The Achilles Heal of Two Complementarian Objections

The Achilles Heal of Two Complementarian Objections January 16, 2013

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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