Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Our freedom in Christ

Recent discussion here and elsewhere on the theological justification for women bishops has challenged me as to the substantive quality of my own argumentation. On another site my argumentation has been called "bunk" and "the most tenuous straw-clutching I have seen in a long time." Taking a cue from Bryden Black's contribution of the potent phrase Crux probat omnia (the cross proves or tests everything, via Luther, via 1 Corinthians 1-4), I plan to offer a few posts in coming days which take up the challenge. Today, a reflection on our freedom in Christ.

My working hypothesis here is this: we are free in Christ to appoint women to roles of deacon, presbyter and bishop. (In other words, there is nothing in the example and teaching of Jesus and his apostles which is universally prohibitive of exercising this freedom).

This freedom is the freedom of the gospel in mission, the freedom that has led the church through the ages to translate the gospel into different contexts and cultures. From Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English to Maori, we have literally translated the words of the gospel. From the parables and sayings of Jesus to the theological exposition of Paul in Romans to the priestly reflections of Hebrews to the apocalyptic figuration of Revelation we have translated the mode of communicating the gospel. From the movement of Jesus sweeping through the villages of Galilee to the fledgling church in Jerusalem making up its structures as it went along to the more detailed organisation of 1 Timothy to the imitation of Roman local and imperial rule from Constantine's empire to the English parish system through to the breaking out of many forms of church and missional activity in the 21st century we have adapted the method of communicating the gospel via individuals and groups.

In the expression of this gospel freedom we have successively broken out of one cultural allegiance into another and then to another. Culturally speaking there is no comparison between the movement of Jesus and (say) the great ceremonies of a High Latin Mass or the rock concert feel of a Hillsong service or the solemn chanting of psalms in a kirk in the Outer Hebrides or the exuberance of an African Pentecostal service in Soweto. The only comparison we can (and should) make is whether in each of these contexts the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ - that he lived, was crucified and rose again for our sakes that we might live for him and not for ourselves - is proclaimed and acclaimed in prayer and praise. Crux probat omnia.

The different cultural allegiances of Christians through the ages and, today, around the globe, represent Christians taking up the challenge of communicating the gospel in the "language" of the world around them. "Language" here is not only the words used to speak the gospel but the presuppositions, conceptions, implications and applications of the gospel which make the gospel plausible to those hearing it, as well as seeing it in action. The early church, for example, faced the challenge of whether or not circumcision was part of the language of the gospel as it moved from Jewish culture to Gentile culture. From the perspective of Jewish culture it was part of the gospel. From the perspective of Gentile culture it was a barrier to the gospel being heard and received. Circumcision made the gospel implausible as it headed across the boundary between Jewishness and Gentileness. Crux probat omnia. Peter, Paul, James and co had to get their heads around whether or not the gospel of the cross included circumcision or not. Circumcision dropped away. The cross was sufficient for salvation.

Why do women in Western churches, with a very few exceptions, neither wear coverings over their heads nor feel anxious about whether they grow their hair long or have it cut short? Indeed, pressing this question further, despite the (pun intended) heady theological justification of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which seems to invoke order in creation and eternal order in the Godhead for women covering their heads and having long hair, why do women in the West set that theological justification to one side and go to church without hats and with short hair? Crux probat omnia. Without an ecumenical council having been called (!!) we have reached a consensus that insisting on wearing head coverings and having long hair makes the gospel implausible within our culture which is indifferent to whether hair is long or short and which has moved from uniform hat wearing for men and women to hat wearing for specific purposes (to protect from the sun, to mark celebratory events such as weddings and race meetings). Have we egregiously sinned in disregarding Paul's apostolic teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16? No! Have we merely moved with the times, married the spirit of the age and endangered ourselves of widowhood in the next? No! We have embraced the apostolic crux of mission, the core of the gospel: only Christ crucified on the cross matters, everything else is changeable in order that the gospel may be communicated faithfully by Christians and heard plausibly by non-Christians.

The gospel is not Come to Jesus (and, by the way, you'll need to be circumcised) or Believe on the Lord Jesus (and, hey, you had better buy a hat or headscarf) or Follow Jesus (and, incidentally, start learning Latin fast).

In a culture in which we properly celebrate our equality and mutuality together as men and women - properly because that is how we have been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that is how we are meant to be in the kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) - it is an urgent and serious question whether we are using our freedom in Christ to preach the gospel faithfully and plausibly when we place restriction on what women may do in the service of that same gospel.

I can think of no more weighty, substantial, and magnificent reason for appointing women bishops than this: it serves the cause of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in our generation.


Rosemary Behan said...

True freedom is the freedom we have to choose to obey.

Peter Carrell said...

I think Christians on both sides of the debate would agree with you, Rosemary!

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,

I think your working hypothesis might need a bit more Biblical scrutiny. The crucial question here is: What are the timeless and eternal principles the Scriptures teach us about gender and ministry which we are bound to obey, and what are the applications of those principles to the cultural context of Jesus and the apostles, which may be applied differently in our contexts? No one would disagree with you that we have adapted the modes of communicating the gospel and ordering the church to suit local contexts. What we haven't (or shouldn't have) changed is the content of the gospel and the words of Scripture.
My reading of the relevant texts is that the principle involved here is that men have a greater responsibilty and accountability towards God in both the home and the church. God gives glorious freedom to women, treats them with honour and respect, and calls men and women together to do the work of ministry. But the buck stops with a man.
In terms of your 1 Cor. 11 example, I think it teaches the principle in v.3 and then goes on to explain the application to the Corinthians' context in the following verses. Our work of interpreation is to apply the principle of authority in our own context, where head veils are not a sign of authority. You might disagree with my exegesis, but I understood this to be the standard evangelical position. You are right to question the consistency of some evangelicals of applying these texts to ordained ministries and not to other situations.
Applying this principle to our context today, I would suggest it means that we encourage men and women to work together in ministry, but the final authority and responsibility rests with a man. Thefore, I would argue that having a female bishop violates this principle. I would also argue that the senior priest of a parish should be a man, because of the significant teaching and pastoral authority of that role. But all other forms of ministry are open to women (including ordained ministry), as long as that principle of final authority is maintained.
I would add also that I don't treat this issue as a "fellowship breaking" issue. I think the Scriptures leave enough room for disagreement here that we can still love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and disagree on this.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrew,

Some notes in response:

(a) If 11:3 is a timeless principle, so is 11:11.

(b) Is not 11:10 crystal clear in Paul's mind? With a reason going beyond culture and context? Yet we set it aside!

(c) What is your justification for limiting the principle of male headship of ministry to bishops and senior priests of parishes? All ministries of teaching involve authority and I am increasingly intrigued at the evangelical line, so often trotted out that it could be called 'standard', which you bring out here: every ministry other than bishop or senior priest is open to women. But surely consistency demands that the leader of the youth ministry, of the house groups' ministry, of Sunday School work, and even women's group ministries is headed by a man?

(d) Conversely, might it also be consistent on your line of argument that only the Primate of an Anglican church need be a man, since all other ministries, arguably, are subordinate to that lead?

(e) The beauty of exercising Christian freedom as I have argued for it here, is that we can freely choose the best person for any position in the church, without getting stuck on consistency of application of a questionable principle. Further, we may do so with the peace which comes through knowing that Christ is the head of the church.

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your responses. You don't need to worry about any David Ould style criticisms from me, brother :) Always happy to try and understand God's will together from the Bible.

a) Yes 11:11 is timeless, too. I think what's going on here is Paul is reminding the men not to get too cocky about their "headship" and remind them that they need to work together with women. This doesn't reverse or abrogate what he's saying in the surrounding verses, but emphasises partnership within the context of male authority.

b) I don't think we set aside 11:10, we ask in our culture what sign of authority could a woman have on her head? The answer is none. Some cultures, including the Orthodox here in Egypt, believe that a veil is a proper sign of authority, and so still use that sign.

c) Now we are moving from debating the principle to debating its application to our context. I was thinking more here of the 1 Tim 2 passage about "teaching" and "authority" over men. Of the ministries you mention, only the Bible study groups would involve women having authority over men or teaching them. There's no injunction against teaching children, youth or other women. With Bible studies, there are usually a male and female leader of each group, which I think is helpful. If there is a staff member responsible for Bible studies, this is probably more an equipping and resourcing role than a teaching or authority role. But some people will draw the line differently to me. One role I think we often overlook in this debate is Bible college lecturer. I had fellow students who didn't want women priests but quite happily sat through lectures from a female lecturer. In some ways, their level of teaching and authority is higher than a vicar, since they teach future ministers. The usual answer to this is, "It's not a church context", but I'm not sure that's a satisfactory answer.

d) I'm not sure the Primate has all that much oversight of bishops, let alone the parish priest! The point is establishing a pattern where in daily ministry there is a team of women and men who work together under the leadership of a man.

e) I rejoice in Christian freedom, too, Peter, but I do that within the limits God has set out in Scripture. Even though many doubt the principle of male headship and there is certainly room for disagreement on its application, that doesn't make it a questionable principle.

Feel free to come back with more comments or move on to something we can joyfully agree on.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrew,
I appreciate the spirit in which you engage here - a spirit for example which can entertain the possibility that you could be wrong!

I could be wrong too!

Your observation about the Bible College lecturer underlines my point (to a degree): 'headship' evangelicals can end up with Jesuit-like casuistry in order to preserve male headship and affirm able women.

It would be interesting sometime - I am not particularly pressing you to maintain this conversation, but sometime an evangelical might engage - to have some evangelicals discussing what 'youth' means. Is my son at 17 a "young man" who should not be in a youth group led and taught by a woman; or simply a "youth" and thus beyond the (apparent) compass of one reading of 1 Tim 2:12? (When would 'manhood' kick in: 18? 21? We hear about men of 30 who live at home still ...).

When you right, "The point is establishing a pattern where in daily ministry there is a team of women and men who work together under the leadership of a man", do you ever wonder what happened to Lydia at Philippi? She seemed to have an important leadership role in that fledgling church. It would be kind of sad if she was made to stand aside because her DNA didn't match the required profile!!

Brother David said...

It would be kind of sad if she was made to stand aside because her DNA didn't match the required profile!!

According to this well brainwashed reply found recently at SFiF, she would have obediently stood aside if she truly believed;

“My wife was talking to a wife with marital difficulties. She made good suggestions to the woman in question. To each suggestion the retort was, 'I can’t do that. I have my pride.'

'Then you can eat your pride.' My wife said eventually. 'In marriage there is no such thing as pride. Where there is, there is no marriage'.


The natural order is unequal. Rights and Pride are impediments to salvation. Frankly they are impediments to marriage and family!”

Father Ron Smith said...

"This freedom (ordaining women) is the freedom of the Gospel in Mission" - Dr.Peter Carrell -

Couldn't agree with you more Peter.

My only real remaining problem with the Church's current No-Nos is that concerning the ordination of LGBT persons - who are created in the image and likeness of God - as are women and men - and worthy of being called by God into the ministry of the Church.