From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 2 - The Search for Truth

"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)

We are rapidly entering a time and a season where we, as instruments in the Creator's symphony, can no longer afford the indistinction of sound which has characterized the Church in the past. The end of the age is upon us. Everything is accelerating, as all of creation groans in anticipation of the return of the King of kings. There is a lost and dying world before us, waiting for a touch from the hand of the Master which will bring life, love and liberty. As one woman minister has said regarding this issue of women in ministry, "We are, in a sense, watching the house burn down while arguing about which fire truck to use."1 Another woman minister has put it this way, "There is enough kingdom building for all of us to do: Let's get on with it."2

Part of "getting on with it" is taking the time and making the effort to ascertain what God is really saying. A clear understanding of God's Word brings confidence. God's women need that kind of confidence in order to arise and fulfill their destiny.

We must move beyond merely asking, "What does the Bible say?" We must also be willing to commit ourselves to study, being diligent to present ourselves approved to God, rightly dividing or handling with skill and accuracy the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). That involves a willingness to weed out the contamination of tradition, prejudice or culture from our understanding of the Word. It means being diligent to seek:

"Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding, If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, And find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding" (Proverbs 2:3-6).

"Getting on with it" necessitates seeking a revelation of Jesus, who is the Truth (John 14:6) and the living Word (John 1:1-4:14). He told the Pharisees,

"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40).

Jesus emphatically declared to the religious leaders of the day that knowing the Scriptures was not enough. We must come to Him for life. The apostle Paul said something similar to the church at Corinth. He wrote, "...for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). Theologian J.I. Packer identifies legalism as part of the problem in the woman issue, what he calls "anxious observance to the letter of the law in disregard of the Spirit." He says this legalism steals fullness of life, is relationally repressive, intrinsically harmful and antihuman!3

God, thankfully, is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). He promises that if we seek Him with all of our hearts, we will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13). If we seek to move beyond the letter to the life of the Spirit, then we must allow the Holy Spirit to be our teacher. He is the one who brought the divine inspiration for the Scriptures to men in the first place, and should be our primary teacher in understanding them. Jesus called the Holy Spirit the "Spirit of truth" and said "He will testify of Me" (John 15:26). He revealed that, "when the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Of course, this is not automatic! Dr. Fuchsia Pickett, a well-known Bible teacher with over 50 years experience in ministry, has suggested that until we come into a proper relationship with the Holy Spirit, we cannot operate with a true understanding of God's divine order for mankind. Neither can we expect illumination of the Word of God that brings understanding of His purposes.4

Seeking God's mind and heart

First and foremost, we must seek to know God and understand His mind and heart. How can we understand what the real Author of the Scriptures meant if we don't have an understanding of His eternal plan and purposes, His ways, or how He thinks and feels?

I remember getting a letter from Dave before our marriage when we were dating long-distance. In those days I was clingy and insecure, always needing reassurance of how he felt about me. It was just more than he could take. One day, I got a letter from him, which looked to all appearances like what we call a "Dear John" letter. I showed it to my brother, George, who did not know Dave at all, and asked him what he thought Dave was trying to say. He told me to forget the man! He gently dropped the bombshell that it was obvious Dave was severing our relationship. I accepted George's interpretation of the letter for a few days, but my intimate knowledge of Dave's thoughts and feelings finally brought me to a different and, obviously, more accurate conclusion. Knowing him in a deeply personal way made all the difference in the world. Through this experience, I learned the value of intimate relationship when attempting to come to an understanding of the heart and meaning behind someone's words. How true this is of our attempts to understand difficult and confusing passages of Scripture. Knowing God intimately makes all the difference in the world!

Seeking God's message in His Word

We must look at the original language of the Scriptures to discover God's intended message. "Losing something in the translation" has become a cliché we often employ in humorous situations when someone doesn't get the joke, but it is more than a cliché. It is a reality! We can't base our theology and practice solely on the English words ascribed by the translators.

Sometimes difficulties or errors in translation can lead to serious misunderstandings. I worked with a well-known Christian ministry for a few years helping to facilitate, among other duties, the publishing of their material in other languages. They had previously published one book in Spanish. In the course of my job, I began to hear stories from Spanish pastors about the horrendous misunderstandings which were occurring among their congregations as a result of the faulty translation of this book. The translators were sincere and skilled in their understanding of the language. But there were nuances and regional differences that they did not understand. For example, "speaking boldly" was actually rendered "speaking dirty words" in their translation. You can imagine the furor this caused in Christian circles! Translators have provided only the first step. We must recognize the limitations and do our utmost to overcome them.

Let's look at a simple example of how translation and interpretation might affect our understanding of God's Word. There are three Greek words that can be translated as "love" in English. They are eros, phileo and agape. Using very simple definitions, eros refers to erotic sensation or lust; phileo refers to brotherly love or friendship; and agape refers to divine, supernatural, perfect love, the source of which is God. Now, let's look at Romans 13:8: "love one another". What did the Author of the Scriptures mean? If I only look at the English word "love", then my understanding of love shapes my interpretation of what God is saying. If the only love I have ever known is erotic love, then I might understand this verse to condone sexual relationships. Surely not! But what is Paul saying here? How can we know for sure? By going back to the original language. Did the Holy Spirit direct the apostle Paul to use the word eros, the word phileo, or the word agape? One of the easiest resources to use in searching this out is a concordance. In looking up the word "love" in a Strong's Condordance, we find that the number corresponding to our particular scripture is 25. We then look up number 25 in the Greek dictionary at the back of the concordance and find the specific word used in this passage. In this case, Paul used agapao, a verb form of the noun agape. So we know that God is directing us to love one another with a supernatural, divine love which comes from Him working through us. This is something we might never have known had we stopped with a superficial look at the English translation of this verse!

There are numerous Greek and Hebrew resources available to those who have limited knowledge of these languages. In addition to concordances, there are more in-depth and thorough resources such as lexicons, word study guides, expository dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries. Further, different translations will often bring out different shades of meaning from the original language. I usually check 4 or 5 different translations before I go on to further study and analysis of a verse or passage. All of these resources are helpful in discovering the real message that the Lord intended to communicate to us.

Seeking the whole counsel of God

In ministering together, Dave and I listen very carefully to one another's sermons to provide encouragement and affirmation, as well as to bring attention later (and privately) to anything that was not clear. In the early days, I would sometimes listen to Dave preaching and think, "If someone only hears this one sermon, they will have a skewed impression of what he really believes!" Invariably, this would happen when he was trying to bring balance to some attitude or way of thinking by heavily emphasizing the other side of things. We began to realize that if visitors to our church tried to understand Dave's theology based on just one morning's message, they would almost certainly arrive at a completely erroneous conclusion. Does this sound familiar?

My point is that we communicate fully only within the context of many communications. We rarely share every nuance of our thoughts on a matter in one reference or one conversation ... or sermon. But rather, as people come to know us and hear us share what we think and feel over a period of time, they begin to understand what we actually think and where we really stand.

It is no different with God. It is critical, I think, that we look at the progressive revelation of His mind, heart and will throughout the whole of the Scriptures to fully understand what He thinks, feels and desires for all of His children. As David Scholer, a Baptist Dean of Seminary and Professor of New Testament, has explained, understanding difficult passages of Scripture requires that we look carefully at the immediate context of the paragraph, the context of the entire letter or book, and the context of the entire Word of God, as it speaks to that particular subject.5 I would put it this way: If our theology does not fit the principles found throughout the Scriptures, then our theology needs adjustment! Catherine and Richard Kroeger speak of a valuable lesson learned from one theology professor. They discovered, "...that the Bible, if it is truly the Word of God, will hold up to intense scrutiny; that we can dissect it, shake it in a test tube, grind it fine, and analyze it carefully. If we find apparent contradictions, this is an invitation to further study."6

It's imperative that we be willing to scrutinize, dissect, shake, grind and analyze the Word of God. We must be willing to seek the whole counsel of God, not being satisfied with one or two portions of Scripture which seem to confirm our own theology. Bear in mind that throughout history, slavery and racism have been justified by a selective study of the Bible! Those on both sides of the issue of women in ministry have made similar mistakes, contributing fuel to the fire of accusation and misunderstanding in the Church. Anyone can develop a proof-text to support his or her own particular position. We need to make a commitment to go beyond proving our point and examine the entire context of the Scriptures. As Marianne Meye Thompson, a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary has said,

"Both those who favor women in ministry and those who oppose women in ministry can find suitable proof texts and suitable rationalizations to explain those texts. But if our discussion is ever going to move beyond proof texting ... I suggest that the starting point ... lies in the God who gives gifts for ministry and in the God who is no respecter of persons."7

A contributing factor to the differences in Scripture interpretation is ambiguity. Some of the apostle Paul's teaching, in particular, may appear confusing and contradictory at first glance. Further, he sometimes used ambiguous expressions that seem to make no sense. However, there is a basic rule of interpretation that we can apply in these situations which is helpful. David Scholer describes this axiom, "Clearer texts should interpret less clear or ambiguous texts (i.e. the ambiguous ones should be 'read through' those which more clearly seem to express the heart and mind of God)..." He notes that those who use 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to restrict women in ministry, for example, usually assume it is a clear text through which other New Testament passages should be read. He suggests, however, along with F.F. Bruce, that this verse should be read through or understood in relation to Galatians 3:28, not vice-versa.8 Galatians 3:28 explains, "...there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Why did Paul not spell out more clearly what the roles of women should be in the Church? Perhaps the first century Church did not share our preoccupation with organizational structure and traditions. Perhaps they were too busy spreading the gospel and reveling in their newfound love relationship with the Lord to be concerned about such things. Maybe they looked at roles and functions in the Body of Christ from a perspective that was fresher and closer to the heart of God than our own. There is evidence, as we shall see later, that roles and functions in the newly emerging Church were determined by spiritual gifts and anointing, not gender, status or ecclesiastical position.

There is another factor that contributes to the confusion. We must realize that the writings of Paul, while inspired by the Holy Spirit, are in the form of personal letters to various churches and individuals. He frequently did not spell out the situations he was expounding upon because the churches to whom the letters were directed were familiar with the issues and circumstances. In some of these passages, it is left up to us to try to ascertain, through cultural and historical studies, exactly what he might be addressing. These types of studies can also aid us in better interpreting and understanding the Scriptures by providing a backdrop and a wider context within which to place specific verses. They also help us to identify the underlying biblical principles and apply what seem to be culturally specific passages to our own lives. As Davis and Johnson point out, the goal is "to accept biblical teaching as authoritative but to translate it into appropriate contemporary cultural expression."9

Seeking historical validation

A specific application of the use of historical and cultural studies to aid biblical interpretation is that of examining the historical accounts sprinkled throughout the Old and New Testaments. If, for example, God had never used a single woman in leadership or in a position of authority throughout the Scriptures, it would lend credibility to the traditional interpretations of several confusing New Testament passages. However, there are numerous women leaders mentioned in both testaments. Examining whom God used and how He worked through them to accomplish His purposes helps us to come to a proper understanding of His mind and heart. The Kroegers share how one fundamentalist leader, in scouring the Scriptures, came to the startling conclusion that one hundred passages in the Bible "affirm women in roles of leadership", and fewer than half a dozen appear in opposition.10

Early Church practice further helps us to understand the revelation of the heart and mind of God as understood by the church leaders of that day. They are the ones who co-labored with God to write the very passages that are confusing to us. For example, we can observe that women were as visible in the apostle Paul's ministry as they were in the ministry of Jesus. When we realize that Paul's practice was, in fact, diametrically opposed to what we have traditionally thought and taught he was saying, then we are forced to admit there must be something skewed in our initial interpretation!

Finally, it is also important to look at Church practice throughout history and the fruit that has resulted. As we see God's hand of blessing on the Sunday School movement and the missionary movement of the 19th century, both of which involved huge numbers of teaching women, it should cause us to reanalyze our thinking. Would God have so abundantly blessed these movements if, at their very core, there were practices that were contrary to His commands?

Summary

It is a time for renewed seeking, as the end of the age is upon us, and we are confronted with a lost and dying world. Release from the captivity of confusion and disunity which has characterized the Church's understanding of women in leadership will come as we study to show ourselves approved to God, cry out for discernment, and seek for truth. The Bible says, "And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32). However, the truth is more than a body of facts and information. The truth is a Person. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6, emphasis added). It is as we seek to know Him and understand His mind and heart, His message, and His whole counsel, that we will come to know the Truth that sets us free.

Studying to show ourselves approved to God is a necessity if we want to understand His mind, His heart and His message. This depth of understanding involves being willing to move beyond a superficial study of the Scriptures to dig, scrutinize, and analyze. It involves being willing to utilize the many resources available to believers to look at the original languages and compare translations. Examining confusing Scripture verses in light of their context, within their passages, their specific books, and the Scriptures as a whole, is also essential for accurate interpretation. Reading ambiguous passages of Scripture "through" the clear ones further helps in our effort to ascertain what God is saying. Cultural and historical studies also aid in this endeavor by providing a backdrop and a larger context in which to place difficult passages. These studies additionally help us to identify the underlying biblical principles and apply what seem to be culturally specific passages to our own lives.

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Chapter 2 notes

  1. "Pentecostals Urged to End Bias Against Women Ministers", Charisma & Christian Life (December 1996), p. 16.
  2. Susan Finck-Lockhart, "An Open Letter", The Priscilla Papers Volume 10, Number 2, Spring 1996 (CBE, St. Paul, MN), p. 5.
  3. J.I. Packer, "Understanding the Differences" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 298.
  4. Fuchsia Pickett, "Male and Female Created to Co-Labor with God", Spirit-Led Woman (June/July 1999).
  5. David M. Scholer, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 193-219.
  6. Richard C. Kroeger and Catherine C. Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman - Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1992), p. 30-31.
  7. Marianne Meye Thompson, "Response" in Women Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 94.
  8. Robert K. Johnston, "Biblical Authority and Interpretation: The Test Case of Women's Role in the Church and Home Updated" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 33-34
  9. James T. Davis and Donna D. Johnson, Redefining the Role of Women in the Church (Christian International Ministries Network, 1997) p. 33.
  10. Richard C. Kroeger and Catherine C. Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman - Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1992), p. 33.

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