There is no hidden meaning necessary to understand the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus for our salvation. And Jesus is pretty straightforward with His words and actions, telling us that love is the most important of all the commandments. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”Even when the religious leaders were trying to trap him, Jesus was clear in his response,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘ You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Paul agrees on the importance of love when he testifies,
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)If love is so important, then we must remain with love while we search the scriptures. If we pursue knowledge in these matters without the banner of love, then our result is just a “clanging cymbal”.
We must guard ourselves against dismissing important instructions through a strict reliance on love…loving the Lord with everything; loving our neighbor as I would love myself. When we read the Bible with knowledge of it’s historical context we will be able to distinguish between those instructions given with contextually-specific reasons and those instructions in the Bible which were intended to live beyond culture and momentary context. Always remember love.
How will we know which verses were intended for a specific audience, though? How will we prevent ourselves from dismissing instructions that were intended to remain for all time - applying even in the ages to follow? How will we refrain from dismissing everything in the future that doesn’t align with the culture of first-century Judaism?
My fear is that Christians in our hesitancy over these same questions have refrained from accepting the impact of the Bible’s historical context on the application of scripture. If we understand the historical context of the Bible, then we must interpret the written words accordingly. There is a personal responsibility laid upon us with this requirement. If the New Testament must be interpreted through the lens of first-century Jewish culture, then failing to do so means we’ve failed to understand those passages requiring such contextual explanation.
For example, in Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable of the “Sower and the Seeds”. If the reader is not familiar with farming or the concept of seeds and different types of soil, then the meaning of the passage isn’t fully comprehendible. Likewise, instructions given from Paul to the early church aren’t fully understood without context. His instructions regarding women are primarily founded in the patriarchal society of the first-century. So when he tells women to “be silent in the church” and to cover their heads - we cannot understand the “why” without also understanding the context of a woman’s role in Jewish society.
Regarding women, the entirety of the Bible was written during a time of history when men were rulers and authorities over women - as dictated by the weight of Jewish culture and tradition. Particularly, women were viewed as property and used in the process of transferring inheritance (think arranged marriages). During the first century, women were reviled as lesser creations. In Luke 18:11, we see a Pharisee praying these words:
‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’
This prayer is similar to a common Jewish prayer - common even to this day:
“Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile. Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a slave. Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman.”
There are countless passages in the Bible where women are treated as an inferior creation. The most detestable is in Judges 19, where some of the inhabitants of the Jewish city of Gibeah are demanding to have sexual relations with a man who has sought refuge for the night, but the owner of the house at which he is staying offers his virgin daughter and the traveler’s concubine to them instead…both of whom the detestable men of the city rape all night long. Upon the traveler’s return home, he cuts his concubine into twelve pieces and scatters her across Israel. The acts of the men of Gibeah are looked on with disdain, for sure. But the attitude of the man in Judges 19 is common an example of how Jewish men viewed women as dispensable.
Now, let's re-read the passages of the New Testament regarding women with this in mind. Paul’s instructions to the early church regarding women were obviously situated in the cultural context of female inferiority. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul clearly says,
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”
Have we accepted part of this teaching but rejected other parts selectively? Certainly. There are obviously historical cultural implications which allow modern readers to exist in churches where women are allowed to speak aloud. We do not follow the tradition of first-century Judaism being described by Paul in this passage. In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul instructs women again:
“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.”Of course we want all people to dress modestly, but according to this instruction, women cannot have braided hair or wear gold or pearls. We obviously recognize that there is historical cultural context here…as most women in our churches wear expensive clothing (compared to 99% of the world) and even wear jewelry. We do not follow the tradition of first century Judaism being described by Paul in this passage. Nonetheless, later in the same chapter of 1 Timothy 2 (verse 12), Paul gives instructions that we like to keep to this day:
“But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”
While we understand the instructions in verse nine are subject to historical cultural context, we miss that point in verse twelve. But then again, in verse fifteen, we are somehow able to understand the application of culture when Paul says:
“But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self- restraint.”
It seems as though we apply our understanding of cultural context as it suits us - not as a universal concept. Again in 1 Timothy 3:12, we go back to a literal reading of the instruction - instead of recognizing the cultural implications. In this verse, Paul says:
“Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.”
Remember, in first century Jewish culture, women would not be seen as viable options for leadership. But is that same cultural prohibition still in place today? Certainly not! Yet we still force instructions given within a specific historical and cultural context to apply to our modern churches. Even worse, we have gone further in the legalistic practices of our modern churches toward the exclusion of women.
Citing 1 Timothy 2:12, we prevent women from having authority over men. For this reason - in many churches only men can be ushers; only men can serve communion; only men can pray during services. But do these activities imply or require authority? Certainly not! But we limit the involvement of women in the same first-century Jewish-sense, even though our modern society fosters equal rights.