I recently finished another book in my study on women’s role in the church. This one was published in 1991 by John Temple Bristow. It is a small book (130 pages), but well researched and quite significant. It’s not a quick read, by any means, but it is not overly technical either. Bristol writes in a way that is down to earth and easy to understand by any of his readers. He points out the facts without getting overly tedious.
Therefore, I strongly recommend this book to anybody who truly wants to understand the role of women in the church. In fact, I consider this little book a MUST READ. Bristow’s book is very important because it points out how the writings of Paul have largely been misunderstood because modern readers have failed to consider the context in which Paul wrote. We also fail to recognize the strong influences the Greek, Roman, and even Jewish cultures on the early church as well as the church today.
Bristow deals with the history of how society has viewed women. He examines the predominate spiritual and philosophical thoughts within Hellenistic, Roman, and Hebrew culture. In doing this, Bristol is able to help the reader understand how Jesus and his disciples, including Paul, had a very high view of women.
Building from this background, Bristow goes on to examine what he feels are some vastly misunderstood passages. When these passages are read through modern day eyes, some people have understood them to imply that woman are inferior, less intelligent, more prone to sin, and less equipped for leadership. From our world perspective where women have achieved the highest recognition in virtually every field, Paul comes across as a male chauvinist. Yet in other passages, Paul has a very high view of women which was completely contrary to the culture he was in. Paul’s statement in Gal. 3:28 for example, (There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus), completely contradicts prominent philosophies in Paul’s day. Paul does, however, respect cultural trends which may have caused early Christians to be viewed with scrutiny.
Today there is a great deal of confusion as to what the Bible really teaches about women. Were women created as helpers and subordinates of men? Are they inferior? What can they do? What can’t they do? Ironically, when the church started on the day of Pentecost, Peter referred to the prophesy of Joel that was being fulfilled that day.
Act 2:17-18 ” ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
Sure enough, Paul refers to the practice of women praying and prophesying in 1 Cor. 11:5-6. The book of Acts tells us that Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8). In the final chapter of Romans, Paul commends the vital work of several women for their work of sharing the gospel message. Yet, Paul seems to demand silence and submission from women in 1 Cor. 14:34; and 1 Tim. 2:11-12. This is the rub in which churches have been arguing and splitting over for centuries now.
The truth is we are confused. Hardly anybody sees it the same way. Even those who think woman are to have a more submissive and passive role in the church are completely inconsistent in determining what roles women can play. If women are to be silent and therefore can’t lead in prayer or publicly address the congregation, what does this mean? Can they make announcements? Can they sing out loud? Are they aloud to talk to their friends as the church assembles? Can they correct a child during the assembly? Women obviously can teach the Bible, but not everyone agrees on who she can teach. If she can teach an unbelieving man, must she cease and desist once he becomes a believer? Is a woman to cease instructing her children after they are baptized? I can list a hundred other questions and get a variety of answers to each. People are confused and there is a great need to go back to the Scripture and distinguish between the Scriptural message and what has been traditionally passed down to us from a variety of cultural elements.
I for one, must admit, my previously held beliefs on this matter have been severely challenged. I haven’t reached a point where I’m forming my conclusions yet, but I will admit some of my first impressions on several passages have been misunderstood. Regardless of one’s conclusion, this book will be helpful for it’s background information. The culture in which I find myself is completely different from Paul’s, but when I understand the situations Paul was addressing, I will be better equipped to apply his message to my own situation.