Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 2 (Gupta)

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 2 (Gupta) May 20, 2019

Wow, there was so much feedback and interest on social media from my first post, I feel like I should do a quick second one while I have a bit of time (sitting at the beach, “working hard”).

Translation and Terms: The Devil is in the Details

I am being honest when I say, one of the most important things I did to help me understand the “women in ministry” issue was: learn Greek and Hebrew. (And I took advanced Greek, advanced Hebrew, Classic and Ecclesiastical Latin, Aramaic, and Akkadian for good measure.)

Why?

So many people over the years had said to me: just read your Bible and the answer is clear. By this, they mean that there are many “clear” passages that forbid women from being pastors or preachers. But here is the problem: “translators are liars” (so the famous proverb goes). That is not a cop-out. Bible translators have to simplify texts to communicate clearly, but all along the way they make lots of little choices, and they have to “take sides” on issues even if the answer isn’t fully clear. So, my house of cards began to collapse when I was confronted with many translation issues. For example

Was Phoebe (Rom 16:1; diakonos) a “servant” (KJV), “deacon” (NIV), or “deaconess” (RSV)? Keep in mind Paul used diakonos for himself (1 Cor 3:5) and Christ (Rom 15:8), and it can also be translated “minister.”

When Paul calls women to be “silent,” is the issue one of lack of words, or is it about respect, peace, and harmony in the church? The verb sigao refers to being quiet, but it can be used in reference to quiet or still waters (LXX Ps 107:29). In Exodus, Moses instructs the Israelites crossing the river that “The Lord will fight for you, and you will be quiet” (LXX Exodus 14:14 NETS). Is Moses concerned with silence? No, so most translations of the Hebrew and Septuagint text prefer the language of peace or stillness.

Then we have the issue of “ordination” and “pastors” and “preaching.” There is little in the New Testament that lays out the specifications of ordination (see 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). As for “pastors,” this does not appear to me to be a dominant “office” in the first century. In Acts, Paul tells the Ephesians “elders” that the Spirit had made them overseers of the church, to shepherd the people (20:28). Paul mentions pastors/shepherds briefly in Ephesians 4:11. Aside from that, we know very little about “pastors” and their responsibilities. To say a woman cannot be a “pastor” is to place some construct on the Bible that is not explicitly there. We know far more about what Paul thinks about bishops than about pastors. As for “preaching” (i.e., “women cannot preach”), the NT says virtually nothing about sermons and what we think of as preaching (i.e., Bible lessons for the church). The language of preaching (kerusso, kerygma) in the NT is almost always about the proclamation of the gospel. And if rocks are qualified to do this (Luke 19:40), I can’t imagine women wouldn’t be.

Now, I am fine with modern ordination, and pastors, and elders, and preaching, but we must be cognizant of the fact that we sometimes read our modern assumptions about church practices back into the Bible. That is dangerous!

So, a crucial part of my journey was knowing what is and is not actually in the Bible, and seeing the complex, but beautiful Greek text which begs careful study. We will try to do some of that careful study, but for now I want to just reinforce the notion that it is misleading to say: The answer is clear in MY Bible. That usually means: The answer is clear in MY FAVORITE ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Recently I heard Tish Harrison Warren say that whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, you can only be about 80% sure you are right. I think Warren is right. Scripture offers so many pieces of this puzzle to analyze, and it is really hard to put it all together. It is a beautiful mess, but it is anything but 100% clear to anyone.

In later posts, I will dig into particular texts, church roles, and questions about gender and leadership. I am not trying to throw everything out the window when I say that looking at the Greek makes things messy. I just want to emphasize that the first step in anyone’s journey on this issue must include intellectual humility and a sober recognition that the textual and hermeneutical issues are complex, especially when you look at the text in the original languages.

 

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