Jane Austen is and will remain one of my favourite writers. Set in a world where a ‘single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’, Austen’s novels often see fathers and mothers parading their daughters about in the hopes of securing ‘fortunate alliances’ with wealthy and influential men. Men in these books at least have to ask women if they want to marry them, but it’s fairly clear these men don’t expect to be refused. Such is life in a world where women in general have precious little power or self-determination and the ones that do (Emma Woodhouse and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example) represent the exception. One of the hallmarks of Austen’s works is how well her heroines play the game despite holding so few of the cards.
I think Jane herself would marvel at how society has changed, particularly the church. These days, in most of our churches, women can minister in whatever way they see fit, provided that they see fit to teach children’s Sunday school, or to organise the church social calendar, or to lead worship (Just keep it to 20 minutes, dollface. There’s a good girl).
Yet there are stirrings and rumblings about from women who want to preach or to teach or to occupy pastoral and leadership roles — to hold equal status. Is this to be endured?!?!
Sadly, a sizeable number of — let’s face it — men in positions of governance say no. Like straight-shooting ecclesiastical sheriffs, they patrol the streets with the following double-barrel shotgun:
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
“A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman who was deceived and fell into transgression. Women, however, will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.” – 1 Timothy 2:11-15
They empty the first barrel to knock their opponents off their feet and then, if necessary, the second to stop them from wriggling.
Of course, it is the 21st century and, as such, it’s a kinder, gentler shotgun hand pulling the trigger. In the late 80s, a group of influential evangelicals calling itself The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood composed and released The Danvers Statement (Imagine my disappointment when I discovered it has nothing whatsoever to do with Carol Danvers, A.K.A. Captain Marvel), which laid out all of the (apparently) biblical justifications for limiting the functions of women in the church. They even coined a new term to encapsulate what is essentially a very old position: complementarianism, a suggestion that men and women ‘complement’ each other with clearly delineated roles and abilities. Hey, full credit to CBMW for recognising that, these days, you’ve got to finesse gender discrimination with a smiley, open-handed, pseudo-theological term.
Witnesses, Prophets, Teachers, Apostles, Etc.
Now look, we could talk about the rest of the New Testament. We could talk about Luke-Acts, where women are often compared favourably to male counterparts as exemplars of faith1. We could talk about the fact that women were the first disciples entrusted with the message of Jesus’ resurrection (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8: Lk. 24:1-12; Jn. 20:11-18). We could talk about the fact that Saul ‘dragged off both men and women’ to prison (Acts 8:3) — intriguing in a culture where women were seen as inconsequential, and showing that these women were considered just as dangerous as the men. We could talk about Martha’s sister Mary ‘sitting at Jesus’ feet’, thus adopting the posture of a rabbi in training (Lk. 10:39-42). We could talk about Philip’s daughters, the prophets (Acts 21:8-9), or we could talk about Priscilla, the teacher, whose name routinely appears before her husband’s, indicating a higher status (Acts 18:18-19, 26; Rom. 16:3). We could talk about apostles like Junia (Rom. 16:7), or about church leaders like Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). If we really wanted to drill deeper, we could discuss the cultural and situational settings behind texts like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.2 Or the lack of clarity around the Greek word αὐθεντεῖν in the 1 Timothy 2 passage, often translated ‘exercise/assume authority over’. Or the possibility that the 1 Corinthians passage is a later interpolation not originally written by Paul. Or that 1 Timothy is, at the very least, questionable as an authentic letter of Paul.3
We could talk about all these things. But far smarter people than me and renowned biblical scholars —Lynn Cohick4, Catherine Clark Kroeger5, Gordon Fee6, Craig Keener7, Ben Witherington III8, Carroll D. Osburn9, N.T. Wright10, F.F. Bruce11, and Richard B. Hays12, to name a few — have been talking about these texts and the historical realities behind them for decades. And if we (especially we men) aren’t listening by now, then I’m forced to wonder if we’re simply unfamiliar with this material, or hopelessly stubborn in our intellectually lazy appeals to the same few proof texts, or spineless because we recognise the power of the biblical evidence, but fear inviting controversy in our churches or jeopardising our own positions of influence. Or some combination of the three.
Gifts are Meant to be Used
No, I don’t want to talk about all that. For me, there’s an equally compelling fact to grapple with: the fact that the Spirit of God invests women with the gifts to preach, to teach, to shepherd and to lead. Do we really believe that the Spirit has imparted these gifts, but doesn’t want women to use them?13
You’ve probably heard some people (well, men) suggest such things, couched in language of humility, submission and sacrifice, of ‘laying your gifts down’, or ‘surrendering them to God’. Ah, but would be ask a man to ‘lay down’ his teaching or preaching gift and refuse to employ it as an act of submission to God? Do we ask women to ‘lay down’ spiritual gifts of mercy, or hospitality, or serving, or faith? And when’s the last time we encouraged men to put their gifts of helps or hospitality into regular practice? The fact is, we presumptively assign gifts of teaching, exhortation and leadership to men, and gifts of mercy, helps, serving, and hey, maybe even administration to women. But that’s not the Spirit; that’s us.
If we really want to keep in step with the Spirit, then acknowledging the presence of these ‘authoritative’ gifts in our sisters in Christ would be a good place to start. I for one think that denying them the right to exercise these gifts and hold key positions in our churches is worse than negligent. It’s plain disobedience.
Jane Austen well understood the giftedness of women, seen most clearly in her well-known heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and her male counterpart, Fitzwilliam Darcy get off to a cantankerous relationship, when he callously dismisses her as a ‘tolerable’ country girl. But gradually, he develops a great respect for Lizzie — as he discovers she’s his equal in intelligence, wit, respectability and gravitas.
When it comes to the women in our churches, it’s high time we men discovered the same thing.
- For a discussion on this, I’d recommend Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised From Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts, Pickwick Publications, 2015.
- An excellent treatment of this issue can be found in Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, InterVarsity, 2018.
- Richard Hays, Gordon Fee and N.T. Wright are three scholars who advance these possibilities soberly and intelligently.
- Cf. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life, Baker Academic, 2009.
- Cf. Kroeger C. and Kroeger R., I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence, Baker Book House, 1992.
- Cf. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Revised Edition (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 2014.
- Cf. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul, Baker Academic, 1992.
- Cf. Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Cf. Osburn, Women in the Church: Reclaiming the Ideal, 2nd ed., Abilene Christian University Press, 2001.
- Cf. Wright, ‘Should Women be Ordained?’ in Surprised by Scripture, HarperCollins, 2015; Paul: A Biography, HarperCollins, 2018, especially Ch. 14 and its discussion of the Pastoral Epistles.
- Cf. Bruce, “Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey,” Christian Brethren Review 33. (1982): 7-14.
- Cf. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, HarperCollins, 1996, particularly the appendix to Ch. 1 on Paul and men and women in the church and Ch. 2 on the Pauline tradition.
- You may respond by citing the argument, “God wouldn’t give us these feelings if he didn’t want us to act on them”, used to justify adultery or sexual immorality. I’d agree, that’s truly a vapid and stupid argument. But let’s be sure we distinguish between feelings and desires on the one hand, and imparted spiritual gifts on the other. They’re not the same thing.
- Feature Image: Created from podium (https://www.alibaba.com/product-detail/Acrylic-Church-Pulpit-Design-Clear-Cheap_60002745895.html) and female sign (https://gender.wikia.org/wiki/Woman)
- Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice. Image grab from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1wcdkNcGeo
- Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, from https://leagueofcomicgeeks.com/comic/8010596/captain-marvel-1