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Kenneth Bailey on women in the New Testament

Discussions about the ordination of women often focus on certain key passages in the New Testament. This can give the impression that it’s just a matter of proof-texting, or that it all hinges on just a couple of passages. I don’t think this is the case.

When we are asking whether women should be ordained, we are ultimately looking for a big-picture understanding of what it means to be male and female, and of the nature of ordained ministry. It is only when those general principles are in place that we can work through what it looks like in practice in our own context.

So what role do the specific passages in the New Testament play? I suppose (with my scientific hat on) they could be described as the data, based on which we use a process of inference to the best explanation to find a theological model that best explains the data. The Old and New Testaments do give us plenty of hints towards a theology of gender and a theology of ordained ministry. But often we are merely shown the outworking of those theological principles in a particular historical context. So we need to move from the particular (the New Testament context), to the general (theological principles), then back to the particular again (our own context).

Kenneth BaileyKenneth Bailey spent 40 years living and teaching in the Middle East, seeking to better understand the cultural background to the New Testament. He wrote a pair of articles at the end of that period about women in the New Testament (see also here).

First he concentrates on the positive attitudes to women in the New Testament:

  • Jesus had female disciples, not least Mary, who was commended for sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching
  • Priscilla was an example of a woman in the New Testament who taught theology
  • Phoebe is described as a ‘deacon’ of the church
  • There were female prophets (e.g., at Corinth)
  • There was a female apostle: Junia
  • There were women elders

These are all pretty clear, except for the last two.

On Junia (Romans 16:7), Douglas Moo comments:

[I]t is quite unlikely that [Andronicus and Junia], never mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, were ‘apostles’ in the sense that Paul and Peter and John were apostles. The Greek word apostolos has a variety of meanings in the New Testament; the one that best fits this text is ‘commissioned missionary’ (Encountering the Book of Romans, 196).

The claim about women elders comes from 1 Timothy 5:2. This verse uses the female form of presbuteros (as does Titus 2:3), a word usually translated as ‘elder’, from which we get the words presbyter and priest. Bailey claims that, since this section of 1 Timothy is dealing with holders of the office of ‘elder’, the reference to ‘older women’ should really be translated as ‘women presbyters’. But this is not convincing: as in Titus, the mention of older women is mingled with instruction about younger men and younger women. Even if Paul did have the office of ‘elder’ in mind in 5:1, he clearly broadens this to the more colloquial use of ‘elder’ (as the opposite of ‘younger’) in what follows. So the NIV, in line with every translation under the sun, translates it as follows, without even a footnote providing an alternative reading:

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

However, those caveats aside, Bailey is clearly right to draw attention to the great value placed in the New Testament on the ministry of women.

But what of the texts that seem to speak more negatively about women, namely, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2?

On 1 Corinthians 14, Bailey sees this is the conclusion of a structured argument spanning chapters 11-14 (with 14:37-40 reflecting this structure):

1. Disorders in worship (ch 11)

    2. The spiritual gifts (ch 12)

        3. Love (ch 13)

    4. The spiritual gifts (14:1-25)

5. Disorders in worship (14:26-36)

In that final section, three groups of people are instructed to be ‘silent’: those speaking in tongues (if there is no interpreter), prophets (‘if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down’), and women. Clearly not all women were to be silent all the time, as there were female prophets mentioned in chapter 11. So what did Paul mean? Bailey’s suggestion, considering the cultural setting, is that Paul was essentially saying the following:

Women, please keep silent in worship and listen to the female and male prophets. Don’t interrupt them with questions, and don’t talk/chat in church. If you can’t understand what is being said, ask your husbands at home. They understand more Greek than you do and will be able to explain things to you.

This strikes me as fairly plausible (though it leaves questions open about verses 33b, 34b, 35b and 36).

But what of 1 Timothy 2?

Bailey argues that this is very specific to the Ephesian context. The temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, cast its shadow over the whole city. Artemis was very much a female goddess, and the associated attitudes to women were leading to serious problems with the way women were behaving in the church. It was a crisis situation, and the only appropriate ruling, under the circumstances, was to prevent all of the women from exercising official teaching roles.

So, in context, Bailey argues that the basic meaning of ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet’ (2:12, NIV) is:

I do not allow these ignorant women to batter the men. They are to stop shouting and calm down.

Then what of the following verses (‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’, 2:13-14, NIV)? Bailey sees this as responding to a particular error that some of the Ephesian women had fallen into:

Thus perhaps some theologically illiterate women in Ephesus had been exposed to Paul’s views in some form [e.g., Romans 5:12] and had concluded that men had polluted the earth with their sin. Therefore the more innocent women must push them aside. The author of 1 Tim. may be responding by taking up the story of Genesis with a bold statement, ‘Eve was a transgressor!’ meaning, she also is to be blamed, not only Adam.

What are we to make of this? I have to say that I find these attempts to restrict the context to Ephesus unpersuasive. Whatever issues there may have been in Ephesus specifically, Paul is clearly talking about his practice ‘in every place’ (v. 8), and it seems contrived to read ‘a woman’ as meaning ‘these women’. (And you can’t easily have ‘these ignorant women’ in chapter 2 occupying the office of ‘woman presbyter’ in chapter 5!) Of course, Paul was talking about his own practice in his own historical context — maybe his practice would have been different in our context? — but whatever he meant in 1 Timothy 2 can’t, surely, be restricted to the situation at Ephesus.

John Stott on women's ordination

John Stott: Issues facing Christians today John Stott seemed broadly in favour of women’s ordination, based on his Issues facing Christians today (4th edition, 2006). He unpacks the Bible’s teaching on the equality and complementarity of men and women in a very helpful and attractive way, and then looks at what Paul says about masculine headship in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. This, he suggests, ‘implies some degree of leadership, which … is best expressed in terms not of “authority” but of “responsibility”’ (p. 343f).

The husband’s headship of his wife, therefore, is a liberating mix of care and responsibility rather than control and authority. This distinction is of far-reaching importance. It takes our vision of the husband’s role away from questions of domination and decision-making into the sphere of service and nurture (p. 344).

How would this carry over into the life of the church?

There is no doubt that women are equipped by the Spirit to build up the church in all sorts of ways. But what about the commands to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2? Here Stott seeks to disentangle two different requirements:

So is it possible (I ask myself) that, although the requirement of ‘submission’ is of permanent and universal validity, because grounded in creation, the requirement of ‘silence’, like that of head-covering in 1 Corinthians 11, was a first-century application of it? (p. 349)

If this is possible (as Stott tentatively suggests), then what would this ‘submission’ look like in our own context?

The basic answer he gives is that women should indeed teach, but always in the context of a team ministry in a local church (presumably not an all-female team, but that isn’t explicitly stated). But Stott would prefer to see men always serving in teams too, with their churches ‘repenting of an unbiblical one-man ministry’ (p. 350).

But what about ordination?

If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which he does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which he does), then the church must recognize God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women, and should ‘ordain’ (that is, commission and authorize) them to exercise their God-given ministry, at least in team situations (p. 353f).

So how should people who hold this view respond to the current situation in the Church of England?

We should surely avoid the two extreme reactions. We should neither make an unprincipled surrender to cultural pressure, nor give up and secede from the church. What then? We should continue the dialogue, refusing to regard the issue as settled. Meanwhile, we should encourage ordained women to exercise their ministry voluntarily in ways which recognize masculine headship, for example in team situations (p. 351).

Two reflections.

First, if masculine headship extends beyond the marriage relationship, and if this is a good thing, then where should it be seen? Stott’s ideal, it seems, is for all leadership, in church and society, to be exercised by teams, and for all teams to consist of men and women. But if that is the case, it is hard to see what difference masculine headship makes in practice.

Second, I think more needs to be said about ordained ministry. It seems inadequate to describe it simply as being commissioned and authorised to exercise a teaching ministry (though I’m sure Stott had much more to say on the topic). After all, there are many (commissioned and authorised) forms of teaching ministry that we would not described as ‘ordained’ ministries. It seems that the roles of presbyter (priest/elder) and bishop are more specific. In fact, I would characterise them as ministries of ‘care and responsibility’, which, in Stott’s understanding, would be the very essence of headship.

The ordination of women

I’m trying to think through my position on women’s ordination, having tried to avoid the issue for years.

Since I came to a living faith in my teens, the evangelical churches I’ve belonged to (pentecostal, presbyterian, independent evangelical, baptist and Anglican) have all (basically) been of the view that women shouldn’t be ordained. In those circles, it’s quite easy to avoid giving the issue a lot of consideration. After all, the Bible seems clear on the topic, we don’t really have much to do with churches that take a different view, and all the celebrity preachers and authors in our ‘camp’ also take the same view.

But I’m now finding myself (strangely) drawn to immerse myself in the broader body of Christ, and that entails reading around a bit more, and figuring out what to do as a consequence. So I’ve been gathering a list (and a pile) of things to read (suggestions welcome!), and my plan is to post summaries here — largely for my own benefit, but hopefully at least someone out there (or even both of you) will also find it vaguely helpful.

My particular focus is the Church of England, so the questions I’m trying to think through are:

  1. Was the Church of England right to decide to ordain women?
  2. How should those opposed to the ordination of women respond to this, whether clergy or laity?

I’ll make this post into an index for any posts (past, present or future) that may appear on the topic. So here goes…

Why are we so obsessed with gender?

It might not be overstating things to say that we find ourselves at a turning point in Western history. History is moving forwards at a considerable pace, and some people find themselves on the right side, others on the wrong side. And as the past gives way to the future, the transition seems to be hinging on one issue in particular: gender.

In the past, men and women lived much of their lives in separate spheres. Over the past century or so, we in the West have been breaking down those boundaries, so that men and women now largely occupy the same space. Over the past few years, we’ve all (suddenly) woken up to the fact that whether a man loves a woman or another man is immaterial. And we’re now beginning to wake up to the fact that gender itself is self-determined and insignificant. At least, that’s how the story goes.

But why is this such a big deal in our culture?

That question is worth pondering. If aliens landed, they might be somewhat puzzled by what they found. Why, they might ask, with so many tangible problems — violent conflicts, looming environmental crises, extreme inequality — are these earthlings getting so worked up about such obscure matters?

Asking this kind of question can give us a glimpse into the heart of a culture, and we need to give it some serious attention.

If you want to know my hunch, I think it boils down to a long-standing battle between nature and freedom.

Over the past 500 years or so, we in the West have been struggling to live with two apparent opposites. On the one hand, we think of ourselves in terms of nature. Our behaviour is determined by our genes and by the laws of nature. We study science, and try to uncover the laws that govern us. But on the other hand, we also think of ourselves in terms of freedom. We have free will, and we’re free to choose what we want. We cultivate our sense of imagination, and creatively shape the world around us.

(I would want to question whether nature and freedom are really the best ways of thinking about ourselves in the first place, but maybe that’s for another time.)

Our inability to fit nature and freedom together is reflected in all sorts of ways. It’s reflected in the nature-nurture debate. It’s reflected in the mind-body problem. It’s reflected in the division of our universities into sciences (BSc) and arts (BA). It’s reflected in our wranglings between the state and the individual. And it’s reflected in the way that, at different times, attempts have been made to assert the absolute superiority of one over the other. So, in our day, it is freedom that has the upper hand, and our lives may be described as a quest to assert our own absolute freedom from nature.

But what does gender have to do with this?

The biggest determining factor in a person’s life, apart from the place and time of their birth, is whether they were conceived with XX or XY chromosomes.

If we are to be truly free — if freedom is to triumph over nature — then my identity — who I consider myself to be, and how I expect society to treat me — cannot and must not be determined by my chromosomes.

So we cannot allow for our place and role in society to be influenced by our biological sex. We cannot let it continue to be the case that our future is determined from birth on the basis of our chromosomes. Gender (if we need the concept at all) must be set free from biological sex. “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals,” as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson put it last year.

I’m not trying to say whether this account of things is right or wrong.

But I do think it goes some way towards explaining why we are so obsessed with gender.

I'm not a person of faith

There are two types of people: normal people, and everyone else.

How you unpack that depends on what you think of as normal.

So there are Brits and foreigners. Or Jews and Gentiles. Or (ancient) Greeks and barbarians. Or Muslims and non-Muslims. Or Christians and non-Christians.

The important thing to note is that people in the ‘everyone else’ category never identify themselves by that label. No one would say, simply, ‘I’m a foreigner,’ except to say, ‘From the perspective of a Brit, I’m a foreigner.’

So what about ‘person of faith’?

This is the term for everyone else, if to be normal is to be secular, or ‘non-religious’ (put in quotes, because ‘religious’ is itself another of those ‘everyone else’ terms).

So there are two types of people: normal, secular people, and people of faith.

From the perspective of a secular, ‘non-religious’ person, I’m a person of faith.

But, from my own perspective, I’m not a person of faith. I’m a Christian.

Faith at the ballot box: Greens

Over on Thomas Creedy’s blog there has been a series of posts, in which Christians from various political parties answer a set of questions. I took part, as a Christian member of the Green Party, and my responses have been posted on the blog, and also incorporated into an eBook, Faith at the Ballot Box. Here’s how it begins…

-{ How would you describe your party’s political vision in one sentence? }-

The Green Party’s strapline is, “for the common good”, reflecting a vision for a sustainable and much more equal society, globally, achieved through a shift of power away from the elite few and towards a real grassroots democracy.

-{ What myth/accusation/misunderstanding about your party most frustrates you? }-

Often the Green Party is portrayed as being crazy. It isn’t crazy, but it is certainly calling for a radical shift away from our current systems of global consumerism and corporate power.

Read more or get the free eBook…

Coding for Christ?

There was a post of mine on the Faith in Scholarship blog a couple of days ago. It begins as follows…

While I was an academic astronomer, I probably spent most of my time not peering through a telescope, but typing away at a computer, wondering why my code didn’t work. Now, computer software wasn’t my area of research, so I didn’t give much attention to it from a Christian perspective. But is there a Christian approach to writing computer software? Should we be “coding for Christ”?

In preparation for this post, I read an excellent little book on this topic: Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology by Derek C. Schuurman, who is Professor of Computer Science at Redeemer University College, Ontario, Canada. Schuurman begins by posing the question, “What does my faith have to do with my work as an electrical engineer?” The rest of the book attempts to sketch out an answer, and it contains plenty of helpful insights for those of us who spend our time writing computer code. I’d like to share a few of them here.

Read more…

General election Bible study

I cobbled this Bible study together at the weekend. It is unrefined and untested, but I post it here in case it might be useful. The main inspiration is Votewise 2015 (Guy Brandon), along with an associated talk. The latter used the excellent idea of focussing on one topic per major party (roughly speaking), and I’ve followed that approach below. One emphasis from the book was the implications of these issues for ordinary everyday life, as well as for politicians. It’s so easy to assume it’s entirely their responsibility (and hence their fault).

I don’t expect anyone will follow this study and end up knowing who to vote for (at least, I hope they won’t). But it might help people to approach the topic in a slightly better way.

  1. Government
    1. Read 1 Peter 2:13-17. What should our attitude be towards the government?
    2. Read Deuteronomy 17:18-20. What limits does this place on the power of the king?
    3. Read 1 Samuel 13:11-14. What does God think about people trying to have unlimited power?
    4. How can we make sure governments don’t get too much power? (Think about mass surveillance as an example.)
    5. How can we make sure corporations don’t get too much power?
  2. Economy
    1. Read Matthew 6:24. How can the economy become our master?
    2. Read Matthew 22:37-40. What matters to God is our relationship with him and our relationship with each other. How do you use your money to strengthen those relationships?
    3. We might use the word “shalom” to describe a society with strong relationships and with everyone able to flourish. How can we make sure the economy is not our master, but is used for “shalom”?
    4. Read Proverbs 22:7. Why should we get out of debt?
    5. How can we help each other to get out of debt, and to stay out of debt?
    6. How should the government get itself out of debt?
  3. Immigration
    1. Read Matthew 28:18-20. What should our attitude be to “the nations”?
    2. Read Zechariah 7:10 and Leviticus 19:34. The Hebrew word for “alien” is “ger”. How were these “immigrants” treated?
    3. Read Deuteronomy 23:19-20. The word for “foreigner” is “nokri”. They were temporary visitors to Israel who were economically independent. How were these “immigrants” treated?
    4. How do you think we should treat people who want to settle permanently, such as refugees, economic migrants, and others?
    5. How do you think we should treat people who are here temporarily, such as international students, or people here for work or business?
  4. Health
    1. Read Mark 5:24-34. How does Jesus heal this woman’s body?
    2. How does Jesus heal this woman’s state of mind?
    3. How does Jesus restore this woman’s place in her society?
    4. The World Health Organisation states, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. What can we do, as individuals, families and churches, to promote people’s well-being?
    5. What should the government do to promote people’s well-being?
  5. Environment
    1. Read Genesis 1:28 and 2:15. What should our attitude be towards creation?
    2. Read Hosea 4:3. What happens when we don’t take good care of the land?
    3. What can we do, as individuals, families and churches, to make sure the world is cared for?
    4. What should the government be doing to make sure the world is cared for?

Trident dilemma

What if... North Korea has nuked London. Trident is ready. You are in charge. Pyongyang will be destroyed. 2.5 million people will die. Do you press the button?
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Leave your reasons in the comments below...

On the (social capital) deficit

Robert D. Putnam: Bowling AloneAny who are concerned about the sharp decline in “social capital” over recent decades would do well to read Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s 2000 classic, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. I’ll attempt to give you a flavour of the book here…

After the introduction, Section II surveys an extraordinary amount of evidence covering a remarkably diverse set of trends:

Civic disengagement appears to be an equal opportunity affliction. The sharp, steady declines in club meetings, visits with friends, committee service, church attendance, philanthropic generosity, card games, and electoral turnout have hit virtually all sectors of American society over the last several decades and in roughly equal measure (p. 185).

Section III asks, “Why?” What are the causes of this civic decline? Pressures of time and money? This might account for perhaps 10%. Mobility and sprawl? Again, another 10%. Technology and mass media? This might account for 25%, particularly as a result of television. This is partly because “Television privatizes leisure time” (p. 236), but also because “Another probable effect of television (not just programming, but also the associated advertising) is its encouragement of materialist values” (p. 245). But the biggest cause of civic decline, Putnam argues, is generational change, as one generation dies off and another takes its place.

But what could explain such a difference between the generations? Strikingly, but not particularly surprisingly, the answer seems to be World War II, which served as a strong stimulus to civic and social engagement.

In speculating about explanations for this sharp generational discontinuity, I am led to the conclusion that the dynamics of civil engagement in the last several decades have been shaped in part by social habits and values influenced in turn by the great mid-century global cataclysm (p. 275).

Section IV asks, “So What?” Does it actually matter that social capital has been in decline? Putnam reviews evidence that “shows that in measurable ways it matters that social capital and civic engagement have decined in America over the last several decades” (p. 295). This evidence is largely based on comparing various criteria with a “Social Capital Index” for each of the states of the USA. He finds a strong connection between low social capital and poor standards of education, children’s welfare, safe neighbourhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic participation.

So what is to be done? This is the subject of Section V. To answer this, Putnam turns to history. There is a fascinating chapter on the transition America faced during the “Gilded Age” (1870-1900) and the “Progressive Era” (1900-1915).

During the last third of the nineteenth century technological, economic, and social changes transformed American life. Between roughly 1870 and 1900 America evolved rapidly from a rural, localized, traditional society to a modern, industrialized, urban nation (p. 368).

But America survived. Why? It survived because of a prolonged and concerted investment in new forms of social capital.

It must have been tempting in 1890 to say, “Life was much nicer back in the village. Everybody back to the farm.” They resisted that temptation to reverse the tide, choosing instead the harder but surer path of social innovation. Similarly, among those concerned about the social-capital deficit today, it would be tempting to say, “Life was much nicer back in the fifties. Would all women please report to the kitchen, and turn off the TV on the way?” Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.

On the contrary, my message is that we desperately need an era of civic inventiveness to create a renewed set of institutions and channels for a reinvigorated civic life that will fit the way we have come to live (p. 401).

But how will this come about? Putnam himself has been active in seeking a resurgence of civic and social engagement through various initiatives (such as BetterTogether), and there are signs that the tide is turning, at least among affluent young white people. But I was struck by some comments in the final chapter about the role of religion.

Faith-based communities remain such a crucial reservoir of social capital in America that it is hard to see how we could redress the erosion of the last several decades without a major religious contribution (p. 408-9).

This is based on history, since “it is undeniable that religion has played a major role in every period of civic revival in American history” (p. 409), particularly around the turn of the twentieth century. Putnam’s response is to “challenge America’s clergy, lay leaders, theologians, and ordinary worshipers” to “spur a new … ‘great awakening’” as a response to our crisis in social capital.

Those of us who see these “great awakenings” as a work of the Spirit of God will readily turn Putnam’s “challenge” into a prayer…