The singular question for women in ministry is this: At its simplest it is this: Are there transcultural elements in the Bible? Are some elements “cultural”? And how do we do know the difference? William Webb, in his book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, contends there is a redemptive trend that begins in the Bible and will not be complete until the kingdom, but that the Church approximates that kingdom redemption in the here and now. Let me summarize where we are in Webb’s book.
Before we get there, I want to entertain a question: Assuming a male hierarchical or patriarchal society in the Bible, are the only two options “patriarchy as permanent” or “egalitarian as redemptive intent”? Why is there not a “patriarchy with exceptions” model for discerning what the Bible actually teaches? If we accept a patriarchy with exceptions model, of course, we still have huge issues about how to move such a theory forward, but I contend that patriarchy and egalitarianism are hard options and don’t reflect the nuances of the Bible. Well, maybe this has been suggested before.
Webb finds five “persuasive” criteria that demonstrate there is a redemptive trend: preliminary movement, seed ideas, breakouts, purpose/intent statements, and a basis in the fall or curse.
Today we want to look at the “moderately persuasive” criteria — and he has eight of them #s 6-13) and I will look at the first four (#s 6-9).
6. Basis in original creation: patterns. A component of a text may be transcultural if it is rooted in original creation. He finds some clear evidence here: divorce, polygamy, singleness, farming as an occupation, ground transportation, procreation command, vegetarian diet, Sabbath and length of a work week — each of these can be anchored in the original creation. His point: “not an automatic guide for assessing what is transcultural” (126).
On women in original creation: God’s image, creation mandate to rule with Adam, helpmate, Adam’s rib, man names the woman, man leaves and cleaves (not woman), God addresses the man first, and creation order.
His conclusion: finding a pattern in the original creation is not a solid ground for transcultural elements.
7. Basis in original creation: primogeniture (priority granted to the oldest). A component of a text may be transcultural if it is rooted in created order.
Webb has an exceptional study of the exceptions to primogeniture in the Bible where the principle of elective grace or giftedness or ability overrides traditional primogeniture. Cain and Abel, Isaac over Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, Judah/Joseph and Reuben … etc.
Webb contends primogeniture is culturally-tied and relates to survival/success of lineage, agricultural concerns, sibling rivalry … etc..
He thinks this element anticipates the curse and is not transcultural.
8. Basis in New Creation: a component of a text may be transcultural if it is rooted in new-creation themes.
What is most transcultural in the Bible is what is found in new creation material. Texts like Gal 3:28 (neither male nor female). The new creation humanity in Christ replaces the old humanity in Adam (Rom 5). Relationships of men and women remain but they are “transfigured, sanctified and celebrated” (149). New creation transforms the status of all participants and leads (at least) to “a profoundly reconfigured type of patriarchy” (152).
9. Competing options: a component of a text is more likely to be transcultural if presented in a time and setting when other competing options existed in the broader cultures.
This is involved, but I think it can be summarized this way: since patriarchy was the only real, live option in the ancient world, the patriarchy of the Bible may not be transcultural. Why? Because it was the only option. Had the Bible rejected egalitarian forms, then patriarchy would have a greater chance of being transcultural.