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Women in the Ministry a Matter of governance?

September 28th, 2012

By Tom Petter
Old Testament Professor
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

To discuss the quesiton of complementarian versus egalitarian views of women in the ministry is one issue that fits squarely within the “let’s not get into it” category among well meaning Christians. There are very strong opinions on both sides held by equally committed believers who would otherwise wholeheartedly agree on substantial issues: inerrancy of Scripture? Check. Deity of Christ, Trinitarian theology, commitment to world missions and evangelism? Check. Salvation through Christ alone, by grace, through faith alone? Yes, yes and yes. The list could go on. These are folks who stand shoulder to shoulder in their understanding of the Gospel.

Of course, differences come about when questions of church governance and ecclesiology are raised. Believer’s baptism vs infant baptism is obviously the main one, but episcopal, presbyterian and congregational forms of governance rank high as well. The same can be said regarding spiritual gifts. For some, miracles of the apostolic age do not occur today. Others tacitly believe God to perform miracles today, but it’s not really expected. Yet others seem to be always actively looking for signs. In the real world, I suspect many people find themselves somewhere in between. We would not presume to limit God in anything he wishes to accomplish today, including supernatural interventions and the bestowing of spiritual gifts. However, neither would we want to dictate terms to Him and demand He shows up, say every Wednesday night at 9pm to perform some power healing in our midst. A gift ceases to be a gift once it becomes an entitlement.

So it seems there is some room to move about within the safe confines of orthodoxy. In principle we are happy to live under a big tent as Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Anglicans and independents, as long as the essentials of the faith are preserved. Of course within this eclectic bunch, there will always be some who are willing to die on the smaller hills, but overall I think there is a general consensus that we are fighting on the same side on the essentials, right?

Well, up to a point. These neat boundaries somehow get blurred when the topic of the role and function of women in the church gets a hearing (somehow the topic of women in the market place and politics takes a markedly greyer shade: no-one seems to question Margaret Thatcher’s gift of leadership). Here it seems the topic is treated along the following lines.

Some assure us the matter is a non-essential of the faith. We can’t place teachings on the role of women alongside, say, the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Thus, as the saying goes, people then should be free to disagree on the matter. Others of course, are quick to point that this secondary element of doctrine involves a substantially large population, who, regardless of where we fall on the issue, hardly fit within the non-essential category.

So is there a way forward? Can we come to a place of consensus in this very personal matter? My answer comes in three parts: No, no and maybe. The answer will be no if we go after the exegetical question. People have drawn some strong conclusions from Paul’s intended meaning out of the key texts in 2 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11, and others. I don’t think any amount of new lexical data will persuade them that we should view Paul in a different way. Positions, whether complementarian or egalitarian are pretty much established at this point (to outline the views wouldn’t fit in this post).

When we turn to the hermeneutical question (i.e., synthesizing biblical data into a coherent system), the answer, I’m afraid , will also be no. People approach the text with different systems and these usually compete with each other. For example, monocovenantal theologians focus on the unity between the covenants. For them the law-gospel contrast as envisioned by Martin Luther simply doesn’t exist. On the other hand, covenantal theologians and dispensational theologians would uphold a different covenantal relationship exists between the OT and the NT. There is in fact a law-gospel difference. Yet all these schools are equally convinced their system is the best to understand the overall biblical data. Thus, systems will go on competing with each other, each arguing their exegesis is the proper one and providing the most consistent way to read the biblical data, etc.

The same seems to be true with the issue of women in the ministry from a hermeneutical standpoint. For example scholars will interpret the ministry of Deborah as prophetess and judge very differently, depending on whether they restrict women from performing certain ministerial roles today. In other words, even with the best exegetical intentions, there are certain hermeneutical instincts we all carry to individual texts that will cause us to read certain passages with different outcomes. So what we know from past debates in church history still holds true: while we may all share the same view of the Scripture as the inerrant Word of God, our interpretations of the Word of God are unfortunately not all equally infallible! Nevertheless, as one committed to the task of exegesis, I refuse to capitulate and will continue to search the Scriptures for their intended meaning. But it is also wise to pause and realize we all suffer from the occasional bout of exegetical and theological myopia.

So is there a way out? This is where the answer “maybe” comes in. In practical terms, it seems that it is usually on the basis of differing ecclesiologies that contrasting views on women’s role emanate (and of men’s role in the church, the order of service, the kind of music we play, who officiates, who gets to be a deacon, elder, etc.). Thus, functionally, these decisions tend to fall under the rubric of governance. Of course we strive to draw our ecclesiology from careful exegesis, theological and hermeneutical reflection and historical traditions. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, these categories of ministerial roles remain subservient to the larger theological essentials such as the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, holy living, etc.

While arguing from silence is not a strong way to make a case, I find it interesting that in Paul’s clearest articulation of the Gospel in Romans and Galatians, if anything, he is making the case for inclusivity rather than exclusivity in terms of ministries, roles and functions. Likewise, in the practice of the early Church, there is considerable freedom expressed in the ministry of say, Priscilla who, along with her husband Aquila, ministers at certain important junctures in the narrative history of Acts (e.g., 18:26).

The question then becomes, could we not apply the same broad-mindedness we seem to have concerning ecclesial issues such as baptism to the question of the ministry of women? If we recognize plurality in governance, perhaps we should also entertain a similar inclusivity by accepting one another’s contrasting views of the place and function of women in the ministry.

Some will be quick to point out that for them the ordination of women goes to the heart of our identity as man and woman created in God’s image (based on the order of creation in Genesis). So governance and theology can’t be separated. And they would add, there are fundamental differences, for example between Baptists and Presbyterians, which would be considered essentials. Evidently, such objections mark the end of the experiment for them. For some of us, however, we may be willing to set aside these differences for the sake of the proclamation and the defense of the Gospel, emphasizing our diversity of opinions on the matter yet without violating our own consciences along the way.

In practical terms, then, the matter becomes one of submission (e.g. Phil 2). If we are led to serve in a certain body of believers, for instance, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), then we will need to be prepared to submit to a Presbyterian form of governance, along with specific views concerning deacons (men only), ordained ministry and elders. Likewise if we join an organization such as YWAM, which holds the role and ministry of women in high regard, we will need to submit to that body. And if we find ourselves wishing to impose restrictions as to what women can or cannot do, going against the governance protocol of a particular body, we should probably seek to fulfill our ministry in other pastures. In the heat of the debates, we sometimes forget how God’s green pastures are vast and expansive. There is plenty of room for all of us to teach and preach the Gospel to a dying generation.

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