Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Into the breech once again

Recently a regular commenter made this comment in connection with the question of the Scriptural validity of the ordination of women:

"It's obvious to any reader that women in the first century taught the faith to other women and to children, and that Priscilla and Aquila did some teaching (of Apollos) together. And that they encouraged the spread of faith - as Lydia did. But beyond this, what has been established? Did a woman ever found a church or exercize spiritual leadership over a congregation as episkopos/presbuteros? This is the essential question in the historical debate."

Let's suppose agreement for a moment that 'the essential question in the historical debate' is the question posed here. Let's also suppose that the agreed answer is 'Probably not'. ( I suggest the answer 'Certainly not' is difficult to sustain because (a) we do not know enough about Lydia's role at Philippi to be certain she exercised no episcopal or presbyteral role, (b) the array of house churches, female hostesses, and ambiguous reference to Andronicus and Junia among the apostles in Romans 16 leaves open the possibility that women may have been involved in founding churches).

In my understanding, the approach of some evangelicals to the question of the ordination of women is that 'Probably not' is insufficient basis to proceed to agree to the ordination of women. The approach of some evangelicals is to work with 'probably not' to argue that (negatively) Scripture does not prohibit the ordination of women and that (positively) Scripture provides a variety of examples of women involved in significant ways in leadership of the early church, including patron (Phoebe), deacon (Phoebe), co-teacher with husband (Priscilla), initial co-ordinator (Lydia), co-labourers with Paul (Syntyche, Euodia), and apostolic witnesses (Mary Magdalene, Junia. From these positive examples, and from the approach of Jesus himself to encouraging the role of women disciples (e.g. Luke 8:1-3; Martha and Mary; the Samaritan woman at the well), it is argued that Scripture begins a development (or 'trajectory') which leads to the valid conclusion that women may be ordained to the diaconate, to the presbyterate and to the episcopate.

Two observations in the present day then need to be made. First, that Scripture does not prohibit the ordination of women to the presbyterate and to the episcopate follows from a reading of 1 Timothy 2:12-15 which limits the scope of 1 Timothy 2:12 to a ruling which does not prohibit all women through all time from teaching or leading men (see further below). Secondly, that this argument for the ordination of women is not analogous to arguments for the ordination of practising homosexuals since there is not an analogous trajectory within Scripture.

Now, at this point the post could become very long as familiar arguments for and against are canvassed. Let me pose two questions for readers, and if they include the commenter I cited above, I should be interested in a further response!

First question: In the set of verses 1 Timothy 2:12-15, verse 15 includes wording whose meaning is much debated, 'she will be saved through child-bearing'. There is no agreement as to the meaning of these words, which, on the face of it, look like an alternative to 'faith' as the key human response in the act of salvation. (For those unfamiliar with the debate there are three main proposals: a woman will be kept safe through the risky endeavour of giving birth; a woman will be saved (from sin, for heaven) through bearing children; the bearing of The Child (i.e. Christ) will save women). Yet v. 15 is part of Paul's "solution" to the "problem" being addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12.

If we are not certain what the solution is, can we be certain what the problem is?

(For example, if bearing children is the solution, is the problem being addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12 a problem (a) with wives (and not, say, widows) (b) with wives of child-bearing age? There are incidentally other reasons to be uncertain of the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12, including the question of the meaning of "authentein" variously translated as 'to exercise authority' and 'to usurp authority').

Second question: in some matters of biblical interpretation we readily concede that change to human knowledge has changed our understanding of the biblical text. An outstanding example is discoveries in evolutionary science which mean that we approach Genesis 1 and 2 differently to the period "pre-Darwin". We recognise that the assumption that Genesis 1 -3 is a simple, literal account of how life began and first developed no longer holds, and we must read Genesis 1-3 as a complex, symbolic, theological story of the beginning of life.

Is there nothing, absolutely nothing about changes in human society (at least in the Western world) in the last century or so which changes our understanding of the role and capabilities of women in the life of the church, including the recognition that women may teach and exercise authority in the church?

(My answer is that much has changed. This change properly leads us to re-examine our assumptions about the application of 1 Timothy 2:12. This re-examination, particularly in the light of a renewed reflection on the significance of texts relating to Phoebe, Priscilla, various Marys, etc, leads, appropriately, indeed legitimately, to the conclusion that 1 Timothy 2:12 cannot sustain the weight of being a universal rule for the church - that is, that there is no woman in any context of the church's life who may be authorised to teach and to exercise authority over men.)


Anonymous said...

Hi, Peter - a thoughtful post, as ever. Just a couple quick reflections.
1. Believing in the Pauline authorship of 1 Tim and the analogy of Scripture, I can't think that 1 Tim 2.15 teaches that child-bearing is a means of salvation; that goes completely against the tenor of Paul's teaching as we know it from elsewhere. Nor can it mean 'the birth of the Child' - that is also quite un-Pauline. Gordon Fee (a good Pentecostal scholar - most recently on Pauline christology - and a supporter of women's ordination) thinks it refers generically to being a faithful home-maker, and it denotes not the basis of salvation ('how') but the locus ('wherein'), as the conclusion of the verse shows: 'if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control' - a concluding comment which is decidedly Pauline.
2. Is 1 Tim 2.11-12 situational for Ephesus or of broader enduring significance?
3. What does 1 Cor 11.3 say about spiritual order within marriage and the Church?
These are the narrow focus exegetical questions that absorb evangelicals. What about the braoder canvas?
- Can we discern a wider significance in the fact that Christ chose only men to be his apostles? To allude to Niebuhr, is this a case of Christ within culture or over it?
- Can ministry be separated from a sacramental understanding of marriage? E.g., is a woman bishop or priest the spiritual elder/head of her husband?
- Is ministry personal or instrumental? Is one's maleness or femaleness just a biological fact or does it have spiritual significance?
As you can see, in these last questions I'm broaching on territory more often associated with Catholics and Orthodox. I could throw in a final sociological one: why is so much of the western church so feminized? Where are the men? Have they voted with their feet?
OK, I've flung out a lot of questions instead of answering them, a rather lazy resort. For myself, I am immensely grateful for the ministry of faithful women who have taken the Gospel into difficult and rather closed parts of the world (including the worlds of Islamic and Japanese women), and the army of women who have historically sustained our churches.
Because the Church is the sacramental family of Christ (and pastors are spiritual fathers) and not just some common interest group, we need to model - and practice - an understanding of minsitry that is integrated with marriage and family life, just as Paul does in the Pastoral Epistles.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Anonymous.

1Tim 2:15's complexity could be simplified as you say, but the question is left how useful such a message would have been to older women.

I would pose the question re 1 T 2:11-12 differently: is it situational where women are usurping authority or of broader enduring significance? And, if the latter, does this mean it is the basis for exclusion for all time of all women from ordained presbyteral or episcopal ministry?

The the question of 1 Corinthians 11/kephale etc.

I like your broader canvas questions and simply make two brief observations:

(i) In the Diocese of Nelson we have had good experiences of ordained women, and have found their marriages have remained in good heart and in good 'order'.

(ii) Men in church. I am sure you would appreciate the distinction between this concern being an argument for ensuring excellence and plentifulness of ordained male leadership and it being an argument against the ordination of women.