5 May 2013
If you’re in the mood to be a rabble rouser among church folk, there are few things sure to stir the pot more than the verses in the Bible dealing with the role of women in the church (submission, women in a teaching/preaching ministry). You could also try bringing up abortion, gay marriage and the middle east crisis if you are really in the mood for controversy. Today I am talking about the role of women in the church. While I am not not trying to be a rabble rouser (I assure you that is not my intent), I do happen to have an opinion about this very important issue.
I recently was forwarded a YouTube video of a short audio clip of John Macarthur, an American pastor, vehemently disagreeing with the question of women in ministry. He is of the opinion that a women must NEVER be allowed to assume a teaching/preaching role within the church. This video is nothing new. This position is widely held, and if you grew up in the church (particularly an evangelical Western church) then you may be quite used to hearing scripture hurled as a weapon by people who wish to serve their own purposes. In this instance his cringe-worthy approach really rubbed me the wrong way. The link for the video is below and what follows is my email response to the clip I was sent. I have edited a little for the purpose of the blog, but it is essentially the same thing as my original email.
Where to start. First of all, please understand that I am not an angry, armpit hair growing, anti make-up wearing, man-hater. I am a feminist in the purest form, meaning that I believe men and women are equal, and should have equal opportunities, and should not be discriminated against strictly on the basis of gender. Does this mean that I believe that businesses should have a quota of women they must hire? No, because then you are hiring someone simply because they are a women and not because they are right for the job, and that is not true equality, it’s a plastic and hollow substitute. In fact, when you hire someone just because of their sex, and not because they are qualified for the job, it is actually a subtle form of sexism. Also, I do believe women have different roles than men in different times of life, but I do not believe those differing roles would exclude women from being in the ministry. OK…
I believe John Macarthur is reading the Bible through the wrong lens. He is quoting scriptures from 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that were interwoven into a specific time period and wishing to transpose them to the here and now without consideration of the historical and cultural context from which they come. Secondly, Paul was speaking to a specific situation in a specific church, with a specific purpose and end in mind. I can’t get into full detail of the historical context right now, but many respectable theologians believe that Paul was referring to a specific group of young and widowed women within the congregation who were being led astray by false teachers and spreading gossip by speaking about it in church and visiting from house to house. These women were also adorning themselves in such a way that would have made them indistinguishable from a prostitute. Paul urges them to revert to the more conservative societal norms of that day so that their behaviour would not be a bad witness of the congregation and of Christ.
All scriptures are useful to us, but it is important to remember that even though these letters were written FOR us as the body of Christ, they were not written TO us, personally. Paul (who is thought to be the author of the pastoral epistles) is speaking to a specific congregation. I think many times we forget this fact when we read scripture. This is not to say that the letters are not inspired, or useful for teaching, but they must be seen in their historical/cultural contexts. We need to study and be vigilant to make sure our interpretation is correct and God-honouring. Many of Paul’s letters are addressing very specific problems within the early church. Yes, the church today often deals with the very same issues (greed, false doctrine, hypocrisy, power struggles), but it is important to remember the time from whence these epistles were written (did I really just say “whence”?) I feel so British.
In this video John Macarthur quotes, “…women are saved from second class citizenship by having children” and then tries to relate it to what he is saying about women not being permitted to teach. First of all, that’s pretty ballsy! Talk about an utterly cringe-worthy thing to say. I assume that he is saying this to support his notion that women are to be silent in church and assume the more traditional roles of homemaker and wife (which, by the way, are perfectly wonderful things…I have personal experience in this area!), but I have to ask: do you think this is something that would translate into our postmodern times seamlessly? Does this sound like something Jesus would support? If Jesus were here today, giving a modern day Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5) I cannot fathom him telling women they are second-class citizens unless they are redeemed through child-bearing.
What of the women who cannot have children? What of the unmarried woman? And also, what of the woman who chooses not to have children? That is a valid choice for some women. When you make statements such as John Macarthur did, without seeking to understand the scripture in its entirety, bad things can happen. The bible, though the greatest book of all time, has been misused and abused perhaps more than any other book in history. By the way—when I say we need to seek to understand the scripture in it’s entirety, I am talking about a “big picture” view. Seeing things in light of Christ and his teachings and actions while on earth. Jesus changes everything.
When interpreting scripture you must do it through the “Jesus” lens. I can’t stress this enough. Especially when reading the Old Testament. Everything must be passed through the filter of Christ. We can see clearly from scripture that Jesus was honouring and uplifting of women. And most certainly, there were women in the early church who were prominent leaders. There were women deacons (Phoebe) and apostles (Junia) in the early church (Romans 16: 1-16). In fact, I encourage you to read the whole of Romans 16 and see for yourself all the women that Paul names as being “hard workers” in Christ. These women didn’t only work in the nursery or serve the luncheon, they were true world changers and apostles. That’s a fact.
In John 20, when Jesus is resurrected, he appears to Mary Magdalene first, and entrusts her with the monumental task of bringing this unbelievable news to all the disciples. Does this sound like something Jesus would do if women were to be universally silent in the church and not permitted to teach? The earliest disciples of the church were great champions of women. In our modern culture it may not seem like they were so progressive, but when the culture around them told women that they were basically worthless, the early church gave women a voice and encouraged women to be witnesses. In the original Greek, the word witness or “martureo” means one who bears testimony, gives a good report or utters good news. In other words, women were encouraged to speak up for Christ. That was liberating for the women of that day who could scarcely speak in public. We are talking about ancient times. That was a new freedom!
The GOSPEL of Jesus Christ was challenging all sorts of cultural notions, not just the status of women. Yes, Jesus was an advocate of women, but he was also an advocate of many other things that were completely unheard of in his time. When his followers wished him to be a militaristic ruler and to overtake the Romans he preached a gospel of peace. That was radical! Jesus challenged the people to love their enemies. This kind of stuff was pretty controversial. Again and again, Jesus reached out to prostitutes and spent time with drunks and sinners. Jesus showed them true friendship, and seemed to enjoy their company much more than that of the Pharisees (the religious “right” of his day).
It seems to me that some Christians are actually more in love with church tradition than the Bible, and impose a patriarchy that was never intended.
I agree that there are certainly different roles that men and women have to play, but, if a woman is a gifted speaker and leader, then by all means, I cannot find sufficient evidence in scripture that would make me think Jesus would be against a women being a pastor/teacher. I think women have a great deal to offer the church, and it is only seen as unusual because there are still so few women pastors out there. And to be quite honest, if there were more women entrusted to leadership roles within the church, perhaps the church might be in a better state today (maybe?) It seems absurd that some think HALF of the worldwide church should be excluded from pastoral ministry.
Don’t be too quick judge and try and peg me a certain way. Yes, I wear Birkenstocks but I also wear deodorant! I’m not what you would think of as a flag-waving feminist. Does all that I’ve said mean I wish that women would dominate over men? Absolutely not. Does this mean that I wish to emasculate men or have there be fewer men who are pastors or in church leadership? Absolutely not. It simply means that if a woman feels called to pastoral ministry, she should be allowed to fulfill her God given abilities. Is a man so proud that he feels he cannot learn anything of a spiritual nature from a woman? Then that man has other issues to deal with.
By the way, the denomination that J and I belong to, Brethren in Christ (The Meeting House is apart of BIC) fully supports the ordination of women. I have attached a video and article you may wish to peruse if you are open enough. NT. Wright (click on this video) is a well-known, and highly respected theologian. Please do watch, highly worth it. And have an open mind!
I didn’t include this article in my original email but it also makes a good point.
“Last but not least, churches can hire women. About half of the students in seminary nowadays are women, which makes a powerful statement about women’s desire to bring their whole heart, mind and strength to Christ’s service in the Church.”