Monday, February 22, 2021

William Payne: Biblical Interpretation, Gender Equality, and the Evangelistic Mandate

Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

John Wesley famously stated that he was homo unius libri (a man of one book). Following that lead, United Methodism affirms that Holy Writ is the primary authority for issues related to right faith and right practice. Considering this, how should Bible-affirming people make sense of the New Testament’s mixed messages about female Christ-followers?

In Titus 2:2-4, Paul says that the old women should behave themselves with reverence and not gossip or drink too much. They should give a good example, teach the young women to love their husbands and their children, remain judiciously pure, be keepers of the home, remain full of kindness and be subject to their husbands.

On the surface, this sounds very sexist and out of step with our modern world. After all, American society values gender equality. I also value gender equality because the spirit and teaching of the New Testament establishes this ideal.

In the church, the cultural categories that diminish women should be reconsidered in the light of the gospel message that emphasizes equality in Christ (Gal 3:28). As such, I do not believe that American women need to follow Paul's exhortation as if it were a universal law to be mimicked.

Why do I say this? Verse 5 makes the point. Do all of this so that "no one will be able to speak badly against the gospel message."

In other words, the culture of the people to which Paul was writing had normative expectations regarding the proper way for a woman to behave in public and in the home. If Christian women acted contrary to the cultural norm, they would bring discredit on the Gospel and would cause the unbelieving public to think that Christianity was a bad religion that should be shunned.

First Peter 2-3 makes a similar point when writing to slaves, to women who are married to harsh unbelievers, and to Christians who live under an evil government. In this light, one should not read 1 Peter 2:18ff as if it were establishing slavery.

The larger teaching of the New Testament points to an in-breaking kingdom of God that transforms human societies that are under the tutelage of the gospel. Ultimately, God will abolish all forms of injustice and sin to include slavery.

As such, 1 Peter does not endorse slavery. Rather, it assumes the unjust reality of slavery in the Roman Empire. It was a social fact for the people of its time. In the context of slavery and other forms of unjust systems, 1 Peter tells Christian slaves how they should live so they can influence others for Christ. In other words, Peter tells his audience that those who abuse you will be drawn to you and the Christ in you because of your exemplary behavior. As such, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15b).

First-century slaves did not have the freedom to preach or to protest against social injustice. However, they could lay a foundation for witnessing by living a life that was beyond reproach. When we approach 1 Peter and other similar verses from the perspective of social justice, we miss this point.

For Paul and 1 Peter, the evangelistic mandate was more important than personal liberty. That is why Paul affirms that he compromises his personal liberty by becoming all things to all people in order to win some to Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23). Paul did not ask others to do something he was not willing to model in his own life.

In both Paul and 1 Peter, the evangelistic mandate requires that Christian act in ways that do not bring discredit to the gospel to the extent they can without compromising the gospel message. This is a critical point. To do this, we must identify what is essential and what is cultural. On points related to the essential, we cannot water down the faith or change the clear teaching of scripture.

In the context of today’s debates, I place sexual purity in this category because it is a moral imperative. However, I do not place social gender roles in this category. Different societies have different social structures. The Bible does not establish a normative social structure for every culture. An old professor used to say, “The gospel will offend. However, it should offend for the right reasons.”

Let me offer a simple example that shows why scripture must be interpreted in terms of meaning rather than form. Proverbs 23:13 opines, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Many people who fail to make a distinction between meaning and culture have used this proverb as a mandate for corporal punishment. However, this proverb is not mandating corporal punishment. Rather, it is mandating that parents correct and discipline their children in order for them to grow up well. Corporal punishment was the culturally appropriate way that people did that in the time of the proverb.

United Methodists have to affirm that scripture is sacred and that it is the word of God. We must place ourselves under the authority of God as it has been mediated to us through the divine witness of scripture and tradition. However, we must make cultural adjustments as we interpret it and apply it to any given social context. Scripture has to be interpreted before it is rightly applied!


  1. So I live in a society where the social norm, what is regarded by the wider society as moral, is viciously lying about one's political opponents and promulgating falsehoods more generally against the findings of scientists and physicians. But if I'm a Christian and also politically progressive, or am a scientist, I should, like the old women in of Titus or the slaves of 1st and 2nd Peter just mind my own business and lead a life of quiet, non-confrontational, righteousness. By conforming to social norms rather than challenging them publicly my light will shine more brightly and inexorably lead to social change. Right?

    Dr. Payne wants to maintain the authority of scripture even when it appears to give advice that runs contrary to its own teaching about the equality of all people before God. Doing so requires placing it in "social context" and relieving the apostles of the task of challenging that context. But this comes at a cost - the denial of freedom and justice here and now both outside and inside the church. Modern women can be ordained because . . . well not because the gospel demands it, but because modern society accepts it! This seems like a strange reversal to me, one in which society sets the limits for freedom we have in Christ.

    I would like to suggest that we preserve the authority of scripture better if we recognize that it was precisely the cultural and social context that limited the ability of Peter and Paul to realize the full implications of what they were being taught by Christ. Being mere vessels, clay pots, they couldn't carry more of God's revelation in Christ than their human limitations allowed. Even their words in scripture must be judged in the light of Christ. That they reflected this light more brilliantly than any subsequent generation doesn't mean that they reflected it perfectly. Those of us who seek to live in the light of Christ have no choice but to discern where they fell short rather than to excuse it. Doing so does not diminish the authority of the apostles. It only places it where it belongs, as secondary to that of the living Christ.

  2. Liberals tend to read the Bible in light of their progressive commitments instead of the NT's categories. For a long time, they have argued that Holy Writ is not the primary authority for understanding right faith and right action because it was written by fallen people who lived in fallen societies. They say, "God still speaks to us today. We are the masters of the Bible. If we disagree with some aspect of Scripture, we will cancel it by appealing to a modern ideal. I am reminded that Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders when they substituted their traditions for the truth of God's revelation. 

    Today, social justice trumps the evangelistic mandate because we value political theology. It's confrontational and in your face. We know what is right and what God wants. We will fight for it. God is a progressive democrat just like us. We won't wait for the mustard seed to grow into the tree. 

    On the other hand, the NT writers had a long view of history. They looked to an eschaton in which God would separate the wheat from the tares and right every wrong. In the meantime, they loved their enemies, forgave those who mistreated them, and invited their persecutors to follow Jesus. Like the human Jesus, they practiced radical pacifism. 

    They did not seek to change society by confronting the political powers or by leveraging political power. Instead, they changed the world by burying the dead, adopting abandoned baby girls, loving the poor, giving radical hospitality to strangers, preaching the gospel everywhere they went, and replicating what Jesus did (e.g., healing the sick, casting out demons, doing miracles, honoring women, socializing outcasts, and embracing voluntary poverty). Perhaps, we still have a lot we can learn from them.