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 Issues | Ministry | Women and ordained ministry

Part 4 : Some common objections to the classical evangelical position.

Isn't male leadership a thing of the past, like slavery?

What about Deborah?

When is a head not a head

A matter of justice

'But I feel called by God.'

A gospel imperative


Isn't male leadership a thing of the past, like slavery?
Firstly, slavery is not a thing of the past.  It is said that there are more people in actual slavery today than ever there was at the height of the slave trade. In the United Kingdom slavery is not legal yet many people, such as domestic servants, live effectively as slaves and we are content to buy goods which have been produced in sweatshops around the world.

Given that such things exist how should the Christian respond to it?  The Bible does not call on us to outlaw slavery, it simply treats it as a fact in a fallen world.  We do not find arguments for the abolition of slavery nor for the assertion of the rights of the slave. Instead we find arguments about the duties of those who are slaves, and those who are masters.

The expectation of slave and master is that they will seek to live in a way that is honouring to Christ.  This is a principle that is relevant to working relationships such as employee and employer.  What is more, if people truly followed the biblical teaching, the abuse that has been part and parcel of slavery would be non-existent and slavery as a practice would not survive long.

The principles that we see in relation to the slaves and masters are directly relevant to the issue of gender roles and ministry.  The desire of the Christian is not to assert their rights, but to live to please God.

In passing, it is worth noting that in Ephesians chapters 5 & 6 when we read about slaves/masters and husband/wife we find sandwiched in the middle reference to children and parents.  If you choose to say that the pattern of relationship between men and women is a thing of the past like slavery then are you prepared to follow the logic and say the same for the relationship of children and parents?

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What about Deborah?
It is argued by some that the example of Deborah, as a woman in leadership, points us to the fact that this is acceptable. That Deborah should be invoked shows how uniform male leadership is in the rest of the Bible. Of course Jezebel would be another example, but she is rarely cited!

We must read the bible properly, as a whole. The book of Judges stands out like a sore thumb. Its leaders are not simple role models - would you want a Vicar like Samson, who slept with prostitutes? The book covers 400 dark years and resonates to the words 'everyone did what was right in his own eyes'. Sadly this is becoming a motto for our day too.

In Judges the commands of God and the book of the law are never mentioned. It is strange, therefore, that people should see such a lawless time as a model for the Christian Church. Moreover, in the account of Deborah, part of the point is that the leader of Israel is a woman. She, knowing that it is not good, pushes Barak forward, but he refuses, this is interpreted as weakness on his part. The prophecy that a woman will kill the enemy serves to underline the point. (As it turns out it was another woman, Jael, who used a tent peg to do the deed - hardly a glorious death for Sisera!)

What the book of Judges does show is that in extremes the commands of God are adaptable. In the case of women's ministry, women pioneer missionaries sometimes led churches because there were no men. Once men were up to the task, the God given practice of a settled and well ordered church prevailed.

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When is a head not a head?
In Ephesians 6 it is stated that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. The logic of this position is followed through in 1 Corinthians 11 with regards teaching and the roles of men and women in a congregation. This is what people mean by headship.
Against this some say 'the commonly used word for headship is a Greek word meaning "source", e.g. the head of a river is its source'. This is a very misleading statement, indeed it is simply wrong. The Greek word in question is kephale which means head (the thing above your shoulders) - we still use it in a variety of medical terms - eg. cephalic. In Ephesians 6 this play on words between head and body is clearly intended. For most people the head is the place from which the body is governed and this is why in Greek and English head refers to authority and leadership, as for example with a Head Teacher. In Greek literature head is used thousands of times in this normal sense. There are a very few instances of the word referring to the starting point of something, or source. Where the word is used in that sense it is just a way of speaking, it does not mean that the head is the source.

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A matter of justice.
Many believe that allowing women to be priests is 'a matter of justice'. Some who used this argument in 1992 in General Synod have subsequently used exactly the same argument with regards homosexual practice. It is deemed unjust to treat people differently because of their gender or sexual practices. The often cited scripture is Galatians 3.28: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' If the justice argument is right then the Apostle Paul who wrote these words in Galatians, not to mention the Holy Spirit who caused them to be written, obviously did not see as clearly as we do what they meant to say. Paul evidently saw no contradiction with the teaching we find elsewhere on the different roles of men and women. Much modern theology is done by taking a principle and applying it to every circumstance regardless of whether the conclusions we reach are in accord with the bible. The logic goes something like this, God is love (clearly true), so love is always right and therefore homosexual love, however expressed physically, is always right. But we must have the humility to admit that if our conclusions contradict the bible then we have gone wrong somewhere. Either our assumptions were wrong, or our logic is wrong, probably both.
The bible teaches both the equal value of women and men, but also that they are different and have different gifts and different roles.

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'But I feel called by God.'
This is by far and away the most difficult objection to answer, and yet the answer is simple. It is like the person who has prayed hard and come to the conviction that it is God's will that they should marry X, only to find that X is equally clear that they must marry someone else. One of them is wrong (probably both), and the person who is wrong is either misinterpreting their own feelings, or being misled. The Church of England has never ordained people simply because they felt called by God. Calling must always be tested and that must begin with the tests laid down in scripture. The scriptures precluded certain people from being appointed as elders and this includes women.

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A gospel imperative.
Some people believe that unless we have identical ministries for men and women our message will be undermined, we will find that people do not listen. Therefore it is essential, for the gospel, that we adapt to the modern world. A similar argument was used 20 and more years ago in relation to liturgy. It was argued that unless we use modern language liturgy people will not come to church. Statistics prove the lie in both arguments - the numerical decline of the Church of England has not been halted by these moves. Indeed what we have seen is that as the Church continues to try and make itself more acceptable and relevant to people today it has actually made itself more and more irrelevant, because people cannot see in the Church any conviction or truth that is different from the world around.

The gospel is the power of God to salvation for them that believe. The modern world is no different to the Roman empire of the 1st Century, biblical teaching on morality and social order is a million miles from the every day world which surrounded those first Christians. Yet by their faithfulness to the word of God, and by the grace and goodness of God, the world was slowly transformed. A pagan empire whose standards were completely alien to the teaching of Christ slowly accepted the message of the early Christians and in many areas biblical morality took root. This is the challenge that faces the Church of God today. Will we abandon biblical faith which seems too hard for the world? Or will we trust that God knows best for His creatures? Are you prepared to say with the Lord Jesus, not my will be done, but Yours.


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Part 5 : Responding in the Parish

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