Wednesday, June 11, 2014

If a Woman Aspires to Be an Elder, Does She Desire A Noble Task?

This is part of a sermon which was the third of a five-part series centring on a recurring phrase in the letters of Paul to first century Pastors Timothy and Titus. Five times in his letters Paul writes: “Here is a trustworthy saying.” On this occasion Paul is addressing the collateral damage stirred up by false teachers in Ephesus who filled the people with selfish ambitions: It’s time for Timothy to rearrange priorities and give them some words to aspire by. The version of the sermon that follows is slightly abridged and was, of course, written for a live congregation.


There are two things we need to talk about in 1 Timothy 3:1. The first has to do with the fact that, at first glance, today's "words to live by" seem to contradict the words of Jesus:

In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul says: “If anyone aspires to be an elder, he desires a noble task.” 
In Mark 9:35 Jesus says: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

Are they on opposite wavelengths? How do we reconcile these statements? To answer that we just need to see what it means to aspire to church eldership.

In the verses that follow in 1 Timothy 3, Paul sets up the "noble task" of church leadership in such a way that it is obviously a far cry from selfish ambition or craving for power. Here we see that the trustworthy saying and Jesus’ saying are not contradictory because eldership is servant leadership.

In 3:1 we can’t think of “desiring” in terms of wishful thinking and “aspiring” in terms of clutching or grabbing; rather we must think of them in terms of “stretching after” and “giving yourself to” something good. If we understand what Jesus is about, then, aspiring to leadership will not mean taking or usurping it (like the false teachers in Ephesus)—it will mean aspiring to be found worthy of the call, having been formed by the practice of self-giving love.

So I don't think this trustworthy saying means that everyone will be called to be an elder, but it does show us what Christian aspiration looks like.

There's lots to think about there, but that was just the first thing. The second thing we need to talk about as we look at this “trustworthy saying” today begins with a riddle:

When is a trustworthy saying not a trustworthy saying? 
More specifically, for whom is this trustworthy saying not a trustworthy saying?

Look closely at the saying as it is translated here and you see there’s a group for whom it seems not to apply. Those who are “she” instead of “he”. In most of the churches in the my tradition this saying does not apply to women. In 2000 our denomination decided that local churches could vote to open eldership to women, but in the 14 years since only about 10-20% of the churches in our denomination have done so (see more on our history here).

As a result, most of the women I know have been taught not to aspire to be elders because for them the desire is not good. Are we right about that?

In this day and age such a thing might seem increasingly odd. But the restriction is not being invented out of thin air. In fact, the main reason for it is found right here in the chapter prior to our trustworthy saying today:


At first blush it seems pretty clear why, in our denomination as in most of church history, the saying about church leadership has only applied to men.

But wait a minute then: So why would our denomination move to allow this in 2000? Why is the Alliance even meeting this July to consider whether women can be senior pastors? Is it remotely possible there's another, even better, way to read this? Even if we are unconvinced, we should try to understand why others in our churches might think so.

What is Paul saying here? Is this a timeless rule giving leadership to men, because Eve came second and was the one who was first deceived? Does this particular “trustworthy saying” have permanent marker scrawled across it saying “no girls allowed”? Allow me to briefly give 8 reasons why I think it does not.

{1} First of all, remember that this is a letter. It begins as a private letter from Paul to Timothy and by the providence of God we come to recognize it as Scripture for us today. But it is Scripture for us today first by being a letter to someone else, from another place and time. That doesn’t mean it is irrelevant today, or that we can pick and choose from it as we wish, but it does make it different than the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

{2} Secondly, let’s notice how we already read this as a letter to someone else, wisely applying the spirit of it rather than mimicking its every detail. Right before we come to the instructions about women and authority we see that men are called to pray with their hands raised, and women are told not to wear braids or gold or pearls. Do these instructions still apply? Yes, but how? In one culture it might be braids, in another it might be bangs. In one we raise hands, in another we kneel. The point remains. It was Spirit-inspired, so today it could be Spirit-illumined.

Which leads us back to the verses in question. There is no doubt that Paul feels comfortable restricting women from teaching and assuming authority in Ephesus. But does that mean women should aspire to eldership never at all?

{3}The third thing to note is that Paul’s instruction is for women to “learn”. This would not have been unheard of in Ephesus at that time, but it was certainly not the norm. Women were not normally the beneficiaries of higher education. In the church it was a bit different, however. Timothy was who he was in part because his mother and his grandmother had been taught the Scriptures and had in turn taught him.

Furthermore, in other churches Paul had planted there were women who were not only taught but were teaching others. So here the ultimate point is not to silence women for all time but to reinforce the way that Ephesus’ women should learn: in quietness and full submission. In other words, be good students.

Anyone who has spent any length of time in a classroom will know that there are times when this instruction desperately needs to be followed by both women and men, girls as well as boys. Some people need to remember who the teacher is. So why does Paul feel the need to say this to women in particular?

{4} This is the fourth thing I want to point out. What we know about the situation in Ephesus—based on nothing more than we’re told in 1st and 2nd Timothy—is that false teachers are have been having a field day in that church, primarily by worming their way into the homes of vulnerable uneducated women who in turn starting spreading those teachings—plus gossiping everyone’s business. Given this context, we can easily imagine why, after throwing the unrepentant false teachers out of the church, Paul might then have Timothy instruct the women to learn in quietness and submission, not to teach or assume authority in the church.

{5} Which brings us to a fifth reason why this just might not be a universal restriction (i.e., applied the same way for all time and in all places): That is the fact that in other of Paul’s churches the women were teaching and exercising degrees of authority!

Elsewhere Paul speaks approvingly of Lydia hosting a house church, of Priscilla teaching Apollos with Aquilla, and Junia being outstanding among the apostles. In Ephesus the women must not be teaching or taking charge—because of what’s been going on.

{6} Which brings us to a sixth reason why this restriction need not always apply the same way. The word Paul is using is not the usual word for exercising authority, but a word that implies usurping, or taking what’s not been given.

Why? Because just like Eve who was deceived, so too the women of Ephesus. This reference to Eve is not  a created order of male leadership and female submission, it is an illustration about going to the wrong teacher and getting deceived! Adam had the instructions; Eve went to the serpent alone. In Ephesus Paul’s kicked out the serpents, and now he’s installed Timothy.

So let’s go back to our trustworthy saying, asking whether even the women of Ephesus might yet aspire to be elders and to consider it a desirable task. Could it be Paul wants them not to assume or usurp authority (after all, Timothy is now the teacher and "the senior pastor" there!), but might still be happy to have them aspire to church leadership? Is that option available to us, or is the trust-worthy saying forever for men only?

{7} Let me give a seventh reason to reconsider. When you look closely at 1 Tim 3:1 in the original language you see the word “he” is simply not there. It literally says “If someone aspires to be an elder, __desires a noble task.”

In English we have to fill in the pronoun, and have usually just slipped in the “he” (since we couldn’t bear to say “someone” again). Some of our translations are more careful now. They say “Whoever aspires to be an elder desires a noble task.” This has the negative side-effect of losing the “if”—which accidentally implies that everyone could expect to be an elder—but it does retain the truth that the saying could well apply to whoever; to both the men and the women of the church.

But what about the parts that follow, where the elders are assumed to be “hes” and to the “husbands of one wife”? The truth is that even if there was a “he” in this verse it wouldn’t necessarily exclude the “shes”. It was simply the language of the time--like in Genesis 1, where it says: “God created mankind in his image, ... male and female he created them.”

{8} This leads to an eighth and final reason to wonder if the trustworthy saying might yet apply to all: We already make this cultural application away from the literal meaning in relation to other parts of the text. We saw this already in the way we apply chapter two's rules for posture and dress in worship, and we see it again in the way we apply chapter three's eldership qualifications: When the following verses say that elders must be husbands of one wife, we take the point that they can’t have two wives, not that they can’t have zero wives. No church that I know of has said single men or widowers may not be elders!

Often when I give my views on this it is presumed I haven't put in the necessary study, or have simply conformed to the culture I grew up in and will not change my mind to conform to Scripture. I guess all I can say to that is that I used to be a staunch defender of traditional gender roles, and that's exactly the culture within which I was brought up. I get it.

But in my first pastorate I noticed a mature woman in my church who exemplified to me that she was gifted in administration, discernment, and teaching. After I got to know her I asked her to tell me her story, and was startled to hear about how she had struggled privately and genuinely for many years with confusion about how she, a single women with gifts for teaching and organizing adults, was ever to find wholeness in Christ if she needed a man to "complete" her, and if her gifts were meant only for kids. I began to think again .

This wasn't enough to overturn my convictions, but it did lead me to ask: "What if I'm wrong?" It was then I noticed that not even Paul was universally consistent to his own ruling in Timothy, and it was then that I realized that church leadership can be something for all people to aspire to, including both women and men.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Agreeing to Disagree, a Proposal:

In the church, agreeing to disagree does not mean agreeing to go your separate ways, bowing to the authority of personal opinion.

In the church, agreeing to disagree means agreeing to have a peaceable disagreement, in faith that seeks understanding, hope of communion, and love befitting both.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Women in Leadership in the C&MA in Canada: An Up-to-the-Moment History

At its General Assembly this summer my denomination will be returning to another aspect of its long-running discussion on women in leadership: the question of female Senior (or Lead) Pastors. What follows is a summary of historical developments in the Christian & Missionary Alliance on this issue--focusing with more detail on recent years. This has been collected first or second-hand to the best of my knowledge, but if you have corrections or additions please let me knowFor a more detailed version you can see my previous blog post---and for fuller scholarly research and insight on this, please see Alexandra Meek's The Great Debate and Barbara Howe's Forgotten Voices

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Late 1800s 

In the early years in both Canada and the U.S., women are involved in all levels of ministry. During this time, however, the movement to become known as the Alliance does not self-identify as a denomination, nor its branches as churches. Woman in leadership are thus not formally known as pastors, ordinands, or elders.

1921

Women are first allowed to vote in Canadian federal elections (albeit not all women).

1928 

The Third Annual Conference of the C&MA decides to maintain current practice and not ordain women, instead calling them deaconesses, as is the practice for founder A.B. Simpson south of the border. (See Leslie Andrews paper on Simpson's views on women in ministry here).

Early 1900s 

Many stories about women in leadership in the Canadian C&MA during this period can be found in Barbara Howe's Forgotten Voices. Across the West they are effectively planting and leading congregations, still without official designation as pastors of churches.

1960 

C&MA President Harry Turner declares that the Alliance has become a church denomination and should begin self-identifying as such.

The dilemma now is whether to hold to A.B. Simpson's practice (wherein all leadership roles were open to women under the auspices of what we would now call "para-church") or to his ecclesiology (wherein women are unable to hold the office of elder). The latter path is chosen. Women continue to minister in roles available to them, but are recognized as deaconesses rather than elders (for more, see The Great Debate, p 40).

Around this time, Second Wave Feminism begins to arise in Western culture.

1980

Believing it true to the movement's initial impulses, a pastor in Ontario (Ross Ingram) hires female pastors and places women on the elder's board of his church. When asked to remove women from the board he claims that he is acting within denominational precedent and is not in contradiction of Scripture's authority.

1981 

The C&MA in Canada (hereafter still just C&MA) becomes autonomous from the U.S., with Melvin Sylvester as its first President. Until this time local churches had been run by an Executive Board (of women and men) and given spiritual oversight by an Elders Board (all men). At this time, however, the two are rolled into one with the determination that the one Elders Board contain only males.
  

1984

At the C&MA's General Assembly (henceforth GA), a report commissioned in 1982 includes a statement called "The Basic Scriptural Principles of Women in Ministry," which puts forward four recommendations. Two are passed (regarding the licensing of women for various ministry functions) and one is struck down (proposing that there be a list of eligible roles written up).

The remaining recommendation, which proposes that women not be eligible for Elder, District, or National Boards, is referred to committee and the next day narrowly defeated--but not without an exegetical paper being commissioned so that a more informed discussion might take place.

(In the debate that took place there were arguments against women in leadership which drew support from the masculine grammar of eldership texts and which questioned the commitment to Scripture's authority of those College and Seminary professors who had spoken in favour. Correlations with the ordination of homosexuals were drawn, despite the Seminary President arguing against such parallels.)

1987

Two societies are formed within evangelicalism which argue the gender roles question from different perspectives: The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Christians for Biblical Equality. From here on the two "camps" are increasingly referred to as "complementarian" and "egalitarian". It is not until the turn of the century that the terms "mutuality" and "mutual submission" begin to be widely used to differentiate Christian egalitarianism from its secular counterpart. For more on this see here.

1988 

After four years the BOD presents a Statement on women in leadership for acceptance by the GA. Over the course of debate the Statement takes on two new words (indicated in italics below), but otherwise is passed as written. It states
"that in the biblical pattern and in the historical practice of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Elders in the church have usually been men. The weight of evidence would imply that normally this pattern should continue." 
The matter is considered closed, and any further discussion "counterproductive."

In this year an insertion is also made to the accreditation policy which prohibits women from being Senior Pastors. As it turns out, this is the only place in C&MA policy where such a restriction is made explicit. The change is made without requirement of a vote.

1988-1992

Following GA 1988, in a report in Christian Week, Pastor Douglas Schroeder-Tabah interprets the aforementioned Statement to mean that, should they feel so led, local churches could assign women to their Elders Board.

Upon seeing this, Pastor Peter Ralph of Westside in Regina writes the National Office for clarification, only to learn (from VP Gerald Fowler and President Sylvester) that Schroeder-Tabah's interpretation is valid. Later when the Westside congregation asks if they can have women as Elders, Pastor Ralph assures them they may do so in "good faith". Along with two other churches they end up doing so during this time.

1992

New C&MA President Arnold Cook finds Schroeder-Tabah's interpretation of the prior ruling to be incorrect, and asks these churches to remove the women from their Elders Boards. Two comply, but Westside does not, defending its course of action as proper.

1996

At GA in Regina, a woman named Jean Daly is nominated to the BOD (an aspect of the 1984 deferral that had not been dealt with in the 1988 statement). In lieu of clear polity on the matter, then BOD chairman Keith Taylor looks for consistency with general practice. Some debate takes place, and before a vote occurs the nominee in question withdraws her name.

1998

As it relates to women in leadership, five motions are presented, and all but one carries. From here on women will be allowed to serve on National and District Boards and will be able to administer the ordinances. Following this vote (which passed by 60%), Miriam Charter is elected (with 75% of the vote) as the first woman to serve on the C&MA's governing board since its early years.

The motion regarding female eldership is referred to the next GA.

2000 

After consulting another commissioned paper on the question of female eldership, the BOD suggests that a consensus may not be reachable despite long arguments from many angles, and seeks to make it possible for churches to decide locally if they will have women as Elders. There is some debate about a motion to ensure Boards still have a majority of men, but this does not carry, and the Constitution is finally amended to say: "The local church may by a 2/3 majority choose to have women on their Board of Elders."

2007 

The BOD and the District Superintendents adopt a new licensing policy (formerly "accreditation"), and it does not carry over language restricting women from being Senior Pastors. (Later, at GA 2012, it becomes widely recognized that this had been the only place where such a restriction was explicit. In 2013 President David Hearn issues an apology for this apparent oversight, explaining that both the insertion and removal of this clause "should have been processed more thoroughly with our Alliance family of churches.")

2008 

A motion brought to GA by the BOD asks for the manual's "Statement on Women in Ministry" to be rescinded, due to its discontinuity with the 2000 decision to allow women as elders. However, a motion is carried to postpone this discussion indefinitely so as not to detract from the "Kingdom business" at hand (namely the church planting initiatives being put forward).

2010

GA is held outside Canada for the first time (in Turkey) and the tabled motion is not brought up again (other than in round-table discussions). Sometime after this the Statement on Women in Ministry had been removed from the C&MA website (albeit not from polity), with the explanation:
"The BOD of the C&MA in Canada has ruled that the Position Statement “The Role of Women in Ministry” is inconsistent with legislation adopted by General Assembly (specifically, the Local Church Constitution). Consequently the Board has directed that the statement be removed from the website until such time as the General Assembly considers it appropriate to engage in a full discussion and debate on the issue." (In 2014 the Manual adds that this is "under review" by the BOD).
(Although this is within the BOD's empowerment and responsibility, on an online forum opened up to discuss such issues there is an objection to the removal of the Statement because it appears to be a means of further deferral for the sake of status quo. Later, at GA 2012 there are complaints from those who favour the Statement and object to its un-discussed removal. In 2013 the President issues an apology for this.)

2011 

President Franklin Pyles releases three papers which were commissioned to explore whether there is anything in the C&MA's theology or practice of ordination which makes it gender specific. The 2011 District Conferences host round table discussion of the matter, revealing a wide spectrum of opinion and a good deal of variance not only on gender roles but also on the nature and merits of ordination. An online forum is also opened up for licensed workers to discuss the papers, but interaction is sparse and lacks direction.

(The exegetical paper explicitly set out to cover previously uncovered ground, looking primarily at the gospels. Later, at GA 2012, the papers are called biased by some who would have preferred arguments for each theological position. In 2013 there is an apology for this.)

Spring 2012 

In the lead-up to General Assembly, after some investigation the BOD determines that, as it stands, nothing in the polity restricts women either from ordination or from the senior pastorate (despite the use of the word "man" in the ordination policy as well as the remaining restriction of females from eldership in most congregations). In preparation for GA the BOD explains this determination in a series of videos and statements (copies of which can be shared upon request).

Summer 2012 

After considerable back and forth in both the preparatory Legislative Committee sessions and then also on the floor of Assembly, at GA 2012 in Winnipeg the delegates vote 380-281 (57%) to change the wording of the ordination policy from “men” to “persons,” thus ensuring that women may indeed now be ordained. (Chris Smith gives a full report of the proceedings here).

In the final moments of Assembly, after the tabling of several items of business for lack of time, a new motion is brought to the floor, amended a few times, and carried. It asks that the question of women as senior pastors be brought to the next GA.

After GA, a statement is released which clarifies that, generally speaking, ordination "does not grant the right to exercise authority over others, nor is it required for individuals to [supervise sacraments or] to preach or teach the word. Rather, ordination is the public confirmation and affirmation of an individual’s skills, gifts and calling to vocational ministry." It is unclear whether everyone voting at GA viewed ordination in this way (in fact, round table discussions showed a variety of opinion on the matter), but the clarification means that ordination simply applies to already existing ministries.

Fall 2012

After hearing concerns from the constituency, a letter is sent out by President David Hearn which makes three apologies (as mentioned above): The first relates to the removal of the Statement on Women in Ministry from the website in 2009, the second relates to what were over-reaching alterations of the licensing policy in 1988 and 2007, and the third relates to the alleged bias of papers released in 2011.

The letter also suggests that the ordination decision will be implemented carefully in the months to come, and to that end it reveals three significant decisions: The first is that the motion to discuss female senior pastors in 2014 calls for a moratorium on any such appointments until that time, and the second is that those women whose ministry predates 2012 will have the option whether or not to pursue ordination.

The third decision is that those men or women for whom ordination is a matter of conscience will be allowed decline the conferral of ordination after the requirements have been met. (At some of the 2013 District Conferences it is then indicated that local churches may be allowed to decline an ordination service as well.)

Finally, the President's letter reveals that "in the coming months, [he will] be establishing a task force to sort out the separate question of whether women can be Senior Pastors." The details surrounding this "task force" are that it will "bring together those representing complementarian and egalitarian perspectives to design a pathway to see both groups valued and affirmed under the theological umbrella of biblical unity and to assist our family of churches in managing the tension such unity may require."

2013

Thirteen years after the vote to allow it, an estimated 10-15% of C&MA churches have moved to include women in eldership. Fifty-four years after the recognition of C&MA "branches" as "churches", the first ordinations of women begin to take place (a list can be seen here).

In 2013 President Hearn strikes up "The Commission on Biblical Unity in the Midst of Theological Diversity" (a.k.a. Unity Commission), which is a group of eight diversely-perspectived C&MA workers led by Rev. Sunder Krishnan who are assigned to carry out the tasks outlined in the President's letter above.

2014

The results of the Unity Commission's (UC) deliberations are released (please view them for yourself here).

In sum, the UC plans to begin the business sessions of GA 2014 with a "solemn assembly" meant to bring us together in a renewed spirit of repentance and humility in Christ. As it regards C&MA policy, the UC recommends:
"That General Assembly affirm that each local church has freedom to call the Senior Pastor of its choice who has been approved by the District Superintendent and that any wording in the Manual, including the wording of the Local Church Constitution, which restricts or may appear to restrict that freedom be amended."
This will be under consideration at General Assembly in Ottawa this July 2-6 (see other details here). It remains to be seen what else might transpire, but we do know that Assembly business will begin with the Lord's Supper and a call to penitent faithfulness as denomination united in Christ.

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Please note that my interest here is to promote an informed perspective as it relates to ongoing denominational discussions. Please feel free to share, ask questions, or prompt elaborations. May God be with us as we carry this conversation forward in Christ.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"we're going to church every other day it seems"

"In the spring of 2014 we're going to church every other day it seems. I don't have to tell you that 'church' is the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens."

- Ron MacLean (on Hockey Night in Canada this morning)

This after an intro utilizing religious images of cross and angel wings to frame a death in one player's family, all strung together by vague invocations of Coldplay's Fix You.

With just this illustration one could write a whole book on the role of ambiguously religious notions in sustaining supposedly "secular" Canadian culture!

In many ways it may be helpful to note how it is not so much secular as post-Christian.*

From a Christian perspective, this could of course be seen as both as a negative and a plus; a threat and a point of promise.

In the negative sense, as illustrated in Ron MacLean's intro, this plays out in the exaggeration and misuse of background Christian images (like angel's wings), as well as in the watering down of more crucial Christian themes, draining them of meaning and ethical relevance and utilizing them as it conveniences the fickle mind.

So it is that religious themes can be conveniently employed in dire moments for an ambiguous sense of comfort, or in better moments for a heightened sense of something sublime. Whether this banal usurpation of "christianity" is leaking into the church or is buttressing popular discourse, it ends up negating itself even when it offers momentary good feeling.

In the positive sense, there is much here to engage with a smile and a probe for deeper meaning--even in relatively innocent cases such as Ron MacLean's intro (which is not the first of his monologues in recent years which have tried to offer some kind of coherence but have fallen head-shakingly short).

In a larger sense, too, there is much to engage with constructively when we recognize ourselves as post-Christian rather than secular. The advance of human rights, care for the environment, the recognition of the need for societal apologies and reconciliation, the eye for multi-cultural community and for geo-political justice--these are all worth our interest and engagement. In a post-Christian culture we are are neither disinterested in these advancements nor beholden to the corporate or governmental angles that are put on them.

Anyway, back to the game. (Although, for the record I'm actually watching the FA Cup Final this morning.)

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* I am using the word "post-Christian" in the broad cultural sense. In no way do I mean to imply that Canada ever was a so-called "Christian nation."

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Movie Review

From time to time I will be writing reviews for an online magazine called Reformation 21, which aspires toward "constructive cultural engagement." The first of them is up--which you can find right here.

The review is of a move called Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall. Unfortunately, I recommend thinking about it more than I recommend actually seeing it.

(By the way, long time readers might care to know that I continue to update my film review page in the menu bar above.)