Women and Church Ministry: Developing Hermeneutics

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post announcing that I had joined the ranks of the Mutuality position (Egalitarian) on the question of Women and Ministry. What that means is that I fully affirm a woman’s ministry in the church at every level.

One of the reasons I gave for my position was my developing hermeneutic. There are a number of things that could be said about this, but I want to just list a couple of the things that have developed in my thinking over the last decade that has brought me to the mutual position on women. These are broader hermeneutical concerns, but it has been these kinds of questions and reflections that have served to support my affirmation of a wide spectrum presence for women in ministry.

Where We Begin

First, there’s the question of where one begins a conversation about a topic in the Bible like women and ministry. Because where you begin often determines where you end up. Or at least it will determine the questions you ask and the conclusions that are possible. To illustrate this, let me discus a totally different topic: Paul’s view of Torah observance Jewish believers in Messiah. When it comes to Paul’s view of Torah for Jewish believers, do we begin with statements in Paul’s letters or Luke’s biography? What Paul did according to Luke or what he said in condition-specific correspondence? If you begin with Acts, you find a passage like Acts 21:24: “that you yourself are living in obedience to the law”. The story is of Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. James advises Paul to fund and participate in a ceremony with a handful of other Jewish believers to quash the rumor that he’s undermining Jewish Torah observance among diaspora Jewish communities. James advises this because he knows its not true and wishes to exonerate Paul before the Jersusalemites. What if we read Paul’s letters with the assumption of James that Paul was fully Torah observant? It would certainly radically change the way we interpreted his statements about the law in a letter like Galatians. We would begin to read Galatians as a word to Gentiles. We would have to be more nuanced in the way we universalized Paul’s statements about the Torah. We would question traditional readings that are based on the assumption that Paul no longer was a Torah observant Jew. It is far to say that our view of Paul would likely be transformed and our reading of his statements about Torah would be reframed. Where one begins is crucial in the hermeneutical circle.

When it comes to women, we have a similar problem. Do we start with Paul’s two statements of silence (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2) or do we start with Paul’s apparent practices? Which one takes precedence? Which one is to be read in light of the other? I’ve come to believe that the two passages should be read in light of the other evidence? Why? Because I believe there is a greater amount of evidence and that the evidence is the clearer of the two types.

Sufficiency and Perspicuity of Scripture?

Second, I want to say something about the Reformation concepts of the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture. I won’t say much here except to raise the issue. For me, these two doctrines remain fundamental. But I think they are often naively and therefore inappropriately understood. Let me put it provocative: the Bible is not fully sufficient and patently perspicuous. I added redundant adjectives (“fully” and “patently”) because the problem is that while the Bible is sufficient on the things it wishes to be, it is not on that which it does not intend to be. And what’s more, the Bible is perspicuous on that which it means to be, but not on what it cannot be due to its historically situated nature. I have come to believe that women and ministry does not fall into those two categories. It is a peripheral issue in the Bible.  I think this is the primary reason “well-versed” (HT: Vanhoozer) and mature theologically -minded believers have come to diametrically opposite opinions on this issue. The sociology is evidence for what I’m asserting.

  • Peter G.

    So is the Bible sufficiently clear to warrant your conviction on this issue? Or is your conviction based on something other than Scripture? I’m confused.

    • Rachel Marszalek

      False dichotomy there, I suspect.

    • jwillitts

      My point is you have to begin somewhere. A decision has to be made. There are of course strengths and weaknesses for each starting point. It always comes down to what set of problems you are happy with. I’ve come to a point where I don’t think its inherently more biblical to be on the limitation side of the women’s debate. Thusly, I’ve come to decide which side I would prefer to be on. Oh, and I think all our biblical convictions involve influences “other than scripture”. So yes to your question. And so it is for every one! A point I’ll address in a post.

      • Peter G.

        So do you think it’s inherently more Biblical to be on the non-limitation side? And the Bible (with due influences accounted for) is sufficiently clear for this conviction?

  • Paul Adams

    I cannot begin to say how encouraged I am that you’re posting on this paradigm shift of yours. Looking forward to more thoughts. Curious, have you at all been influenced/impacted by Phil Payne’s work?

  • Anne Vyn

    Thank you for this excellent post.
    You wrote: “Because where you begin often determines where you end up.” This is so true!!!

    Romans 8:15 teaches that ALL women and men in Christ are adopted as “sons”. As a female in Christ, I am hereby officially a son of God with ALL the rights, privileges and responsibilities that male sons have…in the church, in the home, and in society. I can own land!! :)

    When complementarians drive a wedge into the equality/mutuality of “sonship” (a gender inclusive term) by trying to establish male and female roles within the church, they seriously undermine and nullify the very gospel that Gal. 3:28 affirms: That in Christ, there is “no longer male and female”.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    There are a few ways to try to sort things out and see where one should start. One is to sort on time written or time of the events in the book and another is to sort on clearness or at least perceived clearness. I see the Bible as a progressive and cumulative revelation over time. For the NT books, I end up with the gospels and Acts first, then all the non-Pauline letters (as Peter says Paul is hard), then Pauline letters (including Hebrews altho not by Paul), then Rev. last. And inside the Pauline corpus, try to sort by date. This puts 1 Tim as one of the last Pauline letters to address and 1 Cor as one of the first Pauline letters to address.
    In any case, we are to continue to study and make multiple passes thru the collection of books in the Bible, which is sometimes called a hermeneutical spiral. For example, this allows me to gain insights from 2 Tim that seem clear and retroject them with care back into 1 Tim as appropriate to help with unclear passages.
    P.S. I agree with you that Paul was a practicing Jew all his life, per Acts and his letters should be read in light of this.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    I am rather surprised that so many people seem to presume that this position hinges upon the interpretation of a couple of passages in Paul. The biblical challenge to women in pastoral ministry runs much, much deeper than that. Paul himself doesn’t present the position that he articulates as some novel doctrine, but as something founded upon the order of creation.

  • liturgy

    Lovely: now the Bible has wishes and intentions…


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