Friday, January 11, 2008

Presuppositions: My Starting Point

Everyone starts somewhere. Pure objectivity is impossible, even in matters of faith--maybe even especially in matters of faith. Unfortunately, like a fish trying to examine the water in which he swims, often one is unable to spell out in detail all of the presuppositions and embedded beliefs that informs one's theological conclusions. But, before I begin to tackle some major issues regarding women, the Bible, and the Kingdom, I think it is important that I am as honest as I can be about my starting point. This isn't exhaustive, by any means, but I hope this will give you a better idea where I am coming from.

The Ultra-Short Version of My Background
I am a Caucasian, middle-class woman living in the midwest. Until I was a teenager, I was raised in a nominally Christian home on the east coast. Following my parents' divorce, I lived in the Bible belt of central Texas. I made my profession of faith through baptism when I was in high school at a mid-sized, contemporary, Southern Baptist church.

It was at this point in my life that "women's issues" first arose as something with which I would have to grapple. The way that certain verses of the New Testament were interpreted to exclude women from leadership confused and troubled me. But, having no viable alternative, I resigned myself to accept "the way things are" and figure out how God was going to fit me--an opinionated, driven, young woman--into the "perfect woman" mold that supposedly existed in the Bible.

I went off to Bible college and later got married, desiring to fit myself into the conservative picture of manhood and womanhood. I thought I had achieved a "perfect fit" for a while. But, time and experience challenged my point of view and I found viable alternatives to the conservative version of Bible interpretation--viable alternatives that did not entail heresy or apostasy (as I had been led to believe). It was only about two years ago that I began to claim for myself that my views had changed.

I did not shift positions without reading widely and deeply and consulting trusted friends. I've consulted most of the major evangelical works on both sides of the issue (and even some who claim to be in the middle). I've interacted by email with several evangelical complementarians and not a few egalitarians clarifying points and addressing confusions. In the end, I've found the traditional answers about women in the Bible and the Kingdom to be unsatisfying on every level: biblically, theologically, and practically.

My Thoughts on Jesus and the Bible
When God rescued the Hebrew people from Egypt, he formed them into a nation related to God through covenant and revealed God’s self to them as Yahweh. As their relationship with Yahweh developed, select people of Israel chronicled and reflected upon the history of God’s workings with humanity, starting from Creation and ending at the dissolution of Israel as a nation. These reflections, in the form of treasured stories, prophetic messages, collected poetry, and ancient wisdom, were eventually compiled and confirmed to be the God-inspired, sacred scripture for the descendents of the Hebrews, later called Jews.

Jesus of Nazareth, confirmed by God and proclaimed to be Lord and Christ, is the fulfillment of the hopes of the Hebrew scripture and the faithful interpreter of God’s history with Israel. As the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God’s self to human beings. As the book of Hebrews reminds: God has spoken in various ways and in various situations in the past, but God has finally spoken through a Son (Heb 1:1, 2). In this sense, the Son of God is the ultimate Word of God—both the faithful revelator of the God’s nature and the focus of all divine revelation.

As the early followers of Jesus proclaimed him and his message, some were compelled to compose records of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection for the edification and instruction of the churches. As other early leaders, including the Apostle Paul, interacted with the newly formed assemblies of Christ-followers, they wrote a number of letters containing discussions of ethics, theology, church practice, and other matters. These occasional documents were treasured, copied, and distributed throughout the early churches as authoritative sources for understanding the Way of Christ. Later, along with the Apocalypse of John, these letters and Gospel narratives were collected and affirmed to be God-inspired sacred scripture for followers of Jesus.

Together, the Hebrew scripture and the Christian scripture make up the written Word of God, the Bible. Inasmuch as the Bible testifies to and is interpreted by the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, it is the ultimate source of authority and nourishment for those living in the reign of God.

Progressive Revelation and Interpretation
God revealed himself and his rule to various people in various times and ways. He did not reveal all of himself to any one person, nor did any one person fully understand the plan of God for the reconciliation of the world. In this sense, there is a progress to God's revelation. This means that some aspects of God and his will are not revealed fully until later scripture. For example, the expectation of a Messiah does not arise until rather late in Israel's history and the understanding of the Messiah performing a sacrificial or atoning work does not arise until after Jesus's death and resurrection.

This does not negate the fact that scripture is coherent, but it does challenge the notion that the Bible speaks in a single voice and with a single tone on every matter. For example, consider the way in which the mass killings of Joshua compare with the teachings of Jesus about violence in the Gospels. This means that the texts of scripture are not "flat." We must respect the Bible enough to take the time to discern, as well as we can, the context of a particular passage of scripture, the "situation in life" in which it was penned, the relevant cultural and historical elements that come to bear on the text, and the interaction of the text with other corresponding texts in the Bible.

The Primacy of God's Mission
The mission of God comes first in everything. In this commitment, we have the example of the Apostle Paul, who understood that, depending upon the culture with which he engaged, he needed to alter his way of life to gain a hearing for the Good News. With the Jews, he became as a Jew. With the Gentiles, he became as a Gentile. Also, Paul's theological and ethical teachings and practices were based upon the need to eliminate any hindrance to the reception of the Good News. Thus, he exhorted slaves to remain as they are and followers of Jesus to submit to governing authorities--all for the purpose of creating space for the Christian message among the peoples of the Roman Empire. These truths help us both to better understand the writings of the New Testament and better apply them to various situations around the world today.

I know that there are plenty more embedded beliefs and presuppositions that come to bear on my understanding of women in the reign of God. But, I hope that this post has covered some of the more important ones. I aim to post on the Creation account in a few days. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Like many others, I look forward to this series of posts. I hope that somewhere in these posts you might give a clear definition of the terms that often get thrown around (egalitarian, etc) for those of us who are a few bricks short...
Todd Pylant

Joel said...


You said, “This means that the texts of scripture are not "flat." We must respect the Bible enough to take the time to discern... the relevant cultural and historical elements that come to bear on the text...”

This is something that I have been struggling with for a while now. I have been thinking about this in terms of the sufficiency of scripture in hermeneutics. If a believer wants to understand God's written revelation of Himself, does he also need a history book (or some knowledge of the first century) to grasp the significance of the text? Would Josephus be in a better position to interpret the text then, say, we are, or Christians 500 years from now (assuming the Lord tarries)?

On the other hand, I know that the events recorded in scripture actually happened in space and time and are a part of history. Spencer once said, “we have a historical faith...”

My mind isn't made up, but I tend to think that if there is something relevant, a piece of information, that would help me understand what it is that God intends me to understand, it would be in the text.

I don't know, what do you think?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


You bring up a very good point. I have not thought as much about it as you have, I'm sure, but I have given it some thought.

On the one hand, we certainly don't want to approach the Bible as though only experts in history and linguistics can understand it and find truth in it. Yet, on the other hand, we don't want to do an injustice to the nature of the Bible as historically and culturally situated.

Really, I don't know how to solve this problem, but here's where I am for now.

I am inclined to think that when it comes to matters of basic faith and practice, particularly learning to be and do those things that please God and incarnate the Good News, such things are certainly "in the text," needing very little explanation and/or historical background to understand. In terms of meaning, "Love your enemies" is pretty straightforward, as is "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved."

Yet, when it comes to things that are more ambiguous or weighty, then historical and cultural background, along with linguistics, is valuable and sometimes even necessary in order to prevent gross misunderstanding. Paul says in 1 Tim 2:14b-15, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control." What the heck does that mean? Is the salvation of women tied to childbearing? Most interpreters say, "No," but it seems as though the "plain" meaning of the English text says, "Yes." It seems to me that it takes more than a basic knowledge of the English translation to discern what's going on in this passage. (Or, perhaps simply a sophisticated and sensitive understanding of the Good News as it relates to women.)

Even the Apostle Peter acknowledged that there are things in Paul's letters that are not clearly understood. In 2 Peter 3:16, he says: "His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."

But, there's another issue here, Joel. I think that the written revelation of God is useless without the living revelation of God in Jesus Christ. One cannot understand the Bible without Jesus as the centerpoint and interpretive lens. To do so can be catastrophic: like when people kill abortion doctors because they are waging "holy war" in God's name against a pagan nation. Clearly, Jesus is not the centerpiece of that hermeneutic.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that in some ways the proper understanding of the Bible has to be in some sense relational. One understands God's written revelation in relation to God's living revelation. What do you think about that? Maybe I'm just completely off the mark, but something tells me Jesus has to be involved somehow. :)

Love you, Joel. Can't wait to be in London with you guys.

Steve said...

Some of us became aware of God's wonderful sense of timing - and telling people only what they needed to know for a time - while studying what Jesus did in His ministry; telling those He healed to only tell the priest, or not to tell anyone, etcetera. What if the raising of Lazarus had happened early in His time with us? How much of what we cherish in Scripture would not have happened due to reactions of the powerful?

Were the Bible perfectly "flat," wouldn't Moses have written repeatedly about going to the world and telling strangers about God, and developing a world full of "God-fearers?" No, evangelism was to wait for the Christians, unless you want to bring up Jonah's vindictive approach, or Moses' conversations with Pharaoh.

Yes, timing seems to be everything, and I am sure not going to insist that He's finished changing our rules for us yet.

Joel said...

After looking at the passage here is my guess at what it means:

Women, whether in the kingdom or outside of the kingdom, will bear children. That seems to be a given. So, there are women who will bear children, die, and and not know Christ (not 'delivered') and there are women who will bear children, die, and be in the presence of the Lord ('delivered').

In addition to being 'delivered through childbearing' Paul gives us a big 'if'. That is, 'IF she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control' (NET).

So, the constant seems to be bearing children while the determining factor of 'being delivered' seems to be faith, love, etc.

My guess is that 'saved through childbearing' is a reference to the line through which God's promises and salvation came. God said to Eve after the fall “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and HER SEED; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel." (Gen 3:15)

Moreover, through salvation history, time and again, God opened the wombs of BARREN WOMEN to fulfill and establish His covenants: Sarah (Gen 16:2), Rebekah (Gen 25:21), Leah (Gen 29:31-from which came the tribe of Judah> King David > Joseph the father of Jesus), And, last but not least Mary, the mother of Jesus, who having no sexual union with a man, bore the Christ.

So, back to the verse you quoted: 2:14b-15, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control."

My dynamic equivalent (hopefully non-heretical) INTERPRETATION (I emphasize this word): It wasn't Adam who was tricked, it was the woman, and because of this, she became a law-breaker. Don't worry though, women aren't stuck being law-breakers, they will be saved, because through their childbearing came salvation, which in turn comes by faith, love, holiness and self-control.

Paul is addressing women alone (for whatever reason that might be). We all know that Adam also sinned, but that's not what Paul is addressing so he leaves it out. So, I think one could even possibly say that men too will be saved through [women's] childbearing.

Now, back to the main issue: I don't know if having any historical facts about the time period surrounding this passage would have helped in interpretation. I think you are right about more fully understanding written revelation via a relationship with Jesus. People who are connected to and love Jesus don't initiate holy wars and that sort of thing (like you said).

So, with the Bible there is quite the hermeneutical spiral- We need to understand the whole to rightly interpret the parts and we need to understand the parts in order to rightly interpret the whole- This means that we need to read the Bible again and again and again, with Jesus as our master, to gain understanding regarding its message. And, I feel most comfortable when people can tell me why they believe what they do about the Bible when they can point to their reason in the text.

I hope all of this doesn't make me a heretic -is my view a traditional position? I don't even know. Much Love.

traveller said...

Emily, I like your approach and your response to Joel. While history or understanding the cultural setting is not necessarily determinative on an interpretation of scripture it can be a valuable aid in knowing what Paul meant, for example, in the passage you mention to Joel.

Paul is obviously dealing with some issues in a local gathering of followers of Jesus in Ephesus when he writes to Timothy. Having some grasp of how the original readers would have understood what Paul was saying is important.

But, like you, to me the ultimate lens through which to read scripture is that of the life of Jesus. Of course, many will respond that we only know Jesus through scripture. While true and helpful, we also know it through the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This, too, seems to make many people, particularly Southern Baptists, uncomfortable. We can trust human teachings but not the Holy Spirit!

Looking forward to your further writing on this.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Boy Emily, for a starting point this is good stuff. I am reading this with my Bible in hand. Thank you so much for this series.

Lon said...

Since I have no qualms with entering heresy, I'd point out that there is always the possibility that Paul was simply mistaken or, at least, didn't choose his words well enough to get across the entire idea he was presenting. It's not like it would be a first; Jesus frequently had to deal with disciples who were confused upon hearing His words. But one wonders if Paul had any clue that his words in this letter would eventually be considered "scripture" and used in place of God's word when self-serving believers wanted to prove something.

All that presupposes that 1&2 Tim were actually written by Paul, which is a source of strong debate nowadays. That would certainly explain the various apparent discrepancies in "Paul's view of women" where you see him in some places recommending women in teaching roles and in other places (with disputed authorship) he claims they shouldn't.

Also, Joel may have a point when he mentioned that perchance Paul was only speaking about women at that point and simply left out men, and that it is possible that men too were saved by childbearing.

I note that Jesus instructed us to "Be perfect, even as the Father is perfect". He also referred to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Man, setting up a clear analogy between the relationship of God and mankind and the relationship of a parent and a child.

It is no secret that becoming a parent changes a person in many ways, notably in the ways one thinks about things. Imagining what it's like to be a parent is no substitute for actually being one, and I submit that when one becomes a (loving) parent, they obtain essential experience and a clearer understanding of how God relates to us humans.

It's not the physical act of childbearing, it's the mental and spiritual act of becoming a loving parent which helps pave the way to salvation. I'm not claiming that it is necessary, but I do claim that it does provide a clearer picture of how God views and treats us.

Rex Ray said...

You said, “I think that the written revelation of God is useless without the living revelation of God in Jesus Christ. One cannot understand the Bible without Jesus as the centerpoint and interpretive lens.”

I believe Russell Dilday would agree with you as he wrote:

“The BFM 1963 says, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."
BFM 2000 substitutes, "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation."

BFM 2000 also deleted from BFM 1963, "Baptists are a people who profess a living faith. This faith is rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever. Therefore, the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures."

This seems to many to be a serious rejection of a very important hermeneutical principle. Baptists (and most evangelicals) have valued what is called the theological principal of Biblical interpretation. This principle teaches that the Bible is a book of faith, not just history or philosophy. Therefore, the Bible cannot be fully understood from the outside by grammar, logic, rhetoric, and history alone. It must be understood from its center – Jesus Christ. This Biblical center yields itself best to those who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ and who are indwelt by the Spirit of God. Because of this personal relationship with Jesus, the believer knows personally the author of Scripture and has the promise of illumination from the indwelling Christ.

This theological principle, expressed in the Christocentric language of BFM 1963, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ," declares that the guiding key to Biblical interpretation is Jesus Christ. Through Him as a criterion, or standard, the Bible becomes unified, self-consistent and coherent. Jesus said, "The Scriptures … bear witness to me" (John 5:39). Therefore, we are to interpret the Old Testament and the rest of the Bible in the light of the life and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, illuminated by our own direct experience with the living Christ. It is through Jesus as the criterion that we interpret the Old Testament prophecies, the ceremonial, civil, dietary, and moral laws of the Old Testament. As Martin Luther insisted, the Bible is always to be understood from its center – its heart – its Christ.

The intentional deletion of this Christological principal of Biblical interpretation is, to many, the most serious flaw in BFM 2000. It appears to elevate the Bible above Jesus and to weaken the idea that He is Lord of the Bible. Critics have responded:

"This amounts to nothing less than idolatry." It is pure bibliolatry." "I’ll bow down to King Jesus, but I will never bow down to King James."
(Quotes from article in Biblical Recorder, July 29, 2000, p. 11)

The committee defended its deletion in their press release of June 5, 2000: "This statement (Jesus is the criterion) was controversial because some have used it to drive a wedge between the incarnate word and the written word and to deny the truthfulness of certain passages." Ken Hemphill calls the Christocentric language "a loophole to avoid the plain teaching of certain Biblical texts which persists among moderates…. it is used by some unprincipled Baptist scholars to ignore difficult texts which they did not believe to reflect the character of Jesus" (Baptist Standard, February 26, 2001, p. 3).

But surely this crucial Christological principle treasured by Baptists over the years should not be abandoned just because some misguided interpreters are said to have abused it.

Reflecting on this change, an editorial in Christianity Today says, "BFM 2000 is poorer without the rich Christocentric language of the earlier statement. Jesus Christ is surely the center of Scripture as well as its Lord. One can affirm this while also welcoming the clear affirmation of the Bible as God’s infallible, revealed word"
(August 7, 2000, p. 36).

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I think you have made a thoughtful evaluation of 1 Tim 2:15. Thanks for taking the time to do so. It will help me when I address that passage on this blog!

I think we are on the same page, but perhaps with different things in mind. I am concerned about those within the church who have access to deeper educational materials, but choose to remain ignorant about the background of the biblical texts and champion (what I believe to be) ignorant or misinformed interpretations as a result. From what I am hearing you say, I think you are concerned about the accesibility of God's revelation to all people, regardless of education, training, etc, and the sufficiency of the Bible as our guide (with Jesus) into Truth. Am I correct?

As to whether or not your view is "traditionl," I don't know. But, to me, it makes good sense and seems to do justice to the scripture and the nature of Christian discipleship.

Thanks for the interaction, Joel,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...


You have some interesting points to offer. I am not as comfortable as you are in suggesting that Paul may have been mistaken. But, I do identify with your question as to whether or not Paul understood that his words would become scripture. I am inclined to believe that in some way, Paul (and others) knew they were "writing scripture," but that does not mean that their thoughts communicate as clearly to us as they did to his first century hearers.

As to the authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy, I am somewhat familiar with the debates thus far. It is almost universally affirmed in the non-evangelical world that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles. That said, I am disinclined to follow the crowd in this matter. There a number of important reasons for this, including the early church's view of pseudonymity, the affirmation of the canon, and the hermeneutical problems that arise when and if one concludes that Paul did not write them. I wish I could go into these things more deeply, but time is not permitting. Perhaps at a later date.

I'm not sure that I would choose to derive from 1 Tim 2:15 that Paul intended "delivered through childbearing" to refer to coming to a better understanding of God as Father, but I think yours is a great observation just the same. Significant, life-changing experiences like childbearing work to bring each of us to a place of believing the Good News all over again.

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Lon.

Grace and peace,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Rex Ray,

You are preaching to the choir, my friend. While we have differences of opinion in other matters, we are on the same page on this issue.

In my opinion, removing the person of Jesus Christ from the doctrine of scripture, in effect, divorces one's theology from one's practice. That is to say, one's followership of Jesus (through daily "cross-bearing" and disciplines) and personal knowledge of him does not come to bear on one's ability to read and understand the sacred texts of the Bible.

Not to mention the fact that the changes to the BFM were primarily reactionary in nature and that is almost never a good thing. Communities of faith end up looking like they're playing "whack-a-mole," when they change their confession every time something "scary' happens within or outside their community. A confession should not be changed in order to "whack" anyone. Period.

Grace and peace to you, Rex Ray,


Gary Snowden said...


I absolutely loved your response to Rex Ray's comments about the changes in the BF&M 2000 being reactionary and comparable to the "whack a mole" game. That line was priceless. The changes introduced in that document and the subsequent requirement that missionaries sign it ultimately led to our resignation from the IMB. I appreciate your thoughts and perspective and think you're right on in your evaluation. The hollow excuse that the 1963 BF&M's reference to interpreting the Scriptures with Jesus as a criterion somehow opens the door to neo-orthodoxy simply doesn't hold water.

Lory said...


Can't wait to hear your words on the creation accounts. We just took our high school kids through that last week. We pulled some Ngan questions on them to get them to was fun to watch them wrestle and really think about the word of God as a written document.

Hope all is well with you and Ronnie.