of God Is Living and Active Hebrews 4:12.
Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of
All) - mosaic, 1148 AD, dome of Cathedral of Cefal, Palermo, Italy
Authority of Scripture
Christians through the centuries have viewed the Scriptures as a unique
book (or collection of books). They have believed that the Scriptures come
from God in a way that no other book has. They have said that God is the
author of Scripture and that Scripture is his word which he has spoken
through human beings. If these statements are true, or even if they contain
some truth, a person's approach to the Scriptures cannot be merely detached
or scholarly. Each person is approaching a book which is intended to address
him or her personally; in fact, it is a book in which God is addressing
him or her personally.(1)
Scripture is not simply interesting data or thought. By its very nature,
it calls for a response. Therefore, the way a person talks and thinks about
Scripture is itself a religious response. The approach people take to the
Scripture is an important part of the way they approach God. This
fact may be disguised behind phrases like "Contemporary Theories of Inspiration,"
"The New Hermeneutics," "A Realistic Interpretation of the Scripture,"
"Biblicism and Fundamentalism." But it is nonetheless true that the way
people read the Scripture involves their response to God. From the Christian
point of view, the question of the authority of the Scripture is a question
about how to approach God himself.
Few would deny that the Scriptures teach about the roles of men and
women. The question remains, however, how a person will respond to that
teaching. Many people in secular society will catalog the views of scripture
on this subject under such headings as "First Century Thought" or "Approaches
of Pre-Industrial Cultures" or "Ideas from Great Religions." They will,
in other words, file them away as interesting specimens of human thought,
or even as possible examples of significant human wisdom products, perhaps,
of religious genius.(2)
However, such people will not decide that something is true on the basis
that it is taught in the New Testament.
Others, who consider themselves to be Christians, will take a
similar approach. They will catalog the scriptural views under headings
like "Paul's Opinion" or "Primitive Christian Thought." These people will,
in other words, respect the Scriptures as worthy of great attention, as
important sources or data from which their opinions will be formed, as
opinions which they would not want to blatantly contradict; yet they too
will not hold a viewpoint or adopt an approach on the basis that it is
taught in the New Testament. All of these people might give the scriptures
weight, authority in the sense of something to which one should pay attention
and be influenced by, but they will not give them authority in the sense
of being the highest norm for their minds and lives. The position of Scripture,
once ascertained, will not be automatically decisive for them.
The question of authority is concerned with Scripture as a norm or criterion
for the beliefs and way of life of Christians. The scriptural teaching
on the roles of men and women has a normative aspect. It involves questions
of fact, but it is primarily the presentation of instructions for how Christians
should conduct themselves. Even where possible facts such as God's creation
of the human race as male and female for his own purposes come into the
teaching on men and women, their acceptance as facts rests upon the authority
of Scripture for determining the beliefs of Christians. The issue, then,
is whether the Scripture ought to determine the way people think and act
in the area of the roles of men and women.
The question of authority not only differs from the question of content
that is, what the Scripture teaches but it also differs from the question
of application. The Scripture could, for instance, teach a consistent approach
to the roles of men and women with the highest authority, and its teaching
still might turn out to be inapplicable to all peoples subsequent to the
industrial revolution. It might not even be addressing the situation of
modern people. Part Three of this book will treat questions of applicability.
The question of authority, however, is distinct from the question of applicability.
The question of authority concerns personal response.(3)
Nature of Scriptural Authority
The traditional Christian view has been that the Scripture (both Old
and New Testaments) has highest authority for the beliefs and life of Christians(4).
This means that Christians ought to change if they discover that their
beliefs contradict those presented for acceptance by Scripture or if they
discover that their way of life does not conform with that directed by
The word "authority" is not a traditional word to describe the Scripture.(6)
It is, however, commonly used in modern theological discussions of the
nature of Scripture.(7)
To say that the Scripture has the highest "authority" in this case does
not necessarily mean that there are no other authorities or that there
is nothing else which also has highest authority. Some would hold, for
instance, that tradition, reason, or personal revelation likewise have
highest authority. In the sense used here, highest authority means that
there is nothing which should cause Christians to contradict or otherwise
set themselves at odds with Scripture.(8)
A more traditional word for describing the claim Scripture has upon
the Christian is "canonical." The word "canon" means "rule" in the sense
of a "yardstick" or "ruler."(9)
Something which is canonical is a standard for measuring or judging something
else. In this sense, the canonical Scripture is the standard against which
all other opinions can be measured. If something is at odds with Scripture,
it is not Christian and therefore for a Christian not true.
The authority of Scripture, in the traditional approach, is grounded
in its origin. The Scripture is composed of writings which come from God.(10)
They contain the highest revelation of God and of his intentions for the
human race. The Scriptures are not merely human books or collections of
human opinion, although they are also these things. They are books which
contain God's revelation of himself. When people deal with Scripture, they
deal with God himself the creator of the universe, the one who has all
power in heaven and earth, and who knows all things. They are dealing with
the one whose opinions count, whose word is automatically truth because
he knows everything, and because he does not lie. God himself is a rock,
and his words are faithful and true. Therefore, anyone who does not approach
the Scripture with fear of the Lord either does not know what the Scriptures
are or does not know who the Lord is.
There are two words which have been commonly used to describe the origin
of the Scripture as from God: inspired and apostolic. The New Testament
books, the part of the Scriptures with which we are primarily concerned
in this book, were written by inspiration with apostolic authority and
are therefore accepted as canonical for the Christian faith.
"Inspired" means that the New Testament writings are given by God.(11)
They are the product of the Holy Spirit, inspiring the human authors to
write these books. To make this basic point, the different approaches to
scriptural inspiration do not need to be discussed.(12)
Here it is sufficient to say that the collection of books called Scripture
are writings which have been described as inspired by God (cf. 2 Tm 3:16),
meaning that they were given through the work of the Holy Spirit and can
be counted on to give truths from God. Human beings actually wrote the
Scriptures, and the Scriptures bear many marks of the human personalities
of their authors, but these works were nonetheless written under the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit, and this inspiration guarantees their truthfulness.
"Apostolic" is a second word that is important for understanding the
New Testament's origin in God. In this case it designates the way his inspiration
is mediated through authoritative human beings. The New Testament has been
handed down as a collection of apostolic writings. Whether this means that
the writings of the New Testament were actually penned or dictated by one
of the apostles is a question that is not crucial for our concerns. It
suffices here to say that the term "apostolic" at least indicates that
the work in question comes to us under apostolic authority; that is, it
comes to us as the teaching of one of the apostles.
The apostles are the foundational authorities of the Christian church
(Revelation 21:14), and the foundational authorities of Christian teaching.(13)
They have a unique authority, the highest authority after Christ. They
were delegated by Christ to do whatever was needed to establish the Christian
people after his resurrection and ascension, and that role included teaching
(Matthew 28:19-20). They therefore exercised Christ's authority and did
not hesitate to speak with his authority (2 Timothy 3:6-15; 1 Thessalonians
4:1-2). Clement of Rome, a contemporary of the apostles and a man taught
by them, summed up their position in this way: "The gospel was given to
the apostles for us by the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus the Christ was
sent from God. That is to say, Christ received his commission from God,
and the apostles theirs from Christ."(14)
Reading some contemporary scholarship on Scripture leads to approaching
the apostles as though they were merely early Christian thinkers, limited
men like all other men. Most scholars discuss Paul as a theological thinker,
or evaluate John's opinions, or reflect on the origin of Matthew's views,
and so forth. To do so is unavoidable, both because Scripture scholarship
is a secular discipline, and because the human authors of Scripture did
stand in human history under historical influence, and they were limited
men of a particular age in history. It is sometimes helpful for a Christian
to look at them in that way. But if this view dominates, one loses the
Christian perspective on the apostles namely, that they were given the
foundational authority to establish the Christian people and they were
delegated the authority of Christ to teach, and were often equipped with
the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do so. A collection of the books
that represent the apostolic teaching has therefore become the canon for
the Christian people.
"Inspired" and "apostolic" have been chosen here to describe the Scripture
insofar as it originates in God. They have been chosen because they are
two of the most common terms used in Christian tradition for this aspect
of the Scripture. Of the two, "inspired by God" is the more important term.
It should, however, also be observed that the books of the Scripture were
probably not received as canonical simply because their inspiration was
discerned or their apostolicity was well attested. Very commonly books
were eliminated because they did not teach unquestioned orthodoxy. They
were discerned, in other words, on the basis of their content. That too
was seen as a sign of their origin from God. The fundamental point, however,
is simply that Scripture has been given the authority it has because it
has been understood to be from God and to be reliable as an expression
of his mind.
Sometimes this understanding of the nature of Scripture is attributed
to Protestantism, while Catholicism is often said to substitute the church
for the Scriptures. However, Catholic teaching on this point is no different
than most Protestant teaching that holds to the authority of Scripture.(15)
Both Catholics and Protestants stand on the same ground in approaching
the Scripture as authoritative truth from God. The Vatican Council II,
in its Constitution on Divine Revelation (sec. 11), makes this point very
The divinely revealed
realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture,
have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy
Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred
and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire,
with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:31; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16),
they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church
herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the
while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and
faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true
authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and
In Catholic teaching as well as in Protestant teaching, nothing can overrule
or contradict Scripture not pope, council, inspired prophet, or great
Since, therefore, all that the
inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed
by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly,
faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake
of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures. Thus
"all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof,
for correction and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God
may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17,13 Gk.
There are many questions connected with the authority or canonical status
of Scripture, not the least of them why these twenty-seven books and only
these twenty-seven books are contained in our canon and should be regarded
as having highest authority.(17)
Christian theologians have traditionally answered these questions in various
ways. The fundamental point, however, is that we do have a canon, and the
books in that canon have the highest authority for a Christian because
they have been given by God through the Holy Spirit. This is a faith position
(like all faith in Christ or in his word).
Christianity is based upon the recognition of God speaking in the words
of men. The acceptance of the canon is also a first principle. It determines
to a great extent what someone will claim that Christianity is. If someone
does not accept the New Testament as canonical, or only accepts something
in the New Testament as canonical, that person will come up with a different
religion. That religion may preserve some faith in Christ, and it may be
properly termed "Christian" by historians or sociologists, but it will
be different from traditional Christianity. The New Testament as a whole
is foundational for faith in Christ.
If the New Testament is a collection of inspired apostolic writings
that are the canon, then it has the highest authority in the life of a
Christian. It presents words from God, the Lord of all, and it must be
believed and obeyed. To use a term from the New Testament (2 Cor 11:4),
Christians must "submit" themselves to it.(18)
must submit their minds, indeed their whole lives, to it. That submission
includes both believing it where the Scripture proclaims a fact about the
Christian faith, and obeying it where the Scripture indicates the Lord's
desires. Christians must respond to Scripture as something with authority
in their lives, in such a way that it is enough for them to know that scripture
has taught something in order to accept it and follow it. Scriptural teaching
is not merely one of many opinions, viewpoints, or theologies. It is the
standard against which all other opinions must be measured. If other views
do not correspond, they must be rejected.
The concern here is not primarily with an intellectual position,
but a question of how people should orient their lives. One can easily
begin to approach Scripture as a source of opinion or a justification for
different propositions, taking a stance in regard to it as a thinker who
makes use of Scripture. While Christians must think about Scripture, they
may not stand over it, using it for their purposes.
Approaching Scripture is approaching the Lord himself. It should be
received as a message from the Lord. The appropriate attitude is one of
submission the submission that should mark any relationship with the
Lord. Righteousness demands submission to the Lord.
Contemporary society, however, does not value personal submission. Rather,
it teaches that the ideal, the highest position a human being can attain,
is that of personal autonomy. The human being who decides for himself,
who is creative, that is, who devises novel opinions or viewpoints, the
human being who is "adult," taking the responsibility to make his own decisions
this is the human being who is valued.(19)
By contrast the ideal for a Christian is to submit totally to God, to
be molded and formed by him, to desire first and foremost to be what God
wants. The Christian is the servant (doulos-slave) of Jesus Christ; perhaps
a voluntary servant, but a servant nonetheless (Rom 6:16-23).(20)
is the person whose life does not belong to himself, but who has given
it completely, his mind included, to another-his Lord.
Many modern Christians have lost not only the sense of the dignity of
submission to the Lord but also an understanding of how to submit. They
no longer have an instinctual understanding of the importance of obedience
as an aspect of personal loyalty to God, and of how obedience grows out
of personal devotion to him. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments."
Obedience and love go together. But loving obedience is not content merely
to keep the explicit commandments that are solemnly enjoined. Loving obedience
also means eagerness to follow his preferences as well and to be formed
by all of his desires.
Christians who show loving obedience want their lives to be formed by
the Lord's desire, so that it is pleasing to him even in the smallest respects.
Moreover, loving obedience is active obedience. It does not wait for the
Lord to make his will known but seeks out the Lord's will. It is eager
to discover where the Lord has a preference, and to follow it. Concretely,
obedience means comparing one's mind and one's thinking with the Lord's
mind and thinking as found in Scripture. Obedience means changing one's
mind when it is not in harmony with the Scriptures and changing one's life
when' it is not shaped by God's desires as revealed in the Scriptures.
This attitude does not deny that God can reveal his will in other ways,
but it does emphasize that he has revealed his will in Scripture, and that
one must at least be eager to follow what is stated there.
Christians are often tempted by a selective submission. Some scriptural
teaching is very attractive to them, and they find in themselves an admiration
and a willingness to submit to it. Modern Christians usually find it easier
to feel enthusiastic about Christian teaching about God's fatherhood or
about love of others. Some scriptural teaching, however, contradicts their
desires. Some may even repulse them. To be sure, often the difficulty is
genuine uncertainty about how to respond to some part of Scripture.
Often a person may know that the Scripture is saying something on a
given subject, but can be uncertain how to understand or apply what is
said. Despite some uncertainties, for most Christians there remains much
scriptural teaching that is sufficiently clear, or could seemingly become
sufficiently clear with more investigation, but which they find themselves
unwilling to submit to. The genuineness of submission is tested precisely
at these points. They prove that their submission is genuine, and not a
mere pretense, when they submit to the Lord in something which is personally
difficult and which may lose them the respect of the world around him.
A Christian may be uncertain about how to submit, but should not be selective
Freedom and Rights
Some people today would dispute the notion that submission is the ideal
for the Christian. They claim that such an ideal is opposed to the Christian
freedom proclaimed in the Scriptures. Yet the submission being described
here is closely related to true Christian freedom. Paul is the great apostle
of Christian freedom, but the Christian freedom taught by Paul is not the
same as the freedom extolled by modern man. For the modern mentality, freedom
is the ability to set one's own standards, to submit to no person, to chart
one's own course.
The freedom Paul teaches about comes in Christ and through faith in
It is a freedom defined primarily in relationship to the Mosaic law. The
two great epistles of Christian freedom, Galatians and Romans, are concerned
with questions about the need for Gentile Christians to conform to the
Mosaic law, especially in its ritual provisions. Christian freedom as taught
by Paul, then, is first of all a freedom from the ritual provisions of
the Mosaic law, at least for the Gentiles. But it is also a freedom from
the (Mosaic) law in its entirety as the way to enter into the full relationship
with God and the full status as his people. Behind this change is an understanding
that the purpose of law is not to give life but to reveal sin (Romans 7:7-12).
Life, relationship with God, power to live the Christian call, come through
faith in Christ and through the Spirit of God given to us.
The freedom that Paul teaches is not, however, a freedom to disobey
the ethical prescriptions taught in Old and New Testament alike, much less
a freedom to set our standards and to submit to no one.(22)
There was a temptation to abuse Paul's teaching in that way, but Paul understood
that temptation as providing an opportunity for the flesh, that is, an
opportunity to follow our own will and desires (Galatians 5:13). Paul expected
freedom to operate in precisely the opposite way. It should produce an
ability and a desire to live the kind of life which not only fulfills the
commands of the law but which proceeds to an even more complete and demanding
love. It is a freedom to submit to God and to do his will with a more perfect
submission than had existed under the law, when the commands of God were
written on tablets of stone and not on the heart (2 Corinthians 3:3). It
is freedom from the law, but a freedom that is meant to put us into a direct
relationship of obedience to our Father as his sons and daughters (Galatians
In fact, the same Paul who insisted so strongly on freedom could also
insist strongly on obedience, and could act as a disciplinarian, commanding
respect for his own authority because his authority and discipline were
spiritual, conferred on him by the Lord Jesus under the New Covenant (I
Corinthians 4:18-21). Freedom is another area in which contemporary man
is ready to find contradictions in Paul, contradictions that never existed
in Paul's mind. Here again, the contradictions are not in scriptural teaching.
Rather, they arise when the scriptural texts are interpreted using a modern
understanding of freedom alien to the scriptural mentality.
Submission, then, does not conflict with "freedom" in the scriptural
sense. It can be undercut, however, by an approach to freedom which leads
Christians to understand their lives in terms of their own rights. The
discussion of the roles of men and women is often framed in a way which
stresses the need to give women their rights and which urges them to claim
or defend their own rights. At first, such an approach was used to claim
for women basic legal protections and constitutional guarantees. Presently,
it is often used to orient people toward seeking a kind of personal independence
and individualism which conflict with the spirit of Christian teaching.
We can often hear, for instance, that basic human rights include making
one's own decisions, being independent upon reaching adulthood, expressing
one's own opinions, developing one's full potential, having as much opportunity
to do a particular job as anyone else. Moreover, we are sometimes told
that these rights are violated not only when the government takes them
away by force, but even when a group of people freely decide to establish
their common life on different principles.
The term "rights" is a legal term, indicating something which gives
us a claim in court. "Rights" in this sense is an ancient term, and can
be found in Scripture. The broader idea of basic human rights, or of the
rights of man, was formulated later in human history as a way of developing
certain principles for framing the constitutions of modern states.(23)
The origin of this approach will be discussed in Chapter Nineteen. This
broader concept has much utility, especially as a protection for individuals
in a pluralistic state which cannot presuppose a shared view of fundamental
social and ethical questions. The term "the rights of women" is certainly
appropriate in discussions about how legal protection should be given to
women in contemporary society. However, when that legal rights framework
is brought into a Christian discussion, it normally orients the whole discussion
in a direction that is alien to the basic Christian context. It leads to
a frame of mind in which people become oriented primarily to their own
welfare, it leads them to even make demands on the Lord himself. In short,
the legal rights framework used as a basis for a Christian discussion leads
away from an attitude of submission, of eagerness to find out what the
Lord is saying, and of readiness to accept and obey his will.
Legal rights, then, is not the proper basic framework for issues concerning
the people of God. The "constitution" of Israel, and that of the Christian
people, rests on an entirely different basis than those of modern states.
The Scripture does not speak about "the rights of man." From the scriptural
point of view, we have no intrinsic and inalienable rights.(24)
Women have no rights, but men have no rights either. Human beings are God's
creatures, totally at his disposal. In the book of Isaiah, the Lord says,
"Woe to him who strives with his Maker,
The "constitution" of Israel was based upon a covenant relationship between
God and man, a covenant which God gave and men accepted.(25)
The basic framework is not one of rights but of promises and commandments:
the promises of God as to what he would do for his people if they were
faithful to the covenant, and the commandments of God as to how his people
should relate together and to others. The protection of "strangers" (that
is, of resident aliens), for instance, was not based on "the rights of
the strangers." Rather, it was based upon God's commandment to his people:
"Thou shalt not oppress the stranger among you." God is a sovereign creator.
His commandments are not based on rights that he must recognize, but on
his own nature (including his goodness) and his purpose. His commandments
express his plan for his people as an unfolding of his purpose in creating
the human race. This is not to deny that often his purposes and his commandments
can be understood by considering the way he created the human race. It
is to deny, however, that a discussion with God can properly be conducted
in terms of rights, or that a Christian's basic understanding of the roles
of men and women can be. To think in those terms puts human beings in a
false position, and induces them to call God to account for how he respects
the rights of his creatures. The framework of a Christian discussion should
simply be: What does God want for the human race? What does God want of
men and women? Those who approach him in that way will be in a much better
position to hear his word.
an earthen vessel with the potter!
Does the clay say to him who fashions it,
'What are you making?'
or 'Your work has no handles?'
Woe to him who says to a father,
'What are you begetting?'
or to a woman, 'With what are you
in travail?' "
Thus says the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker:
"Will you question me about my children,
or command me concerning the work of my hands?
I made the earth,
and created man upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host."
To speak so strongly of submission is not to ignore all the various
problems in attempting to submit to Scripture. Scripture can be difficult
to understand. It can require some effort to grasp the meaning of what
the Scripture teaches about the roles of men and women. It can also take
work to grasp Scripture's intention in a particular passage.
For instance, someone who approaches an instruction meant only for one
situation as though it were meant for all of life would be making a significant
mistake, as did the child who turned out the lights on his parents because
he misunderstood the command "always turn out the lights when you leave
the room." It is by no means true that someone who disagrees with the approach
taken in this book must be rebellious toward God.
Many good Christians differ simply because they understand the Scripture
differently. Nor is it always easy to apply the Scripture once it has been
understood. The New Testament was written in a very different situation
than ours, and we often do not know how to do what it says. Nevertheless,
if we approach the Scripture submissively, with an eagerness to do everything
that the Lord desires, we are in a much better position to solve these
problems and to understand God's way. The Scripture is meant to be read
in the fear of the Lord and in humility. As it says in Sirach:
Those who fear the Lord will not disobey his words,
Understanding and Obeying
and those who love him will keep his ways.
Those who fear the Lord will prepare their hearts
and will humble themselves before him.
Submission to scripture should not be approached in a rigid or inflexible
way. In the minds of many people, the term "submission to Scripture" conjures
up a picture of Scripture as a huge law code, a set of commandments, in
which everything is a directive. Not everything in Scripture is a commandment.
The Scripture is a collection of many different types of writing. It contains
commandments, but also teaching, maxims of wisdom, poetry, and what we
might call disciplinary decrees.(26)
Some of Scripture is based upon what could be called "implied social
structure." So far in this book, all these types of scriptural literature
have been considered. All of Scripture is to be approached with seriousness
and submissiveness. All of it is there for shaping our lives. But not all
of it is intended to shape our lives in the same manner. Major mistakes
can be made in approaching a poem or an ironical or hyperbolic statement
as though they were laws from the Code Napoleon. A few reflections on the
different types of scriptural literature should make the point clearer.
1. The commandments in Scripture should be taken as commandments.
When the Lord says, "Thou shalt not steal," people had better not steal.
Moreover, they had better not redefine "stealing" in such a way that something
can be judged as acceptable under our definition, but still falls under
what the Lord forbids according to his definition.
2. There are differences among commandments. Some commandments
concern basic righteousness and must be approached with tremendous seriousness.
Others are commandments of right order, commandments designed to order
life in a better way. These do not have the same weight (Mt 23:23). For
example, the directives about man woman subordination in Scripture are
not on the same level as the Ten Commandments and cannot be treated with
the same gravity. Yet recognizing different weight to different commandments
does not mean that we need only obey some of them. All commandments are
to be obeyed.
Some people apply a traditional distinction between faith and order
to most of the New Testament teaching about the roles of men and women,
holding that these roles are matters of order, and the Christian people
can change matters of order whenever it chooses.(27)
Some order can be changed, but in the New Testament, as in the better Christian
teaching of all ages, matters of order or discipline can also be matters
of obedience to the Lord if he is the originator of the order or if he
simply stands behind the order. In fact, commandments such as that to honor
one's parents could be considered as commandments of order, yet they are
basic and inviolable.
3. Commandments should be taken as they were intended. Some commandments
about the roles of men and women are clearly intended by the scripture
to be universal for all Christians--not merely for Christians at a particular
time, or in a particular situation. For instance, the directive for the
wife to be subordinate to her husband and for the husband to care for his
wife is a commandment for Christians as long as there is marriage. If anything
in scripture should be approached as a commandment this should.
4. Submission takes on a different character when its object is teaching,
prophecy, poetry, or the other genres of scriptural writing that are not
simply commands. The submissive response to a command is obedience, but
the submissive response to other forms of speech is not always obedience.
If, for instance, a woman were to approach the portrait of the ideal wife
in Proverbs 31 as a set of commands to be obeyed, she might end up with
a physical collapse.
Proverbs 31 is intended to serve as an ideal or model, not a point-by-point
command. Similarly, the teaching in Scripture about Adam and Eve and God's
purposes in creation is, for the most part, not easily "obeyed." Nonetheless,
it is supposed to mold Christians' minds, so that they can see the area
with God's vision. These genres of scriptural writing can help form the
lives of those who are submissive to them, and they can mold their lives
as firmly as commandments; yet submission to them is expressed differently
than submission to commandments.
A special type of submission to Scripture should have a fuller consideration
because of its relevance to this subject. This case concerns submission
to New Testament patterns of church order. For centuries Christian theologians
have studied the patterns of community or church order in the New Testament
(and beyond the New Testament) to discern a pattern which they could view
as authoritative for the following generations. Catholics, Episcopalians,
Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and almost every group of Christians
have used this method to justify the approach taken to order and government
in their denominations.
Even now, few Christian theologians would say that New Testament and
early church patterns have no validity as standards for Christian life
today. Moreover, the early Christians themselves believed that many of
their patterns of community order came to them from the Lord and that they
were obliged to follow them.(28)
Indeed, for Christians who still respect scriptural and traditional patterns
of order and who do not feel themselves free to order the life of the Christian
people however seems good to them, one of the weightiest arguments against
having women as elders or ministers or priests is the argument that Christ
himself chose only men for this position.
Recently, however, there has been a stress on the variety of patterns
and approaches to order in the New Testament.(29)
Some have correctly pointed out that the approach to ordering the life
of the Christian community taken in Jerusalem in 35 A.D. and the approach
taken in Corinth in 60 A.D. appear to have been somewhat different. The
approach to ordering community life that we see in the letters of Ignatius
of Antioch and that which we see in the Didache are likewise different
in important respects. The conclusion which some draw from this observation
is that different Christian communities today can take different approaches,
including different approaches to such questions as the ordination of women.
The recent approach of noting variety between New Testament churches
has something to recommend it. This can help avoid a "blueprint" approach
to following New Testament patterns.(30)
The early churches may even have approached the roles of men and women
somewhat differently. As was discussed in Chapter Five, some writers have
held that there was a difference between the roles of men and women in
Jewish Christian communities and those roles in Gentile Christian communities,
although the evidence is far too weak to make such an assertion confidently.
It is possible, then, that the early Christians did have two patterns of
community order for women: one which included deaconesses and active service
for women, and one without these features.
The evidence that some early Christian communities were free to order
their church life somewhat differently does not lead to the conclusion
that Christians today can take a fundamentally different approach to men's
and women's roles. First, the stress on different patterns of community
order was developed in the context of trying to deal with differences in
forms of church government, for example, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and
Congregational approaches. The approach was developed, that is, for investigating
an area in which few explicit scriptural directives are given, and in which
Christian teachers for centuries have had to rely on tracing the pattern
of how it was actually done and teaching the pattern they had traced as
the correct form.
Second, the observation about the existence of different patterns in
the early church only applies to certain levels of a given question. Thus,
there may be something to the view that some churches had one bishop presiding
over the community and others had only a presbyterate, but there is no
question that some men presided over a Christian community, and that the
community was expected to be subordinate to them. While differences in
approach existed, there were also uniformities.(31)
Third, on the subject of the roles of men and women, one finds a basic
uniformity of approach concerning both the husband being head of the family
and the elders or heads of the community being chosen from among the men.
There is no credible instance which is different or which would suggest
that a different pattern might have been followed. Communities may have
structured leadership roles of women differently. One community may have
had an order of deaconesses, while another may have instead relied on some
of the widows. One community may have had a chief deaconess, while another
may not have had one. One community may have assigned a deaconess some
teaching functions that another community may not have allowed. But on
many points, especially the most fundamental ones, no variation can be
shown. Paul can even appeal to the universal practice of the churches on
the issue of headcoverings, a practice where one might expect a variety
of approaches (1 Corinthians 11:16; 14:36).
Finally, and very importantly, the basic uniformity of pattern is also
accompanied by the explicit directives in the New Testament both about
husband-wife order and about the governors of the community being men,
and the latter appears in the closest thing we have to an authoritative
book of church order (1 Timothy). In short, in the area of the roles of
men and women, submitting to the New Testament patterns of basic order
for the roles of men and women does not entail a simplistic or overrigid
type of "blueprint ecclesiology."(32)
Submission to Scripture, even obedience to clear commandments, should
not happen legalistically. Thus, it is not enough merely to hear a command
and put it into practice; rather, the intention behind the commandment
must be understood. The hazard of failing to grasp the underlying intention
of a command is well illustrated in the practice of a certain religious
community, which had carefully observed an old rule in its constitution
that community members were not permitted to eat chicken. At the time the
constitution was written, chicken was a great delicacy; the rule was intended
to help community members achieve simplicity of life. Until recently, the
members of that community ate the most expensive meats in good conscience,
while carefully avoiding chicken often one of the cheapest meats in recent
A further example of the need to grasp the intention of a rule concerns
practices designed to observe the prohibition against braided hair in 1
Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3. In some Christian groups, women never wear
braided hair in any sense (not even pigtails on the little girls), in order
to obey that scriptural directive. Their desire to obey the Lord may be
very commendable, but it does seem clear that the kind of braided hair
that was being discussed in the passages was a luxurious style of headdress,
not simply any manner of braiding hair. The intention of the passages is
to prohibit luxurious adornment, not to eliminate what most people nowadays
would understand by "hair braiding."
Avoiding legalism also involves recognizing exceptions. At times, it
might be right for a Christian to breach good order because circumstances
make that the only reasonable course. If a husband and father has mental
disabilities a wife might have to assume the role of head of the family,
while a similar disability in a wife might require the husband to mother
the children as well as to father them. The story of Deborah in the Old
Testament is a canonized story of an exception from the normal order of
the roles of men and women.
Finally, avoiding legalism also means employing good judgment in determining
the relative importance of different scriptural prescriptions. Not everything
is important enough to die for. It is worth dying rather than burn a pinch
of incense in worship of an idol (Revelation 14:9). But it is not necessarily
worth irreparably damaging a marriage in order to preserve a correct scriptural
pattern of roles for men and women in all respects.
Avoiding legalism, however, does not mean following the "spirit" of
the biblical teachings rather than the "letter," in the sense sometimes
given to those terms.(33)
When Paul talked about following the spirit rather than the letter of the
law (2 Cor 3), he meant Christians following the law written on their hearts
by the Holy Spirit rather than simply following the external code.
Sometimes, however, the phrase "following the spirit of the biblical
teachings" is used to refer to a process by which one does not really follow
the biblical teachings at all. Rather, one finds certain values or principles
in those teachings which one follows in one's own way. Someone operating
in this vein "follows the spirit of the biblical teachings" on the roles
of men and women, for instance, by valuing both men and women and by seeing
the mutual responsibility in relationships which involve men and women.
It is then suggested that as long as one is trying to follow the spirit
of the teachings, one can avoid being literalistic about actually having
the husband be the head of the family. By the same principle, one can also
(as some have suggested) follow the spirit of the commandment against adultery
by not having sexual intercourse with any married people whom one did not
"Following the spirit of the biblical teachings," then, can be a phrase
which ultimately means not following the biblical teachings at all, but
merely selecting aspects of them and obeying only what one thinks is important.
It can be a way of avoiding submission to the Lord's word.
Neither does avoiding legalism mean disobeying directives in the scripture
in order to avoid turning the gospel into law. Some currents of theology
would want to make the gospel the key interpretative principle of the New
Testament, seeing everything else as secondary.(35)
These theologians stress the gospel as freeing us from the law, and they
resist any efforts to approach the New Testament as law. In many respects,
these currents emphasize important elements of the New Testament. They
attempt to synthesize New Testament teaching in a way which preserves Paul's
teaching on grace and faith. But the gospel certainly involves the lordship
of Jesus, and the gospel is received in repentance and a commitment to
obedience to the Lord. Our righteousness may not save us, but that does
not mean that obedience can be eliminated from the Christian life. The
Scripture also talks about "lawlessness" (anomia). In fact, 2 Peter
3:15-17 sees this lawlessness as often expressing itself in scriptural
interpretation and as leading to ruin:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to
the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There
are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable
twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scripture. You therefore,
beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with
the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.
The very difficulties of scriptural interpretation can sometimes undercut
submissiveness to the Lord in Scripture.(36)
Often Christians feel (with good reason) that they do not know what the
passages mean, how they were intended, or how they can be applied in a
responsible way. In this area, as in others in the Christian life, eagerness
to obey can make someone scrupulous or confused, and there is the possibility
of committing a foolish mistake in an effort to obey. Such a possibility
should not lead to replacing eager obedience with a cautious skepticism.
It should rather produce a desire to balance eagerness with wisdom.
The Lord is probably more pleased with someone who makes a foolish mistake
in attempting to obey Scripture than with someone who requires that everything
be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt before considering obedience. At the
same time, submission to Scripture does not mean trying to compile a distinguished
record of foolish mistakes. No one will probably ever be flawless in obedience,
but the Lord is asking for a relationship with him which involves desiring
to do his will, doing it as it is understood, asking for his light, and
actively seeking to grow in wisdom and the understanding of his will.
An attitude of submissiveness to God's word can easily become legalism
and a burden, but it does not have to be. It can be a loving, trusting
desire to do the will of the Lord, who for our sake died and was raised
that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him (2 Corinthians 5:15).
The approach taken in this book runs the risk of being labeled "Fundamentalist."
A brief discussion, therefore, would be helpful for understanding the meaning
of the term "Fundamentalist," and for evaluating the validity of applying
that label to the approach taken here.
The term "Fundamentalism" was coined in the course of the anti-Modernism
struggle in the early part of the twentieth century. It arose among American
Protestants who, for the most part, had been influenced by the broad movement
termed "Evangelicalism." The Evangelical Movement had arisen in the eighteenth
century, and was characterized by a stress on the gospel and on calling
people to a conversion to Jesus Christ. Closely linked to these stresses
was an emphasis on the Scripture as both the authoritative word of God,
and the main instrument for Christian conversion and growth. By the middle
of the nineteenth century, the Evangelical Movement had influenced significant
segments of most of the main Protestant denominations in the United States
and Great Britain.
In the course of the nineteenth century, Biblical criticism, the study
of comparative religions, and evolutionary theories began to challenge
many of the traditional views about the scripture and about the authority
of Biblical revelation. As a result, the movement which is sometimes called
"Protestant Liberalism" or "Modernism" arose as a way of altering Christian
doctrinal and moral tenets to better accommodate them to what Modernism
understood to be scientific evidence.
Fundamentalism arose as a countermovement to Modernism.(37)
In an attempt to secure the basis of the Christian faith, Fundamentalists
laid down what they considered to be the "fundamentals" of the Christian
faith, and attempted to defend them. While fundamentals varied somewhat
in their formulation, they generally included doctrines such as the inspiration,
inerrancy, and supreme authority of Scripture, the Trinity, Jesus Christ
as true God and true man, the Fall, the atonement through the death and
resurrection of Jesus, the second coming, the new birth in the Holy Spirit,
the resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell.(38)
Fundamentalism grew directly out of an Evangelical environment and background,
and formulated the fundamentals in the way an Evangelical Protestant would
(rather than the way a Catholic or an Orthodox or even a traditional Lutheran
would). Yet, in order to maintain a proper perspective, it is helpful to
realize that Catholic Church leaders were fighting much the same battle
against Modernism-Protestant Liberalism at the same time.(39)
Pius X, the pope most identified with the anti-Modernist struggle, would
have accepted the main points of the Fundamentalists, even if he would
have formulated those points differently.
As Fundamentalism developed, the more conservative spokesmen assumed
prominence and added to their defense of the fundamentals a vehement attack
on evolutionary theories. Partly because of the growth of the more conservative
wing of Fundamentalism, and partly because of the bad press given Fundamentalism,
many Evangelicals and other conservative Protestants who believed in all
the fundamentals distanced themselves from the name "Fundamentalism" and
from those who claimed it.
The "fundamentalists" gradually received a reputation for being anti-intellectual,
politically conservative, belligerent, and legalistic. They also became
identified with their opposition to "critical" methods of scriptural interpretation.
How far this reputation is justified is not relevant to this discussion.
The point is that the term "Fundamentalism" became a symbol of a certain
approach, especially in scriptural interpretation, much as the term "the
Vatican" symbolizes for many a religious bureaucracy and ecclesiastical
Thus, the term "Fundamentalism" could be used in a variety of ways.
First, it could be used in the technical sense as referring to an early
twentieth century anti-Modernist movement within Evangelical Protestantism
(and to those who identify with that movement today). Secondly, it could
be used in a symbolic way, referring to all those who are opposed to Biblical
criticism, or, relatedly, to all who approach the scripture in a somewhat
"uncritical" way. Or it could be used in yet a third way: as a term of
abuse for someone whom one considers to be more conservative than oneself.
In this third sense, "Fundamentalist" is applied somewhat freely to categorize
a great variety of opinions that people do not like. Briefly examining
each of these senses of the term can aid in clarifying some of the issues
First, it is important to recognize that there is, in fact, a technical
sense of the termthere was an actual historical movement called Fundamentalism,
and there are still many people who identify with that movement. Many churches
today can properly be termed "Fundamentalist" in this technical sense (or
"Fundamental," as many of them tend to prefer). Most Classical Pentecostals,
for instance, are Fundamentalists in this sense.
A failure to recognize the existence of this technical sense of "Fundamentalism"
can lead to a great deal of confusion in the use of the term. For instance,
believing that Scripture teaches that there should be differences in the
roles of men and women can easily earn one the label "Fundamentalist."
However, historically speaking this would, in fact, be a particularly inapt
label. Many of those who were historically Fundamentalists (anti-Modernist,
conservative Evangelicals) were, paradoxically, among the first to ordain
women and to argue for a less traditional role for women.(41)
More common than this first meaning, however, is the second use of "Fundamentalist"
as a way of referring to certain approaches to the interpretation of
Scripture. Someone can be called a "Fundamentalist" because someone else
regards his approach to interpreting the Scripture as too conservative
or uncritical. The following are approaches which seem to provoke being
called a Fundamentalist:(42)
1. Those who do not seem to fully accept or fully use modern
methods of scriptural criticism will often be termed Fundamentalists by
someone who considers them too uncritical either in their overall approach
or in a given exegesis. Among the things which will commonly elicit such
a label are approaches which seem to interpret the scripture without an
adequate sense of literary form (such as interpreting the book of Jonah
as a historical narrative), or which seem to fail to adequately ascertain
the author's intention (for instance, by holding that women should not
wear braided hair on the basis of 1 Tm 2:19 and 1 Pt 3:3). Here it is helpful
to observe that people can be called Fundamentalists because they have
rejected certain critical methods or principles after a great deal of thought
and scholarship or because they are not too educated in scriptural interpretation
and simply take passages out of context or use facile proof-text approaches.(43)
One person, of course, could take all of these approaches or only some
of them. Frequently, one or all of these approaches will be described as
"reading or interpreting the scriptures literally."(44)
2. Those who hold what could be called a conservative view of the historical
facticity of narrative sections of the Bible or of the inerrancy of the
Bible in its statement of fact (scientific and historical as well) are
often termed Fundamentalists. Those who hold that creation actually happened
in six days, that a whale did swallow Jonah, that every discrepancy between
accounts has to somehow be harmonized will often be considered Fundamentalists
for holding such views. Those who call them Fundamentalists will sometimes
view the problem as a failure to adopt proper methods of Biblical criticism
(not understanding the literary form of Jonah, for instance, and thinking
that it is a historical narrative). Sometimes they will view the problem
as simple traditionalism.
3. Those who hold that the scripture should be obeyed when it gives
a command without considering questions of applicability will often be
termed Fundamentalists. The label can be applied not only to those who
forbid women to wear braided hair but likewise to those who object to homosexual
relationships on the basis of scriptural commands. On the other hand, it
is not likely to be applied to someone who is a pacifist out of obedience
to their understanding of Scripture thus showing that the term is normally
used for those who are adopting what would be viewed as a conservative
There is a historical reason for calling these three approaches "Fundamentalist."
In the anti-Modernist controversy, the Fundamentalists opposed many of
the critical methods and positions, considering them an expression of Liberal
Protestantism or Modernism. It should be pointed out, however, that other
opponents of Modernism (for example, the Catholic Church) took the same
positions. The above three approaches to scriptural interpretation were
as characteristic of the dominant Catholic method of scripture interpretation
before Vatican Council II (or at least before Pius XII) as they are characteristic
of the Fundamentalists. Hence, it is historically somewhat unfair to label
all opposition to Biblical criticism as "Fundamentalist." Nonetheless,
such labeling is common.
The above three approaches do not characterize the argument of this
book. One of them concerns matters which are not central to the discussion
of the book: the issue of historical facticity and inerrancy. The remaining
two, however, are central to the discussion of the book. It is, however,
possible to hold that Scripture teaches a difference in the roles of men
and women without disregarding questions of literary form, or ignoring
the intention of the author, or neglecting principles of sound Biblical
scholarship. As the Note on Method in exegesis pointed out, this would
be as obvious now as it was twenty years ago if it were not for the amount
of politicization that has entered the discussion in recent years. It is
also possible to hold that the Scripture should be followed in its teaching
without ignoring questions of applicability. The following chapters raise
the issues in the area of applicability (see especially Chapter Twenty).
The approach taken in this book is not "Fundamentalist" in either the
technical/historical sense of the term, nor in its approach to the interpretation
of Scripture. There remains, however, a fourth use of the term by which
the approach taken in this book could be labeled "Fundamentalist." That
is, the term could be used in a derogatory way as an epithet for certain
opinions regarded as being conservative or even reactionary.
There are at least two reasons why the term has become a frequent although
inaccurate slogan. One reason is simple ignorance. Many people know little
or nothing about Fundamentalists and have not really thought through the
issues, but they know that the term "Fundamentalist" can be used to describe
someone that seems more conservative than they are. They may inaptly label
a book such as this one "Fundamentalist" because they disagree with its
conclusion, e.g., "anyone who can come up with such a conclusion must be
There is a second and more important reason for this use of the term,
however. Many who use the term in an inaccurate, derogatory way have come
under the very strong influence of secular humanism (Liberal Protestantism,
Modernism). They use the word as a term of abuse to discredit their more
orthodox opponents. These people interpret Scripture as a book which does
not have God as its author in any significant sense, and as a book without
real authority. Their approach to interpretation comes out of a line of
thought which has compromised the fundamentals of the faith (including
the articles of the creed and the commandments), and that seeks to interpret
Scripture in a way that allows that compromise. Often, they will label
the approach taken in this chapter to the authority of Scripture as "Fundamentalist."
However, if this approach is Fundamentalist, almost all of Christian tradition
Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike is Fundamentalist.
Simply accepting the need to submit to Scripture should not be enough
to qualify one as a Fundamentalist. The question of the authority of Scripture,
however, is a particularly difficult and controversial one today. As has
been seen, there are many ways in which the authority of Scripture is disregarded
without seeming to be. The following chapter will continue the discussion
on the authority of Scripture, and will treat more fully the ways in which
that issue enters into the contemporary discussion of the roles of men
Clark is a founder and former president of the Sword
of the Spirit, founder of The
Servants of the Word, and a noted author of numerous books and articles,
and a frequent speaker.
article is excerpted from the book,
and Woman in Christ, copyright © 1980 by Stephen B. Clark,
Chapter 14). It was originally published by Servant Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan,
U.S.A. Nihil Obstat: Rev. George A. Kelly; Imprimatur: Most Reverend Kenneth
Povish, Bishop of Lansing. A new edition of the book is now published
by Tabor House.]
See related articles:
Unity of the Scriptures, An introduction by Don Schwager
In All the Scriptures, by Dr. John Yocum
to Read the Bible, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
Authority of Scripture, by Steve Clark
Scriptures Are One Book in Christ, quotes from early church fathers
Scripture As God's Word, by J.I. Packer
the Bible It Is God Who Is Speaking to Us, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Can Understand the Bible, by Peter Kreeft
Versus Informational Reading of the Scriptures, by M. Robert Mulholland
to Silence the Scriptures, by Soren Kierkegaard
the Scriptures with the Early Church Fathers, by Don Schwager
Study Course, by Don Schwager