Saturday, April 27, 2013

Church Chicks and Bible Boys: Time to Play Nice

I’ve been seeing a number of blogs (particularly Rachel Held Evans) and articles (like one in Christianity Today) recently about women’s roles as teachers in the life of the church. It appears that the conversation has been stirred up by a podcast released by John Piper, who feels strongly about restricting or even forbidding women to teach if a man is present (but what if he’s present but dead? Can a woman preach at a man’s funeral? Maybe, if no living men are there).

I tend to not wrestle much with this issue, since I resolved it some time ago for myself. I believe that such restrictions come from a misinterpretation of certain texts of scripture, and I also work for a theological seminary that supports women and men equally in roles of ministry and leadership.

Some claim that Dr. Piper is revealing his own personal hang ups regarding the female body. I can’t really speak to that because I’ve never talked to him about the subject, but I have heard him declare his views about other things, and I suspect it’s more about him wanting to preserve the integrity of scripture—at least, his interpretation of it. While I take different views from his on many subjects related to Christian faith, I have to respect his desire to be true to scripture.

However, there is a problem with this. There is a long history in the church of crashing human lives against our theological interpretations, thinking that we are being faithful to God in the process. Jesus ran into this with the religious leaders of his day, who thought that the very work of God could be limited and restricted by their interpretation of Sabbath Law. Jesus scandalized them when he said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”

When Peter experienced his dramatic vision and then encountered the group of God-fearing gentiles in Antioch (Acts 10), the falling of the Holy Spirit on the people ran cross-grain to his understanding of scripture. After all, gentiles were unclean, and this new story, for Peter and his friends, was a distinctively Jewish story (after all, Jesus was Jewish). So it didn’t make theological and biblical sense to him that the gentiles would receive the Holy Spirit—just like Peter—without prior incorporation into the life of Israel (including circumcision, etc.).

Yet, Peter reported the story to his fellow Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 11) and they ended up affirming the inclusion of the gentiles in the emerging church (although they backslid a little later on). But their affirmation didn’t come about on exegetical grounds; it came phenomenologically. In other words, they didn’t base their decision by revisiting scripture. It came on the basis of Peter’s testimony of the experience he had in Antioch. It would be Paul who would come along later and provide the biblical basis for all of this (see Romans and Galatians).

So here we are now, still wondering how it can be that women are claiming to be filled with the Spirit, hungry for knowledge, sensing a call to be teachers, leaders, and even pastors, but are being crashed against a hermeneutic (interpretation) that is claimed to be immoveable.

I know of respected theological seminaries that do not support women in teaching or church leadership roles, but will allow them to enroll in their school and even pursue the Master of Divinity degree. Some women have reported to me that they were frequently reminded by their professors (sometimes in humiliating ways) that their role in the church had to remain limited or they would be immersed in sin and stand outside of God’s favor. I asked these women if their schools gave them a tuition discount since they couldn’t exactly use the degree that was awarded to them. They said no.

I find it difficult to believe that this exclusionary conversation is still going on. Perhaps I’ve been in the opposite world for so long that I forget how relevant the topic is for so many. I’m sad about the pain that this brings to women in the life of the church.

We really need to stop submitting ourselves unquestioningly to biblical interpretations that imprison human lives. Jesus did this quite frequently with his theological opponents. The apostle Paul had to revisit the biblical narrative on a number of topics, and we are all glad that he did. So is the door closed on that process? Yes, I suppose it is, if indeed the Holy Spirit no longer works in the world.

Maybe all that stopped in Antioch. But I don’t think so.

1 comment:

Jack's Bella said...

Mike, I laughed out loud at a woman preaching at a man's funeral! Thanks for that.

This topic is sad for me. It makes me sad that we are still willing to minimize people. In this case the people are women. I hadn't thought about Peter in light of what you wrote about him. Thanks for that, too.

And finally, "We really need to stop submitting ourselves unquestioningly to biblical interpretations that imprison human lives." I think I've done that. I don't want to be subjected to that kind of treatment anymore, and I don't want to live in a way that subjects others to that kind of treatment anymore. Once again, thanks for that.

I think every person bears the image of God in a way no one else does. How sad for all of us if the image-bearers who happen to be women are "crashed against" so that we never live in the light of the beauty of God that He deposited in them...