There’s a woman in our pulpit!

Whether you would read this headline as an exclamation of alarm, or as an exclamation of joyous excitement, the chances are there will be someone who is not in accord with you. In fact, that’s just about a certainty.

Some (liberal church members) would regard the debate as history; that battle has been fought and won. Others (conservative church members) would retort that as far as they are concerned it was a non-starter, and they still don’t believe it’s right, and (perhaps) they will refuse to attend any church where there is a woman minister in the pulpit.

Forgive me for generalising; of course not all conservatives are against ordaining woman ministers, and not all liberals are in favour of it. If I generalise now and then, so as not to complicate my writing, bear in mind that when I make a general statement, it is only a general statement.

I will try to explain why I hold the view that I do, without necessarily setting out to prove that I’m right and everyone with another view is wrong, in the hope that this will be helpful to some.

I believe that women are called to the ordained ministry just as men are, and on an equal basis. There may or may not be a difference in the way in which a woman exercises her ministry, but the calling and the office are identical with those of a male minister. I look forward to the day when the Lord may call a woman minister to head our Methodist Church in Southern Africa!

So, why do I, as an admitted theological conservative, take this relatively liberal position?

Before we get to Saint Paul’s rules about women speaking in church, and Pauline theology on the role of women generally, which is what everyone runs to first (see, another generalization), let’s have a look at what the whole Bible has to say about women.

The Old Testament

In the Old Testament women were pretty much just property, had no say, no rights, and certainly did not exercise any authority over men. Right? That’s generally true, but…

Let’s have a look at a couple of these Old Testament women. When Pharaoh’s pursuing army was drowned in the Red Sea, it was Miriam, Aaron’s sister, who led the songs of celebration and worship before the Lord. In Micah 6:4 the Lord says, “I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Three leaders are named, and one of them is a woman, appointed by God to lead the Israelites.

In Judges, after Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, we come to the first of the notable judges of Israel, Deborah. Barak, the army commander, was so dependent upon her leadership that he refused to go into the battle without her at his side! (Judges 4:8-9)

In 2 Kings 22:14-20 I find Huldah the prophetess being consulted and interpreting God’s will for King Josiah; her word led to a great revival.

While it is certainly true that the Old Testament is overwhelmingly dominated by male leadership, it is instances like these, and a few others, that convince me that even in the Old Testament it was not invariably the case that women were not allowed to lead men or have authority over them.

The New Testament

In the New Testament, we have twelve male disciples (one of whom turns out to be unreliable, which reminds me of one of the common criticisms of the notion of woman ministers – inconstant, subject to hormonal mood swings, thus unreliable…).
When I compare the insight into and quick grasp of Jesus’ teachings which women generally (almost invariably) showed, as recorded in the Gospels, with the general lack of insight and slow understanding of the chosen male disciples, I cannot accept that a woman necessarily needs a man to interpret God’s Word to her, nor can I accept that a woman can have nothing to teach a man about the Lord.

In Acts I find woman leaders like Lydia, who was the first Christian in Philippi and in whose house that church was established. I think Lydia very probably led the Church in Philippi, at least at first.

I read of Priscilla, with her husband Aquila so clearly following her lead. We are told plainly that it was Priscilla, with Aquila, who taught the gifted preacher Apollos the right Gospel doctrine. While I must agree that we cannot say who was the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, I must confess that I personally believe that it was very likely Priscilla (which would explain why it alone among the New Testament letters remains completely unattributed), together with her husband Aquila (which would explain the infamous masculine participle in Hebrews 11:32).

Paul himself sends greetings to Phoebe as the minister of the Church at Cenchrae, and asks the Romans to assist her at her direction. I accept that Phoebe’s position was functionally that of the minister at Cenchrae: the same word, diakonos, is used of Paul himself with reference to church leadership. The literal meaning is “servant”, as is the literal meaning of “minister”. One might say, “Paul, the servant of God”, or one might equally say, “Phoebe, the servant of the Church”. Patriarchally-oriented translators have gone so far as to translate diakonos as “helper” only where it relates to Phoebe and as “deacon” or “minister” or “servant” (e.g. as in “servant of Christ Jesus”) everywhere else, in the same Bible translation! (The NCV).

The Pauline commands

Having introduced Paul, I had better get to the famous problematic texts. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 are the two texts which are cited most often.

In Corinthians, the verses basically say that women are not allowed to speak in church, but should ask their husbands for clarification at home. 1 Corinthians 14 is essentially a chapter that exhorts the church to do everything in worship in good order. In verse 33, just before the cited verses, Paul expresses the conviction that God is “not a God of confusion, but of peace” (he has just been explaining that a general uncontrolled babbling in tongues is not helpful and does not honour God). This is what seems to spark his comment on women talking in church, which is almost, in the context, an aside. He goes back to and concludes by speaking again and finally about the good order of a church service.
I understand these verses as addressing a local situation where women in the Corinthian church were misbehaving by discussing the teaching even while it was still being presented, to the distraction of other members.

Frankly, I find the 1 Timothy text much more difficult. One cannot simply dismiss what Paul is saying so unequivocally, nor is there the contextual mitigation which I find in Corinthians. However, what I do not find here (which is present in the Corinthian letter), is the assertion by Paul that what he is instructing is God’s command rather than his personal views. He does present a biblical argument to underpin his views, but again, whether the reader agrees with his argument and its application is for the reader to decide. Personally I am inclined to respond by reminding Paul that, as he himself told us in Romans, we are no longer under the Law, but are under the rule of grace.

When I also consider verses like Galatians 3:27-28: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is … neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”; and when I consider the well-established Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, for myself I find no other recourse but to conclude that Paul, in the Timothy text, was expressing his personal view, possibly with regard only to Ephesus, possibly a view which he had only recently adopted, or a view which he later found reason to change.

Conclusion

The fact is that those like myself, who believe that God has ordained woman ministers, must wrestle with the interpretation of, particularly, the Timothy text, while those on the opposing side must find a way to explain Biblical equality of gender as disciples of Christ, particularly with regard to the Galatians text.

As I said at the beginning, my purpose has been primarily to explain my position rather than to convince others to change theirs. I would suggest that whether or not women are generally accepted as ordained ministers, what matters is that the Church should continue to share the Gospel of Christ, and that the members of Christ’s Church should be good witnesses to the new life that is in Jesus Christ.

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