Picking up Calvin’s Institutes after a short (ahem) pause, we move from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of creation, in chapters 14 and 15 of Book I. What is striking here is that, in this relatively short treatment of the subject (38 pages), almost half (17 pages) is devoted to the topic of angels and devils. Meanwhile, of the remaining 19 pages, the 14 pages of chapter 15 are devoted to the human soul and its faculties. Why might there be so little about the rest of God’s creation?
Calvin seems not to be particularly interested in the non-human creation for its own sake. True, he will have us ‘not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater’ (I.xiv.20). But the reason he can describe this as ‘holy meditation’ is that we are able to ‘contemplate in all creatures, as in mirrors, those immense riches of [God’s] wisdom, justice, goodness, and power’ (I.xiv.21). Calvin’s view of creation is anthropocentric: he says that God ‘created all things for man’s sake’ (I.xiv.22). (For example, the reason God created in six days, rather than in an instant, was to show us that he ‘was concerned for us even before we were born’ [I.xiv.22].) But are God’s creatures no more than ‘mirrors’ through which we may behold something of the glory of God?
The discussion of body and soul in chapter 15 is similarly disparaging of the physical side of creation. Calvin describes the soul as the ‘nobler part’ of a human being, and speaks in terms of the soul ultimately being ‘freed from the prison house of the body’ (I.xv.2). Perhaps, charitably, Calvin has in mind our bodies in their fallen condition? But he seems not to make that clear. I wonder whether Calvin, along with his contemporaries, was too greatly influenced by Plato? (‘Of [the philosophers] hardly one, except Plato, has rightly affirmed [the soul’s] immortal substance’ [I.xv.6].) And perhaps Calvin, suffering from continual poor health, was personally less inclined than many of us are to view bodily existence as a blessing? Nonetheless, I didn’t find these sections to be the most edifying parts of the chapters on creation.
The sections on angels and devils, on the other hand, are very encouraging. CS Lewis spoke about people tending to fall into the error either of being too interested in devils, or of disbelieving in their existence. I suppose the same is true of angels. In our day and age, I’m sure we speak too little of angels and devils (well, most of us do). But in Calvin’s time, maybe the opposite was true?
Two things stand out in Calvin’s approach:
1. It is scriptural. He repeatedly speaks against ‘empty speculations’ and resolves ‘not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word’ (I.xiv.4).
2. It is pastoral. Calvin is constantly milking the Scriptures for practical encouragement.
But Scripture strongly insists upon teaching us what could most effectively make for our consolation and the strengthening of our faith: namely, that angels are dispensers and administrators of God’s beneficence toward us (I.xiv.6).
Likewise, we are told about the devils in order that we may be prepared and strengthened for the fight:
All that Scripture teaches concerning devils aims at arousing us to take precaution against their stratagems and contrivances, and also to make us equip ourselves with those weapons which are strong and powerful enough to vanquish these most powerful foes (I.xiv.13).
I’m expecting this scriptural and pastoral approach to continue into the next chapters, on the doctrine of God’s providence.
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: ‘Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.’ (NIV)
On New Year’s morning 1773, John Newton preached at the parish church of Olney on 1 Chron 17:16-17. His main headings were drawn from his text: 1, ‘Who am I?’ (miserable, rebellious, undeserving); 2, ‘That thou hast brought me hitherto’ (before, at, and since conversion); 3, ‘Thou hast spoken’ (about the future … followed by a personal challenge to respond). The hymn to accompany the spoken word was this one (p. 512).
It’s the third of those themes that particularly interests me in this series.
Newton’s original hymn had six stanzas, of which the first three, four or five are often sung, usually followed by a (deservedly) anonymous final verse, which apparently was to be found as early as 1790, but was first appended to Newton’s text in 1910. However, the original final verse has made something of a comeback recently, both in the Praise! hymnbook, and also as part of Chris Tomlin’s version (‘My chains are gone’), which features verses 1, 2, 4 and 6.
The three headings of the sermon are clearly reflected in the hymn. First, ‘Who am I?’ (miserable, rebellious, undeserving):
1. Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Second, ‘That thou hast brought me hitherto’, both around the moment of conversion:
2. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
and also after conversion:
3. Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
This is the first reference to our future hope in the hymn, and it’s a bit problematic. Where is this ‘home’ of which he speaks? Nowhere in the Bible do we read of going ‘home’ as a way of describing our hope for the future. If he is thinking of heaven, then that is not our ‘home’: we’ll just be passing through, as we await the day when Jesus comes to earth to raise our bodies from the grave and to make his home with us: ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them’ (Revelation 21:3, emphasis added).
Perhaps that last line could be changed to ‘And grace will lead me on’? (Yes, I know it doesn’t rhyme, but the original doesn’t rhyme either!)
Finally, we come to ‘Thou hast spoken’ (about the future):
4. The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
5. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
6. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
This is beautiful language, but isn’t quite adequate as a way of expressing our hope that Christ will be unveiled (not good news if I’m spending eternity within the veil!), and that the earth will be renewed and not dissolved (look carefully at what is dissolved in 2 Peter 3:10-11 in the ESV). So what can we do?
The Praise! hymnbook uses a Jubilate Hymns version of verses 1-5 as its basis, and renders verse 5 as follows:
And when this mortal life is past
and earthly days shall cease,
I shall possess with Christ at last
eternal joy and peace.
I could quite comfortably sing that, and have in my mind the hope of bodily resurrection at the return of Christ.
Verse 6 is more difficult to adapt though. I suppose there are three options: end at verse 5, write a completely new verse 6, or use the ‘usual’ final verse:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun.
But there are three problems with this verse. First, the use of ‘there’, which is simply misleading: it is here that we will spend eternity, not there; second, the abrupt change from ‘I’ to ‘we’; and third, it says ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’.
On the third problem, I think that’s more of a problem with me than with the hymn, and I just need to deal with it! The second can be dealt with by replacing ‘we’ with ‘I’ (as is the case in Christian Hymns, for example), or it might be preferable to leave it as it is, as a reminder that we’ll be spending eternity with each other. For the first problem, I’d like to suggest changing the first line to this:
When he’s been here ten thousand years
As well as getting the geography right, it also shifts the focus from us (or me), and how we will be shining, to the Lord and his glory. Although the Bible does say that ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matthew 13:43, NIV), this change in wording makes the verse into one about the glory of Jesus Christ, and provides an allusion to Revelation 21:23:
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp (NIV).
If you had to describe the Christian hope for the future in terms of someone moving in some direction, then who would be moving, and in which direction?
People might assume (especially if they know certain hymns!) that the Christian hope is one of going to heaven when you die, and staying there for ever. In this case, it is we who are moving, and the direction is upwards, from earth to heaven. And even if Jesus’ return to earth features in this way of thinking, he is coming merely to help us on our way, to take us to be with himself in heaven (reflecting what I would see as a misunderstanding of John 14).
But the hope for the future depicted for us in the Bible is not one of us moving up to heaven, but of God coming down to earth.
We see this in the account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in Acts 1:1-11. The disciples, who had been taught about the kingdom of God by the risen Jesus during a forty day period, were still thinking in terms of an earthly kingdom (all quotes from the NIV):
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
This seems strange to us, but maybe the disciples had been praying the prayer Jesus had taught them, with its words, ‘Your kingdom come’?
When Jesus was taken up, and a cloud concealed him from view, we read that
two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
So they were taught to look forward to the day, not when they would follow Jesus on a journey to heaven, but when Jesus would return from heaven to the earth, in order to establish his kingdom.
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.
But it is the clouds in Revelation 1:7 which serve as the main inspiration for the start of Charles Wesley’s classic hymn, ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’:
‘Look, he is coming with the clouds,’
and ‘every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him’;
and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’
So shall it be! Amen.
(I say Wesley’s classic hymn, but its history is complicated. Wesley’s hymn was published in 1758, but was itself a rewrite of a hymn from 1750 by John Cennick. In some modern versions, Cennick’s hymn survives in the stanzas beginning with ‘Every island, sea, and mountain’ and ‘Now redemption, long expected’, while Wesley’s four stanzas are all widely sung: ‘Lo! he comes’, ‘Every eye’, ‘The dear tokens’ and ‘Yea, amen’.)
Christ’s (or God’s) coming to earth to reign is the subject of the hymn. Indeed, when originally published, it was given the title, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. We see this theme clearly in the first verse:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favour’d sinners slain!
Thousand, thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of his train:
God appears, on earth to reign!
The final verse points us to the time when ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15). In Wesley’s original:
Yea, amen! let all adore Thee
High on thine eternal throne!
Saviour, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own:
Everlasting God, come down.
I’ve been wanting to resurrect this occasional series, looking at the theme of hope in Christian hymns and songs. Do we sing about going ‘home’ to heaven when we die, and remaining there for ever? Or do we sing about Jesus appearing on the earth in glory to reign in his kingdom, about the bodies of the dead being brought back to life again and glorified, and about the whole created order being made new?
Sadly it’s often the former!
In the posts listed below, I’m trying to do two things. First, I want to draw attention to those hymns and songs that do an excellent job at expressing our hope for the future. And, second, I want to see whether those songs that fall short in this respect can themselves be ‘renewed’, so that they help us to look forward to the coming of Christ’s kingdom (rather than looking forward simply to getting out of here!).
I never created an index for the series, so here goes…
Still thinking about women’s ordination, I’m afraid. Here, again, are those key verses from 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul explains why, in the context of the church gathering, he didn’t permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man (all quotes from the NIV):
13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
These clearly allude to Genesis 2 and 3, so maybe we should head there for inspiration?
First, what is the significance in Genesis 2 of Adam being formed first, then Eve? Several things happen between God forming the man, and God forming the woman:
God formed the man (2:7)
God placed the man in the garden he had planted, ‘to work it and take care of it’ (2:8, 15)
God spoke to the man: eat freely of any tree, except one (2:16-17)
God brought ‘all the wild animals and all the birds’ to the man for him to name them (2:19-20a)
God made the woman from one of the man’s ribs, to be a ‘helper suitable for him’ (2:18, 20b-22)
This is not insignificant. Now, it should certainly not be forgotten that men and women together were made in the image of God (1:27). And the man was clearly pretty helpless and hopeless until the woman was created! But God could have made the man and the woman together in Genesis 2:7. And yet he didn’t. There were some things he wanted the man to experience before the woman was there. God gave to the man on his own the task of working the garden and taking care of it. God gave the commandments about the trees to the man on his own (the woman had to hear them from his mouth). And it was the man on his own who gave names to the animals.
The plot thickens when we realise that the garden was a kind of temple. It was on a high place, from which waters flowed to water the whole earth, like Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple (Eze 47). It had an entrance to the east, as did Israel’s tabernacle and temple. The entrance was guarded by cherubim, like those woven into the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex 26:1) and carved into the walls and doors of the temple (1 Kings 6:29-35). And the garden, most clearly, was a sanctuary in which you could meet with God. The garden was therefore not merely the home for the first married couple, but the home for the first church. The ordering of relationships in the garden has relevance for the ordering of relationships in the church.
Even before sin entered the world, in the household of God, there was an order between male and female.
Second, what are we to make of the fact that Eve, rather than Adam, was deceived? I struggled with this in my last post. Do things become any clearer when we look more closely at Genesis 3?
Here are the significant verses:
6When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. …
13Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’
The woman said, ‘The snake deceived me, and I ate.’
Why was Eve deceived? Because the snake deceived her! But why did the snake deceive Eve, and not Adam? Was Eve just an easy target? Would it have simply been much too difficult to deceive Adam? After all, we men never do stupid things, do we? We never act rashly based on ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’ (1 Jn 2:16)! We never get things wrong! We always see things as they are! We’re much more perceptive and level-headed!
So why then did the snake go for Eve and not for Adam?
Because he wanted to wreak as much havoc as he could.
The order of things was clearly established in Genesis 2: God first, then the man and the woman, and then the animals. But at the start of Genesis 3 we have an animal leading the woman astray, a man who is strangely silent, and God nowhere to be seen. God then interrogates the man first (who blames the woman), then the woman (who blames the snake), and proceeds to pronounce his judgment on the snake first, then the woman, then the man. In other words, in the fall, we are presented with a reversal of the created order. In that context it makes perfect sense for the snake to seek to deceive the woman. If he had deceived the man, and the man had then led the woman astray, then at least one element of the created order would have remained intact: the order between the man and the woman. But by deceiving the woman, and making it the woman who led the man astray, the snake effected a complete inversion of how things were originally meant to be.
Back to 1 Timothy 2. When the devil wants to make a mess of the ‘household of God’ (3:15), one of the ways he will do that is through male false teachers. But one of the other ways he will do that is by making the church become less of a sign of God’s created order being restored, and more of a sign of God’s created order being reversed. When the church has women teaching and assuming authority over men, it looks like Genesis 3, and not like Genesis 2. The order of creation had the man first, and then the woman. But in the fall it was the woman first, and then the man. 1 Timothy 2:14 is thus the mirror image of verse 13. In verse 13 it is Adam first, and then Eve. But in verse 14 it is the opposite. Genesis 2 is an example of the right ordering of things within the household of God, and Genesis 3 is an example of what it look like when things are turned upside-down.
What exactly this means in practice for us today is not necessarily obvious. (Which forms of speech in today’s church would count as ‘teaching’ in an official sense, and which offices carry with them the kind of authority that a woman should not exercise over a man?) But I’m beginning to think that 1 Timothy 2 is indeed clear on the basic principles. In the church, men and women most certainly belong together, just as Adam and Eve belonged together in the garden. The old divisions have indeed been broken down. In fact, in order for women to be teaching men at all, they must have been meeting together, and Paul was clearly very happy with that. But, in the church gathering, women should not teach or assume authority over men, because in the order of creation in the temple-garden, it was the man first, and then the woman (v. 13), whereas in the order of the fall, it was the woman first, and then the man (v. 14).
I honestly thought I’d have nailed 1 Timothy 2 by now (‘I do not permit a woman to teach…’). But I haven’t. So this post is a bit of a work in progress. As far as I can discern the motives of my deceitful heart, I’m not stubbornly resisting the obvious meaning of the passage out of some prior commitment to a particular view on women’s ordination. I could, as far as I can tell, go either way on this. Or I could go neither way, and fly off in some bizarre and novel direction, which I’m (mercifully) becoming less prone to do in my old age. Anyway, shall we get going?
Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, clearly wanted him to do something about the women there:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (1 Tim 2:11-12, all quotes from the NIV).
The historical context of 1 Timothy, as with the other Pastorals (2 Timothy and Titus), is one of false teaching. Douglas Moo attempts to unpack this, in a chapter in the seminal complementarian book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem). (Both the book and the chapter are available online.) Drawing on many verses from the Pastorals, he makes a plausible case that this false teaching was leading women to abandon traditional female roles. For example, Paul found it necessary to ‘counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander’ (1 Tim 5:14). Observing parallels with the situation in Corinth, Moo comments:
While we cannot be sure about this, there is good reason to think that the problem in both situations was rooted in a false belief that Christians were already in the full form of God’s kingdom and that they had accordingly been spiritually taken ‘out of’ the world so that aspects of this creation, like sex, food, and male/female distinctions, were no longer relevant to them (p. 181).
There is plenty of debate about the details of the verses already quoted, most of which seems to be driven by a desire to evade what seems to be the meaning, viz., that Paul did not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man. But far more significant, in my view, is the question of why. Why did Paul not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man? Were there specific cultural reasons in that context, whether the context is Ephesus in particular, or the Greco-Roman world in general? Or were his reasons applicable to all human cultures? Paul clearly felt the need to impose some restrictions on the role of women in the church in that context, even if we may debate precisely what those restrictions were. But if Paul was writing to our context, would he have responded in the same way?
Fortunately Paul helps us out here, because the next sentence begins with ‘For’. But unfortunately, for myself at least, his reasons are not easy to understand. Here they are:
13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
On verse 13, when treated in isolation, Moo is persuasive:
Paul emphasizes that man was created ‘first, then’ Eve; the temporal sequence is strongly marked (protos, ‘first,’ and eita, ‘then’). What is the point of this statement? Both the logic of this passage and the parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:3-10 make this clear: for Paul, the man’s priority in the order of creation is indicative of the headship that man is to have over woman. The woman’s being created after man, as his helper, shows the position of submission that God intended as inherent in the woman’s relation to the man, a submission that is violated if a woman teaches doctrine or exercises authority over a man (p. 190).
But what about verse 14? Is Paul saying that women are inherently more easily deceived? Moo thinks not:
For one thing, there is nothing in the Genesis accounts or in Scripture elsewhere to suggest that Eve’s deception is representative of women in general. But second, and more important, this interpretation does not mesh with the context. Paul, as we have seen, is concerned to prohibit women from teaching men; the focus is on the role relationship of men and women. But a statement about the nature of women per se would move the discussion away from this central issue, and it would have a serious and strange implication. After all, does Paul care only that the women not teach men false doctrines? Does he not care that they not teach them to other women? (p. 190)
Indeed, Titus 2:3-4 specifically instructs the older women to teach the younger women.
The issue, according to Moo, is not a general proneness to deception, but one very specific deception:
More likely, then, verse 14, in conjunction with verse 13, is intended to remind the women at Ephesus that Eve was deceived by the serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3:13) precisely in taking the initiative over the man whom God had given to be with her and to care for her. In the same way, if the women at the church at Ephesus proclaim their independence from the men of the church, refusing to learn ‘in quietness and full submission’ (verse 11), seeking roles that have been given to men in the church (verse 12), they will make the same mistake Eve made and bring similar disaster on themselves and the church (p. 190).
This is to read something into the text that is not there. Nothing in either the Genesis account nor in Paul’s argument suggests that the woman was deceived by taking initiative over the man or that God had forbidden her to take such initiative.
Moo’s reading also fails to make sense of the start of verse 14, which states that ‘Adam was not the one deceived’. Presumably if the deception was the reversal of gender roles, then Adam was just as deceived as Eve was, because he ‘listened to [his] wife’ (Genesis 3:17). But the deception is surely the taking of the fruit itself: the woman took the fruit because she was deceived, but the man took the fruit even though he wasn’t deceived, but because he was, like so many men after him, behaving like an idiot.
So what is verse 14 all about?
Moo’s interpretation assumes no strong connection between verses 13 and 14. You could even remove one or the other, and the meaning would still stand. So women should not teach men, first, because of the creation order, and second, because in the Fall the woman was deceived in taking the initiative over the man. Each of these reasons makes sense on its own.
Witt provides an alternative:
The most helpful suggestion I have come across is a reference made by Craig S. Keener to a rabbinic interpretation of the passage that Paul could have adapted. Because Eve, not having yet been created, was not present in Genesis 2:16-17 when God gave the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she was not directly informed by God, but indirectly informed by Adam, and therefore subject to deception. On this typological interpretation, Paul would be suggesting that, like Eve, the women at Ephesus are not well-informed, and thus are subject to deception. They should not teach, but rather learn quietly in submission to the subject matter, so that they will be better informed and no longer deceived. Presumably, once they had learned, they could well teach.
This is appealing on many levels. It provides a clear connection between the creation order and Eve’s deception: Eve was more easily deceived precisely because she was created after Adam. It also provides a clear parallel between the situation in Eden and the situation in Ephesus. But does it fit?
The difficulty is that in Genesis 3 Eve clearly was well informed. Minor details aside, she was well versed in the fact that God had specifically commanded them not to eat of that tree (Genesis 3:2).
It also makes the transition to 1 Tim 2:15 quite abrupt:
But women will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
This fits much more comfortably with Moo’s reading, according to which the basic problem was that women were abandoning traditional male/female distinctions, such that part of the solution was for women to be more content to fulfil traditionally feminine roles, such as bearing children.
Vast tomes have been written on these verses, so I haven’t run out of material to read (even if I’m beginning to run out of oomph). But so far I haven’t found a satisfactory interpretation. Unless we can make sense of why Paul gave those instructions, we cannot apply them to our own context. It is not simply that Paul appeals to the creation order, because verse 14 follows verse 13, and could well be part of a single reason, not a second independent reason for verse 12 (indeed, I suspect this is the case). And I still have no idea how verse 14 fits in, I’m afraid.
Supposing we reach the conclusion that women shouldn’t be ordained as priests (presbyters, elders) or bishops, then what next? Should we just muddle along and hope the church will come to her senses in due course? Or should we distance ourselves in some way? For example, should we leave a church if a women is appointed as its incumbent, or refuse to share in the Eucharist if a woman is presiding, or refuse to be ordained by a female bishop, or even refuse to recognise the ministry of those who have themselves been ordained by a woman? And if we do distance ourselves in these ways, is it because, on balance, this seems the best course of action, or is it because, before God, we feel obliged to do so?
Often in this debate the word ‘conscience’ is thrown about. This is very much the case in the 2011 publication by (evangelical think-tank) The Latimer Trust: The Church, Women Bishops and Provision (available for free in PDF).
To give some context, ‘This book was commissioned in November 2010 by a number of members of General Synod’ who ‘agree that a proper legal framework should be in place, to provide the security of an ongoing ministry in the Church of England for those who will not be able to accept the ministry of women bishops.’ It gives the impression that it was written in haste, in order to make a specific contribution to the debate within the Church of England at the time. It comes across as neither balanced not charitable in the way in the way it portrays the arguments in favour of women bishops. But there are some worthwhile parts. Chief among these is Michael Ovey’s 2003 submission to the Rochester Commission, which is included as an appendix. Ovey is Principal of Oak Hill College and is a former parliamentary draftsman, and there is clear evidence of the latter in the style of his submission. This is quite appropriate, given the context, but it does read a bit like treacle. Nonetheless, it covers the issues with great precision and with a logic that is hard to deny.
Back to the issue in hand, there are 25 relevant occurrences of ‘conscience’ language in the book, by my reckoning. Here are some examples (emphasis added):
The forcing of conscience that this will entail (22) … those who cannot in conscience accept the ordination of women priests or the consecration of women bishops (75) … those with conscientious objections to the consecrating of women as bishops (75) … dispute resolution where matters of conscience and principle are engaged (76)
Then from the appendix by Michael Ovey:
a woman bishop would necessarily be exercising the kind of jurisdiction over him that would be unacceptable for reasons of conscience (113) … The present proposal has not always been presented as a ‘Gospel issue’. If it is not, but a matter of conscience, then the appropriate analogy is Romans 14 and 15 which deals with the respect of conscience, and where unanimity of practice is not thought necessary by Paul for the unity of the church. Applied here, that suggests differential episcopal oversight to which priests could in good conscience submit (118) … as certain dioceses acquire women bishops, these will tend to become no-go areas for priests who feel in all conscience that they should not submit to female oversight (125)
This is strong language.
You ‘force’ the conscience of a Christian when you coerce them to do something which they sincerely believe would be a sin against Almighty God. So, in Acts 5, the apostles had been given strict orders by the Jewish authorities not to teach in the name of Jesus, but they carried on proclaiming Jesus, with the defence that ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’ (v. 29, NIV).
Ovey made reference to Romans 14 and 15, which deal with the respect of conscience when people within the church have different convictions about certain (non-essential) issues. Paul himself was convinced that ‘All food is clean’ (14:20), but there were others who refused to eat meat, presumably to avoid the risk of contamination with the worship of idols. Paul was adamant that these people, whose faith was ‘weak’ (14:1-2), should not be pressurised into eating meat:
But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin (14:23, NIV).
So if, for someone, it would be a sin for them to accept the ministry of female priests or bishops, then appropriate provision should be made.
So I agree with the Church of England’s efforts to make provision for those who cannot, in good conscience, accept the episcopal ministry of women. But, for my own part, I struggle to see why it should be a matter of conscience. Would it really be sinful for me to receive priestly or episcopal ministry from a woman?
Despite all the references to ‘conscience’ in the book, no scriptural arguments are made to justify this. There is plenty about the seriousness of the matter, and a strong case is made that the church as a whole should not appoint women as bishops. But the only argument put forward that might suggest that I have a personal obligation not to consent to female episcopacy is that of Cyprian (cited by Ovey), who urged people ‘not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest’ in order not to be ‘contaminated’ (109). I do find it surprising that this kind of argument is used, not only because evangelicals tend not to think of the Lord’s Supper as a ‘sacrifice’, but also because Article XXVI of the Church of England seems almost explicitly to deny the idea that a person might be contaminated if they receive the sacraments through ‘evil ministers’.
To sharpen the question, here are two hypothetical situations. In both cases, you and your family are young Christians, hungry to grow in your faith, living in a remote village, and you attend the only church available to you.
A new vicar is appointed, and week by week he spouts heresies, while living in gross immorality.
The new vicar is an evangelical who preaches the gospel powerfully and faithfully week by week. But she is a woman.
What do you do? Do you keep going, or do you stay at home and read the Bible together?
In the first case, I would stay at home, for reasons of conscience.
In the second case, even if I thought that a female vicar embodied in her very person the church’s disobedience to God in reversing the creation order, and even if this grieved me deeply, I still wouldn’t think that I was personally committing a sin by remaining part of that church, and I would consider that it would be far more damaging, both to me and my family, and to the church as a whole, for me to withdraw myself from the life of the church.
But if it was a question of conscience, then I would have no choice but to stay at home.
The word “Supper” is not a technical, theological or religious term, but is simply the designation of the ordinary evening meal. In the culture of the time this would have been the main meal of the day, not just a light snack before bedtime, which is how we are culturally attuned to hear the term. The “Lord’s Dinner” might be a more accurate rendition of what is meant.
But bread and wine don’t make much of a meal, do they?
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 indicates not just that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the context of a meal. Rather, it appears that the entire meal constituted the Lord’s Supper. Jesus words of institution are recorded in such a way that they bracket the entire meal enjoyed by the congregation. The bread is shared at the beginning of the meal, and the cup is then shared “after supper”. Participation in the Lord’s Supper provides opportunity for the physically hungry to be satiated, and for the over-indulgent to get drunk.
How does this compare with what goes on in most churches today?
It is striking that most contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper does not involve a meal. In contrast we have taken the biblical sign of a communal meal, bracketed by the sharing of bread and cup in memory of Jesus death, and turned it into a mere token “sign of the sign”. It is deeply ironic that the Reformers, and those who have followed them, speak of the Lord’s Supper as a “meal” even when in reality it is nothing more than a tiny portion of bread and a merest sip of wine.
So if the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be a proper meal, what does that say about the tone of the meal? Should it be a sombre occasion?
[T]he Lord’s Supper is meant to be a joyful celebration of what Christ has done for us. This is suggested by the connection with the Passover. The Passover was commanded to be observed as a “commemoration” of God’s great rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt. It was meant to be celebrated with “great rejoicing”. It was a feast and not a fast, a time for praising and thanking God for his deliverance, and for passing the story on to the next generations. If, as Ben Witherington observes, “Passover was meant to be the most joyful of meals, not the most sorrowful”, this ought to be even more so for the Lord’s Supper, which commemorates our far greater redemption from our eternal enemies of sin, death and Satan.
But what might this look like in practice?
For a short period of time when I was Pastor of City Evangelical Church, Birmingham we celebrated the Lord’s Supper after our morning service in the context of a church lunch. We met in a school and were able to make use of the kitchens. We began our meal seated around tables with a hymn, a prayer of thanksgiving and the words of institution for the bread. We then shared bread before eating our lunch together. After we had eaten lunch we ended by sharing the cup. We spoke the words of institution and gave a prayer of thanksgiving. After we had all shared the cup we would sing a hymn that gave thanks to God for the salvation that we had received in Christ. In the end a change of venue and a shift towards different congregations in the morning and evening meant that we were unable to sustain this pattern. On reflection I think we lost something significant. I felt that we had come nearer to the practice of the early church, and were blessed in our mutual fellowship as a result. We avoided making too much, or too little, of the Lord’s Supper. It became both more ordinary and more precious. I miss it and would love to be able to recapture something like it again.
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 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 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).
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.