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To the Bible: women in church leadership? 

Clerical collarAfter the General Synod of the Church of England voted against legislation allowing the ordination of women bishops, Baptist Minister Rev Mark Fairweather Tall explores the biblical arguments for women in ministry.  

The debate about women in ministry has been going on for many years and it has hit the headlines again as the Church of England has voted to reject a new law allowing women bishops. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted: “Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer and love and co-operate with our healing God.” The current Archbishop of Canterbury described his feeling of a “deep personal sadness” at the result.

However, on the other side of the debate, the Rev Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group, Reform, believes: “My overall conclusion is that it is very good news for the Church of England. We have avoided what could have been a disastrous mistake for our unity and witness”

The question about women in ministry isn’t just an issue that faces the Church of England, though. Over the last few weeks, perhaps fuelled by the debate about female Bishops, I have had a number of conversations with people about the issue. Some of these have been with people who have been visiting the church and wondering whether to make Norwich Central Baptist Church their spiritual home. However, they have wanted to know the ‘Baptist’ view of women in ministry. My experience is that the doubts about women in ministry usually stem from a desire to take the Bible seriously.

In 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, we read: “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

Then in 1 Timothy 2:11-14: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through child-bearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

The Biblical position seems clear enough and so it might be assumed that if you take the Bible seriously you will be against women in ministry. Is it as clear-cut as all that? Is it possible to claim to be Biblically-based whilst supporting women in ministry? I think it is, although to fully justify it would take much more space than this article allows. But let me give a few thoughts…

Because I take the Bible so seriously, I want to have a clear understanding of what it says and this means studying the culture and context into which the Scripture was written. It is only in doing this that we can begin to apply it relevantly for how we live today. For example, after Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he tells them that they should follow him in doing the same thing. On one level of reading that means people who follow Jesus should wash other people’s feet. In understanding the culture and the context, you realise that the important point that Jesus is stressing is not the actual action of washing people’s feet (far more important then than today!) but the importance of the attitude that leads you to wash someone’s feet. In simple terms, when Scripture seems to tell us something, we should ask the question, “why”. Why would God say this? Does this support the understanding I have of God from the message of the whole of the Bible?

So let us look at the context and raise just a couple of points that might shed a different light on the passage...

1) The context of 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 begins with v26 and the call to orderly worship because services were being disrupted. Anyone who was going to speak in tongues is told to keep quiet if no interpreter was present. Also if one prophet was speaking and revelation came to another, the first should be silent. The issue with women is clearly within the context of disruption to worship. Many women were asking questions of their husbands – perhaps for explanation of the prophecies that were being shared. They were told they should wait until they were home rather than disrupt the worship service. No wonder Paul emphasised the disgrace caused by such exhibitions distracting from true worship.

2) The context of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is a letter written to Timothy and the church in Ephesus where false teaching was a problem. In the second letter, we read one of the problems facing the church was about women who were “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7) Clearly false teachers were influencing women in the church and this affected their ability to learn, let alone teach. No wonder Paul did not want such women distorting the truth of the gospel.

Of course, much more could be said and should be said about the interpretation of these passages in a thorough study of the Scriptures. For now, though, let us look at other cultural issues that further muddy the waters...

The culture of the day outside of the church assigned particular roles to women who were expected to be under the authority of their husband. They were not permitted to teach and so Paul’s restrictions on women’s teaching made good sense in a world that refused to give women teachers a hearing. Furthermore, respectable women did not take part in public life.  Why distract those outside the church by shocking them in the attitude to allowing women teachers at the expense of the gospel message? Of course, in today’s culture, those outside the church are more likely to be shocked by the failure to treat women equally.

Women did not have the same access to education as men did. Perhaps this was a part of the reason why they were so vulnerable to false teaching and being led away from the truth. Today, there are no such restrictions on education and so this is not a relevant reason to stop women from teaching - unlike in Paul’s day.

When full consideration of why Paul might have written these words has been undertaken, it is time to ask what other insight the Bible offers. Genesis 1:26-28 suggests man and woman were created together in the image of God and that dominion was given to both of them; there are people such as Miriam and Deborah who functioned in leadership roles. In the New Testament we discover the new attitude that Jesus had to women as they came to prominence in following him. There is an important verse in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Add to that the principle of the priesthood of all believers, based on 1 Peter 2:4-5 & 9 which declares the old principle of the distinction between priest and people has been superseded. In spiritual terms we are all equal before God and so no one should be prevented from serving God in a particular way because of their race, colour, age, gender or any other human difference.

Yes, passages are open to different interpretations and I think you can argue the case either for or against women in ministry. However, I am fully convinced about the strength of a Biblical argument for women in leadership. My experience is that there are women who are gifted in preaching, teaching and leading. It makes me ask the question why God would create females with such gifting if they are not allowed to bless the church by sharing in these ways?  Therefore, I believe women in ministry is a good thing and it doesn’t stand at odds with my belief in the Bible as God’s inspired word. 


Rev Mark Fairweather Tall is a Minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church.  He blogs regularly at www.markfairweathertall.com/blog and tweets @RevMarkFT. 
 

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 
 
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. 
 

Feedback:
Lynda Edwards 21/11/2012 23:05
Many thanks, Mark, for writing this. For a long time I have always thought it may have been due to the attitude towards women in at least New Testament times which caused St Paul to write in such a way. It could also be the behaviour of a minority of women who annoyed people when they were worshipping God.The problem of women disturbing worshippers is not over - I am sure I am not the only one who has noticed chattering from some women who quite clearly don't want to follow the service!

I have also found Deborah in Judges 4 and 5 to be a worthy prophetess!
P (Guest) 22/11/2012 02:01
Genesis 5:2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man."

Deborah, Ruth , Esther were all , among others, women who don't fit that churches teaching,some were prophetess others even had businesses. that teaching of Paul was, like of all Paul's teachings, a letter written to address a particular situation part of a series of letters Paul wrote during his ministering depending on the situation he found himself in. That's all they were a collection of letters, those letters were not the bible the bible is.Paul taught the bible he schooled in it. He never created his own bible or new testament as the church call Pauls letters. the church did that Then again the church stole more than one pagan holiday and adopted them as their own, (scriptures never recommended to do that on quite the contrary warned against it), One of those pagan holidays church adopted celebrated the arrival of the sun god, the church calls it Christmas. Jesus was born in the fall as the bible tells us he was. I have a feeling he might have celebrated his birthday then not on the roman sun gods day.that is what most people do.church says a lot of things. the church is not the bible, the bible is the bible and it warns against mixing traditions of man with Gods. like when they tried to worship the golden calf they had brought back with them from Egypt. As I recall that did not work out too well for them at the time, nothing much has changed. You cant serve Egypt and God, Church has been trying for centuries
P (Guest) 22/11/2012 02:19
PS. Does this sound familiar?

Jer 10: 2 This is what the Lord says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
4 They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
5 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;

HE really does not make HIS word difficult to understand man and his church does
Jonathan (Guest) 22/11/2012 02:38
I enjoyed your perspective. However, I believe Paul in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to Adam and Eve because he wants to counter those who are using the cultural context, by saying what the position was before culture and society existed. This is fundamentally not an argument about equality, as both men and women are expressly made in the image of God, but God's ordained order of things. God for whatever reason gave Adam the moral authority in the Garden and the responsibility of passing that on to Eve.
Liz Skelton (Guest) 22/11/2012 03:37
True Chrisitianity depends upon the truth as revealed in the New Testament through the inspired writers of the first century.True christians respect God's word and do not attempt to add to it or take anything from it...that would certainly be presumptuous to think that we know more than those first century, writers who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The true church of Christ is not in a popularity contest or in need of striving for public acceptance at the cost of truth. What seems to be lacking in these discussions is the teaching of Christ that "the greatest" in his kingdom/church, are not the big leaders but the most humble servants. Women (and men) can and do fulfill these roles beautifully. "Loving to have the preminence" is not a virtue in the church...Christ did not design a church with a hierarchy of bishops, big cathedrals, fancy robes, etc....these are all inventions of man. True christianity simply follows the New Testament examples and teachings in all ways...what so-called christianity needs is a true "restoration movement"...not an attempt to conform the church to make it acceptable to today's society, but rather to make today's society conform to the teachings of Christ.
Amy (Guest) 22/11/2012 04:50
Thank you! I've met many women who I think would make great leaders and inspire many! There was one woman, I'll call her D, in my church who was especially faithful. Christianity just ran through her and she was kind and reached out on ministries to children in foreign countries. She even inspired me, to see a person so faithful! She then "moved up" in the church, speaking in front and being inspirational for the congregation, praying and loving God. Not surprising, I could see her inspirational spirit right away, first day I met her! However, although I think it would be great if she could become a pastor, because I think she could bring so many people to Jesus, the church had a sermon about how women could not become pastors or lead as elders, ect, during a hot topic series. This was saddening to me because there is so much opportunity there to bring people to Christ. I agree with your statements and believe Jesus believes in hope, love, equality, and salvation. He treated everyone the same and healed women, men, boys, girls, elderly, the sick, rich or poor. We're all His children. We should look to Him for guidance and see his example as the way, the truth, the light. Thank you for your kind words! I hope for goodness! Blessings!
Backslider (Guest) 22/11/2012 06:29
Some very good points and insight here. Of course women should be fully a part of the ministry.

I think a bigger issue is the concept of priests: We now only have One priest in the sanctuary which is in heaven . Christ Jesus. The whole concept of earthly priests and bishops is defunct and totally a concoction of people who want power. There is no such thing in biblical terms.
Clifford Denton (Guest) 22/11/2012 11:48
We are in an age when the entire order of society is being disrupted. God's order is under challenge. A family based society with roles and relationships defined on the principles shown through biblical history is what pleases Almighty God and Paul's teaching in Ephesians 5 and 6 echoes the principles of the Old Testament. The issue is not simply one of ministry, it is also one of authority. The word ministry is related to service and we all are called to service. There need not be any rank or status involved in simply getting on and serving according to ones gifting, but authority is another issue if we are to preserve order. Of course those who have authority also serve, so there is no ladder to climb or status to be gained anyway. The present church is generally too weak for the days ahead because its structures are not sufficiently biblical. So it is no wonder that there is discontent within the structure. We need deeper study and discussion than this article offers and perhaps we also need to raise the more appropriate questions. The deceptions carried by the "spirit of the age" will easily sidetrack us from the more important preparations for the times leading up to the Lord's return and all that is going to take place on this earth to precede this great event.
Raifon (Guest) 22/11/2012 19:03
The institutions that prevent female participation are based on the weaknesses of men generally. Islam with their female concealment, Christianity with their male dominated hierarchy and the military ranks are examples of female discrimination.Islam has it because of the weakness of men,Christian institutions because men are easily distracted and tempted, and the military because women in the ranks distract, men are depressed when they see a female injured or killed, they are what men are suppose to protect, and or could create situations such as pregnancy that divert the focus from the objective.Now we all know that men are weak and can be easily tempted and that women have an inherently stronger moral character when it comes to priorities. On the other hand with men being so susceptible it is also known that some women are no different in that resolve than men.As a result it is concluded that to remove the complication and solve the problem as unfair as that it may sound, it is the simplest way to resolve the problem.
Karl Munford (Guest) 28/11/2012 09:54
Again and again people note Paul's instruction to Timothy and the Church at Corinth that a women should neither teach nor assume authority over the believing man. But rarely does anyone follow his lead and reasoning, when he points them to the Creation Account.

Here I do my best to expound his reasoning...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d2uKJSpJM0&feature=player_embedded

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