I was challenged by my curate, in our recent meeting, as to what I thought about women in ministry. I vaguely floundered around Pauls missive in Timothy and tried to debunk it, finishing with, ‘so I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be…’ He, rightly, told me that it was a rather negative approach to a positive answer and that perhaps I should explore it a bit more. So bearing in mind Wednesdays meeting, I thought it might come up in conversation, and that perhaps James was right! So I have read, googled, discussed and these are my conclusions:
Generally speaking opposition to women in the ministry seems to stem from 2 points:
1 – tradition
2 – Pauls various quotes, but particularly 1 Timothy 2:11-12
So, firstly, tradition:
Just because something has been done for hundreds, or even thousands of years, it does not mean it is ‘right’. People smoked for donkeys years before it was discovered it was harmful to their health. In the early days I believe it was even pushed as being good for you (!) In biblical terms many people refer to the fact that slavery was pretty much accepted (or quietly ignored) for centuries by Christians and even by those in the early church and writers of parts of the NT. This is a great point, (although I hate to steal others arguements), in that slavery is something that was socially accepted at the time, it is mentioned in the bible at various points and so could be thought of as being a tradition, in that it happened and was accepted. But it wasn’t ‘right’ and we would have a hard time defending it by any standards.
It is true that for almost 2000 years women were not allowed into positions of ministry within the church (and I refer largely to the CofE). In fact it was only during the last century that they were finally allowed in. Should this be a reason to not allow them to be in ministry now? that they haven’t done in the past? Seems like a pretty weak answer. I mean how many other things would we not do, if we used that arguement? The church would never change or come up with new ideas (hmm, perhaps I have answered my own question there 😉 ) I think Jesus would have been the first one to advocate change, I mean look at what he felt about those who rigidly stuck to the OT laws. Look at what he said about the Pharisees.
In one essay I read a great comment from Sharon Pearson:
The significant aspect of every story about Jesus and the women he met is that Jesus crossed all lines of propriety – religious and social. He did not do what was ‘proper’ according to his day. His very actions were a challenge to the cherished traditions of his own people.
And are we not called to follow Jesus’ example?
Much of what we talk of as dogma, theology, doctrine, rules, regulations etc in the church today do not come directly from scripture. Much of it was put in place by those within the church years ago, admittedly they must have felt guided by God, but it does not say in scripture, ‘this is how church services should be run’, nor does it say this is how your church structure should be… Of course there are vague comments, prayers and so on, but there are not specifics. Perhaps if there were the church would be more unified – but possibly less interesting too 😉 There is no clear distinction on how a church should be run, and the structures we put in place are humanly put in place, hopefully guided by prayer. But we cannot all be right about this. We cannot all be guided by God to form such different opinions can we?
So traditionally there have been no women (although I cannot quantify this, I am sure there must have been a few unofficial ones) in authority in the church. Traditions take years to form and centuries to undo. According to thesaurus.com a tradition is an ‘established practice’. So can we really base a decision on something as important as women in the church on an ‘established practice’. I am sure that it became an ‘established practice’ due to society’s attitude towards women at the time and in subsequent years (which I will go on to below). But society’s attitude to women has changed. Maybe not in every area, but in general women are accepted in hundreds of different areas now than they would have been in the past. They go out to work, hold down very important positions, they can be in parliament, can rule the country. So why is it that parts of the Church insist on denying women their chance to preach the Word, to teach Gods people, to be in positions of authority within the church at large?
2. Pauls opinion. 1 Tim 2:11-12 and others.
Paul is probably one of the most contraversial people in the bible. Some love him, others can stand him! Personally I quite like parts of Paul, but I do recognise why he gets up peoples noses. He says what he thinks, he’s outspoken, he sets rules, he tells people when they are in the wrong. No one likes a know-it-all do they?! BUT he did a pretty good job in furthering the church in areas where the Gospel had never reached before, so he’s a pretty important figure. Most of what he writes is specifically in relation to the churches he has started. And we must remember that when we read Paul, we are only hearing half the story, his books are actually letters and we don’t know what he is responding to or what particular issues there have been in any one church that he feels he should address. For example in 2 Corinthians 11, when he addresses the issue of false apostles.
So the passage that gets commonly quoted is: 1 Tim 2:11-12
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.
Now if you want to take part of the bible literally and out of context then that’s fine, but you can’t just do it with one bit, you have to do it with the whole thing. It annoys me intensely when people start quoting bits of the bible as justification for something that actually is rather irrelevant.I don’t claim to be a bible scholar but you can bet your bottom dollar if I were to claim something using scripture as back up I would get my facts right first. I believe that the bible is Gods word, God given, but I also believe that you need to interpret it to really understand it. You need to look at the circumstances surrounding when and why something was written, particularly a passage so well quoted as this.
As I said we don’t know if there is something specific Paul is referring to here. Perhaps the church in Ephesus (where Timothy is when Paul writes to him) has a problem with women in the congregation? In the previous 2 verses Paul talks about the dress of the women and how they should display themselves. He also says:
v10… but with good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God. (the bold is mine for emphasis)
This would indicate to me that perhaps there had been an issue with some of the women in the congregation, not behaving in a correct and appropriate manner. After all these are new churches, and this is a new practice for those attending, perhaps they are finding it hard to adjust to? (And in fact Ephesus was well know for the women worshipping the goddess Artemis, which would have had a very different set of rules). In these terms I don’t think it is fair to take verses 11-12 without looking at the whole section from 8-15, which gives a far wider view of the situation and what he is saying.
Interestingly on ‘Bible Gateway.com’ the word ‘woman’ in vs 11 and 12 could also be translated as ‘wife’ and the word ‘man’ translated as ‘Husband’, which actually gives a completely different take on the whole passage, suggesting that this is a suggestion of how married couples should behave with each other, not about the church at all.
However.. if one does take it as it is literally written here, then it suggests that women can not teach at all. It does not actually say she cannot teach the Gospel, it just says ‘teach’. But the church now doesn’t object to women being teachers does it? In fact In years gone by teaching was an admirable profession that women were encouraged to go in to. The full passage suggests that women should not braid their hair or wear gold or pearls or expensive clothes. Do you hear the church telling women not to wear gold? or not to wear expensive clothes? No. So why pick on the one bit about teaching in order to make a point – it really doesn’t stand up.
As I mentioned above one must look at the social circumstances surrounding them at the time. What we do know is that women were not educated, their role was in the home in a very traditional way. So it was not common for women to be in positions of power or authority, however there were some and some are referred to in the bible. It was not common place that is true, but that was the society in which they were living and to a certain extent so are we. Times have changed, but in the Church, women are still in a minority. But… they are still there.
Of those few that do appear in the bible, we also don’t know how many others there may have been that were not recorded. Even Paul refers to women who have worked alongside him, such as Priscilla (wife of Aquila) and she is commonly mentioned in this kind of debate as in several places her name is mentioned before her husband, which just didn’t happen at that time. The mans name was always put first and Paul would have known this, he would not have made a simple mistake like this, it had to be intentional, especially as it happens more than once. It is clear from the mentions of them that they have worked together, and Priscilla is referred to as having ‘explained the way of God’ to Apollos (Acts 18:26). If that isn’t teaching I don’t know what is! He mentions other women too who have obviously been working in ministry with him.
There are other women of course referred to in the bible: Deborah, an Old testament Prophetess and judge in a great position of authority; Miriam, wokring with Aaron and Moses; Mary Magdalene was a close friend of Jesus and travelled with Him; and I love the story of Mary & Martha, where Jesus effectively rebukes Martha for doing the traditional work that her womanly role dictated at that time, he says ‘only one thing is needed, Mary has chosen what is better…’. (Luke 10:38-42). Man, if Jesus walked into my house I would rather be sat at his feet learning from him, than cooking or cleaning!
Aside from all of that, statistics seem to show that generally, women make up a larger percentage of Church attendance than men. And women love to learn from each other,they can relate to each other, inspire each other, and they naturally want to share with each other. Isn’t this something that could really help the larger percentage of the congregation? There are so many aspects to being a priest and in so many of them women in the church could bless those around them in ways that men can’t. (I am aware this is a sweeping generalisation but even in feminist terms we have to accept that men and women are different). I think women in the Church can make a huge input and impact on those around them. They can fill in some of the areas that get missed or glossed over in such a male-dominated world. So come on Church of England, get with the times for goodness sake, before it is too late.
(Perhaps I best keep some of this to myself on Wednesday.. 😉 )