In the first of a 3-part series, Ben Irwin reflects on his movement away from believing the Bible restricts Church leadership to men.
The other articles of this series are:
"Let's say you're offered a job in another state. You want to take it, but your wife doesn't want to move. What do you do?"
Crap, I thought.
Ten years ago, my soon-to-be wife and I were sitting with the pastor who would marry us — assuming, that is, we passed the test otherwise known as premarital counselling. On the whole, counselling was a very good thing. I highly recommend it for anyone thinking about taking the plunge.
Then our pastor dropped this little bombshell-of-a-question into our laps. It wasn't simply a prompt to discuss styles of conflict resolution. It was a test to see whether I would embrace my God-given masculinity and take charge of my wife.
"Um..." I said, followed by, "We would talk about it, you know, to see if we could get on the same page."
That wasn't good enough.
"What if you talk about it, and you still can't agree?" the pastor asked.
Me: "We would... talk about it some more?"
"Let's say you've discussed everything there is to talk about, and you STILL can't agree. Then what?"
At this point he laid his cards on the table. "As the man, it's your God-given responsibility to make the final decision. And it's your wife's job to go along with it, even if she doesn't agree. So... what would you do?"
I'm not usually quick on my feet. Maybe that's why I like writing better than speaking; I can take time to craft my thoughts. I'm the kind of guy who comes up with the perfect one-liner three hours after it would've come in handy.
But this time, I actually had something. I knew what the pastor wanted me to say. I also knew I wasn't going to say it, having recently reassessed my beliefs about gender roles.
But our wedding was only a few months away. This was not the time to get into a theological argument with the man who was going to preside over the ceremony.
So I said, "As a man, I would use my God-given authority to decide not to decide until we could agree."
Our pastor wasn't expecting that. He paused for a minute. Then he said, "Well, you COULD do that. But you don't have to."
Only a year before, I would have agreed with our pastor about my "God-given responsibility." I would have agreed it was my job as the husband to make the final decisions, and that it was my wife's job to respectfully submit to my authority.
(I was quite a catch.)
I had no room in my theology for things like mutual submission, female pastors, or other harbingers of feminism.
The first crack in the wall came during seminary. This wasn't entirely expected, seeing as my college was at least nominally complementarian. (Whether it was by design or default, I don't remember seeing any women in the pastoral studies program.)
But my New Testament professor had an incurable habit of getting on his soapbox whenever he felt someone was "abusing the Bible," as he called it. And one of his favourite soapboxes had to do with an apparent inconsistency in Paul's logic concerning women:
I had no room in my theology for things like mutual submission, female pastors, or other harbingers of feminism
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul commands women to "remain silent in the churches." This is one of a handful of texts often sited in support of the badly-named complementarian view, which says women are to be subject to men in the church and at home.Yet in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul basically gives the women of Corinth a dress code to follow when prophesying in church. A prophet was basically someone who gave advice on God's behalf — kind of hard to imagine women doing that with their mouths shut.
So we're forced to entertain a few possibilities:
1. "Silent" doesn't mean what we think it does. A bit of a stretch, especially for a word (Greek, sigao) that carries a strong sense of telling someone to "shut up" (see, for example, Luke 18:39).
2. Paul was being inconsistent — or someone tampered with his letter after the fact. Authorship is a hotly contested issue for many books in the Bible, but 1 Corinthians isn't one of them. There is, however, at least some evidence the statement in chapter 14 was added later. But for the sake of argument, let's say Paul was responsible for the whole letter, including the bit where he tells women to shut up. It's hard to imagine someone of Paul's intelligence contradicting himself so badly in the space of a relatively short letter.
3. Paul was being sarcastic. (This was my NT professor's theory.) One of Paul's favourite tactics in this letter was to quote something the Corinthians were fond of saying to justify their behaviour — like, "I have the right to do anything" — and then refute it. What makes it tricky is that Greek manuscripts don't have any punctuation, so deciding whenPaul is quoting something is a matter of interpretation.
4. Paul's feelings about women in the church are more complex than we realize — more nuanced, depending on the specific context he's addressing. Which would explain why he can heartily greet female apostles in one letter and prohibit women from teaching altogether in another.
With option #4 in mind, it's worth considering N.T. Wright's explanation of 1 Corinthians 14. It was common in many ancient churches for the men and women to sit apart. Women, not having access to formal education in the first century, would be at a disadvantage — especially if the service was conducted in a more formal or classical style of language. So eventually, the women would get bored and start talking among themselves.
Whatever we make of 1 Corinthians 14, the thing I've learned is this: it's not a simple matter of saying, "Let's just go back to what the Bible says about women and the church." Because the Bible says lots of different things about women and the church. And not everything the Bible has to say on the matter is universally applicable.
Simply put, the Bible didn't set out to be a book about gender roles. Never trust someone who tells you, "It's quite clear the Bible teaches that women should XYZ..."
But there ARE some core ideas that can help us to put together all the seemingly disparate parts as I explore in part 2.
To read more on this subject from an author that agrees with Ben's position see Leadership is Male? and The Gender Agenda. For an alternative view see Leadership is Male and Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. Read part two of Ben's argument here.
August 3rd, 2012 - Posted & Written by Ben Irwin