Women, Culture, and Christ: Hearing Scripture Yesterday and Today

by Ivan T. Blazen

What Scripture Meant and Means

Biblical interpretation has two main tasks: the historical task of ascertaining what a text meant in its original context, and the theological task of translating or applying its meaning for our contemporary setting. The distinction between what a text meant and what it means is indispensable if the ancient, inspired words of Scripture are to be heard again with full force and relevance in modern times. However, some have insisted that what the text meant is literally in every detail what it always means. Others, seeing broader dimensions to Scripture, believe that while the historical understanding of the text must ever be foundational to, and a control upon, current exposition, the contemporary significance of a text is not always identical with its original meaning.

An example: Paul instructed women to wear veils on their heads. What does this have to do with us today? If we apply the text in an absolutely literal sense, we shall not find the same relevance in our current Western culture as was found in the cultures of the Bible, where, unlike today, veils were mandatory and meant purity and submission. Being unveiled then might have indicated that a woman was a prostitute or that she had rejected her husband's authority.

As one tries to relate biblical statements in their settings to the relevance of these statements in a contemporary setting, one must distinguish between what is timely and what is timeless, between policies and principles, between culture and Christ. Jesus and Paul operated in just this way with certain Old Testament stipulations. For example, Jesus altered the legal permission to divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 by appealing to the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 (Matt 19:3-9). Paul spiritualized, and, for Gentiles, abrogated the biblical requirement of physical circumcision, which, according to Genesis 17:7,12, was the perpetual sign of God's "everlasting covenant" (Rom 2:28,29; Gal 5:2-4). From these illustrations we learn the following: (1) The meaning of one text may supersede the plain sense of another, for one text may contain a timeless significance whereas another text may have only a timely and temporary meaning; (2) There is a hierarchy of meanings and values in Scripture. While everything is valuable, not everything is of equal weight; and (3) The way things were at creation, before sin, is the way they ought to be.

Divine Treasure in Earthen Vessels

In harmony with scriptural evidence and Spirit of Prophecy testimony, Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God in the words of humans. As such it has a divine and human character, as did our Lord. The divine treasure is found in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7). Difficulty arises only when the vessel which houses the divine treasure is confused with the treasure itself. As faith grasps the divinity of the Word, it is essential that faith also confess the human face the Word wears.

Scripture has unquestionably suffered at the hands of destructive critics. However, it may be misused by its friends who give rightful and primary consideration to the divinity of the Word, but do not properly acknowledge the human vessel which contains the Word. Sometimes the methods Bible writers employ, as when the New Testament quotes the Old non-contextually, are held to be equal to the inspiration of the message itself. But the methods may be quite human and in harmony with methods employed generally at the time, whereas the message conveyed is what is divinely inspired.

Listening to the Text

The Bible challenges us to let not only its claims to inspiration, but also the multifaceted phenomena contained in it, direct us in coming to proper interpretations. The inductive approach, which takes all the data of Scripture seriously, recommends itself for both understanding inspiration and engaging in interpretation. When this approach is followed, the unity of Scripture will not be merely something assumed or deduced but something investigated and exhibited. The Bible is a unity not only because its inspiration suggests it but because the actual study of Scripture evidences it.

Biblical interpretation is not a matter of personal whim or fancy, individual or corporate self-interest or self-justification, apologetics or polemics, creedalism or dogmatism. Rather, it has to do with the objective, Holy Spirit-guided, in-depth study of the Bible as the Word of God with one end in view: The discovery of the pristine historical meaning of the inspired Word in its original time, place, and purpose and how this meaning applies today.

Not what Scripture will speak but that it will speak is an important presupposition for biblical study. In view of this expectation, the interpreter must come to Scripture openly, humbly, dependently, seeking guidance from God and help from one's peers. The Bible is a communal book, and interpretation is a communal enterprise.

In the believer's approach to the biblical text, after study of the historical circumstances within which the various biblical writings arose and the literary forms and sources through which the Word expressed itself, the believer will study the text contextually, lexically, grammatically and syntactically, in terms of pertinent backgrounds and cultural usage, and in comparison with other texts of Scripture.

Interpreters need to be cautioned, however, against merely choosing texts to make the interpreter's point rather than listening to the texts so as to discover their point. It may be that the Bible will first judge us by its difference from us (our understanding and practice) before it can bless us by its relevance to us.

The Question of Culture

Especially pertinent to current discussion concerning the ordination of women is the place and significance of the culture of biblical times for the proper interpretation of biblical texts. Those who oppose the ordination of women often insist that those who support it are using cultural considerations to relativize or negate the plain significance of passages of Scripture. As one who has placed his entire reliance upon the bible and its message, I wish to affirm that this is not the case. Divine revelation is not subservient to culture, but puts culture into the service of communicating the divine Word. The truth of God's revelation does not arise from culture, but is addressed to people in a culture and makes itself heard within the cultural matrix by using the language, oral and literary conventions, and the forms of communication and argumentation found in a particular culture.

To suggest that divine revelation speaks within, from, and to the cultural situation of the people of God means that God's Word focuses upon particular times, places, and problems in the experience of his people. This is the genius of biblical religion. This does not mean, however, that because Scripture aims at problems and needs in particular situations, and uses cultural modes of expression to speak to these needs, that no permanent truth is there revealed. The wonder of Scripture is that, despite the contingencies and relativities of history, it presents principles relevant for all times.

However, in moving from the biblical period to our time we must call upon God's Spirit to help us to properly discriminate between the local and the universal, the temporary and the timeless, the old and the new, policies and principles, culture and Christ, the human vessel and the divine treasure.

Presumptions or Prescriptions: 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6

Among those opposed to the ordination of women, some misapply 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, texts which speak about qualifications for the office of bishop (equivalent to elder in earliest Christianity). Some claim that these texts positively enjoin that only a man can be a bishop or elder, for it is required in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 that a bishop be not merely a person but a man (aner, meaning man, is used in the original Greek). However, this view does not properly discriminate between what is presumed in the text and what is prescribed. These passages do presume that men will be bishops. But what the texts prescribe is that the elder be the husband (aner may also mean husband, as in the expression "man and wife") of one wife. The point is not about prescribing men and proscribing women but about whether the elder can be married more than once. The presumption of the texts fits well in the social/cultural situation of the time, where women had almost none of the civil, military or other possibilities of men. However, to make this presumption into a forbidding command valid for all times and places is to be unfair to the nature of divine inspiration and the incarnation of the Word of God in specific situations.

Similarly, we may note that in Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul clearly enjoins that slaves obey their masters. He does not prescribe that there be slaves, but presumes their existence. What he does prescribe is that both slaves and masters treat each other in a way that comports with Christ. Is Paul commanding or condoning slavery? No! He assumes the reality of slavery as part of the old order and then commands how Christians, who are part of the new order of Christ, should act.

Silence and Status; Deception and Salvation: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

1 Timothy 2:11-15 commands that instead of being permitted to teach or have authority over men, women must remain silent and learn in submissiveness--instruction entirely in harmony with the secular, non-Christian culture of the time. For Paul to speak this way, there must have been a real problem among his Asian readers which needed correction. Textual indicators in 1 and 2 Timothy suggest that women are called upon to be serious, temperate, and faithful instead of being slanderers (1 Tim 3:11). Apparently, certain women in their idle time had gadded about from house to house, becoming gossips and busybodies, telling things they should not. Some had strayed after Satan (1 Tim 5:13,15). Certain unstable women with unruly desires had come under the influence of heretical, male instructors and were disseminating false ideas (2 Tim 3:6-8; 2:17; 1 Tim 1:19-20). One of these false ideas undoubtedly was that marriage in its various aspects was bad (1 Tim 4:3). Such a view, grounded in ascetic tendencies and the budding gnosticism of Asia Minor, helps us understand why Paul would give a promise of women's salvation through childbearing. His point was that sexuality and child-bearing in marriage do not lead away from salvation, as the ascetic teachers might have supposed, but fulfills God's intention in creation and is in harmony with his saving purpose. It seems clear that 1 Timothy 2:15 is a polemical statement against specific heretical views in Asia Minor.

In the light of all this it is readily apparent why Paul might counsel that women be silent and learn from authorized male teachers rather than heretical male teachers. Submission, silence, and learning from all males in all times hardly is the point. In other words, the text is timely, but can hardly be said to be timeless in all its details.

A legitimate question can be raised about women not having "authority over a man" (1 Tim 2:12). Richard and Catherine Kroeger, in their book I Suffer Not a Woman (1992), show that there is good evidence for translating this "I permit a woman neither to teach nor to proclaim herself originator (authentic source) of man." By saying Adam was created first, as did the rabbis among whom Paul was trained, Paul seeks to refute the currently popular gnostic idea of woman as the source of all life and being.

Genesis 1, in its own context, does not focus at all upon a chronological priority of the male, which would then have significance in terms of woman's subordination. Rather, it proclaims the creation of both male and female in the image of God and with joint dominion over the earth. Thus they were equal partners both in the dignity of their being and in their rule over the world. In Genesis 2, woman is created as the perfect complement to man and is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, a total equality. Man's rule over a woman comes only after the fall. Before this, rulership was not part of their partnership. We must ever return to Genesis 1 and 2 in their original meaning for understanding as to what the ultimate will of God is for the relationship between man and woman.

Another facet of Paul's argument as to why women should keep silence in church and learn from men is that Adam was not deceived, but Eve was. This statement should be seen in the light of Paul's polemic against gnosticizing opponents in 1 Timothy. Gnostic types had argued that Eve, far from being deceived, was the illuminator of Adam. She ate, thus receiving illumination, and then passed this enlightenment on to Adam. To this construction Paul in effect says: "No! This does not accord with the truth of Genesis that the woman was deceived." This should not be pushed beyond all limits so as to make all men in all time wise and innocent and all women in every time gullible and deceivable.

Paul's argument must be contextualized, not universalized. Seventh-day Adventists have recognized this, for to what extent in the history of Adventism have we imposed a requirement of silence upon women and deprived them of teaching both men and women in church? That we have not done so is tacit acknowledgement that, while the passage in 1 Timothy had a specific and important function in its time, it does not necessarily continue to have the same practical significance in our time. What it meant in the first century is not what it necessarily means today. The passage does not lose its divinely inspired character on this basis. It continues to speak to us about the necessity of defending truth and working against the dissemination of falsehood in contemporary Christianity. Both men and women are needed for each of these functions. In the struggle for truth, Seventh-day Adventists have enjoyed a special blessing. The ministry of Ellen White is a standing witness to God's call of a woman to speak in and for the church and to instruct men as well as women in truth and against error.

Shameful Speaking: 1 Corinthians 14:34,35

1 Corinthians 14:34,35 teaches that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. She should remain silent and ask questions of her husband at home. Is this a general ban on women talking in church, or does it refer to a specific kind of speech by women? The answer would be easier if more details were available. But given what we have, the following can be said: First, the subject was of real importance to Paul, as can be seen from his appeal to general church practice, the teaching of the law, agreed-upon proprieties concerning women, and the authority in the church. What practice among women could have caused Paul to launch such a powerful appeal? Merely a general speaking in church? Note that Paul is discussing public worship and the function of prophecy within it. He is concerned that prophetic utterances be weighed (14:29) and all be done in a decent and orderly manner (14:33,40). Apparently some women were adding to the disorder with uninhibited questions and remarks to husbands who prophesied. Paul, who acknowledged the propriety of women to publicly pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:5), did not want to see such a freedom disintegrate into a kind of public quarreling, where disorder and noise replaced peace and edification.


The biblical trajectory of God's saving love leads from the perfection of Creation through the imperfection of sin and its resultant curse, to the death and resurrection of Christ. Because he was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), the curse is removed (Gal 3:13) and we become part of the new creation, in which the old has passed away (2 Cor 5:17), oneness is achieved (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:14-18) and eternal life is equally bestowed (1 Pet 3:7). Clearly, the forgiveness of sins and newness that Christ brings involves a profound reversal in the position of women, restoring them to the equality of status and function outlined in Genesis 1--bearing the image of God and having dominion over the earth.

Once again the Adventist church has recognized this, and North America, as a center of action, is presently seeking ways to fully implement women's involvement in every phase of ministry. Ordination is a correlate of ministry. In affirming women's ministry, the church by implication affirms women's ordination. The real issue is not whether women's ordination is biblical--ordination is hardly a topic of Scripture--but whether women's ministry is biblical. If that is the case, as the Adventist church affirms, ordination must be a vehicle by which the legitimacy of women in ministry is recognized, embraced, and supported.

This is excerpted from a more extensive paper which is available from Dr. Blazen, Faculty of Religion, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA 92350.

Ivan Blazen, Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology at Loma Linda University, holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His current projects include a book on Bible interpretation and an essay on salvation for the new Adventist Bible Commentary.