A personal sketch of the 1912 Ulster Covenant

Tomorrow the 28th of September 2012 marks the centenary of The Ulster Covenant. As a way of reflecting on events 100 years ago, allow me to tell a story of two sides of my family tree. First the text itself:

‘Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant … God save the King.’

The Unionist Side

I recently had a browse of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland website and looked up signatories of the Covenant. Very quickly I found the signatures of my grandfather George (18), my great-grandfather Rev Samuel Mitchel, Presbyterian minister in Enniskillen  (56), his wife Marie who signed the separate women’s Declaration in Enniskillen (address given, ‘The Manse’), and my great-great grandfather, Rev David Mitchel (1825-1914), retired Presbyterian minister attached to Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Bangor.

The three men had probably met up in Belfast together on a sort of pilgrimage. I know that my grand-father cycled to Belfast from Newry to be there. They must have listened to Edward Carson at City Hall warning of the imminent dangers of Home Rule before signing the Covenant within the building itself.

It was a Saturday, but felt like a Sunday; a holy sacred and solemn day, filled with significance. Pretty well everyone went to church, just as they would the next morning. But what was different about this act of worship was the way it transcended any theological distinctives and united the signatories within a broad politicised Protestantism. The document they signed that day promised to resist Home Rule ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. The formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force gave shape to this threat.

It may have been a century ago but that day, and other events of that decade, are still within touching distance. I remember my grand-father quite well – a real gentleman. I can imagine him as a teenager, there with his father and grand-father, both Presbyterian ministers; three generations together, men of the church, men of Ulster, men of Empire – men of their time.

The Irish Nationalist / Republican side

The Rev David Mitchel I just mentioned was a first cousin of John Mitchel ‘The Patriot’ (1815-1875); orator, journalist, controversialist, fervently anti-English Irish nationalist, himself the son of another Presbyterian minister in Newry, Young Irelander, bitter opponent of O’Connell’s pacifism, transported to Van Diemen’s Land for inciting revolution, author of Jail Journal (a hugely influential book within 19th and early 20th century Irish nationalism), and, at the very end of his life, MP (although declared ineligible since he was a ‘convicted felon’).

Mitchel can fairly be called the father of violent Republicanism. He was one of Padraig Pearse’s four ‘ghosts’ – the dead but inspirational forefathers of 1916. Mitchel was the ghost legitimating the use of physical force to liberate Ireland.

So, two very different sides of the one family who knew one another. Conversation over tea at family gatherings with Rev David and rebel John must have been interesting. But both sides in their own ways embedded beliefs that gave shape to the rest of 20th century Irish history (as well as having a nice line in beards).

A belief that violence, or the threat of violence, is in certain circumstances justified and trumps ‘illegitimate Government’.  For Unionists, the Ulster Covenant represented a covenant with each other (not with God) to resist British failure to maintain their side of a contract of honour to protect the Union.  Such resistance was heroic, necessary and morally right. The violent rebellion of 1916 glorified martyrology, death and violence in the cause of the nation – the rebels taking onto themselves the right to bear arms even though they were a tiny minority at the time.

Both sides are shaped by nationalist narratives that claimed that God was on their side. See the text of the Covenant for how it ‘sacralised’ the political cause of opposing Home Rule. And see 1916 and Pearse’s religious rhetoric for how Christian imagery would serve the cause of his ‘blood sacrifice’. My Presbyterian grandfathers would not have put in those terms of course. They fitted within the overwhelming Protestant consensus that they had no other choice but to resist such a manifest threat to their political, religious and economic existence and that God must obviously be on their side.

Both sides saw themselves as fighting for ‘liberty’: one from the alien and disloyal threat of Rome Rule, the other from the crushing power of English occupation.

Both sides were battling to protect, maintain and express their own political, cultural and religious identities. For Protestants like my grandfather and his forbears, it was a time of ‘threatened calamity’ that called for radical unity – wherever it may lead.

Both Irish nationalist and Ulster Unionist narratives united people into opposing ‘identity blocs’. Unionists like my grandfathers were overwhelmingly at this time ‘Irish’. By the end of the 1970s only about 3% of Protestants would describe themselves this way. Previously significant differences of identity (between Presbyterian dissenters and the Anglican establishment for example) would be subsumed within an all-embracing Unionist political identity.

Both sides developed negative ‘identities of opposition’. The zero-sum politics of siege and fear of ‘the Other’ would dominate the rest of the century. Both were defined by what they were not: Unionists were not Catholic and (increasingly) were not Irish. Whatever Irish nationalists were, they were not British and did not exactly share Unionist’s view of the Empire as a benign force for good. Both sides saw themselves as more rational, advanced, and obviously morally, culturally religiously superior to the Other.

Both sides used the power of the state to implement and reinforce and propagate its own identity – which included wildly differing interpretations of Irish history. One led to De Valera’s Catholic Ireland, the other to James Craig’s ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’. Both sides excluded and marginalised the Other as they gained the freedom to assert their own identity within a political space –whether Northern Ireland or the Irish Republic.

Of course these are all generalisations but I want to contend they are broadly accurate. This deep entwining of religion with narratives of power, self-interest, fear, exclusion and violence in Ireland has been, in my opinion a disaster and a curse. It is a form of idolatry that has deeply damaged the authentic witness of the church as followers of a crucified Messiah who rejected violence.

Its legacy is one where churches still find it incredibly difficult to even begin to imagine how to distance themselves (not remove themselves) spiritually and theologically from particular political and cultural identities. And this has deeply damaged their witness and mission to an alternative kingdom of the one true Lord.

As you can tell from my family tree, ‘historically’ I’m a Presbyterian. But I’m also one by practice – if a Christian first. So I’ll explore in a couple of more posts next week how this fusion of religion and national identity around ‘Ulster’s 1912 pact with God’ played out within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland during the 20th century.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What the Bible really says about men and women (3)

Howard Marshall: Exegesis of 1 TIMOTHY 2:8-15

As a contrast to Claire Smith’s ‘plain reading’ of the text, below is what Prof Howard Marshall of Aberdeen University and well known and highly regarded evangelical scholar makes of the same passage. This is taken from ‘Women in Ministry’ in Husbands and Larsen, Women, Ministry and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms. IVP Academic, 2007, 53-78. Again this is a summary without editorial comment.

1. Context of contentious prayer by (some) men; attitude of (some) women acting in a showy way, perhaps sexually enticing.  Rather than this behaviour, proper adornment is good deeds. The link here is made to Bruce Winter’s study of ‘New Roman Women’ which provides important background support to what is happening in Ephesus.

2. The response is for women to learn in a quiet and submissive manner. Three things could be happening here:

i. Some kind of vocal reaction to the teaching which was unacceptable to in mixed company at that time. See 1 Timothy 1:10-14; 3:9-11; 2 Tim 14-16 for other examples of curbs being put on opinions that were causing dissensions.

ii.  acceptance of these dubious teachings by the women (2 Tim 3:6-7), a point probably seen in 2 Tim 2:15.

iii. in Corinth, women were told to ask their husbands at home. Evidence suggests women by and large much less educated than men; a higher level of illiteracy leading to a unhelpful contribution to the discussion. So they are encouraged to learn, but in an appropriate spirit.

3. What does it then mean that a woman is not allowed to teach or exercise authority over a man? Rather than see this as some sort of law against women’s participation in “official, authoritiative” teaching, Marshall sees the issue here as unacceptable behaviour in that social context.

– Despite ‘complementarians’ saying authentein simply means ‘exercising authority over’, Marshall argues this unique NT word has strong suggestions of an improper use of authority, a particular kind of teaching that is unacceptable in mixed company.

– the context is of a patriarchal society where women were subordinate to husbands. Improper behaviour of women within the church would have been an obstacle to evangelism, being interpreted as Christians “rejecting both Jewish and Hellenistic ideals regarding married life and the place of women.”

– false teaching is the issue, accompanied by domineering and argumentative women. This is a “wrong kind of authority that is being condemned rather than a proper use of authority.” (59)

4. Eve and Adam. The creation story is brought in as an appropriate illustration perfectly fitting the context of the problem in Ephesus. It is possible the women were basing their behaviour on the Fall story. The priority of Adam reminds the women that they are not superior. Eve was deceived, and this reminds them that they should be beware of similarly being deceived and thinking of themselves as superior to men.

5. The ‘saved through childbirth’ verse refers to the physical act of childbirth and probably the nurture and bringing up of children. ‘Saved’ refers to the full attainment of salvation. The emphasis here is to correct local behaviour and attitudes. The ‘new women’ were pursuing authority and teaching, perhaps at the same time rejecting childbearing. This fits with the rejection of marriage by some teachers in the congregation, which may have included sexual abstinence within marriage (1 Tim 4:1-3). Propriety serves as the overarching theme here. They are to act in a way fitting with their culture and as women. They are to show Christian characteristics of faith, love, holiness and self-control.

“Putting all this together, we must envisage a complicated background situation involving various factors that combined to necessitate a ban on women behaving in unseemly ways (including ostentatious dress and inappropriate forms of teaching activity). The overriding factor seems to be the social situation in with the Jewish and Hellenistic understanding of the place of women in society and marriage was being threatened by the activities of some of the women who were acting in a disruptive manner in the congregational meeting and teaching in a domineering manner. This was probably connected with a rejection of marriage and childbearing by ‘emancipated’ women. This went against the expectations of the time and was bring the gospel into discredit, just as Titus 2:5 clearly indicates in a related piece of teaching. It was this situation that motivated the prohibition here. And it was necessary to refute the wrong ideas that appear to have been drawn from Genesis by offering a different understanding of the creation and Fall narrative.” (60-1)

Howard Marshall then has a substantial section discussing the question of whether this local prohibition should be understood as rule for all circumstances and all time.

Are restrictions intended for 1st century contexts intended to last for good? No.

Limited evidence for women leaders of groups that included men is unsurprising. And the evidence decisively points the other way with the apostle Junia (Roms 16:7)

The real message here is for humble godly service as against positions of power and authority.

The 1st century has changed dramatically from Paul’s day regarding the status, education and opportunities afforded women. There is no longer (in our culture) an issue of propriety that a woman should not lead.

The underlying concern for Paul is the advance and good name of the gospel. How ironic then that the gospel is hindered by unnecessary and artificial prohibition on women’s ministry within the church. From outside the church, such prohibition is a now a barrier to the gospel.

The creation account is used negatively to counter misunderstanding. It is not used positively to assert hierarchy. There is no command of dominance of men over women or husband over wife – Paul would have just as vigorously opposed such dominance. A significant thrust of the NT is towards equality (Gal 3:28, 1 Peter 3:7, Eph. 5:21).

The use of the creation narrative is focused on Eve as a warning of deception, a call to humility – she was deceived before her husband. It is a temporary issue being addressed. There is positive mention of women teaching in 2 Timothy and Titus suggesting that the issue was later resolved.

He concludes this section remarking that the issues are primarily exegetical. It is not a matter of ignoring or minimising the text or that it ‘does not apply’ (as Claire Smith claims), it is a question of how the text is understood. He lists 10 applications and I’m summarising tightly:

  1. All people in church to behave with decorum and to avoid sinful behaviour that prevents prayer from being effective.
  2. The avoidance of all secular displays of wealth, of position, of immodest sexuality
  3. The need for sound doctrinal teaching, the need for people to teach it and for people to live by it
  4. The need for godliness and good deeds and Christian character
  5. An ethic of humility and courtesy
  6. It tells women not to domineer and men not to engage in anger and disputation
  7. It warns of the danger of not being deceived
  8. It warns against denigrating marriage, rearing children, family life in favour of other priorities. This includes fathers evading their parental responsibilities
  9. It begins and ends with an emphasis on cultivating Christian character
  10. The overarching purpose is not to put obstacles in the way of the gospel

 Comments, as ever, welcome.

Did Jesus have a wife?

From Tyndale House in Cambridge,

The Web is by now awash with stories of an ancient text in which Jesus says ‘my wife’. The story which broke yesterday in the New York Times and some other sources, is being carried today by outlets too numerous to list. Some of the reporting is responsible, but not all. Consider this extract from The Daily Mail:“If genuine, the document casts doubt on a centuries old official representation of Magdalene as a repentant whore and overturns the Christian ideal of sexual abstinence.”

We are of course in a context where there is so much ignorance of basic facts about Christianity that even when the media properly relay facts they get completely distorted and misunderstood in popular perception. This can be seen in the way derivative media put spin on the story and in the online comments below the news items.

Here we try to establish a few facts.

The scholarly article upon which almost all knowledge of the fragment is based is here.

What do we know from this? 

What’s in a name?

First, let’s start with the name. The scholar involved, Professor Karen King of Harvard, has decided to call this The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. However, it might more appropriately be named The Fragment about Jesus’s Relations, since there’s no evidence that it was called a gospel and the text mentions at least two family members. Of course, such a name would not generate the same publicity. Despite this unfortunate choice of name, Professor King is to be commended for publishing a good photograph and detailed scholarly analysis of the fragment simultaneously with the press release. Usually in the case of controversial text the media hype comes long before the availability of the text.

Genuine or forgery?

Professor King has provided pictures of the papyrus, but it is not publicly known who owns it, or where it came from. If genuine, it almost certainly came from Egypt because that is where papyri like this are found.

Because it was not found in situ it is obviously possible to doubt its genuineness. Scholars at Tyndale House think that, on the basis of the limited evidence currently available, it is possible it is genuine, though there are good reasons for scepticism – see the comments of Dr Christian Askeland, an expert in Coptic manuscripts here.

What about date?It is written in Coptic, the language of Egypt which descended from the even earlier language of the Hieroglyphs. Coptic is Egyptian written in the Greek alphabet with a few extra letters. Because Coptic was only emerging as a written language in the third century and papyrus went out of use in the seventh century the 8 cm x 4 cm fragment has to be dated some time from the third to the seventh century and the scholars involved with this fragment have stated that it is fourth century on the basis of the handwriting.

Since we have virtually no firmly dated Coptic handwriting, this date is just an educated guess.

Then we turn to the date of the contents. Here Professor King puts the text in the late second century, but all that we really know is that the text is at least as old as the manuscript.

What does it say?

This is King’s translation of the text, with square brackets used where the text does not survive:


1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it[
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8] an image [


1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [
5 ] (illegible ink traces)

We believe this to be a largely reliable translation. But is it evidence that Jesus had a wife? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Not even Karen King is claiming that it is, though it’s inevitable that some of the news outlets will present it otherwise.What we have here is a typical sort of text which arose after Christianity had become very popular and when derivatives of Christianity began to emerge. The language of the text is very similar to the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 101 and 114, and the Gospel of Thomas saying 101 shows influence of Luke 14:26, as the Gospel of Thomas does elsewhere. This way of speaking belongs to the mid-second century or later, in other words generations later than the books of the New Testament.

We asked Dr Simon Gathercole, an expert on apocryphal gospels and Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the University of Cambridge, for his comments. He concluded:

“Harvard Professor Karen King, who is the person who has been entrusted with the text, has rightly warned us that this does not say anything about the historical Jesus. She is correct that “its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century, argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus”. But she is also right that this is a fascinating discovery which offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate. If it is genuine.

You can read his fuller analysis here.

Please feel free to forward this email.Best wishes,

Peter Williams,
Warden, Tyndale House, Cambridge.

what the Bible really says about men and women (2)

A sketch of what Claire Smith says, without editorial comment: I’ve tried to be accurate and concise.

I’ll leave it up to you dear readers to do the commenting. I’ll sketch Howard Marshall as an example of an alternative take on this passage and then have some editorial to add to sort out this issue once and for all and forever 😉

General Points

– Paul writing to Timothy with the house churches of Ephesus in mind, but of universal relevance to the wider church ‘in every place’. The context is resisting false teaching

– Verses 11-12 are ‘relatively uncomplicated’ and unambiguous and should be read plainly. The following interpretation consists of this plain reading.

– men lifting holy hands in prayer is not so much a rule about lifting hands but a universally valid principle that male aggression and self-promotion are not to hinder prayer

– women are addressed: they are not to be vain or showy, but in dress and behaviour to show modesty and self-restraint and be proactive in doing good.

–  women are to be part of the learning process (‘let a woman learn’). There are to learn quietly in all submissiveness. They are NOT ‘to challenge or dispute what is taught.’

– They are also not to teach or ‘exercise authority over a man’.

– Teaching in the church gathering is not their responsibility. They are commended elsewhere to teach in other circumstances.

And she unpacks this with a focus on a couple of key concepts:

1. Submissiveness

Submissiveness is ‘a voluntary and willing acceptance of the leadership and responsibility of another.’

The key idea here is ‘learn’ is paired opposite to ‘teach’ and all submissiveness’ is paired opposite to ‘exercise authority over’.

Since not all men teach, Paul is not saying all women should submit to all men all the time, but ‘women should be submissive in church, when teaching is happening , to what is taught and those men who are teaching it.’

Such quiet and submissive learning is appropriate for women who are not to be authoritative teachers.

“They are to learn with quiet, willing and voluntary submissiveness, accepting what is taught and the authority of those teaching it …. conduct fitting for women who profess godliness.” (35)

2. Adam and Eve

There are two reasons why Paul refers to Adam and Eve.

  1. Adam being formed first indicates special responsibilities with being the firstborn. This is the way things are meant to be.
  2. Adam and Eve sinned in different ways. She was deceived, he disobeyed. He ‘abdicated his responsibility of leadership to his wife’. This establishes a pattern of male leadership and female submission. Paul roots in commands in Timothy to these timeless and ‘transcultural’ principles.

So Christian women today are not to ‘usurp male leadership’.

This is the way it is according to God’s ‘good design’. It is NOT that women are less able or gifted or more likely to be deceived – it is a ‘creation order’.

“This is not because women are less intelligent, less gifted, less useful, more gullible or somehow inferior. They are not – and these are not the reasons given for the commands. Paul here says nothing about women’s capabilities, and it is clear elsewhere that he recognizes the valuable and God-given gifting and contribution of women in the progress of the gospel and the life of the church.

Nevertheless, because of God’s creation purposes for men and women, and because of the events of the Fall, the participation and contribution of women in the Christian assembly is to be different from those of men …

The battle for women in our day is to accept God’s wisdom in this and be content in it, when our entire culture has taught us not to be. The battle for men, as in Genesis 3, is to step up to the sort of leadership Paul has in mind, when our entire culture insists that women are the real ‘go-to’ men, and that men and boys have little to contribute beyond being the butt of jokes.” (37)

3. Saved through childbirth

Claire Smith gives some options for interpreting verse 15.

The one she prefers is this: Childbirth is not a means of salvation, but is about “Christian women being spiritually preserved or saved from the temptations and fate of Eve and the dangers of false teaching, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with self-control. And childbearing is part of that.” It’s a way of referring to the responsibilities that are the domain of women. In other words, “women are to be content with the roles and responsibilities that God has ordained for them.”

And whatever you decide about this verse does not alter the substance of the passage that women should not teach or exercise authority over men.

4. Reasons why the plain reading is not accepted. Smith calls these ‘It is God’s word but …’ objections.

She mentions those who reject 1 Timothy as God’s word or that Paul wrote it and was mistaken.

She also talks about those who reject it because it does not seem fair or it conflicts with a woman’s perceived call to ministry. To this she says that feelings are not to decide the matter,

“whatever we make of subjective ‘calls’, the objective written word of God must always be our guide no matter  how strongly we feel in our hearts. If there is a conflict, even though we may not like it or even understand it, we must submit to the word of our heavenly Father … A personal conviction, however strong and however well intentioned, should never override the plain sense of Scripture.’

She also talks about “some who call themselves evangelicals” who say the text “does not apply today.”

– Galatians 3:28 does not cancel out 1 Timothy 2. The former is talking about unity in salvation, not roles in ministry

– She rejects the local problem with women in Ephesus argument. No, Paul lays down creation order principles from Genesis. This is more than correcting a local aberration. There are permanent principles here to be applied today.

– She talks of a “very dubious (and widely discredited) translation of the Greek word to exercise authority over (authenteō). (She does not give the details) that underpins the local problem view.

– She sees preaching and teaching here as NOT being under other people’s authority. This is true of prophecy in 1 Corinthians which is “under the authority of other people.”

– She rejects the idea that Paul wrote these commands to accommodate prevailing culture (patriarchy?) and that this is transcended now in light of Galatians 3:28. Back to creation order here to reject this view.

– She rejects the idea that since women did teach (Priscilla & Aquilla teaching Apollos etc) – but no examples are of women “teaching men in the authoritative instruction” of the church assembly.

– She rejects the idea that women prophesying means that women exercised authority in that context. Prophecy and teaching are distinct.

– She rejects the idea that the issue is to do with married women – it is men and women more generally that is in view since Adam and Eve were representative.

5.  What about other contexts outside church?

Scripture shows women can teach “young and old, male and female” outside the restrictions of 1 Timothy 2. These do not “involve the ongoing, authoritative doctrinal instruction of the church gathering, through the exposition and proclamation of Scripture and the apostolic message.” They are private situations, family situations, instances of prophecy, prayer or singing, or the focused instruction of women.

Smith sees a place for women to contribute to academic discussion. The distinction here is her views are weighed and evaluated in the world of scholarship and not in the familial local gathering. So women can write books as Claire Smith has done, which are read by men and contain teaching, but the reader can weigh and evaluate her words and agree or disagree in a private way. This is different from teaching in the local church gathering.

6. To Conclude

The passage is “not that complicated, although admittedly it is rather confronting and countercultural.” (52)

On dealing with disagreement

A discussion in the comments from the last post got into how to deal with those of different opinions on men and women in leadership.

Here’s a clip on exactly this from the fantastic Cape Town Commitment, a marvellous document from Lausanne III in Cape Town 2010 calling for evangelical unity in global mission. I can only say ‘Amen’.

3. Men and women in partnership

Scripture affirms that God created men and women in his image and gave them dominion over the earth together. Sin entered human life and history through man and woman acting together in rebellion against God. Through the cross of Christ, God brought salvation, acceptance and unity to men and women equally. At Pentecost God poured out his Spirit of prophecy on all flesh, sons and daughters alike. Women and men are thus equal in creation, in sin, in salvation, and in the Spirit.[92]

All of us, women and men, married and single, are responsible to employ God’s gifts for the benefit of others, as stewards of God’s grace, and for the praise and glory of Christ. All of us, therefore, are also responsible to enable all God’s people to exercise all the gifts that God has given for all the areas of service to which God calls the Church.[93] We should not quench the Spirit by despising the ministry of any.[94] Further, we are determined to see ministry within the body of Christ as a gifting and responsibility in which we are called to serve, and not as a status and right that we demand.

A)    We uphold Lausanne’s historic position: ‘We affirm that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed to all God’s people, women and men, and that their partnership in evangelization must be welcomed for the common good.’[95] We acknowledge the enormous and sacrificial contribution that women have made to world mission, ministering to both men and women, from biblical times to the present.

B)    We recognize that there are different views sincerely held by those who seek to be faithful and obedient to Scripture. Some interpret apostolic teaching to imply that women should not teach or preach, or that they may do so but not in sole authority over men. Others interpret the spiritual equality of women, the exercise of the edifying gift of prophecy by women in the New Testament church, and their hosting of churches in their homes, as implying that the spiritual gifts of leading and teaching may be received and exercised in ministry by both women and men.[96] We call upon those on different sides of the argument to:

  1. Accept one another without condemnation in relation to matters of dispute, for while we may disagree, we have no grounds for division, destructive speaking, or ungodly hostility towards one another;[97]
  2. Study Scripture carefully together, with due regard for the context and culture of the original authors and contemporary readers;
  3. Recognize that where there is genuine pain we must show compassion; where there is injustice and lack of integrity we must stand against them; and where there is resistance to the manifest work of the Holy Spirit in any sister or brother we must repent;
  4. Commit ourselves to a pattern of ministry, male and female, that reflects the servanthood of Jesus Christ, not worldly striving for power and status.

C)    We encourage churches to acknowledge godly women who teach and model what is good, as Paul commanded,[98] and to open wider doors of opportunity for women in education, service, and leadership, particularly in contexts where the gospel challenges unjust cultural traditions. We long that women should not be hindered from exercising God’s gifts or following God’s call on their lives.

What the Bible really says about men and women (1)

Claire Smith, God’s Good Design: what the Bible really says about Men and Women

This book is on my desk along with a bunch of others related to women in leadership. It is just published by Matthias Media and is strongly linked the world of Sydney evangelicalism, esp Moore College etc. The author is a PhD graduate.

Claire Smith covers the usual territory of texts. Rather than go through them all, I’ll do a couple of posts on her interpretation of one of them – 1 Timothy 2:11-15 – and compare and contrast it with Howard Marshall’s interpretation in Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (eds), Women, Ministry and the Gospel: exploring new paradigms.

The cover has a range of endorsements, the best known people being Don Carson and Peter Jensen. I totally agree with Don Carson on the difficulty of saying anything new or fresh on an issue that has been ‘thrashed out in countless ways’ but am then at a total loss how he sees this book as being ‘a breath of fresh air’. Yes, Claire Smith writes with a clear style and I’m sure she is a godly committed disciple of Jesus, but she doesn’t say anything new at all.

Let me say upfront that I not only disagree with this book but I dislike it as well.  Below are 4 reasons why. I believe in the importance of civil debate so, just to be clear, I’m not attacking Claire Smith’s integrity or character or sincerity, I’m questioning assertions and assumptions she makes in a published work that is out there to be read and discussed.


The first thing I dislike is the title. After all these years of debate by scholars on both the ‘complementarian’ / ‘creation order’ hierarchy / male leadership side and the ‘egalitarian’ / mutualist / men & women in leadership side, it takes some chutzpah to publish a book with that that little word ‘really’ in the title.

All I can say is ‘Really?’ Is this is the definitive statement that will settle the issues once and for all? Forget about scholars like F F Bruce, Howard Marshall, Gordon Fee, Linda Belleville, Sarah Sumner, Kevin Giles, Tom Wright, John Stott (supporting women’s ordination), John Stackhouse, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight and so on and so on – this book ‘really’ has the right answers.

A second thing I don’t like are some of the endorsements. Jonathan Fletcher, a vicar in London, says this

“There is a strong correlation between a healthy, growing church and the recognition of distinctive ministries for men and women. Where women usurp men’s proper authority and are not themselves given their own unique and vital ministry, churches frequently decline.’

Wow. I’d love to know where the evidence is for that rather wild assertion. Notice whose fault it is – rebellious women who haven’t been ‘given’ proper roles by men. And I’d also be interested to know what is this ‘unique and vital ministry’ only women can do? For the whole problem with ‘complementarianism’ is that it is not complementary. There is no ‘unique’ ministry only women are called to and men are not. It is men who have the ‘unique role’ of preaching and ‘exercising authority’.

A third dislike is special pleading that her view is obviously the ‘plain reading’ of the text. In an endorsement Kathleen Nielson says Claire Smith ‘aims not to advance an argument but to listen well to God’s word about men and women and their relationships with each other.’ The author herself says the same thing.

“.. this book is not focused on arguing one side or the others of an issue – like women’s ordination or women’s ministry or the best model for modern marriages … the main focus is the Bible passages that should determine these issues.”

To state that this book is not arguing one side of an issue should be the cause of a good belly-laugh but I didn’t feel like laughing. Later she acknowledges that all of us come to the text not as neutral readers, we all ‘have cultural blind spots and sensitivities that influence our reading.’ But despite this, Smith seems to assume that since she comes to the text ‘simply’ wanting to let the passages ‘speak for themselves’ then her exegesis will ‘really’ be what the Bible says.

I can only label this self-deception, but she should know better than to make claims like this. She is a scholar who knows the material well. At least robust books like Blomberg and Beck Two Views of Women in Ministry are transparent in debating the issues in a respectful dialogue without one side trying to claim the moral high ground that the Bible is on their side before even getting to the text.

Smith’s obvious implication is that other readers who come to different conclusions must not be letting the Bible speak clearly – presumably due to feminist bias (she speaks of this in the opening chapter). There is more than a whiff of arrogance here – does she really think that other evangelical Christians are not coming to the text with equal sincerity and seriousness as she is?

This leads to the fourth dislike. She talks about the background noise of feminism that makes it hard to hear what God’s word is saying about men and women. And then she adds,

“To complicate things even further, sometimes this noise comes from Christian brothers and sisters who at other times have been beloved and reliable teachers and shepherds in their sermons and books. But now they tell us that these words of Scripture cannot be taken literally, or that they no longer apply today, or that the evangelistic turn-off of these texts is baggage the church cannot afford to carry and that being missional means moving with the times and fitting in with our culture.”

Those who do not agree with Smith have become ‘unreliable teachers and shepherds’. She needs to give specific examples rather than unsubstantiated generalisations. This is why I want to compare and contrast her interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 with Howard Marshall. He (to take one specific example) is not saying anything like what she accuses her opponents of saying. This is simply grievous stereotyping of fellow Christians – both in terms of content and motive.

So, not a good first impression in the preface and opening chapter.

(Civil) comments, as ever, welcome.

Being Consumed (7) consumerist eschatology

A final post on William Cavanaugh’s excellent and thought provoking meditation on Being Consumed: economics and Christian desire.

Here he points to the form of consumerist eschatology. Abundance for all is always just around the corner. Consumerism itself, via the free market, can even deliver justice for the hungry.

But consumerism wishes for everything and hopes for nothing. This life, and things in it, are what provide meaning and purpose.

Scarcity in a rich consumer culture is associated with the pleasurable experience of desiring more, something new. Real scarcity is hunger and deprivation. The ‘genius’ of consumerism is to detach consumers from the reality of such scarcity both literally and emotionally.

In the contemporary consumer-driven economy, consumption is often urged as the solution to the suffering of others. Buy more to get the economy moving, because more consumption means more jobs; via the miracle of hte market, my consumption feeds you. One story the market tells, then, is that of scarcity miraculously turned into abundance by consumption itself, a contemporary loaves-and-fishes saga.

In reality, however, consumerism is the death of Christian eschatology. There can be no rupture with the status quo, no in breaking of the kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty.

This all reminds me of the comfortable consumerism that promises an ethical bonus to the consumer. See Transfarmer for more!

Being Consumed (6) “I love my IPad”

Continuing discussion of William Cavanaugh’s excellent little book Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire.

Have you bought something a bit special recently? Technology? Clothing?

What emotions went with the whole buying process? Before, during and after?

Was there a process of restlessness, discontent, then a buzz thinking about the new thing to meet the feeling of discontent?

‘Anticipation’ coming from doing research into different buying options and experiences?

Excitement? Satisfaction and contentment in the purchase?

Ongoing delight in possession of the new thing? Especially if it has a high pleasure-index of use like an IPad!?

To quote my friend Stephanie K , “I love my Ipad”

Any feeling of anticlimax now you possess it? A ‘moving on’ to think about the next thing?

It is this inner world of consumerism that Cavanaugh explores next.

How we relate to the physical world is a spiritual issue. Consumerism, marketing, advertising – has a particular moral and spiritual message attached to it.

“Corporate branding is really about worldwide beliefs management’.

Cavanaugh talks about ‘transcendence’ and ‘community’. I’m just going to focus on transcendence.

Consumerism fosters a disconnection, a dis-satisfaction and detachment from the physical world – from production, producers and even the products themselves.

It encourages discontent with what there is and a restless desire to have something else. It relentlessly delights in the thing itself yet the thing in itself is never the ‘end’ – it is only a temporary experience to have and enjoy before it is superceded by something better.

Consumerism attempts to transcend the mere physicality of things by connecting them to experiences and feelings of freedom, love, community, relationship, joy, fun, excitement etc. And each new thing promises a renewed experience, a fresh start, a new ‘buzz’ of anticipation and of buying.

Cavanaugh reflects briefly on a Christian spirituality of things: It also affirms the goodness of the material world. But since God is their creator, created things are not ultimate. They point outside themselves to their good creator.

So Augustine, things are meant to be used, but only God is to be enjoyed.

So Christians can agree with ‘consumer theology’ that there is an inbuilt restlessness and dissatisfaction to life. But where consumerism relentlessly creates desire that can only be met by more things, Christianity says desire can only be met in God. We wear out, things wear out, desire is only met in the creator of all things.

[I’d like more here – room to talk about themes of joy, or peace, of being content with much or little. I’d also like some links here to the antithesis of suffering within Christian discipleship and consumerism’s utter opposition to self-sacrifice and self-restraint]

All this makes me wonder, are more deeply spiritual Christians those who are content? Content to live simply? Content in the sense of being ‘free’ from the restlessness and dissatisfaction consumer culture continually attempts to cultivate? What does it actually mean to have our deepest desire met in God rather than in things?