It was pointed out to me yesterday that a discussion about form and function, like what I wrote yesterday, hinges on us being able to properly identify the motives behind the form we see in the Bible. And that’s not an easy task.
That’s a very important point. In the case of footwashing, it seems to me that Jesus makes his motive fairly clear, even when footwashing carried a multitude of meanings. He points it directly to service and tells his followers that they are to be servants.
In other discussions, it’s more complicated. In the teaching about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers to the covering as a sign of authority. But whose authority? The woman’s authority to pray and prophesy in public? Her husband’s authority over her? The elders’ authority in allowing her to pray and prophesy?
And Paul doesn’t just talk about authority. He also says it’s “because of the angels.” There’s lots of conjecture and speculation about what that means, but it’s difficult to say with precision. How to identify the function of something when we can’t clearly state the motives?
This interpretive difficulty lead some to abandon form and function as a hopeless exercise. To me it says more about the need for humility and charity in our interpretations.
Glad to have gotten some feedback on yesterday’s post. Let’s keep the discussion going.
As I hope a lot of us do, I’ve been thinking about how we read and interpret the Bible. Too often we spend our time debating issues without looking at the underlying principles behind our differing viewpoints.
When we look at something that was done in the Bible or something commanded in the Bible, we have to figure out what that says for us. I’m not sure that there is anyone who takes every command personally… seen anybody gathering animals into an ark lately? Nor do we follow every example. We all make decisions about how to extract teachings from the Bible and apply them to us.
Some try to stick as closely to the things they see done in the Bible. Their women wear veils, they wash each other’s feet, and they greet with a kiss. What matters to them is what people did back then.
Another group is more interested in why things were done a certain way in the Bible. This is something I’ve discussed in the past as “form vs. function.” Instead of insisting that women wear veils, the form and function camp looks to why they were required to wear veils, and seeks an equivalent response today. The idea is that the means are (may be) culturally bound but the motives are eternal.
A third group, which I see as growing in prominence today, feels that both the means and the motives are culturally bound. What people did in Bible times and why they did those things only respond to questions of their moment in time. Christian living today can and should be very different.
I’ll confess to understanding the first two positions better than I do the third. I would absolutely love for someone to help me understand and state the third position better. I find myself firmly in the “form vs. function” position, but not so firmly that I’m unwilling to grow and learn.
Can you help me state any of these positions more clearly? Can you help me see other views toward the Bible that might fit into this discussion?
As always, I appreciate your input.
Jay Guin is a prolific and thoughtful writer, unafraid to follow his study wherever it may lead him. He’s even willing to change positions, as he admits to in his book Buried Talents. This book is an important resource in the discussion of men and women in the churches of Christ. While I admit to not agreeing with his conclusions, I have high regard for the process that led him to those conclusions.
I’m not fond of beginning with conclusions, but I’ll make an exception in this case. On page 142, Guin states his position clearly:
The Bible says that in God’s eyes there is neither male nor female. It means what it says. Passages that apparently limit women’s role are written for a temporary cultural situation that no longer exists (much like the command of the Holy Kiss). Genesis 3 is a curse not a command. Genesis 1 and 2 define how men and women should relate in Christ, who came to undo the Fall of Man—they are both made in God’s image and husbands and wives should be one flesh, much as Jesus and God are one.
I know that statement leads to delight for some and dismay for others. Again, I encourage us to consider the process, how he gets there. Whether or not you agree with Guin’s conclusions, you owe it to yourself to see how he came upon them.
Briefly, let me state my points of divergence:
- I do think that Genesis 1-3 is crucial to this discussion. I also agree that the idea of man “lording over” women is part of the curse, not part of the original design. Anyone lording over anyone in the church is a direct violation of Jesus’ teachings. However, as I’ve discussed, I see much in the creation story that leads me to see a divine plan behind maleness and femaleness that goes beyond biological reproduction.
- I don’t think the concept of form and function is fully explored. Guin relies too heavily on the Holy Kiss argument (pages 22, 28, 135, 141, 142, 143, 177, and 178) as a means of saying that certain commands can be disregarded because of their cultural ties. He admits that the idea of greeting one another still carries weight, but doesn’t flesh out that correspondence to the commands about women. [I’ll insert that I think we COMPLETELY misunderstand the statements about greeting with a holy kiss… but I’ll save that for another time]
- I think that Guin and many others exaggerate how much the early church bowed to cultural pressure. It’s worth noting that Paul (and other writers) made note of when they were making such concessions (Acts 16:3; 1 Corinthians 7-10; Romans 14). No such statement exists regarding the differences between men and women.
These differences lead me to a different place than Guin. But, as I said, I still think he brings a lot of unique insights to this discussion. You’d do well to read his work.
[I would note that Jay’s site is frequently hard to access. Be patient.]
In our discussion about men and women and church leadership, one of the questions that has come up several times is whether gender differences will be an eternal thing. More pointedly, the objection to seeing differing roles for men and women has been that Jesus told us to pray for things to be on earth as in heaven; does a teaching that recognizes gender differences imply that those differences will exist after the resurrection?
I’ve written before about my agnosticism regarding what happens after we die. I don’t have it all down pat the way some people seem to. But I do know that life after the resurrection won’t be like life before the resurrection, at least not exactly. I base that on the following event from Jesus’ life:
“That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:23–30; see also Mark 12:18-31 and Luke 20:27-40)
The Sadducees weren’t merely confused about what would happen after the resurrection. They denied it altogether. But part of their error was failing to recognize that life after the resurrection will be different. As regards marriage, at least, we will be like the angels; marriage won’t be a part of our reality.
Marriage is part of our present life. It’s a big part of the church’s life, according to Scripture. But it won’t be after the resurrection.
On the subject of gender, this is especially telling. I believe that the recognition of gender differences in the church is closely tied with the family and with marriage. If marriage is going to be absent in the resurrection, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see a change in the relationship between men and women.
So what does form and function tell us about the passages regarding men and women in the church? I think it has several things to say:
- The main question isn’t whether or not Paul intended to write rules for church practice throughout eternity. That’s where we often get sidetracked, either by someone wanting to strictly apply everything they read (these are the ones who are still holding their collection, waiting for Paul to come and take it to Jerusalem) and those who shout “Legalist!” anytime someone tries to teach based on Paul’s instructions to the early church.
- The occasional nature of Paul’s writings doesn’t give us license to ignore what he says. The statement “That’s just cultural” is a meaningless statement. Everything is cultural in one way or another; that is, the Bible uses human language and situations to teach. It uses human culture. We must discern what teachings transcend culture.
- Whatever we decide that Paul was addressing in passages like Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11, we still need to hear his teachings. The function behind the form must be addressed in some way. If women aren’t to wear veils, then how is the same function fulfilled today?
What other thoughts come to your mind when thinking about form and function?