I've written quite a bit on women in ministry, and even preached on it:
What Wesleyans Believe About Women in Ministry
Difficult Verses on Women in Ministry
Sermon on Faithful Women
But I haven't posted on the topic in a little while and it was on my mind, so I thought I would throw out some thoughts today.
1. I want to start out with "spiritual common sense."
If I was a new Christian coming to the Bible, what would I expect it to say? Clearly women aren't worse thinkers than men because they don't have certain physical organs (an organ that, in any case, is not usually associated with good thinking). Clearly women aren't less spiritual than men because of their bodies--if anything women in the church seem more spiritual than men in the church. Acts 2:18 is exactly what my spiritual common sense tells me--in the age of the Spirit, men and women will prophesy, that is, proclaim God's revelations to His people and the world. I should expect this to be in fact an indication of the dawn of God's reign on earth as it is in heaven.
Teaching and preaching is a spiritual activity and in Christ there is no male and female when it comes to the Spirit. So it is surprising to find that there are verses in the New Testament that seem to subordinate women to men and a couple that seem to silence them.
Surprising until of course I recognize that this is the way everyone in the ancient world thought, that there is nothing uniquely Christian in saying a husband is head of a wife (Aristotle uses this language hundreds of years before Christ). These statements should strike us the same way passages on women veiling their heads do--clearly this teaching has everything to do with the ancient world but not much to do with the coming kingdom of God (where women will be like the angels and not "given" in marriage to men).
2. Most people who are against women in ministry are fooling themselves when they say, "I only don't believe in it because that's what the Bible says."
Do you stone rebellious children? Deuteronomy says to do it. Do you insist women veil their heads when they pray? 1 Corinthians says to do it. Do you prohibit polygamy? The Bible doesn't--and it isn't too explicit about pre-marital sex either. Do you believe in the Trinity? The New Testament doesn't come close to equating Jesus ontologically with God the Father.
Those who think their opposition to women in ministry is a matter of the Bible alone are like waves driven and tossed by the winds of their particular sub-culture. They don't even know what's blowing them. Their culture leads them to notice certain verses and give them prominence over others. 1 Timothy 2:12--the only verse that potentially could prohibit women from ministry--is obscure in situation and its reasoning. Those who base their view of women on it, read the Bible in an incredibly out of focus way, ignoring the overall thrust of Scripture in deference to a hard verse.
Why isn't there a big fuss about the fact that we don't follow 1 Timothy 5:9-12:
"Let a widow be enrolled who is not less than sixty [years old], has been the wife of one husband, is known for good works, if she has nourished children, if she has shown hospitality, if she has washed the feet of the saints, if she has helped those in troubles, if she has pursued every good work.
"But refuse younger widows. For whenever they are drawn away from the Christ by their sensual desires, they want to marry [which you vow not to do when you are enrolled as a widow], having judgment because they rejected their first faith."
Why focus overwhelmingly on the one verse (and not even going on to 2:13-15) and completely ignore verses like these?
It's stuff in their culture pushing them. Don't hide behind the Bible for your view. Acknowledge that you basically don't like the idea of women ministers and stop hiding behind God as if He is the reason for your view.
3. The main cultural push behind anti-women in ministry forces is a defensive reaction to the broader empowerment of women in our society.
In Old Testament times, when the superiority of men was assured, there was a recognized place for the exceptional woman, the Deborah who was a general. It is no coincidence that opposition to women in ministry--particularly in Wesleyan circles--has mostly risen in the post-WW2 era, with those opposing it today largely unaware of why feelings have gone strong. It's insecurity in relation to a changing world.
So ironically, if the disempowerment of women in our broader culture were still an unexamined assumption, we would not find opposition to women in ministry in Wesleyan circles. Ironically, we would probably still have 20-30% of our pulpits filled by women as they were in the early twentieth century. Ignorance in this case is not bliss for the kingdom of God!
4. The uniquely Christian trajectories of the New Testament are in how it dialogs with its culture and situations--here it empowers women, while being careful to head off potential problems such empowerment might create.
1 Corinthians 11 is a great example of Paul dancing around the new realities of the kingdom. He assumes that women can prophecy in church but he does not want to disgrace their husbands in the process. So he insists that they wear veils when they pray or prophesy so that their husbands are respected. Whatever the silence of 1 Corinthians 14 is, therefore, it is not prophetic speech. Paul assumes women will prophesy in the Christian assembly.
1 Timothy 2 must be another example of this dynamic if we are to accept that Paul wrote it. (I put it in this way because it is the nearly unanimous consensus of non-evangelical scholars that it was written several decades after Paul's death and thus that it represents an institutionalized situation in the late first/early second century). Unless Paul has had a drastic change of mind since his earlier letters and portrayal in Acts, the harsh words of 1 Timothy toward women seem inexplicable unless there is something very significant in the Ephesian context leading Paul to say what he says.
The best hypothesis is that women are facilitating false teaching at Ephesus (2 Tim. 3:6). This would explain why he is so keen to prevent women from teaching men here when he scarcely has any such word for Priscilla or Junia or Euodia or Syntyche or Phoebe elsewhere but assumes that they are all his co-ministers.
5. Only one verse--and that a difficult one--potentially prohibits women from ministry.
Let's make something very clear. Husband headship is not incompatible with women in ministry. My spiritual common sense tells me it is cultural too, but let's not argue over that here. 1 Corinthians 11 has women prophesying at the same time that they are under their husband head. That means none of the headship passages can be used to prohibit women from being full ministers of the gospel as men.
That leaves 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Again, because Paul allows women to speak in Corinthian worship in chapter 11, chapter 14 cannot mean that Paul expects prophetic silence of women in church.
There is thus only one verse in the entire Bible that might be taken to prohibit women from ministering to men, and that is 1 Timothy 2:12.
But notice how difficult this verse is.
a. A woman is not to exercise authority over a man/husband because Adam was made first, then Eve.
First, "exercise authority" is a strong word, and we have not precluded husband-headship from our discussion. In other words, 1 Corinthians 11 shows that a woman can prophesy without exercising authority over her husband--she is giving God voice to a congregation. Further, the Genesis story itself does not subjugate Eve to Adam on the basis of birth order, but as a consequence of her sin--a sin that Christ atoned for entirely.
b. A woman is not to teach because Eve was deceived and has come to be in transgression, a transgression from which they will be saved through childbearing.
Wow! I thought we were all saved through Jesus Christ! I thought Hebrews indicates that his one sacrifice has forever perfected those who are sanctified! Difficult and in any case foolishness to base an entire practice on (and only one verse at that).
6. An apt word of caution to women opposed to women in ministry
You might be surprised to find that, in Africa, it is not just the men who angrily resist those who tell them that female circumcision is an immoral practice that must be stopped. Women as well, accustomed to the practices of their culture, oppose the abolition of the practice just as strongly.
The difference in the American situation is one of degree, not one of kind. Those women who strongly oppose women in ministry are simply living out the same anthropological and sociological dynamic as those women in Africa who oppose the abolition of female circumcision.
Female circumcision keeps women in their proper place in the order of things. It keeps them subject to their husbands and less prone to go looking to have an affair. You know how women are--all women are always looking to have sex and are too weak willed to resist.
The first step toward freedom is to recognize why you think the way you do.