was pleased that he gave half of his wealth to the poor (Luke 19:1-10). Peter reminded Ananias that he was not required to sell his property, nor was he required to give it to the church. Ananias and Sapphira were punished for lying, not for refusing to give all their wealth to the church (Acts 5:1-11). In Acts 12 the disciples met in the house of John Mark’s mother. Presumably she retained her wealth since the church gathered in her residence. Hence, we have some indications in Luke-Acts itself that Jesus’ words to the rich ruler should not be applied literally to all.

Biblical theology plays an important role in considering how scripture should be applied to today, and a systematic study of all that scripture says about wealth and poverty would be enormously helpful. Naturally, there is much more that could be said on this issue than is possible here (well, and its not my subject). My point is that the hermeneutical process, that is the study of the interpretation of written texts, is complex and rich. And we, as a community must continue to do biblical theology and systematic theology before applying scripture to our contemporary context.

Well, there are many ideas and opinions about women being involved in ministry. We may have received them from our church here, culture, our wider community or family background. These may be our own ideas and not God’s. As while the ratio of men to women leaders in the Bible is biased to the male, the women leaders we read about show an equality in God plan, and indeed I believe God had and still has great plans for women.

God’s original plan for Adam and Eve was to co-rule (Gen 1:28) but sin devastated the beautiful plan. But God continued to use not only men but women also for the reality of his covenant relationship and extension of his kingdom.


2 Responses to “Understanding how we read and apply the Bible”

  1. 1 Cliff

    Does the Father use the women to fix up what the men have messed up Tobit?

    After all, it was the seed of the woman that came to save us… in other words… it was never going to be the seed of man who would redeem us!

  2. 2 tobit

    a good point, ultimately, Jesus does the fixing up, but I like your point. We didn’t have a woman without a man, but without a woman there is no man, which has to challenge us in what ever notions we have about what women, and men can and can’t do.

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