Why the Debate Over “Women in Ministry” is at a Stalemate…. and What to Do About It

Fifth in a multipart series….

As a reminder, I would ask the reader to read the entire blog post series in sequence, starting with the first one hyperlinked here, before making a final judgment on what I am suggesting. You can always skim it over first, and come back to the tough parts later.

I must be honest. I do not relish having a debate over whether or not women should serve in certain positions of church leadership. I would much rather play guitar, eat gooey pizza, or binge-watch The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, for yet a third time!

The “women in ministry” debate among evangelicals has been around for as long as I have been a Christian, and I do not see any end in sight. Whole denominations and churches split over this issue. Some readers probably already know this, but for those of you who might be somewhat new to the discussion, there are several reasons why this debate continues to persist, without a clear resolution.

First, the most obvious is that the question of gender identity is such a hot button issue within the culture at large. As the cultural momentum continues, to essentially erase gender distinctions (think same-sex marriage, transgenderism, etc.), there is yet a counter-movement that reacts stiffly against it. I will address this in a future blog post in this series, but here, I want to highlight a few other factors that often get overlooked.

So, second, another reason why the “women in leadership” debate continues to persist is that there are just so many wonderful, godly people who line up on different sides in the debate, among our Christian leaders. I respect so many of them, and their devotion to Christ. I have been personally enriched in many ways by all of them. In particular, I am greatly thankful for the contributions of so many exceptional scholars, pastors, and teachers, coming from different perspectives.

On a personal level, I am forever indebted to various men and women, who helped to mentor me, when I was a young Christian as a college student, just as Timothy was indebted to the influence of his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5 ESV).

Perhaps you have heard of some of the following people? Here is a sample of some scholars and/or pastors on the egalitarian side of the debate:

Here on the complementarian side of the debate:

And here is a list of folks who exist somewhere in the middle, leaning mostly complementarian, but with just a bit of egalitarian mixed in, to varying degrees:

  • Andrew Wilson, British teaching pastor and writer.
  • Darrell Bock, Dallas Seminary New Testament scholar, and host of “The Table” podcast.
  • Kathy Keller, wife of pastor Tim Keller.
  • Wendy Alsup, blogger and author.
  • Aimee Byrd, blogger and author.
  • Beth Moore, conference speaker, with that Southern twang.
  • Jen Wilkin, speaker, author, and Bible teacher, at the Village Church, who uses her car key ring as nunchucks, when walking through parking lots at night.

A lot of the above folks are heavy weights, if you read their books. How can I, a mere mortal, contend with such people who know their Bibles backwards and forwards??

Thirdly, the amount of material on this topic is simply overwhelming. The sheer volume of studies representing both egalitarian and complementarian positions on women in leadership is staggering. Who has time to read them all?

Fourthly, this debate continues because the issues can get quite technical.

I mean REALLY TECHNICAL.

…. and it will make your head hurt.

Frankly, diving into the weeds on this requires more than just having a good Bible on hand. It helps to know New Testament Greek, and who in the world, in their right mind, has the time to learn that?!!!!!

Making Your Head Hurt

Here is just one example to blow your mind.

If your eyes start to glaze over, just skim down until the final section of the blog post, in a few paragraphs.

Have you ever heard of the term “textual criticism?” It sounds like a sophisticated term, and off-putting to some. But textual criticism does NOT mean being critical of the Bible, just to clarify that right up front.

For many Christians, the subject of discussing textual criticism, from a conservative evangelical perspective, is as about as exciting as watching paint dry. So what I am about to tell you might wake you up a bit.

New Testament textual criticism has to deal with the study of how we got the Greek New Testament text, that serves as the basis for all of our modern Bible translations. All of the original documents written by the Apostle Paul are completely lost to history. So all we have are copies that have been made over the past 19 centuries. Textual critics study the copies of these New Testament documents that remain in order to estimate, as best as we can, what the original wording was in all of the New Testament books, such as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The good news is that textual critics are very confident that we can faithfully reconstruct the original Greek New Testament, with a high degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, a few nagging problems still remain.

Here is what many textual critics are wrestling with today:

A growing number of textual critics now agree that the “women should keep silent in the churches” verses found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were not a part of the original letter written by Paul. The fact that the passage shows up in different places, in various ancient manuscripts, raises a type of suspicion not found in any other case within the New Testament. Should it be placed after verse 33, as most modern translations do, or after verse 40, as some other manuscripts have it? It might have been added in later by a copyist, in a margin, and unintentionally copied by later copyists.  In full disclosure, other scholars are not as convinced, believing that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is indeed authentic, but still recognize that this passage is at least a little weird. Most believe that even if 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is doubtful, there are enough other passages in the Bible that essentially teach the same thing. Nevertheless, future Bible translations may leave these verses in, only as a footnote, as more research is done on this passage.1

So, women keeping silent at church. Well, what is that all about?

Furthermore, how do you interpret that, when compared to Paul’s statement, in the very same letter, “but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Corinthians 11:5 ESV). When those women pray or prophesies, they are hardly keeping silent. So what gives?2

I better stop this for now, as it is making my head hurt.

… and I am not talking about the type of head hurt you get from a bicycle accident! (That’s an inside joke for some you).

Chess

OK, So What Do You Do About This Stalemate?

So, what is the point, in bringing all of this textual critical blah-blah-blah up? Well, it might be tempting to get discouraged by this state of affairs, with various Bible translations and scholars offering different readings and interpretations, that can make our heads hurt.3

But actually, studying these type of passages gives us a broader appreciation at just how deep a lot of the truth of Scripture goes, more than a casual read simply can give us. In other words, Bible study can be hard work, but it is worth it!

At the same time, it is very easy to get so lost in this stuff that we can easily get distracted from the more important things in the Christian life. My own heart is drawn to consider how we can best share the Gospel of Jesus with our friends, neighbors, and family members, who do not yet know him.

This is why, ultimately, I consider the issue of “women in church leadership” to be an “agree to disagree” issue. If we get too bogged down in debates, it can redirect us away from the vital task of making disciples of all of the nations (Matthew 18:16-20 ESV).

But unless you think this is just some clever, conflict-avoidance technique on my part, this does NOT mean that the issue of “women in church leadership” is somehow unimportant. While we are not dealing with heresy here, we are dealing with misguided thinking, at least somewhere, that can take us down the wrong path. If not handled properly, the question of how men and women serve together in the church can impinge upon how we actually go about making disciples of all of the nations, in a negative, destructive way, and that would be bad.

Really bad.

On the one hand, church history has shown how bad theology about women in the church has inflicted great harm, upon the cause of the Gospel. Women have been denied the opportunities of education, property rights, political rights, etc., as well as being subject to abuse, all under the rubric of bad theology at work in the church.

Yet at the same time, the role of gender in contemporary society is unraveling today, and the church is not immune. The church has the opportunity and obligation to demonstrate to an increasingly confused world, what it means to be truly male and female, but we are not always good at doing this. We owe it particularly to our young people in our churches, to protect them from harm, to care for them, so that they might know what it means to be men and women, and grow in maturity. So, it is vitally important that Christians get this right, for the sake of our witness to the truth of the Gospel.

For example, if we go to an extreme complementarian route, whereby we say, “women, your gifts are not welcomed here,” then it really becomes difficult to reach out to exceptionally gifted women in the name of Jesus. Likewise, if we go the extreme egalitarian route, and encourage really super-talented women to take on the roles that men can be serving in, and those men just become passive in response, it is like saying, “Men, you are not needed here. The women can handle it. Go ahead and play your golf game on Sunday mornings. The ladies have this covered.” That is not good when it comes to reaching out to men, in the name of Jesus.

In other words, if handled properly and well, our study of “women in church leadership” in the Bible, and our conversations with others, can actually free us up, to work together, even with other believers, with whom we disagree, for further ministry with those who so desperately need to hear about the love of Jesus.

If you are tempted to despair, please hang in the discussion. Next, we will consider some of the more unhelpful modes of thinking, that can present some barriers when having constructive conversations with others.

However, you will need your seat belt for the next blog post. We will be going for quite a ride. Stay tuned for more to come in this series….

Notes:

1. The vast majority of issues regarding textual criticism in the New Testament are indeed minor. The most significant textual critical issues involve our understand of the ending of the Gospel of Mark, and the story of the woman caught in adultery. Does the original ending to the Gospel of Mark, include the story about the handling of snakes, or was that ending added later (Mark 16:9-20 ESV)? Was the story about Jesus writing on the ground and urging the woman caught in adultery, to go and sin no more, part of the original Gospel story, or was that added in later (John 7:53-8:11 ESV)? The status of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 ranks far lower in terms of controversy, but it probably holds the number three slot, as being questionable.

2. A common way of understanding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is that Paul’s warning to women to keep silent, is not an absolute command, as this would conflict with the statement just a few chapters earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11:5 , whereby women are encouraged to pray in the worship service, just making sure that they are veiled when doing so. The significance of veiling women is a subject large enough for a blog post of its own. But the point here is that Paul’s warning to keep silent is meant in the context of maintaining order during the worship service, as a large part of 1 Corinthians 14 is about maintaining proper order in worship, in general, as when to speak and when to stay silent, regardless of whether the speaker is a woman or not. …. Back some 20 or 30 years ago, the more popular interpretation was to look at verses 34-35 as kind of a slogan that was going around the Corinthian church, for which Paul seeks to rebuke in verses 36-38, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” The first interpretation discussed is to be preferred. 

3. In addition to largely staying away from 1 Corinthians 14, and Ephesians 5, as well, I am not going to address the really tough stuff, like how the relations between male and female reflect the internal relations with the Triune Godhead, between the Father and the Son (see this blog post on the Eternal Subordination of the Son controversy, by Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson, for my views). This series will be long enough without having to plumb the depths of the ontological nature of the Trinity. Furthermore, I will not try to tackle William Webb’s “trajectory” argument, that contends that while the New Testament does not explicitly affirm women eldership, it offers the trajectory of where the church should go, as it has gone with the issue of slavery. Perhaps I will address these important topics in other blog posts at a later time.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Why the Debate Over “Women in Ministry” is at a Stalemate…. and What to Do About It

  • Van H Savell Jr

    I have been reading the series and appreciate your thoughts. I do like your approach. One thing I see is that in our desire to be doctrinally correct we are forgetting the doctrine of Christian unity and love and forgiveness. The essence of the gospel is Jesus death, burial and resurrection. If someone is teaching that first and foremost then I have to be gracious regarding other secondary issues. Additionally we need to focus on what us repeatedly affirmed in scripture rather than giving particular emphasis to an issue that is dealt with in only a couple of places and may be open to different understandings.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Van, Thank you for commenting on Veracity!
      These are difficult questions to consider, but I appreciate your spirit of urging Christian charity in such discussions. Amen!

      Like

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