Monday, September 22, 2008

General (Dis)Assembly Part 2: The Gender Roles Issue

Well, at the time I post this I must confess I am disappointed with its length. I had hoped for something a little more lucid, but what I have here is something which I will have to refine before turning into a letter or proposal of some sort. But it is late, and I've run across a busy week, and really do want to move this conversation along. So please do take this as a work in progress. Forgive its length. I appreciate any feedback or push-back you might offer. And let us continue to be gracious in the process. Thanks a lot!

Obviously a biblical/theological discussion of the "gender roles" issue could take many pages. (And you can see some of my previous elaboration regarding the key biblical texts on gender roles issue here.) It is difficult to know how to address this in one letter. One might hope for something provocative enough to move a denomination out of stagnation and yet fair enough to avoid the pit of mere reactionist rhetoric. But that is a lot of pressure to put on one letter! I can't imagine I'm capable of writing another 95 theses here.

First of all, let me make something clear. I have no interest in seeing our denomination change its stance on the gender roles issue simply to "get with the times". I want the denomination to remove its limitations on women in positions of authority only because together we have discussed it and found that we agree that the Scriptures support such a move.

It seems to me that the denomination has already decided (or conceded) that the Scriptures leave room for women in eldership, else it would not allow any of its churches to vote to allow such a thing. One practical question I would ask is why we do not simply remove the obligation to vote for the concept of women in eldership in each church and just let churches vote in a woman if they want too.

The answer? Because we don't want to make it personal. A church's first vote on this issue should not have a woman's name attached to it. Keep it abstract so no one gets hurt. That's wise, right? Well, yes and no. In one sense it may seem prudent, but in another sense it is also just a way of keeping the issue at bay; of keeping it impersonal and abstract; of denying what is really at stake.

How many women in our churches today are actually way more ready to be elders and preachers today than were the women in Ephesus or Corinth at the time of Paul's epistles? They are not trying to "usurp authority" (as in Ephesus) and are not interested in carelessly disrupting a church at worship (as in Corinth). They are servant leaders who do not consider equality something to be grasped (what a great line), and yet their talents, gifts and servant hearts are held back because of their gender. If we are going to continue to hold them back (and potentially suffer as churches and witnesses in our society for it) then we better be very strongly convinced that the Bible tells us to do so.

Are we so convinced? Our denomination is very inconsistent on this. Missionary women are in positions where they teach and lead churches in other cultures. Many women here in Canada are now elders. Many also teach. Why in some countries and churches and not others? Is it simply a matter of pure democracy? Why can they teach Sunday School and not from the pulpit? Paul was more clearly limiting teaching and spontaneous utterances than he was ever limiting preaching.

Frankly, we are a denomination confused and divided. How we can put this issue off in order to preserve unity is delusional at best and manipulative at worst. Whether we stick with our current situation or seek to change it, the denomination needs an explanation. No, it needs a discussion and a decision.

So what would I raise for discussion? There are many angles one could take.

Often this debate comes down to choosing a "control text" and telling the other texts to fall in line. The egalitarian chooses Galatians 3:28 (there is no male or female) and takes no ifs, ands, or buts; and the complimentarian chooses 1 Timothy 2:12 (I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man) and says the case is closed.

Then, the rebuttals ensue: The egalitarian points to judges such as Deborah and teachers such as Priscilla and the complimentarian to Deborah's attempt to get a man to step up before she had to, or Priscilla's accompaniment by Aquilla.

Neither case wraps up very neat and tidy.

As John Stackhouse's excellent little book entitled Finally Feminist explains, it seems we are going to get nowhere until we admit that Paul did at least in some cases limit the roles of women in church. But we must also admit that women lead and taught in the Bible. Deborah (for instance) was a judge and prophetess who is painted by Scripture in a very positive light. She is one of the more admirable characters amongst a slew of bad ones.

We must also face the fact that Paul limits women in one church (Ephesus) and yet has them hosting housed churches in another (Philippi); has them not prophesying in one and yet prophesying in, well, the same one (Corinth). We must pause to consider the fact that Jesus had no female disciples in his select twelve, but that he had no Gentiles or slaves either. We must stop to ask: Why does God wait until after Jesus' ascension to give Peter a vision about accepting Gentiles? Could he not have covered that ground a little more clearly shortly after Emmaus? Why the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and not in Acts 1 before Jesus decides to ascend to heaven? It would have been nice to have the King there to convene such an important assembly. Did Jesus really intend for the church to figure so much out as it went? To progress within a trajectory of redemption? To seek for the Spirit to guide them into truth?

I believe that on all three accounts the answer is "yes".

Even then, of course we know that the Scripture sets the trajectory for our understanding of redemption, and that the Spirit will not guide the church to a truth that is outside of the realm of Scriptural direction. We're clearly very reliant on the Bible. So does it support a trajectory that sees women in leadership in the church?

I would like to ask: Control text or no control text---what makes most sense of the biblical evidence?

I believe that what we need is something similar to what William Webb and Stackhouse have argued in books that have come out since the denomination's last full-on discussion of this issue. We need an understanding that explains why we see women limited in Scripture and why we also see them breaking tradition and cultural norms and even those very limitations. Ideally this understanding will have its roots ultimately in the core of what we know about God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

In order that I might outline that view a bit more in detail, allow me to comment on three texts which have been misleadingly used (or unused) in the pattern of traditional understanding. Two of them make up the backbone of the complimentarian argument and involve some pretty misleading translations, and one of them is perhaps the most improperly located verses in the entire history of English Bible translation.

First of all, when we have a "helper" created in Genesis 2, the word used unfortunately suggestive of subordination when it would only be context that could give it any such notion. The word is actually most frequently used of God when he helps the Israelites. For this reason it might be more properly translated as "ally" or "cooperator".

Without later extrapolations I do not think we would find much in regard to gender roles in Genesis 2. In fact, the first real hint of any subordinate gender comes in the throes of the fall, which would be a dicey foundation for timeless complimentarianism to say the least.

So what are the control texts that force us to go to Genesis 2 in search of gender roles anyway? This brings us to the second text in question: 1 Timothy 2. Here another misleading translation occurs. The word we have in our NIV Bibles as "authority" is probably best put in the KJV with the verb "usurp". It is a word found nowhere else in the NT, and when it is found outside the NT it sometimes has violent, murderous connotations. Timothy's church was not only susceptible to the influence of goddess cults (something of the nature of 1980s militant feminism) but was also inundated with false teaching that was spreading largely through the seemingly over-zealous women of the congregation. If there was ever a church where a pastor might be justified in telling the women to learn quietly at home it was Timothy's.

It is rightly pointed out, however, that Paul does support his instruction with reasoning based in Genesis 1-3: "Adam was formed first, then Eve." But does this mean that men are to be the leaders and teachers of church and home for all time? Or is there some other way to take this?

Could not Paul be referring to the fact that Adam was the one given the instruction about the tree of knowledge of good and evil and was supposed to have helped Eve to overcome false teaching? Is it not true that Adam failed to be a "helper" to Eve precisely when she needed him, and Eve failed to consult her partner precisely when she actually struck out on her own? Like Eve with the snake, it appears that the women in Ephesus were being done in by crafty false teachers rather than being taught by the partners God had given. The backhanded side of that important passage is that the men were not properly caring for the teaching and leadership ministry of their church and needed to start teaching the women of their homes.

If I may, let me point out that already this brings us to a major problem today.

In our society we do not have women held back from educational opportunities like they would have been in Ephesus. We also have them commonly leading and teaching in the public sphere. Even in our own denomination we are constantly training women for ministry, yet we continue to exclude them from many of the ministries we are equipping them to take! There is very little reason to put the same restrictions on them that Paul did then, unless of course those reasons are also applied evenly to men. Uneducated and power-hungry men should not be allowed to speak or have authority in church either.

But let me come back now to the third text I have in mind. To be honest, if I had to choose a control text in all of this it would be the one verse most often misplaced and omitted in the entire Bible: Ephesians 5:21. Right before the classic and oft-quoted text where wives are told to submit to their husbands, Paul writes to all men and women of the church: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."

To me, if we are looking for a verse that makes sense of all the evidence it is this one. The reason Paul might not seem to have been in a hurry to turn the tables on patriarchy would be because the situation was only going to be ultimately redeemed by the submissive, humble, patient, self-giving, and even self-sacrificing means of Christ and not those power-hungry, individualistic, self-asserting means of the world. The redemptive movement would be slow, and by the grace of God the church would spread even within flawed systems, but it would be there nonetheless.

I think we face an opportunity today to take that redemptive movement a step further and really be a light for Christ through an equality of mutual submission and self-giving love rather than the individualistic and self-asserting equality that is the backbone of our society's supposedly "progressive" thinking.

I do not think we should pass up this opportunity. Not only is it an opportunity for our church to embrace rather than fear difficult biblical/theological dialogue, but it is an opportunity to seek further redemption of a broken situation and to shed light on gender roles and community in a time where things are not so clear as people make them out to be.

I think that from the daughters of Zelophehad to Galatians 3:28 we have plenty of reason to buy this "redemptive movement" idea from an exegetical standpoint.

I think that from our missions practices to our divided stance on eldership we have plenty of reason to discuss this from a pragmatic polity standpoint.

I think that from our understanding of the Trinity to our understanding of the self-emptying Saviour we have plenty of reason to change perspective on this from a theological standpoint.

I suggest that our denomination needs to continue to resist simply conforming to the culture's idea of egalitarianism, but it needs to do so precisely by conforming our understanding of gender roles to the biblical notion of mutual submission rather than to an idea of submission that has it going only one way.

Furthermore, as I've already argued, I think that if we do not discuss this with care we do a disservice to the many many people who have grown accustomed to female leadership and are thus perplexed by our practices; a disservice to the women who are gifted and ready to teach and lead but are being stifled nonetheless; and a disservice to their churches who are not only missing out on their fully-utilized giftings but who are also missing out on the theological ramifications of a change of perspective in this regard.

In a phrase, we are tragically missing an opportunity for some very important kingdom business, and it is precisely that kingdom business that in our time we cannot afford to ignore.


Trev said...

Wow, I actually clapped after reading this. Amazing Jon, simply amazing.

Very well written and thought out. The whole concept of a "control text" is something I've never really thought about. Although I don't think I'd refer to Eph. 5:21 as a control text. In light of your point, I'd say it's a conclusive text.

I heard an interesting sermon yesterday about how we all tend to draw different conclusions based on the same (neutral) evidence.

You've drawn an admirable conclusion Jon, bless you.

Anonymous said...

Another really good read, Jon.
One of the key points I think you make is this: "If we are going to continue to hold them back, then we better be very strongly convinced that the Bible tells us to do so". The heart of this dialogue isn't about egalitarians trying to raise this issue within the CMA - it's about us wanting to properly deal with an issue that's already a major issue that's calling to be dealt with. You say it well.

As for brevity, while well written, I think that you could afford to lose the content from "In order that I might outline that view a bit more in detail..." up to "Uneducated and power-hungry men should not be allowed to speak or have authority in church either." (I love that line though...). Rather than dealing with objections, I think your proposal could be strengthened by just focusing in on the trajectory that you see Scripture leading us in (the redemptive movement of mutual submission) - and maybe even expounding on this a bit more.

In regards to how this whole thing would play out in the months ahead, I, personally, would love to see each district commit to setting aside time in their 2009 District Conferences to dialogue on this (it's a lofty goal, but I think that a step like that would prepare the denomination to properly address this in a 2010 General Assembly).

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Jon. I'd love to say a couple things about some of the really signicant points about the way this ought to be handled. Hopefully, I'll come back to that sometime in the next couple of days. I have a couple of minutes to spare and I'd like to add a couple of thoughts about the exegesis of some of the important texts you've brought up.

A small but significant point, for the record: "usurp authority" is indeed attested as a sense for the Greek hapax legomenon 'authentein' (sorry - the HTML was giving me attitude) - but not until much later than the time of the writing of Pastorals. At our period "have/wield authority" seems to be the usage. So I'm not sure the reading you've offered is the most natural given the evidence. As much as I'd like to attribute 1 Timothy's to a particular Ephesian situation, the current popular reconstruction (uneducated women 'seizing' authority, in a context where false teaching abounded) which sets the context for Paul's temporary injunction against women teachers because of feels like it gains more of its persuasive power from repetition than from solid evidence.

Touche with the Twelve . . . although I think the 'slaves' point is a bit weak. I'll want to think about that. I don't know how much we can conclude from Jesus' choice of his Twelve. (And certainly Jesus didn't see his mission as extending to the Gentiles.)

1 Corinthians is still fascinating to me. One word of caution for us: 1 Corinthians 11 doesn't nullify 14. Usually we end up with something like "1 Corinthians 14 says that women's silence was a universal injunction in the early church (another reason I'm hesitant about certain reconstructions of the Ephesian situation), but 1 Corinthians 11 seems to allow public prophesy and prayer . . .so, that cancels 14 out." There is, admittedly, a puzzling relationship between those two texts, but this movement I've tracked above too often feels like a hermeneutic escape hatch from addressing some of the really tough questions.

Here's my latest pondering: if we grant (as you have above) that Paul did place some restrictions on women's teaching because of particular situations, but that our context is one in which the original problem exists no longer, then would be willing to enforce Paul's restrictions in certain contexts? Again my sense is that our knee-jerk response is "no", and that this reaction reveals that we're using a hermeneutic-escape-hatch once again.

I want to chime in with you and say something about Ephesians 5 - but I have to go start cooking supper.

I have to say that I'm finding it difficult but stimulating to be exploring this discussion beyond the simple lines of egalitarian/complementarian - and that I'm glad for the chance to be in conversation with you around this, Jon.


Nate Wall

Anonymous said...

Dustin Resch recommended that I come and read your posts regarding women in ministry in the CMA. I am not a pastor in the CMA, I am in the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada, but I was quite intrigued by your posts. I was a complementarian for quite a few years, until I my last year in seminary at Briercrest. I found most of the books i read on the issue completely ignored the teaching of "marriage" for Adam and Eve, 1 Cor. 11, etc. This helped shed light upon "submission", headship and leadership. Even those women who are not married still have a "head", namely Christ himself. I do not want to give a full report on the paper I wrote, but I want to encourage you that you are on the right track.

Anonymous said...

Your line of thinking here, I think, is really promising. Great work!

The one section I'd cut is the line about our "understanding of the Trinity to our understanding of the self-emptying Saviour..." etc. On the former matter (i.e., the Trinity), I'm not convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity really helps us here after all, the many attempts to use it for such purposes notwithstanding. Egalitarianism and complementarianism alike have used (different) models of the Trinity to support their reading, and ironically, we end up with two competing trinitarian doctrines to correspond to the gender positions, neither of which line up very well with the classical patristic constructions. That smacks, to me, of an illegitimate misappropriation of the doctrine for utilitarian purposes that the doctrine is not intended to speak to. Let's stick to keeping the doctrine of the Trinity as primarily to say something about God. And as for latter issue, the self-emptying of Christ, I'm not sure it is all that easy to draw a direct line from the truth of Christ's kenotic giving of himself to establishment of ecclesiastical gender roles. If there is a line between them at all, it is only a faintly, dotted one--not a solid one for sure.

I am also convinced more and more that the terms of the debate themselves are flawed and have reached their end. It is precisely because we are attacking the problem from two established "traditions" (complementarian vs. egalitarian), both of which bring their own hermeneutical and theological assumptions and practices, that is unlikely to be resolved on the current terms of debate. For a more of a general explanation of this problem, see an article I wrote earlier here:

Keep going...Looking forward to more...!!

Tony Tanti said...


jon said...

applause and an amen? wow, that's about the most a blogger can ever hope for!

the feedback is great too! i'm getting them on an exegetical, rhetorical and a theological level . . . great! thank you!

i haven't got much time right now to give rebuttals or "tally-hos" to these points of feedback (or pushback), but i will look to respond more fully at week's end sometime before moving on.

til then, thanks for reading it and responding and i'll be open to hearing more.

Chris Smith said...

Wow! Jon, I just stumbled across this discussion from your post on facebook today. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of both the situation at assembly and the larger theological discussion.

I remember walking out of the conference room following that vote this past summer in utter disbelief and how things went down. Never before had I been so disillusioned with the politics of our denomination. Your previous post on "what is Kingdom business?" expresses almost thought for thought what I wrote in a letter to Dr. Pyles the week after assembly. I was so disappointed that I didn't hear of anyone else expressing these feelings following the conference, but your blogging has served as a real encouragement at this time.

I can't wait to read what's next.

Keep up the good work and know that there are others in our fellowship who share your convictions.

Chris Smith

Colleen said...

I am very much loving this... thank you to all of you for this great discussion. Looking forward to more!

joel said...

Hey Jon,

Nice job at trying to reach reasonable conclusions on the topic of women in ministry and still hold onto scriptural backing. The lack of seriousness Christian religion usually addresses to this topic was one of the major reasons why I began to find theology quite empty. It seems quite silly that people still think they need to find scriptural reference in order to allow women to be senior pastors; but that’s religion and theology for you.

Nonetheless, you are doing well under the circumstances in the way you have to hoop dance for the other theologians. It seems silly and irrational to me that you must do these things but I totally understand the philosophy behind it. Who knows, perhaps after you have your way with Christianity, we will have more additions to the Lev. 19:19 category: all that scripture we finally ignore willing. Who knows perhaps they will make a new translation with all the anti-women scripture taken out and replaced by the phrase ‘earlier translations held blah, blah, blah….’ They could call it the ‘New Inter-Jon-tional Version.’

All kidding aside, you have my empathy and support; though if I remember correctly the support of an atheist might hold a negative content.

What is interesting is this whole process ‘how can we re-interpret scripture to make the kind of sense we now hold and think the Bible should reflect?’ I, like you, found it quite possible (when we are open minded) to find scriptural space for women in the highest leadership (so long as we can divide that ever peculiar and destructive misunderstanding of current and ancient Bible culture with theological sense, or what I would call just pain reasonability, but you have your hoops right?).

It will be good to see the Evangelical Denomination join the rest of the world in this regard.

It will be curious as to when the question of homosexuality will be given proper consideration; and or when it is considered no longer a sin (if that even happens) then the question of whether or not Christianity allows for homosexual pastors will be equally interesting; especially when compared with these proceedings.

Perhaps the United Denomination is not such a laughing stock after all...

Anyway, good job theologian!

Dustin said...


I wanted to say that I greatly appreciate your work on this. It takes guts to write on such a controversial topic. And, to be sure, I think that you are expressing your thoughts with much grace and humility. Hopefully I and the rest of your readers can do the same.

I found myself agreeing with much of what you wrote, Jon. Where I got a bit tripped-up was on your treatment of 1 Timothy 2. I get the issue of the problems particular to Ephesus in the 1st century CE. I’m just not sure that your take on Paul’s appeal to the creation and fall does justice to what is going on there. (That said, I’m personally not too sure what to make of that text either!).

Related to this, I think that what has struck me most about the way that the complementarian/ egalitarian discussion has carried on is its unwillingness to really engage in a theology of male and female in the concreteness of their difference and unity. There seems to be a grand theme of Scripture that connects the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, Christ and the Church, and Yahweh and Israel. It is as if the particularity of male and female is somehow a sign of God’s revelation of himself in the covenant—that is to say, our sexual bodies themselves bear theological significance. Perhaps such a notion runs counter to our modern abhorrence of gender essentialism, and perhaps for good reason. Nevertheless, I think that evangelicals who are concerned about the ethics of women’s ordination or male-only ordination need to wrestle with this theological theme first. I look forward to your future posts on this topic!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Uh oh... Joel compared women in leadership to condoning homosexuality. That's not gonna be helpful. Ha!

As an atheist I feel like a bit of an outsider looking in on this discussion, but it is fascinating to watch all the same.

Tara said...

I was just wondering how we could get this discussion into the eyes and minds of our denominations leaders.

Have you considered submitting this- or even the links to it- to the district newsletters (for example the midwest messenger in this district)?

I'm not sure if it would be allowed but it would be cool to have a link from our district websites too.

Do any of the profs from Ambrose have websites that could link?

Just thoughts. I figure if Chris (above) didn't realize there were more people distraught after assembly then perhaps there are MANY people who think the same thing.

I'll keep thinking and perhaps spread some links around.

jon said...

joel and matt: thanks for your comments. i can definitely see what you are saying. i don't see it as jumping through hoops but as admitting our interpretation of what we have come to believe and treat as revelation always needs analysis, and often reworking, for several reasons not the least of which being the cultural context we find ourselves a part of and questions we find ourselves asking and/or needing to try to answer. but i see what you are saying. i don't think this issue and the homosexuality one fall into the same category as far as the argument for "redemptive movement" on the basis of Scripture goes, but i'm sure you'll understand if i don't want this particular conversation to take that tangent at this time. i'll be happy to discuss it at another time however. i appreciate that you both are looking on and i like hearing your perspective!

dustin (and nathan from earlier): i agree that "my" take on 1 Tim 2 needs further comment, and perhaps adjustment. I'm not sure if I'll do that here or not. probably before i move on i will. this weekend i'm sort of just checking in, as i've got some other things going on.

chris and tara: it is really good to hear from people who were at assembly. my goal, tara, is to take the feedback i get from this blog and then to think through how exactly i make a formal address to the denominational leaders. so, that is the end goal.

all: i'm still thinking about some of the "objections" that have been raised. thanks for sharing them. this conversation certainly isn't over, but its really great to be having it.

Tara said...

I linked to this today-

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

3 stars for 'Be Kind Rewind.' Ha. Yeah, it's a pretty disjointed film isn't it! I found it strangely charming though.

Anonymous said...

This sounded interesting so I perused it. Frankly, I don't understand whatever happened to common sense - this issue is a no brainer and it surprises me that you minister-type people take the restrictions placed by a patriarchal organization seriously! Yes you are AWAY out of date and will not reach women until the ban on their ministry endeavours is lifted. I've watched this issue go nowhere for about 35 years - demand change, folks!