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.


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