Saturday, June 11, 2011

One is cultural, one is universal?

My ESV Study Bible Online has a trial of the MacArthur study bible notes so of course I fired them up. I took a peek at 1 Corithians 14 to see what Dr. MacArthur had to say about verse 26. I didn’t find his explanation that Paul was speaking negatively of everyone bringing something to the meeting very compelling but I did see something interesting that made me pause.

In his comment about 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35 MacArthur says the principle in force here is universal, not cultural:

women should keep silent in the churches. The principle of women not speaking in church services is universal; this applies to all the churches, not just locally, geographically, or culturally. The context in this verse concerns prophecy, but includes the general theme of the chapter, i.e., tongues. Rather than leading, they are to be submissive as God’s word makes clear (see notes on 11:3–15; Gen. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:11–15). It is not coincidental that many modern churches that have tongues-speaking and claim gifts of healings and miracles also permit women to lead worship, preach, and teach. Women may be gifted teachers, but they are not permitted by God “to speak” in churches. In fact, for them to do so is “shameful,” meaning “disgraceful.” Apparently, certain women were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services.
I agree more or less with Dr. MacArthur. There is nothing in this passage when read in context that would imply that this was a unique situation to Corinth and that it would not be applied to the church universally for all time. We may not like it, we may have questions about how specifically it should be applied but there is nothing to imply that it says anything other than what it says.

Yet in his comment on 1 Corinthians 11: 5 he has a completely different take and now appeals to the culture of the time, something Paul doesn’t mention at all and in fact Paul actually appeals to the universal themes of gender relations.

uncovered. In the culture of Corinth, a woman’s covered head while ministering or worshiping was a symbol to signify a subordinate relationship to her husband. The apostle is not laying down an absolute law for women to wear veils or coverings in all churches for all time, but is declaring that the symbols of the divinely established male and female roles are to be genuinely honored in every culture. As in the case of meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8–9), there is nothing spiritual about wearing or not wearing a covering. But manifesting rebellion against God’s order was wrong.
Two passages separated by a few manmade chapter numbers that deal with the same basic issue. In one we see an appeal to universal principles. In another we see a dismissal based on cultural norms.

My purpose here is not to debate headcovering (I am for it) or male leadership in the church (also for it). It is instead to look at how easy it is to interpret Scripture based on presuppositions. As a Baptist, Dr. Macarthur is predisposed to male headship. Likewise he is just as predisposed to dismiss headcovering. However I find his interpretation of these two passages to be inconsistently applied. He seems willing to bring culture in when it suits and to dismiss the same when it doesn’t suit his point. He is hardly alone in this and this is not unique. I made the same argument regarding headcovering and the Lords Supper and our inconsistent interpretation.

It is hard to see our own blindspots and predispositions when interpreting the Bible. That is why trying to be consistent is so important. Consistency forces us to treat Scripture the same. Of course we still recognize and interpret based on literary forms, i.e. one would interpret Revelation differently than Acts but especially when in the same basic literary form it is vital to apply consistent principles to how we read and interpret Scripture. Otherwise we find ourselves trying to fit Scripture into our presuppositions instead of testing our presuppositions against the Bible.


Eric said...


I've also seen this sort of thing from Mac Arthur and others. What scares me is that I probably do the same thing without even realizing it. Just another reason why it is so important that we gather with other believers in a manner that allows for open discussions of passages like these so we can learn from one another and be corrected where needed.

Arthur Sido said...

I would imagine that a few years ago I wouldn't have even questioned the study notes for MacArthur or Sproul unless it was something I felt really strongly against already (dispensationalism for JMac or infant baptism for Sproul) For all of supposed maturity of many Christians, we take what our favorite celebrity preachers say at face value and never ask the hard questions.

Anonymous said...

Arthur, I appreciate your comments about our bias toward those leaders that we respect. On the subject of women speaking in the church, I was raised in a church in which women were not allowed to speak, not even to give off a song number. In my own spiritual journey out of legalism and into a closer relationship with Jesus, I've come to feel okay about being a part of the church meeting, as a woman. Are you familiar with Frank Viola, author of Pagan Christianity? He wrote an interesting piece on the subject of women's role in the church:
Curious as to what you think about it. ~Cindy Stuckey

Arthur Sido said...

Hi Cindy

I have read Pagan Christianity (see review here:, and read Frank on a regular basis, listen to his podcasts, follow him on Twitter, etc. I find a lot of what he has to say quite edifying. I disagree in part with his understanding of gender and the church. Having said that I have no issue with women offering testimonies or songs in the gathered church. I do think that women leading the Body or teaching men is contrary to Scripture.