Wither Women? An overview of an issue that begs for resolution

By Dr. Kenneth Cuffey, President and Professor of Biblical Studies

The blogs this month will be dedicated to the issue of women in the Biblical world and today.  What does the Bible teach about women’s identity and roles, and what would this imply for the debates that have gone on in the church?

For the first blog let’s post an overview of the terrain.  The issues are varied, and derived on all sides from differing readings of the texts of Scripture.  Topics for discussion are too vast in scope to hope in a month of weekly blogs to be able to cover the whole waterfront.  Topics might include issues such as the identity and nature of each gender according to God’s creation of humans as male and female; roles of male and female in marriage; the possibilities for women in ministry; the ordination of women.  And more!

It is well known that participants in this discussion have tended to cluster into two groups: complementarians (women and men are of equal worth before God, but are assigned different roles within the church, including a call to submit to a husband’s headship) and egalitarians (women and men are of equal worth before God, which implies that there must be an equality in all relationships, as well as equal opportunity and rights all across the board).[1]

The blogs in the next few weeks will focus on specific Scriptural texts that are pertinent to the topic and resolving the questions.  To start I would like to simply lay out several interpretive keys for understanding the discussion.  In the discussion on women in the church, there are at least three key issues that reach to the core of how we interpret Scripture (or our hermeneutic).  It seems that in reading the literature, there are three decisions that interpreters make which will effect how they draw conclusions.

1.  Which is of paramount importance: the actual words of the text or the historical/cultural/societal background to the text?

Which is primary in understanding the text?  Often complementarians will choose to go with the words of the actual text to the detriment of understanding the real life background.  And egalitarians will tend to prefer the background in ancient life as a key to reading the words with understanding, sometimes to the detriment of what the words seem to say.  Of course it is not that simple, since we need to take account of both: the words in their context within a passage and in their cultural and historical context.

2.  Which era will be determinative of our conclusions about the text: then or now?

The issue is that the two eras, the 21st century and the 1st century in the Greco-Roman world, are vastly different in their concerns and values.

3.  To whom does the truth of this text apply?

Is the teaching of this text “culturally bound,” something that is just for them?  Or is it universal and trans-cultural, and would thus apply to us as well?

The resolution of these three questions is at the heart of much of the debate concerning women in ministry, the church, and marriage.

[1]Possibly the most helpful discussion of the distinctions is to be found in Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church (InterVarsity, 2003), chapters 21-23, pp 265-296.