Ben Witherington, Women in Ministry 1

Ben Witherington, Women in Ministry 1 April 10, 2012

You can’t do much more in 7 minutes, and no one in the world has been at work on this topic longer than Ben — or at least if there is anyone, he’s among those who have been at it the longest. Ben’s dissertation was on this topic — and we won’t go on to tell how long ago that was. Anyway, give it a good listen and we can discuss here.

We will post part 2 of Ben’s presentation Thursday.

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  • Paul

    Great video. I have a question: if we apply this type of thinking to other topics (looking for the novel in the midst of the standard way of thinking), what do we find in the NT?

  • Joshua

    Paul, for the sake of discussion, I think it would be most beneficial if you were a a little more specific (unless you were just curious yourself, in which case, I could probably think of some). Which examples come to mind for you?

  • Paul

    I didn’t have any…I’m pretty busy this morning and didn’t have much time to think it through. It was honestly a question that came to my mind and figured I would throw it out there.

  • Trav

    Another video discussion with Ben Witherington on Women from a couple of years ago:

  • Robert

    Trav, at least on my computer there is no longer a link available?

  • Kim

    I thought Mr Witherington was exceptional in his explanation. It does my heart good to hear this affirmation coming from a male. as, I am a female pastor. I read a lot of article’s and such by women. but, to be fair men have been at this a lot longer in some senses and when men affirm women in these roles it brings a different weight in a good way. God Bless!

  • Joe Canner

    This is a good video series (if you can’t wait for part 2, it’s on Ben’s blog) and I especially like the idea of looking for trajectory in Scripture. Throughout the Bible we see things as a work in progress, so it stands to reason that we should be looking at where things are headed rather than where they were at that particular moment in space and time.

  • MattR

    A great explanation of how to begin the redemptive trajectory line of thinking… we should look at what was different in the midst of common cultural assumptions (mutuality in the midst of patriarchy), and follow that logic forward.

  • Shane

    One caution on the “trajectory line of thinking…” Who, in the end, gets to decide how far it goes? Who gets to decide? I think it’s wise to allow the Scripture themselves to decide. We need to look no farther than the New Testament epistles, etc. If this is the case, then women are NOT included in any pastoral roles. Deacon–yes. Pastor–no. There simply isn’t any good way around this if we believe in the authority of Scripture.

    I’ve heard even confessing so-called “homosexual” Christians use the trajectory line of thinking as a basis for their cause. Again, what do the NT epistles state? Do we go beyond Paul and the rest of the NT canon? Probably not wise.

  • Yes, I have to echo that this is a good and succinct intro into the discussion on women’s roles. I really like what he had to say about trajectory theology and how the NT opens a door to God’s wider perspective and desire for mutuality amongst women & men. I’m using this video to launch my own article-post tomorrow. Good stuff.

  • Shane –

    Your questions are very much considering. But what I think is that they come out of this overt desire amongst evangelical Christians (of which I am one) to kind of pin down every theological issue. For example, if we allow for prophecy, then we open the door for so many problems. If we allow that the fire terminology in Scripture to be metaphorical for real judgment, people will then think hell no longer exists. If we allow for trajectory theology, then people will abuse it. Or, as it was argued almost 500 years ago in the midst of the reformation, if we allow people to have the Bible, it will open pandora’s box for heresy.

    Such is life. Such is reality. But such must be allowed in the economy of God’s good kingdom. We cannot let this kind of fear ever dictate our theological perspectives. It is unhealthy and will leave us micro-managing people. It’s just not at the centre and heart of God.

    So, yes, as you suggest, people will abuse trajectory theology. But what we must also note is that we ALL practice such, whether with head coverings, specified clothing statements of the NT, gifts of the Spirit (if one is cessationist), foot washing, etc, etc. We all practice it. Thus, we need to note that such a practice is not inherently evil. But God has given us good guards outside of Scripture to help us come to healthy theological conclusions – the living Spirit of God, the living body of Christ both of 2000 years and currently, healthy and godly leadership, our spouse, etc, etc. It is not 100% perfect, though we have an unquenchable desire for such. But God has done well in providing very healthy and solid guards for healthy theology.

  • adam

    Let me first say, “long time listener, first time caller.” I appreciate this blog and its guests so please understand my comments that way.

    Neither do I wish to shoot this video of Dr. Witherington down, but I find his language to be vague exactly where it needs to be most precise. For instance, what hermeneutical method is employed when one is seeking to discern the “trajectory” of scriptures teaching on a particular subject?

    That is to say, if we are looking for post-pauline trajectory (current text meaning) what are the textual indicators that arise to point us toward the trajectory and what method do we employ to further develop it (current text meaning) and how do we then know that we have with a degree of certainty arrived at Paul’s purported “trajectory” for us and thus rightly applied it to the church? Is the hermeneutical method of “trajectory meanings” built on reason? Meaning, what is most reasonable to most reasonable people? That would beg the question, “who are the reasonable people performing reasonable exegesis? Only those who arrive at and rightly discern Pauline “trajectories.” It just seems too vague to be that helpful.

    I also found the injection of “gospel leaven” to be unclear? Does the injection of gospel leaven mean that over time (trajectory) the gospel will make clearer and clearer (i.e. leaven grows) the meaning of Jesus and Paul in application to the church?
    Thanks for any clarification.

  • DRT

    OK Shane. If we cannot look any further than the NT then go ahead and buy yourself some slaves. And please, for your salvation, make sure you greet everyone with a kiss 🙂

  • MattR

    Shane (#9),

    Yes, we must be wise and cautious in our use of trajectory hermeneutic. But I still think it has a lot to offer.

    “Who decides?” Well, first you start with the text, and what we know of the context. So for me this is a great example… just noticing the cultural assumptions of the first century, and calling that ‘inspired’ is not enough. We must listen to how the Holy Spirit, through these texts was questioning and redeeming the assumptions of the day. In this case, leading us towards a vision of equal/mutual roles and ministry.

    And as ScottL said… we also have 2000 years of tradition and the Holy Spirit acting in the church, including our current community, as well as our renewed reasoned thinking as parameters. Trajectory is not a free for all!

  • Jim

    I really enjoyed the video – wish some of my seminary professors could have covered as much, as clearly ast he did in 7 min.

    I don’t think it does justice to the whole conversation to muddle this topic with others, e.g. homosexual practice/life style. Reason being, as Prof. Witherington does, there is scriptural scaffolding present that is absent from other issues/topics. Concerning the role of women in public ministry we have specific text, concepts like “trajectory of Scripture” and concrete examples from both Jesus and Paul, etc. As much as I would like to, I can’t find that with accepting homosexual behavior.

  • MikeW


    You were probably being a bit funny in how you stated that. But the serious point comparing slavery and women’s roles in ministry is that Paul said slaves should secure their freedom if they can. And as much as it offends our sensibilities the kind of indentured servitude practiced in 1 Ct Rome is not abolished by redefined. So we don’t have to go beyond the text with those

    I think we have to let the hierarchical mindset AND the subversion of authority, that are in tension within the text itself, remain, rather than playing them off each other.

  • Joe Canner

    Shane #9: I’m tempted to engage you (and others) on the notion that we can’t use aspects of the trajectory method to say something about homosexuality, but that might take us too far off topic.

    Instead, I will ask you to specify your Scriptural support for saying that women are not to be pastors. As far as I know, there are no restrictions in the NT on being a pastor.

  • Hello Mr. McKnight,

    There appears to be a broken link when sharing the video on Facebook.

  • A model of clarity, graciously argued sort of redemptive historical argument.

    I agree with Ben Witherington and I’ve had some of these debates on my blog and in general those persuaded stay persuaded and those unpersuaded stay unpersuaded.

    Seems to me that we’ve come to a place that the two sides (broadly speaking it does seem to be two views) are very well established and familiar with each other’s take on women in ministry. One wants to take a fixed model from Scripture, the other sees a trajectory beyond the culture of patriarchy. Both seem pretty convinced and have strong followings.

    And I’m not sure how much more is going to change? Seems to me we’re at a place like with baptism, where after centuries of debate, communities continue to hold and express different practices based around different theologies.

    Where to now? At best continue to recognise and affirm each other’s orthodoxy and sincerity and common Christian / evangelical identity? At worst continue to attack each other as dangerous control freaks or liberal sell-outs …?

  • Pat Pope
  • Shane

    Thanks Joe. I would actually encourage you to let me know how the “trajectory method” could have something to say about homosexuality for our day and age? I think it’s actually relevant to the discussion. I don’t want to get into a never ending debate between egalitarianism/complementarianism here, but I would like to hear you out on that.

    I’m pretty convinced that there’s a logical connection between egalitarianism and accepting so-called “gay” Christians into church fellowship. That’s not meant as an insult to my egalitarian friends– but I would argue that the acceptance of the two (women elders/gay christians) actually argue from the same kinds of premises. Of course there are many egalitarians who would never want to endorse homosexual sin as okay for a Christian. Many would attempt a biblical argument for their position (as much as is even possible since the bible does not talk about women elders). So I’m not claiming that they wouldn’t try. Just curious where you would go with that one….

  • Joe Canner

    Shane #21: I’m not sure if there is a “trajectory” argument for homosexuality per se, but it is indeed similar to the gender issue. The trajectory argument for gender requires some understanding of what was normal at that time, so as to understand what things we find in Scripture were counter-cultural (e.g., female disciples). Likewise, we need to understand what kinds of cultural phenomena Paul was referring to in Romans 1 and I Cor 6 before we assume that he is condemning monogamous same-sex relationships.

    Given that similar arguments are required in both cases, I agree with you that it is interesting that there are many who are willing to make cultural arguments against head coverings and for gender equality, while refusing to countenance such arguments for monogamous same-sex relationships.

  • Trav

    Robert #5- I get asked “Do you want to only view secure content”? (or similar) and if I answer “No” then the video works.

  • Scot- This is such a good and succinct presentation! Thanks for posting it.

  • Shane, you may want to check out “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis” by William Webb. Webb makes the case that the trajectories are away from slavery, toward women’s participation in all forms ministry, and toward affirming sex only in a covenant relationship of marriage between a man and a woman. It is very well written.

    There is nothing inherent in a trajectory hermeneutic that leads to an affirmation of homosexual acts (or any other ethical outcome.) I would suspect the question you are asking gets things backward. It sounds to me as though you might be saying that only a hermeneutic that leads to rejection of homosexual acts would be a legitimate hermeneutic. Instead, I think we establish what a legitimate hermeneutic is and allow God to form us accordingly. Otherwise, I suspect our “hermeneutic” is more likely a rationalization.

  • Mary Fisher

    Shane May I suggest that tou read New Testament scholar Dr Ken Bailey’s article on women readily available on the Internet. Then Dr Craid Keener’s works. then Dr Scot McKnight.

  • Shane

    Joe #22 Thanks Joe for interacting. I think you see the connection that I do. I actually have no problem with a “trajectory” as long as it ends in the New Testament–especially on morality and sexual ethics. I think the “head coverings” or “women speaking in church” are not dealing with morals or ethics as much as those current cultural settings. Slavery is actually a more complicated issue since there is some legitimate debate on what was even meant by “slavery” in Paul’s writings. Our understanding of slavery has been so shaped by our American understanding of what that looks like. I don’t get the impression that Paul is giving sweeping approval of all types of slavery in all it’s various shapes and forms. So we need to be careful that we don’t read too much into what Paul is saying. We need to stop where Paul stops.

    On homosexual sin. If you look at the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, you get a consistent and clear teaching. So I don’t think there’s a legitimate debate outside of denying the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. It’s a settled discussion. If we get too carried away with a “trajectory” then we can basically pick and choose whatever we want and conform it to our current cultural setting. Undoubtedly, many of the liberal churches have done that with the issue of homosexual sin. It has nothing to do with Scripture. It’s a cultural surrender of God’s standard for our own.

  • Shane

    I think trajectory theology is very relevant to discussions around social barriers, i.e., gender, ethnicity, etc. But I would argue that sexuality falls more in the ‘moral’ category. So I don’t see any precedence for applying trajectories to any discussions around morality, but would on any social level.

  • Shane

    Scott #28. I think I would have to agree with you. Unfortunately, many do try and apply this to homosexuality. The discussion of homosexuality becomes a social or biological issue rather than a moral issue. Gender roles are much different. As a complementarian, I’m thankful for the egalitarians who have challenged us to biblically define why we see men/women as equal but having different roles in the home/church. It has lead to a lot of fruitful studies and growth in this area. But I am concerned that the egalitarian viewpoint is often times argued the same way that one would argue for homosexual marriage, etc. And many have taken the “trajectory” idea and have ran with it to such extremes. My caution is not to go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. Too many of us allow our present culture to fuel our theology. We all have blind spots in this area.

  • Shane –

    Thanks for the continued interaction.

    You said: But I am concerned that the egalitarian viewpoint is often times argued the same way that one would argue for homosexual marriage, etc. And many have taken the “trajectory” idea and have ran with it to such extremes.

    Many sides argue utilising similar arguments. It happens. But that in no way makes the argument false. And I will always note extremes. I am within a charismatic church setting and believe very much that God still speaks very clearly today. I’ve tasted too much and see too much in Scripture to not believe such. But there are plenty that go to extremes. The desire is not to completely shut things off, but to do things healthily and correctly. I would really encourage you to not let fear dictate your theology – if we do A, then B will happen. If A can be concluded from Scripture, the Spirit’s clear witness, in connection with close brothers & sisters in Christ, etc, then we cannot let the possible problems lead us away. There are so many tragic stories of marriages, even amongst God’s people. Doesn’t mean I am going to pursue God’s purpose in my marriage with my wife.

    You said: My caution is not to go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture.

    I know that is the typical evangelical response, and I understand it. But it is not so clear cut. In a sense, there are tensions held within Scripture that we must allow for. How clear is Scripture on, say, God’s sovereignty and human being’s responsibility? How clear is Scripture on the gifts of the Spirit continuing? How clear is Scripture on elders & bishops being the exact same ministry role? How clear is Scripture on tithing? How clear is Scripture on………?

    We need to start in Scripture, prima scriptura, but at times, we have to consider whether we can move beyond Scripture in developing our theology, based upon where we find ourselves. Whether we like it or not, the later creeds, which are good, were developed within a different context than a first-century, second-temple Jewish culture. Every single Christian goes ‘beyond Scripture’ in some form or fashion. I do understand what you are saying. But that isn’t so simple. This is reality and we should not be afraid, but walk humbly and faithfully with those brothers and sisters God puts around us.

  • Shane

    Scott #30

    Thanks Scott. I would agree with most of what you said but I do believe that the Scriptures are clear and sufficient regarding everything that is essential and important to our life as Christians. That would include the list that you gave in your post. All those examples that you gave are actually pretty clear in Scriptures. At the very least, we are given good guidance in how to examine those areas. We may not always have a “black and white” answer (as in your example of tithing) but we do get clear instruction to make an informed decision. On none of those examples that you gave are we left in the dark. Scripture does, indeed, speak to all those. We may not always like what Scriptures tell us, but there are answers.

    I do believe that the Word of God is both clear and sufficient in these matters. Not that there aren’t hard things to understand, but the general rule still stands–we should not go beyond the Word of God. So any trajectory that we may take needs to end and be substantiated by the Word of God. Not by our culture. Not by our own feelings. Not by what the latest/popular scholar tells us, but by His Word. This is an important principle when we seek to understand these matters. If we don’t hold to this truth then we really have no limits to what we can come up with (ie Homosexual marriage, etc.). We are tossed to and fro with every new wave of doctrine. So as old fashioned and unsophisticated as it may sound, we should always stay within the boundaries of Scripture and trust in God and in His ability to communicate sufficiently to us.

  • Bill

    Excellent video. Makes great case for women in ministry. Still, it does not address the objections of those who refer to texts that forbid women to have authority over men. If he dismisses them based on the patriarchal context in which they emerged, will others dismiss other important texts based on the same process? I am thinking about sex codes.

  • Rick

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you for posting this interesting video.

    Would you be kind enough to address a few questions I had?

    We are working our way through a series on 1 Corinthians in our church. Scot McKnight’s Life Application NIV Commentary is one of our key resources. I just read his blogpost, “As Christ Submits to the Church” (11/01/2011) I am currently preparing to talk through 1 Cor 11.

    For background, I firmly believe and have upheld the mutuality principle–at least in some respects (1 Cor 7, etc.) I would probably be called a complementarian. In preaching this, I always emphasize that as the leader, the husband has the more demanding role. Leadership is not about position, but about function. It’s not about privilege, but responsibility.

    Can you help me understand a few things?

    It seems that a key verse for the egalitarian position is Eph 5:21, understanding the “submit to one another” instruction to be the first statement in the discussion about husbands and wives. However:

    –Eph 5:21 seems to be the concluding statement of the section beginning in v 1, “dearly loved children,” referring to mutual relationships in the church.
    –beginning with husbands & wives, Paul discusses three relationships within the context of authority structures.
    –in the parallel passage in Col. 3, there is no mention of mutual submission, only “Wives, submit to your husbands” and “Husbands, love your wives.”
    –no passage anywhere in the Bible instructs husbands to submit to wives.
    –although Christ did take the form of a slave and washed feet, etc., I am missing how this is tantamount to submission. It certainly was laying down his life, and loving us–as husbands should love and lay down their lives for their wives. However, through all his humility and service he never aligned himself with the will of man. He came to do the Father’s will. Even while washing feet and serving, he twice overrode Peter’s will. I’m not seeing mutual submission there. Paul did not, in fact, write, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as Christ was a servant of the church.” He wrote, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” This does not seem to describe a mutually submissive relationship.

    Help me out. I greatly respect your teaching and hermeneutical skill. I’m not seeing what you are seeing.

    Thanks much,