January 30, 2014

Over at CBWM Griffin Gulledge offers a very gracious but not uncritical review of my ebook about women in ministry called Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry.

Griffin takes issue with a few of my exegetical decisions here and there, esp. about 1 Cor 11:2-16, but is sympathetic to the course I try to navigate, and he rightly notes that the book is not an exercise in complementarian bashing. I also learned that I’ve been identified with a position called “exegetical egalitarianism” by Andrew Wilson, which is new to me, but sounds fair enough (also included Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright).

In the end, Bird’s tone in this book is one of its most commendable features. Although I would hope readers would not follow Bird’s conclusions, I hope all can adopt his irenic spirit. I would recommend this book to none for its conclusions, but to all for its reasoned and well-intended opposition to biblical complementarity.

That is probably one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. I count among my friends Mimi Haddad (CEO of CBE) and Denny Burk (Editor of JBMW) and while I disagree with both on many points – and they with me – I do not feel the need to choose between them as friends and ministry partners (though I would not send them to do a church plant together). One thing I’ve learned and am still learning is that if you cannot persuade someone with your arguments then try to persuade with your way of life in Jesus Christ. Such as I aspire to do so, though others will have different estimations of my success on that front.


January 29, 2014

Denny Burk
What is the Meaning of Sex?
 Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Available at Amazon.com

By Kara Martin

Denny Burk is correct when he says that we live in a world confused about sex. The link between the biblical understanding of sex and relationships that defined the mores of society has almost completely disintegrated in the past 40 years.

In his book Sex and iWorld, Dale Kuehne points out that society now supports any sexual activity or expression as long as it does not transgress three taboos:

One may not criticise someone’s life choices or behaviour.
One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others.
One may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone without his or her consent.

These taboos clarify why existing Christian responses to issues of sexual morality issues garner either criticism or mockery. Christians do not have the right to criticise the choices of others, we are seen as coercive, and we want to apply a limit on sexual freedom beyond consent.

So Burk is seeking to provide clarity and give a biblical perspective on sexual issues. In particular he wants to define the evangelical position, providing a correction to some recent writings including:

Brian McLaren’s views on homosexuality.
Mark and Kathy Driscoll’s views on acceptable sexual behaviour for Christians.
Ben Witherington’s writings that seem to make a distinction between Jesus and Paul’s perspectives on sexual ethics.

It is very useful to have a comprehensive examination of issues of sex including body, marriage, conjugal unions, family planning, gender, sexuality and singleness. Burk admits from the outset that the book is a primer, it is a biblical rather than a philosophical perspective, and that we are all sinners.

His starting point is the infallibility of the Bible, and a conservative evangelical approach to interpretation. The latter means that he is willing to dialogue with Catholic perspectives when they support his conclusions, for example on issues of birth control, abortion and gender distinctions.

In response to the question of the title of the book: what is the meaning of sex? His answer is “to glorify God” by seeing sex as the means of consummating marriage, procreating, expressing love, and experiencing pleasure (in that order). It is on this basis that he moves perhaps more conservatively than other evangelical authors.

He concludes that there should be prohibitions for Christians on masturbation, homosexual behaviour, divorce (except in the specific ways allowed by Jesus and Paul including infidelity, or if the non-believing partner no longer wants to be married to the believer), remarriage, using the Pill, women usurping male authority in the church, and the concept of intersex or a gender spectrum.

My biggest concern with this book is that, aside from some suggested responses from John Piper to homosexuality, there is really no pastoral commentary provided, even though many Christian readers would be challenged, particularly those who had not before confronted such absolute prohibitions on biblical grounds for widespread activity such as divorce and remarriage, masturbation and use of the Pill.

For this reason I would strongly recommend that the book be read in conjunction with Judith and Jack Balswick’s Authentic Human Sexuality: An Integrated Christian Approach, which provides a researched and nuanced psychological and sociological perspective for responding to pastoral issues.

For example, to the problem that initiated Burk’s search for answers: a question from a youth minister about how to deal with a girl in his youth group who was born intersex, had gone through corrective surgery as an infant, but now wanted to become a boy… Burk’s response in the “gender distinctions” chapter is all about what the parents should have done: not rush corrective surgery, identify the biological sex through chromosomal identification and raise the child in line with that, then have the necessary surgery in agreement with the child at an appropriate age … He actually does not address the original problem, which is a pastoral question.

Another concern I have is also related to the brevity of the book. In the area of gender distinctions Burk lists the wife’s role as submitting to the husband, and the husband’s role to love his wife by leading, protecting and providing for her. This does not give many clues for wives, and there is no pastoral advice about what this looks like in practice. Similarly, within the church, he says the “primary responsibility for teaching and for leading falls to men”. While this was predictable, the choice of words could lead to ambiguity. Does this mean that gifted women could teach, as long as a male had primary responsibility? I suspect that is not Burk’s position. In this section he also defines egalitarianism as evangelical feminism, which “denies there are any gender-based role distinctions between men and women”. This is an extremely broad characterisation of egalitarian viewpoints that makes it easy to dismiss any counter to his perspective.

The lack of accuracy of his wording in some sections, and the lack of willingness to accept any other interpretation, opens up the danger of misuse of this book to condemn or cause guilt.

Ironically, I found the most interesting chapter the one in which Burk points out the prevalence of a “Jesus versus Paul” hermeneutic emerging in evangelical settings. This moves far beyond the issues of sex. He particularly condemns The “Red Letter” Christians, including Tony Campolo, who give priority to the words of Jesus in defining ethical norms. In this section he also takes on Barack Obama, AN Wilson, Ben Witherington and Richard Burridge, for giving preference to some Scripture over other Scripture by elevating Jesus over Paul.

In making his arguments against these perspectives he makes some unconvincing points, for example, that our impressions of Jesus are mediated through the authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John such that the relevant hermeneutical position is not what Jesus did or said, but “why the author told us what Jesus did or said”.

He also focuses on apostolic authority, that is, to know Jesus, you have to know the apostles. He claims that Jesus intends that the Spirit will teach, illuminate and guide exclusively the apostles, (John 14-16) rather than modern Christians. He says we should see the words of Paul and the other apostles as the words of Christ. (I am no theologian, but I do point out that there were points when the apostles disagreed.)

More convincing is his argument that we need to see all Scripture as inspired, and to be considered carefully.

Burk concludes with some good points that correct the myths that Christians need to be sure they do not absorb from society:

Gender is something you are created as, not something you learn.
Sex is for God, not primarily for pleasure.
Marriage is a universal construct, created by God before the fall, not a cultural construct.

To this I would add:

Your identity is discovered completely in relationship with God, not defined by the expression of your sexuality.

It is disturbing that Christians are often not distinct from non-believers, particularly in numbers indulging in pre-marital sex and getting divorced, but increasingly there are demarcation lines being drawn, and this book is a helpful reminder of how counter-cultural are biblical norms. However, such messages need to be communicated with great pastoral sensitivity, alongside resourcing support for  those who struggle to live up to the sexual ethic presented.

KARA MARTIN is the Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute (www.marketplaceinstitute.org), Ridley Melbourne, has been a lecturer with Wesley Institute (www.wi.edu.au) and is an avid reader and book group attendee. Kara does book reviews for Open House (www.theopenhouse.net.au) and Eternity Magazine (http://www.biblesociety.org.au/eternitynews).

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.


December 17, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post announcing that I had joined the ranks of the Mutuality position (Egalitarian) on the question of Women and Ministry. What that means is that I fully affirm a woman’s ministry in the church at every level.

One of the reasons I gave for my position was my developing hermeneutic. There are a number of things that could be said about this, but I want to just list a couple of the things that have developed in my thinking over the last decade that has brought me to the mutual position on women. These are broader hermeneutical concerns, but it has been these kinds of questions and reflections that have served to support my affirmation of a wide spectrum presence for women in ministry.

Where We Begin

First, there’s the question of where one begins a conversation about a topic in the Bible like women and ministry. Because where you begin often determines where you end up. Or at least it will determine the questions you ask and the conclusions that are possible. To illustrate this, let me discus a totally different topic: Paul’s view of Torah observance Jewish believers in Messiah. When it comes to Paul’s view of Torah for Jewish believers, do we begin with statements in Paul’s letters or Luke’s biography? What Paul did according to Luke or what he said in condition-specific correspondence? If you begin with Acts, you find a passage like Acts 21:24: “that you yourself are living in obedience to the law”. The story is of Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. James advises Paul to fund and participate in a ceremony with a handful of other Jewish believers to quash the rumor that he’s undermining Jewish Torah observance among diaspora Jewish communities. James advises this because he knows its not true and wishes to exonerate Paul before the Jersusalemites. What if we read Paul’s letters with the assumption of James that Paul was fully Torah observant? It would certainly radically change the way we interpreted his statements about the law in a letter like Galatians. We would begin to read Galatians as a word to Gentiles. We would have to be more nuanced in the way we universalized Paul’s statements about the Torah. We would question traditional readings that are based on the assumption that Paul no longer was a Torah observant Jew. It is far to say that our view of Paul would likely be transformed and our reading of his statements about Torah would be reframed. Where one begins is crucial in the hermeneutical circle.

When it comes to women, we have a similar problem. Do we start with Paul’s two statements of silence (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2) or do we start with Paul’s apparent practices? Which one takes precedence? Which one is to be read in light of the other? I’ve come to believe that the two passages should be read in light of the other evidence? Why? Because I believe there is a greater amount of evidence and that the evidence is the clearer of the two types.

Sufficiency and Perspicuity of Scripture?

Second, I want to say something about the Reformation concepts of the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture. I won’t say much here except to raise the issue. For me, these two doctrines remain fundamental. But I think they are often naively and therefore inappropriately understood. Let me put it provocative: the Bible is not fully sufficient and patently perspicuous. I added redundant adjectives (“fully” and “patently”) because the problem is that while the Bible is sufficient on the things it wishes to be, it is not on that which it does not intend to be. And what’s more, the Bible is perspicuous on that which it means to be, but not on what it cannot be due to its historically situated nature. I have come to believe that women and ministry does not fall into those two categories. It is a peripheral issue in the Bible.  I think this is the primary reason “well-versed” (HT: Vanhoozer) and mature theologically -minded believers have come to diametrically opposite opinions on this issue. The sociology is evidence for what I’m asserting.

December 3, 2013

I’ve been preparing a lecture on Paul and Women the last couple of days and I told Karla that I’m now definitely in the “Mutuality” (Egalitarian) camp. I’m finally willing to come out and nail my flag on the mast of the “Mutuality” (Egalitarian) position.

This has been a direction I’ve been moving toward over the last decade since completing my Ph.D. and getting a job at North Park University. In the lead up to interviews that year (I interviewed, in the end, at three institutions) we knew the two questions we needed to be prepared to answer in the contexts of evangelical Christian Higher Ed were on Inerrancy and Women in Ministry. We all knew this going into the process (BTW: I feel much more certain now about my view of the latter than the former).

The ECC, the denomination to which NPU is affiliated, actively supports the ordination of women. When I was being interviewed in 2006, the President of the ECC, Glenn Palmberg, was on the search committee. In the interview he asked me what my position was on women in ministry. In fact, he only asked me two questions: one on women and the other on homosexuality. At the time, I was uncertain of what my view was on this important issue (I think Scot suspected this, but knew I hadn’t settled the issue). I had, by that time, become uncomfortable with the fundamentalism in which I was reared. I grew up in a religious context that would have been offended by the idea that a divorcee would be allowed to be pastor (even before becoming a Christian), let alone a women! In 2006, if I had had language for it, I would have called myself a soft-complementarian (using William Webb’s language in Slaves, Women and Homosexuals). But I didn’t want to be defined by this or any position because I was still very uncertain of my own view. I had just not given it the time it needed in my study and reflection. I had spent four years studying Matthew. I got schooled on just enough of the discussion to appear informed. By the way, how could anyone expect a young newly minted Ph.D. student to have a firm view on something as complex as this! Pretty ridiculous expectation if you ask me.

So on that March afternoon when Glenn asked me the question about women and ministry I gave a very short, but definitive response. One that was truthful to be sure, but one that I hoped would not elicit a follow up question. I would have had a difficult time unpacking my statement in a way that would have satisfied him. I said, “I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is a respecter of gender when he dispenses the gifts. The gifts of the spirit are given to both male and female equally and without distinction”. I delivered it definitely enough apparently because he didn’t ask a clarifying follow up question! I believed that then, but the fullness of what it meant for me or what it would come to mean was at best incipit. Now almost a decade later, I am fully on board with the perspective Scot McKnight outlines in his book Blue Parakeet. Of course, it should be no surprise that I was influenced by Scot (and I suspect this was not just one-directional) as we were colleagues for 7 of my 8 years at NPU—spending many Tuesday and Thursday mornings in long conversations about an innumerable number of topics. I’m honored to have been his colleague at NPU and now in the D.Min. program we’re teaching together Northern Seminary and to consider him a close friend.

This is not to say that I don’t still have reservations about the exegesis of the key “Silence” passages in Paul (1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:8-15), because I do. Scot presents the view that believes in both cases Paul is talking about “learning before teaching”. The commands are specific to the situation into which Paul was writing. They are not then universal prohibitions on women in ministry. I didn’t at the time when he was writing the book, but I would tell Scot now, that I think he states his conclusions more strongly than the evidence in the passages allow, although I agree with him in principle. I suspect that he would respond that he agrees with me about the necessity of humility in our interpretations, but would be quick to add that for a book like Blue Parakeet, written as it was for a wide readership, you can’t qualify ever statement. This would make for a poorly written book. What’s more, I think Scot would push back and say he was swinging his rhetorical bat for the fences (he would like my analogy as we are both avid Baseball fans, although I root for the superior team!) and the strongly stated conclusions were intentional. On both of these things I concede.

The silence passages are important and are part of the argument, but I have come to believe with the late R. T. France that the exegetical difficulties and unresolved questions of these passages marginalize their influence. The issue isn’t settled simply by appeal to Paul’s words. In my Paul class I have students debate the issue. Last semester the team who were tasked with the negative (con) argument that Paul was opposed to women in leadership roles in ministry lost the debate badly. Besides being wholly unprepared, their argument and strategy was simply to read Paul’s two statements over and over again; louder and louder as the debate went on I might add (as if the volume level would final “silence” the other side). This didn’t convince anyone that the view was better or right. The pro-women and ministry side of the debate had a hermeneutically sophisticated argument that showed the complexity of the issue and at the very least made the con-side seem weak. The class voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pro-women in ministry side. Even one of the students who agrees with the view that the con-side was arguing–yes there are those folks at NPU I’m pleased to say–later said they had to vote for the pro-side in spite of their own personal view because of how poor the other side argued its case.

I therefore remain open to being convinced otherwise on exegetical grounds, but by now I’m not optimistic that this kind of clarity will emerge out of nowhere. By now all that can be said about the definitions of terms, Paul’s use of earlier biblical traditions, and the historical and literary context, has been said. Here is what France wrote in the 1990’s:

We had to admit that we know too little about the circumstances of the letter, and that there are too many obscure or ambiguous features to the argument, to allow any exegesis to claim to have uttered the last word. But that conclusion is in itself important for our present theme. This is, by common consent, the one passage of Scripture on which the argument against the ordination of women rests most firmly. If even this pivotal passage proves to be open to such a range of interpretation, and to leave so many unresolved questions for the modern interpreter, how secure a basis can it be for resolving an issue of major ecclesiological importance? (Women in the Church’s Ministry, 70).

I’ve come to my position for these reasons:

  1. My developing hermeneutics
  2. My relational orbit
  3. The historical facts about education, marriage and women the first century world
  4. The wider biblical considerations
  5. The social and gospel implications

I’ll write some short posts on each of these points in the near future.

June 20, 2013

Interesting article in CT about an Episcopal Baptist denomination in Georgia. No, not Georgia the American State, but Georgia the European nation.

According to William Yoder:

“There is a solemn procession to the altar. The choir is chanting. A bishop in a long, black robe and a full, gray beard swings an incense burner back and forth. We bow. We cross ourselves. It’s a typical Sunday service at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia.

“Yes. Baptist.”

That is how Alexander Cuttino, an American pastor, recently described worship at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG), a denomination famous for its unusual method of contextualizing the gospel. The man behind those efforts: Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the EBCG.

It an interesting article about a group with an odd mix of Baptist theology, Eastern spirituality, and egalitarian views of ministry. Very intriguing story about its leader Malkhaz Songulashvili too. Steve Harmon also has a right up about the group too.

May 8, 2013

Sad news, last night we heard reports of the passing of Dallas Willard (known for his work on Christian spirituality) and Geza Vermes (known for his work on Jewish Roman history, Dead Sea Scrolls, and the historical Jesus).

On the CBE blog is an interesting piece, Is Egalitarianism a Slippery Slope? I used to think this, until I learned about a few egalitarian institutions that actually became more conservative over time (like McMaster Divinity College).

Excellent piece over at BAR on Herod the Great: Friend of the Romans and the Parthians. When I ask the students about the “Parthians” most stare at me with blank faces. And yet they successfully invaded Palestine in 40 BCE and were a constant throat to the Roman east.

Peter Leithart offers a Primer on Baptism.

December 31, 2012

The response, feedback, and debate stemming from Zondervan’s ebook series Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry has formally begun. Its causing a bit of a stir in Evangelical Anglican circles in Sydney and round about (wonder if Kath Keller is getting as much air time as Dicko and I are?).

Some reviews include:

Tamie Davis at Meet Jesus at Uni

Craig Schwarz at his blog These Infinite Spaces here, here, and here.

Dan Patterson at Otherness

But the biggest opening salvoes come from Moore Theological College faculty with Principal Elect Mark Thompson and head of the NT Department Peter Bolt heading up the rejoinders. These two criticisms do not engage the content of Dickson’s and my arguments, they are more like prima facie remarks in a court case, which set forth ad hominem arguments against the defendents (now remember, in rhetoric, there are two species of ad hominem arguments, the aggressive and the circumstantial; the duo are not making aggressive ad hominem arguments [e.g., Bird and Dickson are liberal whackos so just ignore them], but Thompson and Bolt both appeal to a set of particular circumstances that will negatively dispose their implied reader against the authors, yet without having to engage the substance of the author’s arguments – that’s what I mean by ad hominem).

Thompson (who I have engaged with in private correspondence and has graciously responded)  raises concerns about general egalitarian arguments that import historical reconstruction and theological categories over the plain reading of the text; the general danger of capitulating to cultural trends; and urges readers to be wary of anyone claiming a “fresh” interpretation of anything.  I actually agree with these points and thus fail to see how it impugns anything that I say in the ebook. In fact, I am all the more perplexed because I explicitly say much the same in the book! Coming to Bolt (Peter Bolt was my gracious doctoral examiner) wants to situate the ebooks in the genre of “Shift Story” analagous to William Dever and Bart Ehrman’s stories of their deconversion from faith (Mike Bird and Bart Ehrman is quite a juxtaposition). He equates changing one’s mind with Eph 4:14 and being tossed and blown around by waves and winds.  But I protest on the grounds as to whether people who changed their minds from egalitarian to complementarian like Al Mohler or Kath Keller could be construed as being similarly tossable and immature. Also, I think Eph 4:14 refers to people who are erratic and lacking maturity, you know, Calvinist one day, Arminian the next, then Greek Orthodox, then join a Richard Simmons weight loss clinic, then Independent Baptist, we know these people, they are fickle and easily fooled; but I hardly equate changing one’s mind a little bit on one issue with theological capriciousness (some still call me a complementarian for goodness sake!)  Again, I’m not sure how much mileage that criticism actually scores about what I actually say in the ebook. Bolt claims that change is good, as long as the change takes one towards  “truth, peace, God’s good order, life as we were created to be and for which Christ redeems us.” But that is precisely what Dickson and I would claim we have moved towards in changing our views. In any case, the charge, “He changed his mind,” does not strike me as a convincing rebutal about anything. But more will no doubt follow. Would be wonderful if we could have a day at the Priscilla and Aquilla Centre to set out these views with respondents and get into the ducks guts of the issues.

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