Quartz Hill School of Theology

Old Diatribe

Status of Women in the Church

by R.P. Nettelhorst

       I'm a Southern Baptist, and I don't agree with the recent updating of the Baptist Faith and Message due to what it has to say about the status of women, among other things. Thankfully, what the Convention votes on is non-binding on individuals and churches, and so I am free to disagree.
       Why do we think it is okay to resist all the curses of Genesis 3 except the one about "the husband ruling over the wife"? (but consider Jesus' teaching on the nature of "ruling" in the church. cf. Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-45; Matthew 23:11-12; Mark 9:34-37; Luke 9:46-48; Luke 22:24-26; Philippians 2:1-8). Why will we argue that "greet one another with a holy kiss" or "women must wear head covers" is culturally conditioned, but are not willing to consider the same possibility with Paul's statement about not letting a woman "teach or have authority" over a man? Why is that universalized, while other statements are comfortably localized?
If women can't teach men, then why do those who argue such still:

1. let women go be single missionaries? If they teach men somewhere other than the U.S., it's not a problem -- especially if they're not white?
2. use books written by women? If the woman puts her words on paper, suddenly she isn't "teaching"?
3. let them "share" in church? If they call it "sharing" then it isn't teaching?
4. "teach" and "hold authority" means that women are only prohibited from being pastors?

       This is like those who try to argue that going to movies is sinful, but define "movie" to mean only "a new theatrical release being shown for money in a large, public auditorium owned by non-Christians". Movies on TV, videocassettes, and films shown in the church auditorium are somehow exempt from the prohibition. Does pointing out the hypocrisy of those who prohibit teaching of men by women prove that the position is wrong? Of course not. But it does demonstrate that there is something amiss. When one discovers widespread inconsistency in the practice of a given doctrinal point, one is not wrong is questioning whether perhaps that inconsistency is indicative of a fundamental problem in the popular interpretation. That is, if the popular interpretation was right, then why such legalistic attempts to get around it as much as possible?
       Of course, one could point out that there is inconsistency in general in human beings avoiding sin and doing what is right. It would be invalid to suggest that perhaps adultery is okay since so many people become adulterers. Inconsistency in behavior does not indicate a given position is wrong, it only tells us that the truth is failing to be practiced one way or the other.
       What could be more human?
       So what are we to do here? Suggest that women should be stripped of all positions of authority in church and never be allowed to teach? If one is to be consistent with the popular (by popular, I mean what both the average churchgoer and the majority of expositors have historically assumed) interpretation of Paul's words to Timothy, that is precisely the case. Those who argue that Paul was prohibiting, forever and always, the teaching of men by women must stop allowing women to teach men anywhere, even the mission field. They must stop allowing materials written by women to be used in the church by men. And women should never be permitted the opportunity to speak in church, whether one calls it "sharing" or "teaching." There is no difference. Women must be kept silent. Even letting them sing in choirs, solo, or even in the congregation, is not acceptable, since singing involves sounds coming out of their mouths, and songs can teach people things.
       Or, if this seems unreasonable (as I hope it would!), perhaps a re-appraisal of what Paul meant would be a good idea. Just because a given meaning seems "obvious" doesn't mean that it is. Remember that our ancestors thought it was "obvious" that the world was flat and the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and stars revolving around it.
       Paul's context (in his letter to Timothy) needs to be taken into account. We recognize that we are not physically with Jesus now, and so his command to Peter to catch a fish and pay the temple tax with the money he takes from the poor creature's mouth is obviously localized (Matthew 17:24-27). But, we do translate the specific command to the general principle that we should live by faith and that we should do what God tells us to do.
       Thus, perhaps, when Paul is prohibiting teaching by women (2 Timothy 2:12-15), we should take it more as a general prohibition against teaching by those unqualified, than as a general rule regarding the place of women, since the women of Paul's day were generally uneducated and thus ill equipped to take on a public teaching role.
       That is, when looking at the text, the cultural and historical context must be examined. There has been a tremendous shift in the opportunities and education of women; women of today, in many respects, are not in the same position as those of Paul's day in the Greek community. (Just as Jesus is no longer around, and so that simple change in circumstance between then and now has an impact on how we fail to universalize his command to Peter to go fishing in order to pay the temple tax).
       What of the use of the woman being duped by the serpent that Paul uses to illustrate his point? Just that, it illustrates the point: that the women of Paul's day, like Adam's wife, were naive and easily lead astray. Would this be the case with all women? And how does a universal prohibition on teaching by all women reconcile with the examples of women teaching in the Bible (Priscilla [Acts 18:26]) or even serving as prophets (Huldah [2 Kings 22:14-20], the four daughters of Philip [Acts 21:8-9]). Remember the fundamental principle: an interpretation that is correct must not create contradiction. If it creates a contradiction, you know it's wrong. Only those interpretations that do not lead to a contradiction can be correct (this does not mean, of course, that just a lack of contradiction means the interpretation is correct; it might still be wrong).
       If there is not a universal prohibition on women teaching men in the Bible, then there is nothing inherently unscriptural about a woman being the senior pastor of the church, or taking on any other leadership position. In the church, as in society, a woman would be able to participate and function in any role she chose. Competence alone should be the qualifying factor for any task. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it should be the "quality" of one's heart, not the "color" of one's skin, that is determinative (or in this case, "quality", not "gender".)
       Some will react against allowing a woman to be pastor by saying, "can you picture…" and then they'll mention some giggly, boy-crazed teenage girl. Well, I don't know that I easily picture any teenager in a leadership role, but all human beings at some stage of their development were infants pooping in their diapers. We must get past the problem of "a prophet is without honor in his own home" mentality. Because we changed someone's diapers, or because we taught them in the youth group, we are forever incapable of picturing them as adults? This is a good way to become a bitter old jerk and worse, to alienate one's own children by never allowing them responsibility, and never recognizing their competence as human beings and adults. Really asinine.

For Further Reading

Is Barefoot and Pregnant God's Plan for Women?


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