Slippery slopes and political hills

I remember going to my first Vocations Officer appointment in the 'discernment to ordination' process. I wondered if my hermeneutical approach to the book of Ruth would be something that they would like to hear about - not particularly, they said.

I spoke up to say that I had a lot of work to do first and I might return. Equally and just as likely, I might not. They identified my teaching skills and zeal of faith but there was some ambivalence over why I had to go away to do some serious work. It was over a year before I returned and in that time I had paid for my own theological education, accessing lectures on a range of issues but always listening out for teaching on the question of whether women could lead and preach in God's church.

The first essay I was asked to write was on the theological objections for and against female Bishops. Seeking accountability in my life, I asked John Richardson (AKA Ugley Vicar) to take a look at my essay with me. It is always good to engage with the very best of the arguments that do not support your own position.  I engaged with Grudem, Piper and McCarthur. I read Tom Wright on 'Women's service in the Church: the biblical basis'. I read Ken Bailey's 'Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.'  Gilbert Bilezikian's 'Beyond Sex Roles - What the Bible says about a woman's role in Church and family,' was hugely helpful in the writing of that essay. It was because he had purposefully set out to make up his mind on the issue over several years and alongside a whole team of people who met together to discuss the topic of women in senior Christian ministries. There had been a shortage of leaders and they had wondered whether they could appoint women. A Christianity Today article explored Bilezikian's contribution to the debate:

Bilezikian says. "I'm not pursuing equality for its own sake; there is no mandate in the Bible to pursue equality. But there is a mandate to establish community. And authentic community necessarily implies full participation of women and men on the basis of spiritual gifts, not on the basis of sex... Mutual submission is a biblical concept... the words are used specifically in a number of texts but especially in Ephesians 5:21, where it says be mutually submitted to each other." The wife submits to the husband just as the church does to Christ, but there is a reciprocity, he says: "Christ submits himself in-depth to the church, and the church submits itself in service to Christ. But then the husband is also under submission because he has to love his wife as he loves himself, even to the point of self-sacrifice as Christ loved the church." Both men and women, then, desire to serve the other rather than to control the other, Bilezikian says. "Our natural tendency is to compete or take advantage of," he says. "The Bible says lay down your arms and instead extend your hands toward each other to help each other and to support each other; and for the relationship to be one of partnership and mutuality rather than one of hierarchy."

Bilezikian says he tries to live out these principles in his marriage, and they are also evident at his church. Not everyone at Willow Creek initially agreed with Bilezikian's position on women's ministry: among others, Hybels himself taught the traditional view of male headship. After months of study and debate, the church decided that it would support women in any position of leadership—teacher, preacher, elder. (There's a study guide available for "Beyond Sex Roles" McMillan, Kaye. A Study Guide for Beyond Sex Roles: Students’ Book – Questions Only. Saint Paul, Minn.: Christians for Biblical Equality, n.d.)

As I began to investigate the best arguments of my opponents for the writing of my first theological essay on the reasons for and against women bishops, The First Apology of Justin became poignant. Many headship complementarian evangelicals cite their justifications for their stance in their understanding of the Trinity, which is why the question over women's leading and teaching in God's church almost becomes a primary issue. The Trinity is core and doctrinal. Justin the Martyr is one of the church's earliest apologists, writing c100-c165. He articulated ideas about the Logos. He used the excellent analogy of the fire which can kindle another fire into life without the first fire being diminished, or the second fire being subordinate because it is derived from the first. Justin helped me in some ways with my apologetical urges against ESS (Eternal subordination of the Son) as espoused by Bruce and Ware. I loved reading chapter 54: The origin of Heathen Mythology in THE FIRST APOLOGY OF JUSTIN, where he described how all the things that man-kind has ever expressed to know, have their origin in the Wisdom that is Logos: the pre-existent Christ, it's just that humanity has not for most of time and history been able to understand from where their knowledge has its origins.

I also happen to love Justin Martyr because he sees the cross everywhere:
'For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross. And so it was said by the prophet, "The breath before our face is the Lord Christ."'

There is talk today across the blogosphere and in the media, after the historic move to ratify the appointment of women to the episcopate, that the underlying reason for this is a capitulation to contemporary culture. What proponents of this argument fail to engage with, is the huge number of scholarly and sincere theologians who have painstakingly scrutinised the scriptures on this issue and who support the consecration of women out of their approach to the bible alone.

However, what if some have reached this decision in capitulation to contemporary culture?
Has such a point of view any validity? 

In his book Liquid Church, Pete Ward embraces rather than fears change: 'the church is not static and cannot make permanent the forms that prove effective in any particular time and place....Church is something that we make with one another by communicating Christ...church happens when people are motivated to communicate with each other.'

Perhaps then there is a mixture of motives in all things. Can we be purists in our defence that the debate is grounded in the scriptural case alone?  Is it more honourable to reckon with our opponents' claim that the decision has been reached for a number of reasons? These reasons too can be re-claimed for Christ. It would seem that Paul understood that adaptation of the message was necessary for it to be received by the culture. This would account for his various attitudes to the teaching role of women across the contexts into which he ministered.

About teaching Paul makes many points, and, as a former teacher, I am interested in his logic. His “I do not permit a woman to teach,” (1 Tim 2:12) is the subject of my Masters dissertation and so I have a lot of analysis to mine there but it is often the clincher for headship evangelicals for whom it is a prohibition for all time on women. 

In Titus 2:3, Paul explores the role of overseer (episkopos/ presbyteros). The feminine presbytis occurs in Titus 2:3. Paul hopes that the “older women” will teach (didaskō). Paul also supports co-workers (colleagues) Euodia and Syntyche who laboured with him side by side (Phil 4:2–3). Paul is supportive of Lydia (Acts 16:14–15, 40) who had oversight of one of the first house-churches. The Corinthians are reminded to “be subject to . . .every coworker,” and  to “give recognition to such people” (1 Cor 16:16, 18). The Oikos (household) was the setting for the first century church and there was not the common dichotomy we present these days between the public and private teaching of the scriptures. 

Despite these examples, headship evangelicals will promote the idea that society has captured the church and that the most obvious reason for the historic change is its currency with the contemporary equality agenda. Can anything be made of this, I ask again?  Could it be that the very message of the gospel itself would have been inhibited had this movement for women's full participation not occurred? 
Principles should always be above culture but God is known, through his Common Grace, to be at work within the culture too. 

And more persuasive, could it be that in his own day, Paul was aware of the cultural differences in particular parts of the mission field and that he too understood the requirement of adaptation (Acts 17)? 

It would seem that the extension of teaching ministries to women in places like Philippi was not echoed in places like Ephesus - could it be that Paul adapted his approach to suit the context of his own day? 

Lydia was a business woman and recognised for her leadership skills. Such a position would have been accepted in her habitation. In Ephesus, in contrast, female ascendency was the result of the women succumbing to heterodoxy due to the influence of the Artemis cult. A lack of respect for marriage was a symptom of this and there was an over-prominence of women. It was right that in such a culture, Paul should exercise caution and call for patience -- women would need to learn first and be won for Christ else such secular, anti-Christian cultish mores would influence their preaching. Learning in quietness was approved by the ancients as the most appropriate environment for a scholar hence his insistence on their attitude towards learning. 

Eunice and Lois had taught young Timothy but for the most part, Jewish women would not have had the same opportunities, under a rabbi, to study the Hebrew scriptures as a part of their upbringing. Within Gentile communities, there was more opportunity but often early marriage curtailed learning. Confronting heterodoxy, women would have been less equipped than men to discern truth from false teaching.

Lydia, on the other hand, had likely been a god-fearer and was then instructed in the gospel by Paul himself. He would have mentored her and he felt confident in her leadership of an early house church. 

It is right that there is a timeless prohibition with 1 Timothy 2 and often it causes cognitive dissonance for the hearer when I express my agreement with Paul's premise - I am usually then invited to go on and explain my thinking. In the letter to Timothy it is right that Paul shares his concerns.Young Timothy would have needed Paul's guidance as he set about proclaiming the gospel in a place such as Ephesus - what a place! Paul does not permit a woman “to domineer (usurp the authority) of (authenteō) a man, but to be in silence” (2:12b), oude connects “I am not permitting a woman to teach” with “to domineer or destroy (Josephus uses authentēs for “assassins”) (see also P Payne “Man and Woman, One in Christ” pp. 361-397.) There is hostility to the message of God in the Ephesian setting, and some, captured by the cult in operation there, were attempting to take their prominence to the 'pulpit.' It is not right that such syncretic, in fact, anti-Christian thinking should get a window. Paul is right to caution these false teachers. That it is somehow only women who can be false teachers is never the point - the all time prohibition is on false teachers of either gender - everyone is advised to learn and to study quietly first before they take on a teaching role in the church - this is what is extended into the future as a timeless mandate. 

Destruction, murder, assassination and treachery are connotations of authenteo as Catherine Kroeger explores: “In Ephesus women also assumed the role of the man-slaying Amazons who had founded the cult of Artemis of Ephesus. . . . Evidence of actual human sacrifice has been discovered at the lowest level of the great Artemisium.” Catherine Clark Kroeger, “God/dess of the Past,” The Goddess Revival: A Biblical Response to God(dess) Spirituality, ed. A. Besançon Spencer et al. (Eugene, Wipf & Stock, 1995), 58. Like Eve, Paul had been deceived by Satan and it had created murderous tendencies in him too - he, of all people, knew to caution against false teaching. Capitulating to heterodoxy brings spiritual death. 

If this is then what we are really to learn from Paul, it is essential that there is no positive discrimination in the appointment of women as Bishops. 

If we are to learn anything from the debate, it is that both men and women considered for this role of oversight in the church must conform their beliefs to the faith expressed in the thirty-nine articles and upheld in the scriptures.

A political hill might be being climbed and a glass ceiling broken but there are many for whom a slippery slope seems perilously close. The more able we are to place Paul's teaching in its right context, even if that context looks to the history of his day, as well as the timeless truths, the more able we will be to secure the right kind of leaders for this role in the church.

On hearing this week that my own training institution, St John's, is no longer accepting full time training ordinands, the church is obviously adapting to the culture - there is now a tendency to mix-mode your training with the Anglican Church. The church must take the call to life-long learning and the study of the scriptures ever more seriously as society moves away from its Christian heritage. I wonder how training institutions are going to rise to this challenge.

Paul had certainly begun to address this in his own day, advocating education. His "Let a women learn," was incredibly counter-culture - how amazing then that headship evangelicals have somehow managed to reverse the sentiment of his teaching. We learn in order to teach others - legacy leadership is always about investing in the next generation so that the message of Christ extends to our children and our children's children: women and men are both called to the safe-guarding and the communication of the faith. Regardless of gender we are all to bring spiritual life at every level of the church.

If we look more carefully at Paul's advice for teachers, in Crete the women are encouraged to teach what is good and holy and in Ephesus to avoid teaching what is wrong and false. Women teaching women was liberating in a place like Crete against the backdrop of its historical milieu but is not an exclusive command for all time just because then the gender specificity was culturally appropriate. New Wine is one such church organisation seeing the good gift that is same gender mentoring relationships - let's not throw any babies out with bathwaters. Education through modelling (typos 1 Thess) is important. It is important but it is not to the exclusion of women teaching men.

For St Paul, it is teaching, per se, that is important and a charism that is given to both genders. Being "skilful at teaching” is a requirement of the overseer (Bishop) (1 Timothy 3:2). We are taught so that we can teach others (2 Tim 2:2).

Paul says far more about right teaching and right learning than he ever does about gender and it is his words here that are to help the church secure its future Bishops. 


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

This part sticks out like a sore thumb: "where he described how all the things that man-kind has ever expressed to know, have their origin in the Wisdom that is Logos: the pre-existent Christ, it's just that humanity has not for most of time and history been able to understand from where their knowledge has its origins."

Do you, a twenty-first century person, with all that we have developed in subject areas, really believe this - a nonsensical view (now) of a premodern thinker, who rather assumed his sacred canopy. Far from this being so, knowledge has completely circumvented a Christian origin of itself. And so when you say: " he, of all people, knows to caution against false teaching. Capitulating to heterodoxy brings death." I shall just say, heterodoxy is the 'other' in the mind of the self-acclaimed orthodox, and as someone who succumbed to heterodoxy I'll instead quote some economics by Keynes - that, in the long run, we are all dead.

As for your main argument, all it proves is the plasticity and inauthentic nature of so much theology. You can make it say what you want it to say.

Revisingreform said...

Not as opposed to your thoughts as you might imagine - was discussing today with a colleague the post-modern context - reader response theory and the plasticity of definitions - I understand too, of course, the nature of the language of the academy and its limitations - it has to impact the public square, hence the grounding of it all in coal-face public ministries - my only ivory tower is this one... thanks Adrian.

Phil Almond said...

The case for my conviction that the ordination of women is contrary to the revealed will of God is set out in a post (August 28 2014 at 3.42 pm) to the Fulcrum thread ‘Paul’s concern for the women in Timothy’s churches: Notes on 1 Tim 2:8-15’. After the introduction my argument begins,
“‘But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives to their husbands in everything’ (Ephesians 5:24 in the context of Ephesians 5:18-33).
The heart of the disagreement about the ordination of women is the disagreement over what it means in the above passage for the church to be subject to Christ and what this should mean in the above passage for the husband-wife relationship in marriage and, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Timothy 3, for the man-woman relationship in the church.”
As I go on to argue, the key flaw in your case is that, contra Bilezikian, Padgett and others, Christ does not submit to the church.
Phil Almond


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions