Scriptural Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version
I believe that a lot of the controversies and debates involving certain teachings from the New Testament come from looking at the writings as if they were directly speaking to us. It is quite understandable to view the Biblical writings this way when we see them as being inspired by the Holy Spirit. The divine inspiration of Scripture is not something I intend to call into question through this post. However, what I want to consider is how we can see the writings as inspired, but also realize that some elements of New Testament writing were used by God for that particular generation, as opposed to being transcendent teachings for all people of all time.
As the New Testament was being written, God’s working with humanity was going through a transition. Previously, believers lived under the spiritual environment of the Old Covenant laws, as detailed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Ceremonies and spiritual leadership were intrinsic elements of that spiritual era. Obedience to God involved rituals such as circumcision, animal sacrifices, observance of holy days, and ceremonial cleansing rituals. There was also the concept of spiritual leadership, through the priesthood of Aaron’s descendants.
But with the death and resurrection of Christ, a new spiritual era commenced, with radical contrasts from the previous era. In the new era, salvation is by faith, apart from works, as the Apostle Paul writes “to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). There is no longer the concept of some believers having special spiritual authority over others, as Paul writes that “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.”
All of this can be summarized through the principle of the new creation, as described in 2nd Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Whereas the Old Testament laws were about deliverance through reform, this new truth is about deliverance by becoming a new person with a reoriented nature.
Having said all of that, we need to pose a practical question. In the first generation of Christianity, how could all of this radical new truth be unveiled to people who had spent their whole lives up to that point either following the Old Testament laws, or following religions foreign to the Biblical writers? How do you get the truth revealed in an orderly fashion, so that people from different backgrounds do not get wacky ideas? Transitioning from one spiritual framework to another is not something that happens all at once.
Thus, the first generation of Christianity was a transitional era, and a close examination of New Testament teaching reveals a progression in revelation. Much of the doctrinal confusion today arises from trying to streamline the phases of this progression into a uniform message.
For example, consider the subject of water baptism. In the early Gospel preaching, water baptism was presented as a requirement for salvation. For example, in the very first proclamation of the Gospel, the Apostle Peter preached, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
I have seen commentaries that try to twist this around to avoid making water baptism a requirement to be saved, but to me the meaning is rather clear.
Keep in mind that Peter was preaching to Jews, who, prior to that day, had always seen ceremonial observance as an intrinsic element of obedience to God. If people have spent their whole lives thinking this way, you cannot all of the sudden try to impose the concept of free grace, as it is likely to get misappropriated.
Thus, to help prospective converts transition into the new creation truth, I believe the Holy Spirit inspired the commandment of water baptism to serve as an exercise in faith; obeying the command was part of believing the Gospel.
However, later on, in the Apostle Paul’s ministry, water baptism was presented differently. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
There are a couple key points to note here. The first is that Paul draws a distinction between the Gospel and baptism. This is a noteworthy contrast to Peter’s first sermon in Acts, where baptism and the Gospel were intrinsically linked. Also note that Paul depicts the Gospel as pertaining to “the cross of Christ.” In contrast, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 did not make a connection between Christ’s death and individuals’ salvation. Peter only cited Jesus’ resurrection as proof that He was the Messiah.
However, Paul’s writing reveals that the real baptism that saves us is our spiritual identification with Christ’s death and resurrection, which occurs through our faith in the Gospel (Rom. 6:3-4, Gal 3:22-28, Eph. 4:4-5). Water is never depicted as part of this process. Although Paul still baptized people (1 Cor. 1:12-16, Acts 16:33), the ritual appears to be symbolic in nature.
There is another aspect of this transitional era that has been the subject of major controversy. It is the concept of some believers have special spiritual authority or leadership over others. Although much of the debate involves passages about men and women in the church, and husbands and wives, these passages are connected to a theme that encompasses much more than gender.
During this transitional era, people had to accept truth on the basis of the authority of the believer delivering it. How else could a person receive the new Truth that was coming to the world?
In the era of the Old Testament laws, there were priests who acted as intercessors between God and humanity. The book of Hebrews describes that in the time of the old covenant, “the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people” (Hebrews 9:6-7).
The priests, who were all male, had the role of mediating relations between humanity and God. The prophets of the Old Testament were also male. Thus, during the transitional era in the New Testament, the use of men to deliver new truth was part of the sign of authenticity when doctrine was presented.
For example, the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.”
In that era, there was potential for new truth to be revealed in church. That is not the case today however. With the completed Scriptures comes the complete revelation of the new creation. Nobody today has the type of authority over others that Paul describes in the passage above. Preachers and pastors do not even have it.
The role of pastors today is not to reveal new truth, but rather, to share their own experience, applications, and perspectives on living a Christian life. In this role, there is no distinction between men and women. Both genders have equally valuable insights to share from the work that God has done in their lives.
With regards to families, Paul wrote, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24).
That was certainly not meant to be an excuse for husbands to forcefully impose their own ideas. I believe the underlying message was for husbands to seek and follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance on decisions involving the family.
But I believe that this model of following the Holy Spirit was part of that era’s spiritual transition, and that a full comprehension of the new creation yields a more expansive way of living in the Spirit. If we truly are new creations, then instead of having to constantly focus on “submitting” ourselves to God, we can believe that God is working through every aspect of ourselves, and be at peace with our core natures. I wrote about this in a series of posts from last year.
When this relationship with God is realized, the concept of wives having to “submit” to husbands on the basis of spiritual authority becomes irrelevant to respect for God.
So, the next question would be, when was the transition complete? My view is that the transition was complete by 70 A.D., the year that the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans. In the spiritual realm, I believe the temple’s fall symbolized the end of the Old Covenant system in all dimensions. Even though, ultimately, that system ended through Christ’s death, some aspects continued on in the practical, day-to-day realm of life (and the temple continued to stand), until the transitional era was complete.
Although some books of the New Testament were possibly written after 70 (the four Gospels, John’s Epistles, and Revelation), I do not find any fundamentally new truth regarding the new creation in these writings, when compared to the writings with a pre-70 consensus among historians.
Some may be concerned that viewing any Biblical writings as transitional undermines the authority of those writings, and opens the door to subjectivity or selfish excuses for non-compliance. But consider the alternative, in which we have to view everything as if it is directly applicable to us. Scholars holding that view have written enormous commentaries trying to explain the “context” of difficult passages. Do we really think that such commentaries are free of personal subjectivity? Do we really think that they are never bending some passages, in the name of context, to avoid inconvenient interpretations?
I believe that viewing the New Testament as a transitional collection of writings can address much of the confusion Christians are dealing with, while respecting the inspired nature of these writings. Let me know of thoughts or comments you have on any of this, and any other areas of Scripture that you would like to compare or contrast to the ones discussed here.