Theology is probably not my strongest point, I get impatient with it, I want to move on, I want the answers with everything resolved and neatly organised into custom made boxes. But that’s not how theology works. Maybe by its very nature it has an unresolved tension that runs right through it: a complexity that permanently remains just out of grasp.
It can’t be ignored altogether, but nor can it be rushed. And the legacy of two millennia of deliberation enforce a hesitancy against jumping to conclusions and the risk of hubris of thinking that you know for certain what others have wrestled for generations over.
So I step with some trepidation into the theological terrain of gender. And I do so knowing that behind me sit not only theology but also tradition and reason and culture, all things that flavour and colour the debate. A tradition that has seen men take the primary roles in public and church life, a tradition that suggests a woman’s role is with her family. A culture that tells me men and women are equal and all discrepancies must be removed. And reason that struggles between the two, trying to use the witness of scripture to arbitrate between what is and what should be.
The fact that for pretty much all of the visible history of the church men have held all the leadership roles does not tell us very much. It could either mean that it’s been right all along, and we should carry on as we are. Or that we’ve got it colossally wrong and history just anaesthetises us from this.
I think that the New Testament tells us two broad messages about the role of women within the church and a third that relates more broadly to gender, and maybe specifically to marriage. Here I will deal with the first two and leave the third to a later post.
The first message I pick up is that women were clearly active and present in many, and probably all areas of the early life of the church. Men are clearly the dominant force in the early church and they are the witnesses that we look to in the letters of Paul, the ministry of Peter and the training of Timothy. But women had a role too and from the hints we pick up about Phoebe, Junia and Priscilla their role was significant. Junia was described as highly regarded among the apostles. Scott McKnight has investigated this particular lady’s history and how through many centuries she was exorcised from the text and turned into a man. Women read scripture in public, helped instruct apostles, they hosted churches, they financed ministries, and as an apostle, which Junia was, would have planted churches. The churches we know now cannot easily be compared to those of the first century so working out which roles in our present churches they would occupy if they lived now, or if our churches existed then is a tricky exercise. So instead, I’ll satisfy myself with a broad description that women were significantly involved in the life and leadership of the early church.
The second message is that there are clear prohibitions on the activity of women in the early church. Mostly this involves women not being permitted to speak in church and have authority over men, but it also addresses head-wear and make-up. These, as the most explicit commands relating to gender and the church, have traditionally won the day, and are certainly hard to ignore.
Other arguments are also marshalled against allowing women to occupy positions of leadership which I believe to be spurious and distracting, for example citing the male only membership of Jesus’ twelve disciples. While true as fact it means nothing, absence does not confer endorsement. I would take the issue of slavery as a parallel, Jesus did not speak out against slavery, that does not mean he condones the practice.
Another that I find hard to give credence to is the use of the masculine pronoun when referring to apostles and teachers, and the command that they should be the husband of one wife. Firstly, I see very few churches refusing to permit single men in positions of leadership, even if they would not allow women to occupy them. Secondly, lets play a little game of futurism. In a few centuries time records of the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century come to light. Historians debate whether or not the party allowed women to hold the post of chairman, after all, the title suggests it refers explicitly to a man. The problem comes with the records of Sayeeda Warsi, otherwise recognisable as a woman, but described as a chairman. What are we to think, that this was in fact a man?
As I summarise very briefly the theological landscape surrounding gender and the church I think we have to hold two apparently contradictory messages and decide where that leaves us. One, women were in positions of responsibility and leadership in the early church, secondly that women are instructed not to teach.
The problems that I have with drawing too heavily from the passages that tell of women not speaking in church is that our adherence to them, even in churches that place strict confines on the roles a woman can take, is patchy. For example, very few churches operate a mandatory policy of head-scarves for women. Nor do churches insist women must be completely silent in church as passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 suggest. The point I am making is that even in conservative churches these passages are parsed and interpreted before application.
It seems to me that one of these themes must be wrong, or at least wrongly applied if interpreted as a universal command. And I think that’s where we start to get towards some sort of resolution, for me it is easier to see how the commands requiring women to be silent and not teach men are reflective of specific situations in the early church. It is hard to write off the practice and ministry of women who are commended as highly regarded. Quite where this leaves us I am not certain, but it does show the direction in which I am travelling.