It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology. Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.
First posted April 20, 2008
First impressions of Ephesians 5 and 1-2 Timothy
After my initial reading of Ephesians 5 and 1-2 Timothy, I conclude that women led varied lives depending on their economic and marital status. In Ephesians, married women are encouraged to submit to the authority of their husbands as they would to Christ and to respect their husbands as part of the union of two into one flesh.
In the Timothy letters, the emphasis is on the widows. The young ones are encouraged to get remarried so that they will be too occupied with household tasks to fall into gossip and idleness. The old ones are encouraged to mentor the younger ones and can only receive aid if they have, in a sense, proved themselves worthy by a lifestyle of service, submission, and obedience. Concerning corporate worship, women regardless of marital state are encouraged to be modest, submissive, quiet…and fertile? I never have discovered how to interpret 1 Tim 2:15.
My impression, then, of the lives of women at this time is that women were expected to submit to male authority, behave with modesty and decorum, and serve with hospitality as part of running a good household. They were not expected to take up authority themselves, abandon or neglect their duties, or behave or dress indecently.
But the fact that women are being put in their place in some of these passages implies that some women perhaps were teaching or asking questions or neglecting household tasks or gossiping among themselves or any number of other expressions of their new-found freedom in Christ that shocked and appalled observers both within the Christian community and outside of it. There seems to be an effort in the letters to recall women to (or to remind them, lest they forget, of) proper etiquette that would bring honor to both themselves and their husbands or families and would keep them from bringing the shame of the world on the early church as it struggled against the world’s accusations and persecutions.
A Woman’s Place, metaphors, and symbolism
Osiek and MacDonald, in A Woman’s Place, concern themselves largely with cultural and social context in exegeting these texts and other references to women in the New Testament. Interestingly, the authors spend time exegeting the Ephesians text as an extended metaphor for Christ and the church, insisting that the metaphor would have been clear to the early readers or listeners. They label the passage “an important socio-political statement” rather than a concerted teaching on the roles of men and women in marriage (120).
The use of marriage is symbolic, not necessarily prescriptive, and certainly reflects an ideal that cannot be realistic in our fallen world (125). Moreover, the authors argue that the text is a central pivoting point for the themes of the letter, marriage serving as a useful conventional metaphor (121). The text turns the convention of marriage on its head: “The husband is head of his wife as Chris is head of the majestic and heavenly church. Human ‘wifely’ behavior within the church becomes an indicator of the community’s dislocation as an apparently conventional but nevertheless heavenly body” (127). Thus, in taking the passage at face value, we miss the point.
Literal interpretation vs. historical-critical method
Growing up in the evangelically conservative South, I was taught as a general rule that the Bible was to be taken literally, its texts at face value, and its every word as the infallible authority of God. Now, I believe in the authority of the Bible, but its literal interpretation has fallen short of my understanding of who God is and what it means to be a child of God.
I appreciate Osiek’s and MacDonald’s effort to take a more holistic approach to the texts by both reading them in conjunction with each other and by considering at length the cultural context of the day as a lens through which to interpret the issue of women. They broaden the older scholarly perspective by including what the text does not say, what has been left out or assumed concerning the daily lives of women.
The metaphorical interpretation is an interesting approach to the problem of Ephesians 5. I am not sure that I could hold an audience long enough to explain such a position with those who expect a quick, two-punch sound bite or proof text. Nevertheless, the interpretation is a useful reminder that texts should not always be taken at face value or as prescriptive when they are just as likely meant to function as literary or as descriptive.
This approach, both to the Ephesians text and in general, does make a significant difference in the reading of scripture because it (at the risk of using a buzz word) liberates the text from its pigeonhole and consequently liberates women from relegation to the older understanding of “submission” and “authority” as ordained by God to keep women under the proverbial thumb of their men.