Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christians, Women, and Leadership

I think I make a post like this one at least once a year.  Here's a summary of my argument for total egalitarianism.

1. If we were starting from scratch, what would we think given only a few starting points like
  • God does not show favoritism.
  • God is love.
  • God wants the world to be reconciled to him.  
Let's also throw in some obvious truths about men and women from experience and reason as well:
  • Gender is not a predictor of spirituality, insight, or leadership capacity.
  • Some women are more spiritual, have more insight, and have greater leadership gifts than some men.  In other words, general trends in terms of gender are irrelevant when it comes to individual persons and situations.  Even if you could show certain trends relating to gender in terms of spirituality, insight, and leadership capacity, such a finding is irrelevant to the question of whether an individual woman or man is more spiritual, has more insight, or is more gifted as a leader either in general or in terms of a specific.
  • In cultures where "the gig is up" on the idea that men are always smarter than women, that women can never lead as well as men, to take a position that assigns leadership roles purely on the basis of gender likely creates an obstacle to the gospel.  If we take this position, we had better have a good reason. 
So the stakes are high before I even come to the gospel.  Male genitalia are not particularly known either for their spirituality, insight, or leadership capacity.  Quite the contrary.  And since "God is no respecter of persons," a person who starts without any bias would come to the Bible expecting it to affirm a fully egalitarian position.

2. Everyone finds some things strange in the Bible.  Christians have always found some verses in the Bible that are "unclear."  So you're telling me Jacob put striped branches in front of sheep and goats when they were mating so that they would have striped and speckled offspring?  Whaaaat?  So you're telling me a woman should veil her head when she is praying or prophesying because of the angels?  Whaaaaat?

If a person really understands #1 above, passages like 1 Timothy 2:12-15 should have the same effect.  So you're telling me that women have come to be in transgression because of the sin of Eve but they will be saved through childbearing?  Whaaat?  I thought we were saved through the blood of Jesus Christ!

When there are examples of women ministering in Acts and Paul (you know the drill--Priscilla, Phoebe, Junias...) and Paul lays down the principle that men and women are equally sons of God, when Acts 2:17 puts the prophesying of women as a sign of the age of the Spirit, verses are at hand for us to find "clear" on the principles.  We know the original context impacts how we apply some verses.  When #1 is so overwhelming, what perversity would lead us to see 1 Timothy 2:12 as the clear verse, when the principle of the kingdom is at hand?

3. We know where it's headed.  In the kingdom, there will not be marriage.  Women will not be "given" to men (Mark 12).  In other words, there will be no differentiation of gender authority in the kingdom.  If we can move things closer to the kingdom now, especially when it is makes overwhelming sense, why wouldn't we?

4. No verse prohibits a woman from leadership over men in general.  I'm arguing for complete egalitarianism, but I want to start by separating out the argument.  The household codes of Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter have to do with, well, the household.  They are about the relationship between wives and husbands.  I believe the most likely interpretation in fact of all the notorious women passages in the New Testament fall into this category.

a. The only OT passage that explicitly subordinates wives to husbands is Genesis 3.  This is a consequence of Eve's sin.  Since Christ atoned for all sin, this is not a good argument for anything.  You could argue that it is built into the creation but, as in #1, this is simply not the case.  Naturally speaking, many individual women are regularly more intelligent, more spiritual, and have greater capacity to lead than many individual men.  "Let's stick with the Fall when we can transition to the kingdom."  That makes no sense at all.

b. I'll assume for the sake of argument that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were originally in 1 Corinthians (there is an issue).  "Let them ask their own husbands at home."  Mention of the Law and subordination.  OK, we're talking about wives here.

But what kind of talking are we talking about here?  In 1 Corinthians 11, women prophesy in church.  They are to veil their heads to show they are under their husband heads.  So apparently, whatever silence 1 Corinthians 14 is talking about is not spiritual speech but disruptive speech.  They are asking questions, questions they should ask their own husbands... rather than someone else's?

Whew.  I'm glad I have an answer for that verse, because #1 is really making me sweat.  I mean, I don't think God is stupid, but it's really hard to see any intelligence in the "men can only fly the plane because they have a penis" argument.

What's even more important about 1 Corinthians 11 is that wives are both speaking for God to a congregation while also being in proper relationship to their husband-head.  This implies that subordination of a wife to a husband does not preclude women in spiritual leadership.

c. When we then see that 1 Timothy 2 is likely also talking about the husband-wife relationship, we reach our first egalitarian goal.  We see that the Bible does not prohibit a woman from taking leadership--spiritual or otherwise--over men in general.  We of course see women even in supreme leadership in the Bible.  Huldah is the supreme spiritual authority in 2 Kings 22.  Deborah is the supreme "political" leader in Judges 4-5.

1 Timothy uses words for man and woman in 2:12-15 that normally mean husband and wife when they are used in close proximity.  Adam and Eve were husband and wife, and they are the supporting argument, both in terms of birth order and who was deceived.  Wives are the ones who have babies.  The relationship that 1 Timothy uses to support its instruction is thus framed in terms of a husband wife relationship.

I can't think of any verse that prohibits women from leading men in general elsewhere--the subordinate issue is always a husband-wife issue.  I'm frankly puzzled that so many interpreters of this verse can't see it.  It's pretty obvious if you're thinking like people thought in the first century.

Whew.  I'm glad I have an answer for that verse, because #1 is really making me sweat.  I mean, I don't think God is stupid, but pretty much anyone on the street is going to think he is if he sees genitals as the secret to competent leadership.

5. The real issue is thus the husband-wife relationship.  With the previous point, there is no more argument against allowing those women whom God calls into leadership to take any role to which God calls them.  "What if their husband-head disagrees?"  Then he'd better repent because he has to obey God first.  His soul is in danger.  We have to be wise in the working out of principles.  Sometimes the gospel is hindered when we are unbending--even when we are right!

In fact, Jesus says that God allowed divorce to be "on the books" in the OT because Israel was not ready.  I guess God is pragmatic even in Scripture sometimes.  I suppose that makes sense if he actually wanted to help the people he first sent Scripture to--ancient Israel, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Romans.  I know from cultural anthropology that they didn't think like me and that actions had different meanings in different places.  I guess, whether I like it or not, I can't just blindly apply the words of Scripture directly to me without considering such things, because it explicitly tells me it was written to them... and I'm not them.

My argument for full egalitarianism, including the home, involves many of the same points I made above:
  • the kingdom trajectory--There will be no husbands and wives in the kingdom.
  • spiritual common sense--In other words, #1 applies here just as much as in the previous section
  • the cultural argument--There was nothing distinctly Christian in the first century about wives being subordinate to their husbands.  In fact, it won't be so in the kingdom.  This was the assumption of the ancient context of the Bible.  It is when the Bible empowers women and equalizes men to them that it was being unique.
  • the blinders argument--Those who argue against egalitarianism are blind to their own cultural situation.  
a) Sincere opponents would be appalled if they heard the arguments against egalitarianism made 100 years ago and are thus blind to the fact that their position has already shifted considerably, in keeping with the common sense of #1.  In other words, they have already violated their own "no accommodation" rule historically.  They are now more sophisticated than before, but this is just feet dragging on the inevitable egalitarian conclusion.
b) The husband-wife subordination issue was massively impacted by the post WW2 era when women were empowered.  So called "secular feminism" has pushed traditions like mine away from its historical positions and practices because of the association of egalitarianism with social groups its people tend to oppose.  In short, complementarians are riding cultural waves every bit as much as egalitarians--they are simply riding a different wave.
c) They are unaware of the way in which we can get verses out of focus.  I used to do this with jewelry verses.  "No woman could possibly wear an earring without it being a matter of ungodly pride."  "Any man wearing a wedding ring must really be proud of that gold jewelry."  The truth is, I was so focused on an individual tree (verse) that I couldn't see the forest.  I now realize how absurd my thoughts were.  Complementarians are so fixated on some rather "Whaaat?" verses that they can't see the bigger principles of Christianity and how they would most naturally play out.
  • the stumbling block argument--It's a hindrance to the gospel.
I'm not worried.  Our grandchildren will wonder why this was an issue.  Were we stupid?  We feel the same way about those fundamentalist Christians who argued for slavery as an institution 100 years ago.  What were they thinking?  How could they not see the obvious ideal?

Of course slavery continued for 1800 years after Christ.  There is no guarantee of inevitable movement toward the kingdom.  But let me speak prophetically.  Even the Roman Catholic Church will be ordaining women by the year 2050.


::athada:: said...

Not to mention the way God uses women to announce the Kingdom via Jesus, who made his entrance via a woman, humanized and validated women throughout his ministry, and made his first resurrected appearance to women.

yes, in 100 years, our grandkids will be shaking their heads.

"he hath scattered the proud (men) in the conceit of their heart.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble (women)"

Anonymous said...

So, if I've heard you correctly:

Those who argue against (my position) are blind

(my position) makes overwhelming sense

(my position) It's pretty obvious

Those who argue against (my position) are blind to their own cultural situation

(those who disagree with me are) just feet dragging on the inevitable (my) conclusion.

How could they not see the obvious (my conclusion)?

Do you think that your approach reflects God's love? I don't. Disingenuous arguments like yours can be, themselves, a hindrance to people accepting the gospel.

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks for your insights and common sense approach, Ken. I would add two points.

1. Almost all of the passages that are used by the other camp are found in the disputed letters. Surely misogynist bias explains (in part) why such letters were written and accepted by the church, and why they have not been rejected. Conservative Christians should be the first to expel heretical frauds from the scriptures.

2. Thecla's experience illustrates that it was dangerous for women to travel in the ancient world. This explains why we have no women messengers, envoys, or apostles in the NT (except those who would be accompanied by servants or husbands). So, the argument that "women should not lead because all the 12 apostles were men" does not work. This point seems to have been completely missed, as far as I can tell. I know of no woman in the ancient world who travelled independently of male members of her household, and I challenge anyone to find such a case.

FrGregACCA said...

The Roman Catholic (and mainstream Orthodox) Churches will indeed eventually ordain women; however, I think it will be more like 2150 rather than 2050.

Good piece!

I've posted this link before, but the following, which I wrote almost a year ago, I think nicely complements Ken's piece.

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, anon, that's pretty much what I'm saying... but I'm far from alone.

Sometimes when you are standing up for someone, you have to work against those that are hurting them.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Bottom line, if the husband allows his wife to lead, then he has really allowed egalitarianism into THIER relationship! He treats her with respect, as an equal and one that has her own life, not just a life lived for him! And isn't this how love acts, according to I Cor. 13?

I can't see how anyone that sees women as human beings, could see or understand things differently, but then, I used to also adhere to the "biblical model"!

The basis of any "ideal" is liberty and equality within that liberty...that means mutual respect and affirmation of another's desires/goals.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BESIDES, is it ANYONE else's business how the married couple "does" their relationship, as long as it is mutually satisfying????

JohnM said...

Well Ken, if you're going to say it SAY it. I appreciate that.

Way to much to respond to all of it in the time I have - and it will make no difference..but you know, it's me. :)

Not so sure conferring responsibility and/or authority is doing a favor...the prophets didn't always think so; But if God did it, it's right. Don't see that less than a totally egalitarin position contradicts God is love and wants the world reconciled to Himself - looks like begging the question.

TOTAL egalitarianism sounds, you know, pretty total. Are you totally sure?

Spiritual? I don't know, you'd have to define. More important -leadership capacity and insight of the kind required, well the certain trends (that you doubt of course) are significant. There are women taller than most men but in a most groups of any size (like a church)almost all the tallest individuals (I won't be one of them by the way) will be men. Who would you most likely pick for your basketball team if you had a choice and it mattered? Just an analogy. Objections based on a premise of always or never are bound to involve some strawmen by the way.

Like I said, way too much for the time I have now. Maybe more later.

Chris Jones said...

Wrong from the get-go.

If we were starting from scratch ...

Well, we're not starting from scratch, and we shouldn't start from scratch, and we couldn't start from scratch if we wanted to.

What you are doing by "starting from scratch" is giving yourself permission to decide what the "first principles" of the teaching of the Bible are. Then when you work from those principles (of your devising), the result (mirabile dictu) agrees with your opinion.

But we can't read the Bible "from scratch" because the Bible was not given to us "from scratch." It was given to us in the context of the Christian community -- the Church -- and her tradition (indeed, the Bible is itself part of that tradition), and it was given to us along with the Church's rule of faith. And it is that rule of faith, not your identification of Scripture's central ideas, that provides the principles by which Scripture is to be interpreted.

All you are doing is using the Bible as raw material to support your ideas, not the faith of the Church that has been handed down to us. St Irenaeus of Lyons, call your office.

Rick said...


"The Roman Catholic (and mainstream Orthodox) Churches will indeed eventually ordain women; however, I think it will be more like 2150 rather than 2050."

I am not saying you are wrong, but what do you base that on? Are you seeing some trends?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Biblical presupposes a Creator. The evolutionist isn't so sure one way or the other (altho some are!). And if one starts with a Creator then it is EASY to defend a social structure UNDER THE CREATOR which tends to lend itself easily to "leadership models" of a hierarchal nature (Roman Catholicism). This has implications about even how the Trinity is understood. Thus, the split between the East and West.

This is really the debate, about the nature of Christ and humanity...Is humanity perfectable and if so, on what is social order under an Absolute Divinity (who rules and reigns every aspect of one's life? or is it Liberty under a Free conscience? And what makes for a free conscience? is is a under=developed conscience, or a conscience freed from religious fear and intimidation? Is it Freedom of Speech or fear of Blasphemy? What is civil discourse when it comes to the political and religious concerns and convictions in our country????

JohnM said...

And if we know where we're headed, and want to move things closer to the kingdom already, wouldn't the logical conclusion of following that trajectory be to eschew marriage now, in this age? Celibacy, combined with "no differentiation of gender authority", has been tried before. But there are few, if any, Shakers left. Wonder why? ;)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Who said anything about "the kingdom"? That is a value, as well as an interpretive quadmire!

What anyone should be interested in is what makes for the best framing for society and humans in general, which isn't about religion or religous convictions, PER SE, but about understanding "the human"! And how far have we REALLY come in understanding the universals of "the human"?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And, even THEN, we have to evaluate how to implement what we deem to be the best, which has certan objectives in mind, of course!! (and we might disagree as to objectives/ends) to personal commitments.

JohnM said...

Hi Angie. No, I was talking to Ken again.

FrGregACCA said...


The Holy Spirit leading the Church into all truth?

Please see my blog piece to which I posted a link, above. The bottom line is, the Apostolic Tradition is inherently progressive, moving toward the Kingdom of God, and the abolition of patriarchy, a result of the fall (see Genesis 3) is part and parcel of that progress.

Jose said...

"There are women taller than most men but in a most groups of any size...almost all the tallest individuals...will be men. Who would you most likely pick for your basketball team if you had a choice...?"
The answer is easy-- you would pick the best basketball players, regardless of size or gender. Granted, most of them will be men but it would be a gross mistake to ban ALL women merely because of that fact. Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues played in the NBA even though they barely reached five feet.
Let the women serve the church according to the gifts granted to them by God, not according to our social preconceptions.

JohnM said...

Jose, if it turned out all "best players" the individuals best qualified for leadership in a particular setting were men what then? If men were 95% of the best qualified would only 5% women in similar postions be satfisfactory? If, based on leadership capacity, the ratio of men to women occupying leadership positions turned out to be 75/25 how about that? I doubt an exception to the rule would make gender egalitarians any happier. And of course you don't believe it would ever be the case. But then, some gender egalitarians are more rigid and close minded in their views than I am in mine.

By the way I don't think pragmatic considerations are the only ones that militate for male leadership, as the default postion at least. It's just that I don't buy the assumptions behind pragmatic arguments for "total egalitarianism" compelling either.

Jose said...

It should be abundantly clear that the egalitarianism discussed is not synonymous with simple numeric parity. Sure, I will gladly join you in affirming that rigid quotas are wrong. Now, will you join me in saying that it is also wrong for churches to impose an absolute ban on female clergy, one that refuses to consider meaningful factors such as the God-given talents of the individual, the personal calling of the minister, and the receptiveness of the faith community? An absolute prohibition is also a quota (100/0).

It's bizarre that there are more examples of women in church leadership in the first century church than there are in a number of 21st century denominations.

JohnM said...

Wrong for churches to impose an absolute ban on female clergy?

Well, we ought to be cautious about absolute anything, I'll agree. Thing is, once the doors open how do you enforce an exception as the exception it ought to be? And why is it really necessary to open that door? Plus there are as I said, other considerations, ones that possibly matter even more. Is it possible we would be even more wrong than I realize?

Of course, once again, you don't agree with my premise, I know.

Just tired of the game. You know -the "you don't mean/you don't think (fill in blank with impolitic notion) doooo you game? The answer of course is supposed to be a stammering 'Wha?- Noooo..I mean, I'm not's! no! I don't mean THAT.'

Yes I do. Would that I were a braver man.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks everyone for this engagement! Here are my thoughts:

John, the place where love comes in is the fact that multitudes of women who had the gifts to lead have been kept out of leadership. They have been oppressed by the church and society. This claim is not disputable from a standpoint of knowledge. All one needs to do is ask some women who've gone to seminary or tried to. Ask the woman who teaches Hebrew at Taylor now because a Baptist seminary in Texas didn't even want a woman teaching a biblical language.

Chris, it would be one thing if everyone agreed with what the Bible had to say on this issue. But that's all a muddle. It helps to step back and use a little basic logic. The claim that some women are more competent to lead than some men in many situations is, again, not disputable from a standpoint of knowledge. This means that any barrier is idea driven rather than reality driven.

FrGreg, the previous comment is why I think the gig is up on this issue such that even the RCC will soon ordain women. The logic is so obvious that the ideological game playing can't last in the modern Western world. It's only when the emperor can hide from the children that his pretense to clothedness can continue. The gig is up and, barring the kinds of crises that stop the playing out of such things, the conclusion is inevitable to those who are not able to go live in isolated compounds.