Mark Thompson, in his article, “When to Make a Stand” in the Autumn 2016 Edition of Essentials (Part 2 in the Winter edition) provides an excellent balance to the paper by Brian Rosner, “When Christians Differ” (Essentials Spring 2015). The question of when to make an issue of some aspect of Christian life is often a difficult one and this becomes even more so when our understanding of Scripture seems at odds with that of someone else.
The error that Paul highlights in his encounter with Peter, reported in Gal 2 came about not because the “Judaizers” were disobedient. Rather it occurred because they were strongly Bible believing followers of Yahweh. The “plain reading of the text” in many places was that Jews shouldn’t associate with Gentiles. But Paul points out to Peter and presumably to all those standing around as the encounter takes place, that Jesus’ coming has changed things. What we used to believe needs to be reconsidered. What’s more, as Mark Thompson points out, ‘their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel’ (v. 14). The tearing down of the ceremonial and fellowship barriers between Jew and Gentile was a consequence of the gospel but one that was so natural and necessary a consequence that to deny it was to be ‘out of step with the truth of the gospel’.
Mark proceeds to show how a necessary consequence of the gospel is that the social barriers have been torn down.
What Mark doesn’t do, no doubt due to a limitation of time, is to consider the conclusion that Paul comes to after the extensive theological discussion of Galatians 3. Paul’s conclusion is: “28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Why does Paul throw in these extra two categories of social distinctiveness, yet elsewhere appear to reinforce that distinctiveness? His main concern in this letter is the issue of the status of Jewish identity. Hence the next verse: “29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Yet he includes slave-free and male-female in his list of distinctions that are torn down by the gospel.
It should be noted that his conclusion isn’t that the pairs here are equal. It’s actually that they are equivalent. Equivalent not in terms of value but in terms of social interaction. To put it in Marks Thompson’s words, the tearing down of the ceremonial and fellowship barriers between slave and free, and between male and female is so natural and necessary a consequence that to deny it was to be ‘out of step with the truth of the gospel’.
Yet in the rest of his writing Paul accepts and, in places, reinforces the social and economic reality of slavery, the social and ceremonial distinction of male and female roles. Why is it so?
My conclusion is that to change the behaviour of Christian Jews was within his power as one of the apostles but to overthrow a social order as all pervasive as slavery and patriarchy were, would take a longer time than he had. Instead he chose to sow the seeds of change and wait for the gospel implications to filter through to the wider culture. Just as Matthew includes a subversive element in his genealogy of Jesus by including marginalised women, including a number who were Gentiles, so Paul here and elsewhere prepares the way for these social distinctions to be broken down.
So while Paul tells slaves to obey their masters he also warns masters to treat their slaves with respect. In Eph 6 he goes further: “9And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.” Slaves had no rights under Roman law but under God they were fellow servants, with their masters, of God.
In the case of his letter to Philemon he asks that Onesimus be treated “16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” And then he goes further in asking Philemon to welcome him as he would Paul himself.
Sadly it took 1700 years before a small group of evangelical Christians began to argue for emancipation of slaves. Even then there was an equally vocal group of evangelical theologians who argued from God’s word that slavery was a right and proper institution affirmed by God’s word and in fact established by God to be the lot of the descendants of Ham. To give two minor examples, in 1835, the Presbyterian Synod of West Virginia fiercely assailed the case for abolition, calling it “a dogma” contrary “to the clearest authority of the word of God.” In 1845 the Old School Presbyterian Assembly decreed that slavery is based on “some of the plainest declarations of the Word of God.” Countless other examples of bible believing evangelical argument could be given.
What was being overlooked by the opponents of abolition was that the gospel intrinsically overthrows the possibility of men and women being held by another as property. Why? Because they are people for whom Christ died.
The same approach is true with the issue of male and female relationships. In Ephesians 5 Paul appears to reinforce the social norm of male headship, but in fact subverts it, first by instructing Christians to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ (5:21) (note the gospel imperative similar to that in Gal 2:14), and then by instructing husbands to love their wives in a life-surrendering way, the way Christ loved the church. He also redefines headship in Eph 4 to be something totally different to what would have been the common understanding then and still is today: “15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” According to this definition headship has to do, not with directing and decision making, but with empowering and enabling growth.
Elsewhere we see Paul validating the ministry by women of prophecy and leading the congregation in prayer (1 Cor 11) and interestingly in the same passage he points out the interconnectedness and interdependence of men and women in the purposes of God.
In the second part of Mark’s paper he says: “we should be seeking to understand just how much of a difference [God’s word] makes for our good. God’s benevolence and the goodness of his word are foundational principles when considering when to make a stand. I want to ask, ‘Is this teaching, is this behaviour, drawing people away from the good God’s good word which nourishes and builds his people?’ ‘Does it build confidence in God’s good word as an instrument for good or does it undermine that confidence?’ ‘Does it suggest that the truth expressed in God’s word is incomplete, or out-dated, or ill-informed?’
Paul had a similar approach. “20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)
The question that immediately comes to my mind in this context is whether the approach of so many evangelical Christians to the ministry of women in the church is building confidence in God’s word as an instrument for good? Is it drawing people away from the good God’s good word which nourishes and builds his people?’ Are we going to win those who are outside the law by restricting the ministry of women to lesser roles in the church? Equally important, if not more so: is the way we treat gifted women in our churches in step with the truth of the gospel?