Friday, August 9, 2013

Women in Ministry: Not Just a Position Paper

The small-but-vibrant Christian subsection of Reddit recently had a fairly productive and interesting discussion on the role of women in ministry. For my part, I mostly played around with different ideas, acted as devil's advocate, and in general trolled people. It helped me to develop some lines I've thought I've been having about this increasingly-controversial topic.

The reason women in many churches and denominations don't have as many ministry roles open to them as men primarily goes back to three passages written by Paul (I should mention that Catholics also believe that the fact that the original 12 apostles were men is significant, and that the church therefore does not have the authority to appoint women to their role):
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:1-13)
Paul, in telling Timothy about the qualifications for being an elder or deacon (servant), seem to imply that they must be male.
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
So women are also not supposed to teach or hold authority over a man.
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)
Women should not speak in church at all? Ouch.

From these passages (also his section on head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 and his instructions for wives to submit to their husbands), people have labeled Paul as sexist, misogynist, and patriarchal. The question persists: if these passages make us uneasy but we're not willing to write Paul off as an ignorant chauvinist or simply call these sections (and maybe whatever else in the Bible rubs us the wrong way) interpolations by later scribes, what are we to do about his instructions about women? Well, there are plenty of commentaries and other writeups on this subject giving you whatever position you may want to hear, so I'm going to exegete these texts surprisingly little and instead focus on situating them in their greater context.

Some comparisons

Before I get into what I've been thinking, let me try to defuse a bit of the tension that tends to charge any discussion of women's roles in church. In our culture we tend to be very suspicious of "sexism"--the denigration of one sex (women) by another (men)--in all its forms. We demonize sexism and contrast it with an egalitarian view that says that aside from a few biological odds-and-ends, there are no essential differences between men and women in value, ability, or potential. Anything men can do, women can do. Anyone who dares to question the essential equality of men and women or hints at the existence of gender differences is branded a sexist and summarily written off. We insist that gender doesn't matter, but the more we do, the more it seems to matter more than ever.

Obviously this makes things difficult for "complementarian" Christians who seek to apply Paul's words about gender relations in today's world. Though I'm fairly sure Paul would have affirmed that men and women were of equal value in God's sight, he didn't seem to see any conflict between this and seeing limitations to womens' abilities (preaching, teaching, and holding roles of authority) and rights, as we do today. Paul seems to have held a "different-but-equal" view of men and women, one that just isn't fathomable to modern western cultures, so he becomes a sexist to us and we see no further reason to listen to him. Unlike Paul, we simply can't conceive of any way to affirm the equal value of men and women without treating them equally.

An analogy should greatly help this make more sense. Imagine, if you will, the abolishing of all children's ministry so that all children of every age join their parents in church. On top of the crying babies we're used to, you now get kids randomly spouting off the tops of their heads, and the older kids (assuming they aren't completely tuned out) frequently having to ask their parents what's going on. You hear of other churches in your denomination that are, of all things, having youth as young as 12 teaching and even leading adults. One church has a 15-year-old lead pastor. You sigh inwardly with relief a few weeks later as your denomination releases a carefully-worded statement specifying that these positions should be held by adults, additionally clarifying that for the sake of harmony children looking for explanations about the proceedings in church should wait until after the service to ask their parents about it.

This analogy applies in several ways. Jewish women did not worship together with the men (the temple in Jerusalem had a "court of women" which was the closest they could approach); suddenly, when they converted to Christianity, the men and women were worshipping together, just as if children suddenly started joining their parents in church. You can imagine the difficulties this might cause. Placing restrictions on childrens' privilages to lead and teach adults (or even pragmatic ones like asking them to keep silent in church) is totally reasonable, but does this mean we consider children inferior to adults? Of course not!

Obviously this analogy isn't perfect. Feminists might bristle at my comparing women to children. Of course there are big differences between adults and children in maturity, ability, and wisdom, differences which have no analog between men and women. But as unthinkable as it sounds to have children holding positions of church leadership, keep in mind that this would have been somewhat less unthinkable before the invention of the "teenager" as a separate stage of life when they came of age at, say, 13 and were then effectively considered adults. Today, teenagers don't need to fully "grow up" until after college, if not later. What I am asking is: could the belief in essential differences between men and women (like the belief in essential differences between teenagers and adults), at least in part, create those differences?

What is happening when we angrily write Paul off for his statements on gender is that we're ripping his statements out of their ancient context and examining them in our modern one. It's no surprise that they seem more than a bit bizarre when we do this. I think we usually fail to understand how uncontroversial and ingrained the patriarchal view of gender was in Paul's time. We think that if that stick-in-the-mud Paul hadn't been so backwards and sexist, the church could have been egalitarian from its earliest days. Stupid Paul! But if there really were differences between men and women in the new churches (albeit culturally conditioned rather than inherent), we can't blame church rules differentiating between men and women, as if getting rid of them would have solved everything. I have trouble believing that anyone accused Paul of sexism in his time, or that any women bristled at their being excluded from ministry. Let's stop judging the past by the standards of the present and try to understand what Paul was saying in its original context.

Some qualifications

The first thing to notice is that churches who seek to directly apply Paul's instructions and therefore disallow women from being pastors or elders or teaching men don't go far enough. Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that they should not speak at all in church, for it is shameful for them to do so. I have yet to see a church that actually applies this verse rather than treating it as an artifact of Paul's culture.

Of more concern are instances of these teachings being violated in the New Testament. In sharp contrast to the subservient role Paul seems to assign them in these verses, women assume a variety of important roles in Jesus' ministry and in the early church. Much is made of the fact that all twelve of Jesus' disciples were male, but he had a smaller but equally devoted following of women, some of whom are the first to discover that Jesus' body is missing from His tomb. (Which is especially puzzling as the testimony of women was considered unreliable in those days) Paul asks that several women be greeted by name in Romans 16: Phoebe, "that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well", "Greet Prisca [Priscilla] and Aquila [her husband], my fellow workers in Christ Jesus", and Andronicus and Junia, who are "notable among the apostles". (Note: Junia's name is conjugated like a feminine noun, but we can't be sure that he/she is a woman) It's very hard to believe that these women could have become so significant in the early church if they never spoke in it.

Or Philippians 4:2-3: "I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." Again, co-laborers with Paul in the gospel: hard to reconcile with not being allowed to speak in church.

An even stronger example is Acts 18, in which we are introduced to Priscilla and Aquila:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. ... After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. ... Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
So when Paul gets to Corinth, he meets Priscilla and Aquila, fellow Jewish converts and fellow tentmakers by day. They decide to join him in his ministry and travel with him. Then, in Ephesus, we meet Apollos, a charismatic if somewhat ignorant man who is corrected and assisted in his ministry by Priscilla and Aquila. Without twisting the text, we are naturally led to conclude that Priscilla, a woman, is teaching Apollos, a man.

You may object: "Just because someone does something in the Bible doesn't mean it's okay or we're supposed to imitate them. Just look at the Old Testament--Abraham pimps out his wife, Jacob takes two wives and two concubines, Solomon takes hundreds, Moses is a murderer... We should follow Paul's clear teaching, not anyone's actions except Jesus." Well, Jesus didn't let anyone except the Father teach or have authority over Him, but He did give women pretty prominent places in His company (or at least let them speak), so maybe Jesus isn't the best example here either. (If you say that, you're in trouble) But besides the incongruity with Jesus' example, notice the double standard this approach places on the text. Paul is supposed to have been so chock-full of inspiration from the Spirit that he was able to write the perfect, timeless will of God to be unquestioningly followed by the church universal 2,000 years later, but he turns a blind eye to this will being disobeyed by his companions. I don't think inspiration works like that.

I'm not simply trying to argue that the verses where women do appear to teach or have authority in the church "trump" the ones where Paul says they can't because I want them to. Scripture doesn't work that way. I am trying to show that even for Paul himself, the issue of gender in ministry was not as black-and-white as we construe his words today. That even though he justifies his instructions for women with an appeal to widespread tradition (as in 1 Corinthians 14) or the creation order (1 Timothy 2), they may not be as universal as we think. Though there wasn't room for discussion on what to take from Paul's instructions in the churches they were actually directed to, there certainly is today.

Some conclusions

In this issue especially, and in other matters of church practice, I find that discussions often go back to trying to figure out, from the limited Biblical data in Acts and the epistles, what exactly the "early" (first-century) church was doing so we can follow their example--because the infallible Bible came from the early church, so we can trust them. If we give weight to the texts that seem to portray women in leadership roles in the first-century church, then it's okay for us to allow women to preach and teach today. If we find these less-than-convincing and focus on Paul's instructions to the contrary, then only men should teach men, just as it's always been. But the early church is not the ultimate example for the modern church. That role can only belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), who must be our example just as He was theirs. If the inspiration to write scripture actually made the church perfect, then great, that's been the goal all along, so God never would have withdrawn it. But the church is not perfect yet, but is still being perfected (Ephesians 5:25-27).

And if Christ is my ultimate example, then right now I can't explain (to myself or others) from His example why women should be kept from ministry. Though I desire to take all of Paul's writing seriously, I don't see how to apply his teachings about women in ministry in a way that doesn't denigrate or patronize women, that is consistent with the love of Christ we're supposed to have for each other. In my finite capacity to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, I'd rather set aside the lesser command, asking God to move in my heart to make sense of it, and hold onto the greater.

I've really been enjoying listening through Renovatus Church's Both & sermon series, which is largely about Biblical interpretation. In my post on καρδια, I wrote about the first sermon in this series, which uses the example of Acts 15 where the apostles deliberate on whether to require Gentile Christians to obey the Jewish law. They eventually decide not to hold the Gentiles to a a law that they have not done well at keeping themselves, except for a quick list: "to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." Pastor Jonathan Martin rightly points out that there is no way they could have reached this conclusion with the kind of scripture-only Biblical-grammatical hermeneutics we base doctrine on today: the only scripture they had at the time was the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), which did require Gentile converts to be circumcised and to obey the law. They do measure their Spirit-led experience against the text, but ultimately their decision is based on experience, not scripture. I see a possible parallel with our modern situation here.

As I mentioned in my last post on gender in the church, I come from a church background where I've seen women successfully participate in all levels of ministry. Both churches I grew up in (my "home church" and my mom's growing-up church that we would attend for holidays) have had woman pastors; in the latter case the church's only pastor for several years was a woman. Additionally, my mother has been ordained as an elder at my home church as it's navigating a long and difficult dispute with its denomination. In short, the only evidence I have heard that woman should not today lead in church ministry has been purely intellectual arguments directly from scripture, which has contrasted greatly with my actual experience in church. If Paul's command speaks to a universal reality of the sexes, I'd expect it to be affirmed, not denied, by experience.

The sermon in the Both & series I listened to most recently builds on this by looking at Genesis 32, where Jacob randomly wrestles with God and receives the new name Israel (which means "he wrestles with God"). Martin translates this into a metaphor for our own relationship with God and His word, which strongly resonates with me in how it captures the fact that loving God wholeheartedly is never easy. Looking back, I've learned the most from the Bible and grown the most when I've been wrestling with it actively rather than just soaking it up passively. The process of digging into the Bible in all its complexity and other-ness has been more transformative for me than getting a polished nugget of theological truth in the end.

His other point that stuck out to me was that "Scripture exists not to give us information about God, but as sacred space for us to encounter God and to wrestle with God." In other words, if our primary goal is simply to somehow reconcile these writings of Paul into a correct "position" on the "issue" of women in ministry, we've missed the point. The Bible is not a book of answers to doctrinal questions, but the word of God that is supposed to confront us, speak to us, change us: "Getting the right answer will not get you anywhere in the things of will not transform you." This is almost forgotten in church debates like this when we seem to be shaking the Bible like a magic 8-ball until a clear, Official answer to our question floats to the surface.

What if God wants us to care about how we're using His word rather than just what we're using it to say? Ephesians 6:17 tells us that the Bible is the sword of the Spirit--but is it the sword that attacks unbelievers and your theological opponents, vindicating your correct beliefs and showing their manifold errors; or is it the sword that pierces "to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12)? The Bible is the sword of the Spirit to wield against our sinful hearts, not the sword of the theologians to wield against each other; we can't be the Holy Spirit to each other.

I've hopefully made it pretty clear that I don't want to bar women from any role in church ministry. But if the point of scripture is to encounter God, if it is the sword of the Spirit to pierce our own hearts, it becomes very important that I believe this with humility--both toward God and toward others. Toward God in that I take seriously the fact that this isn't what Paul instructs, and the question of how my view and Paul's can be different is not resolved or closed off to God by any means. Toward others in that I believe it is fully possible to faithfully disagree with me; of course churches (like my own, for instance) that have all-male leadership can manifest the character of God; anyone who holds a different view isn't automatically that much more of a faithless fool. This isn't being weak or wishy-washy or not "taking a stand on God's word"; it is holding loosely to every nonessential trapping of our lives so we never let go or lose sight of the One who is truly essential to us.

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