Monday, October 12, 2015

Your daughters will preach... (Acts 2:17)

It makes me sad to hear good, sincere Christians believe that it is not God's will for a woman to teach a man or to hear a picture of the home as a place where the wife is supposed to sit humbly at the feet of the wise husband as he shares his great insights. It's sad to me because:
  • I believe it is a distortion of the Bible to begin with.
  • I believe it both hurts the church within and hinders its witness without.
1. To start with Scripture, there is no Old Testament prohibition of women leading men. Genesis 3 speaks of wives submitting to husbands as a consequence of the Fall, but Christ undid the consequences of the Fall. Wouldn't a sign of redemption be the undoing of this consequence? That's certainly the way the founders of the holiness movement understood our situation.

But even this one OT verse was about the husband-wife relationship. It was not about female leadership in general, nor was it absolute. Deborah leads Israel into battle and is the supreme political leader of the day. Huldah is the supreme spiritual voice in the days of Josiah, and even the high priest goes to her for a final word from God.

So there is no absolute rule about female leadership in the OT. There is only the norm, which was the cultural norm for the whole world of that day.

2. In the New Testament, there is only one verse that, at first glance, might be thought to prohibit female leadership of men. More on it in a moment.

As in OT days, the cultural norm for the whole world at that time was male leadership. Aristotle wrote in his Politics that the wife should submit to her husband, unless there were some departure from nature. Similarly the slave should submit to the master and the child to the parent. There is nothing uniquely Christian in this aspect of the household codes of Colossians and elsewhere.

But there is something radical about the Day of Pentecost. Acts 2:17 predicts that both sons and daughters will prophesy in the age of the Holy Spirit. That's certainly how the founders of the holiness movement understood Acts.

We are not surprised to hear of women like Lydia and Priscilla as leaders in Acts. Nowhere are we told that they just led or taught other women. On the contrary, Priscilla is mentioned first when Acts tells us about the instruction of Apollos in the way of Christ (18:26). We are not surprised to hear of Phoebe as a deacon in Romans 16:1 and that Paul commends her for service. We are not surprised to hear of Euodia and Syntyche as workers in the church at Philippi, nor are we told that they just worked with women. Although the ESV has predictably obscured the translation, Romans 16:7 tells us of a husband and wife who were "well known among the apostles."

3. It makes great sense that the age of the Spirit would expand the role of women in the realm of wisdom and the prophetic. The Spirit comes equally on all, and if wisdom and insight comes from the Spirit, then we would expect women to prophesy as much as men.

It is at this point where the Pharisaic principle rears its ugly head. Forget the weightier message and outworking of the kingdom principle. Focus on the small detail of an individual verse. Forget justice and mercy in the name of sacrifice. Obscure the broad truth with the clobber verse.

What verses might we bring against the trajectory of the Spirit? You might bring up the household codes. But those are about husband-wife relationships, not about men and women in general. You'll have to do better than that. If a husband is submitted to the Lord and the Lord calls his wife to minister, then he had better submit to the Lord and yield to her ministry.

What of 1 Corinthians 14:34? Since women pray and prophesy in worship in 1 Corinthians 11 and since chapter 14 is about disruption of worship, surely we can only take that verse about silence in relation to disruptive speech, not spiritual speech. In fact, isn't 1 Corinthians 11 all about wives not dishonoring their husbands in public worship when they pray or prophesy publicly?

4. That leaves us with only one verse that might potentially prohibit women from teaching men, 1 Timothy 2:12. We should never base our theology on one verse, especially in a passage as obscure as this one. What does it mean to say that women have come to be in transgression because of the sin of Eve but will be saved through childbearing? I thought women were saved through the blood of Jesus Christ.

We often don't realize how our situations can get our perspective out of focus. Like a facial feature we can't stop staring at, an unusual verse captures our attention and our perspective gets out of whack. I got that way in college over an obscure verse in 1 Peter 3 about jewelry. Could a girl wear earrings and not be full of pride? It was an absurd notion but I couldn't see it, I was so focused on that verse.

In the same way, the 1 Timothy 2 passage is quite bizarre when you put it up against the way in which Acts and Paul's earlier writings open up the door for women to work for the gospel in ways astounding for the time. Yet for some reason, some elements in the church can't see those other passages, they are so focused on this one verse.

In the end, I'm convinced that this passage in 1 Timothy is also about wives and husbands, not about men and women in general. Even the illustration makes it clear--Adam and Eve, a husband wife pair. The words gyne and aner most naturally mean wife and husband when they are used in tandem.

Again, it is the Pharisaic principle to use an individual verse to trump a broad principle, and the broad principle is that the Spirit has leveled the playing field with regard to our access to God's wisdom. This is the problem with fundamentalism. It does not use the broad principles of Scripture to appropriate the obscure passage but uses the obscure passage to qualify the weightier principle. Certainly this is the way our abolitionist founders saw it.

But it is on the level of the individual verse and passage that the Bible is most likely to be contextual and situational. We must look at the whole counsel of God when applying any individual passage, not move directly from individual verses to today. This sort of fundamentalism was not part of our earliest roots. We were infected with it in the twentieth century, and it's about time that we expelled it from our midst again.

5. This position of course doesn't make sense from the standpoint of common sense either. It makes Christianity look stupid to those outside the church and makes the church itself a slave to the "weak and beggardly elements" of the world within. There are plenty of women who are wiser than plenty of men. All the stereotypical arguments don't make sense with even a little scrutiny.

I've often used the illustration of a plane in crisis, needing a pilot. You don't ask who has male genitals. You ask who best knows how to fly a plane.

"There has to be someone to make the final decision." If so, why would it always be the man? Because he has testicles? Now that makes sense, given how well known they are as a source of great wisdom and insight, spirituality and self-discipline.

"That's just the way God planned it. It's about creation." Actually, there are a lot of women who, according to nature, are more suited to lead than their husbands. If we're talking nature, let's see what nature did in each specific case. Nature simply hasn't always made the man the natural born leader.

6. It grieves my heart to hear well meaning Christians take this position. How many wives of preachers in the past would have made more gifted leaders than their husbands? Two women come to mind who could have been twice the pastors and leaders that their husbands were but somehow didn't feel good about taking the lead because of church culture. Others come to mind who didn't answer a call to ministry until later in life because they didn't get peace about it until late in the game.

That day is past. If you are a woman and God is calling you, step forward with courage to answer God's call. If you have doubts, keep them to yourself. lest you accidentally find yourself to be fighting God. Take this middle position for starters--perhaps there are some women that God calls to ministry and leadership in our day.

That way, we come to be talking about individual instances, not about exceptionless prohibitions, which would be hard to support biblically.


Anonymous said...

I am 72. Back in the day, women certainly were never considered leaders in most anything. A woman could be a teacher but never a principal or administrator. A woman could be nurse but never a doctor or medical specialist. A woman might work on a committee for neighborhood recycling, but never run for mayor or state office or (horrors!) the presidency! That is, assuming she was even allowed to go to college in the first place! So it's not just the pastorate. It's a huge cultural thing, at least it was in my own conservative background. Knowing what I know now, I am absolutely certain I would have been an excellent physician or attorney 'cause I have the IQ for it and I thrive on details (for one example LOL). Yes, let's hope that day is past. If God is calling you to be a (fill in the blank), then DO it. It's very simple. I did not listen to what God was telling me because of the conflicts in my own mind. I would beg younger women to listen carefully, and blessings to you.

Natalie Gidney said...

Thank you for this post. I am a women called into ministry and have found it difficult because of attitudes and negative feedback. Through my time studying, I have been confirmed by God and others of my call, yet some who I thought would be supportive to be discouraging. In our denomination -Wesleyan - women are supposed to be supported yet this is not always so. I want to thank you for this Biblical and insightful post encouraging truth and God's Word to reign.