God is Good (A Case Study on Women in the Bible)

God is GOOD.

Do we believe that?  Really?  Maybe when you were growing up you prayed the prayer: “God is great, Good is good, let us thank him for our food…”  Reading the Old Testament there is lots of evidence that God is great—he is strong, he is powerful, he can create, he can send a flood or a plague or part the Red Sea, or make the walls of Jericho fall down, or wipe out an opposing army.  He is great.  But is he good?


What about the bloodshed and war?  What about the severe penalties for disobeying the law?  What about the permission, it seems in the Bible, for slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of women?  How do we see God’s goodness in such things?


What about this verse?


If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)


That’s in the Bible.  That’s a part of God’s law.  How does it make you feel?  It sounds quite oppressive!  Unfair!  Offensive!


And yet we are told that the entire Bible is a revelation of God’s plan of redemption—unfolding his grace and goodness.  How can that be?  How can we see God’s goodness in this passage?  Where is his redemptive grace here?


Many people misunderstand the Bible because they do not read it in a proper manner.  Before we can understand this passage we must be willing to 1) try to go back into that culture and see how this verse was received initially in that culture; and then 2) place this passage within the larger context of God’s historical redemptive plan.


The story of the Bible is one story…fall, redemptive history, progress, inching forward, God is patient, yet persistent, meeting people where they were, but seeking to bring them forward.  The ultimate expression of who God was Jesus.  We see a very fuller perspective of God’s will and plan now than before Jesus came.


So go back to ancient times in your imagination and try to look through their eyes.  What do we see?  Women had no rights in that culture—zero!  If she lost her virginity out of wedlock, she would be an outcast… she would never be married, never have children, never have financial security, she would be thrown aside, shunned, forgotten. So, looking from that vantage point, we suddenly see this command as a movement forward (not far enough, of course, but progress).  We see protection for the woman; she will have a husband, the potential for children, financial security—for her entire life.  And her father will not be robbed of the dowry he is counting on.


Is this God’s best and final intention for how women should be valued and treated?  NO!

But it is a step forward in redemptive history.  God is good, he is for us, he is full of grace, he is seeking to restore what was lost and bring us into a new creation.  There are many, many examples like this that could be given.


In the New Testament one time some religious leaders were trying to trip up Jesus.  There was a big debate going about divorce so they figured that no matter what position Jesus took it would be controversial and cause trouble for him:


Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)


Notice that they wanted to debate the Law of Moses, but Jesus took them back the original ideal, back to creation.  He said what Moses commanded was because of sin, because of hardness of heart; it was not God’s ideal.  But even when Moses commanded men who were divorcing their wives to give them a “certificate of divorce” there was progress and protection and the goodness of God seen in that.  It gave them proof that they were divorced and entitled to certain rights that would not be theirs if they were just kicked out and abandoned.  Even though we see God’s goodness there, it wasn’t his ideal, nor did God expect that redemptive movement to stop. His goal is New Creation in Christ, restoration of all that was lost!


How do we relate to the parts of the Bible that seem to us today to be culturally regressive and oppressive?  They must be seen in the context of the whole story–of the creation ideal, the fall, and the progressive redemptive movement of God toward a new creation in Christ and a restoration of all things.


Take slavery as an example.  In the Bible there were slave owners.  In most cases it was not what we think of when we hear the word “slave”.  It was not race-based slavery generated by kidnapping, but more like indentured servants.  Nevertheless, it was certainly not God’s ultimate ideal—that one man would own another.


In the OT there are many laws regarding how slaves were to be treated which represented progress: provisions against abuse, making sure they had a day of rest, opportunities for freedom after a certain number of years, etc.  All those provisions represented God’s goodness.  This in a culture where they were considered property to be treated or disposed of as the owner desired. Nevertheless, these provisions were not the ideal or God’s final word on the subject.

Same goes with the NT. Slaves are told to obey their masters—in some ways a call for them to be good employees, but still not the ideal.  Yet the Bible lays down seed principles that would bear fruit over time.  For example:


There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)


Here is a high level, universal statement that contains a seed principle that took time to bear fruit over time.


The one place where Paul addresses directly the whole issue of slavery is in the book of Philemon. There Paul asks the slave owner to not only forgive, but to receive his runaway slave back as a brother in Christ.  He even implies that the runaway slave should set him free to return to Paul as a ministry companion! Talk about progress.


Another example is the role of women in leadership, especially in ministry in the church.  There is a raging debate in the church about this.  Some would say that it is a simple answer.  The Bible clearly says that woman should keep quiet in church and not teach or be in authority.  So, case closed.  There are two texts on this.  Here’s the first:


Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)


At first reading that is a pretty clear answer.  Women, be quiet.  If you have any questions you can wait until you get home and ask your man about it!  Now that might strike some modern readers as offensive and demeaning.  Similar to the verse we read about rape.  But wait, we have to go back into that culture.  What was going on?


1 Corinthians 14 is addressing a broader subject of distraction and disruption that was happening in the worship gatherings.  For example some people were speaking in tongues and unbelievers came in and thought they were out of their mind.   Paul told them to stop that.  He said worship should be done in a “fitting and orderly way.”


What about the women?  Up until this time, women and men did not worship together.  Even to this day in orthodox Jewish synagogues the women and men are separated.  At that time most of the women were uneducated.  That hadn’t been to school, learned to read, or studied the scriptures for themselves.  So now, here they are for the first time, side by side with the men, hearing teaching, some of them were interrupting, asking questions, and it was disturbing the worship. So Paul says, “Wait to ask those questions outside the worship time.”


Is that God’s final, universal statement on the place of women in the church?  How could it be, when in the same book Paul says something that at first seems to be contradictory?


And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. (1 Corinthians 11:5)


Wait a minute!  I thought women were supposed to be completely silent in church.  But now he’s saying that they can pray or prophesy as long as their head is covered!  Public prayers were a formal part of the worship service.  Prophesying in the NT was not foretelling the future, but boldly exhorting God’s people with the gospel.  Apparently the command to be silent was not universal, but limited to a specific situation.  The universal principle was “don’t disrupt worship services,” the specific, limited, cultural application was “woman wait until later to ask your questions.”


You see when we studying the Bible we have to 1) seek to understand what it was saying to the original audience; 2) then what the universal principle was; 3) then make application to our time and culture.  If you don’t do this exercise you will abuse the Bible and come up with all types of misunderstandings.  Many examples could be given.


Look at the second NT passage that seems to say that woman should not be leaders or pastors in the church:


A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)


Here again is a similar situation as we saw in 1 Corinthians 14.  If you read the entire letter to Timothy you will see that there was the added problem of some false teachers who were trying to deceive and lead believers astray.  There was a problem with some of the young women, especially, who were less educated and more gullible. They are rebuked for being gossips and busybodies later in this letter.  They were certainly not in a place of maturity to be teaching or having any leadership responsibilities in the church.

Yet in other places we see women fully involved in ministry.  For example, there is Priscilla who appeared to be a co-pastor and elder with her husband leading a church that met in their house (in fact five out of the seven times she is mentioned, her name appears first before her husband, which in that culture conveys prominence or leadership).  Then there is Junias a female apostle—which was the highest level of leadership in the early church.  This was not the norm, of course, because of the culture of the day.  But these exceptions to the rule give indications toward what the ideal should be.  Even in the OT there were some prominent female leaders within God’s people: Deborah who was a judge over all of Israel, Huldah, who was a respected prophetess; and Esther who became a significant political leader.


What is God’s ideal?  It is seen by looking, not at isolated statements, but at the whole story, the redemptive movement of God in history.  It is seen looking back to the creation ideal, and ahead to the new creation in Christ.  The New Covenant changes everything in Christ: Jews and Gentiles are equal; slaves and masters are equal; men and women are equal.

In the Old Covenant, Jewish women came into the covenant through their father or their husband.  Male circumcision was the entry sign.  But in the New Covenant, the entry sign is baptism, and it is not just for males. Men and women were both baptized.

•                     Acts 2:18—The Holy Spirit was poured out on both men and women

•                     Acts 5:15—More and more men and women believed

•                     Acts 8:12—those who believed were baptized, both men and women


In the Old Covenant only men were priests, in the New Covenant there is the “priesthood of all believers”—both men and women.  You see the ideal of creation is being restored in the new creation in Christ.  The seeds were planted that were intended to go on and produce liberation.  Unfortunately it took a long time in some cases (look at how long it took with slavery in this country, or the right for women to vote!).


Now I realize there are those who disagree, some whom I respect very much.  One of the reasons, frankly, that some Christians are adamantly opposed to seeing these prohibitions for woman as culturally conditioned is because they afraid that the same interpretation of scripture that liberates slaves, and liberates women, will be used to go on and say, okay, it’s time for a gay and lesbian liberation.  And that is happening in some churches!  People are saying, “Yes the Bible speaks against practicing homosexuality… but that was because of the culture of the day… culture has changed…” And there are some liberal denominations ordaining gays and lesbians as pastors today based on this logic.


There is a two-fold problem with that way of thinking from a biblical perspective: 1) God is calling us to the pre-fall creation ideal which was one man and one woman committed to each other for life; 2) The Bible speaks with one clear voice regarding homosexual lifestyle and calls it sin. (He loves homosexuals, but not the lifestyle choice).


There are conflicting statements about slaves depending on circumstances (obey masters, get free if you are able); there are conflicting statements regarding women speaking in church (as we have seen); but there is consistently one voice (OT and NT) regarding homosexuality which tells us that the direct commands are still binding.


The Bible calls us to the ideal of creation.


In the 1 Timothy passage Paul says something interesting:


For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Timothy 2:13-16)


A woman (Eve) was deceived in the Garden. Does that mean that all women for all time are more gullible than men?  No, in fact, Adam sinned knowingly (which makes his sin even worse).  What about this idea of “women being saved through childbearing?” Do we think that only women who give birth are going to heaven? That’s not what it’s saying at all.


Remember, after Adam and Eve sinned, a promise was made that a descendant who would come through the woman who would be the Savior.  Indeed, Eve’s descendant, born many years later through Mary, was the long anticipated Messiah—Jesus.  So consider this: in whatever way Eve brought reproach on women by being deceived and the first one to sin, through Eve’s great, great, great, great… grandson—Mary’s child, Jesus—salvation came.  Thus any reproach was removed and women (along with all humanity) were “saved through childbearing.”  Through the one who was born, through Jesus!


When we are in Christ everything changes, we are a part of God’s new creation that is in formation moving toward an ultimate final restoration of all things.  In Galatians 3:28 we see a premier principle statement that helps us interpret other less clear passages:


There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)


God is good.  He is working out his redemptive purposes in the world—and in your life, if you will allow him.