Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Position Paper on Women In Leadership

What follows is a paper I had to write for my Epistles class, declaring my position on Women in Ministry. It was to be relatively short and not exhaustive. It wasn't even supposed to cite a lot of written works. So I didn't cite any. It is just a personal tellling of where I stand along with some of the "why". So take it for what its worth. Argue if you want. I've edited out a personal anecdote from the introduction since I haven't asked that person's permission to use it online. I hope you still get the point. Okay, thanks for reading along with me. Here it is ...


I have been what would be called a mild complimentarian my whole life. Within my conservative evangelical tradition I accepted the idea that woman were to submit to their husband’s loving leadership at home and likewise were to defer to male authority in the church. I saw this done fairly well, and at face value the Bible certainly seemed to fit–if not outright prescribe–such a model. I came out of Bible College with more questions, but defaulted to the traditional view.

[But some personal experiences have since made me ask myself:] What if our complimentarian default position is wrong? Are we holding women back?

This is not simply a case study in biblical interpretation; real people are involved here. It is to my shame as a man that it took me this long to step up and face this issue head on. I want to remain open to debate but when push comes to shove I have to declare that I am an egalitarian. My experience has certainly played a role in bringing me around but ultimately I feel my position rests upon the Bible itself. Although space does not permit a detailed analysis, what follows is a summary explanation.

In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” This text is more ambiguous than it seems, and despite what complimentarians might say, this ambiguity is not cast on the text solely by our culture today; it is inherent within Scripture itself. We have examples throughout Scripture of women who push the boundaries of Paul’s instruction and therefore call into question its universality. Under the backdrop of patriarchal societies, in the Old Testament Miriam (Ex 15:20) and Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14) stand out as prophetesses, Deborah as a judge (Judg 4-5), and Solomon’s “noble woman” as, among other things, a faithful instructor (Prov 31:26). Although these women could be cited as exceptions to the rule–called upon in a time when male leadership was lacking–the fact remains that they were called by God to speak His Word to His people in their time.
Similarly, in the New Testament the Samaritan woman (John 4), Lydia (Acts 16), and Mary Magdalene (Matt 28) are entrusted extraordinary roles as witnesses for Christ within their respective communities. Phoebe holds an office of some sort in the church at Cenchrea and seems to be the letter-bearer for Paul’s weightiest epistle (Rom 16:1-2); Priscilla is a co-worker with Paul (Rom 16:3) and along with her husband instructs Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:26); Junias is considered “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom 16:7). Even if that last phrase signifies Junias as a “church-planter”, it is hard to imagine her receiving such accolades without exercising some measure of outspoken influence on the church. These examples call for a further explanation of the limitations set in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.

It is not merely by way of example, however, that the Bible sets a trajectory for the full participation of women in ministry. A key text in this whole issue is Galatians 3:28-29. While context dictates that these verses pertain to gender equality in regards to salvation, the key question is what it means that “male and female” alike are both “heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29). Paul says that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, are no longer “in slavery under the basic principles of this world” but “receive the full rights of sons” (Gal 4:3-5 NIV, emphasis mine). All of them are given “the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal 4:6). Paul’s words here and elsewhere hearken us back to the promise of a new covenant given in Jeremiah: “No longer will a they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord” (Jer 31:34; cf. Ezek 37:25-27; Joel 3:28-29; Acts 2:16-21).

Even though Galatians 3 is about salvation, the question remains as to what salvation entails. What have men and women inherited in Christ? Are we talking about a new identity? A passport to heaven? The heir to a throne inherits more than a title. The inheritance of the firstborn is more than a name. What does it mean to be full heirs in this life? Does this not have ramifications for the living out of the faith and the exercise of gifts within the Christian community? Given the above examples and implications, if Paul is saying what it sounds like he is saying in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, then he has some explaining to do. Or perhaps we’re hearing him wrong.

Though it is a key text in this discussion, 1 Corinthians 11 says very little to limit a woman’s role in church. As a matter of fact it assumes she will pray and prophesy in public gatherings; and rather than ask her to avoid authority it says that she “ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (1 Cor 11:10 NIV). She is required to present herself with modesty and in a way that honors (rather than shames) men; for “the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

This passage is as troublesome for the complimentarian as for the egalitarian. What is implied by the word head? It must mean more than source because verse 12 makes it clear that both man and woman come from God. On the other hand, if it means authority, why does verse 11 emphasize the interdependence of women and men and verse 10 qualify rather than nullify the woman’s expression of authority? Furthermore, how simplistic is our understanding of God’s authority over Christ? Certainly the Son submits to the Father, but the Father in turn puts everything under His lordship (Phil 2:9)!

The best rendering of this passage is to recognize that it affirms the teaching and leading potential of women in the church but asks them not to flaunt their newfound freedom in Christ in a way that dishonors men. Men and women were called to help rather than compete with one other, and the Christian way to confront patriarchal systems is through modesty and humility rather than rebellious, self-aggrandizing actions. The worshiping man no longer lives for his own glory but for Christ’s. So too does the woman, and in the Corinthian situation she does so by continuing to honor others (namely the men in her midst who will already face dishonor in society by letting women speak in church) even while coming to grips with her freedom as a worshiper. Here and elsewhere Paul calls women and men to defer to cultural norms when appropriate if it will assist in conveying the message of their worship. Applying this text in our Canadian culture where the increasing norm is for women to step up into roles long monopolized by men it is hard to imagine how it helps the message of the gospel for us to keep women from likewise stepping up within the church.

In light of chapter eleven’s affirmation of women praying and prophesying in the church it is odd three chapters later to read: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (1 Cor 14:34). We must dig deeper. Since this comes in the context of instructions regarding orderly worship, we must try to understand the dilemma the church at Corinth was facing. Given that loudness and disorder would have been signs of piety in some mystery religions, and that most women in that society would have been relatively uneducated, it is fathomable why Paul might want to limit the interruptions during corporate worship. Far from being told to hush up and never mind, however, women are told to take their questions home with them. The implication of this passage in context is that husbands are to empower the women of their household rather than perpetually hold them back.

1 Timothy 2 is another difficult passage. Again we must dig beneath the surface in order to hear what Paul was saying to the pastor of the church at Ephesus and to hear what it says to us today. Considering the problem of false teaching in Ephesus (the theme of Paul’s letter to Timothy) and the apparent strategy of false teachers in that community to “worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women” (2 Tim 3:6), we must understand 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as part of Paul’s counter-strategy. False teachers in Ephesus could find significant fodder in the cult of the goddess Artemis (cf. Acts 19) for the spread of “old wives’ tales” (1 Tim 4:7) that would distort a woman’s humble identity in Christ. So we must hear what Paul is saying here. Paul wants women, first of all, to “learn” (1 Tim 2:11). They are not to assert their femininity over men (like Artemis) but are to recognize their relatively uneducated condition and “learn in quietness and full submission” (1 Tim 2:11). Out of a respect for the Word of God the students are told to listen. Paul spends much of the letter making it very clear which men in the church at Ephesus to listen to.

When Paul points to the created order in verses 13-14, it is perhaps indicative of our patriarchal presupposition that we so easily read hierarchy into it. These verses remind women that they do themselves no favor by perpetuating Eve’s sin. Rather than asserting themselves as superior to men because of their childbearing capabilities (a carry over from the cult of Artemis) they are reminded to see themselves as servants of God and as helpers to men. They do no justice to the faith by usurping authority, even if their freedom in Christ does open the door for them to the privileges of leadership. With privilege comes responsibility. Paul might just as well have said: Don’t mess this up like Eve did, but learn quietly and continue on in your strengths: “in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim 2:15).

Space does not permit a more detailed analyisis of the passage but it is worth nothing that the word authentein (translated authority in the NIV) occurs nowhere else in the Bible. Debate has raged over Paul’s usage of this word, and I couldn’t possibly do justice to it here. Suffice it to say that I am unconvinced that “authority” is the clearest rendering of what this may have entailed to its original readers, and am compelled to join the KJV in translating it with the word usurp, or the TNIV with the word assume.

There are other details and passages that could be touched on, but one further passage gets to the heart of what I see to be an egalitarian implication and trajectory within Scripture. Ephesians 5:21 instructs us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Whether you attach this to the household codes or leave it separate (as in the NIV), this is a provocative statement for the church to consider as it tries to find its way through the cultural morass and embrace God’s design for Christian community. Even though slaves are told to serve their masters wholeheartedly in Ephesians 6:5, the implication of Scripture is that slavery should cease to be tolerated in a society that seeks to reflect Christian values. A similar thing can be said of women and men in the church without compromising the more explicitly universal command for children to obey their parents (Eph 6:1). That said, even in the latter passage Paul does not refrain from challenging fathers to stoop down and respect their children, raising them “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

These household codes contained revolutionary concepts for the people of that place and time, as well as for our world today. I wonder sometimes at how we can keep the words of Scripture but lose so much of their dynamic equivalence. In a world where women are frequently oppressed in the name of religion I wonder if the Church is missing an opportunity to accentuate some of its greatest strengths.

In regard to church leadership, I would like to see churches focus on the requirements and responsibilities for all teachers and leaders in the church rather than continue to disqualify people from such roles based merely on gender. If these passages in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 were brought to bear on the way women and men conducted themselves in the church as learners and teachers we’d be applying Paul’s intent more accurately and we’d be raising the bar for the type of teachers and leaders we allow to serve the Church today. The best teacher is first a good learner. The best leader is a humble servant. That goes for male and female alike.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Looking for a Thesis

I had to come up with three possible thesis topics for a class assignment this week. (Thesis work starts in January) So here's what I've been thinking of doing. The first one is the frontrunner right now.

1. Chesterton's Critique of Protestantism

As a Christian with fairly fixed Protestant roots who has been profoundly effected by the writings of Gilbert Keith Chesterton I would like to explore and better understand why he converted to Catholicism and see if there is anything to be learned from him in this post-Vatican II era of increasing dialogue between Protestants and Catholics.... It may be best to frame the question this way:
Properly understood in context, what insight can Protestants today gain from GK Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism in 1922?

2. Theodicy in The Man Who Was Thursday

Since systematic theologians stumble at the point where they have to concede a great deal of mystery in Theodicy, I would like to study what GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is able to say through imaginative narrative about the problem of evil and the belief in a good and holy God (aka Theodicy).... Particularly intriguing would be the metaphorical connection that there seems to be between Chesterton’s slippery character "Sunday" and some of the ideas of Karl Barth concerning the "shadow" side of the Election of God or CS Lewis’ description of Aslan as "not a tame lion".... It may be best to frame the question this way:
What does GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday contribute to theology by probing the mysteries inherent in Theodicy through imaginative narrative?

3. The Rallying Point of the Church

The Western Church conveys an image of itself that seems to say that holiness, or moral rightness, is to be the hallmark and the unifying bond between Christians. However, I would like to contend that while holiness is a common goal of Christians it is forgiveness, or reconciliation, that is to be their hallmark and unifying force. I wouldn’t want to polarize things too much simply in order to simplify the topic, however, nor would I want to miss the essential tension that I think I’m trying to address, but perhaps I could pose the question this way:
What should be the hallmark and rallying point for church health and identity this side of heaven, an atmosphere of holiness, moral rightness or of perpetual reconciliation with each other and God in the name of Jesus Christ?

Incidentally, an awful thing happened when I was saving a paper this week. I had two to hand in and I saved one over the other, meaning I was left with two copies of the same one. Try as we could there was no way we could find in WordPerfect to retrieve teh old one. So I got up at 5:00 the day of class and retyped the one I lost. Not sure if the original or the new one was better, but by that point I almost didn't care. Sheesh that blew.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Theological Cliff Diving

If my previous post which talked about "Bungee Jumps for the Mind" was a little overstated, then it might have been more properly attached to some of the ideas I would now like to throw out there. In keeping with my penchant for the exaggeration and to maintain the metaphor, I present the following thoughts as what feels like "theological cliff-diving."

Just a couple actually. These come out of the reading group I am in, where we are discussing in depth the section in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics on "The Election of God":

  • In the Garden with the forbidden tree, God wasn't giving humans a choice between life with God and some other sort of less-preferable life. The choice was between life with God or no life at all. The fact that they chose the latter should have resulted in death immediately, but we are now living in the time of God's delayed judgment, when we face the aftermath in real-time, but should understand that there is great delay in order to give us the opportunity for redemption. Barth talks about election as God's divine "Yes" to humanity, which we responded to with ingratefulness and rejection to which God in turn responds to with a "No". However, in Christ we are also given a "Nevertheless."
  • God's judgment is often thought of as a future event (which it ultimately is), but it actually came on day one when God created and called it GOOD. He didn't create bad, but by calling what he made "good" he was also saying that to not see it or accept it as good would thereafter be "bad" and totally unacceptable.
  • We haven't talked much about annhialationism and hell and all that yet, but the Great One (a character in our group) made a very intriguing point to me in our walk home: We think of annhialation as preferable to hell and hence have a debate about which one a loving God would opt for, but perhaps when truth-be-told from God's perfect perspective hell is actually in some way "better" than annhialation altogether.

That last one's a doozy. See what I mean about "cliff diving"? There may or may not be safe water below but the whole enterprise of this kind of thought is pretty edgy and scary. But with confidence in the veracity of our Guide and His Word this stuff is something I find quite exciting.