To the Bible: women in church leadership?
After 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 the Minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church.
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