I don’t know if you saw it or not, but earlier this week there appeared an article in The Age newspaper, which suggested that in many mainline churches, moves are afoot to restrict, or even reverse, the ordination of women to the clergy. Those behind this move insist that they are acting “Biblically”, and cite texts such as Paul’s First Letter to Timothy to justify their position. Those who oppose this apparently growing movement insist with equal vigour that it is their position which is “Biblical”, and refer to texts including Paul’s Letter to Galatians to justify their claims.
It’s an interesting thing that both sides in this debate appeal to Paul to justify their claims. Of course, I’m aware that other passages from the Bible, including certain contentious texts from the Old Testament, are also frequently cited in debates of this sort. But what struck me about The Age article was the fact that it was Paul who was the basis of each side’s justification, the basis of each side’s claim that their position was “Biblical” – and, by implication, that the other side wasn’t.
I say it was an interesting thing that both sides of this debate appealed to Paul as their authority, because Paul himself was often confronted with the issue of whom he could appeal to as his authority. As the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, Paul was often in conflict with the disciple group based in Jerusalem, headed by Cephas – that is, Peter – and James. They often charged that Paul had no right to preach, let alone found churches, because he was not a member of the disciple group ordained by Jesus. He wasn’t one of them, one of the chosen. Paul, on the other hand, argued that his commission had come directly from Christ, in and through the event of his conversion. For Paul, the commission to ministry wasn’t a matter of membership, of being part of some anointed, unchanging elect.
But if there was one group in particular with whom Paul was often in conflict, it was that faction within the Jerusalem group who insisted that Gentile Christians, in order to be accepted into the early church, had to comply with the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Paul strongly resisted this claim, arguing instead that membership of the church was not a matter of regulation, but of faith. It was faith in God through Christ that made one a member of the faith community, not whether or not one complied with the dictates of Scripture.
In essence, the question being debated was this: what was the ground and centre of Christian faith – obedience to Scripture or discipleship to Christ?
And this is a debate in which Paul engages in today’s reading from his letter to the Galatians, because a debate very much like the debate over women’s ordination was happening within the Galatian community – a debate about who was in and who was out, who could be included, and who had to be excluded. The Galatian church, founded by Paul, made no requirement on Gentile converts that they adhere to the Mosaic Law: indeed, Jewish and Gentile Christians shared meals together, an arrangement which apparently even Peter found acceptable.
But then other missionaries, claiming to have been sent from Jerusalem by James, arrive; and they start telling the Galatian Christians that what they are doing is all wrong. According to them, the Jewish and Gentile Christians must effectively live apart until and unless the Gentile Christians submit to the requirements of the Mosaic Law. And unless that submission occurs, the Gentiles who accept Christ as the Messiah aren’t “really” Christians; at most, they’re fringe dwellers, stuck in the remote outer suburbs of righteousness.
Now, these days, we tend to get all self-righteous and say things like “How afwul! Such shocking discrimination!” But we must remember that, for those who were perusing this argument, discrimination – at least, in the modern sense of the word – simply didn’t enter into it. Rather, what they were saying was that in order to live faithfully, to live in right relationship with God, one had to be obedient to Scripture. Afterall, they said, Christ himself had proclaimed that he had come, not to overthrow the Law, but to fulfil it. So if Christ had come to fulfil the Law, then Christians, in order to live in proper discipleship to Christ, needed to meet all the requirements of Scripture, within which the Law was contained.
But Paul rejects this position. Not, I hasten to add, because he rejects the Law. On the contrary, Paul himself declares that he is a Jew, raised in and obedient to the Law; indeed, a careful reading of Paul shows that, in many of his letters, he references Scripture in order to reinforce the points he makes to the different Christian communities to whom he writes. And no doubt, Paul could have utilised all sorts of Scriptural references in order to rebut the arguments made by the followers of James. But Paul doesn’t engage in a tit-for-tat argument with duelling Scriptural quotes at 20 paces – because, for Paul, the centre of Christian faith resides, not in the Law, but in Christ.
Indeed, it is the very fact that Christ came to fulfil the Law that, for Paul, makes Christ the ground on which Christian faith stands or falls. Because it is Christ who achieves the very thing which the Law was given to humanity to do, but which could not be done because of human brokenness. Which is not to say that the Law is inferior or outdated; rather, that Christ embodies the intention of the Law, and makes that intention a reality. God, in and through Christ, takes the initiative in order to achieve what humans are incapable of doing; God, in and through Christ, fulfils the purpose for which the Law was gifted to humankind.
And, for Paul, what that means is that faithful living, life lived in relationship with God, is achieved through faith in Christ – because Christ is what the Law sets out to achieve. Thus, to be a Christian, to be a member of the faith community, what is required is not a life lived by dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s of Scripture; what is required is a life which, in Thomas a Kempis’ famous phrase, is a life that is the “imitation of Christ”.
In other words, and to translate this into modern terms, what Paul is saying is that what is required is not a life which is demonstrably “biblical”, but a life that is demonstrably Christian. Not because a Christian life is divorced from what is contained in Scripture. But because the Christian life is one that approaches and understands the Bible, not as a set of rules and regulations that must be slavishly adhered to, but as that which constantly points beyond itself, to the One in whom it finds fulfilment. Scripture does not exist for its own sake, or for the sake of any human agenda; and any attempt to reduce Scripture to the words on the page, and to make faith nothing more than mere obedience to those words, leads us away from Christ, and from an authentically Christian life.
And we get an image of what an authentically Christian life looks like in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. All the Gospels have a version of today’s reading, in which a woman anoints Jesus: in some accounts, she anoints his head with oil or perfume; in others she washes his feet with tears and wipes them with her hair. In Luke’s version, she washes his feet with tears, wipes them with her hair, and then anoints those same feet with ointment, even going so far as to kiss them afterwards.
But what makes this episode so compelling is that it takes place in the house of a Pharisee. The Pharisees are often depicted as fundamentalists of a sort, but in truth they were a kind of reform movement. They wanted to rid the Judaism of their time of the influence of Greek philosophy, and they insisted that this could only be done by faithful obedience to the Law of Moses. So anyone who didn’t follow the dietary laws, who didn’t observe the rituals of purification, who didn’t keep to the society of other Law-abiding Jews, was a “sinner”, impure, an outcast from the community of faith. So for a woman who was a “sinner” to enter the house of a Pharisee and come into intimate physical contact with a person thought of as a rabbi, a Teacher – this was a matter of considerable scandal. It amounted to one who was excluded from the community of faith infecting that community with their presence.
But that is not Jesus’ attitude. Because Jesus didn’t see faith as a matter of obedience, but of relationship. And relationship is a matter of friendship, of intimacy, of communion. And in coming to Jesus, to weep and anoint and wash his feet, this woman is expressing her desire for relationship with God through repentance. Because repentance is not mere regret for wrongdoing; it is the desire to turn back to God, to rediscover the hope that comes through relationship with God. And Jesus recognises this; and this is why he tells her her sins are forgiven. Because Jesus recognises that what the woman desires is not membership of an elite, self-enclosed group; what she wants is participation in a community of faith, a community of those who live in relationship with God, and whose lives reflect that relationship.
And that is why Jesus rebukes the Pharisee, both through the parable of the two men forgiven their debts, and by pointing out his lack of hospitality. Because Jesus’ point isn’t that the Pharisee isn’t a righteous person; or, indeed, that the woman isn’t a sinner. Jesus’ point is that the Pharisee’s idea of righteousness is inadequate, because he fails to see that the Law doesn’t exist in order to be obeyed like some legal code; it exists in order to help people come into relationship with God. But the Pharisee’s approach to the Law robs it of that purpose, reduces it to a kind of statute book, a means for controlling people, for suppressing those who don’t conform to our prejudices. The Pharisee’s approach to righteousness is a matter of power, not relationship; a matter of control, not freedom.
And this is the portrait of Christian life which today’s Gospel passage illustrates. Because to live a Christian is to live a life that is based on Jesus’ own life of inclusion, of welcome, of friendship. A life that is governed, not by rules of conduct or measures of righteousness, but by the recognition that the God of our faith is a God who desires us and seeks us out, who extends to us the grace of hospitality, without condition or exception. It is a life which extends that abundance and hospitality to others.
An abundance that is sadly lacking in the debate about the ordination of women. Because arguments about whose position is more or less “Biblical” fail to see that being “Biblical” is, perhaps, the least relevant of all the measures that need to be considered. Instead, what needs to be answered is the question of whether or not, in this debate, we are making Christ the centre and ground of our faith – or merely using Scripture as an excuse to run our own agendas.