Paul, Peanut Butter Cookies, and Why Context Matters
By Eileen Slattery Berglund
I am a Christ follower.
And I am an egalitarian.
When it comes to the discussion of men and women operating and functioning as part of the church, there are generally two camps of thought. The first, known primarily as "comp" or "complementarian" believes that men and women are equal in value, but not in function. They believe there are roles in the church limited solely to men. They also have a spectrum of beliefs that place various personality traits and tasks into the "Godly man" category or the "Godly woman” category. They believe men are to be the leaders and protectors of others (primarily women), and many believe the men/husbands are actually responsible for their wife's and children's spiritual security, acting as a "covering" that women need. They believe all this based on the Bible, and their hearts are truly turned toward God.
The other "camp", is known as "egal" or "egalitarian". People who associate with this title believe that men and women are created equal in value, in the image of God, and given the exact same mandate at Creation. More so, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, all who call on and trust in the name of Jesus have been restored to God and have equal access to all functional roles in the church body. They do not believe that women (or men) need any additional covering other than Christ, nor do they believe in specified gender roles. They do believe in mutual submission of husband to wife, and wife to husband, and all to Christ. They too believe all of this based on the Bible, and their hearts are also truly turned toward God.
I am a Christ follower who finds myself in the second camp. While I consider unity to be one of my main goals, I am comfortable, or at least okay, with the fact that not everyone will come to the same conclusions I have. However, I am not okay with the accusations or subtle insinuations by “comps” that what egalitarians believe is any less scripturally based than their views. There is a tremendous amount of theological and practical evidence that sides with and leads to an egalitarian view. This isn't some weird, unbiblical belief. Nor is it a group of angry women wanting to usurp authority of men. All of those accusations are just distractions to keep people from examining scripture and its original context and intent for themselves.
So, in the spirit of helping those who want the help, I present the following "thought experiment" for you to consider. I actually wrote this as one of the middle chapters of my book, Only Halfway There- Scriptural Evidence for the Legitimacy of Women in Leadership in the Church. In fairness, we're sort of jumping into a discussion at midpoint, but in many ways, I think this is a great starting point.
Note- This is not the case for egalitarian belief. I can post that later (or you can buy my book or one of the many other books by fabulous, smart egalitarian writers.) This is a post about men and women and peanut butter cookies and Paul. This is a post about why context matters.
Here we go...
When we read through the New Testament epistles written by Paul, it is important to note that these were actual letters written to a specific group of people, in a specific setting at a specific time. Does this mean that I am saying that these books of the Bible are irrelevant to us now? No, that’s not what I am saying. I believe ALL scripture is relevant to us today. What I am saying is that we must understand the original context of what we are reading. The principles expressed will hold true over time if the context holds true.
In other words, if you today find yourself in a situation similar to the situation at the time of the writing and the circumstances are the same, then the truth taught way back then will still apply to your situation today. However, if you are not in a similar situation and the circumstances surrounding you are different, then the advice given back then very likely will not apply to your situation today. Now keep in mind that the Bible is God’s word and God’s word covers many “layers”. What do I mean by “layers”, well, God’s word speaks to specific situations but also speaks more general truths that aren’t as specific.
Let me explain what I mean by this. First, a general example for now and then I’ll bring in many scriptural examples as we progress.
General example: Let’s say I give a little boy 20 Nutter Butter cookies. (In case you are unfamiliar with these cookies, they contain peanut butter) Another little boy and little girl come over and they have nothing to eat and are clearly very hungry. I would advise the first boy to share his cookies with both the second boy and the girl. I would advise this because it reflects God’s heart to do so. It is consistent with His heart for us to “prefer others over ourselves”, “God loves a cheerful giver” and numerous other scriptural truths throughout the whole breadth of the Bible.
However, let’s say that the circumstances change a little whereas the entire situation is the same except the little girl has a life threatening peanut allergy. In this case, my best advice would be to share these particular cookies with the second boy but do not by any means share them with the girl. In fact, I would be pretty emphatic about it and would have no other practice given these circumstances. This advice would still reflect the heart of God and would be supported by many passages of scripture as well. And yet, the advice given, if one does not take into account the specific circumstances, could produce some wildly wrong conclusions of how God wants us to treat others. Some conclusions might be that (a) we are only required or advised to share with ONE other person (b) we should only share with males and not females (c) it is okay to be mean to some and not others (d) girls should never eat peanuts/Nutter Butter cookies, (e) etc.
Getting back to my “layers” comment above, if we familiarize ourselves with all the various circumstances of the scenarios above, we would be able to draw a specific truth from the above examples which is to never give food containing peanuts to someone with a life threatening peanut allergy. But we would also see that there is a general truth that “sharing is good”. In the future, if I found myself in a similar situation where I had 2 cookies and 2 hungry people in need, I could ask myself, “is this situation the same as the first example? the second example? Do either of these people have peanut allergies? Do my cookies even have peanuts in them?” In asking these questions I would be able to discern if I am able to apply the specific truth or if I am to just apply the general truth because the specific circumstances are different than the original.
Going one step further, let’s say that I get three letters in my inbox regarding this very issue.
One email is from one location involving a girl with a peanut allergy and a boy who has peanut butter cookies. I write a return letter advising “Do not by any means give the girl your cookies”.
Another is from a second, entirely different location and involves a girl who has no allergies and a boy who has peanut butter cookies. I write a return letter advising, “By all means, share your cookies with her”.
Third email is from yet another location and involves a girl who has peanut butter cookies and a boy who is hungry and has no allergies. I write back advising once again “By all means, share your cookies with him”.
I take the time to write all this out to drive home the point of how important it is to know the original context of the letters being written by Paul. As we move forward we will see how Paul’s letters were written to many different churches that were facing very different situations. We will see that of all the letters written by Paul and all the verses relating to women, there are but only a few that seem to bring any restriction to women. To take one part of one letter that he wrote (that stands in contrast to what he has written in other letters!) and try to apply it universally and out of context is just not smart. It would be the same as taking our above example and concluding that a boy should never share his cookies with a girl. The only problem is, if you look above, you’ll see I actually advised that the boy should share his cookies with the girl in the second situation! Hmmm, so when we see that there is apparently conflicting advice written by the same apostle (Paul) we are best to take our time and look at the whole volume of scripture and all its circumstances as we seek the true heart of God toward women.