Even though my faith journey has been going on most of my life, the “Christian” part of that journey has only been active for a little over 20 years now. But I remember early on in my Christian faith journey when I ran into one of the most divisive and confusing debates in the church.
I’m not talking Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Or worship style. Or blue carpet versus navy carpet. Because you evil navy carpet people just need to…
Oh wait – back to the confusing debate. The one major fight that has baffled me time and time again through the years is also one of the most basic: figurative vs. literal.
I have probably heard almost every scripture in the Bible labeled as figurative or literal at some time or another (depending on what church culture background you come from). This label is often followed by the rock solid supporting evidence that “because this scripture five books over is obviously figurative, we then also have to take this scripture as figurative. Because it sounds figurative, that is why.”
Figurative stuff is often tricky in the Bible. Many Scholars at the time of Jesus thought the Messiah was figurative. I mean, how can a virgin have a child? Sounds impossible, so it must be figurative. But then Jesus came and changed all these figurative poems into historical narratives in the span of about 30 years.
And then there are those scriptures that are both. Take Galatians 3:26-29. This is obviously very figurative. At least, I am assuming it is. I can only speak for myself, but I did not lose my gender or ethnicity once I became a Christian. Maybe everyone else did… but I’m not gonna check.
But who wants a figurative equality? That’s not real equality. I assume that this verse speaks of figurative and literal equality. But as many complementarians point out, it does not literally say that these statements apply to the Church. It is just how we are treated by Christ – he sees us all as equals. But since there is literally no mention of Church structure in this verse, we can’t apply it to how we see gender roles in Church.
Fair enough. But let’s take the same literal look at the scriptures that some use to say that women can’t perform certain roles in the Church.
I Timothy 2 is one of the most quoted verses about women in the church. The literal interpretation of this scripture – we are usually told – tells us that women are not permitted to teach or hold authority in the Church. But for me, the problem with this line of thinking comes in the first four words of verse 8 (“Therefore I want men”) and 12 (“I do not permit”). Notice something missing there? Like… a direct command from God? Paul does not say “God does not permit” or “Therefore God wants”. He is expressing his opinion on the topic – for how churches under his authority are to structure themselves.
But wait, you say. He goes on in verses 13-15 to show how God ordained this Church structure from the beginning. Really? What I see is Paul giving his reasoning behind his beliefs – but not proving that it is supposed to be this way for all. In fact, he gets the story very wrong in verse 14 – Adam was also deceived and became a sinner, not just Eve. Verses 13-15 are just Paul backing up his point, not showing how this is a Church structure for all to follow until the end of time.
If you were to truly take I Timothy 2 literally, you would read verses 8-15 as Paul describing the way he wants his churches to operate, and nothing more. To take that and apply it to the universal church is adding a figurative interpretation to the scriptures that is not literally there.
After all, Paul had no problem telling people what he thought was directly from God for all believers and what wasn’t. So the fact that he didn’t point that out here, if you take it in light of all his writings and his writing style, would seem to indicate that he is writing his feelings for HIS churches. If this is to be the command for all churches for all time, then we have a huge problem with verse 14. God wants an incorrect idea of Paul’s to be a command for all churches to follow for all times?
It is also interesting that Paul said that women cannot hold authority over men. But then in Romans 16:1 he clearly states that sister Phoebe is a deacon in the church (using the same word as is used in I Timothy 3:8-13. Obviously, Paul never meant for us to believe that no church can have a woman leader. He is making a specific decision for a specific church under his authority. Otherwise, why would he commend Phoebe for violating what he thought was the case for all churches everywhere?
Paul is no longer on this Earth, so therefore he is no longer in authority over any churches. Every church has someone in charge that can decided to carry on with Paul’s opinions here, but they are not required to. Nothing in the scriptures says this. You have to step away from a literal interpretation of I Timothy 2 to apply it to your church in modern times.
For example, let’s look at I Corinthians 11. In verses 1 and 2, Paul literally states that these are his traditions and desires, not necessarily God’s. Verses 2-16 he gives his reasoning, but notice that literally he is backing up his traditions with his own logic, not necessarily scriptural commands. Has anyone ever noticed that he contradicts himself in verses 11 and 12 (compare verses 8 and 12)? And of course he ends with a good old dose of “Paul Guilt Trip” in verse 16. Kind of like he hinted that since he was filled with the Spirit that meant his views against marriage were probably best. Or that whole letter to Philemon thing. Some see this as Paul saying these statements are command for all churches. But the problem is, he doesn’t literally say that here. He is just saying that all churches at that time had that practice, so don’t argue with me!
Not everything is so easy from a literal standpoint. I Corinthians 14:34-35 is a particularly hard pair of verses, but not because of what they clearly say. The problem with these verses are the contradictions that they seem to cause with other scriptures.
Before I get to that, let me say a few things. If you think that women can’t speak in Church, but you don’t let people prophesy or speak in tongues in Church, close the browser and step away. I can’t even begin to unpack the twist and turns that you took to get to a place that believes that verses 27-33 are for a different time and culture, but verses 34-35 are for now. That is such a blatant contradiction that I can’t even mess with it here.
Secondly, I need to point out that what most people who say they believe in a “literal” take on scriptures really mean “surface-y and anthropocentric.” To be truly literal, you need to go deep into the original meaning and look at everything with God at the center, not humans. To take a surface look at I Corinthians 14, you run into several contradictions:
- The Greek for the words used in vs. 24-26 of I Corinthians are gender-inclusive, meaning Paul is telling men and women to speak in Church (“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn,or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation”). Then he turns around and tells them not to speak?
- In Titus 2:3-5, Paul commends women who are good teachers of other women. But I Corinthians 14:35 says they should only learn from their husbands?
- Again in verse 39, Paul says “ Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy.” Why would he tell women to be eager to prophesy if he was telling women they had to be silent?
- Verse 34 also references the Law, but have you ever noticed that no Bible contains a note there to tell where in the Law this is? (because it’s not there)
The secret to unlocking this is to go to the Greek. In the Greek, the first word of verse 36 is often left out of many translations. But some have it, and translate it best when they start verse 36 with “WHAT?” The drastic subject shift from verses 33 to 34 is actually meant to show that Paul is quoting something that the Corinthians wrote to him in vs. 34-35, in which they incorrectly quote the Law. Paul’s response is to say “What? Do you guys think you can make up scripture?” He frequently shows from his responses all around this verse that he intends for men and women to speak in church (you can find a closer examination of this idea here).
Pretty much any other scripture in the Bible that deals with women in the church falls into one of the areas explored here, so hopefully I don’t have to spell those out for you 🙂
The overall problem you get with the complementarian take on scripture is that you have to add a level of figurative interpretation to scripture to even get to the place that women have different roles. In a literal sense, Paul is either down right rebuking the idea that women couldn’t do certain things, or he is giving a specific command to a specific church for reasons that are probably lost to us now. Think of it this way: how do you pay your taxes? Do you grab a fishing rod and head to the lake hoping to find some money in a fish’s mouth? That is the only method Jesus gives us in scripture for paying taxes. If we are to take that literally (in a surface-y and anthropocentric manner), then we should follow the example that Jesus gave to Peter. But a truly deep literal examination of those scriptures show that was just a one time occurrence for Peter. We all know that, but I wonder why we don’t apply that same logic to other scriptures, to see when Paul (and other writers) are giving one time commands or even rebukes of weird ideas, and when they are giving true lessons for all times.
I have more to say on this topic, but it is time to take a break. Next I want to look at the weird idea that says that Christianity has a distinct “male” feel to it (which will be a shorter post), and then follow that up with an examination of the scriptural role of women in the family/home (which will probably be a much longer post). While I am at it I need to explain more on how too many take an “either/or” attitude towards literal or figurative interpretations of scriptures that are supposed to be both. Which would lead into how most people who say they translate Genesis 1-2 literally actually don’t really translate these scriptures literally.