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All Those in Every Place

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

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19 Comments

  1. Anne
    Comment #96574 posted August 9, 2012 at 9:56 am

    I am confused how this is not a clear demonstration of just choosing what you want to believe and using the Scripture to accomplish your purpose….?

    I also feel very uncomfortable with the awareness that you-or any professor or modern day author-are not exactly on par with Paul, his equal. I wouldn’t discard what he wrote to the 1st century church as if it couldnt apply today. Not only that, but some of the people groups Paul wrote to were more perverse and had their minds darkened far more than people in our country here and others in Western Europe. Paul’s words would have been controversial to those 1st century people groups he addressed, not just to Americans who are huge about their “rights.” it saddens me to realize you know this but disregard it willingly.

    This “egalitarian” theology is a painful-to-watch “solution” for addressing sins against women. It’s hiding a minimized view of the transforming power of the grace of God. We are attempting to change theology instead of getting on our knees and asking God to transform man.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96579 posted August 9, 2012 at 11:11 am

      While I don’t think anyone who is not Paul is Paul, I agree with the theory (presumption?) in the blog post that Paul was unaware at the time that he wrote his letters that they would be included in a text that would be used to guide a new religion.

      As an editor and sometime writer, I know that I (NOT that I am half or even a third the writer Paul was) and most any other decent communicator writes with his audience in mind. So, a one-time letter to a group to address specific problems changes shape, tone, and content IF I somehow have the foreknowledge that it will be one of the texts included in a book that will be used to guide a new religion.

      Remember: The group already had a text. And Christ did not come to earth to start a new religion: certainly, one imagines, not one named after him, as why should one of the three-in-one be (or seem to be) exalted over the rest? I don’t think Paul knew that one of the things that would come out of his work (overall, not just his writings) would be a new religion, and so had no way to know that his letters would be voted into the new religion’s guiding book.

      Also, the egalitarian scholarship I’ve read has not indicated that there is *nothing* we are to learn from Paul’s letters. Rather, that it may not be what it immediately seems to be.

      I also disagree that humans today have our minds and hearts any more or any less clouded than the humans who were the intended audience of Paul’s letters. We are not superior to others merely because we were born later than they were.

      • Michelle
        Comment #96580 posted August 9, 2012 at 11:31 am

        Before anyone else mentions it, yes, “Christ” is not exactly Jesus’ name, but the point is still valid. He did not come to Earth to start a religion, especially not one that has a name that exalts his religious title and arguably therefore the part he plays in God’s relationship with the human race above the two other members of the Trinity (the Father and the Holy Spririt. The Bible is a book….).

    • Jeff Miller
      Comment #96582 posted August 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Anne,
      Please re-read my post. You believe that I am discarding Paul’s teaching “as if it couldn’t apply today.” But I actually wrote that the challenge modern Christians face is “to understand and apply a letter written so long ago.” That is to say, it does indeed apply today. You seem to think I have a flippant or dismissive view of Paul and the role of his letters in our lives, but in contrast I emphasized what a privilege it is to be included in Paul’s address.
      JDM

    • Laurie
      Comment #96583 posted August 9, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      “This “egalitarian” theology is a painful-to-watch “solution” for addressing sins against women. It’s hiding a minimized view of the transforming power of the grace of God. We are attempting to change theology instead of getting on our knees and asking God to transform man.”

      I suspect many will disagree with this view. Personally, it was the discovery that God fully heals women as well as men from the system of “man” and calls both men and women to mature into the fullness of Christ Jesus and do the works that He did and more, that rescued me out of the crippling dominion of patriarchal minded humans.

  2. Laurie
    Comment #96581 posted August 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    “when we read Paul, we must continually remind ourselves of the obvious: His letters are letters, and they were not written to us.”

    I totally agree with this. Even today with the many anointed speakers we have around the world, one does not quote “Eric” in Canada to explain what “Harry” or “Harriet” in Minnesota are try to say on a subject. We look to the context in each authors words to understand their intent and goals.

    I also appreciate your noting the difference in who is addressed in the 1 Cor. letter. How can we say that we are rightly dividing the Word of God when we make so many assumptions about what God’s messengers are saying. Only by correctly assessing the letters in their own time and purpose, can we hope to apply their principles to our era and ourselves.

  3. Megan Megan
    Comment #96584 posted August 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Hi everyone, just a note: we had a bit of a technical glitch here that I’ve just fixed. We had the wrong author listed. The author of this post is Jeff Miller, who uses the handle JDM.

  4. Comment #96585 posted August 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    The way I have seen it worded is the Bible was not written TO us, but it was written FOR us. One of the most common ways to misunderstand the Bible is to read it as if it was written TO us, this can totally ignore the cultural differences including metaphors and any special terms used. A language can be seen as a way of carving up reality and each language can do this differently, which is why translation is an art and not a science.

  5. dahurn
    Comment #96586 posted August 9, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    I am mystified as to why this would be anyone’s definitive argument for equality of the sexes. I have re-read it a few times to see if I somehow totally missed the point, but “Paul wasn’t writing to us” is a bizarre way to approach the many bible believers who think that his writings are God’s revelation to all ages. And doesn’t it all fall apart to point out that he is aware of a wider audience for 1 Corinthians, when it is in that letter where the ‘male headship’ and ‘women keep silence’ passages are found?

    Surely there is an obvious argument against hierarchy in the various versions of the Golden Rule:

    1. Love your neighbour as yourself.
    2. Do unto others as you would be done unto.
    3. Submit yourselves one to another.

    Soo…

    1. women are neighbours too.
    2. if you would not like to be silenced and side-lined in the church, how can you justify doing it to others?
    3. If men are to submit themselves to the women in the church in just the same way as the women submit to the men, surely the outcome of that an egalitarian model.

    • Jeff Miller
      Comment #96587 posted August 9, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Dahurn,
      1. Don’s comment (above yours) is a good clarification of my original post. He says, “One of the most common ways to misunderstand the Bible is to read it as if it were written TO us, this can totally ignore the cultural differences….”
      2. I do not claim that my post is, as your comment ponders, a “definitive argument for equality of the sexes.” Rather, I offered it as an attempt at answering a difficult and confining question.
      3. Your attempt at answering the same question starting with the Golden Rule is better than mine. I’ll use it frequently in the future.
      4. Here’s an example of what I (and I think Don) am getting at. Many thousands of American Christian husbands & wives believe that a significant part of what makes their marriage biblical is this: When an important decision needs to be made, both spouses give their input. Ideally they will come to agreement. If, however, they come to a stalemate, the man decides–and in so doing he fills his role as loving leader and she fills her role as submitter. As practical and sensible as that seems, those couples are largely oblivious to the fact that their approach arises out of a stream of American culture with no attention whatsoever given to how Paul’s teaching would have played out in first-century Ephesus. My point, then, is that an awareness of our place as secondary rather than primary recipients should compel us to look first at Paul & Ephesus, discerning how he applied certain principles to a context, and then strive to apply the same principles in our own contexts.
      5. You mention that my post is a bizarre way to approach “bible believers that think Paul’s writings are God’s revelation to all ages.” I am in that group, and it’s not that group I’m concerned about. Rather, I have in mind the sub-group that is willfully ignorant or dismissive of the contexts of Paul’s letters, and of other parts of Scripture as well. For example, I recently heard the public Scripture reader call Philemon “Philippians” on a Sunday morning. When corrected later, he said, “Philemon, really? Never heard of it.” I’m gonna assume that if this life-long Christian has never heard of Philemon, he also knows nothing of the circumstances of its sending. His ability to understand & apply Philemon will flourish after he learns about the original setting.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96613 posted August 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Dahurn,
      I love this. I’ve long wondered how it is that wives–and then by extension through the enforcement of gender roles, all females–become exempt from the various versions of the Golden Rule!

      I think it’s accomplished by the way the complementarian churches, in my experience, use their ideas of gender to paint a picture of females and males as being two different species, rather than two different sexes of the same species. There’s an assumption that women want to be protected, rather than respected, for example.

  6. Comment #96589 posted August 10, 2012 at 7:20 am

    I think the Bible was written for everyone in every age. But many people do an interpretation process as follows, where I break it down: A) God is not trying to trick me. B) I will take the “plain meaning” of the (translated) words. 9) By plain meaning I mean that if I said/wrote them this is what I would mean. D) This plain meaning is what God meant and is authoritative.

    This method is a total hack and can lead to gross misinterpretations but it can be challenging to at first see why, especially as this is what so many people claim to be doing yet ending up with different ways to understand various parts of the Bible.

    The reason it is a hack method is it totally misses the idea that the text in the Bible was NOT written TO us. Each book was written to some original readers/hearers and they are not us! The reason there are such books like The Annotated Shakespeare is because the culture of those times is NOT our cultures, so many of the references in Shakespeare do not mean anything to us. How much more is this true of the Bible!

    So FIRST we need to do our best to try to figure out what the text meant to the original readers/hearers (most could not read in those days). And SECOND we then try to apply that meaning to our situation today. And of course, we also know “the end of the story” where Christ wins, so we can view things thru that lens also in considering how to apply some text, so we do not stone adulterers today, etc.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96590 posted August 10, 2012 at 8:49 am

      THIS is awesome. Not to overstate the case…this communicates what I’ve been trying to figure out how to say: that communication cannot be removed from culture. But the way you say it puts the concept into the realm of the practical: leading to some things that can be and should be put into practice, and…thank you.

    • JDM
      Comment #96591 posted August 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Thank you again, Don, for your clear and emphatic support of the ideas driving this discussion. I’ll appeal also to a few published sources as well:

      Gordon Fee (“New Testament Exegesis,” 144-45) gives three initial steps for understanding a text from the epistles: 1) “First, you need to learn something about the general situation of the recipients.” 2) “you also need to familiarize yourself with the nature and composition of the church(es) to which the epistle was written.” 3) “you need to reconstruct for yourself … the specific historical situation that occasioned this section within the epistle.” And he goes on, “This is one of the absolutely crucial steps … for your letter, after all, is a response to something. It is an immeasurable aid to understanding to have worked out as carefully as possible what situation your epistle addresses.”

      From Kaiser and Silva’s “An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics,” page 19: “if we fail to take note of the distinctive cultural features of Hebrew society or of the historical circumstances behind an Old Testament book, we allow our mental ‘filter’–that is, our preconceptions–to determine what the biblical passages may or may not mean.”

  7. Charis
    Comment #96592 posted August 11, 2012 at 7:31 am

    My husband talks a lot like Jimmy. In hubby’s case it is due to early porn exposure. It robbed him of the capacity to feel empathy for another and warped his view of women and children and to this day, he has not recovered/healed.

    Hopefully, Jimmy has a wife who is aware of her authority and responsiblity to stand up for herself and their children.

    The Jimmy’s of the church provide a good illustration of why disrespecting and silencing the input of women is dangerous.

  8. Comment #96593 posted August 11, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Yes, both of those authors are good at emphasizing this. To those who have only seen the “plain meaning” method, it seems like one is complicating the process at first and this might be because one wants to distort Scripture in some way to benefit oneself. But once you see the need for the historical context, you realize that the former method is just too simple and it is a fake out when it actually works!

    Once you see that, you can never go back to the inferior method, even thought it takes more work. And it is really a case of respecting Scripture for what it is to try to understand it this way and therefore it is a case of actually disrespecting Scripture when it is not done. And you may also notice it when others use the inferior method.

  9. Laurie
    Comment #96594 posted August 11, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Charis Comment #96592

    “My husband talks a lot like Jimmy. In hubby’s case it is due to early porn exposure. It robbed him of the capacity to feel empathy for another and warped his view of women and children and to this day, he has not recovered/healed.”

    I’m really sorry to hear this. I can see that God has used this to strengthen you, though it must have been (and probably still is) a rough hill to climb.

    Once a man get’s the idea that a woman is there for his enjoyment and use (porn) it can be very difficult to give up this superiority and give the ‘thing’ one used equal opportunity. My ex still lives in that mental paradigm with women as sexual objects for his pleasure and little more in value. This attitude is probably one of the biggest destroyers of spirituality and the true understanding and meaning of life that God would have for us.

  10. JDM
    Comment #96610 posted August 16, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    This thread has died down, & it will soon give way to another (& another …). I’m writing to take one final opportunity to emphasize the relevance–ancient & modern–of Paul’s letters. Please notice the title of the post: “All Those in Every Place.” And the final paragraph makes clear, the title is borrowed from I Corinthians where Paul explicitly states he is writing not only to the Corinthians, but to “all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which of course includes us.

  11. Comment #96612 posted August 17, 2012 at 7:47 am

    1Co 1:1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
    1Co 1:2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

    As discussed above, it is important to see that the explicit meaning is that Paul intended his letter to be circulated, it is directly to the 1st century church at Corinth and then extended explicitly to other churches of the 1st century. The other churches could ask those at Corinth what something meant if it was unclear to them, as Paul is responding to things that had happened at Corinth specifically. We today do not have this ability, we are disadvantaged in some ways from them in knowing the whole context of the letter; we can try our best to “read between the lines” but what we have is like half of a telephone transcript between Paul and Corinth and we need to see that we might misunderstand parts of it because of our limitations. For example, what is Paul talking about when he mentions “baptism for the dead” in 1Co 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

    Admitting our limitations we try our best to discern God’s intent for us knowing by faith that God inspired Paul to write it and the church to keep it.

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