Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why I Believe Women Should Be Allowed To Preach

In publicly taking issue with my own parish leadership on the question of whether a woman should be allowed to preach, it seems to me totally in keeping with the Evangelical tradition that our God-given conscience should inform the way we understand the nature of the Bible we submit to as the Word of God. The central question in my mind is this: Is the Bible (as Muslims say of the Qur’an) a recitation of God’s permanent rules for all mankind? Or is it a record of the way God’s word has been spoken into different communities over time, and the way they have interpreted and responded to that living revelation? Are we required to resolve the cultural, theological and ethical tensions between different parts of the Bible into a coherent and permanent rule book? Or do we have different lessons to learn from the way different biblical communities responded to their awareness of God's presence in their midst? Have we, in other words, a duty to “put on the mind of Christ” (St. Paul) in the power of the Spirit, and allow ourselves to be guided through the maze of ideas in the Bible with open minds as to where it will lead us?

I am acutely aware that it is possible to find verses of Scripture that can be quoted in support of different positions on any number of issues. And I suspect that it is at largely a consequence of our socialisation as Christians – the exegetical [5] peer group with which we identify – which verses we choose as well as the way we apply them to present-day issues. At a leadership level, my own church family has become strongly aligned to the Sydney school of thought via our relationships with key figures and the purchase of training materials; the hard-line views of Archbishop Jensen on female ordination and the present divisive controversy over homosexuality is well known. However, our parish is much more diverse at grass-roots level, with a few Anglo-Catholics, a lot of middle-church Anglicans, a sizeable Charismatic contingent, an increasingly assured group of Justice and Peace activists, and many who (like me) disown labels but might be misleadingly tagged by others as "Pre" or "Post" Evangelical. I try not to take sides but to value each of these persuasions as an authentic tradition in its own right, and have high hopes for what they can each contribute to our experience and outreach. Thus on one hand I respect and sympathise with those within my own church and across the wider Anglican Communion who wish to draw a line in the sand against the dogmatic preaching of liberal theology and moral permissiveness, and I have no great expectation of changing their minds on the issue of women in ministry. But by the same token, I feel it is right to speak my own mind on the issue and more important still to speak out on behalf of those women who feel caught in a Catch-22 situation, i.e. disqualified from speaking out against their disqualification from speaking out. 

So what do I believe? And why, as a Bible-based Christian, do I feel justified in (as some may perceive it) relativising Paul’s instructions to Timothy? As an enthusiastic Trinitarian, I firmly believe that only Christ in Person can be regarded as the perfect and eternal Word of God. In common with Barth [9] and others I am happy to call the Bible the Word of God by extension, but in a more figurative or restricted sense than when I apply the title to Jesus himself. Unlike the Liberal wing of the church, I have unlimited confidence (allowing for translation difficulties) in the way the Bible writers have captured the words and actions of Jesus, including the Resurrection and the other miraculous events they describe.  However, we only have to reflect on the inadequacy of human language to express our own personal experiences of meeting with Christ and being filled with his Spirit to question what it actually means to call the Bible the Word of God.

I believe it is that ineffable experience of contact with the divine that the first disciples of Christ and the Old Testament prophets before them relied on the Holy Spirit to communicate to others. And an essential factor in their ability to communicate the depth of those encounters lay in the brutal honesty with which they put their own responses on record, warts and all: Thomas’ doubts, the ambition of James and John, Peter’s arrogance and denial, the persecutions of Saul before his conversion, and so on. Whatever else the Bible is, it is no less than an authentic and honest human record seen through the eyes of people who were men of their time.  And without making the deadly liberal mistake of contextualising the timeless challenge out of Scripture or denying the flawless unity of God’s self-revelation throughout salvation history, I am convinced that all theological structures biblical or otherwise are shaped by cultural context. The timeless revelation of God’s purpose and means of salvation is gloriously ever-present in Scripture, but we need the most profound engagement with the contemporary frame of reference for any Bible passage or other theological writing if we are to infer lessons for our own situation.

This in my view applies just as much to the earliest events in the Bible chronology to which the Apostle Paul refers (such as Genesis 3, the story of the Fall, which is so often used to depict womankind as institutionally gullible) as it does to the experiences of the first Christians. More so in the case of Genesis, in fact, where we have to see through the eyes of two distinct cultures widely separated in time, space and worldview from us and from one another, viz. the pre-literary world in which the oral narratives developed and the much later generation in which they acquired their polished literary form. That is not for a moment to deny that the story of the Fall contains the truth of humanity’s predicament in relation to God and the world. Nor is it to deny that the Apostle Paul’s commonly alleged aversion to the idea of women speaking in church puts a substantial burden of proof on those who are in favour of female preaching. However, it does allow those of us who share such a conviction to get a foot in the hermeneutical [14] door, because it means that these verses cannot be presented as cut-and-dried proof of the case against. Indeed, I believe that we are forced in any debate as emotionally charged and potentially divisive as the present one to stand back from using as ammunition isolated verses whose original Sitz-im-Leben[15] could be so mis-matched as to result in mis-application, and instead to focus on what Dick Lucas sometimes referred to as the “melodic line” of scripture (as opposed presumably to the individual notes on the stave).

And it seems to me that, over against the scattering of individual verses (many of which are textually or contextually challenging) commonly used to support the subordination of women to men, we have a whole host of rational arguments (many of them based directly on scripture) in favour of a more permissive approach. I mention some of these in no particular order:

  • One of the most common themes throughout Paul’s body of writing is the call for unity-in-diversity. As with the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ brethren in Rome [16] and the leadership cliques in Corinth [17], Paul urges everyone involved to seek unity, and only in the case of obvious immorality or soteriological [18] deficiency does he tend to take sides. This could be an argument for seeking a consensus view.
  • Paul goes to great lengths to show that social divisions are meaningless. The context in Galatians is very specific, and I have gone to great lengths above to stress the importance of sensitivity to context, but Gal 3:28 ('There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus') is a great rallying cry. 
  • A mere 150 years ago, educated white people in were conscientiously quoting verses from Genesis[20] and Paul[21] in support of slavery. Many of the same verses were used by the Dutch Reformed Church in our own lifetime in support of apartheid. It is now almost unanimously held that this was eisegetic[22]. Many Evangelicals believe that a time will come when we look back on male/female divisions in the same spirit.
  • The only part of Paul's appeal to Genesis 3 that bears directly on the appropriateness of women preaching is the prickly pear of their putative gullibility. In a spirit of commitment to Bible truth, I utterly reject this as a valid and permanent judgement on the female mentality. Without doubt, in its original context, it contains a strand of symbolic truth. However, I do not believe that applying it to female ministry is one jot more valid than using the story of Canaan looking on Noah’s nakedness in support of racially-based slavery or segregation. [23]
  • I remember a former member of the leadership team at my home church explaining a theory of proclamation in relation to preaching from the pulpit that even then seemed to me to turn preaching into a sacrament as supernatural as Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist. And it seems to me from my job of teaching about world faiths that one recurring way in which male hierarchies respond to the sanctity of whatever it is that they regard as most holy (perhaps because at a deep subliminal level they associate women with unholy temptation) is to exclude women from it: the biblical Holy of Holies, Orthodox monasteries, the public prayers in traditional synagogues and mosques, the altar...and the pulpit. I personally tend to believe it is tantamount to social oppression to draw demarcation lines in this way. Regarding the pulpit, preaching is clearly an indispensable part of the assembly, as are prayer, praise and the Eucharist. I do not believe that preaching has a special sacramental dimension, or even if it did have such a dimension that women should be excluded, any more than I believe they should be excluded from celebrating the Eucharist.
  • I think I remember the venerable Dick Lucas[25] describing a rule in St. Helen’s church council meetings that nobody was allowed to preface their opinions with “I think God wants . . .” or even “I’ve prayed, and I think . . .”   These are unquestionably blackmail phrases that attempt wittingly or unwittingly to close down all further discussion. I accept the reality of modern prophecy as a gift of the Spirit but have a very restrictive view of how and when it should be used. It is meant to build up and unify the church and can never be used authentically as artillery where there is a difference in conscience between members of the worshipping community. However, the natural follow-on question is whether preaching – which many Christians have trouble distinguishing from prophecy – should be allowed to exercise the same knock-down function in a debate. The argument against women preaching tends to assume that preaching itself represents the exercise of unquestioned spiritual and moral authority. In contrast, I believe the most effective preaching is that which provides a real challenge and real hope to virtually the whole congregation, which proclaims the person and work of Christ, which questions the metaphysical and ethical assumptions that people bring into church from the outside world.
  • I believe the linguistic evidence in 1 Tim 2:12 points firmly to three conclusions: (a) we are already doing in our parish what Paul seems to forbid, (b) that it is arbitrary to apply such a prohibition to preaching, and (c) that in a normal parish setting a woman preaching or even exercising leadership would not constitute the specific offence that Paul has in mind when he refers to women having “authority over” men.
(a)   Logically and structurally, the most categorical imperative in the verse is not “I do not permit …” but “[women] should be silent”. This clearly seems to be Paul’s attitude; he clarifies it elsewhere by stipulating that if women have a question they should ask their husbands at home. Along with the society in which we live, we have clearly as the Church moved on from his cultural viewpoint.

(b)   For “teach”, Paul does not use the Greek word kerusso (“proclaim”, the concept most closely connected with the Evangelical mode of preaching) but didasko – a most generic word for teaching or instruction (connected to the English word “didactic”) which would logically encompass any form of instruction including Junior Church, home groups, and all-age teaching slots. [26] 

(c)    The normal Greek to exercise authority in the sense of power and influence over others is exousiazo, but Paul chooses to use authenteo. The KJV and several modern translations are faithful to the implications of this word which include to dominate or to usurp the rightful authority of another. This suggests that what Paul has in mind is undermining the rightful authority of a leader. It seems obvious to me that a woman preaching under the authority of a male incumbent is not doing what Paul forbids here. [27]  

  • Finally, my incumbent's explanation as to why woman preachers so often seem to be blessed in their ministry (in short, because God is so merciful even when we are so disobedient) was for me and many others the most unsatisfactory part of his presentation. In truth, just as sheep intuitively recognise their shepherd in Christ’s own analogy, worshippers intuitively know when the Spirit of God is moving through someone’s ministry not grudgingly – as if God were mercifully making the best of a bad situation – but joyfully and affirmingly. I believe that my incumbent uncharacteristically detracted from God’s glory by acknowledging so grudgingly the important and inconvenient truth of that vibrant sense of divine presence and blessing with which the Holy Spirit has vindicated so many women’s preaching. I was “converted” from opposition to female clergy by exactly such an experience, and I recognised (as the Jewish apostles had to, when Gentiles were first brought into the infant Church), “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
In conclusion, to summarise my various arguments:

(a)   Exclusively male leadership is a long-standing tradition in large parts of the church, but can only be justified by an appeal to the authority of tradition (which is indeed the main rationale for practice in some parts of the Church, e.g. Catholicism), not by an appeal to the authority of Scripture.

(b)   The application of proof texts whose applicability to the matter in hand is itself the subject of controversy (even among Evangelicals) is not an appropriate way to settle a conscientious disagreement among committed Bible-based Christians.

(c)    The applicability of the specific texts on which my parish's present policy is based is too controversial to convince everyone affected – even within a community as scripturally-informed as ours – that our policy is just.

(d)   To the extent that 1 Tim 2:12 can be applied to our situation, careful textual analysis suggests that it cannot be used to support the present policy in our parish, viz. that it is permissible for women to do what they are currently doing as long as they do not preach. On the contrary, it suggests that the Church has already moved far on from the Apostle’s position on this specific issue, and does not justify making an exception of the preaching ministry.

(e)   The story of Adam, Eve and the serpent (Genesis 3) can only be made relevant to the issue of women preaching in one way: via the untenable and offensive argument that it proves women to be constitutionally more susceptible to deceit than men. In consequence I personally do not see that this passage can legitimately be applied to the eligibility of women to preach, especially since we have (as noted above) already moved in the modern church beyond the stance Paul uses it to reinforce (1 Tim 2:14). However, to the extent that Genesis 3 does bear on the respective vices of men and women, many would say that Adam shows no more moral fibre than Eve: Whereas Eve admits, “The serpent tricked me,” Adam tries to shift the blame onto Eve and God himself: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 

(f)     There are several indirect arguments – some biblical and some ethical – for the more relaxed policy that prevails in most of the Church of England and much of the wider Anglican Communion.

(g)   In consequence of these factors, while no one should be pressured into changing his or her mind, there is a case to be made for compromise in the cause of unity.

(h)   This in turn would require us to do something scary and democratic. We would have to grapple with the issue with open minds. We might need to involve home group studies, perhaps a Lent course, perhaps discussions with other church leaders on both sides of the debate, perhaps even one or two visiting lady speakers (whether or not these were officially treated as sermons. Above all, we would need to commit ourselves to long-term prayer for clarification of God’s will, which on this particular subject I do not believe has been carved in stone for eternity.

[1] John Stott: Arguably the leading British evangelist and evangelical author of the 20th century. His view, put simply,  is that women may preach as long as they do so under male authority.
[2] Episcopacy or incumbency: the position of bishop or vicar respectively.
[5] Exegetical: To do with expounding Scripture.
[9] Karl Barth: Arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century.
[14] Hermeneutical: To do with the interpretation of ideas and their application to real life situations.
[15] Sitz-im-Leben: Theologians’ jargon for the literary genre of a piece of scripture, the purpose its author intended it to fulfil, and the perceptions of his original audience.
[16] Romans 14-15.
[17] 1 Corinthians 3
[18] Soteriological: To do with salvation.
[20] E.g. Genesis 9:24-27 (The offending youngest son, Canaan, being conveniently equated for this purpose with Black Africans, African-Americans or slaves generally according to preference).
[21] E.g. Ephesians 6:5 – “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”
[22] Eisegesis is reading one’s own preoccupations into Scripture, as opposed to exegesis which is drawing true meaning out of Scripture.
[23] Genesis 9, as referred to above.
[25] Dick Lucas: Influential conservative-evangelical preacher, former Rector of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate and leading light in the Proclamation Trust.
[26] Incidentally, the two phrases “to teach” and “to have authority over men” are distinct. In other words, there is no evidence in the text to suggest that “men” is a shared direct object of the two verbs translated “to teach” and “to have authority over”. It is thus illogical to draw the conclusion that it is OK for women to teach women and children, as long as they do not try to teach men.
[27] It might even be a fair implication (although I am not trying to pursue this point here) that a woman who is recognised by the church as a parish incumbent is not usurping anyone’s authority but simply exercising her own).


  1. This is brilliant John, if this was a facebook note i would click on the word "Like"

    Having worked for e2w and different churches including the church i work for now in canada, where we have a full time associate pastor who preaches and have friends in the uk from when i was at e2w who also preach, and preach led by the spirit of God i can agree that this is one of those situations where perhaps minds could do with a bit of opening.

  2. Brax, thank you for your kind words.