Could Medieval Women Preach? Stop Using Paul Against Women Pt 3

Could Medieval Women Preach? Stop Using Paul Against Women Pt 3 January 24, 2018

An Elderly St. Paul

Two days ago, John Piper answered the question of a male seminary student at Desiring God. The student, Scott, identified as a complementarian and wanted to know if John Piper thought it was okay for women to teach at seminaries. John Piper said no. Because only men can be pastors, women cannot be appropriate “pastor-mentors” for aspiring male students. “The issue is whether women should be models, mentors, and teachers for those preparing for a role that is biblically designed for spiritual men.” Women teaching at seminaries is not only inconsistent, according to John Piper, but “out of step with the Scriptures.”

None of this is surprising. As a female professor myself who has frequently taught male students aspiring to pastoral vocations, I can’t help but feel sorry for Scott’s female professors at his “orthodox but interdenominational school.” I figure part of the reason the student asked the question was because he is unhappy being taught by women.

What really interests me about this exchange on Desiring God, however, is neither John Piper’s answer (which is expected) nor the complementarian student’s unease with female professors (which is also expected). What interests me is the foundation of John Piper’s argument. As he states,” I am going to answer this question as best I can on the assumption that the Bible teaches that churches should be led by a team of spiritual, humble, biblically qualifed men (1 Timothy 2:12). In other words, I’m going to base my argument about the seminary on the assumption of complementarianism, which I think is not merely an assumption but a well-founded historic understanding of scripture.”

Complementarianism, the idea that the Bible (eternally?) ascribes leadership roles to men and support roles to women, is not just a modern theory but a “well-founded historic understanding of scripture.” The implications of John Piper’s statement suggest that complementarianism is the most natural interpretation of scripture and is built on a long history of understanding scripture in this way.

John Piper is only partially right. Yes, there is a long history of limiting women in the church. But how Paul’s teachings about women have been interpreted and applied is not as consistent as John Piper would like us to believe.

I have been arguing in my last two posts that Paul hasn’t always been used to exclude women from leadership roles. If we step back from our modern and very-Western approach to scripture, we find a less uniform approach  to Paul’s writings about women as well as a less uniform application. We also find a broader emphasis on other scripture about women which does not support complementarianism–such as Jesus’ remarkable attention to women (we will get to this later). As a historian, I can only argue from evidence.  It is true that historical evidence suggests broad continuity in how male authority figures have attempted to limit and subordinate women within the Christian church. Patriarchy prevails in Christian history, including in medieval Christianity.

But, again, this is only part of the story. It is also true that the reasons behind female subordination have changed over time. In the medieval church, women were excluded from priestly roles. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas argued that women’s natural condition made them subordinate to men (sort of similar to modern complementarianism…). At the same time, Junia (as we saw in my last post) was translated in the late medieval and early modern world as a female apostle. Mary Magdalene was also regarded as a female apostle and preacher (see my early post The Medieval Counsel of Biblical Womanhood). Clearly female leadership was okay. Indeed, medieval theology allowed for God’s grace to help women overcome their natural condition (as emphasized by Aquinas) and in some instances exercise authority over men (female prophets). By the twentieth century, however, Mary Magdalene had mostly lost her preacher status and even Junia was mostly being translated as a masculine name. Female leadership in the church was less accepted as a possibility in the modern world (again, see my last post).  So while it is true that, from the medieval through modern church, there has been consistency in limiting female access to leadership roles, it is also true that the ways in which women have been limited, and the degree to which they have been limited, have not been consistent.

I argue that these inconsistencies matter. They suggest that limitations placed on women exist outside of scripture and change according to culture. Women are always limited. I will never argue that medieval Christianity was a golden age for women because it wasn’t.  But examining the differences between how medieval and modern Christians articulated limits on women helps us understand how attitudes toward women may be less biblically based and more culturally derived. Instead of using scripture to drive interpretation, interpretation of scripture is often driven by culture. As many scholars have put it, the tail wags the dog instead of the other way around.

Let me give you a medieval example of attitudes towards female leadership. It is from British Library MS Harley 31, a collection of anti-Wycliffite texts from late medieval England as discussed and partially transcribed by Alcuin Blamires and C.W. Marx in a Journal of Medieval Latin article.

Walter Brut, an educated man in late fourteenth-century England, argued that women could publicly teach men.  They could preach and perform the duties of a priest.

Brut argued from the evidence of church history. Devout virgins, he said, “have steadfastly preached the word of God and have converted many men while priests dared not speak a word.”  He argued from the evidence of church tradition. According to medieval Catholicism, women could perform baptisms in emergency situations. Brut expanded on this. If it was okay for women to baptize, then why couldn’t women perform other sacraments, especially when priests were unavailable? Brut also argued from Paul. He recognized that Paul did not “permit” women to teach or exercise authority over men. But, as Alcuin Blamires and C.W. Marx have pointed out in their article “Women Not to Preach: A Disputation in British Library MS Harley 31,” Brut also observes that “Paul did not actually state that women are not able to teach, or to exercise that authority.” Paul simply did not “permit” women in that instance. It was not a forever ban.

Medieval women, at least according to Walter Brut, should not be barred from teaching men or exercising authority over men in all circumstances. Indeed, as we have already seen, he argued that women can preach. Women can also perform the sacraments.

Before you get too excited, however, I have to tell you what happened to Brut. He was tried for heresy before the bishop of Hereford between 1391 and 1393. Which, unfortunately, tells us something.

But his defense of female authority in the medieval church also tells us something. First, it tells us that–just as some Christians have always interpreted Pauline texts as limiting women–some Christians throughout church history have consistently argued the opposite. There really are other ways to understand Paul’s writings about women; other ways which are also “well-founded historic understandings of scripture.”  Opposition to female subordination did not originate in 1960s feminism.

Second, Brut’s defense of women helps us better understand the later medieval reasons for limiting female leadership. The larger text which contain’s Walter Brut’s trial argues that women cannot preach, but it isn’t because women are divinely ordained to follow male leadership. It is not because the female condition is naturally subordinate (as Aquinas argued). It is because of “historical difference,” as medieval scholar Eliana Corbari explains. The text “did not postulate an essential difference between women and men which excluded women from the office of preaching unless their weaker intellect was overcome by grace, but argued that women were allowed to preach in particular historical situations.” Corbari admits this still resulted in medieval women mostly excluded from preaching. But, “an argument from mutable history rather than immutable laws of nature allows for the possibility of change.” There was room in medieval theology for female preachers.

This is really interesting. It also shows a stark difference between how John Piper limited women in his recent post, and how medieval Christians as found in the text highlighting Walter Brut limited women. John Piper argues that women’s inability to teach in seminaries has nothing to do with their expertise and capability. As he states, “The issue, as always, is not the competence of women teachers or intelligence or knowledge or pedagogical skill….The issue here at the seminary level is largely the nature of the seminary teaching office.” Women, according to John Piper, by nature cannot teach men; nor can women overcome this limitation. The crux for John Piper is the limits of the female condition. Women are essentially different from men, and their difference is always rooted in subordination.

Neither Walter Brut nor those refuting his argument limited women in this way. Mary and Martha preached with full authority, and this was fine. As Corbari writes, no “essential difference” prohibited medieval women from being preachers. Most scholastic theologians allowed at least for “the public role of the scriptural prophetesses.” For medieval Christians like Walter Brut, Paul’s words for “women to be silent” and not “exercise authority over men” were true. But rather than timeless truths, they were products of historical circumstances.

Historical continuity is important. But historical differences matter too.

Stay tuned for next time as we explore how Paul’s words for women were applied in late medieval English sermons, followed by a longer reading list before we turn to Paul in a global context.

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