Not At All Clear

A Case for the Ordination of Women to the Ministry,
Part 1.

I have made it known in a previous post that I can no longer defend or support with any enthusiasm the practice of barring women from holding the ordained offices of elder and pastor in the church. I also feel that it is crucial for Christian Reformed churches to get past this issue, over twenty years after our Synod made its final decision on the matter (1995), in order for us to speak credibly to the current generation. In other words, I am convinced that continuing to bar women from leadership in the church will harm our witness and growth and our work of making disciples. It’s not that we should cave in to the world’s standards; it’s that people inside and outside of the church can see when our standards have gone awry. And they have gone awry in this case, as I intend to demonstrate. I am convinced that churches that want to grow through evangelism (and not merely attract Christians from other churches) need to move beyond this relic of a past era. Because in reserving ecclesiastical office for men only, we are not clinging to biblical teaching, but to a very human, very culturally conditioned understanding of gender roles.

muscular_christianity_grugerIn recent times, the debate over whether women should be ordained as elders and pastors has been framed, rather badly I think, by the terms egalitarian and complementarian. The term egalitarian means “supporting equality.” It asserts that men and women are equal. Yet most complementarians would agree that women and men are equal, but dispute the assertion that this equality means that women and men have the same roles in the church. However, some (certainly not all) complementarians also seriously undermine the equality of women in ways that are shockingly sexist and misogynist. One sees this particularly in the remarks of John Piper, who asserts that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel,” and that “the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Piper asserts that God calls men to take the initiative spiritually, and women come alongside in a supporting role. Throughout this sermon, Piper paints a picture of women as weak, fragile, vulnerable, soft, and in need of protection by brawny, muscular, tough-skinned men, who can valiantly and gallantly teach hard truths like the doctrine of Hell and not burden the delicate ladies with the task of teaching these difficult topics. But this “masculine ministry” is not Biblical teaching; this is the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorian era. It is a view of women and men shaped by the romantic notions of a bygone age. And it is condescending to women. It is also harmful to men, who are made to feel like they have to be tough and strong, and also extroverted in terms of spiritual leadership. It is, to use Martin Luther’s terminology, a kind of theology of glory that leaves little room for suffering and weakness.

The opposite term, complementarian, also leaves a lot to be desired. It means that men and women are different yet complementary. Aristophanes, the Greek comedian, tells a story in Plato’s Symposium, about how human beings originally had two heads, and double all the normal body parts, but when these creatures got too prideful, Zeus blasted them in two, and now men and women only feel whole and complete  when they find their (literal) “other half.” I think it is clear that egalitarians can also affirm that women and men are complementary in a general sense. Egalitarians do not want to erase or ignore gender distinctions. But they also, rightly, shy away from making blanket statements about the qualities of women and men, because these are not universal, and experience teaches us this. We should not deal in stereotypes. In fact, one can argue that it is precisely the differences that men and women bring to leadership that makes it crucial to employ the experiences and voices of women in the leadership, pastoral care, and preaching of the church. I can testify that my own preaching voice has been strongly shaped by female pastors, particularly by the homiletical art of Barbara Brown Taylor, and the rhetorical and contextualizing skill of Fleming Rutledge.

Clear and Plain?

I recently heard again the common refrain that the Bible is clear that women should not hold positions of authority in the church; the Bible’s plain teaching is that pastors and elders should be men. This clarity has been highly exaggerated. In fact, the argument is built on a foundation of sand.

The main passage that is cited to bar women from preaching or exercising the office of pastor and elder (as defined in the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions) is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. This is the number one passage that people cite to make the claim that the Bible is so clear and obvious and plain when it prohibits women serving as preachers and elders. But in fact this is one of the most obscure and difficult passages in the entire Bible. It is not at all clear. The passage reads as follows:

1 Timothy 2:11–15 (NIV)

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; 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 will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

So, let’s ask a few obvious questions about this passage.

  1. What does Paul mean when he says “women will be saved through childbearing”? Whatever he means, the one thing he most certainly cannot mean is that…women will be saved through childbearing! Paul often and emphatically teaches that persons are saved by grace through faith. Women are not saved in a different method than men. There are not separate male and female salvation tracks. And what about single women, and women unable to have children: Can they be saved? And what about continuing “in faith, love and holiness with propriety”–is this what saves a person? One’s good works? One’s tranquil and serene lifestyle? Clearly not.
  2. And do we really want to say that women are by nature more susceptible to deception? And that God created women this way? That seems to be the implication of verse 14, or at least that seems to be the meaning if (as complementarians insist) this is a reference to an enduring and unchangeable “creation order.” But if it is, then the Bible really does teach that women are more susceptible to deception, and men less so. But this is false, sexist, and chauvinistic… clearly so. It implies that women are intellectually and morally inferior, and that is theologically unacceptable. Such an assertion impugns God’s character as Creator. Is Paul a sexist? Is God? But in fact, Paul is not referring to some supposed creation order that endures through eternity; he is using an illustration from scripture. Just like Eve was deceived and fell into sin, some women in the Ephesian church have been deceived by false teachers who have been taking advantage of them, and Paul prohibits these women from teaching the false doctrine they have imbibed. Paul does something similar in Galatians 4:24-27, where he takes the story Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar from Genesis and interprets it allegorically, that is, changing the meaning of the literal events to make a spiritual application.
  3. And how far does one take this prohibition of teaching by women? Can women teach Kately Beaty quote.jpgSunday school or catechism or a youth group lesson or lead a Bible study that includes men? Can they teach boys the faith? The preacher Timothy seems to have learned the faith from two important women in his life, his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:14-15). Can a woman study academic theology or biblical studies, and in turn, teach men in a seminary? Like leading Cambridge University theologian Sarah Coakley? Or like theologian Mary Vandenberg and biblical scholars Amanda Benckhuysen and Sarah Schreiber in the Christian Reformed Church’s own denominational seminary? Or my friend Suzanne McDonald at Western Theological Seminary? Or is the fact that these scholars are women teaching men theology an act of disobedience, and dishonoring to God? Can a man read a biblical commentary written by a woman without committing sin? (John Piper, again, is not so sure). Can a woman be the editor of North America’s leading evangelical magazine? Clearly this implies having a role in the spiritual instruction of men. Yet how many of us would object to Katelyn Beaty‘s role as managing editor of Christianity Today? (Especially if you know that she’s a Calvin College alumna!) If there is one thing that’s clear, it’s that we are exceptionally inconsistent in applying this supposed principle.

A Rare and Unclear Term

Another thing that is not entirely plain or clear is the meaning of the word that the NIV translates as “assume authority.” It is the Greek verb αῦθεντεῖν (authentein), and it is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only once in the New Testament. This means that it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly what Paul means by this term, and many scholars have written articles about its possible meanings. The Authorized (King James) Version translates it: “usurp authority” over a man, that is, to seize authority that rightfully belongs to someone else, by illegitimate means. The most common Greek dictionary defines it as: “to have authority, or domineer over someone.” So just restricting ourselves to this range of meaning, the word can convey either that Paul does not permit a woman to have any authority over a man (presumably limited to the sphere of the church, since a mother has authority over her male sons according to God’s law in the fifth commandment), or that Paul is prohibiting women from undermining legitimate authority and presuming to hijack and replace that legitimate authority.

In addition, Paul prohibits women from teaching. But how far does this go? Is it restricted to teaching children? Remember Priscilla and Aquilla, who worked alongside Paul in his ministry? Paul generally names the wife Priscilla first, which is unusual and noteworthy; he calls them his “co-workers” in the ministry of evangelism and planting churches. This wife-husband pair discipled Apollos (the future evangelist) in the Christian faith, that is, they both taught Apollos the way of Christ. We read about this in Acts 18:26–another instance where Priscilla’s name is mentioned first, which I think implies that she took the lead. And to be realistic, we know of couples where the wife is more outgoing and evangelistic than the husband, and more of a student and teacher than her spouse. And we don’t generally object to this, because we know that God gifts persons differently. We know that some people are more introverted, others more extroverted, and this difference crosses gender lines.

So, to come back to the important question: Is Paul’s prohibition against women teaching in the church all that clear? Did he even follow it universally himself? And what grounds are there for restricting this teaching prohibition to the pulpit? If it is in fact a universal principle for all times and places, we may need to rethink women as chairs of committees, women as Sunday School and Catechism teachers, women as mentors and disciplers, and women as youth group leaders who disciple young men. The answer to the question of precisely how to restrict women’s roles will not be found in the Bible. I think that we have traditionally focused on the pulpit and to the offices of the church as a male-only domain because of our very western and male-centered cultural assumptions about the roles of women in society. This would be ironic, because the usual accusation one hears is that advocates for women in the ministry are taking their cues from modern culture and not the Scriptures, but I think the opposite can just as easily be the case. Opponents of women in ministry are just as shaped by cultural assumptions and biases as any other readers of Scripture. In fact, it is precisely because I hold to the Reformed principle of scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the sole authority for church practice and teaching, that I come to a different conclusion when I study the important texts, and especially when I study them in their Biblical and cultural context.

…the usual accusation is that advocates for women in ministry are taking their cues from modern culture and not the Scriptures, but I think the opposite can just as easily be the case. Opponents of women in ministry are just as shaped by cultural assumptions and biases as any other readers of Scripture.

In the next post, I will discuss that biblical and historical context, and hopefully shed some light on this very difficult and obscure text, and perhaps make it less difficult, not so obscure, if not downright clear.






Blog Reboot; And, The CRC and Science

I originally created this blog to chronicle my sabbatical during the summer of 2009. I am now rebooting it for occasional musings for the First Cutlerville CRC community and anyone else who might be interested. Like a question that I just received from a member (I will always keep your information private); but this is a general question that other members may be interested in as well.

The enquirer reports that some of his friends think that the Christian Reformed Church is either apathetic or antagonistic when it comes to reconciling science and the Christian faith. To which I reply, “Say what?!” The CRC has been a leader in tackling these issues, though there is considerable diversity of opinion among CRC members, and we have also seen significant controversy in the CRC over issues of how the Bible and science are related. Faculty members of Calvin College have often been at the forefront of investigating this relationship, and also, not surprisingly perhaps, at the forefront of the controversy as well. The CRC position on Creation and Science is summarized as follows:

All of life, including scientific endeavor, must be lived in obedience to God and in subjection to his Word. Therefore we encourage Christian scholarship that integrates faith and learning. The church does not impose an authorized interpretation of specific passages in Scripture; nor does it canonize certain scientific hypotheses. Instead, it insists that all theological interpretations and all scientific theories be subject to Scripture and the confessions. Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution that deny the creative activity of God are rejected.

In the 1980’s, a number of professors of the science department began investigating this relationship and published a number of books, which were met with a mixed reception. Astronomy Professor Howard J. Van Till published his book The Fourth Day in 1986 to considerable controversy, not least of all for an unfortunate analogy whereby he compared the Bible to a granola bar: one takes off the wrapper (which corresponds to the Biblical form and genre) and throws it away, and consumes the nourishing content, whatever that content may be. Thus the literary form of the early chapters of Genesis could be dispensed with in favor of the theological content.

The problem is that one cannot so easily separate form and content; the content is determined by and communicated through the form. The book was condemned by many who held to a young earth, literal six-day creation perspective as nothing but godless liberalism. It was embraced by many others as a shining example of Reformed engagement with the sciences. Others welcomed the idea of engaging the issue with rigorous thought, but were less satisfied with Van Till’s method and result. This was my assessment, and that of my seminary professors at the time. When I studied this book in the late 1980’s, I found that it was strong on astronomy (as far as I could tell) and exceptionally weak on theology, Biblical studies, and Biblical hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation). During those years I sometimes got the impression from a few scientists that, while one obviously needs a PhD to be an astronomer or physicist, any amateur can be a theologian. And today some scientists still presume to be able to dictate what is or is not possible theologically on the basis of the present state of scientific knowledge. The former Prof. Van Till, it seems, has moved beyond orthodox Christianity and appears to have embraced some kind of pantheism and/or deism. There is probably a lesson somewhere in that fact, though people will draw different conclusions as to what it means.

Another thing that is quite unhelpful is a lack of sensitivity among some Christian scientists in the manner that they raise these issues. I have encountered a few professors over the years who seemed to take an unholy pleasure in demolishing the childlike faith of their students under the guise of educating them. One, in Alberta, wrote of children’s education about the Bible and science: “The ark should float in Grade 1, and by the time students leave Grade 12 to meet me at university, someone has to have sunk the ark for them!” What he fails to notice is that this kind of cavalier approach might make a shipwreck of a young person’s faith. A similar lack of sensitivity was likely a factor in the latest outbreak of controversy at Calvin College a few years ago, when two professors, this time from the Religion department, suggested that science proves that there is no Adam or Eve. This resulted in the departure of one of the professors from the Calvin faculty. These are extremely sensitive and momentous issues, and one should employ maximal caution and humility in the claims one makes.

Without creating an ideological straitjacket, we also have to navigate what it means to have a confessional college that affirms the Reformed standards of unity. Our college is not a secular university; its constituency and its stakeholders are (at least to a large extent) the church. On the other hand, I largely appreciate the efforts of many scientists in the Reformed tradition who seek to integrate the faith into their discipline in a responsible and sensitive way. I very much appreciated the book Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work With The Church, put out by the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, part of a project they call The Ministry Theorem. I do not necessarily endorse everything in the book or on that site; but I endorse the project of keeping the conversation alive between scientists, on the one hand, and theologians and pastors on the other.

If the CRC has erred, it is not in being disengaged or hostile toward science. It would be in the opposite direction, of sometimes equating the results of science with general revelation–a serious mistake that elevates scientific findings and theories virtually to the level Holy Writ. (On this point, see the incisive critique of the 1991 synodical report on creation and science by Nicolaas Gootjes, “General Revelation and Science: Reflections on a Remark in Report 28,” Calvin Theological Journal 30 [1995]: 94-107). Our Kuyperian heritage, with all its robust intellectual richness and curiosity, has at times led us to be triumphalist about our endeavors, and to forget the noetic limits that result both from our creaturely finitude and human sin.

Thus one must be exceptionally cautious about pronouncing on the impossibility of an original human couple, or declaring doctrines such as original sin to be outmoded by recent science, as a retired CRC pastor recently claimed in The Banner. Unfortunately, this caution and humility seems to be lacking lately. At the same time, we in the CRC do have members who understand little about science and who do seem to be antagonistic toward science, often because of a certain political agenda. Thus we see members  dogmatically deny the possibility that the millions of tons of fossil fuels we burn every day could have an effect on the climate, and instead desperately cling to those on the fringes of the scientific community who deny this effect. More humility all around would help.

Answers in Genesis
Answers in Genesis mocks other views of the relationship of creation and science as un-Christian.

This does not mean that I am sympathetic to the so-called “Creation Science” phenomenon, which is really a kind of fringe conspiracy theory that denies the validity of mainstream science, claims human beings frolicked with dinosaurs, and tries to understand sedimentary rock formations with appeals to the biblical Flood; I am not. I think that movement (represented by organizations such as the Creation Research Institute and Answers in Genesis) represents a fatally flawed, and peculiarly North American, form of fundamentalism that is a rather different animal than Reformed orthodoxy. I would guess that the majority of CRC pastors and scientists would judge that it represents neither sound theology nor sound science. Whatever reservations I may have had with The Fourth Day, I  was completely on board with the critiques by Calvin College science professors of the “Creation Science” perspective, which tends to label all differing views as apostate, and not authentically Christian, and engages in attacks and mischaracterizations of opposing views that are uncivil and intellectually dishonest (as in the comic to the right, which clearly implies that those who do not hold to a young earth creationist view do not believe the Bible). Let me be perfectly clear: this viewpoint does not represent the Reformed faith. It does not do justice to God’s Word in Scripture, because it fails to interpret it on its own terms and with appropriate attention to biblical genre, among other things. And, ultimately, it makes God out to be a liar. It undermines the veracity of God (i.e. God’s truthfulness) with such claims that God created the earth and the universe with the appearance of billions of years of age, when in fact the earth and the universe, they claim, is only six thousand years old. But why would God create an earth that appears to be that old, an antique reproduction rather than a genuine antique, so to speak? These claims are completely incoherent; they are not supported by the vast majority of scientists who are also Christians, and they have serious negative ramifications for the Christian doctrines of God and Scripture.

Leading Reformed theologians of a century ago, such as J. Gresham Machen and B. B. Warfield, did not hold these views. In fact, John Calvin himself, in his biblical commentaries, warned against reading the Bible as if it were an astronomy textbook. In his day, astronomers had discovered that some heavenly bodies such as planets were actually larger than the moon; yet the Bible describes the moon as the greater light and the stars as the lesser lights. Calvin does not smugly deny the findings of the astronomers and arrogantly declare, “Well, I believe the Bible.” Note his comments on these passages:

Calvin on Genesis 1:6 (the creation of the sky or firmament):
“For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. [i.e. how the world looks to us, from our perspective]. He who would learn astronomy, and other difficult arts, let him go elsewhere.”

Calvin on Genesis 1:16 (on the greater and lesser lights, i.e. moon, planets, stars):
“Moses wrote things in a popular style which all ordinary persons who have common sense are able to understand without additional instruction; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the wisdom of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be rejected, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons tend to boldly reject whatever is unknown to them.”

Calvin on Psalm 136:7 (He who made the great lights, his love endures forever):
“The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in presenting instruction meant to be shared by the simplest and most uneducated persons, he had Moses and the other Prophets use popular language…”

In other words, Calvin says, the Bible describes things as we experience them on earth, and its purpose is not to give us scientific information about the universe.

Tim Keller, the solidly Reformed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has written a paper entitled: Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople. It is well worth reading on this subject. And it is particularly relevant to the latest controversies regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve. Keller (as well as other scholars such as NT Wright) rightly warn against mythologizing everything the Bible says about the origins of humanity. His conclusion (which also represents the mainstream of the CRC) is sober and balanced: “Christians who are seeking to correlate Scripture and science must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists.”