Women, Authority, Justice and Hermeneutics

In a perfect world, I’d prefer to never have to debate whether women can have positions of leadership in ministry. As a woman, I’d much rather just be judged on the quality of my work and the attitude of my heart than on my biological capabilities. Unfortunately, I do occasionally find myself having to explain how I can be comfortable in a position of leadership to those who think that the Bible clearly prohibits it.


Most of the Christians I know are so conflicted about the topic of women in ministerial authority that they avoid the question entirely. These are people who love Jesus and want to obey what the Bible teaches but find their instinctive sense of fairness offended by 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. They cannot rectify the God that sacrificed himself for a sinful world and has a special place in his heart for the oppressed with passages that assert men’s authority over women. (And let’s be honest, no matter how many times complementarians claim that men and women are essentially equally but functionally different, it’s still really just another way to say that women are inferior.) The Christians I know instinctively feel that justice is not being served by putting men in authority over women simply by virtue of their anatomy, but they also think they have they have no choice if they want to be faithful to the Bible. 


In their Lausanne Advance Paper, The Partnership of Males and Females in the New Global Equilibrium, Leslie and Chad Segraves provide a valuable service by framing the issue as being about injustice. “The issue of how women can serve,” they write “ cannot remain in a sterile academic arena because it involves an issue of justice for over half the body of Christ and strikes deep at their personal identity.” It is this aspect of the discussion that complementarians conveniently avoid and that non-Christians instinctively understand. Like the Segraves, I will quote N.T. Wright.  “You don’t have to teach children about fairness and unfairness,” he writes in Simply Christian. “A sense of justice comes with the kit of being human.  We know about it, as we say, in our bones.” It is this sense of fairness that is in conflict with the traditional evangelical understanding of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.  It is this sense of fairness that is offended when Christians are forced to say that the Bible teaches that men have authority over women. When the authors state that the equal partnership of men and women in Christian ministry can demonstrate to the world what the kingdom of God looks like, they paint a glorious picture of how we all wish things could be.


But while the Segraves effectively frame the issue in theological terms, arguing that the partnership between men and women reflects the non-hiearchical nature of the Trinity and the character of God’s justice, they purposely do not examine the central passages in the debate.  While I understand the authors’ reasons for not exegeting 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (there have, after all, been entire books written on these verses), it is absolutely essential that these passages be addressed at some point in the discussion. Not addressing these passages might seem to imply that parts of Scripture can be dismissed as culturally-specific simply because we don’t agree with them. More importantly, it gives those who claim that injunctions against women in authority are timeless absolutely no reason to listen to us. If we are not treating Scripture with the seriousness it deserves, then they are justified in rejecting our arguments. By not addressing these passages with a valid hermeneutic, we are allowing the complementarians to claim the “biblical” viewpoint.


My own understanding of these passages is not necessarily that they are culturally-specific, but that they must be balanced with the evidence of women’s authority in the New Testament church.  And while there are other philosophical and theological issues that also influence my interpretation of these verses, I have resigned myself to living in the tension between the authority of Scripture and its various voices.  Read this Advance Paper and tell me what you think?