I Howard Marshall on Women in Ministry

Scot McKnight draws attention to a summary of these remarks by  Howard Marshall at a recent panel discussion on the anguish caused to many women by a complementarian (hierarchical) view of women in ministry. The panel was reflecting on a book How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals.

Much anguish is felt by women whose God-given talents have been denied expression. This is due to:

1. The inability of complementarians to provide any coherent and persuasive reasons for denying women these positions in church—women are asked to accept a scriptural command simply because it is God’s will even if they cannot understand why it is so.

2. The irrationality of the traditional position. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how the patriarchal/complementarian position glorifies God or fulfils his moral and spiritual purposes for his children.

3. The arbitrariness of the way in which the ruling is put into effect, with all the going beyond what Scripture actually says and the casuistry that is employed regarding the limits of what women may and may not do.

4. The lack of any positive remedy in terms of alternative types of behavior and action that can be taken up by women in the church, since no clear complementarian tasks that women should do but men should not do are proposed.

Is this anguish a legitimate stimulus for asking whether we have interpreted Scripture wrongly? Anguish itself is not necessarily a reason for change but an important symptom that something deeper may be needing attention for good theological and practical reasons.

Our problem is how to understand Scripture in the context of this anguish as people who place ourselves under its authority, and who are perplexed if being scriptural makes us not only unhappy but also irrational in terms of the godly use of our minds.

One partial way ahead is to ask positively what the teaching has to say to us if we extend its application. The teaching addressed to women can and should also be applied to men and vice versa. Men should also act modestly and women should not quarrel when they pray. Is there not a need for submissiveness in learning in all of us? Are male teachers allowed to domineer or act in authoritarian ways? Do husbands and fathers need to devote more attention to their families instead of spending undue time at church?

The biblical teaching was given in the context of a society that was patriarchal. Does not a literal application of the subjection passages produce effects which are rather different from what was originally intended, as when the wearing of a hat is a sign of being fashionable rather than honoring to a husband? What message does the silencing of women teachers and leaders convey?

But a warning may also be needed. All of us, men and women, need to beware lest we be motivated by a worldly desire for success and adulation rather than by a desire to be good servants of a Lord who will give us his ‘well done’. What we are to seek for is a way of living in the church and in marriage that glorifies the Lord and commends the gospel and helps to realize the kingdom of God in an anticipatory manner here in this world and specifically in the church.

3 thoughts on “I Howard Marshall on Women in Ministry

  1. This is very combative and intolerant language from the original author on a subject upon which we should be able to agree to differ. As a complimentarian, I will very happily discuss with others from Scripture. I have a number of friends who disagree with me on this issue, but we are all prepared to say “from reading Scripture I believe that….” I would much prefer that sort of discussion to “the inability to provide any coherent reasons…..” and the “irrationality of the traditional position.” I trust I would be more gracious to my brothers and sisters in making the case.

    Even on a more major issue, such as the Deity of Christ or his death and resurrection, I would try to be less bombastic in tone.

    I know that complimentarians too have used inappropriate language in making the case, but two wrongs don’t make a right. I would just plead for an irenic approach on both sides for the sake of the body of Christ.

  2. Methinks thou protesteth too much Richard.
    This is a report of what Howard Marshall said so we don’t have the original wording or context, or the tone of the conversation.It was at an academic panel discussion with an exchange of views so I don’t read his words as intolerant actually – he’s pointing out reasons why women find it hard to deal with the complementarian view. The remainder of his reported remarks are irenic and thoughtful. He is one of the most respected evangelical NT scholars around for the last few decades in the UK.

  3. “One partial way ahead is to ask positively what the teaching has to say to us if we extend its application. The teaching addressed to women can and should also be applied to men and vice versa. ”

    This a thought I often see left unspoken. Perhaps if we acknowledge that we already do this in other areas it would not seem as painful or offensive in this one.

    After all, most Biblical instructions about sexual conduct is addressed to men but as society has allowed women more freedom in this realm it is acceptable and right apply the same principles to a woman’s sexual behavior. An idea that would have been unfathomable to a strictly patriarchal world.

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