The Achilles Heal of Two Complementarian Objections

Since the release of my ebook Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry and John Dickson’s sister volume Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermonsa number of responses have been made, especially from within Australia, and the most engaging has been from Peter Bolt at Theological Theology.

In one installment, Bolt (who I should add wrote a generous blurb for my Jesus is the Christ book) engages several of the points raised by myself and Dickson in relation to 1 Tim 2:12. Bolt disagrees obviously, but writes in a fairly charitable tone, noting my nuances, and even urging me to shift back to my earlier position. Dickson will post a response soon, but I thought I’d raise a few points in response to Bolt’s criticism, and urge him to shift with me!

1. The Necessity of Background. When it comes to 1 Tim 2:11-14, I am fully aware of the danger of imposing hypothetical reconstructions on the text about alleged feminist cults operating in Ephesus. Yet I am convinced that some kind of background has conditioned the occasion and contents of Paul’s prohibition here – these remarks are not off the cuff or made in a vacuum. I would point out that while I’m taken to task for supposedly foregoing a plain straight forward reading of v. 12 (“I do not permit a women to teach”) I notice that my critics forego a similar plain reading in v. 14 (“But women will be saved through child bearing”). Do those who opt for a plain reading  believe either: (a) Only pious child-bearing women will be saved; or (b) No pious pregnant woman will die in child birth? The text is ambiguous to say the least, but I don’t think it is saying either of these. In my mind, 1 Tim 2:14 uses wording taken from the milieu and melee in Ephesus and inverts it in want of establishing domestic decorum and doctrinal accuracy. And I think there are hints from 1-2 Timothy which give us the picture of a deviant teaching that was tinkering with the creation story and messing with female roles in family and church. Something that can be correlated with Bruce Winter’s fine study – and Winter is a complementarian- on the “new Roman women” who were emerging in Romanized cities. 

2. The Problem of Female Prophets. I confess to being baffled with some of the things that good and smart complementarian guys do with the phenomenon of female prophets. Let me give two examples. Tom Schreiner (a guy I tremendously respect) argues that female prophecy and male prophecy were different. The problems is that the evidence points the other way. In Nehemiah, Noadiah the prophetess is part of the “rest of the prophets” (Neh 6:14). Joel 2 and its fulfilment in Acts 2 promises that men and women will prophecy with no indication of two different qualities or different forums for it. Paul refers to men and women both prophesying together in corporate worship, not segregated (1 Cor 11:4-5). Women consistently exercised a prophetic ministry across both Testaments and among all the people (see Exod 15; Acts 2; 1 Cor 11, 14).

Elsewhere (though I can’t remember where, my books are still packed up, someone correct if I get this wrong) Schreiner argues that women can prophesy in corporate worship because prophets experience a more heightened form of inspiration than normal teachers. So under some kind of uber-inspiration, God can speak through women, because God’s inspiration here is so intense that it can counter-act the feminine nature of the prophetic subject. But to imply that God can utter prophecies through women only because he effectively circumvents their gender by an intensified inspiration does sound, well, kind of prejudicial towards women (though I doubt that Schreiner means it maliciously). What is more, what biblical evidence is there for the view that a prophet is more inspired than Moses, Ezra, Solomon, David, Luke, John, or Paul?

Whereas some want to intensify prophetic inspiration to explain why women can do it, others want to lessen the authority of prophecy as way again of explaining why women were allowed to do it in corporate worship. Listen to Bolt’s words on this subject in an earlier post:

[P]rophecy in the NT is not an authoritative activity like the ‘teaching or authority’ in Paul’s 1 Timothy 2 prohibition. Even unlike OT prophecy, it could be ignored (Acts 21:10–14); it needs to be evaluated (1 Cor 14:29); and so it is to be regulated by a process of ‘weighing’ —a process in which no women were involved, even if they had been amongst the ‘two or three’ being evaluated (1 Cor 14:29–35); and, presumably by means of this process, the congregation was to reject the evil, and hold to the good (1 Thess 5:19–22). It appears to be something like Spirit-prompted suggestions for congregational application.

This assumes that OT prophecy is different to NT prophecy, a division that I and many others plainly reject. The age of prophecy that Joel 2 prophesied about is not predicting a lesser form of prophecy. I mean, really, is Joel encouraging the people with the fact that one day an inferior form of prophecy will arise? I would point out a few things too: (1) In Eph 2:20, the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – note the order – and these prophets could be NT prophets who are put on a level with apostolic authority! (2) Prophesy and teaching and evangelism and pastoring are all put on part in Acts 13:1 and Eph 4:11. (3) Paul links prophecy to revelation, knowledge, and a word of instruction (1 Cor 14:6). (4) If anything, Paul regards prophecy as a special gift, one to be sort after, because it was edifying and instructive (1 Cor 14:1, 39). From this it is hard to avoid the conclusion that NT prophecy was inspired, charismatic, didactic, and authoritative,just like OT prophecy. It was far from a “Spirit-prompted suggest for congregational application,” which makes prophecy sound like something one has been recommended from a Matthias Media Catalogue. David Peterson, Bolt’s learned colleague at Moore, has argued that NT prophecy was probably a wide-ranging term encompassing teaching, exhortation, prediction, and forth-telling. That sounds a lot more believable than Bolt’s own definition. I am also confused as to how Bolt can say that Agabus’ prophecy in Acts 21 was ignored – it wasn’t – Agabus prophesied danger for Paul, Paul’s friends urged him not to go, but Paul went any way. Also, yes, NT prophecy was subject to evaluation, but so was OT prophecy (see Deut 13:1-5; Jer 5:31; 23:16-17; 28:8-9; Matt 7:15-23). In sum, I’m not a prophet, nor a son of a prophet, but I do work for a non-profit organization and I do have a suggestion for congregational application in Evangelical Anglican Churches: prophecy was inspired, didactic, and authortiative and women should be doing more of it in our churches in accordance with the biblical examples.

Now to be honest, you could accept all of my arguments here and still be a complementarian! There are other ways to establish complementarian views and there are several species of complementarian belief. However, complementarianism is simply not convincing when it denies any kind of behind-the-scenes issues in 1 Tim 2:11-14 and especially when it tries to redefine prophecy, to lessen its significance, all because women were able to do it. 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jim

    ‘heels’ not ‘heals’

    • AHH

      You didn’t know Achilles was a doctor?

  • Mike, good analysis of prophecy.

  • Luke

    Great post here. Evidence to back up assertions; good, sound logical reasoning; steeped in Scripture with lots to chew on. Thanks for this.

  • Christopher Green

    Mike, that has been my pondering objection to the strict complementarian view for a while; prophecy. I haven’t read your book, but you don’t sound to me like you are suggesting that there is “nothing” to gender either, in terms of the creational/providential order. God-husband/Israel-bride; Christ-husband/church-bride; on account of these generalities, do you think the roles of men & women might be more akin to the “roles” of different characters in a play, with a script but with some adaptation and impromptu?

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    In other news: your pocket edition of the Greek Uncial Archetype of Mark is finally ready. But I hear you have moved. Now where should I mail it to?

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr. — james (dot) snapp [at] gmail (dot) com

  • Martin Shields

    I think you’re all wrong on prophecy. OT prophecy is far more diverse a phenomenon than Bolt assumes. Sure, there were the “canonical” prophets whose words are recorded in the OT and so are accorded appropriate authority. But there were schools of prophets and bands of prophets, the Torah encourages the testing of prophecy (as you’ve noted), and so on. So you’re right — there’s no real basis for arguing that they’re fundamentally different across the testaments.

    OTOH, I think Peterson is wrong in arguing that “prophecy” is a wide-ranging phenomenon (that was once a common argument amongst Sydney Anglicans, perhaps until it was realised that it undermined the belief that “women musn’t preach”). I think that, at this point, people like Grudem, Carson, Grabbe, and others are correct — the distinctive feature of prophecy is (to quote Grabbe) “the prophet is a mediator who claims to receive messages direct from a divinity, by various means, and communicates these messages to recipients” (Priests, Prophets, Diviners, Sages: A Socio-Historical Study of Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel, 107). Where there are examples of prophecy in the NT and frequently in the OT, we see this.

    And if you push the details of Agabus’ prophecy further, he does seem to get it a bit wrong. He said the Jews would bind Paul and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. What happens is the Romans rescue Paul from the Jews and they bind his hands. What’s the significance of this? I don’t know! Perhaps Agabus had a vision and had to interpret what he saw and he got it a bit wrong?

    Other than that, you’re spot-on about the importance of background. And just because there are disagreements over the background doesn’t invalidate its importance, it just means we have to exercise a degree of humility and say “we’re not sure!”

  • Mike Bull

    Hi there

    This question can’t be answered without any reference to biblical Covenant structure and architecture. There is a consistent Adam-Eve, head-body pattern running throughout the Bible.

    All this goes back to Genesis 3. The pattern there is set for the rest of the Bible, and it is followed like clockwork. Adam receives the Covenant Law (silent priest), the Law is challenged by a false god who attempts to deceive the Bride, Adam is judge according to the Law (king) and then to repeat the Law (prophet), after which the Bride joins with him (as co-regent) in calling down the Covenant curses upon the serpent. Her prophetic authority is sourced in the obedience and primary word of the Bridegroom.

    We see this again in the ascension of Moses. He receives the Law, it is challenged and broken, and a new set of tablets is given. In the bigger picture, the second Law is actually Deuteronomy, spoken to the New Body.

    We see it throughout the Restoration era (Daniel to Esther – and notice Esther becoming co-regent) and then again in the New Testament.

    The final event is the Revelation, where Christ ascends (like Moses, as Firstfruits, Rev 4-5), opens the New Covenant scroll, the “kings of the Land” reject the Gospel, slay the saints, and the new bridal body ascends to call down the curses upon Herodian worship (the Covenant whore). It’s a replay of Genesis 3, but with a better Adam and a “chaste virgin,” the Church.

    “Behold I sit a queen, and am no widow.”

    The pattern is remarkably consistent. Eve’s “prophecy” was right – it was the serpent. But Adam is always to speak first the Word from the Lord that he heard on the mountain.

    The other crucial pattern is the triune architecture. In the Holy Place, Adam is the link to the Most Holy (as Covenant Head – the cursed brow) and Eve is the link to the courts/nations (as Covenant Body – the cursed womb). I won’t go into this too much, but once again it’s consistent throughout the Bible, including the New Testament. The only reason women are now allowed into the NC Holy Place is because the serpent has been crushed – and she can sing and prophesy like Miriam and Deborah and Mary. But Eve is still Eve. She has a different station in the architecture.

    Allowing women to usurp the priestly authority (i.e. authority to serve and die) delegated to the man in Church will have ramifications in our families, and then in the state. The Church leads the world for good or ill, and if we fold on this issue we have failed to lead. If we can’t see this, Ahasuerus and his advisors are smarter than we are. His judgment upon Vashti was righteous.

    The “prophetic” bridal body is gathering of the Spirit, but the Spirit is sent via the Son. We must image this in Church or we reflect the confusion of the world.

    Mike Bull