Women as Church leaders: An egalitarian view on women preaching and pastoring

(L to R) Beth Moore, Susan Codone and Russell Moore participate in a panel discussion hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Commission called 'Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention' June 10, 2019, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the night before the start of the two-day SBC annual meeting.
(L to R) Beth Moore, Susan Codone and Russell Moore participate in a panel discussion hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Commission called "Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention" June 10, 2019, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the night before the start of the two-day SBC annual meeting. | Photo: BPNews/Van Payne

Did the Apostle Paul really say women can never be pastors?

Within evangelical Christianity the debate surrounding women in ministry, particularly in ordained leadership capacities, is usually framed as complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. Complementarians believe that women are forbidden from holding certain offices in the Church. Egalitarians insist that Scripture does not warrant such restrictions.

In part 1, The Christian Post examined the views of some female complementarians. For this second part, CP interviewed an egalitarian, Ben Witherington III, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

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"There is evidence in the New Testament of women teaching men," Witherington said, noting that it's short-sighted to frame the subject about whether that can happen on a Sunday morning from a pulpit in a church setting.

The Apostle Paul was dealing with socially elite women in places like Ephesus who have likely played important roles in the cult of Artemis or other pagan religions in town, he explained, women who, once they receive Christ, are inclined to think that because they are literate and have the gift mix that they do, they think they can contribute in their newfound faith in similar way as their past.

"What Paul says to that is that you need to listen and learn before you assert leadership and teach," Witherington said.

In a problem solving text the phrase "exercise authority over" means to usurp authority, he clarified.

"He's saying I'm not now permitting you to teach or usurp authority over those who I have already authorized as teachers."

"Neither of those passages has anything to do with ruling women out in general from teaching men. It certainly rules out interrupting a worship service or asserting yourself into a role of leadership when you haven't been authorized to do that."

That these ancient cultures were all patriarchal cannot be ignored, he continued, and the question is how the writers of the New Testament handled this reality.

"The pastoral approach was to start with people where they are. And where are they? You've got an extended family patriarchal household structure. And you have to start with them where they are, not where you'd like them to be," Witherington elaborated, stressing that when interpreting the Scriptures the cultural context in which they were written must be taken into account.

"Paul is putting the yeast of the Gospel into an already existing patriarchal structure and changing it, and quite significantly."

By the time a reader arrives at Ephesians 5:21, Paul essentially says to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

"That's where this is going. You don't just ask what does this say, you ask what is the trajectory of change Paul is working for?"

When considered that way, it is impossible to conclude the apostle is endorsing a male-dominated structure and this radical, new idea took root in the only place where Paul had any sway.

Yet many Protestant churches have watched what has gone on in culture and it has especially upset the male ego, the Asbury professor explained, "and so there has been this colossal pushback, wanting to reinsert this kind of hopefully mild form of patriarchy when in fact it is not the trajectory or direction the New Testament evidence is trying to push us toward."

Among egalitarians, a scholarly work often referenced in making the case for women in ministry leadership roles is Philip Barton Payne's Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters.

"There is no evidence of a present-continual tense verb 'to permit' ever meaning 'I would never permit.' It doesn't ever mean that. It means 'right now I am not permitting this,'" Witherington reiterated, approvingly citing Payne.

What often happens is because in Genesis, Eve is mentioned in the context of being deceived, the assumption among theologians is made that the female sex is more prone to deception than males.

Yet Witherington suggests a revisitation of Genesis is in order. 

The text in Genesis 2:18 reads that it is "not good for man to be alone."

"You'll notice though, that the text never says that it is not good for the woman to be alone," Witherington pointed out, and the Hebrew word for "helper" later on in the verse, when God says "I will make a helper suitable for him" is "ezer," which is regularly used of Yahweh, as Israel's helper.

"There is nothing in that word that implies subordination, or a complementarian view of subordination, nothing at all."

Moreover, Eve is not present when God instructs Adam about not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

"So who instructed her? That would be Adam. And what does Eve say? 'We were told not even to touch the fruit.'"

But that is not what God actually said.

"So, clearly, she's not gotten the instruction correctly. In other words, if you've not been properly instructed, you are subject to being deceived. And that's what's going on in 1 Timothy 2," Witherington said.

"Paul is saying these women have not yet been fully or properly instructed and so they are prone, like Eve was, to being deceived."

Diving even deeper into the Genesis account, the text makes plain that Adam is right there with Eve, elbow to elbow, as she is being tempted, he said.

"He could have said to Eve, 'Stop in the name of love. Do not pick that fruit. We are not doing this.' Does he do that? No, he does just the opposite of that. So who is really to blame here?"

When Paul wants to talk about the cause of the Fall he does not blame Eve, but Adam, citing Romans 5:12-21. Thus, it was Adam who had the original instruction and who knew not to do this but did it anyway in spite of what he knew. Adam was not deceived. He chose to do it, willfully sinning against God.

"By the time Genesis speaks of the curse as a result of sin, God tells Eve 'your desire will be for your husband And he will lord it over you,'" Witherington said.

"That's patriarchy," he summarized, where "'to love and to cherish' degenerates to 'to desire to control,' the effect of the fall on the male-female relationship, the curse on the union, not the original blessing."

The scholar maintains that the Gospel would not have taken off in a profoundly patriarchal culture in the New Testament epistles. Christianity, being an evangelistic faith, was revolutionary, the first of its kind in its missionary zeal.

"Again, you have to start with people where they are," he reiterated.

"So if you're going to be starting a new religion in a new place, you're going to start with the existing structure and work with that and then gradually work change into the existing structure in the context of the Christian community, not in the world in general."

In some ways, 'why are only men allowed to be elders' is the wrong question to ask, he said, noting it would foolish to expect anything different because, for example, in most of the ancient cultures, the testimony of women, unless they were oracles, was not considered as valid as the teaching of men. Evangelizing, then, does not begin by sending 15 good women to Crete to plant a church.

"Instead, you have power couples like Priscilla and Aquila or Andronicus and Junia. And its also the wrong question to say 'Why don't we see more women doing these things?' What is remarkable is that you see any of them," he stressed.

One of the strongest objections from those who oppose female leadership in the church in ordained capacities is that it paves the way for embracing revisionist sexual ethics, namely accepting the active practice of homosexuality and the blessing of same-sex unions. This has seemed to be the case within some liberal Protestant denominations.

But Witherington maintains there is no such connection.

"The only time the New Testament comments on same-sex activity, its comment is: 'Don't do it, it's a sin, it's morally wrong.'"

"The way progressives have tried to get around that, ameliorate that fact, is to say, 'Well, [Paul] didn't know about consenting adults as partners. He's really talking about pederasty, adult men buggering boys or slaves or both. But there is nothing in the way Paul talks about this or anybody else, Philo or even Jesus, that suggests that he is critiquing one form of homosexual behavior," he said.

"If anything, the New Testament ramps up the intensification of what's not permitted in terms of sexual behavior. Adultery is a humongous sin, even more than in the Old Testament. Jesus is pretty clear about this and so is Paul. It's not as though the New Testament is loosening strictures as to what counts as proper sexual behavior. To the contrary, they narrow the focus even more."

This, however, is not to say that the structure of the physical family does not involve some gender-specific roles.

"As much as I would have liked to have endured one for the team and endured the second pregnancy of our second child, I couldn't do that for my wife," Witherington said.

"The mistake is assuming that a person's roles in the church are identical to their roles in the physical family. But roles in the churches are determined by who's gifted, graced, and called to do that. It has nothing to do with gender. It's the Holy Spirit doing the picking, not the XY chromosomes. The confusion about what is true about the physical family and what is true about the family of faith is a big confusion that needs to be properly divided and seen as separate issues."

Why Agree to Disagree doesn't work

"I really think, and it has been said, that the problem in the church is not strong, gifted women. It is weak men who just can't cope with strong, gifted women. They're threatened by that. I've seen that over and over again," Witherington said, when asked about the approach many evangelicals take with regard to the issue, namely that opposing camps "agree to disagree."

Witherington grew up in North Carolina not far from Billy Graham's home and is good friends with Leighton Ford, who was Billy Graham's right hand man.

"If you were to ask Leighton, which of these two persons [Graham's son] Franklin and [daughter] Anne Graham Lotz is the better preacher, hands down he would say Anne Graham Lotz, a much more effective and on-target preacher," Witherington told CP.

"So when people say to me 'Do you believe in women in ministry?' I say 'Believe in it? I've seen it. You must be kidding. My whole life there have been women ministers. And many of them are doing a better job [than the men].'

"What I do think is that if we had more women in leadership roles in churches there would definitely be less abuse. I think there is no question about that. That they would put a stop to that in a heartbeat."

The really good women pastors he knows are quite talented at what he calls "the pastoral side of pastoral ministry."

"For them the apex of their ministry is in trenches, day-to-day, helping people. So preaching on Sunday is a blessing and a bonus and it's very important, but it is not the heart of day-to-day ministry."

He added: "Women who are part of the evangelical church are more than well-aware of what the problems are. You don't need to tell them at all. What are the problems in male-female relationships? They'll tell you."

"The psychology of women in evangelical churches is that they feel they have to be twice as good to be taken as seriously as men. So they're going to do more than due diligence because they're constantly being judged in a way a man wouldn't be judged."

When theologians argue for a strong patriarchal view of church structure is it usually derived from a view of the Trinity where the son is subordinate to the Father, reading the power structure back into the Godhead, he maintains, and it reveals the lengths to which many will go to maintain their power.

But the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a hierarchy, he emphasized.

Patriarchy, a male-dominated society and culture, is a result of human fallenness, "which does not mean that within that structure there are not exceptional women doing exceptional things," Witherington said.

"But Jesus came to reverse this."

Witherington described an a-ha moment he had one day, noting that Jesus was the first religious figure to have female disciples he was not related to, including those who traveled with him. It dawned on him when Peter asks Jesus in Matthew 11 about how many times he should forgive his brother, seven or 70 times?

Jesus says in that exchange: Not 7 or 70, but 70 times 7.

The only other place in the Bible where that number comes up is in the story of Lamech in Genesis. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, was the first person mentioned in Scripture to have ever taken two wives and is the father of Noah.

"Some people, says Lamech, take a seven-fold revenge. But I shall take revenge seven times seventy," he said, Genesis 4:24.

He concluded: "Jesus came to reverse the curse as far as the curse was found. And that includes violence, and murder, patriarchy, and the things that have just made society difficult to endure and inherently self-destructive."

"The more you look at Jesus and the way he treated women, the more you realize that he came as a change agent. He didn't come to bless the patriarchal system and call it good."

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