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.