Women and Church Ministry: Relational Orbit

Women and Church Ministry: Relational Orbit January 19, 2014

Late last year I wrote a post on women and church ministry and particularly my full embrace of the mutuality position otherwise known as egalitarianism, the view that women are gifted and called for every ministry of the church.  In a subsequent post, I followed up with a brief reflection on how my thinking about the Bible has matured over the course of a decade. This was one of the factors in my coming to embrace the position. In this post I want to address another one of these factors, relational orbit or social location.

Whether we care to admit it or not it is true. And by the way, while we may pay it lip service, we evangelicals don’t admit it nearly enough. Our social location has a great deal to do with how we see the world and particularly how we read texts, both written and cultural. We are fooling ourselves if we think our interpretations of biblical texts are not significantly influenced by the people with whom we are related. One of the gifts of post-modernity has been the critique of the naïve modernist assumption that we are independent thinkers who come to truth by the abstract application of reason. This is a fallacy! We see what is external to us with and through a community. Those communities share views about acceptable and unacceptable interpretations of reality. And while it is not impossible, it is most often the case that a person will not find that they disagree with the interpretation of reality of the dominant group unless they interact with others from outside that group. By the way, there is nothing inherently wrong with this human tendency. It is the way God designed us.

Well, I’ve taken us in a round about way to the main point of this post. One of the most significant factors in the development of my thinking in the last decade on women and ministry has been my relational orbit. I am in a social location that is passionate about women in ministry. And I have significant friendships with women who are either in ministry, preparing for ministry or training students for ministry. I’m relationally connected to women who are gifted and called to and for the ministry the church. The limiting interpretation of the woman passages increasingly became a view that was harder for me to hold.

This came home to me several years ago in a conversation with a friend who was in a very strong Complementarian environment. We were having a heated discussion about women and ministry. The conversation was provoked by his concern for my movement toward an egalitarian position. After debating the textual evidence and agreeing to disagree on the interpretations of the details, wider issues became the topic. And in retrospect these became the most interesting elements.

First, from this person’s point of view, I was on a slippery slop toward shedding biblical authority, if not me personally certainly those whom I was influencing through my teaching. My friend was concerned that my students would take my views to extremes and that would lead to the next generation embracing homosexuality as a legitimate choice for biblical Christians. Interesting how these two topics are linked for many people. The social location for my friend saw the women’s issue as inextricably linked to the cultural wars and the issues of gender and sexuality more broadly. Within this group there is a fear that if ground is given up on the women’s issue, then ground will be eventually given up on the gay question. One does not follow the other necessarily.

Second, after I rejected the slippery slope argument my friend appealed to what he thought we shared as a common experience. He was trying to make the point that the Bible’s characterization of women as “weaker” extends to their intellect and emotional make up. I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing. He said, “Joel, you know that when a salesperson comes to your door, your wife will be more likely to be taken in and duped by a winsome presentation than you”. What?! I just couldn’t believe what this highly intelligent person had just said. And I thought, “This is wrong on so many levels!” For starters, he doesn’t know me very well. In my marriage my wife is the more street smart. I’m the one whose purchased magazines I don’t even read because some young person has come to my door with a story and I’ve bought it. Karla would just give them a $20 and be done with it. In addition, I thought, “In what world can you get away with saying something like this?!” Certainly not the world I inhabit. Yet, what I realized is that my friend can speak that way because he’s in an environment where people, and I dare say even women, share that perspective.This was a social world in which I once lived, but no more. And because of it, I see the world differently and find that in  a debate on women and ministry, the limitation interpretation has little to commend it.

In the end, I could be wrong on my interpretation of the data of the texts. They are difficult. And I’m willing even still to leave the question open, although I’m quite confident there will remain a deadlocked until Jesus returns. I believe there is no high ground in this discussion when it comes to the evidence. So, in large measure I’ve decided that I just don’t want to be on the “limitation” side of this debate. When I stand before God, I would rather have committed the “sin” of wrongly interpreting very difficult passages and be for women in ministry, then to be for the limiting interpretation of the passages and commit the “sin” of restricting the role women can play in the church.


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom

    Interestingly, in a British context, it was my change of relational orbit that opened me up to reconsider this issue and move in the opposite direction. Before coming up to university my assumption had been that holding to a complementation position would mean viewing women as inferior and would reduce women to passive doormats.
    To my surprise I found that in the Christian Union the women whom I served alongside who held to this view of complementarity were the most confident, wise and proactive for the Gospel women Christian women I knew. They understood the Bible to be saying that men should take the overall lead in the church family and the biological family- by teaching the Bible and taking overall responsibility for decisions- but they didn’t see this as based on any intellectual inferiority on their part nor that it left them on the side-lines of ministry. They were convinced that playing a different role in the household of God did not mark them out as being of lesser worth.
    I had previously shied away from Biblical texts that differentiated the roles of men and women, labelling them as culturally limited in their relevance or unclear in their content. I was clear that the Bible presented all Christians as equal in status, sons in Christ, and saw this as trumping these passages on complementarity. These women showed me what it looked like to hold both as true.
    I now know gifted women who fall on either side of this debate, both seeking to serve the Kingdom but in different ways. When this issue does come up with sisters who disagree with me on this, my encouragement to them is to not map the assumptions of our culture onto the church, neither seeing what we do as our label of worth nor thinking we need to “reach our full potential” by doing to the maximum what we feel we are best at. If the Bible does direct and limit our roles, as I believe it does for men and women, then freedom is found in using those abilities to serve Him as best we can in the situation in which he has placed us (including the gender he has given us). It was striking for me that those friends who in the world’s eyes looked like they needed freeing from backward-thinking were actually content and free.

  • Guest

    Dear Joel,

    In the conversation with your friend, could the discussion of women being the more easily deceived have been prompted by 1 Timothy 2:14?

    If Paul wrote the letter of 1 Timothy into your relational orbit today, and if he said those words in 2:14, “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor,” how do you think those in your relational orbit would respond to Paul?

    If those in your relational orbit were scandalized by Paul’s views, if they mocked him and rejected his ideas, would you identify with those in your relational orbit or with Paul?

    Your friend,


    • Kristen Rosser

      Excuse me, but there’s a problem with this question in that Paul’s letter to Timothy was written within a relational orbit that was entirely different from ours– and there’s a lot about his relational orbit that we aren’t privy to and may just not be getting at all. For instance, did Paul actually say “And because Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived, that means all men, then and now, are less easily deceived than all women?” No, he didn’t actually say those words; those are just what some people today think he meant. Would Paul word his message differently if he wasn’t writing to his trusted right-hand man who was trying correct a problem with false teachers in a particular church in first-century Ephesus, but instead was speaking to a group of Christians in a completely different culture on the other side of the world, two millennia later? Would he maybe think he needed to explain what he was getting at a little differently for the different audience?

      What if Paul would be more likely to say today, “No, that isn’t what I meant at all! Why can’t you try to figure out what Timothy’s and my world was like back then, instead of assuming reading my words according your own world and time is going to give you the same results?”

    • jwillitts

      As a matter of fact Jim, my friend did! 😉

  • Leslie

    There’s so much here that I agree with, but specifically with the
    seemingly insignificant point that it is postmodernism that has allowed
    us to realize that our worldviews and cultural conditioning affect our
    interpretative paradigms. PM gets a bad rap (often for good reason), but
    it is has challenged and changed our hermeneutics for the good.

    I think I’ve commented here before that we both came to the same
    conclusion on this issue for almost exactly the same reasons. Love the
    last sentence.

    • Lynn Betts

      Likewise, regarding the point of your last sentence. Because we are humans we are certain to err in some ways, even though our desire is to wholly honor God. Regarding the texts in question, one side or the other IS in error. We cannot definitively be certain which “side” is textually right. We CAN choose, however, that – if our position be in error – we would rather take a chance that our error be on the side of compassion and encouragement for both men and women that they honor God in all they think, say, and do. This is the settling argument for me.