What the Bible really says about men and women in ministry: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (9)

This is no.8 of a 10 point critique of complementarianism in dialogue with Claire Smith and Howard Marshall’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. 

And in outlining these objections, I’m trying to imagine a robust debate with people I know and respect who don’t agree with me, not a war with enemies.

For Christians from both sides can agree on a lot: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross.

That said, this is not a trivial issue. It fundamentally touches upon understandings of leadership, ministry, Bible interpretation, the dignity and value of women, and whether half of the global church is permanently barred from serving the Lord using their gifts of leading, preaching and pastoring simply because of their gender.

8. Artificial and unpersuasive application of the ban

Picking up the conversation from the last post on ‘law’, once you get into the business of implementing law, you end up with artificial and unpersuasive distinctions of what constitutes teaching and how the ban is put into practice. C-H thinking leads to all sorts of inconsistencies as a supposed biblical ‘blueprint’ is applied in practice within church life (and marriage).

The biggest inconsistency is the attempt somehow to limit the universal subordination of women to men based on a ‘creation ordinance’ to a particular type of authoritative teaching in the local church and in marriage. Claire Smith’s reasons for doing so are based on an odd argument. Since only some men teach, it is only to some men, when they are teaching in church, to whom women are subordinate.

But if subordination of women is grounded in creation, then it applies in all contexts.

Other inconsistencies of application are numerous. Some complementarian-hierarchialists end up with detailed lists of what women can and cannot do. Marshall describes the complex dos and don’ts at the end of Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth as resembling Rabbinic Judaism.

– Some churches silence women altogether.

– Some have women who can preach occasionally (to do so regularly would confer too much ‘authority’ on her).

– Some women can teach and preach and plant churches – but as long as she is a missionary in a far-away place.

– Other churches insist on head-coverings for women.

– Some allow women elders as long as the ‘head pastor’ is male.

– Others have women on a leadership team but only male elders.

– Most allow women to teach impressionable boys (and girls) but draw the line at men.

– Anglicans have ordained women priests but many seem to have all sorts of problems with women bishops.

– Some don’t allow women to teach at mixed-gender theological colleges, others do.

– Some encourage women to write books full of teaching that are read by men, others prohibit all teaching by women to groups of men in various contexts.

Complementarian practice is a mess.

I haven’t got into complementarianism and marriage, and I may be wrong, but I suspect that many who are complementarians in theory don’t really put it into practice.

For what does it actually mean to say the husband should practice ‘headship’? For couples who love each other, listen to and respect each other, treat each other as equals, know that there are areas of life where the other will be more informed and ‘authoritative’. They are a team who work together in a truly complementary way. And this sits uneasily to say the least with the hierarchical idea of the husband as some sort of loving boss.

My hunch is most loving Christian marriages just get on with normal healthy give and take relationships. And therefore ‘headship’ is reduced to little more than the theoretical situation of the man being the ‘tie-breaker’ when there is disagreement or something like that. It’s revealing I think that even committed C-H advocates lament that it is not practiced as it should be.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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2 thoughts on “What the Bible really says about men and women in ministry: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (9)

  1. This remark may apply better to an earlier posting on the terminology of “Complementarianism”. As you say in this posting, the actual application within marriage is usually complementarian but also usually without a fixed hierarchy. Each concedes to the other where the other is more qualified. Now if one were to attempt a ‘biblical theology of complementarianism as a basic concept before attaching it to gender issues’, the opening passage of scripture that I would turn to is 1 Cor 12:14ff. This passage describes complementarianism but does so with an implied rejection of fixed hierarchy. The eye would not concede to the ear in the matter of seeing but would in the matter of hearing.
    This does lead me to postulate that what is wrong with the C-H position is not the notion of hierarchy, for in certain circumstances the eye does concede to the ear, but the fixedness of the hierarchy. In fixing it, the essential element of complementarity in which we play to each person’s strengths at the appropriate time is lost.

  2. Very well put, thanks. It is the permanent, unchanging attribution of subordination to one sex under the other that is the problem and which inherently implies inferiority.

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