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#59 - Is it heresy to re-examine early church decisions, practices, and traditions?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Question/insight #59: Should it be considered heresy today to reexamine decisions, practices, and traditions that were established by church leaders in the very early centuries -- decisions, practices, and traditions that have disallowed the full participation of women in church?
Let's take a look at the Bible's record of the earliest Christian church and see if the "church leaders" of that day were ever corrected or asked to reexamine their positions.
The early Jerusalem church had a central role for the earliest Christians. In fact, it is sometimes referenced by today's scholars as "the mother church" of early first-century Christians. We know from Paul (Gal 2:9) that the "church leaders" were James (the brother of Jesus), Peter (also known by his Aramaic-equivalent name, Cephas), and John (the son of Zebedee). Yet, as an early Christian leader, even the venerable Peter apparently didn't always make the right decision or do the right thing.
In Mar 8:33, Mat 16:23, and Luk 4:8, we read (Mar 8:33, NAB) that Jesus "rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.' " Not too long after that, Jesus again rebuked Peter for cutting off Malchus' ear in Peter's effort to humanly protect Jesus. (Mar 14:47; Mat 26:51,52; Luk 22:50,51; Joh 18:10) Then after Jesus was arrested, Peter denied Jesus three times (Mat 26:69-75; Mar 14:66-72; Luk 22:56-62; Joh 18:25-27), about which Peter "wept bitterly."
Years later, as recorded by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, Peter was again chastised, this time by Paul in Antioch. At the time both Peter and Paul had been in Antioch, and both Peter and Paul had been eating together with the gentiles, which was contrary to Jewish law. When the disciples of James (Jesus' brother) arrived in Antioch, Peter disassociated himself from his earlier unprejudiced acceptance of the gentiles of the Antioch church. "He drew back and kept himself separate for fear" of the more Jewish-oriented followers of James. Paul then "opposed him to his face" for Peter's hypocrisy. (Gal 2:11-14, NRSV)
After Paul's freedom-championing voice for women had been silenced by martyrdom, may there not have been a Jewish (or other cultural) reversal of the acceptance of women's active leadership roles in the churches that Paul and others had established and nurtured? (For a sampling of the history of women's active participation in some of Paul's churches, browse http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/women01.htm.)
As much as Jesus loved Peter and entrusted Peter with the calling to apostleship, according to the New Testament, Peter didn't always get it right -- neither before nor after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, nor even years later, and early Christians did not always follow his example. Rather, the instruction from Jesus was to follow his example. (E.g., Joh 13:15, 1Pe 2:21) How can we expect any of our church forefathers and foremothers always to have gotten it right? Is it the post-apostolic traditions that we need to continue to consult, or are the words of Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, a better guide on the issue of church leadership (1Co 1:11-13; 3:21-23, NRSV):
For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas [Peter]," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided?
Let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
The exclusion of women from full participation in all aspects of church may be one of those instances where, if we listen closely enough, maybe we can hear Jesus saying to us today, "Get behind me, Satan [Slanderer/Accuser]. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." (Mar 8:33, NAB) It would seem that Paul articulated a standard for "thinking as God does" when he wrote (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV): "In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
To explore an even more fully developed response evaluating the authority of church leadership, browse:
To explore the BibleTexts.com's many other webpages that address the issue of women's participation in the early church, browse:
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer