This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.
When the Rubber Meets the Road
The final step of this process brings the historical insights of what the Shepherd of Hermas indicates about the teaching authority of woman into conversation with contemporary conversations about women in the church. Here, several factors play out. First, we must recognize that the Shepherd is not canonical, but it was extremely popular for large swaths of early Christians. That is, this was not some one-off work of a heretic that stands merely as something for Christians to reject; many Christians have found this work insightful and (in some sense) useful for their own lives. Second, the Shepherd comes from Rome, where we know Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were well known, indicating that Hermas’s community (at least) held the call for Grapte to teach and Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in conjunction.
Lastly, if nothing else, the relationship between the Shepherd and calls to keep women silent indicates our need to read (and re-read) early Christian statements about women teaching in the church carefully and contextually. On the one hand, it may be that Hermas reveals an anti-Pauline stance that scripture-focused Christians ought to reject. On the other hand, however, it could also be the case that contemporary readers of Paul miss some nuance in the “women keep silent” passages which may be illuminated by the historical record that the Shepherd preserves.5
Whichever side of this argument we fall on, undertaking a historical approach to a theological project helps us better understand not only the history of Christianity, but also allows us to reflect and (hopefully) speak about real theological questions today. But the process is vital and, as I contend, helps us better communicate and understand where conversation might otherwise be one-sided or full of talking-past those with whom we disagree. Therefore, let us approach the task of faith seeking understanding (theology) with the history of Christianity in mind, with all the learning and (sometimes, at least) discomfort that this pursuit of the truth may reveal.
5 This is basically the position of Scot McKnight in Part IV of The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).