Huge congatulations to my parent's church in northern Saskatchewan which recently voted to allow women as elders. I am so pleased and happy for you. May you have wisdom and mutual patience as you continue to wrestle with your new self-understanding. In honour of that exciting news I wish to post again my position paper on women in leadership.
This paper is not comprehensive, and may not convince those who might disagree, but I think it represents my own change of mind quite well and perhaps for my readers or anyone they know it can contribute in a small way to the dialogue and promote mutual understanding in God's Church. I've posted it before in part, but here it is in whole.
No matter where church people come out on this issue, I hope they will dialogue on this issue afresh in humility and love, seeking to understand one another, and letting Christ unify.
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.
As a pastor my opinion began to change. I met a woman in my church who exemplified to me that she was gifted in administration, leadership, discernment, and teaching. She was not seeking a leadership position, but she would have made an ideal elder. As a complimentarian I had heard about this sort of thing before and I knew it didn’t prove anything on its own. What startled me as I listened to this woman’s story, however, was that she had struggled privately and genuinely for many years with how she, a widowed women with few leadership opportunities in her church, was to find wholeness in Christ. Everywhere she turned it was implied that she needed a man to "complete" her. By the grace of God this woman has found her way through this struggle, but hearing her story I was left with a burning question: 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.
Beck, James R. and Stanley N. Gundry, eds. 2005. Two Views on Women in Ministry.
Pyles, Franklin. "An Exegetical Study of 1 Timothy 2:11-15." Available from http://online.auc-nuc.ca/alliancestudies/pyles/Pyles_1Tim2.htm.
Radant, Kenneth G. 1999. Men and Women in Christian Ministry: An Introduction to the "Gender Roles" Question for Church Leaders.
Stackhouse, John. Finally Femnist.
Swartley, Willard M. 1983. Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation.
Webb, William. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.
* All Scripture quotations are from Today’s New International Version (unless otherwise indicated)