Monday, 2 July 2012

The Ordination of Women

Those who oppose the ordination of women claim that their view is scriptural. They refer to Paul’s insistence: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ (1 Tim. 2:12)

Yet, if this is an absolute, why does Paul also say, ‘And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.’ (1 Cor. 11:5)? So women did pray and prophesy publicly and this conditions Paul’s instruction to Timothy. Philip, the deacon and evangelist, had four young daughters who prophesied (Acts. 21:9). Prophets would encourage congregants with elated expressions of thanksgiving for God’s covenant faithfulness and His supernatural subversion of worldly merit. They would instruct, warn and encourage devotion to Him and each other in the face of recent and predicted challenges. These are all the hallmarks of any great sermon.

It is unfortunate that the office of the prophet is not as publicly recognised as that of the evangelist, deacon and elder in today’s church. If anything, the need for prophetic discerning admonition has only increased. However, if the prophet was a recognised church appointment, rather than treated as an ad hoc ministry, would those who oppose the ordination of women then welcome the participation of prophetesses? Or would they produce scripture to support the notion that the prophetic gift had died out. I suspect that it would be the latter because of the historic Protestant focus on centralised pulpit authority. On any given Sunday, one person becomes the unchallenged voice directing the church: evangelist, teacher and preacher rolled into one. It’s a concentration of church authority that is unbiblical and opens the door to the possibility of unprincipled thought manipulation.

The early church liturgy (derived from the synagogue) involved three principal components: the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the formal explanation of the text and an open discussion. When he limited female participation, Paul meant the second component, the formal discourse that was typically delivered by a learned male elder. Even when Paul and Silas travelled to Pisidian Antioch, it is unlikely that they would have delivered that component (Acts 13). More probably, they would have been invited to participate in the reasoned discussion that followed. This principal part of first century synagogue liturgy, the word of encouragement as a part of reasoned group discussion, is now largely missing from modern Christian liturgies. In Berea, the disciples were commended because they ‘were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.’ (Acts 17:11)

Whereas Paul and Silas expected questions and intelligent counter-arguments, we are expected to silently listen to the ‘private interpretation’ formulated by each licensed minister, who expects to promote his/her views without a public post-sermon discussion. The result is that few lay members can discern heresy without the aid of a minister, or reason on behalf of their faith skilfully and convincingly. Scripture memorisation is lacking. The church is reduced to a platform for promoting an orthodoxy that avoids impromptu public scrutiny, far less exposure to external criticism. To thoughtful outsiders, it seems like little more than formulaic mind-control. Explaining the Christian faith is now better learnt from books on Christian apologetics, rather than through the dynamics of a short post-sermon group discussion.

Liturgy should adapt to accommodate open reasoned discussion, rather than the usual unquestioned 40 minute monologue. Post-sermon Q&A sessions, twitters and discussion forums should be buzzing with queries and insights. Instead, the congregation trundles home, knowing that, even if questions are entertained on a one-to-one basis after the sermon, passive consensus is generally preferred to any public vocal expression of their critical thinking faculties. Equally, home study groups can often refuse to entertain reasoned intelligent counter-arguments. Especially, when a controversial opinion can be relegated due to the tightly monitored discussion schedule. How many times has a thoughtful contradiction been either subjected to thinly veiled ridicule, or brushed aside with a remark like, ‘We really must move on!’? It may not be intended as dismissive, but it achieves the same end: the teacher’s zealously guarded status and all of their preconceived agendas remain unassailable.

When Peter and John were arrested by Temple guards and interrogated before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), their lack of formal training was noted. In spite of this, they performed a prophetic role in challenging the majority view. Peter declared that Paul’s knowledge of the Law and Prophets and the revelation given to him regarding the deep truths of salvation therein were exceptional: ‘He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.’ (2 Pet. 3:16)

Nevertheless, the unschooled apostles held the same status as the educated ones. They were all witnesses to the power of Jesus’ resurrection. There was a respectful fraternity without priestly elitism.

We all know that, at that time, adult women would have had little opportunity to devote to the study of the Torah. Paul’s comparison of the first-century situation with Adam and Eve is valid in that the gender disparity in knowledge mirrored the sequence of creation. Paul did not demand that moral insight is to be gained second-hand through men for perpetuity, but he did argue for a disciplinary authority in the church that did not contradict male authority within the Christian family. Just to ensure that he was not misinterpreted, he explained gender interdependence: ‘In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.’ (1 Cor. 11:11)

If a woman could become a recognised prophetess in the early church, gifted women can and should attain a recognised role in the ministry of the modern church. Nevertheless, both genders in Christian ministry would do well to encourage a liturgy that involves public lay participation in a reasoned discussion of the Word. A fifteen minute Sunday post-sermon Q&A session would be a good start. Social media can also be utilised.

In contrast, to deliver a message and then lack the time, inclination or resources to discuss, debate and refine the impact of a sermon straight afterwards in a post-sermon church forum undermines the very purpose of anyone appointed to a position of church oversight. It’s a formula for oppressing our God-given thought faculties and encouraging moral puppet-mastery over the laity. And who wants that?

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