Women in church leadership: A reply

My friend Tom asked an important question about the role of women in church leadership, here. He says that he's heard a lot of arguments against female 'eldership' in the church, and wants to hear some arguments for. This is my response.

Tom - thanks for your willingness to grapple with this issue with such authenticity and openness. Given I am exploring a path of church ministry and leadership, I think I owe it to myself and my questioner to respond.

The key offending passage is this: “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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Timothy 2.11-15).

I can see, Tom, why you might find it difficult to biblically justify women in church leadership and, it would seem from the text, in teaching positions (where they teach men). There is nothing ambiguous about 1 Timothy 2.11-15. It’s not my favourite text, or the most quoted text within the modern church, but it is part of our sacred canon, and so must be contended with.

Part of grappling with biblical texts involves putting them alongside other passages. For a fuller picture of the role of women in the early church, we should look to the book of Acts and to the greetings in a number of Paul’s letters, which describe and list a number of women. Not least of these is Priscilla who, along with her husband Aquila, runs a home church. The very early church was based in people’s homes, which, being the locale of family, was the domain of women. The early churches were fairly egalitarian in structure – modeling themselves on a flat-structured family, as opposed to the vertical-structured and male-dominated temple or synagogue. The inclusive and egalitarian nature of the church is expressed nicely in Galations 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

But then, we hit 1 Timothy, which is very clear about the place of women. I actually think that what we have here is two different strands of thought. Galatians is from the more egalitarian early church. 1 Timothy, though attributed to Paul, is probably from the early second century. The language used is quite different, and indicates a later period. It was apparently quite common for followers of important people in the ancient world to write new texts and attribute them to their hero, which appears to be the case for 1 Timothy. Hence it was included in the canon, because Pauline origin was one basis of canonic inclusion. But that is not to dismiss 1 Timothy – though it may not be Paul’s, it was still canonized, and as Christians we are therefore obliged to read it and take it seriously.

Unfortunately, the natural progression of things tends to be away from egalitarian origins, towards concentration of power amongst the powerful. What we see, between the time of Galatians and the time of 1 Timothy, is a movement towards patriarchy.

As such, I cannot read 1 Timothy 2.11-15 as divine revelation. Rather, I read it as divine WARNING – of what happens to radical equality in the midst of power and male dominance.

I have picked. I have chosen. I have decided which tradition I prefer. I do this on the basis of my life experience: of the women leaders who I have seen enrich the church (and what a waste had they been silent!), of the amazing nun who teaches my Gospel of John class (which has men in it), and my church history lecturer who also happens to be the first ordained woman in the Baptist church in Australia (go Marita!).

But I think that is what we are all forced to do. Others privilege 1 Timothy, and they do so on the basis of their life experience, also. For some, silencing women is more appealing than radical equality.

I actually think that it’s amazing that we have hints of a tradition that values female equality in the church within our canon. After all it was the church – the church controlled mainly by men – who chose which texts should become scripture and which should not. But all we have is hints, while the texts that purport to silence women are enshrined loud and clear.

So that’s my two cents, or maybe a dollar. It’s time for dinner, as my fingers are tired from typing this thing twice (the whole thing got deleted before when I tried to squeeze it into Tom's reply box)! Thanks for the question Tom, and may God be with you as you grapple with it further.