My Journey to Affirming the Ordination of Women (Part V)

In my continuing series on women’s ordination and my change of perspective, I have promised a description of the best arguments for both sides, and why I ultimately changed my position.

First of all, there is the question of the burden of proof. In general, I am of the conservative mindset that there is “nothing new under the sun,” that today’s “new teachings” are often rehashing discarded heresies. So, it seems that the burden of proof should be on the egalitarian to prove that women should be permitted to be elders, given that the historic position of all branches of the church has been to forbid women elders until only recently (perhaps–I will address this later).

However, egalitarians point out that a significant burden of proof rests upon those who would forbid half of the church from teaching or holding the office of elder, simply on the basis of gender. All Christians are called equally to evangelize, to instruct others (including their own children) in God’s ways, and to pursue Christlikeness. It is legitimate to hold that certain Christians, based on previous sins, may be excluded from church office though they are forgiven and restored to right relationship with God–for example, a man who has committed adultery and repented (based on 1 Tim 3:2, 7). Such a man, I believe, should evangelize and speak freely and joyfully about the forgiveness he has received in Christ (cf. Ps 51:13-15), but should not hold the office of elder. (I’m not sure everyone would agree with me on that point, but probably many complementarians would.) To put a woman in the same category as a repentant adulterer simply because she is a woman seems to draw an unnecessary parallel between womanhood and serious sin.

No one wants to say, “Thus saieth the Lord,” where the Lord has not spoken. But no one wants to ignore the law of the Lord, either.

So, both sides have a burden of proof. When we approach the Scriptures, there are two types of evidence typically used to forbid women from teaching or holding the office of elder: 1) passages that seem to explicitly affirm male headship (in the home or in the church, or both); and 2) the general pattern of male leadership among the prophets and apostles.

Egalitarians argue that the passages affirming male headship are concessions to a patriarchal culture and to the peculiar scrutiny faced by Christians in a hostile environment. We should therefore focus on the differences between the cultural norms and what is commanded in Scripture to establish “interpretive trajectory.” For example, it is not surprising in the context of ancient Roman culture to find in Eph 5:22-24 the command that wives should “submit themselves” to their husbands (concession to the culture). What is surprising is that all Christians are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21) and that husbands should love their wives with the same sacrificial love with which Christ loves the church (5:25-33)–the transforming application of the gospel against the prevailing culture.

Another example would be 1 Pet 3:1-6, in which wives are commanded to submit even to unbelieving husbands for the sake of gospel witness. In the previous passage (2:13-25), the apostle instructs his audience to submit to (and even honor) unjust temporal rulers, in order to be like Christ (2:21-22), and in order to avoid any false charges that would hinder the spread of the gospel (2:15-16). Few interpreters would say that commands to submit to governing authorities (here and in Romans 13) would prevent Christians trying to use political power to press for more just laws and rulers. Why then must we say that the command concerning female submission applies in all times and places?

I will not further rehash the arguments that others have made, but the other relevant passages include: 1 Cor 7:4 (mutual authority of wife and husband over the other’s body/sexuality); 1 Tim 2:9-15; 1 Tim 3; Tit 1:5-9; Tit 2:5; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:33b-35. The most significant passages on which the teaching of male headship is based are 1 Tim 2-3, and 1 Cor 11 and 14, which I will address in my next post.

I affirm once again that both complementarians and egalitarians have support for their positions in Scripture. Thinking back on my own experience, I found that I accepted a face-value reading of the “male headship” passages rather than a nuanced, contextually-sensitive reading, simply because of my previous assumptions. Once I discovered that “the other side” had coherent arguments, I was forced to reässess those readings. I hope that Christians of good will on both sides of this debate can acknowledge the legitimacy of the other position.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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