Toward an Egalitarian Hermeneutic of Faith

by Catherine Clark Kroeger | April 30, 1990

My first introduction to the rudiments of a theological education came during the closing days of World War II as I sat upon the rocks of a remote island in the Lake of Bays in Canada. Our instructor was Cornelius Van Till of Westminster Theological Seminary. Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship had introduced a one month lay training institute to prepare Christian College students to deal with the attacks upon the Christian faith which were our daily lot in the secular classroom.

Van Till taught us that the Bible, if it was truly the Word of God, would hold up to intense scrutiny; that we could dissect it, shake it in a test-tube, grind it fine, and analyze it carefully. If we found apparent contradictions, this was an invitation, not to discard the Bible, but to study further.

I believe that we need to come to the Bible with just such a faith when we deal with the hard issues – not only those of doctrine but also those of Christian behavior. If we can develop a hermeneutic of faith which will apply to a better understanding of gender roles in the economy of God, perhaps the same methodology can serve us in circumstances which the church of Jesus Christ cannot now fully envision. The twenty-first century will surely bring theological debates of a nature different from any we have known, but the same Lord can guide us into all truth through the Word of God which shall not pass away.

In every age there are those who come to the Word of God with new questions. They wrestle with the topic until at last the Holy Spirit gives light, and then they go on to new questions. I think especially of those early men and women of God who debated the nature of Jesus Christ. Sincere people were able to point to one set of Scriptures; and others, equally dedicated to knowing the mind of God, would come to another conclusion, also with the use of Scripture. The struggle to understand the truth of the Word took centuries to be resolved; and at last the Empress Pulcheria, with Eutychians and Nestorians snapping at her heels, summoned four hundred bishops to Chalcedon; and there was hammered out a declaration of Jesus Christ as One Person in Two Natures, united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.

There have been other debates which have taken an enormous amount of time and effort: what is the Word of God? What is the nature of man ? What is the basis for our salvation, and so forth. Each is an urgent and legitimate question, one with which the Church of Jesus Christ must tussle. In our own day, one of these legitimate questions concerns the biblical role and status of women. Some point to Genesis 3:20 and to the restrictive statements of the Apostle Paul and lay out a carefully circumscribed area of women’s activities in church, home, and society. Others lay hold of Galatians 3:28 and claim the traditions of Deborah, Miriam, and Hulda, and of the women who first went at Christ’s command to  herald to the men their Resurrected Lord. The issue is far from resolved and calls for commitments of which I would like to speak.

Studies about women and the Bible have moved beyond an analysis of individual texts or groups of texts, to the development of a feminist hermeneutic. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, appalled by the injustices perpetrated upon women in the name of Scripture, declares that feminists must develop a hermeneutic of suspicion. She insists that all Scripture cannot be proclaimed as the Word of God because some of it is oppressive. Hence the need for a hermeneutic of suspicion. Hers is not the only feminist hermeneutic. Letty Russell, Phyllis Trible and others have developed their own; but evangelicals have been very slow to formulate a strategy for interpreting the Word of God as it applies to women.

Of course I have considered this the work of theologians, but perhaps a few suggestions would not be amiss. Let me begin by defining the word feminist in a positive sense. In its initial dictionary meaning, it means a person who believes in the equality of men and women. Certainly many people are redefining the term with additions to which most evangelicals would not give assent; but the original sense is similar to the truth expressed in Galatians 3:28, that in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female, bond nor free, Jew nor Greek.

The Problem of Integration

How shall we integrate the entire message of the Bible and apply it to our daily lives in church, home and society? I believe that we must work with a hermeneutic of faith. We must say at the outset that evangelicals have been slower to formulate a feminist hermeneutic because we find it far harder than others. We come to Scripture and declare it to be the living Word of God, our only infallible rule of faith and practice. We are caught between the apparent contradictions with regard to women in the Bible, and our belief that it is all truly God’s message to us. We are not dealing simply with a collection of ancient texts. This is the Word of God, given as light for our minds, cleansing for our souls, and nourishment for our spirits. We believe that in the Bible God has truly spoken to us. If it appears oppressive, contradictory, and unjust, then there are questions which need to be asked, alternatives which need to be pursued; but it is still the Word of God, still to be heeded as the words of life. David said, “Righteous art thou, O Lord, and right are thy judgments. Thou has appointed thy testimonies in righteousness and in all faithfulness.” (Ps. 119:137-138) We cannot abandon our belief that the Bible is indeed a message and not just a muddle. We do not denigrate Paul or his theology – rather we must say that Paul deserves to be studied.

Here is where faith comes in. We believe that the Bible may contain paradoxes, perplexities, and problems but not outright contradictions. If God gave us a message, it is one which may be believed and acted upon, one upon which we may stake our very lives. And so we must travel with the faith that there is a resolution for this issue, even if it is not immediately apparent. We need to obey the command to compare Scripture with Scripture. No less a fundamentalist than the late L.E. Maxwell, president of Prairie Bible Institute, declared that there were over a hundred passages in the Bible which affirmed women in roles of leadership, and three which appeared to oppose it.

The Weapon and Tools of Faith

What, then, are we to do? Is not our God a God of justice and love, and did not Jesus say that he came to preach liberty to those who were oppressed? First, I suggest that we resort to the weapon of prayer, that we spread out our perplexities before God and ask for the wisdom which is promised to any who will ask. We believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who gave us the Scriptures and that the Holy Spirit is our foremost teacher in understanding them.

A hermeneutic of faith also asks for commitment. Let us approach the Word of God with silence and submission. This phrase “silence and submission” is a formula used in the ancient Near East meaning readiness to hear the will of God and to obey it. God asks of us receptivity to heed and to obey. We must be willing to be changed by what we read. Now this does not mean that we will approach the Bible with no preconceived notions. All of us bring our prejudices with us. It is important, though, to be honest about this. It is much better to admit to ourselves and others that we have certain view-points and to understand that we have held these presuppositions as we read. We need to ask, have we read our own convictions into the text? Have we been fair to other view-points? Then we must be ready to alter our perspectives in accordance with light from the Word.

The Great Commandment

I believe that our commitment as we read may well take the form of the great commandment, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and strength and thy neighbor as thyself.” If we love God with all our heart, we will love all that Scripture says about Him. We will even love the metaphors of God as mother. God promised “Like as one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort thee.” (Isaiah 66:13) The book of Job speaks of the “womb of God” (38:29); and Isaiah spoke for God when he wrote, “The Lord goes forth and will shout aloud like a mighty man of war,…I will gasp and pant like a woman in travail.” (42:13-14) Jesus said that he would have gathered Jerusalem to his breast as a mother bird her brood.” (Matthew 23:37)

If we are faithful to the Word of God, it is our duty to share all of the revealed nature of God; and we cannot obscure this aspect. Indeed an understanding of God as Mother can be an important evangelistic tool. I recall an old alcoholic Dane whom I was seeking to lead to the grace which he could find in Jesus Christ; and suddenly he burst out, “If God is like a Fadder, den I don’t vant him!” It was essential for him to know that God is also revealed as Mother. This insight has great importance in helping women to understand that they too are made in God’s image. Genesis 5:2 says, “Male and female created he them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.”

We must be mindful, however, that the Bible commands us to not to image God as either male or female (Deuteronomy 4:16) – our love must be for a God who is above and beyond human sexuality.

If we love God with all our hearts as we read the Word, we will love the way that Jesus treated women. He received Mary as a student who had chosen the better part which should not be taken away. He told Martha that he was the Resurrection and the Life and prompted her response that He was indeed the Christ, the One who was to come. He affirmed the faith of the Syro-Phonecian woman whose tenacity of trust brought the healing of her daughter. He revealed to a sinful woman at a well that He was the Messiah and sent her forth to bring a whole village to hear His message. As the Samaritans streamed forth to meet  him, Jesus told his disciples “Here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’ (John 4:37-38) Jesus rejected the double standard when he demanded that the one without sin be the first to cast a stone at the woman taken in adultery; and he repudiated the menstrual taboo when he required the woman with an issue of blood who had touched him give public testimony of her healing. He hailed the widow who gave God everything that she had and he dared to loose the bonds of a daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath before a hostile crowd. At the Garden Tomb, he waited until John and Peter had left so that Mary Magdalen might be the first to bring the news of her risen Lord. Hebrew law maintained that women could not be used as witnesses, yet Jesus expressly sent them forth to tell his brethren that he was alive and would meet them in Galilee. (Mt. 28:10) When the disciples on the way to Emmaus expressed their disbelief of the women’s story, he cried, “O fools and slow of heart! Ought you not to have believed all that the prophets have said!” (Luke 24:25) Yes, our love for Jesus must include a love for his treatment of women as revealed in the Scriptures.

Loving God with our Minds

But the Bible also commands us to love God with all our minds. We must at this point get out our scholarly tools and get to work. We need to work through all of the passages carefully. Could we be mistaken about Deborah, the prophet, judge and genera? Do we understand what it was that Jesus commanded the women to do on Easter Morning? Why does Micah say “Have I not sent Moses and Aaron and Miriam before thee to lead thee?” (6:4) Against these must be balanced the difficult Pauline passages – as well as all the exegetical problems – in I  Cor. 11:3-14; 14:34-35; and I Tim. 2:11-15.

I am aware that there are also passages with problems in Isaiah and in the imprecatory psalms and in the opening chapters of Genesis, to name just a few. The women’s issue is certainly  not the only tough issue. It would be quite easy to give up and walk away, rather smug in our belief that the larger set of passages are quite direct, whereas the passages apparently representing an alternative point of view are plagued with problems. But they are still the Word of God, still God’s message to us; and we cannot walk away from them. We cannot deny the difficulties or ignore them. Job said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (13:15) The Psalmist said, “All thy commandments are true.” (Ps. 119:151) We believe that there is a resolution to the difficulties if we search for it with faith. Jesus said, “Seek, and ye shall find.” Part of our faith is that, like wrestling Jacob, we do not let go until we have reached a satisfactory conclusion.

As we begin, we need to examine the textual tradition. Is it reliable? I Corinthians 14:34-35 occurs at two separate points in some of the early texts. This raises a question as to whether it might not originally have been a gloss which slipped into the text.

The mandate occurs in all versions of I Corinthians 14, however, and appears to be an authentic part of the epistle.

Next we should ask, “What does the text say?” Here a knowledge of the biblical languages is absolutely critical. Too often we leave a genuine mastery of the Bible in its original tongues to a rarefied and elitist group. We need instead a far stronger and more widespread competence in Greek, Hebrew, and other related languages. In each new generation, we must return to the texts to grapple with new situations which have arisen in our contemporary society. New questions must be posed of the old Scriptures.

When it really matters, we must get back to the fundamental text rather than putting ourselves at the mercy of translators. For example, in Romans 16:7 Junia is called a noteworthy apostle. (The same Greek term for “noteworthy” occurs also at Matthew 27:16) Most translators change the feminine name to “Junias” – a name which is absolutely unknown in any inscription, literary or legal document, or coin, whereas the feminine form “Junia” is perfectly common. Some translators have ventured “Junius” or “Junianus”, neither of which is allowable by the alpha ending in the text. One can only acknowledge that learned gentlemen have inserted into the rendering of this passage their own preconceived notions.

We must also be wary lest we be influenced by the unwarranted additions which some translators insert into the text. Most of the older versions at least italicized the words which had been added, so that one could be aware of the insertions; but modern versions and paraphrases often have no such italics to help the English reader discern what actually does appear in the text. A famous case in point is I Cor. 11:10, which literally translated, says that a woman ought to have power over her own head. It is almost impossible to find a version which gives this rendition. Archbishop Moulton declared this verse to be one of the most difficult in the entire New Testament. Katherine Bushnell snorted that anyone with a single year of Greek ought to be able to handle it adequately. The language was perfectly straightforward but the meaning unacceptable to most translators.

Considerations of Language

Next comes the matter of language. Is there more than one meaning for some of the words employed in the passage? If there are other established meanings for a given term, what sense would their utilization give to the passage? The verb hupotasso, for instance has a number of meanings, as even the most conservative biblical dictionary will admit. They will carefully point out, however, that when applied to women, the verb means that they should obey their husbands. The word “silence” has at least has at least five different meanings in the New Testament in particular and in Greek religion as a whole. Do we give any indication of this in the passages dealing with women?

Recently there has been much controversy over kephale, the word for head. Despite abundant examples in ancient literature, traditionalists deny that kephale has in the Greek the value of origin or source. Yet the ancients believed that human sperm was generated in the head. It passed down the spinal chord and passed on to bring new life into the world. Artemidorus of Daldo wrote that just as the father is the source of life for the son, so the head is the source of life for the body. Sometimes the statue of a bearded head was set at the source of a river, for the rest of the body flowed forth from the head. To bring this concept of headship to passages such as Ephesians 5 and I Cor. 11 brings a very different understanding to the relationship between husband and wife.

Another critical term is lalein, used in I Cor. 14:34-35 as an activity prohibited to women. The directives of the First Epistle to the Corinthians state that women might pray and prophesy with their heads covered, (11:5,13) and all might prophesy provided they took turns and did it in an orderly fashion. (14:26,31). These mandates become coherent if we understand lalein as referring to disruptive noise. The word means to vocalize, as well as to speak. Plutarch wrote that dogs and apes could lalein, but they could not speak rationally; and Athenaeus preserved a charming verse about a fish who spoke a lot (lalein) but didn’t say anything. In I Cor. 14:9,11,27, and 28 lalein clearly refers to an utterance which does not convey meaning to its hearers. I suggest that women are asked to refrain both from irrelevant chatter during the service and from the ritual cries which they gave at ceremonial occasions from the time of Homer to the present day. A plaque excavated from a temple halfway up the Acrocorinth is specifically dedicated to just these cries of women and bears evidence that the phenomenon was alive and well at Corinth.

Another prime example is I Tim 2:12, where a verb occurs which is used nowhere else in the entire New Testament. The problem is vexed because in a case where a word occurs but once, the dictionarian often simply follows the translator and declares that it has such-and-such a value in New Testament Greek. Authenteo, the verb in question, is defined in New Testament dictionaries as meaning to usurp authority or to dominate, although other Greek authors used the term to imply other values such as to kill someone, to begin something or be responsible for the initiation of something, to lay claim to property as being one’s own, to claim to be the author of something and so forth. To translate that one verb differently changes the sense of the entire passage. This passage which causes women so much perplexity can be rendered in a variety of ways. Why do we not explore the possibilities?

Considerations of Grammar and Context

Then there is the matter of grammar. Is there an unexpected construction which might give another interpretation? I Tim. 2:12 can perhaps be construed as an indirect statement with a redundant negative so that the emphasis is upon what women are forbidden to teach rather than upon their teaching or administrative function. The grammar of Romans 16:2 may be understood to say that Phoebe was an overseer who had been ordained by Paul himself. The very same construction is used to say that Paul was made or ordained a minister (Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23,25). Why, then, are we so reluctant to give the same rendering when it refers to a woman rather than a man?

Equally important is an understanding of the context of a given passage. This is especially true of the problems in Pauline writings. We need first to see Paul as one trained at the feet of Gamaliel in rabbinic tradition. As such, he was fully aware of the consequences of a Jewish woman removing her veil in a public gathering. But Paul was also a Roman citizen who was at home in the Graeco-Roman world. He alone of the apostles appears to have been comfortable in dealing with non-Judaized gentiles.

If we would understand the rationale of this missionary to the gentiles, we must understand the worship practices of heathen women; for they differed extensively from those of men. We must also recognize that Paul had been born at Tarsus and retained a deep commitment to proclaiming the Gospel in his native Asia Minor. His missionary travels took him deep into the heart of Anatolia, to an intimate knowledge of those forms of religion which were practiced there, especially by women. I Tim. 2:11-15, addressed to Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor, may be understood as a response to these Anatolian traditions.

Loving with our Strength

If our love of God demands hard mental effort, let us not forget also to love God with all our strength. It is our responsibility to exercise the most serious scholarly endeavor of which we are capable. This means a thorough knowledge of the exegesis of other scholars, including those with whom we disagree. Lamentable, evangelical scholarship has not always been of a level of excellence that earned the respect of non-evangelicals. Too often we tend to slough off when the going gets tough. Let us acknowledge that we are called to a long-term effort. If we believe that there are solutions to our perplexities, let us commit ourselves to finding them. We cannot claim to have all the answers, but we can profess a faith that they are there if we continue to seek them.

Loving God with all one’s mind requires time and energy and effort. There is a great deal of heavy spade work to be done, and there are no short-cuts. This means gaining a mastery of materials which we may find repulsive – fertility cults of women, pagan rites, and impure literature. Worse yet, the path is often wearisome and tedious. Blessedly, God is our strength and can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

If we are to love with all our strength, we must have the courage to refute those interpretations which do violence to the Word of God or to the people of God. For instance, we must speak out against those who justify the abuse of women by the citing of Scripture, we must be very clear that the bible forbids roles of leadership to those who strike another (I Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7). Whether the weak are wronged by those from liberal or conservative campus, we must offer a refutation based on biblical principles.

The Transforming Power of God’s Word

The second part of the Great Commandment bids us love our neighbor as ourselves. We love because Scripture has convinced us that all are made by God in God’s own image, and that Jesus Christ came to redeem all. Surely this means treating all human beings with respect and seeking to bring each one to her or his highest potential. Gender, social condition, and racial considerations are all swept away by Galatians 3:28. The Great Commandment calls us both to respect the insights of other Christians and yet to bear to needy people our distinctive message. The Bible calls us to manifest the love of Christ in every dimension of life.

If the Bible calls us, it also transforms us. We believe that the Word of God is alive and powerful and capable of making us new. As we see the light of God’s Word fall upon others, our attitudes toward them change. God’s Word teaches us to look at people in new ways.

Once we have seen the poor, the homeless, the afflicted, the fatherless, and the stranger within our gates in the light of their true worth as revealed in God’s Word – we can no longer continue in our old heedless patterns, nor will mere patronization suffice. Our hermeneutic of faith demands transformed behavior by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“I am thy servant; give me understanding that I may know thy testimonies! Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep thy precepts.” (Psalm 119:125,134.)