In my last few posts, I’ve been seeking to sketch out what I’m calling a ‘prophetic-redemptive’ approach to interpreting the Christian Scriptures. Essentially, it’s an attempt to acknowledge the fact that, in some cases, there may be attitudes or perspectives recorded in the biblical texts that are less than ideal (and this is simply because humans are involved in the process of writing them). At the same time, it is my firm belief that the life-giving Spirit of God is also very much involved in this process, and so our task (as I see it) is to look for the prophetic Spirit at work in the texts themselves, sometimes overturning these less-than-ideal perspectives and always leading God’s people into fulness of life.
In my first post I looked at Isaiah 56, noting how this extraordinary text overturned what had previously been understood as the Law of God. Those who had been explicitly excluded from God’s Temple (and therefore God’s very presence) were now fully embraced as members of the family of God.
In my second post I focused on the book of Acts, noting how the Spirit of God seemed to be at work in pushing out the boundaries of God’s people to the surprise of many of the early Jewish-Christians. God was now drawing in Samaritans and even Gentiles — and the only ‘badge of membership’ was faith in Jesus (thus overturning the traditional identity markers of the Jewish people). We saw also how the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 became a kind of formative moment for working out what God was up to in their midst.
In this post, I’d like to draw out some of the implications of this approach with a kind of ‘case study’ focused on the issue of women in Christian ministry.
The first point I must note here is my dependence on the work of Pentecostal scholar John Christopher Thomas. Though I first read his ‘Women, Pentecostalism, and the Bible: An Experiment in Pentecostal Hermeneutics’ many years ago now, what I say here is, as best I can remember, based directly on his work. What I do remember from Thomas’ work was that his proposed model for a Pentecostal hermeneutic was drawn out of Acts 15 (the account of the Jerusalem Council), and drew together three main elements: the sacred Scriptures, the community of faith, and dependence on the Spirit of God. (He also applied this approach to the issue of ‘women in ministry,’ though I can’t remember exactly his conclusions.)
An obvious place for Christians to begin their interpretive strategy is with the sacred texts themselves. For Christians, the Bible is central to how we understand God’s mission in the world and our part in it. Though we sometimes come up with confusing (and, I often think, confused) concepts like ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ when referring to the Bible, I think it’s actually quite simple: The Hebrew Scriptures tell (from numerous perspectives) the story of the people of Israel, and their self-understanding as the group of people chosen by God — not for their own sake or for anything they’d done but rather, by God’s grace, to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:5), representing God to the nations and drawing them into the worship of the one, true, creator God. For Christians, these sacred texts lead directly to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who fulfils this grand story. Jesus becomes the representative individual of the representative nation, finally living out the fulness of God’s desire for humanity. Through his life, his sacrificial death, and his defeat of death itself through the resurrection, Jesus invites not just the Jewish people but the whole world to fulness of life in him, given through the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost. The Christian ‘New Testament,’ then, records the details of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (from the perspective of eyewitnesses), and the impact of this on the lives of the early Christians in numerous places around the Roman Empire as they worked out what this all meant. These texts are the closest in time and space to Jesus himself, and therefore stand as the central record for us.
(It’s necessary to note that, for the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, the Christian ‘New Testament’ had not yet been written and brought together as ‘canon,’ so they relied upon the Hebrew Scriptures which they knew well and were normative and authoritative for their community.)
The Community of Faith
The second element of Thomas’ proposed reading strategy is the input of the community of faith. Leading up to the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15), the Apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas had been travelling around to many cities in the Roman Empire visiting, firstly, Jewish synagogues to tell the people about how Jesus of Nazareth was the hoped-for Jewish Messiah. Though many Jewish people came to believe, Paul and Barnabas often faced opposition from the synagogues and took the opportunity to preach their message also to the Gentiles in those areas. Interestingly, Paul and Barnabas weren’t requiring the Gentile converts to take on the traditional Jewish identity markers (things like circumcision, etc.), and this brought them into conflict with other Jewish-Christian believers who insisted that Gentiles must first take on these Jewish identity markers before they could take their full place in this new community being formed around the Jewish messiah. All of this culminated in the ‘Council of Jerusalem.’
In order to come to a decision on these matters, the ‘Apostles and Elders’ in Jerusalem met together to discuss the situation and, interestingly, they didn’t just look solely to their sacred Scriptures but allowed space to hear from all ‘sides’: Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:4), those who desired to retain the Jewish identity markers (Acts 15:5), and the Apostle Peter himself (Acts 15:7-9). The aim of this was to discern — together — what on earth God was up to.
I would suggest that this is of significant importance to our own reading strategies. In fact, I would suggest that it already is, whether we acknowledge it or not (that is, we often bring in our own experience when interpreting our sacred texts, whether or not we do so consciously). We need to hear the voices of many Christians from all over the world, not just from our own context — and I guarantee that, when we do so, we will be challenged in our interpretations. I think this is also where the reflections from faithful Christians across the centuries comes in, as we look to the way they did theology in their own context to work out what God was up to. This all becomes helpful information to help us do the work of theology in our own time and place.
The Spirit of God
The final element in this interpretive paradigm is a radical dependence on the Holy Spirit. We see very clearly in the account of Acts 15 that the role of God’s Spirit is essential. Firstly, we see in Peter’s own account the ways in which God’s actions had been confirmed by the giving of the Spirit (especially, in Peter’s experience, in the example of Cornelius’ household in Acts 10-11). For Peter, God’s decision had been confirmed and it was futile to stand in God’s way. We see also the ways in which Paul and Barnabas’ work had been confirmed by ‘signs and wonders’ (that is, God’s Spirit at work once again). And we see, finally, that the ultimate decision about a way forward was something that ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (that is, the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem). This group of leaders believed strongly that God’s Spirit was at work in the situation, and that they needed to follow where the Spirit led.
This, I think, is so often neglected in our reading strategies. I’m sure this is due to concerns about descending into subjectivity, but it often works out in ways that restrict the work of the Spirit to the Scriptures themselves (or, perhaps, end up essentially replacing the Spirit with the Scriptures…). To my mind, this is a radical restriction of what God is up to in the world — including in our own context. We need to be able to discern where and how it is that God is working in our midst, by the Spirit, and this requires an openness to even being ‘surprised’ by the work of God amongst us. Obviously there do need to be parameters around this, but this is exactly why community is so important. We are called to discern God’s work among us together.
Case Study: Women in Ministry
The issue of ‘women in ministry’ is one that won’t seem to go away in Christian circles and is often passionately debated.
On one ‘side’ are Christians who believe that, for reasons perhaps only divinely knowable, God has ordered creation in certain ways when it comes to gender. In the home, the proper role for wives1 is that of ‘submission’ to their husbands (and this can be interpreted in a number of ways). In the church — as a kind of extension of the ‘household of God’ — men are ultimately responsible for authoritative teaching (‘passing on the apostolic deposit’). For some, this means that women can never ‘teach’ to mix-gender adult congregations, while others take a softer position that allows women to preach to mix-gender congregations as long as there is, ultimately, a man in the authoritative position of the main ‘teaching elder’ in the congregation (usually the senior minister/pastor). Sometimes these roles are held to be normative even in places of work outside the church. This broad view is generally called complementarianism.
On the other ‘side’ are Christians who believe that, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, God has, among other things, overturned restrictive roles for women (in the home, in the church, and in the workplace). Now, people are gifted in various ways by God’s Spirit, and this is not restricted or determined by their gender. The relationship between wives and husbands is, in this view, marked by mutual submission, and there are no restrictions on women in the church at any level. This broad view is generally called egalitarianism.
In the city I live in (and in my own denomination), this issue is currently coming to a head once again, so I think it’s worthwhile to use this as our ‘case study’ for the interpretive approach I’ve been outlining here.
Interestingly, both ‘sides’ in this debate point directly to the Scriptures to defend their position.
Those who take the complementarian position point to texts like 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where the author (most commonly held to be the Apostle Paul) says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (vs.12). They also note 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where the author (again assumed to be the Apostle Paul) suggests that, “…the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man…” (vs.3). Among others, they will also point to Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord”) and all the way back to Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”).
Those who take the egalitarian position point to Acts 2 where, on the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter quotes the Hebrew prophet Joel, suggesting that this prophecy was now being fulfilled in their midst: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy” (vs.17); “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (vs.18). They also note, among others, texts like Galatians 3:28 (again written by the Apostle Paul): “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Finally, they will often point to the context of the verses/passages identified by complementarians, noting, for example, that Ephesians 5:22 flows directly on from vs.21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” — i.e. the context is one of mutual submission2), or that the socio-cultural context of situation-specific texts like 1 Timothy or 1 Corinthians must be taken into consideration when interpreting them, or that the ordering of Genesis 3:16 (ie. ‘the battle of the sexes’) is a consequence of ‘the fall’ (and thus something that is in need of redemption in and through Jesus).
What is clear from all this is that appeals to exegesis of the Scriptures alone are not going to settle these debates. Leaving off for one moment the common assertion that the other side is ‘not taking the Scriptures seriously enough’ (and I must note here that I’ve heard this far more often from complementarians), we do have in the Scriptures something of a mixed bag when it comes to these issues. Though I personally believe — quite strongly in fact — that the egalitarian interpretation of the Scriptures is a much better reading, I do need to admit that, as much as it pains me to say it, it is possible to seek to read the Scriptures faithfully and to come to something like a complementarian position. As such, we are going to need to move to the other elements of our interpretive strategy here to help us work out a way forward.
The Community of Faith
In my own context (the city of Sydney), there are a significant number of churches who take the complementarian position (across different denominations) — and there are both women and men who conclude that this is the best way of reading the Scriptures and living out their faith. While many just assume this framework, what I have seen over and over again is women struggling to work out how to hold in tension the call of God on their lives and the structures they live and minister within. I see many women doing what they can within these systems, and others who have been crushed by them. I’ve seen incredibly gifted women give up on ministry because they don’t see a place for them to flourish in their calling, and choose to utilise these gifts and talents elsewhere. The result of this, of course, is both that the church misses out on what they have to offer and that the women themselves never get to truly live out the calling on their lives (and we are all worse off because of it). Part of our interpretive strategy, I would suggest, must be hearing these stories of the experiences of women.
I also see, as a result of the framework mentioned above, a lack of women’s voices in senior leadership within the church in Sydney. Not only does this impact the way that we engage with the Scriptures (only hearing the perspectives of men), it also means that we have been inadequately prepared to deal with serious issues in our midst — and I’d point to the recent discussions about domestic & family violence in the church, and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as prime examples of this.
Finally, I’d note here that it becomes a stumbling block for many outside the church. Us Christians in Sydney live in a context which, broadly speaking, doesn’t hold to ‘traditional’ gender roles. Women are in leadership positions across numerous industries and, where they are not, it is noted as a problem that still requires solving. As such, when people look at the church and see restrictions around the role of women, they can find it an impossible bridge to cross. Of course, there are a good many ways in which the Christian faith will always be ‘counter-cultural’ (strong admonitions against greed and selfishness, for example, are never popular), but the question does need to be asked about whether gender roles are necessarily one of them.
The Spirit of God
What is absolutely clear, at least to me, is that, from what I’ve experienced, God has empowered and equipped women, by the Spirit, for any role in the church (and in the home, for that matter). I have been blessed to encounter large numbers of women who are truly gifted teachers and preachers, who pastor with grace and humility, who strategise as well as (or better than) any man, and who lead with an authority that, as far as I can see, can only come from God. I have had the privilege of working with and for many women who are just as gifted and capable as any man I have worked with and for, and can’t imagine the depth of what I would have missed out on if I had not had such opportunities. I can’t see any reason whatsoever (including the glib and offensive refrain that ‘there must have been a man not operating in his gifting for a woman to be empowered in such ways’) to conclude that this is anything other than the genuine gifting and empowering of the Holy Spirit. As such, like the Apostle Peter in, I find it inescapable to conclude other than this: “If God gave them the same gift he gave us…who am I to think that I can stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
From all of this, I can only conclude that to attempt to exclude women who exhibit the gifting of God from certain roles within the church is to seek to stand in God’s way. Though I admit that the Scriptures themselves are a ‘mixed bag’ on this issue (even though I do maintain that the egalitarian reading is the ‘best’ of those on offer), once we bring in the experience of women (and men) in our context and look for where and how the Spirit is moving, I find it ultimately quite clear.
For some, this will be read as a dismissing of the Scriptures. It’s all well and good, it will be argued, for the early Christians to reinterpret the work of God in the light of Jesus, but the New Testament is the ‘fulness’ of God’s revelation and therefore texts like those in 1 Timothy 2 can’t be ignored. What I would suggest is that, even in the New Testament, there may be examples of cultural attitudes or perspectives that aren’t God’s final word on a given topic (and this is precisely because most of these texts are ‘situation specific’). And this requires us to do further work. I’d also note, once again, that in the Scriptures we constantly see God’s people trying to catch up with what God is doing in their midst, and we are no different. We must seek to follow where the Spirit is leading, rather than seeking to control the Spirit to comfortable categories. God will endorse who God will endorse, and our task is not to get in the way of this but rather to celebrate God’s work among us.
Of course, this leads us directly to the conclusion that this is the sort of project that does need to be worked out in community3 (rather than one guy on a blog). As such, I’d suggest that local churches go through this same process, together. Take time to work through the Scriptures, taking time to look into the complexities involved. Take time to hear the experiences of those in your midst — especially those who are most affected by the way things are. Make space for their voices. Finally, take the time to seek God’s Spirit together, looking for ‘evidence’ of where and how God is working in your midst.
It’s my firm belief that, when this is done, we’ll be able to conclude together that ‘it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ to encourage and celebrate women in ministry at every level in the church.
1 There is obviously an assumption of heterosexual marriage here as normative.
2 It does need to be noted here that the verb ‘submit’ does not actually occur in the Greek text of Ephesians 5:22. Rather, as is quite common in the Greek texts, the verb is to be filled in from the surrounding context. For 5:22, this means that the verb ‘submit’ is supplied from the previous verse, where we encounter the participle ‘submitting.’ This itself is dependant on the ‘main’ verb from back in 5:18, meaning that the structure is something like: ‘Be filled with the Holy Spirit…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands…” As such, egalitarians will argue that the concept of wives submitting to husbands is a simple and specific extension of the general call to ‘mutual submission’ (including husbands to wives).
3 I would suggest that, over these three posts, we’ve seen something of a trajectory. In Isaiah 56, it was the prophet declaring what God was up to by the Spirit. In Acts 15, it is the ‘Apostles and Elders’ who, after hearing the stories, decide together. My suggestion would be that this trajectory finds it’s ultimate destination in the local community of believers. We all have access to the Father by the Spirit, and we are able to investigate, together, what God is up to in our midst. But then, as a Baptist, I probably would say that.