By Dr. Bill Payne
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 is 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 NT establishes this ideal. In the church, the cultural categories that diminish women should be reconsidered in the light of the gospel message that tells us that all are one 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? Titus 2:5 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.
I Peter 2-3 makes a similar point when writing to slaves, to women who are married to unbelievers, and to Christians who live under an evil government. In this light, one should not read I Peter 2:18ff as if it were establishing slavery, tyranny, or abusive marriages. The larger teaching of the New Testament points to an in-breaking kingdom of God that is transforming human societies that are under the tutelage of the gospel. Ultimately, God will abolish all forms of injustice and social sin. I Peter merely assumes the unjust reality of these injustices in the Roman Empire. They were a social fact for the people of his time.
Like Titus 2, I Peter tells Christians how they should live in the context of unjust social systems so they can influence others for Christ. In other words, I Peter tells his readers that their exemplary behavior will draw unbelievers to the saints and the Christ to which they give nonverbal witness. After they have laid a good foundation by means of their exemplary lifestyle, they should “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [them] to give the reason for the hope that [they] have” (I Pet 3:15 b).
When we approach I Peter and other similar verses merely from the perspective of social justice we miss this evangelistic point. For Paul and I Peter, the evangelistic mandate was more important than personal liberty. That is why Paul says that he compromises his personal liberty by becoming all things to all people in order to win some to Christ (I 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 I 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. When properly administered with love and due restraint, I am not opposed to a culturally appropriate use of it. However, this proverb is not mandating corporal punishment. Rather, it is mandating that parents have to correct and discipline their children in order for them to grow us well. Corporal punishment was the culturally appropriate way that people did that in the time of the proverb.
Evangelicals 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 his divine witness of scripture. However, we must make cultural adjustments as we interpret it and apply it to any given social context. Yes, scripture has to be interpreted before it is applied!
William P. Payne, PhD is the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary.