Why I’m for Women in Leadership

An overview article I wrote a wee while ago. Some resources at the end. Comments welcome:

Why I’m for Women in Leadership

The debate about ‘women in leadership’ revolves around interpretation of texts like1Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 14:33-35; Ephesians 5:22-23 and some others. A key question is whether the Bible contains fixed hierarchical gender roles based on a ‘creation-order’ blueprint. With limited space I can’t begin to discuss the details and so I’ve included a list of representative resources on both sides at the end of this article if you’d like to read around it yourself.

‘Egalitarians’ and ‘complementarians’ (more on those words in a moment) can agree on quite a bit: 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. So while I’m disagreeing strongly with ‘complementarian’ views here, I do want first to emphasise that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord who are sincerely wanting to submit to and obey the teaching of Scripture. I also hope we can have an ongoing and civil discussion.

Clarity over words

Words are important in this debate. ‘Women in Leadership’ is more accurate than ‘Women in Ministry’ because the questions revolve around if and how can women lead. I prefer the word ‘mutualist’ to ‘egalitarian’, the latter being a word that implies competing rights being bargained over. ‘Complementarian’ is both a mouthful and misleading in the sense that it is a one-sided view where particular leadership roles are only open to men. There are no corresponding complementary ‘roles’ that are only open to women. So it is more historically and theologically accurate to call ‘complementarianism’ what it is; a recent word for a hierarchical view of men and women in leadership and in marriage.

‘The Spirit gives gifts to each one, just as he determines’

Egalitarians argue that hierarchy is part of the curse of Genesis 3, not a normative good pattern to follow. The overall thrust of Scripture is towards transcending patriarchy and effecting a restoration of unity and equality within the body of Christ; from creation and Fall to New Creation. Rather than perpetuate this fallen condition, the church should be reflecting the future hope of the New Creation in how men and women relate in the here and now.

You see this happening in the radically counter-cultural way that Jesus not only related to women but included them within the kingdom of God and called them to be his travelling disciples during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). This was unprecedented.

You see it in Luke-Acts and the remarkable outpouring of the long-awaited Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). No-where is there a hint that gifts are given according to gender, either in Luke or in Paul or Peter. The language is overwhelmingly inclusive to all the church, male and female.

Peter mentions the gift of ‘speaking the oracles of God’ (1 Peter 4:11). In Paul, the gifts in Ephesians 4:11 of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers and in Romans 12:3-8 which includes prophecy, teaching, exhortation and ruling are for everyone.

Similarly in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 the gifts include apostles, prophecy and teaching. This fits with the fact that Romans 16:7 says (despite extraordinary attempts to deny this) that Paul had at least one female apostle (Junia) who is outstanding as an apostle, not as a woman. Priscilla is a Bible teacher to a man; she is called Paul’s co-worker – a term used for those partnering with him in the ministry of the gospel which included proclamation and teaching (and included other women as well). Phoebe is a diakonos (probably ‘minister’) and prostatis (‘leader’ is more accurate than ‘helper’) in the church (Rom. 16:1-2).

Paul is a liberationist in the Spirit, but he is also a wise missionary. The texts in 1 Corinthians and in 1 Timothy are best understood as correcting local problems in worship and church order where women’s inappropriate behaviour had the potential to discredit the gospel. In other words, Paul adapts his instructions to the patriarchal culture of the Graeco-Roman world; he does not enforce permanent hierarchical male-female relationships within the new community of the Spirit, the body of Christ.

Problems with Complementarian practice

Just as Paul engaged with this question in cultural and missiological terms, so must Christians today. To enforce patriarchal hierarchy within the church in our Western culture is not only unnecessary, it misconstrues the liberating arc of the biblical narrative, has marginalised the God-given gifts of countless women causing much angst in the process, and damages the church’s witness to the inclusive nature of the gospel in the process.

To use a title of one of the late and great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce’s most famous books, Paul was an Apostle of the Free Spirit. The tragedy of ‘complementarianism’ is its focus on imposing universal law and artificial restrictions within the body of Christ. Near the end of his life Bruce commented that “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah” (from Scot McKnight in the Blue Parakeet).

For example, I was talking with a woman recently who told me of her coming to faith as an adult. She’d had significant experience in business and held responsible leadership positions. She began attending a local evangelical church, full of enthusiasm to serve and thirsty to learn more of God and his Word. But after some time she found herself increasingly bewildered and surprised to be told she would never be able to do certain things since they were only open to men. Her confusion arose from a profound mismatch between her experience of the inclusive gospel followed by marginalisation and restrictions simply because of her gender. Outside the church she had freedom to use her abilities and gifts as a person regardless of gender. Inside the church, her gender became a barrier and obstacle to using her gifts and being herself.

Complementarian thinking also leads to all sorts of inconsistencies and distortions as a supposed biblical ‘blueprint’ is applied in practice within church life (and marriage). Some say we can’t really understand why God wants it this way but that’s just the way it is. Even though they admit the obvious fact that many women are outstanding Bible teachers and are gifted for leadership, they can’t exercise those gifts because God says so.

Claire Smith pretty well says this in a new complementarian book called God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women. She says ‘the ability to do something does not come with the right to do it.’ And so just because a woman is a gifted Bible teacher does not mean she should preach. This begs all sorts of questions. Is she gifted by the Spirit of God or not? If she is, is she only allowed to preach to women or is this not actually preaching? (Smith does not say). Neither does she say why this restriction should apply apart from it is what God’s word says. She adds that such a woman should not feel envious of others (men) who can use their gifts to preach and lead. So not only can she not preach (even though she is gifted), to want to do so puts her on the path to envy. No wonder woman are hurt and silenced by this sort of argument.

Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, try to root women’s limited roles in the very nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Men (as a sex) are made by God to be more predisposed to lead. Women (as a sex) are made by God to be followers and submissive to men. It is in this sense that John Piper talked recently and controversially of Christianity having a “masculine feel”. You can see the problem here. Despite complementarians affirmation of women’s ‘full equality before God’, it is logically impossible to affirm that a woman is at once spiritually and ontologically equal to a man and at the same time eternally subordinate within a faith that is innately ‘masculine’. It is more consistent to argue, as Augustine and some other Church Fathers did, that women have inferior roles because they are inferior!

Other inconsistencies of application are numerous. Some complementarians end up with detailed lists of what women can and cannot do. Professor Howard 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 and some (Susan Foh) argue for the church to regulate women’s length of hair! 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 (like Claire Smith) 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.

Why I’m for women in leadership

Egalitarianism can be summed up as being ‘for whatever God’s Spirit grants women gifts to do.’  They believe that the biblical texts point to the equal place of women in all aspects of the new covenant community of the people of God. People, men or woman, are to be recognised by the church to positions of leadership according to giftedness bestowed by the Spirit who gives gifts to whosoever he chooses – men and women alike.

There are a number of reasons I’m on the egalitarian side of this issue.

The first is that I’m far more convinced by the biblical arguments around the relevant texts.

The second is the large numbers of serious evangelical Bible scholars and thinkers who are making good arguments for egalitarianism. I see this and give thanks as an example of semper reformanda – the ongoing reform and renewal of the church by the Spirit of God.

The third is that I believe the church and its mission is desperately impoverished without both male and female leadership.

The fourth comes from experience. It is incontestable that many Christian women are just as intelligent, gifted, godly, and mature as many Christian male leaders. I’ve lost count of the number of women students who have had all the necessary qualities for leadership and yet have had no encouragement or opportunity to express those gifts. There is something badly wrong with this situation.

It’s appropriate to give the last word to a woman, Cherith Fee Nordling,

Our human dignity, value, and status are no longer based on these distinctions and their privileged status in the old order … because in Christ these distinctions do not define human personhood or position. Privilege is given and exercised for the building up of the whole community, whether by men or by women. This does not entitle women to roles any more than it takes them away from men. All service is cruciform, all service is a gift to be given. (from The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology)

Patrick Mitchel

Some Resources

Lis Goddard & Clare Hendry, The Gender Agenda: discovering God’s plan for church leadership. IVP, 2010. This takes the form of an exchange of emails between two women debating either side of the argument. A readable ‘way in’ to the issues.

Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church. IVP USA, 2003. A very well written and researched book:  an egalitarian who agrees that the husband is head of his wife. Searching analysis and critique of Piper and Grudem.

Alan F Johnson (ed.), How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: compelling stories by prominent evangelicals. Zondervan, 2010. Personal stories of ‘conversion’ to an egalitarian perspective by people like John Stackhouse, Howard Marshall and many others.

Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (eds), Women, Ministry and the Gospel: exploring new paradigms. IVP Academic, 2007. Academic. Mixed views on a range of topics including a detailed egalitarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 by Howard Marshall and an interesting chapter by Henri Blocher on a way forward.

Claire Smith, God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, Matthias Media, 2012. A series of Bible study chapters on key texts from a complementarian perspective.

Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, Crossway, 2002. An exhaustive summary of strongly held complementarian arguments updating his and John Piper’s earlier book.

James Beck and Craig Blomberg, Two Views of Women in Ministry. Zondervan, 2001. Answer and response format between 4 contributors. Quite technical.

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, Zondervan, 2010. A popular retelling of how to read the Bible through an egalitarian lens.

R T France, Women in the Church’s Ministry: a test-case for biblical hermeneutics. Paternoster, 1995. A thoughtful and wise exegetical study by an outstanding NT scholar and gracious Christian, recently gone to be with the Lord (and a former teacher of mine).

Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s letters. Zondervan, 2009. The fruit of a lifetime’s work. An indispensable textbook. Egalitarian.

Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: marriage and Women’s ministry in the letters of Paul. Hendrikson, 1992. Lively, readable and egalitarian from a well-known NT evangelical scholar.

For a host of resources on the Web see:

Christians for Biblical Equality http://www.cbeinternational.org/

Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood http://www.cbmw.org/

For a nice example of civil debate see these two self-critical pieces by Sarah Sumner and John Koessler criticising the weaknesses in their own side: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/27.40.html  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/28.41.html?paging=off

And if all this reading is too much like hard work, have a look at these short videos on women and the family and then women and the church by NT scholar Ben Witherington who has written and spoken extensively on this topic from an egalitarian perspective.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2M6HswlH3A

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5VQe_nuNJg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGVcAa9GwxA&feature=related

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Book Review: The Message of Women

Derek and Dianne Tidball. The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender. IVP, 2012

A defining characteristic of evangelicalism is a conscious attempt to have both theology and praxis based on the Bible above all other sources of authority.This immediately means several things:

1. At heart evangelicals will always want to know what the Bible says. They study it, discuss it, try to understand it, interpret it and apply it. They are ‘Bible people’.

2. Interpretations over what is ‘the biblical’ view on any particular text or theme have enormous significance for conferring legitimacy.

3. And this means in turn that ‘biblical’ tends to be one of the most over-used words in the evangelical Christian dictionary.

So when it comes to an issue like women in leadership, what is ‘the’ biblical view assumes deciding weight. The slight problem for this is that it’s rather obvious that agreeing on what ‘the’ biblical view on a host of issues is not the straightforward process that many evangelicals seem to assume it is otherwise there would not be thousands of Protestant denominations (for example).

So to this book just published in the Bible Speaks Today (BST) Bible Themes series.

As with all the BST books the approach is primarily exegetical, with chapters on selected texts structured within four sections. It begins with ‘Foundations’ (Genesis 1-3 and Galatians 3:26-28). Section 2 is on ‘Women in the Old Covenant’ (including family women like Rebekkah; victimised women cut into pieces in Judges; leading women like Deborah; resolute women like Ruth; prophetic women like Huldah; the passionate woman of the Song of Songs; and the capable woman of Proverbs 31). Section three is ‘Women in the kingdom’ (including women in the life of Jesus; in the encounters of Jesus; in the teaching of Jesus; and women as disciples of Jesus). Part 4 is ‘Women in the new community’ (including women in action, in prayer, in worship, in marriage, in leadership and in widowhood).

The big picture that emerges is the Bible’s highly diverse ‘message’ of women. In other words, the authors consistently question the idea of ‘the biblical’ view of women in ministry and in work and family life. For example, they warn against drawing straight lines from women within the patriarchal OT context to women as modern ‘homemakers’. Rather, they propose, “What the many stories of wives and mothers in Scripture teach us is that God’s will does triumph through the different patterns that men and women may adopt for family life and in all the less-than-perfect rough and tumble of the ordinary, not textbook, lives.” (79)

This means that attempts to fit the role of women within family and church life into a preordained mould are doomed to fail. In the OT, the prophetic ministry of Miriam, Huldah and Deborah show that God spoke through women as well as men and that “never is the right of a woman to be a vehicle for a message from God questioned.” (123). The capable woman of Proverbs 31 ‘supports the view that to restrict women to narrow a narrow domestic role is not biblically justified.’ Rather, she offers ‘the balance of serving and responsibility; or leadership and compassion; of enterprise and trust; and of freedom and commitment.’ (146)

More varied portraits of women continue to be drawn in the NT. There is a sketch of women’s courage and deep affection for their Lord at the cross and as the first witnesses of the resurrection. The inclusion of women within the kingdom as disciples and as witnesses points to an alternative community to the male dominated culture of the time. There is a new order of relationships; of respect and dignity for women and full equality within the new creation which flows from Jesus’ own revolutionary attitude to, and teaching about, women which was without precedent in Judaism. He values, respects, befriends, disciples, encourages, inspires and accepts love from women. He never denigrates or makes any negative remarks about women. (184). They are entrusted with the message of the gospel, serve alongside men, become travelling messengers of the gospel, teachers, evangelists (196), witnesses, patronesses, missionaries and even apostle(s). There is no hint of any restriction of ministry under authority of men. It is a remarkably expansive role, but at the same time there is no idealisation of women 209. ‘Gender is not the primary issue, only commitment to Christ and the formation of a Christ-like character.’ (209).

When it comes to the familiar texts concerning women in leadership (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:26-40 and 1 Tim 2:11-15) the authors unpack the texts fully (and convincingly! 🙂 )  arriving at egalitarian conclusions that I won’t go into detail here lest you think I’ve got nothing else to write about on this blog. How they do this is a model of careful exegesis and gracious engagement with complementarian thinking without lapsing into stereotyping. If only this debate in general was characterised by such graciousness and respect. The big picture?

‘Today, Paul is likely to argue that a refusal to exercise leadership in the church is what brings the gospel into disrepute … we suspect he would be rejoicing at the many women who exercise their wonderful teaching and leadership gifts in the church, for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ.’ (267).

In regard to marriage, this couple discuss 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. The thrust of the argument here is that the NT contains twin tributaries of thought: one emphasises equality of women and men in marriage; the other a sense of respect for social order that is inherent in creation and new creation and which was imperfectly reflected in the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century. If Paul accepts the social structures concerning marriage of his day, he ‘invests that skeleton with an entirely new and counter-cultural body’. This creates a current of thought that has, over time, broken through the banks of patriarchialism. In other words, NT teaching on marriage emerged out of a particular context but is not tied to that context. What remains is an order ‘formed in the community of the new creation by mutual love, mutual submission, mutual deference and by giving up the will to power.’ (248)

So rather than ‘the biblical’ blueprint being taken from the text and applied woodenly to contemporary life what we have instead is a theological task of reading the issue through the storyline of the Bible.

‘We cannot find what would be recognised as a contemporary equality agenda ready-made in the Bible. The Bible must be read in its own context before we use it to address ours. But, our review of Scripture leads us to believe that very significant progress was made towards egalitarianism in the course of the unfolding story of redemption and that the signposts point us unmistakeably in that direction.’ (283).

PS. The 10 page bibliography is a super resource for anyone studying or reading around the issue of women in leadership – every major work I could think of is there in one place and a lot more besides. It is also right up to date.

What the Bible really says about men and women: a ten point critique of complementarianism (11)

This is no. 10 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.

10. Beyond Divisiveness?

Evangelical Christians differ on all sorts of things – church leadership structures, baptism, spiritual gifts, God’s sovereignty and human free will and so on. Most, if not all, of these revolve around issues of interpretation of Scripture, where, in good conscience and out of a sincere wrestling with the text, Christians come to different conclusions.

Women in ministry and leadership is such an issue.

Most evangelicals have lived with difference over baptism (for example) and cooperated in mission and witness without questioning each other’s commitment to Scripture and the gospel. This sort of big-tent inclusiveness goes right to the heart of what it means to be an evangelical beyond your own commitment to adiaphora – matters of theological ‘indifference’ to wider evangelical unity. This is despite baptism being an issue of deep theological sacramental and covenant significance that shapes church polity.

Why then I wonder is the issue of women in leadership continuing to be so divisive?

Carl Trueman recently asked this same questionI wonder if the answer lies in a challenge to power. Egalitarianism threatens both established leadership structures that give priority to men and a particular reading of the Bible that is used to endorse those structures. Regrettably, power is not given up easily, even when all Christian leadership is a call to ‘servant leadership’.

And I’m sure I’m biased, but it seems to me that this why some of the most divisive rhetoric is coming primarily from a complementarian-hierarchical perspective – Claire Smith’s book being an example.

She talks disparagingly of those who disagree with her as people who ‘call themselves evangelicals’. She wrongly claims those who disagree with her say texts like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 do ‘not apply today’. (See in contrast Howard Marshall’s list of ten ways 1 Timothy 2 applies today). Elsewhere she talks about ‘formerly trusted teachers’ who have presumably fallen away from the truth. Her description of objections to her view as ‘It is God’s word but …’ also attempts, in a rather backhanded way, to connect egalitarian views with a rejection of God’s word.

Such attitudes are unworthy of civil Christian debate and should be repented of. But they are far from solitary examples.

Wayne Grudem is one of the strongest voices here in his insistence that egalitarianism is the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ towards liberalism, acceptance of homosexuality and the undermining of the authority of Scripture (Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 505). To disagree with the ‘complementarian’ interpretation is to disobey God.

[Of course, many many complementarians do not engage in such divisive rhetoric and happily can live with difference within a big-tent evangelicalism. And I’m sure that there are examples on the egalitarian side which are less than gracious, accusing the other side of misogyny or some such loaded pejorative label.]

I guess that this sort of aggressive-defensive reaction comes from a sense of losing ground. As the issues at stake have clarified, particularly over the last 3-4 decades, there is now a theologically coherent alternative, widely supported by a swathe of very significant evangelical scholars (Sarah Sumner, Rebecca Groothuis, Linda Belleville, Gordon Fee, Howard Marshall, John Stott [in favour of women’s ordination], F F Bruce, Scot McKnight, N T Wright, John Stackhouse, R T France, Craig Keener, Catherine Clark Kroeger, Steve Holmes etc) that is being increasingly successful in challenging questionable exegesis and hermeneutical assumptions within the older status quo.

I remember sitting in an ethics class back in the late 1980s where the lecturer was defending divinely ordained hierarchy between men and women in church and marriage. As a young guy, I hadn’t really thought about the issue much. What he said seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Looking back I can see why. As a man, it was a very comfortable thing to be told! I couldn’t quite ‘get’ why some women (and men) in the class were disagreeing strongly with what was being taught. It was only sustained study of the Bible over the years that shifted me from that place of comfort.

 So where now? Three questions:

First, some realism: Can there be a recognition that neither side are going to ‘obliterate’ the other’s arguments, however passionately they believe the other is wrong? The tone of some of the debate is characterised by this sort of vain hope. The reality is that either side ‘ain’t going away you know’.

Second, evangelicals have lived with other such areas of disagreement for centuries. As with baptism, can there be a willingness to work together in mission and witness and a refusal to let this issue become something that threatens unity around the gospel?

Third, it is possible to imagine constructive and healthy debate on this issue for they are already happening (see here) where both ‘sides’ explore what they disagree about and affirm what they believe in common within a respectful dialogue. So can we please move on beyond the sort of divisiveness that thinks ‘If we can completely demolish their credibility we’ll win the argument once and for all’? Can we all repent of unchristian attitudes, forgive one another and commit speak well of one another in future as a sign of love?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critque of complementarianism (10)

This is no. 9 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.

9.   Philosophically confused

What is to be made of the C-H argument that men and women are equal but have different ‘roles’?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we need to be clear that gender roles within C-H are not complementary, even if men and women are equals. Women are permanently and innately subordinate to men in the church where it is men who lead and preach. At home, wives are under the authority of their husbands. Regardless of who she is, her gifting, experience and ability, she is to follow, he is to lead.  In other words, there is nothing a women can do that a man cannot also do within the church, but there are specific roles only a man has the opportunity to do because he belongs to the right gender.

Sarah Sumner in her excellent book Men and Women in the Church, makes some telling and important points on this ‘equal but different roles’ philosophy.  Underneath this debate is an argument about what constitutes ‘proper order’. And behind this are different philosophies of order. She unpacks two different models of order at play in this debate.

A Scotist View:

God’s commands simply need to correlate to God’s will for God orders the world as he wills. We don’t have to understand it, we have to obey it.

A Thomist View:

There will be a correlation between God’s commands and reason. God does things for good reasons that are understandable. There will be a link between divine law and natural law, between God’s will and creation.

People like Wayne Grudem and Claire Smith insist that women are fully equal with men in terms of status, image, and significance – it is just that God has ordained that men take the lead in family and church life. Equality does not mean equality of opportunity, it means ‘difference of role’. The fact that many women are gifted to lead and preach etc is also irrelevant in this thinking – giftedness is not the last word above God’s revealed will.

Egalitarians who point out the lack of rationale, the inconsistencies and weaknesses in the C-H argument (like I’ve been attempting to do in these posts), tend to be ignored by complementarians because they are perceived to be diluting Scripture and using human reason or ‘feminist thought’ to question God’s ‘good design’.

Complementarian-hierarchialists also argue that their position is traditional in the church and egalitarians are trying to introduce novel ideas (feminist influence again).

Yet to talk of ‘full equality’ combined with a hierarchy of function (or different ‘roles’) within home and the church is itself, as Kevin Giles has argued, a fairly new idea in the history of the church. Until fairly recently, the most common reasons given for women’s secondary roles was that they were more prone to be deceived and/or they were created after the man are so are secondary in rank. Within much of church history women did not have equal roles because they were seen as inferior to men. This at least was consistent!

Here’s Sarah Sumner’s main point: complementarians have changed the premise of church tradition (from ‘women are inferior’ to ‘women are equal’) but have maintained the conclusion (‘women are subordinate’). This is confusing and illogical – hence the mixed messages and the bewildering mixture of subjective complementarian practice.

In philosophical terms, C-H is a therefore a confusing mixture of Scotist and Thomist thinking.

Take the example of people like Claire Smith, Wayne Grudem, John Piper and Thomas Schreiner.

– As Scotists, they say women as equals should assume subordinate roles simply because it is God’s will. It’s a ‘creation ordinance’ and we are not to argue with God’s ‘good design’ or look for reasons why.

– As Thomists, they try to find logical reasons for this permanent universal subordination.. Some say women are equal ‘before God’ but should assume subordinate roles based on a (bad) quasi-analogy with the Trinity (where the Son is equal but subordinate to the Father).

– As a Thomist, you have John Piper proposing that mature ‘femininity’ itself is a predisposition to be subject to the leadership of the man. Mature ‘masculinity’ is a predisposition to lead well. In his words ‘a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women.’ In other words, the identity of men and women does NOT have a shared essential quality. And this is a ‘reason’ for female subordination.

– As a Thomists some (increasingly scarce) C-H arguments still try to find reasons for female subordination in the idea that women are more easily deceived or are innately not suited to lead or preach etc. Whatever the precise proposal, it is a search for logical ‘reasons’ for female subordination.

Notice what is going on here. The mixture of Scotist and Thomist ideas are self-contradictory.

On the one hand, the Thomist arguments are finding reasons why women should be subordinate to men. Inevitably this leads towards hierarchy and superiority, however much this is denied.

On the other hand, the Scotist argument asserts that men and women are equal.

Whatever you may think of egalitarian arguments, they are at least philosophically consistent. Equal status is linked to equal roles (for those gifted and called, either men or women).

So, despite complementarian-hierarchialists’ affirmation of women’s ‘full equality before God’, it is logically impossible to affirm that a woman is at once spiritually and ontologically equal to a man and at the same time permanently, comprehensively, and necessarily subordinate within a faith that is innately ‘masculine’. The talk of full equality with ‘difference in function’ is an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Final word here to Sarah Sumner and it’s worth reading carefully I think,

No wonder conservative Christians are confused. We are given so many mixed messages. In one long breath, we are told that women are not inferior but that “the permanent facts of creation” reveal that women should assume subordinate roles; yet women are equal to men just as surely as the Son is equal to the Father, even though we don’s share the same status with men as the Son does with the Father; and men are not superior to women because both are created in the image of God, although men are uniquely designed (though not necessarily gifted) to be women’s leaders; and women are uniquely designed to nurture and affirm men’s leadership over them even if they themselves are more spiritually gifted than the men who oversee them. All this, we are told, to be honored – unless certain male leaders commission women to be exceptions.

By simultaneously adopting two theories of natural order that are mutually exclusive, some of us have promoted a lack of logic. It can’t be true that the only reason women are to assume inferior roles at church is because God said so, if indeed the permanent facts of nature also explain the reason why. I believe it’s unintentional, but many of us Christians in the evangelical community have unknowingly adopted a Scotist-Thomist view and called it biblical. With that, we have trumpeted a mixed-up view that says women, as equals, are allowed to speak and lead, but only unofficially as subordinates.  (293-295)

Comments, as ever, welcome

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

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (8)

This is no.7 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.

7. Law

The overall direction of a complementarian-hierarchical concern to implement ‘law’ leads, in my opinion, towards a legalistic form of continual assessment and evaluation of when ‘headship’ is being usurped or properly acted upon.

I’m not saying that everyone holding to the hierarchial model is legalistic, for  Christians love should be the attitude that shapes all praxis. But the focus is on keeping watch that men and women keep to their divinely ordained ‘roles’. This comes through repeatedly in Claire Smith’s book. Men need to step up and women need to learn to be submissive.

It is worth stepping back a moment to notice the scope of what is being proposed: the imposition of a universal permanent grid of what is supposedly ‘God’s good design’ for female subordination within all marriages and in every church in all cultures globally.

This concern of limiting something good (gospel teaching) and saying something awfully dangerous and wrong is happening when a women expounds and teaches God’s word to the body of Christ sits badly with the liberating ministry of the Spirit.

Might an alternative be possible – that we might have got this deeply wrong? That ironically by insisting on the ban on women teaching and leading that the very thing Paul is most concerned about in his letter to Timothy – the credibility and witness of the gospel – is being damaged?

To use a title of one of the late and great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce’s most famous books, Paul was an Apostle of the Free Spirit. Complementarianism’s focus on imposing universal law and artificial restrictions within the body of Christ caused Bruce, near the end of his life, to comment that “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah”.  (this is from a story Scot McKnight tells in The Blue Parakeet)

Comments, as ever, welcome

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (7)

This is 6/10 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.

6. Women, men and the Spirit

A further reason to affirm an egalitarian view of women in ministry is that this seems to be the approach of the Spirit of God who gives his gifts generously to men and women alike.

You see this in Luke-Acts and the remarkable outpouring of the long-awaited Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). No-where is there a hint that gifts are given according to gender, either in Luke or in Paul or Peter. The language is overwhelmingly inclusive to all the church, male and female.

Peter mentions the gift of ‘speaking the oracles of God’ (1 Peter 4:11). In Paul, the gifts in Ephesians 4:11 of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers and in Romans 12:3-8 which includes prophecy, teaching, exhortation and ruling are for everyone. Similarly in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 the gifts include apostles, prophecy and teaching.

Priscilla (pictured) is a Bible teacher to a man; she is called Paul’s co-worker – a term used for those partnering with him in the ministry of the gospel which included proclamation and teaching (and included other women as well).

Phoebe is a diakonos (probably ‘minister’) and prostatis (‘leader’ is more accurate than ‘helper’) in the church (Rom. 16:1-2).

Egalitarianism can be summed up as being ‘for whatever God’s Spirit grants women gifts to do.’  This is an argument that the biblical texts point to the equal place of women in all aspects of the new covenant community of the people of God. People, men or woman, are to be recognised by the church to positions of leadership according to giftedness bestowed by the Spirit who gives gifts to whosoever he chooses – men and women alike.

Comments, as ever, welcome

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (6)

This is 5/10 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.

5.     Teaching and prophecy

Claire Smith reiterates a standard complementarian-hierarchalist position that prophecy is of different order of authority from preaching and teaching. She claims that while preaching / teaching is not ‘under’ other people’s authority, prophecy in 1 Corinthians is “under the authority of other people.”

What does it mean that a man’s preaching is not under other’s authority anyway? Is not all preaching and teaching only authoritative as it conforms to God’s word?

The reason that this distinction is made in such an arbitrary way is because of the unambiguous evidence in 1 Corinthians that women were prophesying within the church gathering. Paul clearly sees prophecy as the most important ministry in corporate worship (1 Cor 14). It is set above teaching (1 Cor 12:28) and in Ephesians 2:20 he states that the church is founded on apostles and prophets, not teachers.

This is consistent with the crucial and high place prophecy has within the whole Bible, OT and NT. Jesus is a prophet and a teacher, as are the leaders of the church in Antioch in Acts 13:1.

The only reason C-H argues for a downplaying of the authoritative role of prophecy is a prior theological commitment to a ‘creation ordinance’, derived primarily from prioritising one text. This is another example of a faulty hermeneutic driving exegesis rather than the other way around.

It is made all the more untenable by Junia, the outstanding apostle (who Claire Smith pretty well ignores). The first apostles were ‘first’ in the church and the ones on whom the church was founded (Eph 2:20). They undoubtedly were teachers.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What the Bible really says about men and women; a 10 point critique of complementarism (5)

This is 4/10 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.

4. A faulty hermeneutic

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is the keystone of the ‘complementarian’ view. Without the interpretation of a ‘creation ordinance’ from this text, pretty well the entire argument for men-only preaching, leading and teaching loses coherence. Yes there are other texts of debate in 1 Corinthians (also with exceptionally difficult elements and disputed exegesis), but 1 Timothy is the most important. And this is precisely the problem. For it shows a hermeneutic at work that prioritises and absolutises this text ‘I do not permit a woman’ becomes the lens through which the rest of the NT teaching on women is viewed.

A larger biblical theology moves from Genesis, through the OT, is centered on Jesus and his radical attitudes to women, then on to Paul and the rest of the NT with its remarkable inclusion of women and with female teachers, leaders and at least one apostle (Junia, Roms 16:7), climaxing with the estchatological hope of a new creation and the perfect image of God in man and woman restored completely and the curse of the Fall overcome.

In contrast, a narrow and restrictive ban ill fits the liberating thrust of this overall narrative and lacks a coherent rationale. Prioritising a highly questionable exegesis from one exceptionally disputed text that has unusually difficult aspects (saved through childbirth for example) is not a reliable or safe hermeneutic.

It is much better to interpret the difficult text against the larger witness of Scripture. For example, I am often struck in this whole debate by how the complementarian-hierarchical view minimises Jesus and the evidence from the Gospels. Claire Smith’s book is a good example. Jesus’ actions and words regarding women are hardly mentioned, despite the revolutionary way he includes, affirms, welcomes as disciples, and is even supported by, women. Much more could be said here, but the point is how a narrow interpretation of ‘law’ is then imposed on the wider whole. Any contradictory evidence within Scripture is downplayed or ignored (the remarkable attempts to ‘silence’ Junia for example).

A Specific Example: Women and Slaves

Kevin Giles illustrates this point with regard to women and slaves. How are Paul’s commands to women, slaves and children to be subordinate to apply today?

Egalitarians will argue that these commands must be interpreted within cultural norms of Greco-Roman culture. Paul is exhorting believers to fit within the culture, not to cause unnecessary offence, and to commend the gospel by their model behaviour. In other words, this is primarily missional advice, not permanently binding ‘law’ for all cultures and all times.

Paul’s advice to slaves to be subordinate is not an affirmation of slavery. Indeed, reading Paul more widely, the radical boundary breaking nature of the gospel fatally undermines slavery – and it was this sort of hermeneutic which led Christians like Wilberforce to fight and eventually overturn the idea that slavery was sanctioned by God and morally unproblematic.

Complementarian-hierarchialists are faced with a difficulty here. No-one wants to say God endorses slavery. The whole wider thrust of Scripture, from Genesis 1:27 to Galatians 3:28 and hundreds of places in between, speak of the unique value, dignity, equality and worth of every human life. Within the revolutionary makeup of the body of Christ, racial, sexual, economic and religious distinctions have no spiritual significance. While the NT does not outrightly condemn slavery, it undermines and confronts the injustice, inequality and exploitation of one person by another.

All this means that the ‘complementarian’ position on Paul’s commands for slaves to be subordinate pretty well mirrors that of egalitarians – they are wise words of advice in a specific cultural context and are not to be taken as supportive of ongoing subordination of slaves to their masters today.

You might think then that the same hermeneutic might apply to women, but no.

Within a complementarian hermeneutic governed by 1 Timothy, in complete contrast to the temporary words of missional advice to slaves, virtually identical words to women become permanent, unbreakable words of law for all women in all cultures for all time since they are based on the ‘creation ordinance’.

Exegetically there is no hint of such a contrast between the commands to slaves and to women in the texts. Galatians 3:28 explicitly parallels women and slaves. Giles concludes no-one has argued for such a contrast in the history of the church prior to about 1975.

Study of exhortations to members of the household in texts like Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:22-6:9 show they fit within the cultural context of Greco-Roman ‘household codes’. Three paired groups appear: masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and fathers and children. None of these exhortations are based on a Creation Ordinance’  from Genesis. All make better sense read as Paul doing what he did best – being a flexible missionary who was ‘all things to all men’ while seeking not to be any obstacle in the way of the gospel.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (4)

This is number 3 of 10 reasons why I find the complementarian argument unconvincing – with particular dialogue with Claire Smith’s and Howard Marshall’s interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

And in outlining these objections, it’s worth repeating that 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.

3. Lack of rationale

Complementarian-hierarchialism faces a major struggle in finding some sort of rationale for the position being espoused.

Some argue that women are innately not suited to leadership (Thomas Schreiner used to say this but changed his mind). Others like Claire Smith say this is just what the Bible says. She grants it is not an issue of giftedness or ability – that many women are just as smart and able and potential leaders as many men. We can’t really understand why God wants it this way but that’s just the way it is.

She goes further to say that ‘the ability to do something does not come with the right to do it.’ And so just because a woman is a gifted Bible teacher (presumably gifted by the Spirit of God) does not mean she should preach. Not allowing her to lead and preach and teach is somehow God’s ‘good design’. How and why this is ‘good’ is unclear.

Then for good measure, Smith adds that such a woman should not feel envious of others (men) who can use their gifts to preach and lead. So not only can she not preach (even though she is gifted), to want to do so puts her on the path to envy. No wonder woman are hurt and silenced by this sort of argument.

Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, try to root women’s limited roles in the very nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Men (as a sex) are made by God to be more predisposed to lead. Women (as a sex) are made by God to be followers and submissive to men. It is in this sense that John Piper talked recently and controversially of Christianity having a “masculine feel”. Yet the Bible never talks in these terms.

What this actually feels like is subjective desperation to find some sort of rationale for male priority in preaching and teaching and leading. And if there is no rationale, what does this say about God? – who usually has very good reasons for what he does and what he commands his people to do. Might it be that the interpretation is askew?

Comments, as ever, welcome