An Open and Closed Case: Women in Christian Leadership

Now that I’ve put it out there that I think N.T. Wright’s Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible Not Fake Ideas of Progress is the best articulation and soundest argument for women in church leadership, I feel a need to qualify that statement. If you followed the link, you noticed that the article is relatively short. He actually spends the majority of it arguing against the notion that the Church should “get with the program” or accept how culture has changed and allow women into leadership along with the rest of the western world. How can I possibly think this is the best argument? There are two primary reasons.

The first is that his driving point of the essay, that changing cultural norms shouldn’t be what determines church policy or Christian belief, is a profoundly important one. As he states, “The Church that forgets to say ‘we must obey God rather than human authorities’ has forgotten what it means to be the Church.” Arguments for women in church leadership that belittle Biblical authority, belittle our Christian faith as well. If the Church is to change its stance on this, it should be because we’ve come to see that barring women from leadership is actually incongruous with our faith.

The second is that he does all the work that needs to be done to illustrate that the case for women to be barred from Christian leadership is not Biblically sound:

“Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.”

Does every instance of women leadership in the Bible (including instances in the Old Testament) and every passage that illustrates God has made men and women equally in imago Dei need to be exhausted before Christians in the West realize that too much has been made of Paul’s words in first Timothy? I don’t think it should be necessary. Wright has stated all that truly needs to be said. Whether you prefer hearing the good news preached by a woman or man is a matter of personal preference. God has clearly called both men and women his children and included us equally in his work. It is not ours to determine whom he gifts with what gifts, instead each of us should use the gifts that we have been given to fulfill our calling. As the apostle Peter said:

“God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen.” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

3 thoughts on “An Open and Closed Case: Women in Christian Leadership

  1. Excellent. I agree with you (and with Tom Wright), and I’m very glad you (and he) articulated that view!

    However, cultural changes DO impact the way we read and understand the text. A century and a half ago, church leaders and laity alike claimed biblical support for the practice of slavery. Now, very few would ever think to do so. Cultural change has altered the way we read and understand those texts.

    But I agree, coming at it from a perspective of “the culture has changed, and it’s time for the church to get with the program and never mind what the Bible says” is a mistake. Those who do that are damaging the legitimate case for women in church leadership. I just wonder who those people are who are saying those things… in my experience, I’ve only heard that type of sentiment in the form of a straw man put up by traditionalists.

    1. Pam,

      You said “A century and a half ago, church leaders and laity alike claimed biblical support for the practice of slavery. ” Maybe you intended to say “some church leaders and laity alike claimed biblical support for the practice of slavery.” As it was 150 years ago, I can say “some church leaders and laity alike claimed biblical support for the abolition of slavery.”

      I understand the point and comparison you are making, and am willing to grant their validity given the qualification I am citing. My concern is all of us need to be cautious regarding general sweeping statements concerning historical situations.


  2. Thank you, Pam and Neurkomment for your responses! The point that Neurkomment made is very important. While our culture DOES influence our interpretation and understanding of the Bible, and each culture has biases that become apparent in how they read God’s word, we CAN still read our Bibles counter-culturally. While we are all imperfect and will not always have perfect theology, we can still recognize poor interpretations. We can still seek to not let our culture drive us too far from the spirit of our faith and a deeper understanding of what it means and looks like to be the Church. There have always been Christians who have done this, who haven’t let culture dictate what faith looks like.

    I’m weary of us letting ourselves stress too much the variance of interpretation. In a recent article Rachel Held Evans made me cringe a little when she stated, “We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others.” Her first line isn’t wrong, but I can’t be content with that last one. The best question to ask is whether or not we are reading the Bible in line with the character of God that has been revealed and the calling that he has made explicit: Love God, Love others, share the Good News. This is the only way to not allow ourselves to be too knocked about by the whims of the spirit of the age.

    It also seems a little unfair to think that Wright is characterizing those people who are using a “get with the program approach” as if they are also saying “and who cares what the Bible thinks.” What I feel he is pointing out is how much the ethics of progress is wrapped up in the conversation. I think he is right. Very often, the subtext of the conversation seems to be ‘The church is behind, let’s catch up!’

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