Kevin Giles on women in ministry

Dr Kevin Giles is a biblical scholar who has written many books on theology and women in ministry. This paper is like the "Readers Digest super-condensed version" of his extensive work on the subject.

The fundamental question is: does the Bible make the God-given ideal the subordination of women, or their social equality with men? Or to put it another way, are men reading the Bible rightly when they argue that God has excluded women from leadership in the church and the home?

That the Bible can be quoted by both sides that reply to these questions only tells us that the Bible is not a set of rules or timeless principles, but an historical revelation. On all the major doctrines, Christology, Trinity soteriology etc. there have been big debates over what the Bible teaches, and texts have been quoted by both sides to “prove” their stance. What we want to discover is how we should read the Bible, so that what is primary and foundational in scripture on the man-woman relationship is given the prominence it deserves.

Let me outline how I read the New Testament on this question. First I begin with the Gospels. On any matter it is always best to begin with Jesus. He perfectly reflects the mind of God.

Jesus: In word and deed Jesus insisted on equality. Those who would be leaders he insisted should be servants (Mk 1041-45). The 12 apostles were all men, but this has no theological significance. They are not depicted as proto-ministers, but as witnesses – something not open to women in that time.

Then I move to Acts and the Pauline epistles, carefully distinguishing three kinds of statements: the theological, the practical and the regulative (i.e. ones correcting errors or abuse). I give greatest weight to theological comments.

The apostolic writings.

1. Theological statements about ministry that apply equally to men and women:

See Acts 2:17-18, 1 Cor. 12:7, 1 Peter 4:10-11.

Ministry flows from the gifts given by the Holy Spirit and has nothing to do with one's sex.

2. Descriptive statements about women’s ministry:
• Women prophets (Acts 2:17, 21:9, 1 Cor. 11:5)
• workers and evangelists (Rom. 16:6, 12, Phil. 4:3)
• apostles (Rom. 16:7)
• deacons (Rom. 16:1, 1 Tim. 2:9)
• "heads" of house churches (Acts 12:12, 16:14-15, 40)
• Col. 4:15, 1 Cor. 1:11?)
• Husband and wife teams (Acts 18:24-28, Rom. 16:7)

Given the age, the number of women involved in Christian leadership is quite amazing. The apostolic practice generally matches the apostolic theology.

3. Regulative statements about women’s ministry:

Three times Paul is forced to deal with a pastoral problem caused by women disrupting church life in one way or another. Each of the issues is specific to the church addressed. It is a good rule to build theology/doctrine from theological texts, not from texts giving specific advice to specific questions.

1. 1 Cor. 11:2-16. In Corinth women were leading in prayer and prophecy in church with their heads uncovered, and men without covering their heads. In reply Paul insists that men and women should follow the custom of the day and cover their heads when leading in worship, and men do the same by leaving their heads uncovered. Much in this passage is not clear, but one thing is crystal clear: in Corinth both women and men led the assembled church in word and prayer. Paul here endorses women and men in public ministry.

2. 1 Cor. 14:34-35. Again at Corinth it seems married women were asking questions of their husbands, probably about the prophecies given, and thus disrupting church gatherings. In reply Paul tells these women to ask their questions at home.

3. 1 Tim. 2:11-12. Writing to Timothy in Ephesus where the church was under threat from heretical teaching, Paul introduces a new ruling not known before he wrote. The women are to stop teaching. As Paul nowhere else gives such a ruling, and as he has not objected to women teaching at Ephesus before this time, a special problem must be postulated. An exceptional situation is suggested by the exceptional Greek word used, authentein, which is used to describe the kind of teaching forbidden. This word has negative overtones implying usurped domineering authority. This seems to be that women were setting themselves up as authoritarian teachers and what they were teaching was in error. So Paul warns them about putting themselves “first” and of being “deceived” like Eve. There is no allusion to a created order that sets men over women in this passage. Women’s subordination is a result of the fall (Gen. 3:16). It is not the ideal.

The apostolic exhortations to be subordinate.

(See Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9, Tit. 2:5-10, 1 Peter 2:13 -3:7)

The apostolic exhortations to women and slaves to be subordinate are of the same nature: practical advice to Christians living in a culture that took slavery and the subordination of women for granted. They are not transcultural directives. These exhortations are to be seen as parallel and of like nature because -

1. They stand side by side in the epistles
2. All commentators until very recent times accepted this.
3. Scholarly studies today hold this.

These exhortations only ask of particular people what is asked of every Christian in any social relationship: namely subordinate yourself to others (see Luke 22:25-26, Rom. 12:10, Gal. 5:13, Eph. 5:21, etc.). They do not set up a permanent, hierarchical order, but exhort free, responsible men and women in a given society to act in a particular way so as not to cause offence. They are not permanently binding prescriptive rulings. In today’s world slavery is condemned. Any argument for the permanent subordination of women should be rejected on the basis that in creation God made both sexes equal in dignity, and to both he gave dominion over the world (Gen. 1:27-28). And because, in word and deed, Jesus endorsed this noble creation vision before sin entered the world, of the sexes standing side by side.

In Eph. 5:21-33 we clearly see Paul seeking to transform the prevailing patriarchal norms of his day. He first asks wives to be subordinate and to respect their husband as their “head,” reflecting the taken-for-granted ideas of his audience. No one in that day would have been surprised or offended by this comment, but what he goes onto say would have been like a bolt of lightning. In the next 8 verses he sets about to redefine the marriage relationship in terms of the relationship between Christ and the church. Husbands are to love their wives to the point of giving their life for them. No cost is too great, no sacrifice too much. In effect he is saying, OK you husbands you can think of yourself as the leader (“the head”) but your headship/leadership must pattern itself on Christ who gave himself even unto death for those he loved. You are a servant leader! Nothing is said here on who makes decisions and rather than male privilege or precedence being endorsed it is subverted.

What issues do Kevin's reflections raise for you? I'd be interesting in your feedback! Janet Woodlock


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