The Church And Culture
Many Christians who question the need to reconsider the restrictions widely put on women’s participation in the assembly and the work of the church are understandably concerned about the danger of giving in to our culture. Scripture, not the way our society views a matter, must be the primary driver of our beliefs and actions. What this concern fails to recognize, however, is that the traditional limitations we have put on women’s participation in the church actually parallel our culture, rather than run counter to it. Those who believe that the Bible supports a wider role for women in the church than has been the case traditionally are actually taking a counter-cultural stance.
For thousands of years in virtually every society in the world, women have been severely limited by ingrained cultural norms. Even in the West, the old ways have died hard. Until very recently in the United States women were denied the vote, equal rights of property ownership and inheritance, and employment in some types of jobs. After WW II, tens if not hundreds of thousands of women, who had rescued the country by filling jobs usually occupied by men, were forced out of those jobs in favor of returning men. Until recently, women were not allowed to fill combat roles in the military. Equal pay for equal work is an ongoing struggle, despite laws requiring it. That’s the old culture, and it is not about to die without a fight.
The traditional limitations the church has put on women in Western society have mirrored those in the wider culture. Cultural behavior naturally follows cultural beliefs or norms. In our country’s case, laws have been passed to force more equitable treatment of women. But they are fighting against the prevailing culture; else they would not be needed. Laws can change behavior rather quickly, but hearts change more slowly.
What is happening in our time relative to women is not without parallels to race relations in the church a generation or two back. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no African American was allowed to be a student at the Christian college I attended my first two years. The college was reflecting what had been the wider culture for hundreds of years. Though society was changing, no small amount of it from Christian influence, in that world, as still today, the old culture was fighting back fiercely.
Our struggle with race relations in the church was a difficult one. As far as I know, my “Christian” college was the last college or university in my state, public or private, to integrate. The board of my college, for whatever its reasons, seems to have been influenced more by the old culture that denied equal opportunities and respect to Black people than by the one that under Christian influence was developing.
Perhaps the same dynamic has been at play in dealing with women’s roles in the church. Clearly our practice has looked like the dying culture at large that has placed questionable restrictions on women for thousands of years. A new culture is emerging, but in many, maybe most, of our churches the old culture is hanging on, much as it did for a while in race relations in the church.
This is not an indictment of honest, dedicated brothers and sisters who truly believe they are following God’s directives when they support the traditional restrictions on women in the church. They should not waver from their commitment to Scripture. Nor is it a suggestion that the primary driver of our limitations on women has been the wider culture. Clearly it has been our understanding of the Scriptures. Rather, it is simply a reminder that on both sides of this issue our culture is pulling at us, whether it is the old or the newly emerging one. Instead of succumbing to the draw of either, what we need is dedication to more disciplined Bible study. That will give us a better chance of freeing ourselves from the tug of our culture in either direction.