Equal to Rule

Last week I was honoured to speak at a book launch for Trevor Morrow’s Equal to Rule: Leading the Jesus way. Why Men and Women are Equal to Serve in the Leadership in the Christian Church

Trevor is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Here’s the gist of what I said …

Thank you to Trevor and to Columba Press for the invitation to speak at this book launch – I am honoured to be asked and delighted to see Equal to Rule in print. I hope and pray that it is read widely, not only within its target audience of the PCI but across church communities in Ireland and further afield.

There is so much that I’d like to say when it comes to the issue of women in leadership and ministry within the church – and isn’t that a scary thing for an audience to hear from a speaker at the start of a talk?

  1. More than listening to me, the most profitable thing you can do is to get your hands on a copy of the book and read what Trevor has said in his inimitable and insightful way. I’m sure that the globe could be encompassed by the pages and pages of print that continue to be written about this issue. For over 20 years I’ve been engaged with, reading, writing, collecting books and articles and more recently blogging about this topic and it is not going away. The volume of material continues to grow. So what Trevor has accomplished in a mere 112 pages is quite a feat. His style is easy to follow and understand, yet beneath that surface is a deep knowledge of complex and hotly debated issues. In other words, something understood profoundly can be explained simply – and Trevor has that all too rare gift.

He covers much ground

  • Genesis – men and women in the image of God and the Fall
  • OT women – and their significance today
  • Jesus and his radically counter-cultural attitude to women
  • Paul and early church – equal ministry – the difficult texts
    • Marriage
    • Worship
    • Discipleship (Eph / 1 Tim 2)
    • Leadership (Spirit / gifts)
  • Practical steps in church life today
  • Men and women serving in a wide variety of gifts and ministries TOGETHER
  • Wise words about the need for men to act against the status quo – courage and how hard for women to change power structures
  • Unity in diversity as an eschatological foretaste – how the church now is to reflect equality and diversity between men and women as a foretaste of the kingdom to come … not obliteration of difference but strength in difference.

Trevor puts it this way,

“In the church men and women should be free to lead but never to the detriment of their manhood or womanhood. Instead, they will rule together in collegiality because men need women and women need men. This is how we truly express the image of God and say to the world – A new day is coming and this is how it’s going to be.”

 

  1. My second point is that I am not a woman.

This might (!) seem somewhat obvious, but it does have serious implications. I have no idea what it is like being a woman – despite being married to one for 24 years and having two late-teen grown up daughters. However hard I might try, I can’t understand the experiences, feelings and challenges of being a woman – not only biologically, but also what it is like to be excluded from leadership roles where I could use God-given gifts for serving the church ONLY on the basis of my gender, REGARDLESS of my ability, character, experience, training, mind, and heart.

For I’m going to cut to the chase, we need to be clear here. This might sound critical but there are important issues at stake. At heart the male-only leadership position essentially says women cannot hold certain leadership positions because the Bible says so. The argument goes that the sexes are equal but have complementary ‘roles’.

But the fatal flaw is that in normal complementary relationships roles can change (a student can become a teacher). But in male-only leadership, women can NEVER lead – her subordinate ‘role’ is given at birth and is fixed for good. Women, ONLY because they are women, are the subordinated sex for no other reason than gender. However much the male-only leadership view says otherwise (and I have read all the arguments), to put one sex in a permanently and divinely-sanctioned subordinate position to another speaks of inferiority to the ones permanently set over them.

Imagine a Christian white man in Apartheid SA saying to a fellow black believer “Brother, the Bible says we are truly equal, created in the image of God. We are to minister together in service of the Lord, and complement each other within the body of Christ. But your role must ALWAYS be subordinate to mine, I have authority over you. We may be equally intelligent and spiritual and experienced and gifted by the Spirit to lead – but you will never be able to do so because you are black, and the Bible says blacks are not be in positions of leadership. Please don’t question why, it is just because God says so.’ (this illustration is adapted from Kevin Giles)

What might the black man think? Perhaps ‘That sure sounds like a peculiar type of complementarity!’

The problem with ‘complementarianism’ is that it is not complementary there is NO role that women alone should do and men not do. It too conveniently enforces the status quo. Ultimately it appears arbitrary, without a rational basis.

This is why, ironically, Christian men need to speak out on behalf of women. The status quo favours men. Current power structures favour men. It is particularly difficult for women to challenge the status quo without being seen as self-promoting or power-hungry, and going against the very truth of the Word of God himself …

Again, I can only say I have no idea how this must feel.

John Stackhouse says this

“We men will not change until we want to change … We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed … Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.”

  1. This links paradoxically to a third point – that I look forward to the day when the ministry and giftedness of women should not need ‘defending’ – least of all by men. In a brilliant blog post the Baptist theologian Dr Steve Holmes of St Andrews University said this:

“I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

…..
And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ.

Defend that? Why?

There’s a thousand stories like it. That I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.

And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day – then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about. [put in names of women you know]

As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.

And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.

And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.”

  1. My final point is on how to disagree

Students frequently say to me as I teach theology and describe different views – what do you believe Patrick? And they sometimes accuse me of sitting on the fence when I don’t tell them. But as a teacher it is your job to get students to understand both sides of an argument. To be able truly to stand in someone else’s shoes and argue their case as well as or even better than they could themselves – even if you disagree with it profoundly.

That shows that you have taken the time truly to listen and understand the other – without constructing a straw man which you then demolish in a swift bout of self-righteous satisfaction!

There are a range of key areas of differences of interpretation on this issue which include:

–         Was male headship established at creation or did it enter the world as a consequence of the Fall?

–         What is the significance of women prophets in the OT – an exception or a role model?

–         How are we to interpret Jesus’ attitude and actions towards women in terms of roles in the church today?

–         Women witnesses of the resurrection – significance?

–         No male or female in Christ we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) – only a spiritual equality or implications for roles in the church as well?

–         Is male authority in church and marriage the biblical norm or a relationship of full mutuality and equality?

–         Is Paul setting up a creation-based permanent subordination of women to men, or addressing local issues in the church of his day?

–         Are male-female hierarchical relationships actually mirroring something of the relationships within the Godhead of Father-Son-Spirit?

I am concerned that there is an increasingly strident tone to the whole debate – both from ‘hard’ complementarians, especially in the USA and Australia, and from ‘hard’ egalitarians on the other side.

So, especially given this context, it is all the more important that, even if we hold strong views on this question (and you may have picked up that I am off the fence on this one) – we are all the more obligated to show grace and charity to fellow Christians with whom we disagree.

Trevor models grace and charity in his approach. This is not a polemical book. He does not misrepresent those who hold different views, he describes their positions accurately. He focuses on a positive biblical vision of men and women equal to rule. His emphasis is on what all Christians can agree on and how this issue has not historically been, or should become, an issue of division.  For this he is to be commended.

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.