Perhaps, like me, you’ve been asked, “If you could give someone only one argument for egalitarianism, what would it be?” Perhaps, like me, you don’t like that question because the answer differs depending on the audience. I know people who would respond best to an appeal to theology, focusing on the loving and freeing character of God. I know people who would respond best to an appeal to Church history, focusing on the stories of certain women over the ages. I know a few people who would respond best to an appeal to the social sciences, focusing on how modern research upholds egalitarian ideals. Most of the people I know, however, would respond best to an appeal to the Bible. More specifically, most people who ask for an argument in favor of egalitarianism are in fact asking for a reason to understand the key biblical texts in an egalitarian way.
And so here it is, my hopefully-helpful single answer to an impossible-to-answer question: Most of the key texts are in Paul’s letters (Galatians 3; Ephesians 5; 1 Corinthians 7, 11, 14; 1 Timothy 2). I’ve often said, and I’ll reiterate here, that the most important thing to realize about Paul’s letters is that they are indeed letters. They were written by a specific person to a specific audience in a specific place for a specific pressing reason. Discussions about biblical interpretation often deliberate whether a text is universal or temporal, trans-cultural or culturally bound. Elsewhere I’ve given my opinions about the shortcomings of such deliberations (“Asking the Wrong Questions,” Priscilla Papers 24/3 [summer 2010]), but for the purposes of this blog let me simply say that when the genre is a letter, the question is particularly easy to answer. Letters are by definition local, specific, and tied to a unique set of circumstances.
I decided to write this blog while getting today’s mail. Below are three sentences from the three letters I received today:
“Respond today and you’ll continue to enjoy convenient home delivery of Backpacker Magazine for another year.”
“Thank you for your recent gift to Nebraska Christian College.”
“How far did you hike in Maryland; how was the weather; why do you think Jesus wept?”
The authors of the above sentences gave no thought to how they might be interpreted 2000 years later, in a nation that hadn’t yet been founded, in a language that hadn’t yet been spoken. And neither did Paul. So when we read Paul, we must continually remind ourselves of the obvious: His letters are letters, and they were not written to us.
There is more to be said, of course, and 1 Corinthians 1:2 says it best: “To the church of God in Corinth [the first audience, them] … together with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ [the second audience, us]….” By the time Paul authored these words he had been a letter writer for several years and had learned that his intended recipients would not be his only readers. He began to be aware of a second audience, and we modern readers are among that vast group of “all those in every place.” What a privilege for us to be “named” in Paul’s address! And what a challenge to understand and apply a letter written so very long ago