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.






Orthodoxy and Submission

There is a theological debate going on in which Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have proposed an eternal subordination of the Son in the Trinity. In other words, they claim that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father in the Godhead. This is an unorthodox understanding of the relationship of the divine persons of the Godhead, akin to the ancient heresy of Arianism, because it puts the Son in a lesser, subordinate position to the Father. Leading Patristic scholars and Trinitarian experts like Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres leave no doubt about the fact that these writers are advocating heterodoxy (false doctrine, heresy), or veering toward heresy, or at the very least using very confused language that would lead to heretical formulations regarding the Trinity. Another Trinity expert, Steven Holmes, writes that “Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can Trinity-295x300keep his ‘complementarianism.’” But the doctrine of the Trinity is not the main reason for this post. It’s the “complementarianism” that moves me to write today. This new and controversial understanding of the Trinity is driven by a theological anthropology (that is, a particular view of humanity) that sees women (not wives but women per se) as subordinate in function to men (not husbands). This hierarchical anthropology is then projected onto the Trinity, in order to bolster the anthropology. That theory of humanity that views women as created by God to submit to male leadership is called complementarianism.  An old friend of mine, an outstanding historical theologian and a complementarian, Carl Trueman, writes of this latest controversy about the Trinity and complementarianism:


“…it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating not only a very 1950s American view of masculinity but now also this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity. In the long run such a tight pairing of complementarianism with this theology can only do one of two things. It will either turn complementarian evangelicals into Arians or tritheists; or it will cause orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.”

I agree, except that I see the latter option as not only preferable, but desirable.


Orthodox believers should abandon complementarianism. Not because there is no distinction between male or female. Not because, in a general sense, men and women, husbands and wives, are not “complementary” in many ways. But precisely because they are. Women provide a much-needed complement to men…also in positions of leadership and authority. This is true in a marriage, in a household, in the church, in a business, and in society in general. And the idea that God created women to be subject to men is simply no longer credible. Women are subject to men in the Bible because, as John Calvin taught, God accommodates and adapts the Bible to the time, culture, and conventions of ancient near eastern peoples. That does not mean that God intends women to be perpetually subject to men.


The most important reason why orthodox Christians should seriously reconsider the claims of complementarianism is that it is not as biblically sound as its proponents claim. This post is not about the detailed exegetical and theological arguments to that end, but I will briefly point to Fuller Theological Seminary’s (dated but still valuable) statement on women in ministry, and a compelling exegetical argument by D. Heidebrecht. In sum, as Heidebrecht writes, “Reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15 within its literary context indicates that Paul is not addressing women here simply because they are women.” Carl Trueman once displayed utter disbelief that I could support the ordination of women, but I daresay he has the weaker exegetical argument. I should say that I have many friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect who are complementarians, so don’t take this as an attack. But even that is not the main reason for my post.

John Calvin, like most thinkers in the sixteenth century, did not think women should be pastors, nor, ideally, that should they be rulers. He did, however, argue that God did in fact raise up female rulers as a concession to human sin, and that the authority of female rulers is to be considered legitimate and to be obeyed. Not only that, but Calvin was ashamed and embarrassed by John Knox, who in a misogynist diatribe claimed that it was contrary to God’s will and the order of nature that women should hold positions of authority in government, and that female monarchs were illegitimate and should be overthrown by force of arms. Knox had very specific women in mind: Mary Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England (styled “Bloody Mary,” and not because she invented the drink). But he also claimed that women in general were “weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish.” Calvin saw that Knox was undermining support for the Reformation by Protestant Queens. In fact, Calvin said that Knox was guilty of “thoughtless arrogance” by writing this inflammatory tract. Indeed, Knox ended up shooting himself in the foot and doing irreversible harm to the cause of thoroughgoing Reform in England generally when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne; she despised him for his he-man woman-hating rhetoric, and extended her disdain to Geneva, to the dismay of Calvin and Theodore Beza. But while I have a compulsion to include Reformation debates in everything, this is not the main reason for this post.

Today’s complementarians would never repeat the vile things that Knox said. But too often, in my reading of many complementarians (and not all of them, mind you), the anti-female bias comes out in a patronizing way. John Piper, for example portrays women as soft and weak and vulnerable, and he even goes so far as to claim that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” But this is not the Bible; this is John Piper’s projection onto the Bible of his own preferred reality. It seems to me that this is a species of idolatry, a fetishizing of masculinity, and a rather bizarre one at that. In addition, the volume Piper edited with Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, made arguments that I found not only weak, but sometimes downright offensive (for a review of that volume by a person who had a similar assessment, start here.)

And that brings me to the main reason for this post. Complementarians are varied in their views, but increasingly, I find the whole complementarian perspective not only mistaken, but also untenable. Not in the sense that it cannot be rationally or exegetically defended, but in the sense that holding to complementarianism in the modern church is harmful to the mission  and witness of the church, and therefore can no longer be held. At its worst, complementarianism leads to extremist statements like those by John Piper that women can’t hold most positions of authority over a man, or even his deeply offensive and frankly bizarre assertion that a pastor can’t read a commentary written by a woman unless he excludes from his mind all traces of her femininity, particularly her dangerous, feminine body. This is misogyny, pure and simple* (see this perceptive article in Christianity Today, as well as this blog post). I am certain John Piper does not intend it as such, but it is in fact a derogatory view of women, and it is thus ungodly, sinful, unholy, and it should be repudiated. Ultimately I judge complementarianism to be based on a simplistic reading of Scripture, but one that claims to be the “simple” and plain reading, uninfluenced by cultural assumptions. This interpretation unwittingly projects older western cultural views of women’s roles onto Pauline texts (and charges that opponents are projecting “feminism” onto the texts), while failing to distinguish incidental historical context (for example, the gender roles assumed in first century Jewish culture) from the invariable intent of Paul’s doctrine. It also minimizes the role that women actually played in Paul’s ministry.

For the complementarians, the tail is wagging the dog. To cite Steve Holmes again:


I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented. How many particular defences of a position need to be proved false before we may assert that the position itself is obviously false?

Not only my study of scripture and theology, but my pastoral experience, demonstrates to me that complementarianism is “obviously false,” to borrow Holmes’ phrase. Increasingly, this is and will be the perspective of theologians and biblical scholars.


For my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I think we need to be done once and for all with the unwritten assumption among many conservatives that the really orthodox, really confessionally Reformed people will of course be complementarians. Especially since zealous defenders of a male-only pulpit are now abandoning Nicene Orthodoxy in order to advance their agenda. This agenda is now eroding orthodoxy! Not among all complementarians (witness Carl Trueman as just one of many leading examples), but the link between keeping women in their place and orthodoxy should now be dissolved once and for all. I am orthodox and confessional, and I reject complementarianism. I did so after many years of careful, painstaking study, and much wavering in the early years of my theological education. In fact, I think that complementarianism, apart from being theologically and exegetically flawed, and impossible to practice with any real consistency, is a significant hindrance to our ministry, and particularly our witness to younger generations. It undermines our witness in a society and culture that rightly assumes that women as just as capable and gifted as men, a generation that correctly rejects subordinationist views of women as a relic from the past. Assuming that women take a back seat to men is a residue of our western history of subjugating women–women who only received the right to vote in the United States less than a century ago, and who only were declared “persons” in Canada in 1930, when the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council overturned the Canadian Supreme Court decision that excluded women from the Senate, deciding that they were not qualified “persons.”


If God’s Word clearly and obviously forbade female leadership in the church (as complementarians insist), I would join them. But it does not. Some two decades ago, Carl Trueman, in exasperation with me, suggested that I was deliberately twisting the Bible to support the ordination of women. I remember that with a smile and don’t hold it against him. I am sure he can defend his own position. But I am doing no such thing. And I am an expert on the history of biblical interpretation, so I know what I am talking about. The only text that can be legitimately employed to argue against women in church leadership,  I Timothy 2:11-15, is not a reference to the created order; it is an illustration–of a kind common in Jewish biblical interpretation–of how certain women in Ephesus were deceived by false teachers. The context of the Pauline letters makes it clear to me that there were women being deceived by false teachers in the church of Ephesus, and that his proscriptions on women teaching and wresting authority (αὐθεντεῖν–a very obscure word) from a man are specific to that context. There is a not a “creation ordinance” that subordinates women to men; that is an assumption and projection of western culture and tradition onto the text. If it were a statement of the enduring created order, one would have to conclude that women are inherently more susceptible to deception (v. 14). Who in good conscience would dare make such a claim? And if this text is clear and obvious, what in the world does Paul mean (v. 15) by saying that women will be saved through bearing children? In fact, this text is very difficult to unravel. It is one of the most obscure texts in the Bible, if not the most obscure. But what it cannot mean is that women are spiritually inferior or inherently more susceptible to deception (which would be a degrading and patently false teaching regarding half the human race). It cannot mean that only Eve became a sinner, since Paul locates the origin of human sin in Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12-17–Paul never mentions Eve here); nor can it mean that women are saved through having children, since Paul clearly teaches that salvation comes by grace through faith. And how do these proscriptions jive with Paul’s actual practice of including women as coworkers in his ministry? I have heard many women express the feeling that Paul was down on women–but I would contend, on the contrary, that he was revolutionary when it came to women. In Philippians 4:2-3 the Apostle addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who contended at Paul’s side in the work of the ministry (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ συνήθλησάν μοι); Paul includes them among his coworkers in the ministry (συνεργῶν μου). It is not likely that Paul would have to urge these two women to resolve whatever dispute they had if they were not persons of influence in the church at Philippi. Priscilla and her husband Aquila are also named as Paul’s coworkers (συνεργοί) in the ministry, Romans 16:3. Not only that, but Paul usually mentions Priscilla’s name first–a very curious reversal of convention, which indicates to me that Priscilla took the lead in the work of the ministry. Who cannot think of examples of women in their local congregation who are more invested in the work of the ministry than their husbands? And some husbands are more invested than their wives. There is no general rule.


More to the point, I am finding it increasingly difficult to minister in a context where women are not allowed to lead and to preach the Word. I find myself losing patience with the practice of excluding women, though I certainly think that a diversity of views should and must be tolerated. But the complementarian side can no longer have veto power. The implicit threat of people leaving if a congregation makes a change holds a congregation hostage, sometimes creating an atmosphere where the issue can never be discussed openly. Nor is this matter a confessional issue that would be grounds for leaving the church or fomenting a schism, as happened  in the 1990s. You may not prefer to have a woman serve as an elder in your congregation, but it is not grounds for leaving or protest. The Christian Reformed Church, through careful study over many years, has amply demonstrated that there is a solid biblical-theological argument for women to serve in all offices of the church. Our seminary trains women as pastors and church leaders, and approves women as candidates for the ministry. Personally, I am getting to old to fight this battle again and again, and to listen powerlessly while women in my congregation ask me how their church could continue to exclude them from leadership in the Body of Christ. The issue became much more pointed when my own daughter looked at me with disbelief and asked how the church could have such a policy. But God does not exclude them, contrary to an older exegesis that assumed a subordinate role for women. True complementarity excludes subordination. Not only that, at my age, I do not thing I would be willing to entertain a future call to a church or ministry that does not support women in ministry, or at least allow women to serve as officebearers and to preach. Churches that exclude women from the office of deacon, moreover, have absolutely no grounds for doing so apart from tradition, and by doing so, signal that they are a church of the past, not the future. Actually, I think Christian Reformed Churches that exclude women from the office of elder also send that same signal. And, finally, it is my firm conviction that, if our churches continue to insist on this gender qualification for leadership in the church will needlessly lose all credibility with younger generations. If we lose credibility because we are preaching the gospel, that is one thing (as when the Athenians laughed at Paul over the resurrection); but younger generations are right to see that our exclusion of women is not integral to the gospel. And this will be all the more evident when it comes to the much more difficult topic of how Christians and the church should relate to homosexuals and other persons with sexual differences in a Christian and pastoral manner.


 Carl Trueman wrote that the latest Trinitarian heterodoxy may have the unintended consequence of causing “orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.” I would hope so. We need to abandon it.