In my young adulthood, I was affiliated with an organization of Christians who were more conservative – to the point that women wore head coverings in church.
The young adults discussed if they should relax the restrictions on women having leadership roles in groups that included men.
The general consensus was if we let women have authority over men, it would upset the picture of Jesus as bridegroom and the church as bride. The reasoning was that Jesus was the head of the church as the man was the head of the woman, and changing the roles for men and women implied a change in the roles for the church and Jesus.
This metaphor, based largely on the fifth chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, may be a familiar one: Jesus as bridegroom and church as bride. Metaphors help us to understand a concept by likening it to something familiar.
Yet, we have to be careful not to interpret metaphors to suit our own meaning.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is well known: a man is robbed and beaten, then two religious persons pass by on the other side of the road before a Samaritan comes by and helps the man.
The characters in this story – a victim, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan – were people with whom Jesus’ audience was familiar. The story makes the concept of loving one’s neighbor come alive.
It’s likely Jesus’ audience would have understood the reluctance of the priest and Levite to help the man. If the victim were dead, touching the body would have rendered these two unclean, causing a delay for them to be cleansed before they could fulfill their duties to others. Perhaps they weighed the costs and benefits.
The actions of the Samaritan show that loving one’s neighbor can incur real costs: in addition to binding the victim’s wounds and taking the time to transport him to an inn, the Samaritan pays money to the innkeeper and promises to reimburse him later if the innkeeper spends more.
One way to interpret the metaphor would be to ask who the “priests and Levites” of today are and decide that perhaps they are clergy and theologians, Would we then have to say that “clergy and theologians are required to let people suffer by the side of the road so we don’t distort the parable of the Good Samaritan”?
That example may seem silly, but when we flip the metaphor of Jesus and the church inside so we can require gender roles to remain the same as 2,000 years ago to keep the metaphor working, we do the same thing.
In the essay “Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation”, Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks-Thistlethwaite writes:
… the metaphor of patriarchal marriage for divine-human relationship is not one of mutuality; it is an image of dominance and subordination in that cultural context. Likewise, tying marriage to the divine-human relationship clearly divinizes male superiority in that relationship…”
So in reading the Bible, it’s important to understand how people in that time and place understood the story, so that we understand the concept it teaches. But we have to be careful to not read the metaphors to suit our prejudices, assuming an example relevant to that time and place is equally relevant today.
Cindi Knox holds a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and is in search of her first call as pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ. In addition to writing for New Sacred, she also writes for RevGalBlogPals, does pulpit supply, and volunteers with a queer youth drop-in. She lives in Joliet with her spouse of over 25 years, Mary. Find her at http://facebook.com/cindik.online