I have often had online discussions where Christians have insisted to me that we must receive New Testament teachings about male authority and female submission as universal, timeless commands based on the creation order– that the only other alternatives are to dismiss them as “only cultural,” or to decide that the New Testament teachings of the Bible are no longer authoritative for us today.
But these three alternatives do not take into account a very real truth: that it is impossible as a human being to take a position on any topic without doing so as part of a human community, living in a human culture. Just as a fish, living in the water, might not recognize that there is such a thing as water– so we live within certain shared cultural assumptions that we take for granted every day, often without even noticing that they are there.
This works fine when we communicate with others who share our cultural background. We don’t need to explain to anyone what we mean by “don’t text and drive,” for instance. But what if we said those words to someone who had never seen either a cell phone or a car?
I believe the principles taught by the Scriptures are timeless. But just as occurs today, there were cultural assumptions being made all the time between the original human writers and the original human readers of the texts, who shared understandings that we don’t automatically share. For instance, in the story of the Last Supper in John 13, we read in verse 23, “There was reclining on Jesus’ breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.” Looking at this text for its plain face value, we can’t avoid the fact that, read through the eyes of our own culture, the clear and obvious meaning of this text is that Jesus and this disciple were lovers. In our own culture a man would not recline against the chest of another man unless they were! But if we understand the first-century Jewish custom of eating at a low table, reclining on cushions rather than sitting in chairs, and leaning against the person who was next to you at the table, the actual sense of this passage is simply that this disciple was right next to Jesus at the table. If the shared assumption of that culture is taken into account, there is no hint of anything other than a close Teacher-disciple relationship between the two.
So when we look at teachings in the New Testament that appear to be addressed to us as instructions, the question is not, “Should we dismiss these instructions as only cultural?”
The question is, “How would these instructions have been understood in their original culture, by their original readers, and how then, should we apply them to ourselves?”
The reason John makes no attempt to explain why this disciple was reclining against Jesus’ chest, or even that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was actually a reference to John himself, is that both of these ideas were assumed cultural and literary norms, understood between the Apostle and his readers. Explanations were not necessary. Today, if I tell a friend who lives across town that I’m coming over to her house, I don’t need to mention I’ll be driving my car. She and I both already assume this. Someone who lives in a big city, however, who doesn’t know how sparse the mass transit in our town is, might think I was taking a bus. But Paul or John, back in New Testament times, would have thought that unless I specifically mentioned riding a donkey, I would have been walking.
These kinds of misunderstandings spring from readers in other cultures not understanding what my friend and I take for granted. So if we don’t understand what the New Testament writers and readers took for granted, how can we be sure the plain, face-value reading of a passage to our eyes, is the intended meaning?
Male authority over the female was taken for granted by Paul and his readers as a pre-existing state of affairs– but should that assumption be considered part of the timeless, universal truth he was conveying? Or do we, as modern readers, need to take the assumption into account so that we’ll understand what Paul’s readers would have understood?
If male authority in the culture is taken as pre-existing and assumed, then the different things Paul told men and women make sense in that culture as changes to that state of affairs. Kenneth Bailey says in Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes,
“An innovator in any age must deal with tradition. Some things are omitted. Some things are endorsed and left unchanged. Still others are revised through the introduction of new elements.” (p. 107)
In other words, there are three ways an author can deal with traditional understandings of any particular concept: to endorse, to omit or to revise. Paul’s writings do not show the endorsing of the traditional idea of marriage, as it was understood in that age, by leaving it unchanged. Instead, he takes the traditional view of marriage and omits what would have been the expected, direct instruction regarding husbandly authority — speaking instead of the husband’s role as nurturer and provider for the wife. Then he revises the traditional view of marriage through the introduction of the concepts of mutual submission and husbandly emulation of Christ (not in taking authority over the church, but in laying down His high privilege and giving Himself up for her).
Therefore, we don’t have just three choices with regards to New Testament teachings: to accept them as timeless and universal, to dismiss them as only cultural, or to ignore them as not authoritative. We have a fourth choice– to embrace the idea that such teachings should first be read in terms of what the original author meant to convey to the original audience in their shared culture, and only then to apply them to our own.
Christians who insist that an egalitarian view of husband-wife relations is “capitulating to modern culture” often don’t realize that by not taking into account what Paul’s original audience would have understood him to be saying, they themselves are reading the text through their own modern culture. And because they themselves don’t come from a cultural assumption of male authority, they see male authority as a correction to our modern culture: an eternal, divine mandate to which we all need to return.
But who is it who is really ”capitulating to culture”? Is it the one who reads the text with a view to unspoken, shared cultural assumptions, both then and now, and takes into account how they might affect the meaning? Or is it the one who, unconscious of these differences, insists on reading the “plain sense of Scripture” just as it appears to them?
If we are unaware of the assumptions were making, we’re doomed to keep making them. Assuming that Paul knew exactly how we would understand his words today, 2000 years later, half the globe away and in a completely different language, and that therefore what looks like the plain meaning to us is exactly what Paul meant– that’s one of those assumptions that make you-know-whats out of you and me.