A couple of posts below a debate started about various things to do with the continuing question within Anglican evangelicalism of whether women may be ordained to the priesthood or the episcopacy. In the course of that debate some comments persisted in making the claim that what Scripture teaches about women in ministry, male headship etc is 'plain'. My attention was also drawn to a pamphlet published by Reform and written by Carrie Sandom, a member of the Reform executive council, in which the case is set out for an approach to women's ministry in which women always work under the leadership of a man, and minister to women, youth and children, but not to men. This not only being in accordance with Scripture but also important for the encouragement, if not prodding-into-action of men to take up their God-ordained responsibilities.
Consequently I have read two pamphlets by Carrie Sandom. One is entitled The Role of Women in the Local Church, the other is entitled The Biblical Pattern for Women's Ministry - Limiting or Liberating?
The first thing we can and should say is that the pattern for ministry where a man is always leader, a staff team includes women, and women in ministry exclusively focus their service on women, youth and children, is having extraordinary success around the world. Associated with this pattern (in my experience) is careful attention to sound ministry of the Word, strong commitment to excellence in ministry, special attention to family life, including forming and running great Sunday Schools and Youth Groups. One important outcome of this pattern of ministry is a special emphasis on ministry to men in an environment where male leadership is exercised without apology: men get involved in these churches and it is true (in my experience) that when the father/husband is involved there is a greater chance of the remainder of the family joining in than when only the mother/wife is involved.
My question is whether this pattern of ministry should be just that, a pattern of ministry, one which can be followed profitably in many churches, or a rigid rule of ministry which admits of no exceptions? My answer is that it is the former not the latter. But that answer is not the answer of some of the commenters on the post below, nor does it appear to be the answer of Reform within the Church of England. On the Reform approach no women should be a presbyter or bishop: there are no exceptional women (Deborahs and Huldahs of our day) who might be considered, nor are their exceptional circumstances in which consideration might be given to appointing a women as ministry team leader. I do not mind being criticised for being critical of this approach, but I hope it might be conceded that such rigidity in application of understanding Scripture bears careful scrutiny. After all it is rare in the New Testament for any rules to be laid down which admit of no exceptions (or of no change as the circumstances of life change).
Reading Carrie Sandom's pamphlets I am struck by several things which are of interest as I have followed the comments made on the post below.
(1) The question, already voiced in some British blogs, of the grounds on which a women may not teach men verbally but may teach them through writing (as Carrie undoubtedly does in these pamphlets). Where in Scripture is this distinction made?
(2) The question of when a child becomes a man. In the pattern above women may teach other women and may teach children but not men. I notice that in the second of the pamphlets mentioned above, Carrie says, "although the CYFA venture I help lead means I am involved in teaching teenagers of both sexes". There are various definitions of 'child'. I understand, for example, that a UN definition is 'under 18'. But others might demur. Young men, not children, for example drive cars at the age of 16. It seems strange (on the pattern being promoted in the pamphlet) that a woman may teach young men but not older men.
(3) Is the teaching of the Bible 'plain' on matters concerning ministry, marriage, and headship? I do not think it is. Some of my critics think it is plain. But I am pleased to find that Carrie Sandom agrees with me and not my critics. Read the first pamphlet cited above and note that at the end of the pamphlet is a section entitled 'More difficult passages to consider'. She cites 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:26-35, 1 Timothy 2:14, and 2:15. Then note the frequent use of the word "seems" through each explanation given, as well as 'some would argue' in one explanation. In other words, some of the key texts are not plain to understand. Not only do they require explanation, but the explanation is given with tentative language.
(4) Noting that no passage alone in the New Testament intentionally teaches "the Biblical principle of male headship which is to be modelled in the church" - it is a teaching we deduce from reading several passages together, is it appropriate to elevate the principle of male headship to the status of 'God's law'?
In the pamphlet The Role of Women in the Local Church, the explanation of 1 Timothy 2:14 says this,
"Paul has just warned Timothy to avoid the false teaching of two men (1 Tim 1:19-20) so this cannot mean that women are more likely to lead the church into error - if that were so why would Paul encourage them to teach women? Verse 14 seems to follow straight on from the reasoning of v13 and serves as an example of the disorder that ensues when God’s law is disobeyed."
The phrase 'God's law' here begs a number of questions about the nature and character of God's law in the New Testament era, to say nothing of the question of whether the principle of male headship which we deduce from Scripture is properly described as 'God's law'.
It is possible, in other words, that a very successful model for ministry in the church, organised around the principle of male headship, strains credibility when it offers a theological justification for the model. In so far as that justification is represented in the two pamphlets cited above I remain unconvinced that it has been achieved.
Please, dear readers, note that raising these questions is primarily about the rigid imposition of the principle of male headship. I am as keen as anyone on great male leaders leading churches, running youth groups, taking up responsibilities in public prayer and so forth. I accept entirely that the future life and health of the church depends on men being involved as well as women. But this passion and commitment to see men in church does not require the rigid imposition of a model in which women may not lead or teach men. Christ came to set us free from the law! We should view with the utmost care any attempt by any church to lay down a new law of God.