In the Creation of the world, God made man in His own image. The term ‘man’ is used generically, as we see that man was created male and female. In the order of Creation, mankind was given dominion over the earth. In this regard, Adam and Eve served as viceregents for God. Eve shared in this dominion; if we regard Adam’s dominion as a kind of kingship over creation, we would see Eve as his queen. Nevertheless, it is clear from the order of Creation that Eve was placed in a position of subordination to Adam. She was assigned the role of ‘help meet.’
Several issues that relate to this Creation order have been brought into bold relief by the feminist movement. For instance, the New Testament passages that call wives to submit to their husbands and men only to lead in the church have been greeted with vociferous protests. Calumnies have been launched against the apostle Paul for being a first century chauvinist, while others have sought to historicize and relativize these rules by arguing that they were merely culturally conditioned customs relevant to the first century but not to the modern world. It also has been argued that the principle of submission denigrates women, robbing them of their dignity and relegating them to the level of inferior humanity.
With respect to the last point, the erroneous assumption made is that subordination means inferiority or that subordination destroys equality of dignity, worth, and value. Sadly, male chauvinism has often been driven by this very misconception, with men assuming that the reason God commands their wives to be submissive to them is that women must be inferior.
That this inference is patently false is seen in our understanding of the persons of the Godhead. In the economy of redemption, the Son is subordinate to the Father, and the Holy Spirit is subordinate to the Father and the Son. This does not mean that the Son is inferior to the Father, and the Holy Spirit inferior to both Father and Son. Our understanding of the Trinity is that the three persons of the Godhead are equal in being, worth, and glory. They are co-eternal and co-substantial.
Likewise, in an organizational hierarchy, we do not assume that because a vice president is subordinate to the president that the vice president is inferior to the president as a person. It is obvious that subordination does not translate into inferiority.
The question of whether the subordination of wives to husbands in marriage and of women to men in the church is merely a cultural custom of the ancient world is a burning one. If indeed these matters were articulated as cultural customs and not binding principles, it would be a serious miscarriage of justice to apply them transculturally to societies where they don’t belong. On the other hand, if they were given as transcultural principles by divine mandate, to treat them as mere cultural conventions would be to do violence to the Holy Spirit and to rebel against God Himself.
In other words, if the biblical passages merely reflect the chauvinism of a first century rabbinic Jew, they are unworthy of our acceptance. If, however, Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and if the New Testament is the Word of God, then the charge of chauvinism must be leveled not only at Paul but at the Holy Spirit Himself – a charge that cannot be leveled with impunity.
If we are convinced that the Bible is God’s Word and its commands are God’s commands, how can we discern between customs and principles? I’ve written about the matter of culture and the Bible in my book Knowing Scripture. In it, I mention that unless we conclude that all of Scripture is principle and thus binding on all people of all times and places, or that all Scripture is simply a matter of culturally conditioned local custom with no relevance or necessary application beyond its immediate historical context, we are forced to discover some guidelines for discerning the differences between principle and custom.
To illustrate the problem, let us see what happens when we hold that everything in Scripture is principle. If that were the case, then radical changes would have to be made in evangelism. Jesus commanded His disciples to “Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals . . .” (Luke 10:4a). If we make this text a trans-cultural principle, then we must engage in barefoot evangelism.
Obviously there are biblical matters that reflect a historical custom. We are not required to wear the same clothing that biblical people wore, or pay our tithes with shekels or denarii. Things such as clothing and monetary units are subject to change.
One of the chief considerations in determining the question of principle or custom is whether the matter involves a Creation ordinance. Creation ordinances may be distinguished both from old covenant laws and new covenant commands. The first consideration concerns the parties to the various covenants. In the New Testament, the covenant is made with Christian believers. For example, Christian believers are called to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But that mandate does not extend to non-believers, who indeed are warned not to participate in the sacrament. Likewise, there were laws in the Old Testament that applied only to the Jews.
But we ask, who are the parties to the covenant of Creation? In Creation, God makes a covenant not simply with Jews or with Christians, but with man qua man. As long as humans exist in a covenant relationship with the Creator, the laws of Creation remain intact. They are reaffirmed in both the old covenant and the new covenant.
If anything transcends a cultural custom, it is a Creation ordinance. Thus, it is a dangerous business indeed to treat the matter of subordination in marriage and in the church as a mere local custom when it is clear that the New Testament mandates for these matters rest upon apostolic appeals to Creation. Such appeals make it crystal clear that these mandates were not intended to be regarded as local customs. That the church today often treats divine rules as mere customs reflects not so much the cultural conditioning of the Bible but the cultural conditioning of the modern church. Here is a case where the church capitulates to the local culture rather than being obedient to the transcendent law of God.
If one studies an issue such as this with care and is not able to discern whether a matter is principial or customary, what should he or she do? Here a principle of humility comes into play, a principle set forth in the New Testament axiom that whatever is not of faith is sin. Remember the old adage, “When in doubt, don’t”? If we are over-scrupulous and regard a custom as a principle, then we are guilty of no sin – no harm, no foul. On the other hand, if we treat a principle as a custom that can be set aside, we are guilty of disobeying God.
Creation ordinances may be modified, as the Mosaic Law did with regard to divorce, but the principle here is that Creation ordinances are normative unless or until they are explicitly modified by later biblical revelation.
This article has been reprinted from Tabletalk magazine, May 1999, with permission of Ligonier Ministries, P.O. Box 547500, Orlando, FL 32854, phone 800-435-4343.
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