To read some comments here one is well excused for thinking that when God inspired the sacred writings that have become our Holy Scripture and when the church turned its understanding of Scripture into T/tradition, absolutely everything was set down as immutable utterances for which no change of application can be envisaged.
Two (perennial) issues have triggered such comments: women in ministry and homosexuals in relationships.
On the possibility of women being ordained as presbyters and bishops (if not deacons as well) a line advanced has been that 2000 years of tradition has witnessed to God's clear revelation that women may not lead the church. An evangelical such as myself, questioning whether the tradition is quite so immutable on the matter, has apparently crossed a line.
Yet this argument about immutability in respect of ministry is oddly at odds with the witness of Scripture itself about ministry in the church. Consider that whatever Jesus intended about the order of the church by appointing twelve apostles:
- the early church had to discover for itself through trial and error that the apostles needed serving-at-table assistants (Acts 6)
- the terms 'episcopos' and 'presbyter' appeared to be interchangeable, as testified by 1 Timothy where the ministries of episcopoi and diakonoi are laid out in chapter 3, with no mention of presbuteroi, yet the role of episcopos there seems very presbuteros-like.
In short, the early church was flexible and evolving in its understanding of ministry offices, adapting that understanding according to the circumstances of churches as the gospel took root in different contexts. To coin a phrase (not), Scripture's own theology of ministry is contextual!
I was reminded of this yesterday while being involved in an ecumenical theological consultation concerning the future of Christchurch. One of our contributors noted the incarnation as the great distinctive of Christianity: God has become one of us, God has contextualised himself in our midst.
(My mind reflected on the non-controversy over contextual theology versus systematic theology. Theology - true Christian, Christ in us theology is both contextual and systematic. We are always interpreting the gospel for our time and location while always bearing witness to the immutable truths of the gospel (the Incarnation being one of those).)
So when we survey the context of our world today, we live in a different world to the world of the New Testament. The changing context is leading to a changing understanding of ministry in respect of gender. Women are in a different place in relation to men compared to former times. A simple example of this difference is attested to by our forthcoming General Election (20 September 2014): once no one voted, then men voted without thought that women might also vote, indeed women had to protest in order to gain the vote but now we live in a society in which we make changes which include men and women as equals (and any exceptions are immediately contested). Further, we are restless about other societies which maintain inequality (for example, recently Obama has spoken out against female genital mutilation).
Responsible theology, working from the incarnation and noting the mutability of ministry in the New Testament asks whether 2000 years of practice that women may not be presbyters or bishops (may be even not deacons) is due to an immutable revelation from God or to an assumption which made sense in a different context and which is mutable in our context today.
So, to my critics who have advanced arguments here along the lines of 'God doesn't change his mind,' I say,
'Do we know that God has made up his mind about how the church should live in today's different world?' And,
'Why should we presume that we know the mind of God for ministry in changing circumstances any better than the church in Acts 5?' (By Acts 6, it had changed its understanding of what God willed for ministry!)
Oh, yes, and the context re homosexuality has changed too! More anon.