letters to Surfers

If you believe God is the ultimate author of the Bible how do you answer the feminist objections to Old Testament Patriarchy?

by Robert Brow February 1999

I read the Bible with the assumption of that God brought together into our one Bible the writings of many different people. So I reject the Liberal assumption that the Bible is inevitably full of inconsistencies. That is why Evangelicals recognize problems as we compare Scripture with Scripture, and then try to see how the apparent contradictions can be held together with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Here are five common models (with their many variations) which are used to explain the unpalatable strands of the Old Testament patriarchal attitudes to women:

a)   We should take those strands as God-given infallible Scripture but we search for the allegorical, typological, and spiritual meanings in each case.

b)   We should view the Old Testament in a dispensational light. God gave all that for the Jews. The Gospel is for us.

c)   The Old Testament introduces a Covenant of Law as a preparation for the New Covenant of grace.

d)   We can admit that monstrous sin occured (all have sinned), but there are still enough examples that we can pick out as       role models for our children (Sunday School materials are addicted to this).

e)    Those who go Liberal say "Don't bother. The Bible is irretrievable. Biblical Theology is dead. We just write books about all the nonsense and use our common sense to decide how to live our life."

Each of these models and their variations are sufficiently explained in hundreds of books. Let me explain the model I use for my assumption of the Creative Love Theism expressed by the single editorial voice of our loving God.

The Bible is mostly a history book, and God chose to give us an accurate account of one particular nation's pilgrimage, culture, customs, and laws, including their attitudes to women. He could have chosen the history of any other nation in place of the Old Testament, but He had several reasons I know, and there must be others I don't know, for choosing that of the Jewish people.

One of these reasons was that He wanted each nation to grasp from the very specific, and very honest, Jewish national story, what was involved in the Son of God's "But I say unto you" in the Sermon on the Mount. This method is frequently used by good story tellers, and HIS STORY (a nice definition of what history should be) is superb by any standard (think how many people read it in hundreds of languages every day !).  Having grasped Jesus' "But I say unto you" in relation to Jewish culture, law, and attitudes to women, people of any nation can easily see how the good news of God relates to their own national attitudes.

This is an essential part of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). On December 22, 1953 when Mollie and were married in a tent in Raxaul two hundred yards from the Nepal border there wasn't a single known Christian in that whole country. Last week I heard from Dr. Trevor Strong, who gave Mollie away on that occasion, that he had just found over 150 Christian congregations in Kathmandu alone, and in the one he joined 1000 had gathered. This kind of church growth only occurs with a huge amount of contextualization.  As the Son of God has been building His Church in Nepal the rich history of that country has been compared with Old Testament Jewish history. Nepali proverbs (some identical) have been compared with the Jewish Proverbs. Nepali poetry and songs has been compared with the Psalms. Every item of Nepali law has been compared with Jewish law. Nepalis also had kings who behaved well or badly. And their system of priests and animal sacrifice (very similar to Leviticus) has been compared with that of the Jewish priests and what the prophets said about them.

In the light of the Old Testament Nepalis can see exactly how Jesus' "But I say unto you" corrected serious misinterpretations of the ten commandments.  They know why the Lord told Peter that Jewish food laws were no longer applicable to other nations, and what the implications were for their own Nepali dietary laws. Nepalis can understand perfectly how the Holy Spirit revealed to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews that the Jewish practice of animal sacrifice is not needed (as the Nepali Christians themselves have also seen).

How does this model relate to women? Every country has good and bad traditions in their culture's treatment of women. In Jesus' day the rabbis did not allow women to be taught theology. But Jesus and his followers baptized women to be disciples (Acts 5:14, 8:3, 9:2, compare John 4:1). And once you allow people to be disciples, some will end up as teachers, as has happened with Feminist theologians.

Jesus radically changed Old Testament rules about adultery and divorce. We can see how some of Paul's ideas were still influenced by his nation's traditions, as is the case with all of us. And some rules were clearly cultural (I heard from Sister Brigid-Emmelia that the female priestesses of the temple of Diana in Ephesus, who also functioned as prostitutes, had to be shaved bald, which perhaps explains head covering?). But what is totally astonishing is that a rabbi, who was steeped in the male chauvinism of his day, learned from other disciples a tenfold mutuality between wives and husbands (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). I can't think this feminist vision came from anywhere but Jesus himself.

It seems to me that the advantage of such a model is that we can listen to what Feminist theologians say about Jewish patriarchy. We can then point out how Jesus and his disciples ruthlessly began to dismantle it. We might then be able to ask any woman, however radical in her feminism, how she could improve on Paul's description of a total mutuality of women and men in marriage (in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16).

I am not sure how the discussion could even get off the ground in some of the other interpretative models I have listed. And that may be one reason for "the lack of impact more than a generation of feminist studies has made upon most evangelical theology" (Quote from my friend John Stackhouse).

In the light of Jewish patriarchal ideas for putting women down, and the situation in their own nation, women can grasp what Jesus did when he welcomed women by baptism to be disciples, and corrected injustices in Old Testament marriage, adultery, and divorce laws. They can also see how a bigoted rabbi was so changed by learning Jesus' attitude to women that Paul was able to give the tenfold total mutuality between women and men in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.

That is a good beginning for dialogue with Feminist theologians, and much more is needed. The alternative is to lose a whole generation of very intelligent women.

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