Why we’ve missed the mark

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Reprinted from The Christian Leader 26, April 1988.

Biblical feminists, as opposed to other feminists outside and within the church, accept the full authority of all Scripture for all the people of God. But they recognize, with all modern people, that we do not absorb Scripture in its pure form into our understanding. Like anything else we read, reading Scripture is an interpretive process. In other words, while Scripture is perfect, our understanding of it is limited. It is limited by the tradition in which we receive it – how it has been interpreted for us by others. It is limited by human incapacity to completely understand God. In other words, there is no error in the Word of God, but there may be error in how we interpret it.

How else can we explain the fact that sincere Christians disagree on the interpretation of certain biblical passages? Surely, we cannot accuse all those who disagree with us on any minor point in Scripture of being insincere. Most of us realize that honest Christians do disagree. The real wonder, and the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit, is that on the fundamentals of faith, there is so much agreement. Neither those fundamentals, nor the authority of any part of the Bible is in question for biblical feminists. Their questions are about how the Bible has been interpreted and understood, especially regarding the relationship between women and men. By searching the Scriptures, they found in them a different perspective on women from the one handed down to them by tradition. The Bible itself caused these people to embrace biblical feminism.

It might help us to take a look at some of the factors involved in translating and interpreting the bible. Some of these factors apply to the interpretation of any written material. But the first applies only to Scripture because we approach it with certain theological assumptions.

Hermeneutical Principles

We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires the writer and guides the interpretation of the reader, but without the kind of suspension of human faculties that people claim for the book of Mormon, or the Koran, for instance. Our second theological presupposition is that nothing outside Scripture can interpret it as well as the whole body of Scripture itself. In other words, when something is hard to understand, we look for other parts of the Bible that might shed light on that part. Scripture interprets Scripture. Third, we assume that the responsibility of interpreting the Bible is best accomplished in the gathered community of believers. In that way, individual limitations in understanding may be overcome by the contribution of others. This is sometimes called the hermeneutical community – the community of believers who in mutual submission contribute to the church’s understanding of Scripture.

I don’t think there would be disagreement in church circles over these three theological assumptions. But there are other factors that complicate biblical interpretation which are not so well-known or understood.

Translation Problems

(1) Choosing the correct meaning for words. The first set of problems arises at the very beginning of the process – the translation from the original into a modern language. In the past, most people assumed that the King James Version was a direct, word-for-word translation of the Bible from the original languages into English. Now, the variety in the new translations has alerted even the layperson to the fact that choices must have been made by the translator.

We recognize from our own language that words have different shades of meaning, and sometimes can mean several different things. Like the word “play.” It may mean a pleasurable activity, or it may mean a drama. Now think about the difficulties of translating a language that was spoken 2,000 years ago and trying to get meanings for words by looking at all the ways they are used in all the writings that have come down from that period.

(2) Cultural bias. The next interpretative factor that already appears in translation is the fact that translators are human beings with a particular way of looking at the world because of their own tradition and experience. People wear different kinds of glasses. And that influences the choices that are made in the translation process. Depending on the assumptions of the translator’s culture, class, or gender, choices are made that seem perfectly legitimate to them. But people from different categories may see something that has been overlooked or misunderstood. The point I am trying to make is that the biases or unexamined assumptions of translators have influenced their translation of Scripture. It is commonly recognized that pure objectivity is a myth. And, of course, all this is true of the reader as well as the translator. So a second set of assumptions comes into play when the reader filters the written Word through his or her own preconceived understandings. Translator and reader subjectivity is a factor in the interpretive process that cannot be ignored.

Because the translators of Scripture into English were all men, we must realize that their translations may have been influenced by the prevailing cultural, assumptions about the place of women. And that goes double for the exegesis or interpretation of the text.

Let’s look at two places in the New Testament that may be examples of translation bias. The first is Titus 2:5. The passage is about the proper behavior for young Christian wives. In the King James Version, it reads that they are to be “obedient” to their own husbands. But the Greek word for “obedient” is not in the original manuscript. Instead, there is a strange variant of a word that means to subject oneself (hupotassomenas). The Christian usage of this word carries a quite different sense from that of unquestioning obedience.

A number of texts make it clear that subjection is meant to be reciprocal – a kind of rhythm of giving in to each other that preserves the harmony of the Christian community. It carries the sense of adapting to each other. But this kind of submission does not mean simple, blind obedience or else the biblical writers could have chosen another, very common, Greek word (peitharcheo) that clearly means obedience. Instead, there is constant and consistent exhortation for believers to submit themselves one to another under the authority of Christ who is the Head of both women and men in the church. With that understanding of submission, the Phillips translation of Titus 2:5 may be the best. It says that wives should be willing to adapt themselves to their husbands. Mutuality means making decisions by consensus. I have yet to find a verse in Scripture where it says “Someone must make the final decision.” Rather, the model for decision making in the body of Christ may be found in Acts 15:28 “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

Another example of translation bias is found in Romans 16. In verses 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul writes about a woman named Phoebe. The English text reads that she was a “servant” or “deaconess” of the church and “helper” of many and of Paul himself. The word “servant” is the same word that is used for ministers like Timothy, Titus, and Paul himself. That would be a legitimate word to describe Phoebe, because all ministers were to be servant-like in their leadership of the church.

But the word “helper” is totally unjustified. The original text does not use the Greek word for “helper.” Instead, it uses a feminine form of a word that means “ruler.” That Greek word is used of chiefs, leaders, kings, and governors. And, in all the other places in the English New Testament where this word or its forms occur, they are translated with the sense of “ruling” or “presiding over.” But in the case of Phoebe, the word which means “ruler” has been translated “helper” without a shred of justification from the original manuscript.

It seems that the “cultural glasses” of the men who translated the Bible into English did not allow them to recognize that a woman might be a pastor of the church at Cenchrea. Women pastors were not allowed in Europe so the biblical text was altered in translation to reflect their own situation.

Another serious translation problem has to do with the English language usage of “man” and “mankind.” We have been taught in the past that these terms are inclusive of women. But the linguists tell us that generic terms are not accidental. They involve conscious choice on the part of the culture. Man is the norm and standard by which humanity is measured. Woman is a deviation in the category in which man is the norm. If you don’t believe this, try using “woman” and feminine pronouns as generic terms when you are speaking to a mixed group.

This priority of the male is an effect of the Enlightenment revival of pagan Greek thought in Western culture. Ancient Greek world view was responsible for the concept of “The Great Chain of Being.” According to this idea, all forms of life are ranked in relation to each other on the basis of their intrinsic worth. That which is worth more ranks higher. The result is a hierarchy or ladder. Humans are above animals; men are above women and slaves; the gods rank higher than men. “The Chain of Command” has roots in pagan Greek philosophy – not in the Bible.

But back to the English word “man” used generically. The problem is that we don’t have a different separate word for man that is not generic. The Greek language does. There is a generic term that means “male and female” (anthropos). There is a different word for a male human (aner) and a third term that means only female (gune). So in most cases, when the generic term is used in the New Testament, there is no doubt that it is inclusive. The English “man” always leaves a question as to whether or not it is inclusive because it may be used to mean only the male. And it seems to rank men over women as standard human beings.

Where the English translation has “man” and “mankind,” the original New Testament texts use a word that clearly means the human species, both women and men. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:1 “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels” – means “If I speak in the tongues of humans or angels.”

1 Corinthians 15:21: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” It should read “for as by a human being came death, by a human being also has come resurrection…” Notice the theological implications here. Clearly Jesus Christ was male; but just as clearly, the first sin was committed not only by a man, Adam, but by the one-flesh-human-being, male and female. The emphasis is on the humanity of Christ, not his masculinity.

Sometimes translators have felt justified in adding words “for clarification” which are completely absent from the original text. In English 2 Corinthians 10:15 reads: “We do not boast…in other men’s labors…” But “men’s” is completely absent from the original so it should read: “We do not boast in others labors…”

I have a friend who knows the original biblical languages. She and her husband compiled a list of the kind of mistranslations that I have just described. They found 224 of them in the New Testament alone.

What’s the fuss, you might ask? The fact is, that the use of the male/generic term highlights men in the English version and seems to leave women out. This surely has an effect on whether or not the Bible is perceived as good news for women – especially those who are new to the Christian faith. And also, it would not be as hard for us to see that women have the same responsibilities as men in the church if we actually could hear all the biblical teaching that is addressed to both instead of to the generic male.

Contextual Problems

Those are some examples of translation problems. There are other factors that influence how we interpret Scripture for our own time. One of these is the context. We need to know not only the actual words of Scripture but the context in which they were given. We need to know who is speaking to whom.

For example, 1 Corinthians 14. This passage is quoted often by those who are against women’s participation in public church ministry. In the early part of the last century, it was used to keep women from praying in public. Verse 33 says that women should keep silent in the churches and be subordinate as the law says. A very peculiar statement for the Apostle Paul, who was constantly in conflict with those who wanted to impose the law on Gentile believers! Furthermore, there is nothing in the Old Testament law about women being silent. There is a great deal of evidence that they were anything but that. They sang, prayed, and danced in the assembly of God’s people. There are restrictions against women in rabbinic law, but those are definitely not biblical.

When women are told to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14, we need to ask who says so. Many scholars now believe that this passage was a statement of the Judaizers who were disrupting the Corinthian church. They were the ones who wanted women to be silent according to rabbinical law and the practice of inter-testamental Judaism. The Apostle Paul here quotes what they say and then goes on to refute it. In verse 36, Paul thunders an exclamation that puts these silencers of women in their place. What? Did God’s word originate with you?! Then Paul writes that anyone who truly has God’s Spirit will know that what he has written earlier in the letter is true. That includes chapter 11, where Paul clearly expects women to pray and prophecy in the public assembly.

So contrary to what some think, Paul’s writing is not bad news for women, and it is not necessary to discard this part of Scripture to support women’s full participation in the ministry. It is necessary to understand the context of these words. They are not Paul’s opinion; they are an argument from his enemies. This is an example of what Gretchen Gabelein Hull calls “the true record of a false idea.” She notes that the Bible records not only God’s ideal but also the accurate picture of humanity that is marred by sin. It is very important that we distinguish between the two; and in some cases, like this one, it is not always perfectly clear until research and study of the context help to reveal it.

There is another way in which knowing the context is very important. The context helps us to understand the correct and full meaning of particular words and statements. It helps us to decide if something is addressed to a particular time and place, or if it is meant to apply to all Christians at all times in exactly the same way. You may think that we have not made decisions like that. But what about the clear command of Jesus that we should wash each other’s feet? When I was a child, we still practiced it in our churches. Now most churches don’t, as far as I know. Why?

The Selectivity Factor

Selectivity is another factor in our understanding of Scripture. The Bible is a complex book of writings inspired by God but written by many different authors over hundreds of years. Most of us tend to select passages of Scriptures and ignore others on the basis of our own opinions. For instance, when people set out to prove that women are not allowed to teach, they ignore the example of the woman teacher Prisca. She was a teacher of Apollos, an important male evangelist in the early church.

Jacques Ellul uses very strong words to describe this mishandling of Scripture. He writes in The Subversion of Christianity, that women’s place of responsibility in the church has been rejected by a process of “neutralizing” women and then finding theological justification for it. That process has been supported by a “vicious reading of Scripture” that avoids the spiritual passages about women.

The Satanic Standard Version

Finally, there is another factor that influences our understanding of Scripture that we don’t hear enough about these days. It surely is true that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. On the other hand, I believe that Satan works extremely hard to deceive us about the true meaning of Scripture. Satan started the war between the sexes by questioning Eve’s understanding of the Word of God. “Did God say that you shouldn’t eat, or did God really mean that you would become gods by eating?” (Gen. 3:1) Satan tempted Jesus by saying “it is written” and then quoting from the Old Testament.

There are many different versions of the Bible these days. Some probably are better than others. But there is one that we must totally reject. I call that version the S.S.V. – the Satanic Standard Version.

I’m convinced that we get two basic misunderstandings about the relationship of women and men from that version. The first is the idea that the price paid by Jesus was enough to restore our relationship with God to what it was before the Fall, but somehow it was not enough to restore the pre-Fall relationship between women and men. The second satanic interpretation is that women are disqualified by their gender from assuming full responsibility, in partnership with men, for the work of the kingdom of God. If the rule of the Fall is still in effect, men and women cannot be fully reconciled to each other; and women will not realize their full potential as witnesses to the gospel. That interpretation is unacceptable, because whatever hinders the gospel is a credit to Satan, not to God.