Recently, Derek Gilbert brought a controversy to his PID Radio forum on Facebook that has been raised several times: What is the proper role of women in the Ekklesia? He linked to an article by Tony Jones called, “It’s Time For a Schism Regarding Women in the Church,” in which Jones makes the following assertion:
The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.
If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.
If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.
If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.
If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.
That is, we who believe in the full equality of women need to break fellowship with those who do not.
Well, given that I’ve had my own “schism” with churches that teach that Jews need to assimilate into the predominant Christian culture, I can understand feeling the need to take drastic steps to call attention to an issue one feels strongly about. However, the next two sentences by Jones are patently ridiculous: “The time for dialogue and debate has passed. The Spirit has spoken, and we have listened. It’s time to move forward with full force.”
Really? Who is the prophet whose calling we all recognize that the Spirit has spoken through? It seems to me that the only universally accepted prophets are in the Bible, and there is still a legitimate debate on how we should interpret and apply them in this regard. Jones claims, “The full equality of women and men, however, is an issue that has long since been settled.” In secularized Western culture, perhaps–but that’s the same culture that believes that refusing any and all sexual restraint (under the aphorisms of “Be true to yourself” and “Follow your heart”) is more noble than dedicating one’s whole spirit, mind, body, and sexuality to the Creator who actually knows your heart. Moreover, the vast majority of cultures around the world do not take the equality of men and women to be a given, so the only way one can call this a settled issue is by either appeal to a myopia of Western libertarian morality or by appeal to a wide-ranging agreement among conservative Christians (i.e., those who take the Bible seriously) that women have the same rights and responsibilities in ministry as men according to the Bible. Since Jones does not (and can not, because it doesn’t exist) appeal to the latter, I have to assume that he’s appealing to the former. That’s rather chauvinistic in its own way.
With that being said, I actually mostly agree with Jones’ premise. I believe that the Bible does allow for women to have the full range of ministerial roles available up to and including the roles of prophet and apostle (obviously not meaning one of the Twelve). However, I also believe it to be the clear teaching of Scripture that the husband is the head of the household, and therefore a woman may not exercise a ministerial, teaching, or prophetic role in such a way as to dominate, disobey, or even shame her husband. God has instituted the family in such a way so as to give us poor men a fighting chance.
I have no idea if I mean that last sentence in a tongue-in-cheek way or not. Anyway, before I get in too much trouble here . . .
In many cases, we acknowledge that there are commandments in the Bible which seem horribly oppressive to us, but when understood in light of the times they were written in, make perfect sense and demonstrate incredible compassion. For example, there are large sections of the Torah devoted to slavery. Because of the racist overtones that word has taken on in the United States, we instinctively recoil at the thought of owning another human being. And yet, in the ancient world, slavery was simply another rung on a complex social ladder–the bottom rung for the menial slave in the field or mine, but many slaves were important members in their masters’ households, with wealth and prestige that set them above poor if independent farmers. For example, Eliezer was Abraham’s slave, yet he stood to inherit all of his master’s wealth (Gen. 15:2). Since slavery was simply a universal societal norm, and in many cases offered a better alternative to starving to death, the Bible did not forbid it outright, but rather regulated it while transforming the manner in which one man looks at another. There is a reason that the Abolitionist movement in the United States was comprised largely of sincere Christians.
In the same way, the Bible was written in a rather sexist time and culture, but no more endorses such sexism than it does the concept of slavery. Rather, in numerous ways–both subtle and overt–it lifts up women and shows them to have enormous value . . . not as property, but as people. For example, in most cultures, the father of a bride must pay a dowry. In the Jewish culture, inspired by the Biblical stories of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, and so forth, the prospective husband must pay a bride-price to his wife’s family. He is not “buying” her in the sense of buying a slave, but must demonstrate the extent to which he values her before her father will consent to the marriage. In the event that he should later divorce his wife, he must give her a written document called a get which serves to protect her from a charge of adultery should she remarry (Deu. 24:1), and she retains the bride-price to live on. There were also protections for women in the event of false accusations of adultery, such as the Sotah (“Bitter Water”) ceremony of Numbers chapter 5.
Nevertheless, there are a handful of passages in the New Testament that have long been taken as excluding women from major ministerial roles, usually restricting them to ministering to other women. Those in the Christian and Messianic communities who understand them in this way–many of them women themselves!–are not hostile to women, nor deserving of scorn. They are simply taking the Bible seriously and drawing a line in a world that hates having any lines drawn at all!
However, let’s take a look at those passages and see if they really are as strenuously against women in ministry as they seem at first glance.