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Gender and Bible-Believers: What Some Evangelicals Are Missing

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In 1992, when as a young scholar I published a book defending an egalitarian application of passages about gender in Paul, I was too naïve to recognize the religious minefield into which I was wading. I am now older, gentler and wiser (with some scars to show for it), but grateful to know that I was part of a long egalitarian tradition. Denying that long tradition, some nonegalitarian critics have denounced as unbiblical those who simply employ the Bible differently than they do.

The passages about gender in Pauline writings raise a variety of issues, but for the sake of space I focus on one of the most explicit and thus enduring: the question of women's public ministry. Some argue that Christians must apply particular biblical passages about this question in the same way in all times and cultures. Others of us respond that more passages appear supportive than restrictive, that we should understand the culture that these passages addressed, and that perhaps even the biblical authors themselves might have applied the principles differently in different cultures such as our own.

Sometimes more traditional interpreters have accused those of us who follow this approach of dishonoring the Bible. This accusation, however, misrepresents the debate's real crux: how one should apply the Bible. After all, the prophets, Jesus and Paul all reapplied some earlier biblical principles in new circumstances; addressing a new situation, Paul, for example, adds an explicit exception to Jesus's teaching about divorce. It is therefore biblical as well as pastorally sensitive to consider how we apply texts.

Moreover, the issue involves how we can apply the Bible consistently. Most of those who oppose women's ordination do not follow biblical instructions to greet one another with holy kisses or wear head coverings in church. Most recognize that these were cultural expressions of principles (such as friendly greetings) that may be applied differently in different cultures. Certainly most churches do not take up offerings for the Jerusalem church every Sunday (1 Corinthains 16:1-3) and most Bible readers do not feel compelled to go to Troas, get Paul's cloak and try to take it to him (2 Timothy 4:13). When they neglect these instructions, they do not see themselves as disobeying the Bible. They simply recognize that we need to take into account the situations the biblical writers addressed, before extracting larger principles. That is not only how we read the Bible but how we learn from any wisdom originally written in the past. Nearly all communication uses a language and some cultural setting!

I lack room here to explore the settings that the biblical passages in question addressed, but it is important to note that in a number of passages Paul specifically commends the ministries of women (e.g., Romans 16:1-7; Philippians 4:2-3). He also accepts women publicly praying and prophesying. That affirmation and acceptance suggests to many of us that he would not have universalized those passages attributed to him that uphold some of the more traditional expectations of his day, expectations involving women's silence in mixed-gender company.

Those who charge supporters of women's ordination with disbelieving Scripture often suggest that the supporters import a new, modern prejudice into the Bible. But many who respected the Bible began challenging more restrictive older traditions long before this past generation. John Wesley's mother, Susanna, persuaded him to recognize women preachers on the basis of God's call. Charles Finney and some other major early 19th-century revivalists scandalized more conservative sensibilities by allowing women to pray and testify in public. More dramatically, recent scholarship suggests that we know of at least 100 women preachers in the first four decades of the 1800s.

A number of late-19th-century evangelical leaders, such as Christian & Missionary Alliance founder A. B. Simpson and Baptist A. J. Gordon, combined a high respect for Scripture with support for women in ministry. Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth were particularly adamant in affirming women in ministry. This interest continued in the 20th century. For example, the controversial Aimee Semple MacPherson pastored a California megachurch in the 1920s. To offer a more random example: after we bought our current home, we learned that the widow from whose estate we purchased it was an evangelical Baptist pastor in the 1930s. It is either misinformed or disingenuous to claim that no one with a high view of Scripture has supported women's ordination.

The conservative fundamentalist reaction against modernism eventually worked against these trends; today some evangelical denominations that supported women's ministry a century ago no longer do so. Nevertheless, some estimate that the majority of all women ever ordained have been ordained in Holiness, Pentecostal and charismatic circles -- a sector of Bible-believing evangelicalism very different than the sectors that oppose it.

Although some evangelical seminaries oppose women's ordination, a number of others (e.g., Trinity, Gordon-Conwell and Beeson) host a range of views. Some other evangelical or centrist seminaries firmly support women's ordination, including Palmer (my former institution), Asbury (my current institution) and Fuller, among others. Virtually all mainline seminaries today, including those institutions' faculty members who would identify themselves as evangelical, support women's ordination. An organization called Christians for Biblical Equality provides peer support for many who are both egalitarian and have high respect for Scripture.

The question of women's ordination and the meaning of the texts on which the question is based remain a lively debate in some evangelical circles. I did not resolve the debate with my book ("Paul, Women & Wives"), and I certainly will not resolve it with a brief post here. I am not even raising here the detailed textual questions on which the debates about the biblical texts hinges; I have addressed them elsewhere, but they are not my point here.

What I am suggesting here is that some polemic has been simply unfair. Those who have redefined "evangelical" so as to exclude those supportive of women in ministry speak only for their own brand of evangelicalism, not for many other evangelical groups. When some claim that women's ordination arose as an anti-biblical agenda to undermine Scripture's authority, they show either their unawareness of history or their attempt to coopt a broader title for their own agendas.