When the messiah comes, says the Old Testament, he will “proclaim freedom for the captives.” (Is. 61:1 TNIV) Jesus the Messiah came, but he brought something better than the expected freedom from foreign domination: instead, he was interested in making people’s spirits free. Jesus himself said, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:34-36 TNIV)
Of all the authors of the Old and New Testaments, Paul speaks most often about freedom. Christ, he says, brings freedom from sin (Rom. 6:18-22; 7:14), freedom from death (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:2, 10-11) and especially freedom from the bondage of the [Jewish] Law (Rom. 7; Gal. 3), all things which enslave us and quench our spirits.
Thanks be to God that He saves our spirits, our souls, that which is the real, essential us. In I Cor. 7:22 he addresses slaves and makes a wonderful play on words when he says that in becoming Christians they have become free persons in Christ, while those who are externally free have become slaves for Christ. In other words, external social status is not as decisive as true (internal) freedom and certainly not decisive for salvation. Christ is the liberator of Christians from the slavery of social status and public opinion, as in this verse, and also in I Cor. 9:19, 10:29; Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11, and Eph. 6:8. In Gal. 2:4-5 Paul relates how false believers tried to infiltrate “our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” (TNIV) Come back, they said, to the old ways of the Law and legalism. Come and get bound up again.
But II Cor. 3:17 says: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” So anything that kills our spirits, is not freedom, and can’t be of the Spirit of the Lord.
Sexism, enforced subservient roles based on gender, whether sociologically modeled or religiously imposed, kills women’s spirits. How can it be, then, of the Holy Spirit? Be of God?
How should we then interpret Paul when he seems to be restricting the freedom of women during his time in some of his churches? Paul, the champion of freedom in Christ, lessening basic freedoms that came with salvation!
I believe that it is the height of intellectual arrogance, and perhaps spiritual as well, to assume that one can figure out exactly what specific problems Paul was faced with in his cultures, in his churches and exactly what shading of meaning he meant by this word or that, particularly Greek words that are only used once or twice in the New Testament. Instead, two thousand years later, we should be asking, How is the Spirit freeing us here and now to do His work?
A well-known and respected evangelical theologian I admire, F.F. Bruce, says our hermeneutic principle should be as follows.
“Whatever in Paul’s teaching promotes true freedom is of universal and permanent validity; whatever seems to impose restrictions on true freedom has regard to local and temporary conditions.”
“Our application of the [Biblical] text,” Bruce says, “should avoid treating the New Testament as a book of rules…. We should not turn what were meant as guiding lines for worshippers in one situation into laws binding for all time…. It is an ironical paradox when Paul, who was so concerned to free his converts from bondage of law, is treated as a law-giver for later generations. The freedom of the Spirit, which can be safeguarded by one set of guiding lines in a particular situation, may call for a different procedure in a new situation.” [“Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey” Christian Brethren Review, 33 (Dec. 1982): 7-14.]
Amen to that.