Women in Ministry: Three Views

by John Starke

Theological conclusions depend more on our biography than most of us admit. We’d like to think we reached our views through an unbiased approach to the biblical text, but self-reflection reveals many complications. The best writers and thinkers understand this influence and use history, community, and prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit for correction.

Thankfully, the three authors (John Dickson, Kathy Keller, and Michael Bird) in Zondervan’s recently released three-book series, Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry, all recognize and confess this dynamic in their own positions. You won’t have to fear while reading these books that emotions and grievances will trump biblical arguments.

John Dickson, senior research fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and Michael Bird, lecturer in theology and New Testament at Crossway College in Brisbane, Australia, have moved from a complementarian (unique, but different than men) view of women in ministry and preaching toward an egalitarian (same as men) view—though neither would call himself an “egalitarian.” Dickson doesn’t argue for women’s ordination but merely the ability to fulfill a preaching ministry in the local church. Bird argues for women’s ordination but hesitates to allow women to hold senior roles like bishop or senior pastor. Interestingly, Bird maintains a complementarian view of headship in the home. As he puts it, authority in the home is based on gender, whereas in the church it’s based on calling.

However, Kathy Keller, wife to Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, has moved from an egalitarian position to a complementarian one. Keller sought ordination in the PCUSA before questioning and then abandoning her egalitarian views. Interestingly, she is the only one of the three comfortable with being labeled a “complementarian” or “egalitarian”—though her views of what kinds of activity women are permitted to do in the church may make more restrictive complementarians nervous. As she states, whatever a non-ordained man can do in the church, a woman can also do.

It’s worth noting at the outset that each approach has been deeply affected by the author’s context: Keller, in a highly educated and secular environment; Dickson and Bird, in a seminary and academic one. I’ll address each contribution in turn.

The Gender Issue Is Primarily a Theological—Not Justice—Issue (Kathy Keller)

In Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry, Keller approaches the textual questions of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 not as a critical scholar, but as a theologically trained practitioner up-to-date on both cultural and scholarly debates. She focuses on the inadequacy of William Webb’s redemptive-movement proposal and lucidly argues for a classical complementarian understanding of these texts, answering objections those in her environment commonly face.

If you’re looking for a fresh approach to a complementarian understanding of Scripture, you won’t find it. However, the strength of her book lies in the section addressing the question, “If Paul does indeed prescribe a complementarian understanding of authority in the local church, why?” In other words, she’s responding to the voice that cries, “Gender issues are justice issues! And if the Bible does forbid female ordination and preaching, then isn’t the Bible unjust?”

Keller provides a winsome framework for approaching these objections. She begins by showing that, no, Scripture’s teaching concerning gender is not primarily a justice issue; it’s a theological one. “Justice, in the end, is whatever God decrees,” she writes. “So whether or not you are able to see justice in divinely created gender roles depends largely on how much trust you have in God’s character.”

Here we see Keller isn’t talking primarily to the seminary student at Gordon-Conwell, where she and her husband studied, but the grad student at Columbia University who volunteers on the weekends at Habitat for Humanity.

“If trust must be earned,” Keller observes, “hasn’t God unequivocally earned our trust with the bark on the raw wounds, the thorns pressed into the brow, your name on the cracked lips?” And if God can be trusted, then “gender roles, with all of God’s gifts to human beings, are to be rejoiced in and enjoyed, not endured and resented.”

In Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry, Michael Bird’s case for equality in ministry is not as equal as egalitarians would like. For one, Bird holds to male headship in the home. And although he believes the Bible allows for women’s ordination and preaching in the local church, he stops short of supporting women in senior roles of bishop or senior pastor.

His arguments concern the following:

Phoebe, Junia, and Households

If Romans was Paul’s magnum opus, so to speak, then why not entrust delivering and reading his letter to one of his male fellow-laborers? Why Phoebe instead? She must have been “a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind,” Bird concludes. Also, if there were questions about the “righteousness of God” or the identity of the “wretched man” halfway through his letter, “then who do you think would be the first person that [the recipients] would ask?” Bird wonders.

Also Junia, being “outstanding among the apostles” and another letter carrier for Paul, could possibly have fielded questions as well. So she raises the same speculative questions surrounding Phoebe. But these questions are just that: speculative. Did Phoebe and Junia “teach” Paul’s letters? Well, we could speculate. But, then again, if given the time we could speculate a whole host of alternatives.

Bird continues the speculation. He argues that, at least in Corinth, “church leadership and household leadership went and hand in hand,” since “Paul never mentions elders in his Corinthian letters.” Therefore, “the de facto church leaders were the recognized household heads.” And since at least one household in Corinth belonged to a woman, Chloe, we have our example of a woman in an elder role.

However, if you must repeatedly use phrases like, “I am admittedly inferring this” or “This is admittedly speculative,” it begins to detract from the rhetorical thrust of your argument.

Contextual Norms and Biblical Norms

Bird proceeds to look at the two major texts: 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.

He argues 1 Corinthians 14 likely refers to Paul’s concern about how wives relate to their husbands during public worship. Or perhaps, even, women in Corinth tended to interrupt or question authority.

If women speak up too much in a service, Bird argues, the church may be in danger of “being mistaken for one of the secret and orgiastic mystery cults that had reputations for feminine excesses.”

Again, with 1 Timothy 2—”I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”—Bird argues Paul had a situational concern with the Ephesian church, where dominating women propounded false doctrine and aggressively assumed the mantle of authority in the church. The prohibition against teaching, then, is not a biblical norm but a prohibition against the authoritative teaching of aggressive women in the Ephesian church.

Bird’s conclusion depends on syntactical decisions concerning the words “teaching” and “authority” in the Greek text. However, there’s a striking absence of any interaction with the flood of complementarian arguments against his conclusions. Most glaring, he makes no mention of Andreas Köstenberger and Thomas Schreiner’s Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Two essays in particular, Köstenberger on “A Complex Sentence: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12” and Henry Scott Baldwin’s “A Difficult Word.  In 1 Timothy 2:12,” challenge Bird’s syntactical arguments. Moreover, S. M. Baugh’s “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century” undermines Bird’s speculations about feminine mystery cults in first-century Ephesus.

But let’s assume for a moment Paul only had contextual concerns with the Corinthian and Ephesian churches and did not set biblical norms. If that’s the case, why doesn’t he mention men lured by this heresy? Were there none? Were only women lured by this heresy? If women were not the only ones lured, why prohibit only women? And if only some women were enticed, then why silence all women?

On Bird’s reading, how can we avoid judging Paul guilty of sexism or capitulating to merely cultural norms? Neither conclusion seems to be in step with the rest of the Pauline corpus, nor the gospel. (Note: see also chapter 6 of D. A. Carson’s Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14.)

Finally, on what basis does Bird see women as apostles but not senior pastors? And how do we explain the seeming inconsistency that authority in the home should be based on gender and authority in the church be based on calling?

that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere.

In Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, John Dickson says we should rethink whether Paul had our modern understanding of sermon-giving in mind when he forbade women to teach in 1 Timothy 2. He argues that modern evangelicals have inappropriately universalized the biblical word “teaching” to refer to “all kinds of Bible-based talks in the church.”

Dickson suggests that “teaching” has a more particular meaning in the NT, which Paul did indeed forbid women to do. However, he avers, our modern understanding of sermon is closer to the biblical word “exhort” or even “prophesy,” which Paul did not forbid women to do.

So what does “teaching” mean in the NT? Here’s Dickson’s definition:

Historical and exegetical considerations combined make clear that “teaching” for Paul means preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles. Teaching is not explaining a Bible text, nor is it applying God’s truth to congregational life; it is making sure that the apostolic words and rulings are well known and maintained.

Dickson is adamant throughout: “teaching” cannot mean “preaching” in the way we understand it today, nor can it be any particular kind of biblical exposition—whether explaining or applying. It merely means preserving and laying down apostolic tradition.

So what is the modern-day equivalent of this “teaching” office? Since the apostolic tradition has already been laid down, technically speaking, it doesn’t continue in the same form. For another example of something biblical that doesn’t exist in the modern church, Dickson gives the example of the “widows roll/roster” in 1 Timothy 5. “But no one today frets about the absence of this ministry in our church structures,” he writes. “We happily acknowledge that the thing Paul is mandating here—care for the elderly and vulnerable—has been absorbed into the various social services of the church.” The “teaching” office is greatly improved on today, Dickson says, “whenever the New Testament is reproduced and read out.” In other words, the “teaching” office no longer exists in the local church (and never included preaching in the first place).

What, then, should we say?

First, it’s difficult to see how “teaching” cannot include “explaining or applying” since that almost entirely empties the word of any meaning. What do we mean by “teaching” if we mean something other than “explaining and applying”? Peter Bolt gives a better explanation:

It would be more accurate [contra Dickson] to say that the “handing over” and “receiving” of tradition gave the content that was then taught. Thus the relationship between “laying down and transmitting tradition” and that of “teaching” is not one of equivalence, but the first enables the second by providing the teachers with their body of knowledge.

Second, let’s assume for a moment Dickson is right, that “teaching” is laying down and preserving the apostolic tradition. We need to reach some conclusions about how to identify that apostolic tradition. Surely, that tradition would derive from Jesus’ teaching on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Therefore, the apostles laid down and preserved what Jesus taught, since he promised the Spirit would come and remind them of everything he said (John 14:26; 16:13-15).

However, if Jesus’ teaching on the Emmaus road is apostolic tradition, then we have something different from Dickson’s definition of teaching, since what Jesus taught was fundamentally expositional and explanatory.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27, emphasis mine).

Then he opened their minds [explained] to understand the Scriptures, saying to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Luke 24:46, emphasis mine).

If you take away exposition, interpretation, explanation, and, I would argue, application, you take away the very apostolic tradition Jesus handed down. And what is the apostolic tradition but showing how Christ fulfills all of Moses and the Prophets?

Third, and building off the previous point, when the elders in Acts 6 were compelled to appoint deacons so they could fulfill their ministry of the Word, what else was their ministry but explaining (teaching!) Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises—the apostolic tradition? Moreover, the apostolic letters themselves are expositions and interpretations of the OT promises, complete with exhortations and applications. Many interpreters even believe the letter to the Hebrews was a sermon. This makes it very difficult to distinguish “teaching”—not only in 1 Timothy 2 but throughout the NT—from sermons and public expositions.

Dickson’s case is further undermined by the Pastoral Epistles themselves, as Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus about right “teaching” and the necessity of appointing elders who “teach” correctly. But in Titus 1:9, for example, this charge involves the need to promote sound teaching and refute false teaching—a duty obviously demanding explanation and application of the apostolic message. How could the false teachers be refuted without explanation and application?

Finally, immediately following Paul’s prohibition of women teaching, the apostle moved to unfold the qualifications for elders. The only qualification having anything to do with gifting or even skill is aptness to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). In other words, the apostle showed us not only who’s forbidden to teach, but also who’s permitted. Every other qualification listed is expected of any genuine Christian. But if there’s no meaningful modern equivalent to the teaching office, we’ve lost the one qualification that would set apart a man as an elder from any other godly man in the church.

All of these arguments and more could be developed against Dickson’s project.

We constantly need to test our theological conclusions against Scripture, despite how much our biography and cultural setting define us. Bird and Dickson encourage us to consider their proposals by coming back to Scripture, and for that I’m thankful. However, I don’t find their arguments compelling, and their conclusions depend too much on speculation to convince us to deviate from the plain meaning of the biblical text.

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