Paul and Gender (1) : a call for a serious discussion within Irish evangelicalism

Here’s notice of an important, carefully researched and very well written book.

It is by Cynthia Long Westfall, entitled Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.

Professor Craig Blomberg, who teaches with us in IBI on our MA Programme on a regular basis and is not a card-carrying egalitarian, says this about it,

“After the deluge of literature on gender roles in 9780801097942the Bible, can anyone add anything distinctive and persuasive to the discussion? Cynthia Long Westfall has demonstrated that the answer is a resounding yes. This is one of the most important books on the topic to appear in quite some time, and all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration. The approach does not replicate standard contemporary complementarian or egalitarian perspectives but charts a fresh course in light of first-century cultural history and informed linguistic and discourse analysis. A must-read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.”

Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

Westfall explores Paul and Gender through multiple angles:

1. Culture
2. Stereotypes
3. Creation
4. The Fall
5. Eschatology
6. The Body
7. Calling
8. Authority
9. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Conclusion

I’ve written a lot on ‘Women in Leadership’ on this blog over the years – this link takes you to many of those posts. This is probably the best book I’ve read.

Some seriouslys coming up: it takes the biblical text seriously, it takes Paul’s context and culture seriously, and it takes the factors that shape biblical interpretation seriously.  Note Craig’s two seriouslys:

all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration

it is a must read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.

My context is Ireland:  I would love to see Irish evangelicals take Craig’s two points seriously. I’m sketching why below.

  1. Evangelicals, if they are to live up to their name, need to be engaging with Westfall’s arguments

John Stott called evangelicals ‘Bible people and gospel people’. To live up to that description is to always be open to reformation and hearing the Bible speak afresh.

Please note what I am not saying. I’m not saying she must be agreed with. Nor am I saying that anyone who holds to male only leadership / preaching obviously lacks a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture or is obviously wrong. I am not saying that those who are not persuaded by Westfall are ‘un-evangelical’, lack a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture, or are mistaken.

I am simply appealing for a serious discussion and review of established interpretations and practice. For any pastor / church leader / denomination / network of churches to ignore the increasingly powerful and compelling challenges to old paradigms and to keep doing things this way because that’s ‘obviously the biblical way’ – is to fail to be evangelical enough.

To be consistently evangelical is to engage fairly and constructively with Westfall’s arguments and to face searching criticisms of traditional interpretations of Paul as being inadequate and inconsistent. Such has been the weight of significant evangelical scholarship on this issue over the last few decades, that those who hold to tradition and custom without rigorous self-critical engagement on how Paul is being interpreted are failing to be open to semper reformanda.

Evangelicals should, in theory, be the last people who resort to custom and tradition before considering serious biblical exegesis that challenges accepted paradigms. Isn’t that exactly what the Reformation was about?

I have no problem with churches and networks who have seriously thought about and had open transparent debates about this issue.

Networks like New Frontiers in the UK for example. While I don’t agree with people like Andrew Wilson’s innovative and (to me) unconvincing and arbitrary defence of teaching with a ‘big T’ (‘doctrinally definitive’ teaching, open to appropriately gifted male elders) and teaching with a ‘small t’ (‘quoting. explaining, applying Scripture’, open to invited people), you can’t say there hasn’t been a thorough and informed examination of questions of exegesis, hermeneutics, culture and gender. You also can’t say that there isn’t a real desire to explore every way possible to encourage and release women in ministry within parameters of how Scripture is understood. As Wilson says

I believe in women in leadership. Not many people don’t, to be honest: I don’t recall ever coming across a church where women don’t preach the gospel, or lead worship, or speak on Sundays, or disciple people, or run events, or train children, or lead areas of ministry, or serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team, or prophesy (and they do all of those things at the church I’m part of). I believe in women in ministry, the equality of men and women, and the importance of releasing women to be modern-day Phoebes, Priscillas, Junias, Marys, Lydias, Euodias, Syntyches, and so on.

This from what is otherwise a very traditional approach to a male only elder / Teacher interpretation.

In contrast, in Ireland, apart from some isolated examples, I’m not hearing much vigorous informed debate. I’m not hearing of reassessment of established patterns of ministry, many of which appear purely cultural and have little thought-out rationale. I’m not hearing a passion and desire to explore every way possible to release women into ministry and use God-given gifts.

In fact more the opposite.

In much of the church it feels more like a culturally conservative holding on to the status quo as somehow clearly biblical against a perceived advance of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ rather than a serious open-minded discussion of the issues.

What I continue to hear from many women in different churches in Ireland is light years away from even what a  male-elder-only traditionalist like Wilson describes. Many women continue to have no opportunity to preach the gospel, speak on Sundays, serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team. Some are not even allowed to lead a Bible study in a mixed-gender setting.

I’d love to hear if I am wrong – but are there serious discussions happening reflecting a desire to release women into ministry as far as possible? Is this happening in Baptist circles, in many independent evangelical churches and networks, in Pentecostal networks, in many ethnic church networks etc?

Even within a denomination like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland of which I am a part, which decided to ordain women elders back in the 1926 and women ministers back in 1973, there has been a conservative retrenchment. In 1990, in response to a move by a minority resistant to the official position of the denomination, the Church’s Judicial Commission issued guidelines that allowed “Those with personal conscientious objections” not to participate in services of ordination of a woman. In effect the 1990 Guidelines have fatally undermined the Church’s own democratically endorsed official policy. They have given the green light for many churches to refuse to call a women minister and many male ministers to fail to support women candidates for ministry from within their churches. In that sort of climate, it is remarkable that there are any women ministers emerging at all – and there are only a very few. It does certainly not feel like a culture which wishes to explore every possible means to encourage and release women into ministry. This all in the absence of open transparent theological discussion of work like Westfall’s at formal church level (again glad to be corrected on this one if there has been).

Westfall argues that no interpretation of Paul and gender should be automatically privileged. At the end of the book she proposes this – and it is worth reading carefully for traditional assumptions and practices ARE guarded as a sacred citadel to be defended.

I exhort the evangelical community to make a crucial distinction between what a text is and what has been assumed about the text in the process of interpretation. I encourage evangelicals to then “trust the text.” Place the actual biblical text above the interpretations of the text and the theological constructions that have gained a dogmatic foothold among so many.

The traditional interpretations and understandings of the Pauline theology of gender should not be guarded as a citadel and treated as a privileged reading of the texts that must be incontrovertibly proved wrong with hard evidence before considering other options. Rather, they should be placed on equal ground with other viable interpretative options and treated with comparable suspicion because of the history of interpretation, not in spite of it. I invite serious scholars and students of the text to go through the discipline of carefully identifying the information, assumptions, and inferences that have been imported into the texts, extract them from the reading, and then read the texts again with hermeneutics that are consistent with the best practices for interpreting biblical texts and language in general. Seek to weigh the contexts in which the text is placed and consider how they affect interpretation. Utilize sophisticated tools to determine the meaning of words in a linguistically informed way, because that is a major arena in the argument. (314)

  1. This is a crucial topic

The second reason is related to the first. It is not only a question of taking the Bible seriously, it is also an issue with significant pastoral, theological and missional implications.

Too often I have heard from (male) leaders – whom I have great respect for – that women in leadership is simply not a priority issue. It is a ‘secondary matter’, historically and theologically a peripheral issue, far less important than evangelism, mission, preaching, discipleship etc.

I have also heard pragmatic responses. It is just too difficult and potentially divisive to risk rocking the boat by opening up this particular can of worms. It is an issue better left alone.

While these responses are understandable to a degree, they are inadequate. Blomberg is right – it is a crucial issue. It impacts half the body of Christ. Those unwilling to engage seriously with the weight of scholarship like Westfall’s need to consider the implications of being mistaken: to consider the impact on women in their church network; to consider implications for faithful obedience to God and his Word; to consider the unnecessary limits on the gifting and work of the Spirit within the body of Christ.

[Yes, I know such questions cut both ways – again my point is not to assume Westfall is obviously right, but to say that her arguments need serious engagement].

Men in positions of power need to consider seriously Jesus’ command to ‘do to others as you would have others do to you’. They need to try seriously to put themselves in a gifted woman’s position who feels a sincere call to leadership.

For example, at one point Westfall refers to John Piper talking about his ‘call’ to ministry.

A man’s personal call to the pastorate and other ministry is treated with due respect and seriousness in the seminaries. There is a reluctance to question or contradict a man’s sense of his own call …. John Piper serves as a an excellent paradigm for a call to the pastorate: He sensed a call to ministry … which he describes as “my heart almost bursting with longing.” Then, in 1980, he felt an irresistible call to preach. When a man negotiates his call to ministry, he utilizes emotions and experience in accordance with his faith and the grace that he is given.

However, the role of variety and experience in the realization of calling is either explicitly or effectively discounted for women. When a woman determines her call by the same model, using the same criteria, if she comes to the same conclusions as Piper, she is told that her navigational system is broken. (213-14)

Men need to try to imagine having your desire to pursue that call NOT being automatically welcomed, celebrated, affirmed and encouraged. They need to try seriously to imagine it automatically being treated as a problem, a form of mistaken ambition, an embarrassing awkward situation that hopefully will go away – all quite apart from your Christian maturity, gifting and desire to serve Jesus. I suspect all men just can’t really imagine what that feels like – however hard they may try.

At the very least, therefore, ‘to do to others’ means to sincerely, seriously, open-mindedly and compassionately engage with arguments like Westfall’s.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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7 thoughts on “Paul and Gender (1) : a call for a serious discussion within Irish evangelicalism

  1. I can see you have some thanks already – but I want to add mine. Thank you for having this discussion. We women desperately need our brothers to talk about it as many of us find that when we do, we are ignored, shouted down or branded hysterical or reactionary. And yet many of us minister daily in settings where our validity and calling is casually and regularly questioned. I’m going to order Westfall’s book to add to my arsenal. Thanks again Patrick!

  2. Really important contribution on this Patrick. Thanks for sharing. Feels like more than ever we need that conversation. Hoping you can be a significant voice in the midst of that.

  3. Thanks Claire, thanks Rick. My sense is that there is increasing distance – and perhaps almost incomprehension of the other on both sides. Quite a challenge to have a conversation that bridges that gulf rather than widens it, but better than not talking.

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