Michael Heiser is blogging about women in ministry. He describes himself as “unconvinced of egalitarian views while being relatively unconcerned over complementarian fears.” He doesn’t feel a need to oppose a woman’s sense of calling to the ministries of teaching and preaching, but he finds no exegetical basis for the view that scripture mandates the ordination of women to the role of episkopoi (“bishops”) or presbuteroi (“elders”).
Mike invited me to dialogue with him on the topic. I am an egalitarian. I was born and raised in an egalitarian environment with plenty of strong women around me. Their example convinced me early on that women as a class are just as capable as men as a class in whatever they set their minds to. I don’t ever remember thinking the contrary.
Furthermore, I serve in a denomination, the United Methodist Church, which places no limits on what kind of ministry women can be appointed to.
Over the last few months, I have been privileged to encourage a young woman who feels that God is calling her to be an ordained elder and a military chaplain. She is now a first year divinity student at Asbury Theological Seminary. It is not unusual for a Wisconsin girl to know how to shoot a gun, drywall, and shingle as well as any man. She qualifies. Will she also turn out to be a gifted public speaker, a “maidservant” on whom the spirit of God has been poured, to quote the prophet Joel (2:28-29 = 3:1-2 in the Hebrew Bible)?
I expect so, but the expectation needs to be tested. United Methodists erect a series of flaming hoops candidates to ordained ministry must jump through. The process is not for the faint of heart.
A candidate must (1) “agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God”; (2) he or she must also respond with the confidence of faith to a series of questions:
1. Do you know God as pardoning God? Have you the love of God abiding in you? Do you desire nothing but God? Are you holy in all manner of conversation?
2. Have you gifts, as well as evidence of God’s grace, for the work? Have you a clear, sound understanding; a right judgment in the things of God; a just conception of salvation by faith? Do you speak justly, readily, clearly?
3. Have you fruit? Have you been truly convinced of sin and converted to God, and are believers edified by your service?
In a non-egalitarian cultural context in which women were not expected to aim a gun and kill a dangerous individual in the line of police or military duty, serve as a chaplain to men and women under arms, or as governor of a state; in a cultural context in which women were excluded from some ordained roles and accepted in others (see the pastoral letters in the NT), the chances of a woman feeling called to be an “elder” or “priest” were slim.
In an egalitarian cultural context, the chances are not slim at all. Like Heiser, I can think of no compelling reason to oppose the felt calling of a woman to the office of ordained elder.
Women ordained to the ministry of preaching and teaching: it might not matter to Mike in the abstract, but it matters in the concrete if, as is my case, I am mentoring more than one woman on the path of ordained ministry, a call they heard independent of anything I said or did.
We are creatures of the culture in which we live; there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. Given that culture changes, occasionally even for the better, it has to be shown that the fact of women seeking the office of ordained elder violates a core biblical principle. It has not been shown. Even though I can’t imagine Paul or Peter condoning women bishops or elders – and, given their cultural context, for them to have done so could easily have brought ill-repute to the gospel - I don’t think the details of instruction in apostolic letters written for specific times and places were meant to be valid for all times and places without due consideration of cultural context.
Nor does anyone else; if they did, they would feel bound to put widows on a list if they are over 60 years old (1 Timothy 5:9), tell slaves to be “submissive to their masters in every respect” (Titus 2:9), and so on.
That said, I agree with most of Heiser’s exegetical comments. “Biblical egalitarians” no less than “biblical complementarians” tend to ride roughshod over scripture that contradicts their emphases.
The most I would claim for the egalitarian framework for marriage and ordained ministry is that it is compatible with scripture if scripture is read canonically (interpreting individual passages in light of the entire witness of scripture) and creedally (a creed is a normed norm derived from scripture which establishes a hierarchy of truth; biblicists – non-Catholic, non-Orthodox, non-Lutheran, and non-Reformed Christians tend in my view to be hyper-biblicists, to think that creeds are better lost than found). I also believe that the “love-obey” and the complementarian frameworks of marriage and the barring of women from the priesthood or the office of ordained elder are compatible with scripture read canonically and creedally.
How we read scripture is important. If you reject the subordination of the teaching of individual passages to the teaching of scripture understood as a whole (one can arrive at the latter only through theological and spiritual discernment, a responsibility which cannot be evaded); if you reject the notion of a hierarchy of truth; you have no choice but to offer me a holy kiss the next time I see you, require women to have long hair and wear hair coverings in worship, and wash my feet and everyone else’s in accordance with a plain sense reading of John 13. If you reject the notion of a hierarchy of truth, you have no choice but to except a geocentric worldview and other details of ancient cosmology that are foundational to the particular way biblical authors express God-given truths; the same goes for ancient understandings of the process of procreation. For most Christians, such biblicisms when enforced today are examples of biblicism gone viral. Put another way, Christians by and large err on the side of biblicism, except when they don’t. Another way has yet to be revealed.
Whether to err or not on the side of biblicism in the case of the call of women to the office of elder is a matter about which Christians legitimately disagree. Since that is my judgment, I cordially disagree with both “biblical complementarians” and “biblical egalitarians.”
In my next post, I will look briefly at Mike’s exegetical observations.
Women in Ministry Series
Women In Ministry: Is There a Biblical View? (Michael Heiser)
Women in Ministry: Why The Issue Matters (John Hobbins)
What the New Testament has to say about Women in Ministry (John Hobbins)
Women as Ministers (Michael Heiser)
Women in Ministry: Response to John Hobbins (Michael Heiser)
Women in Ministry: A Response to Michael Heiser (John Hobbins)
Next Round (Michael Heiser)
Heiser incurs the wrath of McCarthy (John Hobbins)
A Thanks to John Hobbins on the Women in Ministry Issue (Michael Heiser)