Empowering Women Part 6 | How Jesus Interprets and Applies Scripture

“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”” (Matthew 19:3–9, ESV)

This post isn’t about divorce. Though if I were going to write about divorce and remarriage, this is likely where I would start. But I don’t want to talk about the “what” of this passage. I want to talk about the “how”.  Some religious leaders came to Jesus and asked him about the meaning and application of a particular verse of scripture. This one:

““When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1–4, ESV)

Moses gives commands in inspired and authoritative scripture that allow a man to divorce his wife if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her.” There was lots of discussion in Jesus’ day regarding what, exactly, could constitute this “indecency” that would justify divorce. There was one camp that said a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all. Another camp said that indecency had to be adultery, that indecent cooking was an insufficient grounds for divorce.

That’s the context. Now shift your thinking with me–away from the subject of divorce. Here we have an example of how Jesus approaches, interprets, and applies a specific passage of scripture regarding how men and women relate to each other. Let’s look at the “how” together.

1. Reference Original Design. What was God’s original intent in establishing marriage? He concludes that the original intent of marriage was lifelong oneness.

2. Check for Congruence with Original Design. Jesus then compared the scriptural command with original design. In this case he concluded that Moses’ allowance for divorce was not congruent with God’s original design and was therefore not an expression of God’s heart and desire.

3. Interpret and Apply Based Upon that Comparison. Jesus then concluded that this command of scripture, though authoritative and inspired, represented a concession on God’s part to the hardness of men’s hearts rather than an expression of God’s original design.

I wonder what might happen if we applied Jesus’ own interpretive methodology to Paul?

“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33–35, ESV)

Here we have authoritative and inspired scripture commanding us to not allow women to speak in church. And no argument can be made here that this was only a corrective instruction for the Corinthian church. “As in all the churches of the saints…” makes it very clear that Paul was giving a broadly applicable instruction. How might Jesus’ own interpretive methodology be applied to this text?

1. Reference Original Design. It is clear from Genesis 1 & 2 that Male and Female were together given dominion and authority. There is nothing in original design which suggests a subservient female role.

2. Check for Congruence with Original Design. Paul’s passage assumes and gives instructions for a hierarchical role between men and women in the church.  This is in-congruent with original design.

3. Interpret and Apply Based Upon that Comparison. We conclude that this passage, though inspired, does not express God’s heart and desire. It is rather a concession to the hardness of men’s hearts. In this particular case, it is a concession to a misogynistic culture where women are considered property and male dominance of women is assumed and unquestioned.

This bears out when we look elsewhere. There are places where Paul states the ideal, that which is congruent with original design, that which then should be considered the expression of God’s heart.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, ESV)

In Christ, the hierarchical distinctions are eliminated. So on one hand, Paul argues for the ideal. On the other hand, Paul concedes to the cultural reality. This is not rare in Paul’s writings. The same Paul who said that if gentiles submit to circumcision, that they have no part in Christ is the same Paul that insisted Timothy get circumcised for the sake of the Jews. One is an ideal. The other is a concession to the hardness of men’s hearts.

Paul had quite a bit to say about slavery. He gave instructions to masters. He gave instructions to slaves. His words about slavery assume slavery and do nothing to suggest that masters should release there slaves or that slavery is a cultural evil. It is a cultural reality he generally concedes to and gives instructions within.

But in our day and age, we don’t preach slavery. We’re not pro slavery. So these verses get largely ignored. If we do reference them, we extract the slavery concept from the passages and reduce them to instructions about employees and employers. Why do we do this? Are these passages not authoritative? Yes. They are. And if we lived in a society where slavery was a cultural assumption, they might be more applicable. This was, at one time, such a society. And don’t think for a moment that there weren’t preachers in the South proclaiming these passages as God’s Law endorsing slavery.

But you can’t find slavery in God’s original design. So we find other preachers, other courageous preachers, who were willing to challenge Paul’s clear instructions that assume and perpetuate slavery. On what basis? On the basis of Paul’s clear proclamation of the ideal in Christ that there is no longer slave or free. One is merely the concession to fallen Man and fallen culture, a concession to the hardness of men’s hearts. The other is the ideal we are to contend for as we are able.

In Paul’s day there were three primary issues that fit within this discussion.

1. Racism – How are Jews to relate to non-Jews and vice versa?

2. Sexism – How are Men to relate to Women and vice versa?

3. Slavery – How are owners and slaves to relate?

Gal 3:28 makes it clear that Paul understood that in Christ, all of these issues had been abolished. There is now a oneness in Christ that should, in application, eliminate any dominance or hierarchy within these pairings on the basis of race, gender, or social status. But all three of these issues were DEEPLY ingrained in culture. They represent deeply held assumptions regarding what is right and normal. Ever try to question the traditions of men? You’ll likely get some resistance. You might even get crucified. Check out the comments on my current series for some examples.

It is my contention that Paul, though believing that all three of these oppressions were ultimately eliminated in Christ, recognized that he had to strategically prioritize. He was unable to fight all three of these battles. So he chose to give his life and resources toward addressing the Jew/Gentile issues of his day. I believe this was his priority over the other two options (gender issues/ slavery) simply because the Great Commission was absolutely dependent upon establishing churches that included both Jew and Gentile worshiping and serving together. Many of his letters are primarily aimed at shifting those cultural assumptions and promoting that Jew and Gentile are now, in Christ, one new man.

Some of what Paul has to say about Men/Women, Free/Slave issues are simply a concession to cultural realities where he wasn’t prepared to wage war. They do not represent an ideal that Paul would want us to indefinitely perpetuate until Jesus returns. Thank God for William Wilberforce in England and the many abolitionists in America in the early to mid 19th century. Thank God for modern day abolitionists who are working so hard to eliminate modern day slavery and the sex trade.

I’m praying for some modern day believers who will give their lives and resources to eliminate the oppression of women within the church. I’m quite certain Paul will cheer us on.


About the Author: