Cultural assumptions and reading scripture

One human characteristic is to interpret what we read through the grid of our assumptions and world view. We interpret texts (including the bible) according to the norms of our culture, our family of origin, the style and level of education we have received, our own personality, and all manner of subtle and not-so-subtle socialisation experiences. We interpret what the church should be like through the grid of our personal experiences of church, often with greater passion and clarity than with anything the New Testament has to say about church. Anyone who has had a battle in their church over hymns versus choruses, where the communion table should sit, how long the service should run, a building program or a management problem, can testify that passions can run high over issues that have NOTHING to do with good theology or the bible, and everything to do with the expectations people have based on their prior experiences of church and family. This is perfectly normal and to be expected.

The problem with our tendency to “read” text through the grid of our culture is that we very easily “baptise” practices that have far more to do with our socialisation than with our rigour in biblical interpretation. People from any side of a controversial question need to be aware of their own tendency to impose their own assumptions, emerging from their own experiences and personal preferences, onto their reading of the bible. We all need to exercise wisdom and humility in order to hear the scriptures afresh.

Hermeneutics (interpretation of the bible)

Hermeneutics, or the methods we apply in interpreting the bible, is a theological discipline in its own right. Good hermeneutics not only protects the church from heresy and cultic practices, but also from distracting eccentricities (the “snake handling church” that places high value on Mark 16:18 comes to mind). The church over the ages has developed protocols around how we interpret scripture. It would be fair to say this is a living discipline not a settled science, but there is broad agreement that it is very important to consider genre (e.g. Law? Poetry? Gospel? Epistle?), the cultural context of the writing (who received the writing and what did it mean to them in that time?) and the “weight” of scripture when engaging in biblical interpretation. It is also important to analyse the original languages, and for the majority of us who are not proficient at biblical languages, to make use of good translations and contemporary bible commentaries that engage with best practice biblical scholarship. The discipline of hermeneutics helps us to set aside our biases and to gain new insights into the word of God.

Hermeneutics and the “weight” of scripture

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (II Tim 3:16). As noted however, the bible is written in many different genres, in many different times and cultural contexts, and it is not “evenly” weighted throughout. For example, when questioned why divorce is permitted in the Law of Moses, Jesus’ replied: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” In other words, the Mosaic Law had concessions for human sinfulness, but Jesus Christ promoted a higher ideal of God’s intention for marriage. Jesus had conflict with the Pharisees on a number of occasions because for him doing good deeds (such as healing the sick) was a higher principle than obedience to conventions around Sabbath laws. (e.g. Luke 13:10 – 17). Jesus commended the “expert in the law” who recognised that to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, to “love your neighbour as yourself” were the most important principles of the law (Luke 10:25 – 29). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states certain laws and commands, then sets the bar even higher based on an underlying principle (e.g. in Matthew 5:21 – 22; not only is murder forbidden but Christ forbids hatred as well, for love is the highest principle guiding right behaviour). These examples are illustrative of the fact that Jesus recognised some principles revealed in scripture are “weightier” matters than particular laws given for a particular context. The way we understand and apply the bible to our practices in church and life is based on the way we “weight” certain passages of scripture. For example, Paul’s reflections that we are set free from the law (see Romans 8, Galatians 3 and in many other passages) that means Christians today do not practice many of the laws revealed in the law of Moses, even though this is quite a large portion of our bibles. “Weighting” scripture is a very important part of the practice of biblical interpretation.

Interpreting the epistles has some quite distinctive challenges to our hermeneutics (practices of interpretation). It must be remembered we are reading other people’s mail. What parts of these letters contain specific advice to a church in a particular time and place, and which parts of these letters contain universal principles that apply to all Christians and all churches for all time? Are we to greet one another with a brotherly kiss, as instructed in Romans 6:16, I Corinthians 16:20, II Corinthians 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26, and I Peter 5:14? Does this command apply to all Christians for all times, or is it simply a 1st century cultural practice that we are permitted to “translate” in culturally appropriate ways? These kinds of decisions are not as straightforward as they may appear, and as noted earlier, we need to be aware of our tendency to “read” scripture through the lens of our own prejudices and experiences.

What biblical principles carry “weight” around equality issues?

The highest principle in interpretation of any scripture is love (Mark 12:30 – 32). All people are of high value of all people in the eyes of God, who in love did not spare His only son but “gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). In Christ we are all children of God who are to love others in the way Christ loved us. (John 13:34) I believe that the gospel is affirms the egalitarian principle we are all loved equally and are of equal worth in the eyes of God. The body of Christ is called to unity and mutual service, and it follows that distinctions between people tend to dissolve. The view that we are all brothers and sisters of equal worth in the sight of God is like a “time bomb” in human relationships, a radical idea that transforms society as we live out a vision of the Kingdom of God, a future hope which breaks in to the present.

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

I Corinthians 12:25 “there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:10And have clothed yourselves with the new [spiritual self], which is [ever in the process of being] renewed and remoulded into [fuller and more perfect [a]knowledge upon] knowledge after the image (the likeness) of Him Who created it.11[In this new creation all distinctions vanish.] There [b]is no room for and there can be neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, [nor difference between nations whether alien] barbarians or Scythians [[c]who are the most savage of all], nor slave or free man; but Christ is all and in all [[d]everything and everywhere, to all men, without distinction of person]. (Amplified bible)

A case study: Proof texts versus biblical principles

A couple of hundred years ago there were Christian people who vigorously defended the practice of slavery using the bible. They could show that the Old Testament spelled out in great detail laws around slave ownership. (e.g. Leviticus 25:44, Exodus 21:20 – 21, 26 – 27) The father of our faith Abraham was given slaves by Abimelek (Gen 20:14). Paul directed slaves to serve their masters wholeheartedly in Ephesians 6:5 -8, Colossians 3:22 – 25, I Timothy 6:1 -2, as did Peter (I Peter 2:18). These and other “proof texts” were used to argue that slavery was part of God’s will, if not in the next life, certainly in this.

William Wilberforce, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Clarkson and a number of other concerned evangelicals believed earnestly that a higher principle was at stake… that of equal worth of all people in the sight of God. They mounted a very long campaign to overturn the practice of slavery in the British Empire, until the passing of the slave trade act in 1807 after a twenty-six year-long parliamentary campaign.

I personally feel that there is a much stronger case for slavery than for forbidding the public ministry of women, as there are many examples of women exercising public ministry in the bible, but no New Testament examples of masters freeing slaves (or being commanded to do so, although Paul makes some hints in this direction in his letter to Philemon). I should make clear however, I oppose both slavery and ministry discrimination on the basis of gender!
Biblical principles and gender equality?

I believe the underlying principle of equal value in the kingdom and in the eyes of God is an important foundation for consideration of gender issues. Just as the message of God’s love for all has radical implications for the status of Jews and Gentiles in the eyes of God, and radical implications around the dynamics of slavery, and radical implications for how we treat those of both low status in worldly terms, so also God’s love for all has radical implications for gender relationships.

Pentecost marks a new era in human history, where rather than dividing humanity into priests and ordinary people, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. The divisions in the temple are irrelevant in the new era of grace. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon he quotes Joel 2:28 -29:

Acts 2:17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

Is there any evidence women exercised leadership or speaking roles in the early church?

As noted above, Joel predicted that both men and women would experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the “last days”. This also would involve both men and women exercising the gift of prophesy. The word “prophecy” implies one who “teaches, refutes, reproves, admonishes, or comforts”: i.e. public ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit. Is there any evidence this actually occurred?

Acts 21:8 Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. (The fact they were known for this suggests they did not do this privately!)

Acts 16:40 “After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them.” (It appears that Lydia, Paul’s first convert in Philippi, was also the host of the Philippian house church.)

Romans 16 has references to many notable women in the church, who are specifically greeted by Paul. Phoebe is named as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, as well as a benefactor. It has been suggested she is the one appointed to deliver and explain Paul’s letter to the Roman church here.

Priscilla and Aquila 16 v 3 are named as co-workers with Paul… those who work alongside him in ministry. Timothy is also called a “co-worker” in v 21. The normal cultural practice was for the husband’s name to precede the wife’s name, and it is suggested that Priscilla’s name is given first as she was the more noteworthy teacher of the two. She has been suggested as one of the possible authors of the book of Hebrews, and was one of the people who instructed Apollos in the way of the Lord in Acts 18:26.

Junia 16 v 7 is described by Paul as someone who had “been in prison with me” and who was “outstanding among the apostles”. There are two possible ways to interpret this (and it seems to be done depending on the prior bias of the translator). One way is that she was an outstanding apostle. Apostolic ministry is of course the ministry of planting new churches where Christ is not known. The other way to read this is that her leadership was sufficiently noteworthy that her reputation was “outstanding” among the 12 apostles. Either way, this is a woman with a very high profile in the early church, so much so that the Romans saw fit to imprison her in their attempts to crush the church.

Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis are all described as hard workers in the church in Romans 16.

II John 1:1 The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth—

Depending on how this is interpreted, this may be evidence that women were elders in the early church (or at least, that there was one known to John!) Alternatively, "the elder" might be a title John is using for himself?

I Corinthians 11:4 Any man who prays or prophesies (teaches, refutes, reproves, admonishes, and comforts) with his head covered dishonours his Head (Christ).5And any woman who [publicly] prays or prophesies (teaches, refutes, reproves, admonishes, or comforts) when she is bareheaded dishonours her head (her husband); it is the same as [if her head were] shaved. (Amplified bible)

Discussing whether head coverings are still required of women engaged in prayer or prophetic ministry is outside the scope of this article, but many modern Protestant commentators would see this as an issue of public decency in 1st century Corinth rather than a binding practice for all time. The point I wish to emphasise is that coverings were to be worn by women engaged in public ministry in the church. This is important to consider as we go on to reflect on the two passages that have been used to suggest women may not speak in church. (I Corinthians 14:34 – 35 and I Timothy 2:11 – 15)

Women in the gospels

The 12 apostles are the most prominent followers of Jesus, who are promised to “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28), symbolic male leaders of the 12 tribes. The important role of the women in the gospels is understated by comparison. However, the faith and deeds of women are commended in many places in the gospels. (Matthew 9:22, 15:28, 26:10 – 13, Mark 12: 43 = 44, Luke 7:50). Matthew breaks with Jewish tradition and names several women in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1). Mary, Martha and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus, and it is Martha (rather than Peter) who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God in the book of John. (John 11:27) Mary “sits at the feet” of Jesus in the posture of a disciple, in a radical departure from expected gender norms, and Jesus commends her for doing so. (Luke 19:39) Mary and Elizabeth are prominent women chosen by God to bear the Messiah and the one who “prepares the way for the Lord” respectively. Anna was a prophetess (Luke 2:36) who witnessed that Jesus was the Messiah.

Many of the events occurring over the Passion of Christ are known to us because of the discipleship of women. Luke claims the gospels were accounts handed down by “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2) rather than insights received in a vision. How do we know what Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane when all of the disciples were sleeping? (e.g.’s Mark 14: 32 – 42 and Luke 22:39 – 46) How do we know what happened at the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, before Herod, and before Pilate after “all the disciples ran away”? (Matt 26:56) One explanation is revealed in Matthew 27:55 – 56, Mark 15:40 – 41, Luke 23:49. According to Mark’s account of the crucifixion: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” It appears these women who had accompanied Jesus all the way from Galilee and continued to follow him through his trial, crucifixion and burial (Luke 24:55) while his male disciples absented themselves. It was the women who returned to Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday morning, and were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. They are the first bearers of good news to the unbelieving disciples (Luke 24:9 - 11). In Matthew they are commissioned by an angel then by Jesus himself to tell the disciples of the resurrection Matt 28:7 – 10). It is significant that the central event of Christian faith is known as has been proclaimed over the centuries because of the faithful discipleship of women.

Women in the Old Testament

One prominent woman in the Old Testament was Deborah, who was both a prophetess and a judge of Israel (Judges 4:4) who went into battle with Barak against Sisera. (Judges 4:8 – 9). Aaron’s sister Miriam is also called a prophetess. (Exodus 15: 20) Huldah was a prophetess living in Jerusalem (II Kings 22:14) whose prophetic word was sought out by King Josiah (II Kings 22:12 – 13). It appears Isaiah’s wife was also a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3). Esther’s courage and faithfulness leads to the salvation of the Jews. Rahab is a foreign woman who protects the spies of Israel and is one of the human ancestors of Jesus. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and to Naomi’s God means she is in the line of David and a human ancestor of Jesus. Hannah’s prayers and faithfulness releases the great prophet Samuel to Israel.

In my opinion, it would be extraordinary if God chose women to be prophets and key players in the story of God’s work in Israel, and forbade all public ministry of women in the New era where the Holy Spirit it poured out on “all flesh”. With this background in mind, let us examine the two passages that seem to suggest that this is the case.

Two difficult passages for egalitarians:

Problem passage 1: I Corinthians 14

I Corinthians 14:29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

Possible egalitarian explanations:

Given that Paul went on at length about what women should wear on their heads when praying of prophesying publicly in chapter 11, one plausible explanation is that the “speaking” he is forbidding in chapter 14 is “asking questions of their husband”. It seems the church in Corinth was noisy and chaotic, and Paul felt that one person should be speaking at a time. It may be that the church in Corinth adopted the seating patterns of the synagogue, where the women would all sit at the rear and the men would all sit at the front. If this is the case, the “asking questions of their own husbands” would involve more than disruptive murmuring, it would involve yelling across the room! Paul is concerned that everything occurring in the gatherings of believers should be conducted in a “fitting and orderly way” (14 vs. 40)

Another explanation is that 14 vs. 34 – 35 are a direct quote from the Corinthians letter to Paul, and his response in vs. 36 is sarcastic. (The Q and A section of the Corinthian letter begins in Ch. 7:1 “Now for the matters you wrote about:” and continues for much of the remainder of the letter.)

Ancient Greek had no punctuation: neither full stops, commas, quotation marks, nor even gaps between words in the first century! Translators therefore look for “cues” to work out where punctuation marks might be.

A technical paper for “The Bible Translator” by Daniel C Arichea (1995) suggests that there are indeed “cues” suggesting quotation in verses 34 and 35, and that the following translation is quite legitimate if this is the case:

Some of you say, “Women should be silent in the churches, because they are not permitted to speak. As the Jewish law says, they should be subordinate to men. If there is anything they want to know, they should wait until they get home and then ask their husbands. It is shameful for women to speak in church”.

What kind of thinking is that? You are acting as if the word of God came from you! And you men, don’t ever think that you are the only ones who received this word!

Whether or not this is correct, I Corinthians 14 needs to be read in the light of I Corinthians 11:5, where women are instructed to wear head coverings while praying or prophesying. This would imply Paul either dismissed the suggestion women should be silent outright, or forbade disruptive questions to husbands, rather than forbidding the “praying or prophesying” addressed in chapter 11.

Problem Passage 2: I Timothy 2

I Timothy 2:11 A woman (or wife) should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; (a husband) she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women (she) will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

The probable context of I Timothy:

Timothy was probably ministering at Ephesus when he received this epistle. The pagan belief at Ephesus was that Artemis was the dominant goddess. She created a partner and had children, but was superior to him. Artemis was the goddess to whom women prayed to keep them safe in childbirth. It is possible uneducated women who are recent converts from paganism may be talking and teaching in these terms. It is very possible they are in fact the “false teachers” and perpetrators of “old wives tales” berated in chapter 4.

In a direct counter to the myths surrounding Artemis, Paul reminds them that Adam was created first, then Eve, that women should not have authority over a man (as Artemis did) and that faith in Christ (not Artemis) would keep women safe in childbirth. The women causing trouble should shut up and learn Christian doctrine. (You may recall the riot in Acts 19 where Paul is seen to be disturbing faith in Artemis).

The word "Authentein" (translated as “authority”) is used only here in the New Testament. It has an uncertain meaning. Instead of meaning "to have authority over man" it may mean "to be the originator or author” - more literally perpetrator - of man. So the verse might be read as, "I do not permit a woman to teach that woman created man". Whether this is correct, "Authentein" had quite negative connotations then in extra-biblical sources, and can therefore be translated as “I do not permit women to domineer over men”. Indeed, it may even have a stronger meaning than domineer: there is even evidence it meant MURDER. See here and here I think we can all agree murder is rather unethical behaviour.The word became more "neutral" by about the 4th century, just meaning authority generally (not that Paul would have known this in the middle of the first century!)

Egalitarians therefore tend to view this passage as a counter to a heresy perpetrated by some women, who needed to learn true Christian doctrine. These women are the “false teachers” speaking “old wives tales” Paul writes about in chapter 4. This is the simplest way to explain the fact Paul commended many women in public ministry in other letters: it is not that he changed his mind about women speaking in the church (I Corinthians 11:5), but that he was addressing a particular problem.

Complementarians and I Timothy 2: a response

I Timothy 2 is a key “proof text” for complementarians. They argue that because Paul appeals to “creation order” in this context, it must mean that male authority over women has been established for all time. However, anyone familiar with Genesis would realise the idea “creation order determines authority” would come up with a diametrically opposing view. If we were to use the “creation order” principle for determining authority, the light would have the most authority as God’s first creation, and human beings would have the least authority as God’s last creation. Of course the sense of Genesis 1 is quite the opposite: that God’s final creation (mankind, male and female, created in the image of God) is given authority to rule over all creation. This is an indication Paul is responding to a pagan myth, rather than addressing a Jewish audience familiar with Genesis.

The only suggestion of domination in the Genesis accounts comes as a consequence of the fall. Egalitarians suggest that Christ has set us free from the curse, and that the Kingdom of God is breaking in to the world now in the church, as a foretaste of the Kingdom coming in all its fullness. The church should not be reflecting domination, but the surrender of all to the One Lord Jesus Christ, and mutual submission to one another as an outworking of Christ’s lordship.

The New Testament scholar NT Wright offers the following reflection on understanding this passage:

“The key to the present passage, then, is to recognize that it is commanding that women, too, should be allowed to study and learn, and should not be restrained from doing so (verse 11). They are to be ‘in full submission’; this is often taken to mean ‘to the men’, or ‘to their husbands’, but it is equally likely that it refers to their attitude, as learners, of submission to God or to the gospel – which of course would be true for men as well. Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man’ – the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years. It can equally mean (and in context this makes much more sense): ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.’ Why might Paul need to say this?

“There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion – the biggest Temple, the most famous shrine – was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area; and, as befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.

“Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organizing male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, with one feature of that being that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying, people might wonder, that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. The word I’ve translated ‘try to dictate to them’ is unusual, but seems to have the overtones of ‘being bossy’ or ‘seizing control’. Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.”

He goes on to translate vs. 11 and 12 in the following fashion:

“ v 11 (women) must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. 12 I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed.”

(This is extracted from here)

There are others who note the meaning of "authentein" might be as extreme as murder, as it is used this way in extra-biblical sources.

The Complementarian perspective (the belief that men and women have distinctly different roles in the church) places high “weighting” on this passage, despite the fact it is difficult to translate, that its meaning is disputed by biblical scholars, that it seems to have a particular and unusual context, and that it seems contrary to Paul’s affirmation of women in ministry in other epistles. Nonetheless, this text is “universalized” by them as a binding principle for all churches for all time.

I shall give the last word on this passage to the eminent evangelical scholar FF Bruce, who when asked to comment on women in ministry simply replied: “I think Paul would roll in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into Torah”.

For more articles on this passage see Christians for Biblical Equality:

Women and ministry: current theological discussion

The debate around women in ministry is sometimes parodied by Complementarians as a debate between liberals who don’t accept the authority of the bible and evangelicals who do. This ignores the many eminent evangelical scholars who support (or supported) women in ministry such as FF Bruce, NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Alan F Johnson, Stanley J Grenz and Kevin Giles. Many prominent evangelical leaders such as Tony Campolo, Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, Ron Sider and Alan Hirsch are vocal supporters of an egalitarian perspective. The largest evangelical church in Melbourne (City Life) maintains a strong egalitarian stance, and Mark Conner’s blog on this topic is an interesting read.

Dr Kevin Giles has written many texts on both Trinitarian theology and women in ministry. The two perspectives are interrelated. The mainstream historical belief of the church has been that Christ is “very nature God” (Philippians 2:6) who temporarily “made himself nothing” in the incarnation (Philippians 2:7). Dr Giles claims that since the 1970’s when the movement for ordination of women gathered pace in the evangelical church, the idea began to be promoted in some circles that Christ is eternally subordinate to the Father, and by analogy, women are eternally subordinate to men. It is worth noting however that nowhere in the New Testament is the relationship between men and women (or husband and wife) likened to the relationship between the Father and the Son. As such this argument is drawing a very long bow indeed. More seriously, to argue that the Trinity is be very nature like a chain of command is to minimize the Lordship of Christ and the Christian understanding of God who is by very nature three persons in a dynamic relationship of love. Dr Stephen Curkpatrick (lecturer in Christian Thought and History and New Testament Studies at Stirling College) is a very helpful person to dialogue with on the critical importance of Trinitarian theology in Christian thought and practice.

One of the arguments used within Catholicism is that because the priest represents Christ as a mediator between God and the people, the priest must be male to represent Jesus Christ. While I feel this argument is inherently illogical (do we insist that all governor-generals and governors must be female, or they are unable to be truly representative of the Queen?) it is irrelevant within Churches of Christ. Churches of Christ reject a special class of “priests”, claiming instead there is one mediator between God and man Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5), and that all of God’s people are “a kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:5) without distinction.

Another point used to support a Complementarian perspective is around a view of male “headship”. However, in 1st century Greek “head” was a literal term, and if used metaphorically, it was used to mean “source” (e.g. head waters as the source of a stream). It was never used in the sense of authority as in the English terms headmaster, head of faculty, head of church, etc. Hence the metaphor in Ephesians 5: 21 – 23 should be read as “the husband is the source of the wife as Christ is the source of the church”. In other words, husbands and wives are of the same substance in radical interdependence. This aligns with Paul’s metaphor that for a husband to love his wife is like loving his own body (5 v. 28): they are inseparably one. This does not mean that Christ is not Lord of the church, as other writings make perfectly clear, but simply that this particular phrase should not be read as a hierarchical analogy. Hence the idea that the “head” pastor (leader) of a congregation must be male should be rejected, as “head” is not an analogy of leadership in New Testament Greek. This is one instance where understanding 1st century Greek informs our practice of biblical interpretation.

Even if “head” was to be read incorrectly in the English sense of the word, Churches of Christ do not accept that an employed minister is the “head” (leader) of a church, but that a group of elders whose calling is discerned and affirmed by the members of the church are the servant leaders of a local church. As such, arguments that the “head” of a church must be a man make little sense in our context.

Women and ministry: what about missionaries?

Many years ago when the issue of women in ministry first came on the radar for evangelicals, my mother (not a minister, but a godly woman) was confronted by a man who said: “I don’t believe in women ministers!” She immediately retorted: “Do you believe in women missionaries?” He refused to answer, but she had a point. It is incongruous to believe that women are able to teach, preach the gospel, and plant and lead churches in foreign contexts but not within their “home” culture. This alone should give us pause to do some further theological reflection on this issue.

Women and the church: social context

One of the concerning trends for the health of the church in the Western world is that women are now leaving the church at a significantly faster rate than men.,000_Women_Abandoning_Church_Every_Year_As_Buffy_The_Vampire_Slayer_Turns_Them_On_To_Witchcraft.aspx?ArticleID=2440&PageID=12&RefPageID=104

Although the reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, I feel it is incongruous that women who are highly capable professionals in the workplace are relegated to narrow roles in some church contexts. Gender equality is simply assumed in most work, educational and social contexts in Australia.

According to the just released Australian Communities Report by Olive Tree Media (McCrindle Research, October 2011) the perceived role of women is a “belief blocker” to Christianity completely (for 20% of the population), significantly (for 14% of the population) or slightly (for 26% of the population). If perceived gender inequality in Christianity is a barrier to evangelism among 60% of the Australian population, this factor alone should be of grave concern to evangelical churches. We are better off making our “offense” related to non-negotiable issues of the gospel than cluttering the picture with “non essential” barriers to faith.

Another interesting insight on the question of women’s participation on leadership teams comes from a study done by psychologists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon in the US. They divided people into teams and asked them to complete intelligence tasks together. Interestingly, the IQ scores of the groups’ members barely affected collective performance. The number of women on a team, however, affected it a great deal –the more women, the better. It seems that the capacity of women to raise the “collective intelligence” of a group is related to the fact their “social sensitivity” is usually stronger than that of men. Thus they tend to draw out more and deeper responses from a greater number of people, increasing the capacity of the group to make well thought-through decisions. See: This factor has interesting implications in relation to gender inclusiveness on eldership, boards, and leadership teams of local churches.

A challenge for the church is to create a healthy community where both men and women are affirmed and empowered to exercise their gifts for ministry for the glory of God. In the pithy words of Allan Meyer, it’s hard to win a war when half the army is sitting down. In perhaps a more finely honed analogy, it is difficult to win a war when some of the best and brightest potential generals and commanders are only permitted to be foot soldiers.

One of the challenges for all denominations and movements in Australia is a shortage of candidates for local church ministry. I feel that one of the possible ways God might want us to address this challenge is to encourage more women to develop their ministry gifts, and enter a discernment process whether they may have a calling to serve the body of Christ in this manner. This requires a culture in local churches where the full participation of women in mission and ministry is actively encouraged.

Theological differences and Churches of Christ

“In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity” was one of the catch-cries of the founders of Churches of the Christ. The stance of an individual Church of Christ on any theological issue is to be decided prayerfully by the eldership of a local church, and both within and outside that local church, love and grace even between individuals with strong, differing opinions are to be the mark of the Christian community. The view of a church on women in ministry is very important in the life of the church, but it is “non-essential” to salvation. Faith in Christ and love are the “essentials”.


The stakes are high in relation to the stance of the church around women in ministry: women appear to be leaving the church in increasing numbers, and perceived inequality in the church is a significant block for evangelism in Australia. I personally believe that the “weight” of scripture is egalitarian on the issue of women and ministry, and that gifting and call rather than gender are the key qualifications for the exercise of public ministry. God chose women as prophets in the Old Testament, and there is ample evidence that women exercised prophetic proclamation in the New Testament church. I believe bias has driven some sectors of the church to hold tightly onto two “proof texts” about women’s ministry that have much more plausible alternative explanations. However, I admit that my own perspectives come from a position of bias, and I invite both myself and others to investigate the scriptures for themselves with humility and a teachable spirit. I would appreciate your feedback on any inadequacies in this discussion paper, and am happy to engage in further dialogue on this issue.


Popular posts from this blog

Study at Manchild!

Rebranding Hierarchy

The World According to Complementarians