Precedent to Precept

Biblical hermeneutics (for those who like throwing big words into conversations) is the art and discipline of interpreting scripture.

The bible is a complex book, having been written over many centuries, in different cultures, in different places, and in different languages. Scholars study other texts written in similar places and times to get clues as to what certain words might mean. They investigate cultural practices, and styles of literature / oral traditions operating when the bible was written, to help us understand what the original authors might have intended to convey.

We need to approach interpreting the biblical texts with a degree of humility. We also need to note that the scriptures are not “flat”’ some texts carry more weight than others. Jesus noted:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)

“The most important (commandment),” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29 – 31)

The “weight” of scripture stresses the importance of justice, mercy, faithfulness and love. The trajectory of scripture is toward liberty from the law through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now God invites us to freedom through the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5… or the whole book, come to think of it!)

Holding on to these important themes provides a helpful grid as we interpret scripture. It is possible to read scripture without this weighting, and think: “Oh, God is OK with me owning slaves… it’s in the bible!” “God is OK with my having several wives… a ‘man after God’s own heart’ had plenty of them!”

Now there are many potholes we can fall into as we interpret scripture, but I want to focus on just two:

1) Creating a legalism out of a negative precedent (because of something that didn’t happen in the past, we make a rule it should never happen)

2) Creating a legalism out of a positive precedent. (Because of something that did happen in the past, we make a rule it should always happen).

The Disciples and Churches of Christ in the United States had a massive split over the question of whether one could use musical instruments in worship. “THERE IS NO PRECEDENT FOR MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS BEING USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT! THEREFORE, WE MUST NOT USE THEM IN CHURCH GATHERINGS!” thundered the acapella proponents. Those advocating instruments in worship felt that a failure to mention instruments should not lead to a legalistic banning of these (otherwise we’d have to ban tea, coffee and biscuits after church services, as these aren’t mentioned in the New Testament… and then where would we be?) A Christian movement founded on the ideal of church unity tore itself apart over this question, and has never managed to reunite.

Of course, it is also possible to create a legalism out of a positive precedent. The Roman Catholic church made a rule in 1139 that priests must be celibate, noting that Jesus was a celibate male and so those who seek to be priests must emulate Christ in this way.

I suggest that whenever a precedent (either positive or negative) is turned into a legalism, it is more likely to have the smell of religion, than the sweet aroma of the gospel of grace. The trajectory of religion is rules and control; the trajectory of the gospel is life and liberty.

That is probably one of the longest preambles of all time to a question I was posed today: why did Jesus choose twelve men, and no women, to be his apostles?

This precedent can be interpreted several different ways. One way is that Jesus did not believe women can be apostles, or leaders of any kind, and that this precedent should be turned into a binding rule for the church for all time.

As discussed before, I believe turning a precedent into an eternal rule is problematic. One might also note that Jesus chose twelve, rather than six or ten or fifteen, and declare a rule that churches must be led by a team of twelve elders. Or one might note Jesus conducted itinerant ministry, and declare a rule all church leadership teams must be itinerant. Or note the twelve apostles were all Jewish, and declare a rule that churches must follow Christ’s example and only be led by a group of Jews. Because these “rules” are outside our experience of church life, we instantly recognise these as absurd legalisms.

Nonetheless, the fact Jesus chose twelve male disciples is interesting. Though this does not mean we should declare a rule every local church must be led by twelve men, it may have some significance. What might that be?

One strong possibility is that Jesus was being intentionally Messianic when he chose the twelve.

We see Jesus’ overtly staking his claim as the Messiah in several of his words and actions:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”
(Matthew 16:13 – 17)

The high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
(Mark 14:61 – 62)

The whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
(Luke 19: 37 – 40)

The Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah who would restore the twelve tribes of Israel and establish an everlasting Kingdom. We see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples:

“I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22: 29 – 30)
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matt 19:28)

Now the heads of tribes in that culture were invariably male. Jesus overtly stated the twelve were to be rulers and judges of the tribes of Israel in the coming Kingdom of God.

I think it more likely that Jesus chose twelve male disciples for a reason he stated explicitly (to be tribal rulers in his Messianic reign) than for a reason he failed to mention (an eternal ban on female leadership).

It’s worth noting that many women were included in Jesus’ band of followers. (Matt 27:55 – 56) We are indebted to them in knowing what happened to Jesus after his arrest when “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matt 26:56). They were the first witnesses to the Resurrection (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20). These women remained with the disciples, and were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14), when the Holy Spirt was poured out on the whole group of believers. As Peter proclaimed on that day:

“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. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

The precedent of Jesus’ band including women, that these women were released for prophetic ministry at Pentecost, and that women were known prophets and leaders within the early church (Philip’s daughters, Junia, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, etc.) does not mean we should create a legalistic rule that every church MUST have female leaders. But it also suggests we should not create a legalistic rule BANNING women from leadership either.

Another precedent that is sometimes used to exclude women from church leadership is Paul's command to Timothy and Titus to appoint overseers of the church who were “husbands of one wife”. This seems to exclude male polygamists (or divorced men?) and women from the role of overseer. However, I return to the principle that a precedent should not be used to create a church rule that is binding for all places for all time.

For Complementarians, banning women from leadership isn’t based on precedent alone (wisely, as there are exceptions to their rules; Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Junia, etc). They point out Eve was created as a helper in Genesis, that Paul describes husbands as head of their wives, and that Paul forbids women to have authority in Ephesus. Now I believe these are theological mountains constructed on the molehills of ambiguous or misinterpreted words; but I have blogged about this extensively elsewhere.

But section three in this extensive ramble is a personal story, because theology is ALWAYS personal. Like it or not, we collect and cherish scriptures that reinforce our preferred view of the world, until the Holy Spirit puts a proverbial bomb beneath us.

When I was nineteen-years-old, God called me to ministry: loudly and compellingly. (I cried a lot).

In my mind (inhabiting a rather patriarchal church setting), this call involved three possibilities: I was to be an overseas missionary, a pastor’s wife, or a church volunteer. I travelled overseas for discernment, but had no sense of call to anywhere in particular, and no aspiring pastors came courting… but I could at least volunteer at my church enthusiastically. I trained and worked as a teacher so I’d have a useful profession for the mission field.

Fifteen years after this first call, I fell into a women’s ministry role with Churches of Christ in Vic/Tas. A few years later I was prayed for by the speaker at one of our state conferences. He said he believed God was saying “I will greatly expand your ministry”. As I continued to pray alone in a science classroom at the school where this conference was held, I was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence, and heard the words Jesus spoke to Peter after his resurrection: “Do you love me more than these things?” I knew in my heart of hearts I was being called to leave teaching behind and train for ministry. (Lots more tears).

By then I had been working with a female CEO and other women in ministry, and had been worshipping at a local church that had a couple of ordained women ministers on the team. It was obvious I needed to go to bible college and prepare to be a “proper minister”. This had been outside of my imagination as a nineteen-year-old.

Fast forward some years, and there I was, minding my own business packing my groceries in Aldi, when I thought of the recently vacated role of Federal Coordinator of Churches of Christ. I suddenly experienced a powerful sense of the presence of God, and heard the words: “I have chosen you for this”. (It wasn’t audible, but it may as well have been; it was utterly overwhelming).

I applied for this role, and have spent the last few years fumbling my way through it. I’ve had the opportunity to help shape the gatherings for the National Council of Churches, to give input to international ecumenical bodies, to sit with representatives of government, to sit on the board of an aid and mission organisation, and to help shape discussions within Churches of Christ. I’ve also had the opportunity to coach and train leaders from various denominations and Christian organisations via my other role working for the Christian Coaching Institute. I have also been able to give input into the Australian Christian Mentoring Network.

While not wanting to over-state the significance of any of this, it feels to me like the prophetic word about expanding my ministry has occurred beyond my wildest imaginings.

Why do I share about my own occasionally reluctant stumbling into ministry?

What can sometimes be missed in the discussion about who has their theological ducks lined up around suitable roles for women, is that the dialogue involves actual people with varied life stories.

Sometimes on one side of the discussion are those who feel deeply uncomfortable about women in leadership. They may have had quite negative experiences with female teachers or authority figures in their formative years; experiences that unconsciously shape their opinions about women perhaps forty, fifty, or sixty years later. They may have learned that male leadership is on a par with the apostles’ creed; part of the package deal of faith that if questioned, might lead to loss of faith altogether. They may have always been in churches where men run everything, and doing anything different would feel strange and wrong. They may have studied under teachers they trust, read books, and become convinced their opinion is correct. Male leadership may seem to them to be a crystal-clear teaching of the bible, and that Christians who interpret things differently are faithless, unbelieving or wildly liberal.

They deserve to be treated with pastoral understanding and respect.

Sometimes on the other side of the discussion are women who have been called to ministry. For them their opponents are pretty much accusing them not only of bad theology but of disobedience, unfaithfulness, and folly for giving their lives to pastoral ministry (a challenging vocation at the best of times). Sometimes on the other side of the discussion are women who have been emotionally, financially and even physically abused by husbands, who have controlled them in part using Complementarian theology. They may even have been told by their pastors to go back to abusive partners and to keep submitting to them. They may carry great wounds. Sometimes on the other side of the discussion are women who have left the church because they could no longer bear having their gifts minimized or overlooked. Sometimes they have just always been in contexts where women in leadership is normal, and they can't imagine life any other way.

They deserve to be treated with pastoral understanding and respect.

Sometimes the discussion involves those who just like playing around with ideas and engaging in debates. Sometimes it involves trolls who use theology as an excuse for misogynistic (or just garden variety) bullying. Sometimes there are atheists and folk from other religions contributing. Sometimes in the cyberworld there are lurkers who like to watch and learn.

We need to consider all of these players with pastoral understanding and respect.

My claim that Jesus choosing of the apostles might not prove God intends all leadership to be male, any more than it proves God intends all leadership should be done by twelve Jews, might be shocking and confronting to some. This is because of the meaning they attach to male leadership. Gender identity is a powerful and personal thing, and a challenge to a theology of gender can touch us in surprisingly personal ways.

But the Pandora’s box is well and truly open on the question of women in the church, in marriage, and in society, and we would be wise to discuss this as kindly and as thoughtfully as we can. It is not just an academic question; it impacts lives, and it impacts the health of the church.

Let us be conscious of the human tendency toward making religious rules, the personal prejudices we bring to the table, and the tender sensitivites we carry.

Perhaps through dialogue we can open ourselves to new and surprising posibilities for life and liberty. Perhaps God will reveal more truth as we wrestle with ideas together.

Through all of this, I hope this closing prayer via Beth Barnett will shape our conversations:

"May we handle one another with grace, strong grace, tender grace, honest grace, truth bearing grace, God-templated grace"


(For further reading on the 12, see Margaret Mowczko's article here)


John Smuts said…
Thanks Janet.

While I agree that the 12 Apostles were appointed to start to a new Israel I'm not sure that leads us very far. All that does is push us back to the question of why the 12 Patriarchs needed to be male. (The answer to that question presumably is either that Israel was a patriarchal society or that it somehow reflects God's design.)

Of course that doesn't necessarily argue for complementarianism either - my point is just that it still leaves us with only 12 men being appointed so doesn't really change the discussion.
Janet Woodlock said…
Thanks John, great question!

I believe this does push us right back to the question to why the heads of families and tribes in Israel were always male.

I think that can be explained by the patriarchal tradition of Israel and the nations that surrounded Israel. Jacob had a daughter (Dinah), but she didn't become a head of one of the tribes because that wasn't the custom.

Women in Israel did not inherit land, which left widows in an agricultural society in a most vulnerable state.

Failure to have sons in this society was a disaster, you would have no direct heirs to your family land.

Reading through the Old Testament makes crystal clear Jewish society was strongly patriarchal up until the time of Jesus.

I'm suggesting the selection of the twelve by Jesus was a deliberate Messianic act. If he wanted this to be understood by the Jews of his time, he could not have appointed women, or Gentiles, or any number other than twelve, to be symbolic rulers of the twelve tribes under his reign as King of a New Kingdom.

If I'm right, what Jesus did once in no way proves he believes all future leadership should be male, any more than it proves all leadership should be Jewish, or that all leadership must be conducted by groups of twelve. Insisting on "maleness" is reading way too much significance into what I believe was a Jewish Messianic sign.

You could argue the patriarchal traditions of Israel reflect God's design... but then you'd have to say having multiple wives, owning slaves, lying, theft, deceit and getting involved in various wars (slaughters) are part of God's design. If the behaviour of the patriarchs reveals God's ideal, God help us!

Or you could argue the Jewish laws reveal God's design and should be should be reflected in the church today. Jesus was a Jewish man and certainly lived under Jewish law (Matt 5: 17 - 20). However, Paul argues that Christ set us free from the law. (Romans 8:2)

I don't believe anyone is arguing Jewish traditions reveal God's perfect design for the church. But even if they were, they'd have to argue God's will is Jewish male leadership (indeed, Jewish male leadership by those with no physical imperfections).

I think there's a bit of picking and chosing around what is considered archetypal around what does and doesn't suit the current status quo. Which is fair enough for Christian traditions such as Catholicism that have a high view of church tradition, but less excusable for evangelical traditions.

Grace and peace.
Janet Woodlock said…
I did have another critique of my article, which I shall copy and paste here:

"Jesus had no problem overthrowing the traditions and mores of his day when he believed they were exploitative and wrong. Indeed, he had the authority to declare all foods clean and therefore overthrow the whole Old Testament food laws; he could have easily appointed 6 women as well as 6 men to establish his new kingdom. It is very striking that in setting up the eschatological kingdom he doesn’t go for identical gender roles. In the same way Jesus challenged views about women in his day, so he challenges our Western culture’s attitude about what equality looks like in practice in our day. In my understanding, he regards men and women as equal but different; equality as people does not necessarily mean they share identical roles (biological males can’t give birth, for example)."

And my response:

"In my view Jesus lived as a Jew within Jewish law; he didn't follow some of the extra rules the Pharisees added to the Torah like washing in particular ways or fasting twice a week, but he wasn't exactly chowing down roast pork either. He was first called to "the lost sheep of Israel" and proclaimed himself as the Son of Man and Messiah.

My article proposed the appointing of the 12 was a Messianic sign to the Jews of his day. It was a sign that needed to be understood by the Jews of his day. Therefore he needed to appoint TWELVE... JEWISH.... MEN.

Let me flip your argument:

"Jesus had no problem overthrowing the traditions and mores of his day when he believed they were exploitative and wrong. Indeed, he had the authority to declare all foods clean and therefore overthrow the whole Old Testament food laws; he could have easily appointed 6 Gentiles as well as 6 Jews to establish his new kingdom. It is very striking that in setting up the eschatological kingdom he doesn’t go for identical racial roles. In the same way Jesus challenged views about race in his day, so he challenges our Western culture’s attitude about what equality looks like in practice in our day. In my understanding, he regards the various races as equal but different; equality as people does not necessarily mean they share identical roles".

I've suggested in my article that interpreting the calling of the twelve to mean women can't be Christian leaders is no different to saying Gentiles can't be Christian leaders. It misses the significance of the restoration of the twelve tribes to the Jews of Jesus' day.

We should be very cautious before we make a rule for the church of a precedent.

This is how l see things now. But Abraham is called the Father of our faith, and he spent his life wandering. We are called the new Israel, which means to wrestle with God. If my views in 20 years time are identical to what they are now, I'm not sure I'll be following Jesus, who calls us on a journey of discipleship that keeps us endlessly growing and changing.

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