Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Concerning Women in Christian Ministry - X (Common Objections, continued)

At Hivemind (our Westwinds' owners gathering) the other night, we rolled out our decision to now formally allow women to serve as elders in our church. There were two questions posed to us that evening that were not covered in the previously posted document "concerning women in christian ministry" and I thought I would take a little space and answer them here (so that anyone else who has these questions, but was unable to attend Hivemind, can have a documented response).

The first question concerns Paul's use of male pronouns (he, him, his) when describing the role of an elder. The question was: if elders could be either male or female, why does Paul always use male pronouns to describe the role of the office?

NT Wright, in his commentary on Timothy, did a great job of answering this very question. I have reprinted his answer here:

Paul refers to the bishop throughout as a man. My reading of the rest of the New Testament inclines me to think that this is more because that’s how Greek grammar normally refers to both genders together, and because in the very early days of the church the leaders of most communities were probably men. I don’t see it as debarring women from this particular ministry and vocation.

So to the main point, and the main challenge, of this passage: what must this person be like? What are the special standards which they must uphold? In the light of what we said earlier, we should note that this isn’t only of interest to those who are called to be office-holders (or those who want to check up on them); the reason they must keep to these standards is because this is what God longs to see all his children be like. The leaders must, as it were, be on the leading edge of that new humanity which the church is supposed to be. Because we’re all ‘on the way’, rather than having ‘made it’ into the complete new humanity God desires, it’s important that there are role models, especially that leaders should play that sort of part.

When it comes to specifics, Paul begins with the bishop’s marital status: he must only have one wife. I don’t think this means that the bishop should not have been married more than once (and have lost his wife through death or divorce and then married again). Polygamy was common in Paul’s world, as it is in some parts of the world to this day. (The Old Testament, after all, has plenty of families like that, including some of the central figures in the story of God and Israel.) But Paul has grasped, following the words of Jesus in Mark 10 and elsewhere, that God’s long-term plan, intended from the very beginning, was for faithful, lifelong partnerships of one man and one woman. That is what church leaders should model.

Nor do I think this means that the bishop must be married, in other words, that single people are ruled out. Different churches have different norms at this point. What is being ruled out is a person in a position of leadership who has two or more wives. This is all the more interesting because it implies that there were some, perhaps many, people in the early Christian churches who did have two or more wives--just as there are some converts in churches in Africa, for example, who have come from a background where polygamy is normal. Debates rage today about whether such people should be told to choose one wife only and dismiss the others, or whether, as the present passage seems to me to imply, they should be accepted as members of the church as they are, but should not be put in a position of leadership where they would then be regarded as role models.

I realize this is tricky because it seems to set up two different standards—a special level of holiness for the ‘clergy’, and a lower one for everybody else. That can be disastrous. Any ‘ordinary Christian’ who thinks they can leave the practice of real holiness to the ‘professionals’ is heading for disaster. But I return to the point I made at the beginning. Of course God wants all his people to embody the life of the new creation which has begun in Jesus and is available through the power of the spirit. He longs that every single one of us should follow after that holiness as energetically as we can. But as every pastor and teacher knows, different people made progress at different rates. In any real community, as opposed to theoretical ones that people hold in their heads while reading texts, there are anomalies and puzzles, times when you have to accept that at the moment a particular situation is not ideal, but it’s where we are. The point, though, shines out all the more clearly: those in leadership positions should not exhibit that kind of anomaly. Their lives must embody and represent the message they are called upon to proclaim.

The rest of the instruction follow the same pattern. We might want to highlight, as the previous passage did, the ways in which normal expectations of male behavior are challenged by the command of the gospel. ‘Gentleness’ wasn’t regarded as much of a male virtue in the ancient world, and it still isn’t in many places. That’s important when it comes to managing one’s own household, and also to managing God’s church. It’s not too difficult to manage a community by bullying and bossing everyone around, and losing your temper and threatening violence when people step out of line. But if you do that you will not only cause human disasters; you will hold up a rotten picture to the world and the church of what the gospel of Jesus is like.

The last two notes are particularly important. Pride is such an easy trap to fall into that the church must take care not to expose people to its dangers too soon. And, once again, the leader must be well thought of in the community beyond the church. Obviously at a time of persecution the entire church may be vilified by outsiders. But in relatively calm periods people around will watch this strange little group who don’t behave the way everyone else does. They want to know if they are good neighbors, good citizens, good friends. That isn’t the whole Christian duty towards outsiders, of course. The responsibility to preach the gospel remains central. But people are much more likely to listen to what we say if they like what they see of who we are. And if that’s true for ordinary church members, how much more for leaders. Especially bishops.

The second question concerned Jesus' choice of apostles. The question was: if Jesus intended for women to serve in equal authority as men, why did he only select male apostles?

CS Cowles did a wonderful job of answering this very question in his book "A Woman's Place." I have reprinted his answer here:

The answer is apparent in what we now know about the limitations women faced in the first-century world. There was little chance that female apostles could have spearheaded the Great Commission, given the narrow social conventions of that day.

For one thing, having been denied an education and access to the Hebrew Scriptures, it would have crippled their effort to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of God to unbelieving Jews. Furthermore, they would have been barred from preaching Christ in synagogues and would undoubtedly have been unable to gain a hearing in any public forum, especially from men. They would also have been unable to travel freely. Therefore, the predominance of male leaders in the disciple community had nothing to do with an eternally fixed divine decree but represented God’s gracious accommodation of himself of the social structures and conventions of the world into which the gospel originally came.

Thanks to the seeds of liberation planted by Jesus and cultivated by Paul (as we shall see in the next chapter), women are increasingly enjoying the mature fruit of emancipation from gender discrimination and now enjoy an acceptance and freedom of movement never before known. Women are today as well educated as men. They have access to the best in biblical and theological training. They not only are accepted on an equal par with men in most public forums but are acknowledged leaders in all segments of the human enterprise as well. There is, therefore, no loner any justification for binding women under ancient cultural constraints that no longer apply. To do so is sheer prejudice and sexism.

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1 comment:

  1. As a friend of Westwinds for years, who has watched from a distance, I want to applaud this decision. I appreciate your willingness to tackle it head on.