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Women and Men in Christ

December 2010

The rise of feminism has brought with it a rising tide of debate within the Christian church whether room should remain for any distinction at all between the church roles of men and women.

The Church of Scotland is clear: women are eligible on the same basis as men for any office. Sandyford has no women elders at this time, nor did you give me any women’s names when I invited nominations for new elders during the summer. This is a relief to some Sandyford men and women, and a regret and frustration to others. It seems good to give this some airing.

We bear in mind that the Bible is the sceptre by which our Lord Jesus reigns over us. If the Bible, responsibly understood, clearly forbids a practice then we must not permit it; if it does not, we must allow it.

The total equality of men and women, our equal worth and dignity, is self-evident. God created us “in his own image male and female”; and faith in Christ makes us all God’s children such that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.’

Equality of worth, of course, is not identity of role. Take marriage: a member recently chose to include the words ‘and obey’ in her wedding vows. Her reason was that Scripture says ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is head of the wife.’ The other side of that coin was her new husband’s commitment: ‘and husbands submit to your wives in Christ-copying self-sacrificing love that makes her welfare and fulfilment your non-negotiable top priority.’

I appeal to those of you, therefore, who say that because there are no women elders, women are second class citizens in Sandyford. Hold on a minute. Respecting male headship does not make that young lady a second class citizen in her marriage, nor need it in church. Rather the reverse: look again at his commitments. When well obeyed it protects women and their ministries of service, cherishes their femininity and seeks their fulfilment.

Is there in fact such a role distinction within God’s commands to the church? I have changed my mind on how to understand Scripture’s balancing of ministries between men and women. As we know, there is an apparent discrepancy within 1 Corinthians. 11:5 says, ‘Every woman who prays or prophesies..’ Evidently they did these things even then. But 14:34 says ‘Women should remain silent in the churches.’

What are we being told here? Until recently I resolved that discrepancy by assuming that women remained silent in church but prayed and prophesied elsewhere. I do not now think that is the right way of understanding what is said. After all there were prophetesses even in Old Testament times who spoke from God to the people; Joel’s prophecy leads us to expect more in the way of women ministering now than in the Old Testament era; and we read of women prophesying in the New Testament church. 11.5 must reflect women speaking at public worship.

The evangelical commentator, Paul Barnett, agrees. He says on 11.5, ‘Both men and women exercise the ministries of Spirit-inspired praying and prophesying within the life of the community of faith. This passage teaches us that women alongside men are free to exercise at least some word based ministries within the life of the church.’ And on 14.34: ‘We must resist the temptation to downgrade Paul’s earlier permission for women to prophesy. There is no good reason to relegate a woman prophet to some kind of private setting. Women did prophesy in the public, plenary meeting of believers.’

Barnett suggests that what is being forbidden in chapter 14 is wives disrupting the quiet act of discernment after a word of prophecy. But that is only a best guess. The reality is that we don’t know what it means, which is a very good reason for not being dogmatic.

The same question a arises in regard to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, ‘I do not permit women to teach or to have authority over men.’ It seems contradictory that women clearly did prophesy and pray in the public meeting of believers – and did teach men, Acts 18.26 – and yet were told not to teach. I assume that speaking was generally regarded as appropriate but that there were occasions (perhaps local and temporary) for leaving it to the men to speak; but the huge difficulties in those verses make dogmatism, I suggest, out of order.

Let’s take seriously those different voices and difficult verses. This is not one of the ten commandments nor anything like it, and not a matter on which to rock the CoS boat. Some issues are fundamental; this is not one of them.

As we know, women are engaged in multiple leadership and ministries in Sandyford including leading worship, occasional preaching, leading the Drop-In and the Guild, chairing a Kirk Session committee and others. My change of mind as to the clarity and tenor of Scripture makes me personally accepting of women elders; yet with just that measure of concern with which this blog finishes.

I appeal to those of you, therefore, who regard having women in the eldership as quite wrong: the role is above all one of humble, pastoral service as part of a team. That does not look ‘male only’ to me. The different voices in which the NT speaks of ministry make space, I suggest, for relaxing about this issue and catering for those who would appreciate having a woman as their elder.

We have no policy on this matter. Whether women are nominated is a matter for yourselves, and whether they are then approached, a matter for the Kirk Session. A woman who spoke to me about it – one of those who would be most likely to be proposed – indicated that she would not accept because she believes it far better that this service be reserved for men. In this area our call to esteem one another in love is particularly vital.

To all of us, but especially to you who are frustrated by our present situation, let me add this. Although I think Scripture allows for CoS women elders, a question remains in my heart. In contrast to the contemporary spirit, the NT’s reason for observing male headship (compare 1 Cor.11.1-3!), with that protection of women and of femininity to which it is committed, is based on the way God made things to be: His priority in creation with the male having the right of the firstborn, 1Tim 2.13; His mode of creation: man did not come from woman, but woman from man, 1 Cor. 11.8; and His purpose in creation: man wasn’t created for woman, but woman for man, 1 Cor. 11.9. (adapted from JRWStott, ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’). Mr Still put it, ‘the view that women are not functionally equal (’identical‘ would have been better) with men, although intrinsically equal, is one that goes to the foundation of the human species and springs from differentiation in the triune God.’

If that is a valid understanding of the NT emphasis, how are we going to live it?

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