Jesus Liberates Women

Edward Fudge

Let us not underestimate the consequences of sin in our world. Before sin came into the human story, humankind lived in a perfect paradise. Man and woman were one flesh, perfectly reflecting God's own image, and charged with the task of subduing and ruling over the rest of God's creation (Gen. 1:26-31). They were different from each other physically, yet perfectly suited to each other and corresponding so that both together represented the wholeness of humanness in a fullness neither could represent alone (Gen. 2:18-25). Woman was man s "help," not as a servant or even as an inferior, but as a powerful supplement. The Hebrew word is ezer, the same word elsewhere used of God Himself (Ex. 18:4; I Sam. 7:12; Psalm 121:1). Besides enjoying perfect harmony with each other, man and woman enjoyed undistracted fellowship with the beasts, with the plants and God Himself. God was on the throne, and all else took his place under Him.

Sin Came

Sin was the human creatures' declaration of independence, their rebellion against God as sovereign. Adam and Eve were tempted with the thought that they could be equal with God. They considered that a prize to be grasped, and so they exalted themselves and became disobedient. The result, of course, was death. The result was also disruption of all other relationships -- between Adam and Eve, with the animals, with the earth itself, and most of all with God (Gen. 3:14-19). These broken relationships become the hallmarks of the curse of the broken covenant in later Israel, just as the paradise state became a picture of the blessings of God's covenant kept (Lev. 26:14-32; Lev. 26:3-12).

After sin entered the world, humankind rejected God's principles in general as Self progressively was exalted as god. Service gave way to power; creaturely humility to boastful pride; loving concern and tenderness to violence and aggression (Gen. 4:16-24; 6:5-13). The oneness of harmony and mutuality for which God made his dual-gendered human creature was replaced by a power-hunger which turned woman into man's toy or tool, to be used by him and controlled by him. Polygamy was the natural result of that sinful distortion of God's plan (Gen. 4:19), and, though God tolerated it, he never endorsed it as his original plan.

Jesus Came

Jesus came to redeem all that was in bondage because of sin. He was born "under the law," and was the true man of the covenant (Gal. 4:4). He kept every stipulation of God's covenant with Adam and with Israel. (Read Philippians 2:5-12 and think how it details the opposite sequence found in Adam's story in Genesis.) He earned all the covenant blessings -- paradise restored. He took on himself all the curses of the broken covenant -- whether thirst, or darkness, or the sword, or expulsion from the holy land, or God's distance, or even (in a symbolic way, says Psalm 22) the wild animals.

All that, Jesus did for us. The covenant stipulations are all kept for us, in Jesus. The covenant blessings are all earned for us, in Jesus. The covenant curses have all been borne for us, in Jesus. We stand for God, in Jesus, as if sin had never entered the world. What Jesus has done for us puts us in a situation even better than the original situation before Adam sinned. What sin has brought for the worse, Jesus has by his obedient life and death remedied for the better -- and even "much more" (Rom. 5:12-21).

But sin is still in the world, in the church, and in each one of us. We must struggle against it, or it will have its way. By Christ's resurrection power, we are able to conquer mightily. But the victory does not come automatically, and Satan does not give up without a fight. The pride of place, the boast of power, the love of supremacy is an ever-present sign of our fallen condition. What is worse, this deep root of nearly all sins has often been justified and rationalized as being the will of God.

God's Plan

Paul gives a picture of God's plan for humanity in Galatians 3:28, a plan God is already bringing about in Christ. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This ideal is set forth in the New Testament, but even there God's people did not fully measure up to it. Not until nearly half-way through Acts did a church truly incorporate Jew and Greek, and only then were the disciples ready to be called "Christians" (Acts 11:26). Not in New Testament times did Christians mature to the point that they abandoned slavery. Although God's goal was clear that there should be neither slave nor free, the sinful principles and constraints of the fallen world were slow to fall away. In the meantime, the apostle Paul regulated the master-servant relationship, much as God regulated divorce in the Old Testament even though he did not approve it and it was contrary to his original purpose.

In the same way, God's plan for the restoration of liberated humankind did not find immediate application and realization. The strictures of society still prevailed at times. The sinful lust for power still prevailed, even among the disciples of Jesus. Paul regulated these matters, and held to his ideal. Despite all the problems to be overcome before it could be realized, he never weakened the ideal, never compromised it, never watered it down. Christ came to set us free, Paul said -- from the "weak and worthless elemental" principles of a fallen world (Gal. 4:9). He urged his students to stand firm in their freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1). It made no difference whether the bonds wore the counterfeited stamp of the Law of Moses, or the "natural" principles of Gentile philosophy. Christ freed mankind from them all. But the enjoyment of that freedom would require effort, and struggle, and time.

Marks of the Ideal

Meanwhile, Paul and other Christian teachers made plain that man and woman are equal in Christ. The Age of the Messiah has dawned, said Peter on Pentecost --the Age of the Spirit has come. One mark of that is that "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17). And, indeed they did! Philip may have been an evangelist, but. he was shadowed by four prophesying daughters (Acts 21:9). Priscilla was a tutor of one of the greatest preachers of the first century (Acts 18:26). Phoebe was a deacon of the church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1-2). Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Julia, Nereus' sister, and others whose names we do not know were women of note in the early church, Paul's fellow-workers, known beyond their own cities for their service in the gospel (Rom. 16:1-15).

Paul told Timothy how to conduct affairs in the Church of God, and the instructions included provisions for a class of women of high qualification and with equally high responsibilities, women who were to be supported by the church in their service (1 Tim. 5:9-10; 3:12). Paul also gave instructions concerning women who would pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:5).

A Misunderstood Text

The whole context of First Corinthians 11:5 concerns activities in the assembly, and the only reason for missing that point is the apparently inconsistent statement in 14:34 that women are to "keep silent in the churches." That, too, should be seen in context, and, so seen, the inconsistency disappears. Chapter 14 of First Corinthians is a kind of "emergency room" situation -- Paul is giving orders of all sorts to a situation that is completely disorderly and out of hand. The people with the gifts of tongues are talking all at once. Paul tells them to be quiet. If they wish to use their gift in the assembly, there is a proper way to do it (14:27-28). The prophets are interrupting each other. Paul tells them to be quiet. If they wish to benefit the congregation, there is a proper way to do it (14:29-33). The prophet's wives are interrupting the prophets -- passing judgment (discerning), or asking questions, or both. Paul tells them to be quiet. If they have questions for their prophet husbands, there is a proper way to ask them (14:35). This chapter assumes that "each" Christian has something to contribute to the assembly (14:26). The point of its rule is to see that these contributions are made in a way that is finally constructive rather than merely confusing (14:33).

There is a kind of irony here. The only thing Paul specifically forbids women to do in this chapter is to ask questions, but the only things we often allow women to do is ask questions.

Some Questions

Even if one believes that women are prohibited by Scripture from vocal contributions in the assemblies (and no one really practices that, since all allow women to sing, all permit them to ask questions, and most permit them to teach males and females alike under some circumstances), there is plenty of room for expression of the liberation Jesus gives but which our customs have not included. Who passes out announcements or takes up attendance cards where you assemble? Men or women? Who serves as ushers for visitors? Men or women? Who always passes the elements of the Lord's Supper without saying a word? Men or women? Why would we be shocked for women to do any of these things? What scriptural principle would be violated? What is more natural and expected than for the women to serve the meal?

Perhaps it is better to ask what scriptural principle is being violated the way things are now . That principle is the one Paul stated in Galatians 3:8 -- the oneness and equality in Jesus of all humanity. He is not simply saying that Jesus saves men and women alike. God saved men and women alike under the Old Testament system, to the extent that they enjoyed knowledge of salvation.

What we need to see is that the principle of Galatians 3:28 was not put into practice overnight. By and large, the Christian world did not abolish slavery until the 19th century, and then it happened at the insistence of those who stood on scriptural principles! By and large, the Christian world has not yet fully given women the place Jesus gives them -- beside men, corresponding to them, in every way their equal. Where it is happening most effectively, it is being clone at the urging of those who stress scriptural principles. Only in the past 30 years have many Churches of Christ in America begun to integrate racially. There, too, the liberation Jesus gave has been a very long time coming. And it is not nearly realized yet in most places.

Sin permeates our society and our own fallen selves. Jesus is renewing our minds. God's word has shone the light for centuries, but we are very slow to see. Yet the ideals are still there and they are uncompromised for all our tardiness and hardness of heart. Let us ask God to help us transform them from words to deeds, to the glory of Jesus Christ who came to make us free.