Archive for November 20th, 2005

Our Schizophrenic Biblical Interpretation, Part One of a Few

November 20, 2005

By way of introduction, I decided that I’ve been dealing with only easy issues for way too long and am not getting many comments and interaction. Since I see the purpose of the blog world as a way to engage in dialogue, I am starting this week by throwing out some thoughts on a tough issue, but you, O blog reader, have led me to it.

When one looks at our interpretation of Scripture, our holy book, one finds that we can be very schizophrenic at times. For instance, we believe that the commands of Scripture are important, but choose which commands we like to follow. When Peter tells the crowd of Jews in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized” (or “baptize yourselves”—a very plausible interpretation if you know Greek and Jewish practices of baptism), we say that is a command not only to the Jews but also to us by extension and that is how we become Christians. Great! I follow that. But then we come to what Jesus says to his disciples in John 13:14, “Since, therefore, even I have washed the feet of all of you, the Lord and Teacher, even all of you are obligated to wash one another’s feet.” Some Christian traditions do foot washing, particularly on the Thursday before Easter, but the Church of Christ does not. Yet it is laid upon Jesus’ disciples as an obligation (the word “ought” just does not express in English the force of the Greek word here).

Our interpretive thinking would go something like this: In those days the custom was to wash feet because everyone wore sandals and walked on dusty roads. It was just common courtesy. Therefore it is not a command or example for us (even though Jesus specifically calls it such in John 13:15) because it had to do with their customs and their situation. In Acts 2, Peter was telling people how to become Christians so this applies to everyone at all times. We see this practice continue in the book of Acts and can therefore assume it to be normative.

Going back to the custom thing, the custom with footwashing was to have one’s servants wash the feet of one’s guests. The “lord” of the house did not do such menial tasks. The point Jesus was making had nothing to do with the what of footwashing, but the why of footwashing—i.e. why he, their Lord and teacher, did a slave’s work. The command still applies and concerns humility, not custom. If we don’t want to wash feet, we need to find a different way to humble ourselves before others that is similar in kind to footwashing in the first century if we want to follow Jesus’ teaching. [I say this not derogatorily, but assuming that perhaps we don’t think Jesus’ teaching to his disciples has relevance for us today. I would then wonder how it functions as Scripture for us, then, and not just a good story.]

The real point of departure for discussing our schizophrenic interpretation comes in the so-called women’s issue, or the role of women in the church [don’t swallow your gum, Al, when you read this]. For the purpose of this particular blog article, I prefer for all of us to stick with 1 Corinthians and try to understand it first, without bringing in 1 Timothy or 1 Peter. After all, if we cannot make sense of Paul in just one of his letters, how can we bring in a later letter of his and then the letter of another author?

Here is another example of our schizophrenic interpretation. We read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women are to be silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak. So we (i.e. Churches of Christ, and others) say that women cannot say prayers in the morning worship assembly, they cannot read Scripture, cannot lead singing, cannot lead the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist, communion), and cannot even pass it down the aisles (you who are not from this tradition will see the differences between us in how we do the Lord’s Supper). How this last thing relates to being silent I do not get, but that’s what we do. However, women sing from the pew in our assembly. If there is an announcement and the person announcing has incorrect information, women are free to give them the correct information from their seat in the pew. We do not follow this command even though we say we do. Women are not silent in our churches. Were they completely silent in the Corinthian churches? They certainly weren’t before Paul wrote this. Does he expect them to be completely silent until church is over? I don’t think so. This is where 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 comes in. It reads:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head– it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious– we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Although I have some issues with the NRSV translation here, I present the text so you don’t have to go look it up. Some important issues to deal with to get out of the way with this text are that the head covering is clearly a cultural issue. It was a custom when going to offer sacrifice before a pagan god for a man to cover his head. We don’t really have a similar custom. Secondly, Paul is no egalitarian. He is definitely more liberal than many in his day, but he stills sees women in a subordinate role. I don’t have a problem with saying that this is Paul’s understanding of things. Thirdly, in 11:14, when he says that nature teaches men should have short hair and women long hair, he clearly does not mean “nature”, as hair on both men and women can grow long or be cut short. There isn’t a gene that keeps men’s hair from growing long or a gene that prevents women’s hair from being cut—what Paul means is that the custom of his culture is that women wear long hair and it is disgraceful for them to have a shaved head. Such is not the same for men. It is disgraceful for men to have long hair, but there are also certain Jewish rites in which a man shaves his head and this is not disgraceful for him. This is custom, the word he uses in 11:16, but there he is dealing with a larger issue. Finally, as all good God-followers do, he uses Scripture to buttress his argument. 11:8-9 deal with the creation account in Genesis 2:18-25, where God takes a rib (customarily) out of Adam and forms Eve so that she is both made for him (11:9) and taken from him (11:8). This is also likely behind what he says in 11:3 about man being the head of woman and that for this reason there should be a “symbol of authority” on her head (i.e. to symbolize her husband’s authority over her) in 11:10. Paul gets very egalitarian on us when in 11:11-12 he talks about neither being independent of one another, but that man now comes from woman and all things are from God. He seems to mean here that neither is better than the other, but both are equal. An issue that never has been resolved satisfactorily (to my understanding) is what the “because of the angels” in 11:10 means. I do not attempt to solve it here. I do have a problem with Paul saying that only man is the “image and glory of God” (11:7) because Genesis 1:27 says that male and female were made in God’s image, but I’ll leave that point for now.

Leaving all of the prior discussion aside for the moment, let’s focus on the key issue here. This passage is about customary practice in the churches when it comes to men and women praying and prophesying in the churches (Which were, of course, groups of people meeting in houses, with the possible exception of the Jerusalem church meeting in the temple [see Acts 2:42-47]. There was no distinction between private worship and public worship—it all took place in homes.). When Paul sums up his argument in 11:16 by saying no other church has a different custom, what he is talking about is the central concern—the practice is that men do not pray or prophesy with any sort of covering on their heads and women do pray and prophesy only with a covering on their heads. This is the customary practice in all of the churches and Paul wants it to be the case in the Corinthian church as well.

Getting back to our schizophrenia does Paul have it too? Does he contradict himself by allowing women to pray and prophesy in chapter 11 and then telling them to be silent in chapter 14? Most interpreters in Churches of Christ would say that 1 Corinthians 14 is what Paul really wants to happen—he doesn’t want women to pray, prophesy, talk, or anything. Is this true?

Without boring you too much, 1 Corinthians 12-14 deals with speaking in tongues and prophesying in the assembly. There was complete disorder in the Corinthian churches as tongue-speakers and prophesiers all spoke at once so no one understood and no one got any benefit. What Paul tells these people, both tongue-speakers and prophesiers, is to, you got it, “be silent” (14:28, 30). Why? Because God is not a god of disorder, but a God of peace as in every church (14:33). “Be silent,” is exactly what he tells the women to do (14:34). Clearly this is not the main cause of commotion in Corinth or Paul would have spent more time on it like he did with speaking in tongues and prophesying. But just as that was a problem unique to Corinth, and was situational, so also was the problem of certain women who kept piping up in the assembly with questions for their husbands, thus adding to the chaos that already existed there. Paul’s advice to them parallels his advice to the prophets and tongue-speakers—be silent, submit to having order in the assembly, and further specific instruction for them is to ask their husbands at home. The Greek bears this interpretation out and I can reference the person who demonstrates this because this is not my original thinking. What is shameful, then, is not for women to speak, but for women to keep on causing chaos by asking questions, thus interrupting the speaker and creating disorder in the church. Once again, Paul is dealing with the same issue in all three cases—the prophesiers, the tongue-speakers and the women are all causing disorder and chaos that are making it so no one benefits from their time of corporate worship.

Paul does not want all women to be silent everywhere any more than he wants all tongue-speakers or all prophesiers to be silent at all times. Women who pray and prophesy with their head covered are the normal custom in the churches and Paul wants this practice to continue. (For further reference to Christian women prophets, see Philip’s four unmarried daughters in Acts 21:9.)

I’ve gone on for too long, but this is what I see as an example of our schizophrenic biblical interpretation. Tell me what you think.