So you want to be a pro-choice Christian? Here’s what you need.

unbornAllow me to begin by saying that this is not a post about politics, although, it certainly does have major implications for political platforms. We have public figures at all levels of our government claiming to be both Christian and pro-choice. I came across an article this past week in which someone claimed that their Christian faith is what led them to become an abortion provider. Chances are, you have people in your own circles of family and friends who profess Christianity but rally behind the pro-choice cause.

I’ve occasionally heard the claim from some professing Christians that the Bible is silent on the specific issue of abortion, and therefore we cannot be dogmatic about the moral permissibility of terminating a pregnancy. The problem with this argument is, even if it is granted that no Scripture directly mentions the practice of abortion, the essential Christian doctrine of man is what must be dealt with. This doctrine is the true obstacle to reconciling the pro-choice position with Christianity.

When considering the question of whether or not abortion is permissible within a true, orthodox Christian worldview, the central question that must be asked is: What is the entity within the womb of a pregnant woman? Only if we know for absolute certain what it is can we answer the question of whether or not we are morally permitted to destroy that entity.

On a scientific level, we know that:

  1. At conception (fertilization of the egg, making it a zygote), there is a new being with a 100% unique genetic code and the inherent biological potential to mature to a point of independence from the womb. As Drs. Moore and Persaud explain in their embryology textbook, Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology: “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization…This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” 
  2. This entity is not part of the pregnant woman’s body, it is within, and being sustained by, her body.
  3. The entity in the womb is the same thing from day one of conception until the last day of the pregnancy. Its  identity remains the same over the entire 40 weeks. There is no point at which it changes, ontologically, from one kind of thing to another kind of thing. It simply realizes a certain amount of its developmental potential over those 40 weeks. Just as you are the same entity you were at age 2 (just more developed), and will still  be the same entity 10 years from now.

According to the Christian doctrine of man, which is essential to the entire system of Christian belief, we know that:

  1. A human being is more than a material body. It is a duality of body and immaterial soul mysteriously intermingled.
  2. At least some of the attributes of the immaterial soul of a human being constitute the Image of God in which mankind was created (Genesis 1:27). This image is what makes us wholly distinct from all other creatures.
  3. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made humankind in His own image.” I quote this verse not as a statement on the just penalty for murder, but to show why God condemns the murder of a human being: because they bear His image.

Therefore, if someone wants to harmonize their Christianity with the pro-choice position, here’s what they absolutely must have:

A well-grounded argument that produces 100% certainty that the entity within a pregnant woman’s womb does not have a human soul and thus does not bear the Image of God.

 Newsflash: There is no such argument.

If there is any possibility that the entity in the womb has an image-bearing soul, there is no conceivable justification for intentionally destroying that entity. There are, of course, extraordinarily rare situations in which the pregnant woman’s life is mortally endangered by her pregnancy at a time when her unborn baby is not yet mature enough to live outside her womb. But in such cases, the intent behind terminating the pregnancy is not to kill the unborn child, it is to save the mother’s life. In such circumstances, the death of one human being is the unfortunate yet unavoidable outcome of saving one instead of losing both mother and child–which would be doubly tragic.

I would even argue that Scripture strongly suggests that the unborn child is more than a biological machine. The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist leaped within Elizabeth’s womb, seemingly in response to the Holy Spirit filling Elizabeth, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, called out in greeting. (Luke 1:41).

The bottom line is, it is impossible for orthodox Christianity to include the pro-choice view. You may hold one or the other, but you cannot rationally hold both. Scripture is specific and clear on what mankind is: a creature with a physical body and an immortal, immaterial soul that bears the very image of our Creator God. We have no theologically and ethically viable choice but to assume that the image-bearing human soul is present in the unborn from the moment of conception.





The world doesn’t revolve around us…or does it?

From the vantage point of Earth, astrophysicists have estimated that our observable universe has a diameter of approximately 93 billion light years. A light year is approximately 5.9 trillion miles, so multiply those miles times 93 billion, and you have an approximation of the observable cosmos: 549 x 1021 miles—and that’s just the observable region!

Milky Way Galaxy

Milky Way Galaxy

Our minds cannot begin to wrap around that kind of magnitude. Contrast the unimaginable vastness of space with our home planet, which isn’t quite 8,000 miles in diameter and circles a star that is only one of 100 billion others in our Milky Way galaxy—a galaxy which is only one of 100 billion others in the known universe!

By comparison, a human being is a minuscule fraction of a speck on a teensy-tiny bit of rock floating around in an average solar system situated in an unremarkable suburb of a galaxy that is itself dwarfed by the homogeneous enormity of space. Thus the reality is, the entire human race makes far less material impact on the cosmos than flicking a single grain of table salt into the ocean—virtually nil.

Some materialists have argued that these facts strongly suggest that the Christian doctrine of man is false and materialism is true. In other words, rather than being the crown of creation—the central reason for the existence of the universe—mankind is merely one insignificant, accidental by-product of physics and chemistry. Moreover, human existence is only a blip on the cosmic timescale, a brief spark that, in a future epoch, no one will be around to remember.

The problem with this argument is, it totally begs the question in favor of materialism. In other words, it uses materialism as its starting assumption when attempting to argue for materialism. Yes, if materialism is true, if the physical stuff of nature is all there is, then it is reasonable to use material size and longevity as a rubric for comparing things. If we eliminate the fallacy by excluding the starting assumption, the argument is still fatally flawed. As we have already seen, humanity is microscopic (huge understatement) relative to the universe. BUT, we can’t make a philosophical leap from this fact to the conclusion that mankind is not of the utmost cosmic significance. Here’s why.

If humans have immortal, immaterial souls made in the image of God, then we are different kinds of things than inanimate matter and lower creatures. If we are more than physical bodies, we cannot be valued according to our relative size. In order to argue that the Christian conception of human beings is false, a case needs to be made against the existence of the soul. Talking about how small we are physically is completely irrelevant; it says nothing about Christian doctrine whatsoever.

I highly recommend Dr. J.P. Moreland’s excellent short book entitled, The Soul. It does an outstanding job of boiling down dense metaphysical arguments for the soul to a more accessible length and level!

It certainly boggles the human mind to even try to conceive of the sheer enormity of our universe and how comparatively small we are. Nevertheless, Christianity teaches that mankind is cosmically significant by virtue of the kind of thing he is, a creature made in the image of God, possessed of an immortal soul, with life purposes that transcend the material and temporal. As the psalmist remarked, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.”[1]

[1] Psalm 8:3-5, ESV.

Eliminating False Teaching, Not Females Teaching

This will be my final post in what has been a series on gender roles in the church, and I thank all of you who have sent encouraging emails and tweets along the way! Soli Deo gloria! You can read the previous posts in this series by clicking here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

At the conclusion of my first post on 1 Timothy 2I gave fair warning that I would be leaning upon respected New Testament scholars who have done much more thorough academic work on this passage of Scripture than I have had the time to do.  I have studied a few different interpretations, and for the sake of time, I will here explain the argument I find to be the most compelling.

Dr. Craig Keener of Asbury Theological Seminary has written an incredibly helpful book on this topic entitled Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul.  I encourage you to check it out. In addition, he has an excellent summary article that I will be referencing so that you can click over and read the entire piece for yourself.

Just as I have done in previous posts, Keener emphasizes that there is a contradiction with other Pauline epistles if 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is taken as applying to all Christian women in all times and places (also remember the consistency issue with head-coverings, hairstyles, clothing, and jewelry). We must harmonize all of Paul’s teaching and use an even hermeneutic if we are to have a truthful coherence. Moreover, Keener explains why Paul didn’t offer specific details about the parameters of application of the instructions he gives about women in the church:

In 1 Timothy 2:11—15, Paul…forbade women to “teach,” something he apparently allowed elsewhere (Romans 16; Philippians 4:2,3). Thus he presumably addressed the specific situation in this community. Because both Paul and his readers knew their situation and could take it for granted, the situation which elicited Paul’s response was thus assumed in his intended meaning.

(Emphasis, mine.) This makes quite a lot of sense to me. If you’re corresponding with someone about a specific situation they are facing and need counsel on, you’re not going to rehash everything they’ve told you when you respond to them. Paul simply tells Timothy what to do in order to correct the problems at the church he was leading in Ephesus.

Remember what that situation was? Let’s look back at chapter 1:

As I urged you when I was leaving for Macedonia, stay on in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to spread false teachings, nor to occupy themselves with myths and interminable genealogies. Such things promote useless speculations rather than God’s redemptive plan that operates by faith. But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Some have strayed from these and turned away to empty discussion. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently.

Ephesus was a hotbed of pagan worship. The converts of the area had undoubtedly  been steeped in it prior to learning the Gospel of Christ. Apparently, false teachings were circulating, which was a dangerous thing for the young church. It is likely that Christian doctrine was being tainted with pagan notions. Notice in verse 7 (above) how Paul says some in Ephesus desired to be teachers, but they were woefully under-educated and therefore, unqualified to teach. Now look at this passage from 2 Timothy 3:

For some of these insinuate themselves into households and captivate weak women who are overwhelmed with sins and led along by various passions. Such women are always seeking instruction, yet never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

Keener points out that the only passage in the Bible that prohibits women from teaching Scripture just happens to be in the letters to a man who was ministering in an area explicitly known for having false teachers who were targeting women.  The women were susceptible to false teaching due to their serious lack of education. Keener says:

Women were the most susceptible to false teaching only because they had been granted the least education. This behavior was bound to bring reproach on the church from a hostile society that was already convinced Christians subverted the traditional roles of women and slaves. So Paul provided a short-range solution: “Do not teach” (under the present circumstances); and a long-range solution: “Let them learn” (1 Timothy 2:11)…Again it appears that Paul’s long-range plan was to liberate, not subordinate, women’s ministry. The issue is not gender but learning God’s Word. 

(Emphasis, mine.) It is no wonder that Paul would forbid the women in Ephesus from teaching. Instead, he wants them to learn the truth in submission so that the false teaching will not proliferate.

Some have objected that Paul’s references to Eve in the subsequent verses, 1 Timothy 2:13 and 14, mean that he does intend for the instructions to be a permanent prohibition for all women in the church. But Keener disagrees:

If Eve’s deception prohibits all women from teaching, Paul would be claiming that all women, like Eve, are more easily deceived than all men. (One wonders, then, why he would allow women to teach other women, since they would deceive them all the more.) If, however, the deception does not apply to all women, neither does his prohibition of their teaching. Paul probably used Eve to illustrate the situation of the unlearned women he addressed in Ephesus; but he elsewhere used Eve for anyone who is deceived, not just women (2 Corinthians 11:3).

To be sure, we need only look at the numerous instances in history and in contemporary life demonstrating that women are not, universally speaking, more easily deceived than men. So that cannot be what Paul intended to say by bringing up Eve.

Thus, the conclusion is, Paul did not intend his words to Timothy to be taken as binding on all Christian women forevermore. If we take his prohibition to be targeted at a specific community for specific reasons, then there is no contradiction with Paul’s other epistles, where he clearly permits women to pray and prophesy aloud in church. Remember, prophesying was a higher gift than simply teaching (though it included an act of teaching) and it was done in the hearing of all, male and female.

Bottom line: Yes, from a biblical perspective, women can teach mixed audiences.

With that said, I would also like to say, for the record, that I am not convinced that this means God intended for women to be senior pastors (or bishops, etc.). Jesus Christ was incarnate as male, and surely there was a reason for that, though for now we must be content with the mystery of it. It seems to me that those shepherding flocks under His name should be father figures in that sense. However, I harbor no thoughts of judgment whatsoever when I see women holding such positions.

A few final, concluding remarks. When I set out to write this series, one of my main motivations was to gain clarity in my own mind about the truth of the matter. I had procrastinated on analyzing the biblical data and stating my official position concerning the role of women in the church. I owed it to both to myself and to the Christian community to do so. As a woman in ministry, I have always prayed and trusted the Holy Spirit to open and close the appropriate doors, and that approach has been blessed. I am grateful for the work the Spirit has done in my heart as I’ve finally hashed all of this out, and I now have a greater sense of peace and confidence as I anticipate the work He has ordained for me going forward.


A Picture of Redemption! Man and Woman, Partners Teaching All

Today, a brief detour before I complete my examination of 1 Timothy 2. This will function as additional foundation for that penultimate installment in my series on gender roles in the church. 

This past weekend, my husband and I hosted some dear friends of ours for dinner, friends we don’t get to see nearly often enough, due to distance and ministry responsibilities. It was an edifying time of fellowship with like-minded believers, and over the course of the evening the topic of my blog series on gender roles came up. The wife, like me, is in professional apologetics ministry, and is well acquainted with the various negative attitudes that come from certain corners of the church. At one point, she said something that really resonated with me, and the more I’ve pondered it, the more I’ve realized the importance of her remark. Before I tell you what it was she said, I need to lay some groundwork. 

Consider what Scripture tells us about the nature and purpose of woman from the very beginning. Genesis chapter 1, verses 26-28 tell us: 

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” 27 God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.”

Notice that male and female together comprise the humankind that reflects the image of God, the imago Dei. Scripture does not give us a list of attributes that this “image” includes, but theologians throughout church history have argued that it [at least] includes 1) the kind of rationality that sets us apart from the brute animals, 2) our moral conscience, and 3) our spiritual awareness–what John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis.  With these in mind, we have a much richer understanding of the unique fitness of human beings to be joint rulers over the creation. 

Genesis chapter 2 recounts the creation of woman in greater detail: 

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.” 19 The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man named all the animals, the birds of the air, and the living creatures of the field, but for Adam no companion who corresponded to him was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was asleep, he took part of the man’s side and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.23 Then the man said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

Verse 20 says that Adam found “no companion who corresponded to him” among all the other living creatures of the earth. In other words, he found no other image-bearing being to be his counterpart. God had already recognized that Adam’s solitude was not a good situation. When God created woman, the perfect solution, Adam immediately recognized her as bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh; she was his perfect biological complement and his image-bearing equal. She was man’s companion (some translations use the word “helper”).  She was the final piece of the created order that was required to bring it to full goodness. 

Eventually, there was trouble in paradise. When both man and woman fell into sin through their disobedience, the result was a curse upon various aspects of creation. God said that strife would enter the dynamic of the male-female relationship. He said to her, “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you” (Genesis 3:16b). God’s original intent for a side-by-side ruling partnership would now bear the ugly, corrupting effects of humankind’s sin. There would be clashes between man and woman, born of the selfish desires of each; woman would sinfully crave to rule over her husband, but she would suffer his sinful, domineering actions. A lose-lose situation. 

Fast forward to the traditions of the Jewish synagogue, which were not immune to the cancer of the curse. Men would pray three specific blessings, each of which began: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a___________” and ended with “Gentile,” “slave,” or “woman.” These three prayer book blessings illustrate the apparently pervasive sins of racism, the attitude of social status superiority, and misogyny/sexism.  [As a side note, I have to wonder what these men thought of Deborah, a prophetess, ruler, and warrior-heroine who held the highest office of leadership over the nation of Israel during the period of the judges–and who arguably outperformed the majority of the males who held the office before and after her.]  Women were most certainly viewed by Jewish men as second-class citizens, a sort of property. Female testimony in a court of law didn’t even hold as much weight as the testimony of a man. Women were seen as less intelligent and less trustworthy.

But then…Jesus! 

We have already seen the beautiful, powerful ways Jesus turned the world upside down to the great benefit of women. He was an equalizing force during His earthly ministry, but that is not where it ended. His work of atonement set the cosmic wheels of redemption into motion, a motion that is bringing about the very Kingdom of God, the restoration of His good creation, which will culminate in the New Heavens and New Earth. Remember how Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven”? He prayed, in his archetype prayer, for the coming of God’s Kingdom in the here and now. We, his children, are on a journey of sanctification, redeemed by grace through faith from our sin once and for all, but we’re working in partnership with God towards further redemption of the creation–the decrease of sin which brings the waning of some of its effects. As heirs to the Kingdom, we are active participants in God’s master plan to bring that Kingdom about. Alleluia! What a privilege!  

This brings me back around to the comment my friend made the other night. I’ll have to paraphrase, since I didn’t write it down verbatim. She said, “Woman was created to be man’s perfect helper. She has the same rationality, and can therefore think deeply and rationally about theological matters. Isn’t it absurd to say that it is wrong for women to teach men about things of God, for this is one way we are endowed by our Creator to be a helper to men.” 

Yes! This is EXACTLY what we see in Acts chapter 18! Let’s look at the helping role a woman played by teaching a man good theology: 

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit,[d] he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

pricilla and aquila

Priscilla and Aquila

Apollos was a competent, eloquent, and anointed preacher of the Word, but his theology was deficient. Priscilla and Aquila (the wife is named before the husband, which is interesting), having discerned this, take Apollos aside and correct him through sound teaching. The result was a flourishing of Apollos’ ministry as a powerful case-maker for Christ. A woman (Priscilla) and man (Aquila) taught alongside of one another, to the glory of God! What a beautiful picture of redemption! Man and woman working side by side for the sake of the Gospel, and it did not matter that Priscilla was a woman, and Apollos was a man. The Kingdom was breaking in, through the earliest church, and diminishing the effects of the curse in a profound, counter-cultural way.  

Where Seminaries Need to Step Up Their Game: Science and Faith Education

It should come as no surprise to anyone not living under a rock that “scientific
evidence” is the most frequently cited reason for denying the rationality of the Christian faith. Scientism has basically become the surrogate religion of secular humanism; advocates make grand philosophical pronouncements against Christianity religion-science-perspectivesin the guise of “incontrovertible scientific conclusions” about reality.  Several of the “New Atheists,” those writing the screechy New York Times bestsellers intended to persuade the masses, have degrees in the hard sciences, which gives many the [egregiously mistaken] impression that religious belief must be inversely proportional to scientific literacy.  As Christians, we are called to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Yet, only a tiny minority of believers know how to respond to these kinds of arguments.

I think the root of the problem has many threads, but a major one is related to the usual scope of seminary education. In my own online canvassing of the degree programs offered by the better-known seminaries in the United States, I’ve noticed that there are insufficient opportunities for aspiring church and ministry leaders to become well-equipped to 1) interact with the scientific community and 2) guide congregants toward an adequate understanding of science and faith issues. Both of these are important for fostering confident faith and for demonstrating the intellectual rigor of Christianity.

Typically, systematic theology courses touch on scientific issues related to creation or maybe anthropology. Students in some theology or divinity programs may be required to read a book or two on the different interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. This really isn’t enough, in my view. In recent decades there has developed a widespread attitude, within the evangelical Christian community, of fear and/or deep distrust of various scientific disciplines, which has led to a withdrawal from a major (and highly revered) portion of the public sphere. This has reinforced the stereotype of the “anti-science Christian Right.” Ultimately, the project of evangelism has been handicapped, as many believers are unable to make a basic case for the compatibility of science and faith when they encounter a skeptic who has bought into the fallacious rhetoric of “science, therefore no God.”

I find this state-of-affairs frustrating for obvious reasons. I can’t figure out why many of our seminaries aren’t more concerned with turning out graduates prepared to confidently and competently take on one of the leading challenges leveled at Christianity today.

What could seminaries be doing to rectify the situation? I have two suggestions:

  1. A required course in Science and Faith. The course would include examination of the philosophy, science, and theology involved in the contemporary conversation. Students would engage with the various science-based objections to essential doctrine and learn how physics, cosmology, and biology are powerful footnotes to Romans 1:20. I’ve seen a couple of seminary programs that offer an elective course along these lines (hooray!), but it appears that the importance is emphasized only when students are taking a particular concentration in apologetics.
  2. A continuing education certificate in Science and Faith. This would be an outstanding option for anyone (not just seminarians) seeking to understand science and faith issues and become better-equipped for church ministry and evangelism.  It would provide an opportunity for seminary graduates to further their formal education in this area, at a credible institution (important for the CV), without enrolling in another degree program. I’ve only seen one seminary offering this kind of certificate,  although I’ve seen a couple of general apologetics certificate programs that include an element of science. Christian educators and ministry workers of all kinds could take advantage of a certificate program, regardless of their own educational background.

Option 2 stands out to me as possibly having the highest impact potential. I earned my master’s in the discipline of Science and Religion, and it encouraged me to find that many of my fellow students were seminary-trained pastors and other ministry leaders who had recognized the great need for the additional knowledge. However, I think men and women working in full-time ministry, especially those who are also raising families, often lack the time and/or financial resources to do another full-blown academic degree. That’s why I think a continuing education certificate program in science and faith would be an attractive and viable solution that every seminary could execute.

Just my two cents.

Women Cannot Teach Men…Well, Except When They Can

Apostles: Junia (right) with Andronicus (left)

In this series on gender roles in the church, we’ve finally come to what has been called
“the 1 Timothy 2 proof-text bomb.” There is so much to be said about these few verses! They’ve been used as primary justification for the gender-based restraints many churches have placed upon female teachers and for the limitations upon the kinds of leadership roles women may hold. This is serious business; if gifted, anointed, and equipped women are being incorrectly restricted in how they minister, that’s a grave problem, just as women going outside of God’s design for female ministry would be. There are faithful, God-fearing, Bible-believing, eminent theologians on both sides of this debate, so we need to approach our question with the utmost humility and willingness to grow in understanding.
That is my prayer for myself, especially. I have skin in the game, obviously, but I have long and fervently prayed for Holy Spirit guidance on this, and I shall continue. 

1 Timothy is a letter from Paul to his protégé, Timothy, who is ministering in Ephesus. Paul is, first and foremost, concerned with some false doctrine that is circulating among the believers and threatening the area churches. Having dealt with that, he begins chapter 2 by offering instructions to the Christian community for godly conduct. He speaks about the discipline of prayer before turning to a few gender-related instructions. 

Before I go any further, let’s take a look at the passage:

So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute. Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.

“See!” many argue, “The plain, natural reading of I Timothy 2 is unmistakably clear: women are to never teach men or have any position of authority over men!”

While it is true that the “plain, natural reading” of Scripture is our default approach, there are times when it leads to an incorrect understanding. It can be too simplistic, causing us to overlook key linguistic, literary, and/or cultural complexities that could be involved. (Think about all the ridiculous trouble a “plain, natural reading” of passages such as Psalm 104:5 caused for Galileo, who argued that the earth actually moves.)

Now, our burning question about 1 Timothy 2 is whether Paul’s instructions are somehow specific to the Ephesian Christian community during the time of Timothy’s ministry, or if Christians of all subsequent times and in all places are supposed to view these instructions as normative for Christian living. In other words, were there unique conditions in Timothy’s community that made Paul’s prohibitions necessary for its health and growth, or are these prohibitions on women in the Christian community always and everywhere binding

As I’ve been writing this series on gender roles in the church, I’ve thought more and
more about the importance of understanding the full logical outworking of the different views. 
I have observed pervasive inconsistency among those holding the view that these verses should be taken at pure face value and applied to all women in the Christian community forevermore and everywhere.

Case in point: starting with verse 9, we see that Christian women are commanded to not braid their hair, wear expensive clothes, or wear gold or pearl jewelry. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen plenty of nice clothing, gold and pearl jewelry, and many a braided head of hair in churches that prohibit women from teaching men. The fact of the matter is that there’s no ground for saying that verse 9 is metaphorical, or only applicable to a specific culture and time, but that verses 11 and 12 are for all Christian women everywhere forever. We must apply our hermeneutic evenly. Remember how I pointed out this same issue with the head coverings and hair lengths mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 at the end of my previous post? Funny how we don’t hear sermons about head scarves and hairstyles, don’t you think? (By the way, did you know that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 are major reasons Amish women don’t cut their hair, cover their heads with caps, and don’t wear jewelry–not even wedding rings?)

And for that matter, why don’t we see raging debates about whether or not men should
be raising their hands in the air every time they pray in every place? The “plain, natural reading” of Paul’s words say they should be doing so.

Moreover, if we’re going to say that the teaching prohibitions in verses 11 and 12 apply to all Christian women today, we can’t simply pick and choose the situations where they are relevant. Paul never explicitly says that he is talking about what goes on during a formal corporate worship gathering. If the verses are taken “plainly and naturally,” he seems to be merely referring to living within the Christian community. Carson and Moo explain that these verses are about “the way women should dress and live” (see p. 571 of their reference book, An Introduction to the New Testament); they do not say anything indicating that Paul is instructing women on how to behave in a worship service or other kinds of regular church gatherings. (We might pause to ask here how we are to define “the church,” or “worship service.”) 

So, if all Christian women in all times and places are never to teach men, then that would rule out female Bible professors at Christian universities or seminaries, female Bible teachers at Christian high schools teaching teenage males, women leading a Bible study to a mixed group in their dorm room or home, women teaching Christian doctrine to mixed audiences in the mission field (domestic or foreign), women speaking at Christian conferences where men are present, or females serving as youth leaders. It would also rule out mothers instructing their sons in the faith after the sons reach a certain age. It could arguably mean that women shouldn’t write theological books or articles if men will read and learn from them, and that women shouldn’t record their teaching, because men might listen to the recording. 

John Piper has cited 1 Timothy 2 when arguing that “a woman teaching men with authority, week in and week out or every other week or regularly in an adult Sunday school class or whatever…is not under the authority of the New Testament.” Knowing this, I was a bit awestruck by an article a friend sent to me recently. It was a piece written a little over a year ago, and in it Piper quotes this passage from his private journal: 

This morning, as I jogged and listened to a message by Elisabeth Elliot which she had given in Kansas City, I was deeply moved concerning my own inability to suffer magnanimously and without pouting. She was vintage Elliot and the message was the same as ever: Don’t get in touch with your feelings, submit radically to God, and do what is right no matter what. Put your love life on the altar and keep it there until God takes it off. Suffering is normal. Have you no scars, no wounds, with Jesus on the Calvary road?

What? I thought to myself. He listened to a message by a woman, was “deeply moved” by it, and seems to have learned something of spiritual value from it? Does the fact that it was pre-recorded somehow exempt it from Paul’s command (as Piper understands it)? What if Piper listened to the same message as it was delivered live in a church classroom or <gasp!> from a pulpit? What is the fundamental difference other than time and space? Is it an issue of frequency? Is there a certain amount of female teaching that is acceptable for a man to hear in a given time period, and if so, what is the limit? I truly see an inconsistency here. From what I’ve read of Piper’s view, I think he would say that it’s within the framework of the weekly gathering of believers that Paul’s restriction holds, but as I noted above, Paul doesn’t say anything about his instructions being for the weekly Sunday gatherings. In fact, if you back up to verse 8, where he exhorts the men to pray while lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument, he uses the phrase “in every place” not “in the church gathering.” It really seems to me Paul is talking about any and all activity going on in the Christian community. That would include being taught through a woman’s sermon on your iPod…wouldn’t it?

Here’s an interesting note. We know from Acts 16:1 that Timothy had a Christian mother, but a Greek unbeliever for a father. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul says to Timothy, “I recall your sincere faith that was alive first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am sure is in you.” This tells us that Timothy was discipled in the faith by his Christian mother and grandmother. Timothy’s preparatory ministry training came from women. 

The bottom line here is that individuals who take the 1 Timothy 2 passage in its “plain, natural reading” are not consistent in what parts of it they apply to today’s women (and men) and in their views about what contexts require the teaching restrictions. That should tell us that something is amiss. Should we all strive to GET consistent, on the clothing, jewelry, haircuts, head coverings, and hand-raising, as well as in applying the teaching restrictions as broadly as possible? Or, should we view that virtually impossible task as an indicator that something quite different may be going on with the text rather than what the “plain, natural reading” suggests?

A point I made in my last post is also pertinent here. If we take Paul’s words about women being quiet at face value, they contradict his affirmation that women can prophesy and pray out loud in the church setting. This disharmony must be rectified.

In my next installment in this series, I’ll be presenting the alternative interpretations of 1Timothy 2. I plan to unashamedly cheat on that one, using excerpts from the work of widely respected New Testament scholars including Dr. Craig Keener, author of Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul.  Stay tuned. 

On Women Keeping Silent and Not Speaking: Gender Roles in the Church Part 4

Thus far in this series on gender roles in the church, we have examined the biblical evidence for women in ministry and formal discipleship during Jesus’ earthly tenure and for female apostles and deacons during Paul’s post-conversion work. In these next two installments, I will deal with what are, to be sure, the most often cited and (I believe) the most misused passages concerning the Lord’s intention for women in ministry: the prohibitions Paul gives in I Corinthians and I Timothy.

*Remember our goals here: to take cultural context into account and to harmonize all of the New Testament passages related to our topic. A TEXT WITHOUT A CONTEXT IS JUST A PRETEXT FOR WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO MEAN (a pithy little adage that I first heard from Dr. Ben Witherington III).

I Corinthians is a letter of instruction Paul addressed to the first century church at Corinth. In 11:4-15, he writes:  

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head. For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head.For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.11 In any case, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.

 The main thing I want to point out about this passage is that Paul overtly recognizes that women prophesy in church. This is a big deal. Prophesying involved receiving a direct word from the Holy Spirit and speaking/teaching it to the other people present at the church gathering. Paul instructs the women to have their heads properly covered during this practice and during their public prayers. His concern is that the women have an outward signification of being under an authority when they prophesy and pray in the church. 

If you proceed to chapter 12, Paul has more to say about the gifts of the Spirit:

 1With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led. So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.

Take note that Paul is addressing “brothers and sisters” (NET is the version I am using here; some versions use the term “brethren,” which is understood to refer to all believers).*** He makes no gender distinction when it comes to the various gifts that a Christian can receive from the Holy Spirit. The gifts are produced “in everyone.” AND Paul says that “to each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.” He does not say that women are gifted only for the benefit of other women!

In this same chapter, beginning with verse 27, Paul has this to say about the hierarchy of spiritual gifts:

27 Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. 29 Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? 30 Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? 31 But you should be eager for the greater gifts.

Notice that the gift of prophecy is second only to the gift of apostleship, and is above the gift of teaching. He had already recognized that women prophesy in church, and now he’s indicating that this is an even greater responsibility than teaching. He addresses the entire church, men and women, as “Christ’s body” and says that they should be “eager for the greater gifts.”

Now move forward to chapter 14, beginning with verse 1:

1Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened. Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

 Again, Paul is highlighting the great gift and responsibility of prophesying, and says that “one who prophesies speaks to people.” He does not make any gender distinctions here, and says that “one who prophesies builds up the church.” Verse 6 is very informative in this regard as well. Paul addresses “brothers and sisters,” reminding us that his instruction is for all members of the body, not just the men.

 In verse 26, Paul says:

 26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church.

Again addressing “brothers and sisters,” Paul says that “each one” has a lesson, revelation, tongue, and interpretation that are given for the edification of the church as a whole. He is concerned that the worship service be kept orderly, rather than everyone trying to speak at once. He says:

31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged

All can prophesy and all can learn and be encouraged by the prophesying, regardless of the gender of the one prophesying. This must happen by taking proper turns rather than everyone speaking at once.

But then we come to that hard passage that is so often cherry-picked for its seeming prohibition of women holding any sort of verbal instructional role in the church. Beginning in the middle of verse 33, Paul says:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.

 After reading the earlier parts of Paul’s letter, these verses are very jarring. What in the world? Is Paul contradicting everything he said before? We can’t simply take these few verses at literal, plain face value without causing major friction with Paul’s earlier instructions and exhortations. A responsible, rigorous hermeneutic harmonizes and reconciles. So how are we to understand these verses?

Often when we’re dealing with texts that seem, at least on a superficial level, to conflict with one another, knowledge about the cultural context is an enormous help. I believe that to be the case here, and since I am not an expert on culture in first century Corinth, I must lean heavily upon the scholarship of some who are.

Dr. Ben Witherington wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Durham on the topic of women in early Christianity. I learned much from his book, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, and a lecture he gave on this topic at Baylor University. (I highly recommend listening to that lecture!) Dr. Witherington says that Paul is dealing with a specific problem in the Corinthian worship service that needs correction, and that understanding the nature of the problem will shed light on the scope of the given prohibition.

In Greco-Roman pagan religion, which the Corinthians were familiar with, there were figures called Oracles who functioned like a prophet or a medium. One would approach the Oracle and ask questions, seeking wise counsel or information about the future. In verse 35, Paul seems to indicate that the improper speech going on was a disorderly habit of questioning during the prophesying of others in the congregation. This understanding harmonizes very well with the earlier verses about keeping the worship service orderly, with members speaking in turn. Apparently, the women of Corinth were causing disruption with questioning, and Paul admonishes them to keep silent and ask their husbands questions at home. The worship service was not to be a Q&A session. Says Witherington:

Paul is not ruling out the use of proper speech in worship but he is ruling out a form of insubordinate speech. The silence has to do not with all speech but with a specific kind indicated by the context…Paul corrects the abuse not by banning women from ever speaking in worship, but by silencing their particular abuse of speech and redirecting their questions to another time and place…This passage in no way contradicts 1 Corinthians 11:5, nor any other passage which suggests that women taught, preached, prayed, or prophesied in the churches. (pp. 177-178)

N.T. Wright has also offered a viable explanation for how to understand the silence verses in their proper context (he credits Ken Bailey). In the Middle East, women and men sat separately in church and the services would be conducted in classical Arabic, a language the men would have understood, but not the women (who would have only spoken the local language). Wright says:

As a result, the women, not understanding what was going on, would begin to get bored and talk among themselves…the level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, “Will the women please be quiet!” whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet, and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home…[Paul’s] central concern in 1 Corinthians 14 is for order and decency in the church’s worship. What the passage cannot possibly mean is that women had no part in leading public worship, speaking out loud of course as they did so. This is the positive point that is proved at once by the other relevant Corinthian passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2–11, since there Paul gives instructions for how women are to be dressed while engaging in such activities, instructions which obviously wouldn’t be necessary if they had been silent in church all the time. (Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 4, 2006, p. 7) Emphasis, mine.

I believe Witherington and Wright have both offered reasonable avenues for using cultural context to harmonize all of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. Though the explanations differ, the bottom line is the same: Paul is correcting misconduct in the order of worship, and that misconduct could be resolved if the disruptive women would keep silent and ask their questions at home.

Paul’s overall intent is for all the churches to conduct worship services that are structured and well-ordered, not chaotic. He did not mean to rule out the orderly and proper speech of women in the church; he openly recognized that they would speak aloud when exercising their spiritual gifts in the presence of the entire body of believers.  

As a final note, I find it interesting that those who take passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 as applying to all women, in all churches, at all times, in all places almost unanimously treat the verses about headcoverings and gender hair length as only applicable to the first century church in Corinth. Isn’t that completely inconsistent? 

In my next installment, I will discuss the relevant passages from 1 Timothy. 

***For a full discussion of why “brothers and sisters” or a gender-neutral understanding of “brethren” is most appropriate in these passages, see Mark Strauss’ book, Distorting Scripture: The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy, chapter 6.