Whether I express it here or through my work over at Abundance Reconstructed, I believe, by and large, the Western Church gets the Bible wrong. Moreover, because we misunderstand the overarching story, we end up applying the message incorrectly.
Now, I do not believe there is some conspiracy theory going on and that these errors are intentional. Rather, I believe most people genuinely believe what they are saying to be true. Because of this, one of my favorite things to while teaching the Bible is unpack those instances where what the text says and what we understand it to mean are opposites. I am hopefully that by doing the work I can guide others into a richer, healthier, and more vibrant faith.
Recently this happened while preparing for a Zoom Bible Study I taught at The Sanctuary. For the class I opened with general principles of interpretation. Then I moved onto a broad overview of my assigned topic (the Epistles). Then I unpacked a specific controversial text. As you might guess, it is a controversial text is one where we often get the Bible wrong.
Why It Is Easy To Get The Bible Wrong
I will be the first to admit that on first read, I often get the Bible wrong. But over time, I am learning how to intentionally avoid making common mistakes. First, when I read and interpret the Bible, I aim to remain aware of two things:
- I am reading a translated document. Moreover, that translation comes from a text that involves choices made by a textual critic.
- I am not the original audience so odds are, I am unfamiliar with the book’s social and historical context.
The first point recognizes that I am reading an assembled text. As much as text critics and translators might try to keep their subjective opinions out of the process, they find their way in. To suggest they do not is as ludicrous as saying that large dollar donations do not influence politicians. So in the end, I aim to remain vigilant that what I read in English might prompt me to miss the point.
The second principle recognizes that the Bible as historical. The Bible takes place in time and space. Cultural realities of the day matter. So does history. This means, odds are high there are some things in the text I am not going to fully understand.
How I Guard Myself From Getting the Bible Wrong
So, while reading, I aim to keep the basics of the faith that I feel most certain about in mind. For me, this means three things:
- God is relentlessly loving. This means Jesus died, not to change God’s mind about us, but our mind about God.
- Individually, living under God’s reign is about living by soul in a spirit of love. I explore what this means on the Abundance Reconstructed YouTube channel.
- Socially, living under God’s reign includes rejecting the social structures we use to marginalize one another. This includes race, class, and gender.
Whenever I read something that seems to contradict this, I know I need to start asking questions. Sometimes, these questions lead to me changing what I was most certain about. This is why I no longer embrace the theology I grew up with and actually consider it harmful. At other times, I reminds me how easy it is to get the Bible wrong. That is what happened while preparing for The Sanctuary.
Using the Epistles as an Example
Broadly, the Bible study series at The Sanctuary explores different sections of the Bible. My class focused on the Epistles. There is no way, in the time allotted, that I could offer an effective overview of each book. Instead if focused on the nature of the Epistles.
Generally speaking, the Epistles are letters. The author wrote them to a person or a gathering of people. This means there is an intended audience, and it is not us. So when we read an Epistle, we are reading someone else’s mail. These letters show up in the Bible because someone in authority is helping others figure out, practically, what it means that Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, how does the resurrection of Jesus invite that group of people to live in that specific situation.
Therefor, when applying the Epistles, we should not simply do exactly what the author says. Rather, we should view the Epistles as models of how to do theology. This means we should focus on the author‘s process more than their conclusion. But focusing on the process, we can discern how to apply the guiding theology in our context.
To bring all of this together, let us turn to a text where we often get the Bible wrong (although I did not realize how wrong when I started preparing).
The Controversial Text
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.
For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.1 Corinthians 11:2-16, NRSV
When teaching, I identified two points that make the text controversial to our modern ears:
- “the husband is the head of his wife”
- “Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”
But these same points are also offensive to what I am theologically most certain about on two fronts.
- Some women, at the very center of their being, feel a divine call to church leadership. Churches use these verses to undermine their ability to live by soul.
- Common interpretations of this texts fortify divisions based on gender rather than tearing them down.
So how does paying attention to linguistic and cultural realities not only undo the points of offense but affirm what I believe about the Bible to be true?
The Husband is the Head
Kenneth Bailey points out that the Greek word for head can mean one of three things:
- your cranium
- one in authority
- a source or origin, like a lake being the head of a river
Obviously, understanding head in this case as the cranium makes no sense.
However, authority does not make sense either given the apparent basis for the claim, the order of creation. Created first cannot mean of first importance, as the creative order starts with the lesser forms of life and move onto more complex ones. If what came first was most important than animals would be more important than people, plants more important than animals, and “the primitive earth ‘without form and void’ is the most important of all” (302). However, if things created later have greater importance, then women are more important, and therefore the head.
This means that the only reading that makes sense is source or origin. Moreover, based on Genesis 2, the woman did come from the man. Finally, given that Adam and Eve serve as an archetype for all marriage relationships, then at least archetypally, a husband is the head (aka source, origin) of his wife. Although this says nothing about either’s worth or roll.
Women Created For Men
Moving on to the second point of offense, what does Paul mean by women were created for men? Again, Kenneth Bailey helps point out the obvious.
In Genesis 2 the man is alone. He is not doing well by himself. So God decides to create “a helper suitable for him.” The word used for helper appears throughout the rest of Scripture to describe God’s relationship to humanity. God comes to people to be their “helper” when they are not able to make it on their own.
So how exactly does that text pitch men as superior? Eve was not alone and struggling by herself. God did not create Adam to help her.
Now, maybe if God created Eve first she would need Adam just like Adam needs her. After all, masculinity without femininity is an abundance of energy and movement without any clear end in mind. Similarly, femininity without masculinity is like a beautiful painting with no canvas to put it on.
But the one thing that is clear, is that this text, in no way, presents men as superior or in a position of authority. Rather than affirming something of value stemming from the order of creation, it undermines it.
Liberated Roman Women
If that is all true, how is a woman praying with her head uncovered disgraceful towards her husband?
Historically, Roman women were expected to remain faithful to their husbands. Roman men on the other hand generally expected to mess around. However, according to Bruce Winter, around 44 BCE, Roman laws changed and allowed women to own property for the first time. Moreover, they gained the power to divorce their husbands and even regain some or all of the dowery. This gave women an entirely new level of independence. In response, a new class of Roman women emerged who embraced a more open sexuality and did not shy from infidelity. To demonstrate their independence, these women would not wear the traditional wedding veil and donned more suggestive and ornamental clothing.
Around 17 BCE, Caesar Augustus feared that this new freedom would undermine the familial foundation of the Roman upper class as, even those women who did marry, increasingly put off having children or would abort a pregnancy that did occur. In response he issues a number of laws known as the Leges Juliae named after his daughter. They incentivized marriage and childbearing and disincentivized singleness. They also made adultery a crime. One punishment for women including shaving her head.
Liberated Christian Women
Going back to 1 Corinthians, women in the church are taking positions of leadership. They are praying and prophesying. While the broader culture would object to such behavior, Paul takes no issue with that. Instead, Paul only addresses the fact that women are doing so with their heads uncovered. In other words, as they pray and prophecy, they simultaneously make a cultural statement of their sexual availability to men other than their husband. This is why Paul says that she might as well have her head shave (aka publicly identified as an adulteress).
Apparently, christian women, liberated by the Gospel to take positions of leadership, either embraced the cultural symbol of liberation or they thought their christian liberation also gave them permission to commit adultery. Either way, Paul wants what happens in the church to clearly communicate what a woman’s freedom in Christ means.
When is the last time you heard these verse celebrating and guiding women in the liberation they have in the Gospel? Anything less is to get the Bible wrong.