I think I've finally worked out what my main frustration is with the supposedly "evangelical" arguments that keep being made in our ongoing Anglican discussions about women bishops. It's not the issue itself that annoys me, I think I could actually think of many other issues I'd rather debate that aren't anywhere near as contentious. None of us on the conservative side of this issue relish the ongoing discussion. But here we are.
No, the thing that starting to really frustrate me is the way it is encouraging a whole tranche of believers who call themselves "evangelical" to handle the Bible in a way that you couldn't really describe as "robust". Instead of solid, clear, arguments we are increasingly hearing appeals to "subtexts" and "cutural context" and "the general approach" rather than solid exegesis on the relevant passages. Further, when we to an actual text we often get shown conclusions that seem to have no basis in the supposed supporting document.
That 's some background. I wanted to comment a little on Ian's summary piece because I think it's a great example of what 's currently going on...
The discussion about women and ministry in the Church of England has continued to be fascinating, challenging and frustrating in different measures for some time. For me, the most recent experience was speaking at a Deanery Synod, as one of three speakers giving different views to feed into the debate about the measure on women bishops.
The first speaker stood up and said ‘I am a liberal. For me, this is a non-issue; I look to see what God is doing in the world and it is to make women equal.’ The second speaker said: ‘I am a Catholic. For me the issue is tradition, and this notion is an innovation that should be rejected.’ My response went as follows: ‘For me, as an evangelical but more as an Anglican, my authority in this matter is neither society nor the tradition but what Scripture says.’ It was fascinating to see three approaches in the Church represented so clearly.
But the debate for evangelicals has been precisely this: what does Scripture say? Although I have been considering this, as many others have, for many years, I have been particularly focussing on it over the last two years, and this has culminated in a Grove booklet summarising what the major texts say. Never mind a quart into a pint pot—with so much secondary literature on this, it has felt like getting a PhD thesis into 28 pages!
From my study, some striking conclusions have emerged:
At this point there's much agreement to be found. Ian outlines the broad differences in churchmanship and authority in neat categories. I think we're all pretty clear that the conversation he reports isn't actually verbatimbut the point is still well made. But now onto what the Bible actually says on this difficult issue,
· The creation accounts offer no evidence of hierarchy in male-female relationships as part of the original created order. The focus in Gen 1 and 2 is very strongly on equality, particularly in the striking expression usually translated ‘a companion suitable for him’ (Gen 2.18), which has the dual emphasis on difference and equality of status. In fact, this is a surprising emphasis given the patriarchal context in which these texts were written and read. The notion of a husband ruling over the wife (Gen 3.16) is very clearly not part of the created order but is a result of the breakdown of a shared relationship.
The problem with what is being said here is that it's only half the story. Complementarians have never denied that there is equality of being for men and women. But is it actually accurate to say there is a focus on equality? Hardly. The first statement made has the implication but it's not the focus.
Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Men and women together are in the image of God. But no complementarian denies this. The question is whether, despite the equality, there are different roles. The argument that Ian makes from Gen 2:18 just doesn't address this in the right way. Surely the point of Gen 2:18,
Genesis 2:18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
Is that there are different roles. Adam is the worker in God's creation and the woman is made, not least (but not exhaustively) as a helper for him. The very words speak to different roles. Ian calls this "difference and equality of status" to which the conservative says "well, of course - that's our argument!"
The introduction of the curse of chapter 3 is then a bit of a canard. Yes, the "rule" of 3:16 is very obvious a negative thing. But it is a distortion of the good and proper distinction of roles already present in God's very good creation - not a completely novel arrangement. That is to say, the curse of 3:16 mars the way the man and the woman's different roles are meant to co-exist - but those different roles are very obviously part of God's good design as set out in Gen. 2.
As for the "Patriarchy" in which these texts were written. Well, again, no-one is denying that the Creation account is magnificently affirmative of women. No-one can read the gushing words that Adam says of his own bride and read any chauvinism there. Quite the opposite; there is a great delighting in his wife. But then that is true Biblical Patriarchy! - men taking loving and considerate care of the women in their care.
· The gospel accounts appear to show no embarrassment about the commissioning of women to roles that would normally be restricted to men in relation to witnessing the resurrection, communicating this witness to others and offering reliable testimony that others should trust (though they often do not). The gospel accounts on their own do not appear to be a systematic establishing of women in these roles in a permanent or ‘institutional’ way, but even here it is a striking statement of women’s roles, given both the theological and cultural barriers to this having happened in the normal course of events. There are no parallels to this kind of commissioning and trustworthy testifying in Jewish literature of the time; in fact, there is strong evidence of the contrary. Moreover, the women here are frequently offered (more or less explicitly) as models of testimony or discipleship, and are often presented in sharp contrast to the main group of (male) apostles.
I honestly find it hard to believe what I'm reading here. As one works through the "gospel accounts" with a view to seeing the respective roles of men and women it is staggeringly obvious that there is a massive distinction between what Jesus Himself commissions men and women to do. First and foremost the point has been made almost ad nauseum that none of the Twelve are women. Not one. The odds against that occuring by chance are 1/(2^12) or roughly one in 4,000. If we are to view Bishops in an "Apostolic" way (which may, I grant, be true in part) then surely the "gospel accounts" have a massive deal to say even on this initial question.
Now, again we are in agreement that Jesus wiped aside "theological and cultural barriers". He was wonderfully affirming of many (especially women) that His own people would not go near. He touched lepers, appointed Gentiles and the rest of it. But he never appointed a woman as an Apostle. Again, it doesn't mean that women are worthless - but even as Jesus broke open the stranglehold of His own culture He never appointed a woman Apostle.
Nevertheless, Ian speaks of "this kind of commissioning and trustworthy testifying" as though the gospels were chocka full of Jesus sending women out to do Apostolic ministry. Again, when you actually read the texts nothing of the sort is true. The only appeal that can actually be made is to the 3 women at the Empty Tomb. 3 women at one moment. Yes, they stand in contrast to the Apostles (who were, quite possibly, cowering back in the Upper Room). Interestingly enough, the angel commissions them to go tell the Apostles and what happens next? The Apostles themselves begin the great work of testifying to the Resurrection. Are we really to believe that this one single event, as wonderful as it is, is meant to overturn the consistent accounts of the gospels and Acts that it was male deacons and Apostles who sustain the overwhelmingly massive majority of the work of preaching the gospel? It seems tenuous, to say the least. The text of the gospels simply doesn't support the conclusion Ian claims.
· The evidence from Acts and Paul goes further. As God gifted them, women appeared to occupy the roles of deacons, leaders, teachers, church planters and even apostles. Although men feature in leadership roles more frequently than women in the Scriptures, there is no uniform limitation of certain roles or positions along gender-defined lines.
Again, where is this actual "evidence"? Where are these women deacons, leaders, teachers and church planters? Where is the woman Apostle? Surely not the one single contentious reference to Junia in Romans 16? It's almost embarassing to say it but this is really drawing a very long bow. Here are all the women in the church in Acts:
1:14 There were women who prayed alongside the Apostles. They go on to pick another Apostle and, lo and behold, a man is chosen.
5:1 Sapphira is named alongside her husband, Ananias.
5:14 Multitudes of men and women added to the church.
6:5 Of the 7 Deacons appointed, not one is a woman.
8:3 both men and women have the honour of being persecuted under Saul.
9:36ff Dorcas is raised to life. She was "full of good works and charity" but didn't seem to have a teaching ministry.
16:14-15 Lydia, obviously a capable business woman, is converted and opens her house to the Apostles. The text is utterly silent on whether she has a teaching ministry in a congregation.
And that is it. Seriously, that's it for Acts. Well, how about Paul?
Rom 16 Phoebe is "a servant of the church" and a "patron". There is no explicit mention of a teaching authority in the congregation. Prisca is a "fellow worker". Again this is not defined. Mary "worked hard". Junia is "well known among the Apostles", an entirely ambiguous statement. Olympas is to be greeted.
1Cor 16:19 Prisca sends greetings
Col 4:15 there is a church that meets in Nympha's house.
2Tim 4:21 Claudia sends greetings.
Phil 2 Apphia is a sister.
Now I hesitate to put it so boldly, but Ian's claim that, "women appeared to occupy the roles of deacons, leaders, teachers, church planters and even apostles" is utterly ridiculous. A plain reading of the corpus he appeals to shows the utter paucity of the evidence available to back up his assertion.
And this is what annoys me so much. The argument being made is entirely one of speculation and massive extrapolation, far beyond what the texts will sustain. And "evangelicals" are presenting this as though it were a solid argument!
· The critical texts in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy are best understood as offering a corrective in particular contexts and in the light of the outpouring of the Spirit, in several cases seeking to re-establish mutual interdependence in creation in response to suggestions that women are superior to or independent of men. Within these texts are the clearest examples of poor translation of what are admittedly difficult texts—but such poor translations have obscured the issues and led to unnecessary uncertainty.
Now admittedly in a piece of this size Ian doesn't have the space to provide a detailed argument. But he doesn't even provide any! What's the actual line here? It is that there are "particular contexts" that we need to know and that only an "outpouring of the Spirit" will reveal it to us. In other words, the plain meaning of the texts is not the actual meaning. I have to ask "what sort of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture is that?" It is fascinating to observe that the plain meaning can only be overturned by appealing to a "context" that is not actually referred to in the text themselves. So, as one example, it is often claimed that there is a particular issue with the women in Ephesus that causes Paul to write as he does in 1Tim. 2. But Paul makes no mention of it, despite his willingness to regularly mention specific issues with local churches throughout his letters. Further the arguments in 1Tim 2 are all made to Created Order and so are most naturally read to be arguments about Created Order, not a very specific moment in time. All of this is just normal exegesis of the text but, instead, we see Ian and others arguing for a "Spirit-given" reading which is entirely unavailable in the language itself.
As for translations, there are of course a number of very good pieces of work on these issues. Further, we would add that it is an outrageous claim that the Church has corporately mis-translated and mis-understood these issues for almost 1900 years. The arrogance!
· There is no textual evidence that the New Testament envisages any permanent prohibition on women exercising authority or a teaching role on the grounds of their gender. It is true that, in the history of the church, some texts have been read in this way, but such readings do not have strong exegetical foundations.
But this just begs the question. For the vast majority of Christendom's history we have had no problem understanding that there is solid textual evidence for gender roles. "In the history of the church, some texts have been read in this way" is a staggering way to sweep aside 1900 years of catholic exegesis.
· The nature of the texts on women’s roles sets this issue at some distance from current debates on same-sex relations. There is no positive recognition of same-sex sexual relations to parallel the positive texts on women’s examples and leadership, even if these are set alongside the texts which are disputed or which have been read negatively in the past.
Now, to some extent this is true. As is already noted there are many many examples of women being commended in the Scriptures - often when men are condemned for their conncurrent sin. But commendation is not the same as affirmation of teaching, let alone Apostolic ministry.
On a personal note, engaging again with these texts has been a challenging and transforming experience for me. I have come to this task with experience of a number of different theological traditions, including Roman Catholic and Free Church, and have been engaged in conversation across the views within the Church of England.
But as I have spent time considering these texts in detail over the last two years, I have been struck afresh by the radically egalitarian and counter-cultural nature of what Scripture says about gender. This suggests that we need not look to society around us for a lead; after all, equal pay for women continues to be stubbornly elusive, and the majority of images of women in Western media are far from liberating. What Scripture says about women and their roles was and continues to be profoundly counter-cultural.
I have to then ask, where are this "radically egalitarian and counter-cultural nature of what the Scripture says about gender"? True, the Scriptures fully assert the ontological equality of women in all things. But that has never been in doubt in this debate. The question is roles. And when it comes to roles the evidence that is drawn upon is woefully unable to support the assertions made. So what is it that Ian is actually appealing to? I think I know.
I'm reminded of this scene from the wonderful Australian film, "The Castle". Our hero is up against a Big Corporation and his lawyer is clearly out of his depth...
And this is essentially the argument being made here - "It's just the vibe of the thing". Ultimately the "open evangelicals" are appealing to "the vibe". The problem is, when the Scriptures are taken at face value they just don't resonate with the vibe that Ian wants to find there. It doesn't matter how many times you hit a triangle, it's never going to sound like a trumpet.
Nor need we be constrained by the tradition; rather than being an innovation, the full role of women in leadership is something that was there from the earliest days, but has, in different eras of the church, been lost and needs to be recovered.
Come on, you know what's coming. Where are these "women in leadership ... from the earliest days"? Where are they in the Scriptures? How many women bishops were there are NIcea? At Constantinople? Where are the records of all these women leading churches, planting new congregations and the like? It's like looking for a needle in a haystack when the needle was never lost in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the church and to evangelicals in particular is to be constantly reformed and reshaped by Scripture’s perspective, even if that means letting go of cherished traditions of interpretation. In my exploration I have come across examples of background information being ignored or distorted, exegesis being set aside, and even, in one case, the text of Scripture itself being changed. It is supremely ironic if, for the sake of preserving a doctrine, evangelicals have allowed their own tradition of interpretation to silence what Scripture is saying.
At this point, I'm ashamed to say, I laughed out loud. If there is any needing to "let go of cherished traditions of interpretation" then surely we've seen it. As for this - "It is supremely ironic if, for the sake of preserving a doctrine, evangelicals have allowed their own tradition of interpretation to silence what Scripture is saying." - well I am entirely in agreement. I could not agree more.
In this debate, as in so many others, we need to let God speak to us afresh by his Spirit through his word.
Friends. Pay very careful attention to this last statement. It is the basic underlying argument. We need a "fresh" hearing of God's word. For some reason His Spirit has been ineffective in speaking by the Scriptures to the church for nigh on 2 millennia on this issue. But now we can be newly enlightened and truly hear the Sprit and thus understand the Scriptures. Does that ring any bells? Any at all? Of course it does. It's the argument the liberals have been making and look where that has taken us. It sets aside catholicity and looks to "new" understandings.
As I said at the start of this piece, it's not the issue of women in ministry itself that has me riled up here. It's the approach to Scripture that is being promoted that is so dangerous. There is an entire generation of "evangelicals" being taught that this is how the Bible is read - enormous conclusions drawn from wafer-thin evidence, "contexts" appealed to that are nowhere to be found in the texts themselves, tradition and catholicity brazenly set aside and the appeal to the Spirit as though somehow 1900 years of exegesis was inadequate and lacking in divine illumination. In it's place, we now appeal to the vibe of the thing. And we're surprised that we're in the mess that we're in.