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

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.


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

Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

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:

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.

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

Gender and ministry 3: gender in evangelicalism

A key underlying question behind different evangelical readings is how to interpret the biblical narrative. Is hierarchy and patriarchy part of the old creation, so rather than ‘fossilising it’, Christians are to live out lives of mutual participation within God’s liberating new creation?

Or is hierarchy and patriarchy rooted in the creation order and reflecting the ways things ‘should be’ at a very deep level? Back to Piper here – you can’t go much deeper than argue such patterns are founded in the nature of God himself.

Cherith Fee Nordling outlines different evangelical understandings of gender roles in her article in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.

She suggests that evangelical ‘essentialist’ understandings of gender are drawn from Aristotlelian assumptions that have remained embedded in the church for centuries. It reflects a hierarchical male/female duality based on Aristotle’s philosopy and biology.

This pervasive Aristotelian essentialism endured from early church history through the medieval Church and into the Reformation where it has a continuing influence within the evangelical tradition.

And since the 1980s especially, this tradition has been reworked into the ‘biblical’ view of male hierarchy – which came to be called ‘complementarianism’ by its proponents. This holds to divinely ordained gender roles.

It is vital to hold to such roles because biblical authority is at stake. Men are to responsible under God for church and family life. For women to hold such roles is to disregard biblical authority.

[An aside here – I blogged here a while ago how NT evangelical scholar Howard Marshall said that it is this lack of any clear reason why it is so dangerous and wrong for women to be involved in leadership that has been so hard for many women (and men) to accept the hierarchical view.]

For complementarians, women are equal ontologically in being with men, they are not equal in role – such as authority, leadership, preaching, responsibility. Aristotle believed men were more suited to command than women – although he also believed men were ontologically superior to women.

Nordling implies here that Aristotle was more consistent than modern day hierarchialists. It is hard to explain how the limiting of women from certain functions is not based somehow on ontology. She quotes Becca Merrill Groothuis

It is logically impossible for the same person to be at once spiritually and ontologically equal and permanently, comprehensively, and necessarily subordinate

Hierarchy is the result of the curse, not a normative good pattern to follow. So egalitarians argue the Bible supports equal roles and functions for women in church and family life. Leadership is a gift of the Spirit for the good of the body, not a right for any man or woman. But it is a gift given to both men and women alike.

So ultimately this debate is a hermenutical one – how to interpret and apply the biblical narrative; how to interpret contentious texts like 1 Tim 2:12-13; 1 Cor 11:3 and Eph 5:22-23 within that overarching narrative.

To sum up a difference of perspective here: the hierarchicalists tend to read those texts with assumptions about fixed gender roles and see them as setting out a universal creation-order blueprint for how the genders should relate. The concerns are for biblical authority and obedience to the way God has ordained things to be (regardless if there is no strong explanatory reason why things should be this way).

Egalitarians will interpret those texts not as intended to be universal fixed codes of male / female relationships, but as needing to be read in light of eschatological Spirit who unites all in the one body of Christ and pours out his life-giving and gifting presence on men and women alike.

In the egalitarian perspective, yes gender matters and difference is embedded in our humanity. But without each other men and women experience deficiency. They need each other in mutual relationships of self-giving love for fullness, not defined or limited by assumptions about specific gender roles.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Gender and ministry 1: what is gender?

I want to come back to Cherith Fee Nordling’s article on Gender in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology. I think it is one of the best short treatments of the issue of gender and women in ministry that I’ve read anywhere.

She asks what is gender?

And argues that it is “one’s bodily and cultural identity as male or female”. In other words, it is one’s sex (male or female) AND “assumed gender expectations regarding that person’s behaviours, personality, perceptions, motives, reactions, activities and attitudes.”

Here’s a key point: certain understandings of gender have dominated evangelical debates about men and women in ministry.

A ‘premodern’ view (which she locates as prior 1960) sees sex and gender as a natural given. There is a fixed natural order of things, a core way of being a man or a woman. There is a divinely ordered ‘essence’ of being male or female. (sounding familiar?) This is an essentialist approach that assumes a male and female nature that is universal and constant across all cultures and times.

A modern (post 1960) perspective rejects this. Gender is seen as more of a social construct, reflective of underlying cultural power structures. Gender and sexuality in this view are constructed according the values of those who have the power shape those structures. So those concerned with equality will work to change the structures to level the playing field between men and women.

Postmodern gender debates go further to stress the endless diversity and plurality of cultures, personalities, people, values and ideologies so as to show the impossibility of any universal values or meta-narrative – including the biblical narrative. Everything is local and contextual. Difference is stressed and any innate hierarchy is rejected.

So what to make of this?

Studies across cultures seem to affirm bits of all three views. People do learn very different ways of being feminine and masculine in different contexts globally. Yet these studies do show that there are at least three consistent things about gender:

The first two are rather obvious and universally agreed in all cultures : gender matters and there are two genders. The third is that there “are certain ways that males and females think, feel and act.” Yet this is this one that is hardest to pin down.

What are specifically male ways of thinking and feeling and acting? What are specifically female ways of doing the same? [sounds like an invite for some bad jokes]

The more you push this the more it becomes clear that there is no obvious or easy way to define what are ‘male’ ways of thinking, feeling and acting as opposed to ‘female’ ways of thinking feeling and acting.

Go on – have a go at trying! Are males uniquely ‘decisive’? Women uniquely compassionate? Males uniquely strategic thinkers? Woman uniquely networkers? This is where Piper’s ill defined supposed ‘masculine’ Christianity begins to fall apart. It is a subjective arbitrary set of assumptions and a model that is without biblical warrant. The Bible just does not set out to define ‘masculinity’ and then propose it as an essentialist model for the Christian faith.

Have you noticed that where Christians try to do this their version of ‘biblical masculinity’ or ‘biblical femininity’ ends up mirroring the assumptions of their own sub-cultures? So, for example, you get middle-class 1950s American assumptions about gender roles presented as the ‘biblical’ model of manhood and womanhood.

Instead the Bible celebrates that in Christ there is no male or female.  Men remain men. Women remain women. But in Christ deep religious, social, power, and cultural differences are overcome through common faith in Christ and the subsequent reception of the Spirit of God for all believers whatever their gender [Galatians 3-4].

Nordling puts it this way: men and women represent two hugely overlapping forms of humanity. It is impossible to draw clear lines between nature (sex) and nurture (experience). Such dualisms do not work. Being a man or a women is both having XY or XX chromosomes AND learning to be masculine or feminine [cultural constructs].

What God does call all his people to live in right relationships with each other and with Him, whatever their gender.

To be continued …

Comments, as ever, welcome

‘God’s preferential option for the man?’: an invitation to women

The debate about John Piper’s ‘masculine Christianity‘ raises all sorts of questions about gender, biblical interpretation, evangelicalism and so on.

But underneath this are questions of what such theology does to women. I’m grateful for Ruth’s comment a couple of posts ago in being willing to share her response to the idea that God is somehow more predisposed to masculinity (not sure how else to put it].

Rather than God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ in Liberation Theology, we seem to have ‘God’s preferential option for the man’ in Piper’s theology.

I thought it well worth re-posting here and inviting others, especially women, to share their responses …

So if you are woman reading this, I’d love to hear from you – and feel welcome to invite your friends too!

I’ve been personally devastated by the John Piper comments.

I’m so deeply grateful for you, Patrick, and others who have presented a more balanced view (along with calls for unity which I greatly appreciate) but I continue to be “cast down” when I read the tone and weight of comments.

Some seem to be far more concerned about the threat (??) of feminism than the terrible blow that has been dealt to sisters in Christ by the implication that Christianity (and therefore God) is somehow more exclusively masculine… thus implying a special relationship between God and man or a greater value of a man in God’s thinking. (I wonder how people would have responded if John Piper had said Christianity was “white” or “American”? The early church could have as easily said Christianity was essentially “Jewish” – and some did!)

Overall, this leaves me feeling silenced. How can I respond when the instant reaction is to condemn me as a feminist, as somehow seeking self-aggrandizement???

Yet Proverbs 31:8 says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves…” (I love the context – two verses later there is a beautiful description of a woman who lives as her Creator intended).

I hurt for my daughters if they are to grow up in a church that does not value them fully and completely as I KNOW that our Lord Jesus values them!

For me this goes much, much deeper than the secondary issue of women in leadership (over which I’m content to differ and, where necessary, to respect and defer to those with other views) but it goes to the heart of a woman’s relationship with God.


A follow up on ‘masculine Christianity’

I was chuffed when The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology arrived in the post the other day. Not least because it costs £95 (!) and it was a review copy 🙂

In it is a chapter on Gender by Cherith Fee Nordling.

Her opening section speaks right into the furore of John Piper’s call for a masculine Christianity.

What do you think of what she says here – especially her description of ‘oppositional dualisms’ running deep within some evangelical theologies of male-female relationships?

‘All things are yours,’ writes Paul to the women and men of the church at Corinth, be it ‘the world of life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God’ (1 Cor 3:21b-22). Paul reminds them that because of God’s self-giving generosity, there is no longer any need or place for division over leadership that would limit the gifts of the Spirit poured out equally on women and men alike. To do so would be to go backward, to live as ‘old creation.’ Rather, these diverse women and men, reconstituted by the Spirit, are ‘new creation.’ They share eschatologically in all that belongs to the Son, who has guaranteed an embodied inheritance that does not prioritize gender, class, ethnicity, or anything else.

This expansive offering of life together, grounded in the generous life of the Triune God, offers a challenge to evangelical traditions and theologies where oppositional dualisms run deep, especially in terms of being female and male image-bearers of Jesus Christ. These dualisms take multiple forms. One is that of prescribing and proscribing roles according to gender and sexuality. Authority, hierarchy, tradition, and head/leadership are biblically interpreted through a set of assumptions that essentially prioritize men’s being and function over that of women. In this dualism, biology is a God-ordained destiny.