Churches and the role of women

Doll in cage

Women gained the right to vote in Australia just over a century ago, and since then, discrimination against women has been gradually removed and made illegal. Yet women still cannot be priests or preachers in many christian churches, making the church significantly our of step with our culture. And many christians are not entirely comfortable with this.

Some opponents of equality in ministry may be misogynists, but in my experience, their prime motivation is to be faithful to the two New Testament passages which appear to proscribe the role of women in christian churches.

Is there a way forward on this issue?

Developing a new Biblical view?

Felicity Dale has been blogging about women and the church for some time at Simply Church. She has argued for new Biblical understandings, and given examples of women God has used in leadership and teaching.

Many christian leaders and teachers are arguing the same. I believe they are right in what they are aiming at, but I’m inclined to think theirs is not the best approach.


Recently she asked the question: “How can we change the world’s perception of the role of women in the church?” I had a bit of a rave in response, and I thought I might post my rave, slightly modified, here.

Changing perceptions

I think we first of all have to be sure that the “traditional” view of the role of women is “wrong”. The general way this is attempted is to interpret the Bible, or more specifically the New Testament, differently, in a way that emphasises the passages that speak of equality and re-interpreting the more obvious passages on the submission and limitations placed on women.

Now I am not entirely convinced by these “new” interpretations. I am left with the feeling that people knew the answer they were looking for, and went out and found an interpretation that gave them the answer they wanted. If I think this, while sympathetic and supportive of equality, I imagine those less sympathetic will be even more suspicious.

Spirit and word

I believe that we need a new understanding of the Bible and of authority, not because it will be a better way of getting to where we both want to go, but because I believe this is the way the Spirit of God is leading us today.

If many of us are praying about this issue and are looking to find a new view of women in Scripture, this suggests to me that the Holy Spirit is putting that aspiration there. If that is so, then we should recognise that this is a “better” way of approaching the Bible – allowing the Spirit to lead praying people together to new understandings

This approach implies a few other things which many may not find easy to come to, but which I believe are heading more in the right direction:

Change within the Bible

We should recognise that there is variation, apparent contradiction, and certainly growth in understanding, within the Bible. Old Testament gives way to New Testament (Luke 16:16). Within the Old Testament we see major growth and development in understanding God, and we even see it in the short time span of the New Testament. So not all applies equally, and certainly not all the Bible applies legalistically to us today.

Not literal rules

The Bible is not an inerrant set of rules we much follow strictly (it doesn’t claim to be and it doesn’t appear to be), but a source of inspired writings which the Spirit can and will use to bring truth to us – but not always the same truth or a literal reading. If we study how Jesus and the New Testament authors quote and use the Old Testament, we find it wasn’t nearly as literal and straightforward as we might expect, but more fluid and unexpected.

The Spirit interprets the Bible

When we seek God’s truth on any matter, it is not enough to gather a few isolated proof texts, it is not even enough to learn Greek usage or cultural context, valuable though these are. We need also to hear from the Holy Spirit. We need to pray together, discern the Spirit’s guidance across the wider body of believers, especially via people with gifts of prophecy and insight, and so allow the Spirit of God to show us how God wants us to understand the Scriptures and his will for us today.

Thus the Scriptures and the Spirit work together to guide us and lead us into new truths, about women, and about many other issues. And the uneasy feeling many of us have about the traditional view on women and other matters shows that we haven’t presently got it right. The intuition we feel that there is a better way can be tested and (I believe) seen to be from God.

Prophetic leadership

But this is unlikely to happen within US evangelicalism, because powerful leaders have too much invested in the status quo or (more charitably) their own understanding of authority and truth. Change will only come when many present leaders retire.

But in the meantime, a new bunch of “prophetic” leaders has already arisen, and will begin to take their place more and more – people like the Simply Church crew, Shane Claiborne, NT Wright, Peter Enns, Rob Bell, Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch (to name just a few). I don’t think everything that everyone in that group teaches is correct, but I believe they are all heading in new and generally Spirit-led directions.

Photo Credit: Rinoninha via Compfight cc

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  1. I think you are on the money with your description of how people tend to interpret texts and the problem of inconsistency among texts. Limiting examples to the New Testament, there is Paul witnessing to the existence of female apostles (not among the twelve!) and saying women are subordinated to their men, but then there are also pseudo-Pauline texts effectively barring women from offices. That is a wide range to mine quotes from. The alternative you offer, while not mine, is very honest.
    Your idea of guidance by the Holy Spirit and how it works out reminds me a little of Paul Tillich’s view of history (now there is an unexpected comparison!).

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