John Walton has an interesting analysis of the question of women in ministry included in the Contemporary Significance section of his commentary on Genesis 2 (The NIV Application Commentary Genesis). This is worth some serious thought and discussion.
Commitments. He suggests several steps and commitments we should take. First, the commitments quoted from pp. 189-191.
- We must allow the text to pursue its own agenda, not force it to pursue ours.
- We must be committed to the intention of the author rather than getting whatever mileage we can out of the words he used.
- We must resist over interpreting the text in order to derive the angle we are seeking.
- We must be willing to have our minds changed by the text – that is at least part of the definition of submitting ourselves to the authority of the text.
- We must be willing to accept the inevitable disappointment if the text does not address or solve the questions we would like answers to.
These are all important guidelines to keep in mind. We shouldn’t hijack the text, commandeering it for our own purposes. I would temper this, though, with the realization that the New Testament authors did feel free to reinterpret texts based on what they knew of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While it is essential to understand the intention of the author, the gospel can change our understanding.
- We must be willing to preserve a godly perspective on the issue and accord Christian respect to those we disagree with, refusing to belittle, degrade, accuse, or insult them. Ad hominem arguments and other varieties of “negative campaigning” should be set aside.
- We must not allow our differences of opinion to overshadow and disrupt the effectiveness of ministry and our Christian witness.
- We must decry the arrogance that accompanies a feeling of self-righteousness and portrays others as somehow less godly because of the position they hold.
This is an outstanding list of commitments — the kind of commitments that we attempt to maintain on this blog when discussing a wide variety of issues, from the age of the earth and evolution to women in ministry, male headship, to hell, Calvinism, and more. But the next list is even more important.
- We must determine that individual “rights” and the pursuit of them will not take precedence over more important values, as they have in our society at large.
- We must resist any desire to hoard or attain power, though our society and our fallenness drive us to pursue it above all else.
- We must constantly strive to divest ourselves of self, though we live in a “What about me?” world.
- We must accept that ministry is not to be considered a route to self-fulfillment; it is service to God and his people.
John completely won me over with this list. Whatever conclusions we come to concerning women in ministry, if these values are not at heart we are wrong. Period. Christian leadership, teaching, and “authority” is only for the benefit of others as we follow the call of Jesus. It is grounded in self-sacrifice and love. There is nothing in this about rights or power. No alpha males or flaming feminists here. This is the heart of the matter.
John suggests that if we agree with these commitments “the debate will become largely academic” and “fade into oblivion.” I’ll dig into this more below, but it is worth pointing out that the same applies to marriage. If a marriage honors the counterpartnership of Genesis 2 (And They Become One Flesh) and the teachings of leadership, mutual submission, respect, and love in the New Testament (The Great Reversal), the question of male headship in marriage is relegated to dusty academic journals with little to no impact on everyday life.
What Difference Does it Make? John continues his discussion digging into the consequences of the controversy over women in leadership by posing two questions.
First, what is the cost if women are restricted when they should not be? He suggests that some ministries will be done less effectively or lost, because the best gifted people won’t be able carry them out. But in the long run God will still prevail, and the gifts lost in one area will be redirected into others. He also suggests that individual women may feel unfulfilled and disrespected. This last is not insignificant, but isn’t really the heart of the matter. John doesn’t add this – but I think the other consequence of this situation is that it would give a undeserved boost to male ego and thus foster an unhealthy environment.
Second, what is the cost if women are not restricted when they should be? John suggests that these are far less dire than some assume. A God who can speak through an ass, who can and has worked through male pastors living lives of adultery, and often works through faulty preaching grounded in sloppy interpretation, can certainly speak through women in the church whether this is his ideal or not. No human voice is perfect, yet it is still God’s church and he will prevail.
Some will suggest that when women exercise leadership or teach and preach that men have lost their control, are being forced out of a “feminine church.” But this “is an ego/power issue and does not belong in the discussion.” This cannot be an issue of power and control from either side. Women can be equally guilty of a thirst for power baptized in God words. “As Christian men or women, the only power is Christ’s power … those who yearn for it most are the least worthy of having it.” Christ is head of the church – not men or women, whether lay people, pastors or elders/deacons/whatever.
John doesn’t see Genesis 2 speaking to this issue at all and we err when we bring Genesis 2-3 into the discussion. Genesis 2 offers insight into human roles in partnership but doesn’t get us to the specifics beyond this. “Genesis 2 proclaims God’s gracious provision for the blessing to be procured. In addition the text addresses the interdependence that exists between man and woman.” (p. 192) On this we can all agree.
So what now? I would like to conclude this post with some thoughts. My position is similar to John’s, perhaps why I found his analysis so refreshing. Although what follows is my take alone, he may or may not agree.
Personally, in our 21st century western culture I think shared leadership between men and women, including in preaching and teaching, should be our preference. The answer could be different in other times and places. However, anyone who is convinced that the biblical ideal is male-only leadership should prefer such a church for regular fellowship. It certainly isn’t intrinsically wrong to seek out, belong to, or lead such a church.
But there are ways in which an insistence on male-only leadership can be destructive. This is true in any time or place.
For example, if it leads a man to feel or argue that it is demeaning, or worse yet, sinful, to sit in the audience of a female teacher on occasion; that it undermines his manhood to so place himself “under the authority” of a woman. (I have heard and read these arguments.) Such arguments are governed more by the ego and power culture of the world than by the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a man feels that he and his group cannot cooperate or fellowship with a Christian group that accepts women as speakers/teachers because he would sin in participation … well that is just dead wrong. Frankly, I don’t think this is grounded in a fear of the Lord, but in human ego and stubbornness. It seems to me that we should consider any people who believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ who crucified, dead, and buried then rose again; in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting as brothers and sisters, fundamentally with us rather than against us. No matter what they believe on other less important issues.
God can speak through any vessel as John notes in his commentary. In fact every human speaker/teacher fails in some fashion of their lives. Pride, ambition, ego, sexual sin, anger, greed, and so on, some combination of these stains us all. Every pastor at every church, every speaker at every conference, every writer of every commentary, is a fallen, fallible human being. Whether male or female. There is no place for hero worship in the Christian church. We don’t follow Paul, Apollos, or Cephas … or insert more recent names here. Christ isn’t divided. We would do well to remember this as we listen and learn, always testing the teaching by the Spirit and Scripture.
And this leads to a second point. Our only ultimate authority is God and his Son, Jesus, the Messiah. We are never permanently or absolutely under the authority of another human. Because of this there is no question of being under inappropriate authority. All humans are fallible and we are all individually answerable to God. It can never demean us to listen to another Christian, whether rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, educated or uneducated, urban or rural, of my race and ethnicity or another. And the list could go on.
Of course, there are a multitude of ways in which an insistence on shared leadership between male and female can go wrong as well. If a woman feels it is her right to power, position, and audience, if it is cast as a feminist battle of the sexes. The ego and power culture of the world is a trap for all humans … male and female.
One of the handicaps of the Christian (if you want to think of it as a handicap) is that we are called to effect change in both our church and our world by living in a kingdom fashion of service and love, not by using the tools of power and manipulation common in the world. We serve a Lord whose call is to take up our cross daily and follow him, to love and serve others. We are all called to ministry, and to take advantage of the opportunities that come, to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ using the gifts that God has given to build up his church.
The way we deal with this issue will make a big difference in the witness of the church to our culture.
What do you think of John’s analysis?
How should we approach this issue? What kind of a stand are we called to take?
What is the heart of the matter?
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