Biblical teaching – a constant challenge to cultural perspectives

Wherever the Gospel has free course, it liberates women. After all, faith in Jesus, the Son of God, sets all people free (John 8:31-36). In Papua New Guinea, for example, women were traditionally treated as chattels. This is colourfully described in the book, Pigs, pearlshells and women: marriage in the New Guinea highlands. But the same pattern is found not only in the South Pacific but throughout pagan cultures.  In I married you, Walter Trobisch calls it the ‘garden concept of marriage’. Women are regarded merely as garden beds for raising children which may be abandoned if they prove unproductive. But the coming of Christianity has often brought women a new dignity and respect. Indeed there are countless societies where women have found their Christian husbands treating them with courtesy and affection.

Such Christian regard for women is, of course, inspired by ‘the meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (2 Cor 10:1). Jesus himself set the pattern for his church by his own respect for women, beginning with his childhood subordination to his mother (Luke 2:51). To women he extended his healing hand; with women he was happy to converse, to the amazement of his disciples (John 4:27); to women and men alike he taught the Word of God. Luke records how on one occasion the Lord took time to teach a class consisting of one woman, Mary, who received his praise because she ‘chose the best part, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:38-42).

Jesus’ ambassador, St Paul, commands husbands to love their wives ‘as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). St Peter counsels husbands to ‘live considerately … with [their] wives, bestowing honour [on them] as joint heirs of the grace of life’ (1 Peter 3:7).

So biblical Christianity elevates women, honours them as equal members of the Christian community and encourages them to study the Scriptures. The same is true of the Lutheran church in particular. The Lutheran Confessions sharply criticise misogyny: ‘Daniel says that it is characteristic of Antichrist’s kingdom to despise women’ (Apology XXIII 25, quoting Daniel 11:37).

Whereas the Old Testament honours women as equal members of the worshipping community (Ex 19:6-8; Deut 29:10-12), rabbinic Judaism during the days of Jesus and Paul was developing in a direction which relegated women to an inferior status. Women could worship only in the forecourt of the Herodian temple (the court of the women) or in the gallery or outer chamber of the synagogue. The Jewish Tosefta includes this second-century A.D. rabbinic teaching:

Rabbi Judah says, ‘A man must recite three benedictions every day: (1) “Praised [be Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe,] who did not make me a gentile’; (2) “Praised [be Thou, O Lord …] who did not make me a boor”; (3) “Praised [be Thou, O Lord …] who did not make me a woman”’.

Most rabbis saw themselves under no obligation to teach women the Torah (God’s Word); indeed, some discouraged the practice. In contrast, Paul instructs all women to be disciples of God’s Word by his decree in 1 Tim 2:11: ‘Let a woman learn’.

At the opposite extreme from rabbinic Judaism, the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day frequently allowed women a leading role in religious rites. Whereas the Old Testament restricted the priesthood to men, there were no explicit prohibitions of priestesses in other religions. So women priests may be found at any time and in any place in the Hellenistic world. On the basis of inscriptions, Gill states categorically: ‘Women priests were present in [the imperial] Corinth’ of St Paul’s day and later. Gooch points to evidence from excavations at the large sanctuary of Demeter and Kore in Roman Corinth, where women are known to have played a prominent role in the fertility rites. Each October/November the festival known as ‘Thesmophoria’ was held in honour of Demeter (Ceres) and Kore. Gooch describes the rites:

On the first night of the festival women gathered to drink and participate in rites of foul, abusive language and sexual joking… There is evidence for feasts held on the last day of the festival, presided over by women elected to office in the cult. Finally, associated with the festival are sacrificial cakes made into the shape of phalli. Sexual organs made from pastry were set out on the tables.

Whether all cults in which women figured as priestesses were as gross as the Demeter cult is not the issue here. The point is simply that a number of ancient cults, including those represented in first century Corinth, featured female priests.

In the light of the contrasts with its religious environment, both Jewish and Greek, the apostolic teaching on the role of women in worship is countercultural. Whereas the male chauvinism characteristic of some cultures (in Paul’s day and ours) regards women as mere chattels, and rabbinic Judaism tended to treat them as second-class members of the community, the apostles counsel husbands to cherish and honour their wives. On the other hand, in contrast to the permissiveness of pagan religions, which often allowed women to serve as priestesses and instructors in the cult, the biblical revelation does not permit them to serve as priests (Ex 28:1) or pastors (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6). So Paul’s command that the women be silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:34) must be understood as counter-cultural and anti-syncretistic. It is a command that distinguishes and separates the Christian church from other religions. Inspired by the Spirit of God, its roots are deep in the biblical revelation, which always runs counter to the spirit and the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 2:12).


In their outstanding book on marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller draw the same conclusion on the countercultural nature of the biblical view of marriage:

“The Biblical authors’ teaching constantly challenged their own cultures’ beliefs – they were not simply a product of ancient mores and practices. We cannot, therefore, write off the Biblical view of marriage as one-dimensionally regressive or culturally obsolete. … Unless you’re able to look at marriage through the lens of Scripture instead of through your particular experience, or through your culture’s narrow perspectives, you won’t be able to make intelligent decisions about your own marital future” (Timothy and Kathy Keller, The meaning of marriage: facing the complexities of commitment with the wisdom of God, paperback edition 2013, p. 17).

The same applies, undoubtedly, to the biblical teaching on who may hold the office of the pastoral ministry. Unless we look at the issue through the lens of Scripture instead of being carried away by the spirit of our age (1 Cor 2:12), the LCA won’t be able to make wise decisions.

Dr Greg Lockwood

Epiphany 2014

(Note:  Apart from the conclusion, this article consists of the first three pages of the excursus, ‘The Ordination of Women’, in my commentary on 1 Corinthians, Concordia Publishing House, 2000, 516-19).