Women & the Church: we’re ALMOST to the Bible, but first…

Well, we’ve gone through some of my own journey and some of the ways this discussion goes, but the real meat of this discussion centers around a few key biblical texts. Various refutes and refutations’ refutes can be found with any easy Google search. I don’t necessarily want to re-hash the more widely-publicized textual minutiae of the issue, though some of that will be necessary.

In this post, I could easily just list the three primary offending texts and then talk about how my view differs from others’ views. But those other people’s views don’t come out of thin air. They are based in many more (and, epistemologically more important) assumptions and bigger issues that usually never get touched on.

And so, as I continue this series, today I just want to touch on the ways people go about using the Bible in this, and then defending how I feel like we should use the Bible here. After this post, beginning next week, I promise we’ll start getting into actual biblical texts. But we need to do this first.

Because, as anyone that has studied theology begins to realize, everything comes back to your chosen interpretive method and filters–what’s usually referred to as a “hermeneutic”.

context, trajectory, or “plain meaning”?

Most of the arguments in this discussion center around one of three approaches to the Bible. Conservatives usually appeal to the “clear” and “plain” meaning of these texts, and scoff at any attempts to “twist” or “muddy-up” otherwise clear and direct teaching. Of course, these “plain meanings” are based on particular, problematic, traditional, and hardly agreed-upon English translations of very difficult texts. (Don’t worry, we’ll get there–in time.)

Egalitarians, on the other hand, usually take one of two approaches. Some (more “liberal”, I’d say–if we must use those therms) say that from Genesis to Jesus to Paul, you see a developed “trajectory” of increasing inclusion and participation of women in the church. And so, while Paul himself was still a little steeped in patriarchy, and women weren’t really doing much in the early church, the stage was set for us, generations later, to take this trajectory that had been put in motion and take it to its (they would say) obvious conclusion: full participation of women in offices of leadership in the church. In essence this is theological “progressivism”.

In my opinion, this whole “trajectory hermeneutic” is so dangerous. There are no limits to it, and it can seemingly be used to justify anything the theologian wants. Of the more widely-appealed-to hermeneutical techniques, this is the one, I feel, that has the least amount of safeguards from abuse.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there has certainly been (and continues to be) theological “advancement” in the history of the church. But I don’t know how that this should be seen as “trajectories” that take us beyond the Bible, as much as new applications (or “re-applications”) and understandings of historical theological principles and beliefs.

As I’ve written before, even when Jesus seems to offer us “new teaching” on divorce that contradicts Moses, he roots his reasoning in the opening chapters of Genesis, something even older than Moses. He could have appealed to a “trajectory” set by Moses and the Prophets, but instead he goes all the way to the beginning.

The other way egalitarians see fit to explain their conviction is by an incessant appeal to “the original context” of the passages in question. They offer historical explanations of phrases and words, and talk about the culture and history of the time and how these texts would have been received by the original audience.

Sometimes, they can seem like they are disregarding the text. In essence, saying, “yeah yeah yeah, I know what the Bible says, but if you only knew what I knew, you’d see that the Bible isn’t saying what it’s saying.” I’ve watched conservatives belittle this historical work, looking with pity at those who espouse it, in essence saying, “it’s cute how many hoops you’ve had to jump through to come to the conclusion you wanted, but no one should have to work this hard to understand what seems like an otherwise clear and unambiguous set of texts. But nice try.”

In defense of context

I get why conservatives feel this way, but I’d argue that these feelings are not only unjustified, but based in the same things they accuse the “liberals” of doing. In ignoring these very real contextual concerns that really do change how one looks at the texts, they are engaging in a different kind (but just as vigorous a set) of mental gymnastics to justify what they think.

But still, it does seem like a lot of work has to go into “explaining” these texts properly.

But here’s what I’d say: this is only the case because the evangelical cultural burden of proof, currently, is falling on the egalitarians, and not the conservatives.

People forget that many of our key Christian doctrines cannot be and were not arrived at from any “plain” reading of biblical texts, but rather, our (generally) universal Christian belief in them was the result of generations of theologians going through this same “look at the context” stuff.

Without understanding the context of Jewish views on worship of God and how the original audience would have received various statements and actions of Jesus, his divinity can’t be defended. Without looking at the philosophical beliefs of the day, the idea of a Trinity cannot be arrived at. Without understanding genre-calibration, source-criticism, and 1st-century beliefs on death and resurrection, the physicality, and historicity of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be clearly established, and people could simply believe that it was a symbolic and poetic recounting. Without knowing 1st-century Jewish messianic hopes, the Cross makes no sense.

Those arguments were had for years and years, with the same vigor as this women in ministry discussion, until a consensus was reached. And now we take that for granted, because we Christians agree on all these things (or should).


Many might see this post as both unnecessary and wordy–a waste of time and space that stalls the discussion where it need not be stalled. But as I’ve watched and listened to more and more conservatives defend complementarianism, the more I think this is important.

You see, in the resources I keep finding, there is this distrust of real historical and cultural work that might challenge our beliefs about these texts. It’s either seen as mental “gymnastics” to justify bad theology or some sort-of elevation of culture and history as more of an authority than the Bible itself.

It is neither.

I will spend much of my time in this series using historical and textual context to defend what I believe to be the most faithful reading of the Bible on this issue. And as I do, I don’t want to seem like I’m twisting things or fitting them into a pre-conceived box or desired goal. Nor do I want to seem like I don’t think the Bible is “enough” for our theology. The Bible is “enough”, but our minds, on their own, are not. Looking at history and culture is not a damage to or demeaning of the text. It’s a light to see it’s meaning more clearly.

A quick note on “perspicuity“, the doctrine of the “clarity of Scripture”: the Bible is “sufficient” and “clear” enough for the essential things of theology, and not every thing of theology. The Gospel, in its most basic and essential contours, is clear enough to be believed, but it takes time with Christ’s Spirit and in Christ’s Body to be more fully applied to various other parts of life. (Even Peter says Paul’s writings are hard to understand!)

As controversial as it (sadly) might be, I find “perspicuity” to be more a principle of how the Holy Spirit moves in Scripture, more than some magical quality of the text itself. Because, as any real reader of Scripture can tell you, there’s nothing inherently clear about that particular arrangement of those particular words. The Bible is not a magic book; it itself is not divine, but it is the primary sacramental mediator between God and His People.

As we press on and delve into both text and context, I want us to respect those things and allow them to challenge our views on women in ministry (even mine).

Next week: The Biblical things that ultimately swayed me on this issue, and why, in the History of the Church, you don’t find more people disagreeing with the widely-held restrictions on women in places of church leadership.


11 thoughts on “Women & the Church: we’re ALMOST to the Bible, but first…

  1. Paul, you’ve always been good at explaining your current position on things. I’m also greatly encouraged to see that you acknowledge the dangers of the “trajectory” hermeneutic and rightly point out that it is a slippery slope that has no real limits.

    What concerns me is that you now seem to believe statements like this:

    “Without understanding the context of Jewish views on worship of God and how the original audience would have received various statements and actions of Jesus, his divinity can’t be defended. Without looking at the philosophical beliefs of the day, the idea of a Trinity cannot be arrived at. Without understanding genre-calibration, source-criticism, and 1st-century beliefs on death and resurrection, the physicality, and historicity of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be arrived at, and people could simply believe that it was a symbolic and poetic recounting. Without knowing 1st-century Jewish messianic hopes, the Cross makes no sense.”

    Perhaps it’s just the way that it sounds. It sounds, though, as if you are saying that one cannot defend the truth of Jesus’ divinity without understanding the context of Jewish views on worship or the way in which the original audience would have received his statements.

    Are you saying that there is no other way for somebody to come to a certainty about the divinity of Jesus without the assistance of his original audience’s reaction? If so, did you actually mean to say that?

    Again, did you really mean to say that we cannot arrive at a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity without looking at “the philosophical beliefs of the day?”

    Yet again, are we truly unable to arrive at a belief in the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ without an understanding of “genre-calibration…and 1st-century beliefs on death and resurrection?”

    Finally, I would argue that the cross has made a great deal of sense to many people who perhaps haven’t the faintest idea about 1st-century Jewish messianic hopes. I will agree with you that there are some to whom the cross is foolishness, but it is not foolishness to them primarily because of their ignorance of 1st-century Judaism. It is foolishness to them because they are perishing spiritually. “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” (1 Corinthians 1:18).


    • Ray, thanks so much for commenting. Yeah, perhaps I didn’t explain that well enough. I’m trying to say something in the middle of what you thought I said and what you wish I said. When anyone steps into Christianity, they don’t do it in isolation, but they step into a stream of Church History that builds on the shoulders of other, past people that HAVE looked into these things and offered us their conclusions that we’ve accepted. And so, if you were to give someone the Bible, entirely disconnected from all culture, history, tradition, and community, I don’t think that person would arrive at, on their own, an orthodox belief in those things I mentioned. We receive nothing apart from the context in which we receive it.

      If you need a “Bible thing” to back this up, I’d simply point to THE Word. Jesus did not come, nor act, nor speak apart from historical and cultural context, nor “clearly” without the need for explanation. There’s a reason he came as a Jew, and not some random guy. He came as the fulfillment of a history and context that needed to be understood by his hearers in order to understand him more fully. That’s why we “exegete” in the first place. That’s why I heard Chris so often say “he who grows isolated, grows weird” (or something like that). We need community. We need the Holy Spirit. We need illumination. We need tradition. And we need Christ to act on our behalf. If all of reality simply revolved around the Bible to the point that that was all we needed, none of those things would be necessary to know ANY truth about God.

      The cross did NOT make sense to the original witnesses (even those that knew the BIble so well!). They needed the Holy Spirit, Community, and Jesus himself (all things OUTSIDE the Scriptures of the time) to unpack it. What about Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch? The Bible didn’t seem to be so clear to him without some other outside resource and wider cultural (Jewish) context being offered to him.

      It’s far too easy for us to claim perspicuity when we’ve grown up drinking the cultural water of core Christian doctrines. Having done this, we then approach Scripture with eyes colored by the ideas of orthodox Christianity. And so, most anyone can read Scripture rightly, NOT because they’ve done all this historical research ahead of time, but because they come and read with mental glasses that have been fashioned by those who did.

      Thanks again for the comment. I look forward to seeing you pop up here more often.


      • I can certainly see where you are coming from Paul, but I still think that you have bought too heavily into the idea that one CANNOT come to an orthodox belief about such things without the sort of traditional hermeneutic that you keep mentioning.

        For instance, in my own life, I became a Christian at the age of 20. I was handed a Bible and I started reading it (on my own). Now, it is true that I first needed scholars to translate the Bible into English for me. I needed some sort of historic Christian community in order for me to get past a language barrier so that I could have access to the truth in God’s word, but I wouldn’t agree that, once I had such access, I was equally dependent upon that community to go from that point to the place of orthodox beliefs. I could read and think for myself.

        I am an example of someone who simply picked up a Bible, started reading, and, without any of that forced or spoon-fed religion, came to an understanding of orthodox Christian beliefs simply with the help of the Holy Spirit. I had no church or any other Christian explaining anything to me. I had no idea that commentaries existed. Far from accepting other people’s conclusions, I didn’t even KNOW anybody else’s conclusions.

        It actually works Paul. The Holy Spirit, without the help of anyone else, CAN lead someone into orthodox beliefs as he is reading the Scriptures. People may arrive at orthodox beliefs more indirectly, but that does not mean that people CANNOT arrive at such beliefs in the way that I did.

        Finally (for now), when you say that the cross did NOT make sense to the original witnesses, I don’t think your argument achieves anything. The question we are considering here is whether or not people who have the Holy Spirit indwelling them can arrive at orthodox Christian beliefs about the life, death and resurrection of Christ without being dependent upon the conclusions of some historic Christian community. I believe that they can. You sound, so far, as if you believe that they cannot.

        Again, I think you have a valid point when you mention the fact that we have benefited from those who have gone before us. However, I think your language is much too strong when you begin to speak about the degree to which we are dependent upon their conclusions for our own convictions.

        As the Scripture says, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24).

        (I look forward to your response from Acts 26:25. More than anything else Paul, I appreciate the opportunity to have these dialogues with a friend, whose process for discovering truth I trust to be guided by the Spirit of God and the desire to know God more. I count it a privilege to know younger men like yourself. It’s been a joy to watch your walk with God over the years. Just don’t become a heretic. I’ll have to come after you at that point.


        • A few quick notes:

          1. Acts 26:24 is now my life verse. Haha.Thank you for that.

          2. I’m glad to hear you don’t ALREADY think I’m a heretic!

          3. I would still say you weren’t reading the Bible from a “clean slate”. Someone handed you a Bible. Why did they do that? They probably let you know that it was in that book that you would see God. You were probably aware of major Christian doctrines (even if you disagreed with them) and had those in your mind as you read. And that’s my main point. You didn’t have to “arrive” at the doctrine of the Trinity in your readings. That historical, cultural, exegetical work had been done for you centuries ago and so when you read, you could simply find things to support it, not “discover it”. No one really “receives” a Bible any more from a completely neutral state. Either a missionary hands it to them (setting them off on the right foot before they read), or they’ve grown up in a culture that at least knows about the Trinity, Divinity of Christ, and the Cross and Resurrection, even if they think it’s silly.

          4. You didn’t really talk about how the Ethiopian Eunuch fits into what you’re saying.

          5. Lastly, even you ultimately appealed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Which, to me, implies that you as well don’t think that the Bible is “enough” on its own. You needed the Holy Spirit and illumination. The word did not have an inherent, magical clarity to them on their own. They needed the Holy Spirit to move within them and speak to you. Am I right?

          And so, in summary, your story, it sounds like to me, was not one of “Bible + Ray = Orthodoxy and Salvation”, but rather “Bible + the fact that a guy gave it to you for this purpose + American culture which had already made you aware of doctrines that had been fought for based on the original context you knew nothing about + Holy Spirit = Salvation”. Tell me if that’s wrong.

          Thanks again. And it’s good that differences don’t have to mean division.


          • I think once again that you have far too many things in your formula for my life. To be sure, I grew up in a part of the world where the idea of Jesus’ divinity was widely accepted. However, that was not a foregone conclusion for me. In fact, I distinctly remember having questions about that as I read the gospel of John, specifically the part where Jesus was speaking to Mary on the morning of the resurrection and said to her, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). I was not at a place yet where I was settled on the question of the divinity of Jesus and what that meant. I saw in John 1:1-18 that Jesus (the Word) was in fact God. But by the time I got to the end of John’s gospel and saw Jesus’ own words, I felt questions in my heart that were eventually reconciled for me through prayer and further study.

            The fact that somebody handed me a Bible doesn’t lend anything to the argument that I needed somebody else’s conclusions to arrive at my own convictions.

            As for the Ethiopian Eunuch, he says that he couldn’t possibly understand what he was reading unless somebody guided him (Acts 8:31). Philip, who had the indwelling Spirit filled that role in the Eunuchs life.

            The uncertainty of the Eunuch, however, is further qualified by what he says in Acts 8:34…”About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” That is what the Eunuch could not understand on his own. He was well able to understand clearly communicated facts about the Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, but he was unable to identify that Servant as Jesus. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

            You have to remember, though, the Eunuch did not have the New Testament. That’s a very important part of this discussion. He had no illumination from the Spirit in written form that could connect the dots for him the way that Philip did. Today, you and I have not only his conversation with Philip, but the dot-connecting writings of Paul, Peter, John, and others.

            And, personally, I don’t see how anyone can separate the Bible and the Holy Spirit such that he would speak about the Bible ALONE being enough for salvation (apart from the work of the Spirit). The Bible is not a collection of writings whose authorship is merely human in origin. “… Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). There is no Bible to read without the Holy Spirit’s initiative.


        • Hi Ray and Paul,
          If you guys don’t mind, I’d like to interject here. I appreciate points both of you are making and wanted to share a couple of my own thoughts:

          1 – Ray, yes, I agree that theoretically at least people can come to some level of orthodox beliefs and faith in Christ by simply opening the Bible and reading it. But the question to me is not “Can someone come to faith/orthodoxy on their own?” but rather “Is that the normative pattern in God’s plan?” In Romans 10:14-17 we find the following:

          “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

          So I would argue that the normative pattern given to us in Scripture is not for people to just open up a Bible and read it by themselves (despite the influence of the Reformation), but rather to be taught and instructed by others.

          2 – I’m also wondering about the main point that Paul (Burkhart) tried to make in the original post here – namely, that for certain more complicated issues (i.e. women and gender issues) we may need/benefit from the assistance of background and context to things Paul and other writers said in Scripture.

          Ray, you seem to be saying that we don’t need commentaries, articles, and other scholarly studies to understand the Bible’s position on issues like women in ministry. Why then do you have/read all those books on your shelf? Why are you wasting your time reading commentaries and theology when you could just open the Bible and grasp all of its nuance on these issues? Of course, I’m being facetious. At the end of the day, I think you’d agree that we can benefit tremendously by consulting these resources.


          • I certainly am not saying that commentaries, articles, and other scholarly studies have no value when we are trying to more accurately understand what we read in the Bible. I don’t think we NEED them (in the strongest sense of that word) in order to arrive at orthodox beliefs. In fact, while I avail myself of such things when I am teaching others, the bulk of my preparation is spent with nothing but the text and the Holy Spirit. In fact, that’s why you don’t hear me quoting too many other people.

            As far as the normative pattern by which people come to orthodox beliefs and faith in Christ, you and I are on the same page. People must call upon the Lord for salvation (Romans 10:13). But THAT kind of call can only come from a believing heart. And no one can believe in the Christ of whom they have not heard. And they can’t hear about Christ unless someone preaches to them about Christ (Romans 10:14-15). We’re on the same page there.

            I’m just saying that the Bible, all by itself, does a good job of preaching Christ. So I don’t discount what God is able to do today through the completed canon of Scripture, even while I agree with you that the normative pattern is not simply “man with Bible and nothing else.”


  2. If you value my opinion at all Paul, I would encourage you to be much quicker to bring the text of the Bible into these discussions. While you are being intentionally slow to get to the Scriptures, you are being intentionally quick to get to your own thoughts and the thoughts of others who were not chosen to be biblical authors. Perhaps that approach to a discovery of truth is not the best one. Just a thought…


  3. And as far as the “women in ministry” issue is concerned, I think a careful study of the historical context of what is said in the Scriptures is simply a responsible way to approach such an issue. I do my best to inform myself of various viewpoints and to consider them as I draw my own conclusions.


  4. Pingback: Women & the Church: the 2 things that began changing my mind {4} | the long way home

  5. Pingback: A Male Feminist Wrestles with the Bible (come watch!) | Prodigal Paul | the long way home

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