The Role of Women – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Thus far on my series on the role of women in both the church and the home, I have posted up six articles.

  1. Introduction article to the discussion.
  2. Resources – listing some introductory resources to both sides of the coin.
  3. Genesis 1:26-28 – looking at the initial creation account of male and female.
  4. Genesis 2:18-22 – looking at this debated passage and what it teaches about women.
  5. Genesis 2:18-22 (Part 2) – sharing some more thoughts, specifically connecting it all with vs24 and the two becoming one flesh.
  6. Genesis 3:16 – sharing an alternative translation of the verse, but ultimately challenging us to not make this verse a cornerstone passage because of Christ and the new creation.

So, to this point, I spent a lot of time on what I would identify as ‘creation passages’. But now it is time to move on to two very important ‘new creation passages’. The first being 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 and the second being Galatians 3:27-29.

The well-know theologian, Gordon Fee, makes this interesting comment in his consideration of gender roles:

‘Perhaps the worst thing the evangelical tradition has done on gender matters is to isolate them from the bigger picture of biblical theology. Indeed, I think we are destined for continual trouble if we do not start where Paul does: not with isolated statements addressed to contingent situations, but with Paul’s theology of the new creation, the coming of God’s eschatological rule inaugurated by Christ – especially through his death and resurrection – and the gift of the Spirit.’ (Listening to the Spirit in the Text, p57)

Though I am convinced that the creation account (Genesis 1-3) never inherently sets one gender as superior to the other, or one gender to have leadership-headship over the other, I think what makes this even clearer is the reality of the New Testament’s teaching on the new creation that we now taste of in Christ and the kingdom of God. This is the gospel: that Jesus Christ came with the kingdom of God, announcing that it was breaking into our world and making a completely new one. We still await the final consummation of this at His parousia. But we, who are in Christ, have entered this new covenant creation even now.

Therefore, Fee’s words leave a resounding impact on me, and hopefully you as well. Our understanding of gender roles, or any other theological concept, must be grounded in the reality that the new creation has already come in Christ.

So, with regards to moving into the discussion on the impact of the new creation on gender roles, let’s start off with 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. Verse 17 is, no doubt, a well-known verse, but vs16 also gives relevant revelation into the discussion.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Here we see Paul laying out an important theological concept. First of all, in vs16, he says we now regard no one according to the flesh. Why? Because we no longer make such distinctions in regards to Christ either. One could identify Christ as male, Jewish, free, and add on a whole other list of characteristics that would seem to put a person in God’s favour. But Paul makes it clear that none of those things matter in the economy of God. Gender, race, age, social status, etc, do not bring one into God’s favour.

Then what does?

This is expounded on in vs17. What matters most is that of the new creation! For those who are in Christ, joined to Him through a faith relationship, the old order of things has passed away and, behold, that person has joined a completely new order. This is the new creation of which we get to taste of even now in this age!

Paul would state something similar in the latter parts of his letter to the Galatians:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)

There is no room for determining our roles in the kingdom of God due to gender, or any other issue at that matter like age, economic status, social status, nationality, race, etc. The roles and ministries of God’s people are not to be determined by fleshly measures. Paul makes it clear that is how those of the old covenant measured things. But we are part of a new covenant kingdom and a new creation in which our roles and ministries are determined through our union with Christ and our calling in Christ. This is the glory of the new creation!

Yes, I know, we still have passages like 1 Timothy 2:8-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 or Ephesians 5:22-24. But, as Gordon Fee reminds us above, we cannot approach these texts, not any specific text, as an isolated statement apart from the new creation theology of Christ and His kingdom. This will lead to dubious understandings devoid of the bigger picture of what Christ has done and is doing.

Stay tuned for next week as I will pick this up more in my next article on Galatians 3:27-29.

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19 thoughts on “The Role of Women – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

  1. This is excellent! It is so true that in the New Covenant, we are not to regard one another according to the flesh. God’s gifts and callings are also not according to the flesh. People in the New Covenant are not leaders by birthright, but by calling, character and competence.

    I also find it useful to look at Paul’s statement of purpose and strategy in 1 Cor 9:17– “unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews . . . to them that are without law, as without law. . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” If people don’t understand that the advice Paul gives the churches, the way Paul conducts himself, and everything, is all subsumed under the goal of spreading the message of salvation, they will miss the point of his teachings. Paul doesn’t want to hinder the underlying message, so he advises Christians not to “rock the boat” when it comes to the surrounding cultural norms. This is not, however, an endorsement of those cultural norms (such as female subordination or the institution of slavery).

    I’m so glad you are doing this series!

  2. Kristen –

    Paul doesn’t want to hinder the underlying message, so he advises Christians not to “rock the boat” when it comes to the surrounding cultural norms. This is not, however, an endorsement of those cultural norms (such as female subordination or the institution of slavery).

    Yes, I think this is a worthy note. Though many will not like the idea of Scripture being within a cultural boundary and issues being addressed within that cultural boundary, I do believe this is part of the issue to understand when addressing the role of women.

    Now, of course, the question from many will be – How do we know when it is a cultural situation?

    Well, that is not always easy, though we all wish it were. This is where some wrestle with this idea of cultural situations when it comes to things like same-sex relationships. But with the role of women, we see the ultimate teaching of the new creation, and I believe that should underline our understanding of the role of women. Of course men and women have differences, differences that complement one another. But with regards to gifting and calling in Christ, you don’t receive something because you are male or Jewish or free or whatever. You receive it because of Christ’s calling and grace.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Scott,

    One thing that makes it clear to me that readers of the Bible are supposed to make an effort to understand the original cultural situations, is that the books of the Bible themselves make it clear they were not transmitted in a cultural/historical vacuum. We constantly read orientation notations in the various books. This one is the word spoken to such-and-such a prophet in such-and-such a place, during the reign of such-and-such a king. Another one is a letter written by an apostle to a particular church or a particular person. And so on. There are very few books in the Bible that don’t have these kinds of orienting statements.

    I know that some people don’t like this– they think the Bible ought to be a memo from the Boss left on their own desk yesterday. But God inspires the writers to make it clear to whom, where and when the message came, and we have to understand it that way first, before we apply it to ourselves in the here and now.

    As far as how to be consistent about cultural situations– it seems to me that the only way to be sure is to always try to take the cultural/historical situation into account in every passage. It can’t harm our understanding in any event, to try to get a closer view of how the words would have sounded to their original audience. If we are missing shared cultural understandings between the writers and the readers, we may miss the intent of the writers and the understanding of the original audience, and thus read things into the text as God’s commands that were really just cultural understandings. On the other hand, the message may be timeless in any culture– and that, too, will become clearer when we have a better understanding of the original context.

    Two things that I have noted using this approach are: 1) passages relating to salvation and other eternal verities do not relate to human cultures and thus are easy to understand in all cultures; and 2) passages on women, when we understand the cultural assumptions, often convey the opposite message (they actually free and empower women) from the way they appear to read (binding and restricting women).

  4. Scott L,

    Fee is a favorite of mine. Great quote to begin with, but I might easily apply it to the move of salvation history in light of the death and resurrection of Christ and the obvious implications.

    But for Fee to speak of “isolated statements” in light of this overarching theme of new creation, to advance his egalitarian cause is quite misleading. This is a desperate attempt.

    By the same token, we should not speak of any type of church government, since we’re speaking of the new creation.

  5. TCR– Church government is by the calling of God on the individual. It’s not according to the flesh but according to calling, character and competence.

    But the supremacy of the male over the female, being based on maleness alone, is of the flesh, because maleness, like Jewishness or Greekness, is of the flesh and not of the Spirit.

  6. Kristen,

    “According to the flesh” at 2 Cor. 5:16 is not speaking of something sinful. Rather, Paul is speaking of worldly perspective.

    As a complementarian, I do not speak of the supremacy of men over women.

    As you noted in reference to church government, it’s simply a matter of calling and function.

  7. TCR, you are reading into my words if you think I thought “of the flesh” means something sinful in this passage. But it is, indeed, speaking of worldly perspectives– including the worldly perspective that puts males over females.

    As a complementarian, you may not speak of supremacy– but you still give the male the supremacy in terms of spiritual roles, for she is restricted and he is not. He may help in the kitchen OR lead the church. She may only help in the kitchen. In marriage, he has the power to override her if they disagree. She has no such power.

    Most complementarian males rarely, if ever, use their power over their wives. But they still believe in that power.

  8. Yes, church government is a matter of calling and function. But a man needs no calling to function as the governor of his home, over his wife. It’s automatic. The mere fact that he is male is sufficient. As I said– of the flesh.

  9. Kristen,

    The context of 2 Cor. 5:16-17 is not speaking to male supremacy. That’s an artificial construct and a desperate one at best. I know of no biblical scholar who argues such, except Fee, and we both know why.

    Perhaps, we better look to Eph. 5:22-31 to establish the husband’s role instead of this “flesh” talk.

  10. TC –

    Fee’s statement is more of an overall statement that our theology should be grounded in the new creation – our soteriology, our ecclesiology, our eschatology, etc, etc. Not just the specific gender roles, though, yes, that too.

    What he is arguing, specifically in the context of this writing on the gender roles, but from the bigger perspective, is that we must approach things via the reality of the new creation that has begun in Christ’s resurrection. It is a foretaste of the age to come. I suppose in the age to come, there are no gender distinctives in regards to who can accomplish which roles. It is about the calling-assignment of God. But maybe I am wrong of what the new creation will bring in the age to come.

    Now, for me, for Fee, for anyone, this does not negate that men and women have distinct differences. Of course, the physicality issue is the easiest to note on differences. And, matter of fact, I like the word complementary in that men and women complement each other. But in the new creation, nothing of the flesh (not the ‘evil’ flesh, but more speaking of the ‘physical’) can distinguish who has which callings-gifts-assignments. Just as whether one is Jewish or Gentile, slave or free, black or white cannot distinguish what role a person has, neither can male or female.

    There was a day, a terrible day, when it would have been argued that white (and even white males) were considered to have the higher role over blacks (black males and females). Of course, we realise to argue such now is ridiculous. And I believe it is the new creation that tears away the argument that one sex is inherently the lead role in the church and the home. The new creation, which speaks of the reality of the age to come, does not allow for such callings and gifts to be determined by any social, racial, economic status. Never.

    It could be that, in a particular situation, the man has the lead role, because each situation calls for its own wisdom. In my church, I am elder-pastor. At this point, we have a female deacon, but recognise no female as able-called to elder-shepherd the flock. In my house, my wife defers to me as the leader. But that is my situation as we believe God has called us to. But the next situation asks us to consider it in light of the new creation and what God is specifically doing in that particular church and marriage.

    I believe that is the reality of the new creation that Christ has already brought into this age.

  11. Scott– exactly. The idea is that we can’t read the Bible like a list of rules or a set of addresses on different topics. The Bible is the story of God’s creation of humanity, its fall, God’s formation of a covenant community into which He could bring the Redeemer, then the coming of the Redeemer and formation of a new covenant into which He can bring the final culimation of restoration.

    TRC, the reason that 2 Cor. 5:16 applies to the subject of male-female roles, is that it is a statement of principle regarding the New Covenant community. All of the topics that come up in the Bible need to be read in light of their place in the overarching story. Male and female were created in unity and are being restored to unity. Unity is of the Spirit and transcends fleshly differences. Restrictive roles for females based on the flesh (the physical state of being born female) is against the unity of the Spirit just as much as restricting people based on skin color or on wealth. The aristocracy used to think it had a divine mandate to rule the peasantry. They thought there was a spiritual difference that qualified them, automatically, to rule. That, too, was a fleshly difference resulting in disunity. All of these matters are done away with in Christ.

  12. Fee’s statement is more of an overall statement that our theology should be grounded in the new creation – our soteriology, our ecclesiology, our eschatology, etc, etc. Not just the specific gender roles, though, yes, that too.

    Scott L,

    Rightfully so. As I see it, as we do biblical theology, a lot of relationships and the like were all along types of Christ relationship with his renewed people and the new creation that was about the happened. That’s how I reflect on Eph. 5:22ff.

    Take away the portrayal of the husband to his wife and we don’t have the analogy with Christ and the church. But of course, now, in the new creation, in this life, the husband is called to love his wife as Christ loves the church. Something that are part of this life, of course, though part of the new creation, will not be part of the next phase of that new creation.

    But in the new creation, nothing of the flesh (not the ‘evil’ flesh, but more speaking of the ‘physical’) can distinguish who has which callings-gifts-assignments. Just as whether one is Jewish or Gentile, slave or free, black or white cannot distinguish what role a person has, neither can male or female.

    True.

    There was a day, a terrible day, when it would have been argued that white (and even white males) were considered to have the higher role over blacks (black males and females). Of course, we realise to argue such now is ridiculous. And I believe it is the new creation that tears away the argument that one sex is inherently the lead role in the church and the home. The new creation, which speaks of the reality of the age to come, does not allow for such callings and gifts to be determined by any social, racial, economic status. Never.

    Yes.

    I believe that is the reality of the new creation that Christ has already brought into this age.

    Yes, but people still die. My point being, that somethings will have to wait until the next phase, if you will.

    TRC, the reason that 2 Cor. 5:16 applies to the subject of male-female roles, is that it is a statement of principle regarding the New Covenant community. All of the topics that come up in the Bible need to be read in light of their place in the overarching story. Male and female were created in unity and are being restored to unity. Unity is of the Spirit and transcends fleshly differences. Restrictive roles for females based on the flesh (the physical state of being born female) is against the unity of the Spirit just as much as restricting people based on skin color or on wealth. The aristocracy used to think it had a divine mandate to rule the peasantry. They thought there was a spiritual difference that qualified them, automatically, to rule. That, too, was a fleshly difference resulting in disunity. All of these matters are done away with in Christ.

    Kristen,

    Much of what I said in my reply to Scott applies here.

    As I said to Scott, people still die. What are we supposed to do with the dynamics of Eph. 5:22 in relation to Christ and church and husband and wife?

  13. TC –

    Take away the portrayal of the husband to his wife and we don’t have the analogy with Christ and the church. But of course, now, in the new creation, in this life, the husband is called to love his wife as Christ loves the church. Something that are part of this life, of course, though part of the new creation, will not be part of the next phase of that new creation.

    We’ve looked to take away that relationship of master-slave in this age. Are we in trouble there because we can not now emulate that aspect of the relationship between God and us?

    Yes, but people still die. My point being, that somethings will have to wait until the next phase, if you will.

    I don’t think we have to wait. Yes, we all die. But how does this project onto the gender roles? I don’t think it does. I want to point towards the full reality of the new creation in this age.

  14. We’ve looked to take away that relationship of master-slave in this age. Are we in trouble there because we can not now emulate that aspect of the relationship between God and us?

    Scott L,

    We both know that there’s a difference in how the master-slave relationship is presented in Scripture. I’ve always found the use of the master-slave relationship to be a weak point in this argument.

    In relationship to the husband and the wife, we do have Genesis 2:24. This is proleptic, if you will.

    I don’t think we have to wait. Yes, we all die. But how does this project onto the gender roles? I don’t think it does. I want to point towards the full reality of the new creation in this age.

    Well, wait we have to. 😀

  15. TC –

    We both know that there’s a difference in how the master-slave relationship is presented in Scripture. I’ve always found the use of the master-slave relationship to be a weak point in this argument.

    It’s not my usual argument. Just was thinking about it right now.

    I’m not sure why we have to wait for the age to come for equality of men and women. Can you suggest why?

    We have to wait fully for the renewal of the earth. But we can still put up pointers with faithful stewardship of the ‘garden’ God has given you and I.

    Not sure what you are pointing to in Gen 2:24.

  16. Scott L,

    Women and men are equal, just different functions.

    Regarding Genesis 2:14, it’s in anticipation of Christ and his relationship to his church, as seen in Eph. 5.

  17. TCR, equality is just lip service when one group is restricted and the other is unrestricted; when one group is considered born to be subordinate, and the other group is considered born to be in authority.

    Some complementarians restrict women a little. Others restrict them a lot. But “different roles” actually means, “restricted and subordinate roles for one, unrestricted roles for the other” for all complementarians. That’s not equality.

    As for Ephesians 5, not all of the metaphors about Christ and the church are in terms of authority and subordination. Not one word is spoken in Ephesians 5 of Christ asserting His authority over the church, leading her, commanding her or any such thing. The role husbands are told to emulate is the one where Christ “gave Himself” for the church. When did He give Himself? It was when He submitted, even to death on a cross, to those who cried “Crucify!” It is beyond a doubt that many of those who cried “Crucify” were also those who cried to Peter in Acts 2, “What shall we do?” and thus became His church.

    Christ submitted to His church that she might become His church. And when she did, He raised her up to be “glorious” beside him (earlier in Ephesians it says the church is “seated with Him” in the heavenly places). Sure, He is in authority as God. But as Husband, a different emphasis is in view– an emphasis on the way He raises His church up to be beside Him in partnership. “Do you not know that we shall judge angels?” one passage says. This would not be so if Christ were not treating the Church as His Bride, his partner, able to exercise authority right alongside Him.

    Wives are to submit to their husbands, yes. But husbands are also to submit to their wives as Christ submitted, to the point of death. That’s how Christ related to His church in Ephesians 5. And all Christians are also told to be submissive to one another in the same chapter.

    Christ is elsewhere referrred to as Lord of the church, and His authority over the church shows in other metaphors, but not in the marriage one. Marriage was an institution of authority and subordination in the surrounding Ephesian culture– but Paul’s words make it clear that authority and subordination was not the way husbands and wives were to relate to one another under the New Covenant.

    It’s time to let go of “he shall rule over you,” no matter how benevolent that rule is. It is of the curse; it is of the cultures into which Christianity first came; but it is not of the Kingdom.

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