Women Men and Ministry

The following takes a ‘meta theological’ or overall Biblical narrative approach in trying to answer the question – ‘What are the big Biblical ideas that help us to find our way in these issues?’
1. Creation: We are all made in the image of God and therefore equal – Gen 1:27. Both the man and the woman are given the role to rule over creation – Gen 1:28. In marriage they are described as “one flesh”, a unity of equality – Gen2:24-25. It should also be noted that the Hebrew word translated as “helper” to describe the woman in Gen 2:18 means one that corresponds to the man or the other side of the coin and is most commonly used of God in the OT. But the fall disturbs all this and introduces inequality and oppression –“he will rule over you” – Gen 2:16. The fall introduces into our natures the propensity to “the will to power” , usually over others and frequently men over women. There are of course many other ramifications of this disturbance in the created order like fear and shame – Gen 3:8-10. The whole plan of salvation is to rectify this disturbance and restore Gods original intentions, which of course includes the relationship between men and women.
2. Redemption: The goal is to reconcile, restore and renew what has been disturbed and fractured. This plan is worked out in history through Israel and the Old Covenant and then finally through the Church in the new Covenant and so unfolds progressively. In the OT the sign of membership of the people of God, who are called out to be the instrument of Gods plan of redemption is circumcision, born by the male members only as the full plan of redemption is not yet fully realised. But when we come to the fulfilment of the plan, with Jesus’ death, resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the Church, it becomes baptism. This sign is now given to all, men, women, children, slaves, Jews and Gentiles-Gal 3:26-28, Coloss 3:9-11, Ephes 2:11-22, Philemon 15-17. So we begin to see the redemptive process of reconciliation, renewal and restoration beginning to work its self out in the relationships of gender, race and status (eg; slave and free). Baptism incorporates us all into Christ where we are united as one. The NT in fact encourages us to see ourselves now not only as equals but in a radical new relationship of servant love (literally slaves) of one another just as Christ served us – Phil 2:5-11, Ephes 5:21, Mark 10:42-45.
3. New creation: So the new people of God, the Church, are to be signs, examples and foretastes of the new creation, the Kingdom that God through Christ is bringing in now and which will be finally consummated when Christ returns and the whole creation is healed and renewed – Rom 8:18-27, Rev 5:9-10, 22:2 (‘the healing of the nations’.)
4. Ministry: In the new people of God all are equal and servants of one another, therefore ministry and role are by gift (Charism) of the Holy Spirit – I Cor 12:1-31, Rom 12:3-8. Roles and ministry are no longer to be determined by gender, inherited position (OT Priesthood), the world’s cultural constructs of hierarchy and imposed authority, but by the Spirit. The proper ordering of the gifts of ministry is a function of the new covenant community operating in its new understanding of itself as a community of redeemed equals in which the disturbed relations between people and particularly men and women and the judgements of the fall are now in the process of redemption. So all tendencies to the fallen “will to power” over one another must be eschewed and excluded from whatever method of ordering the gifts a particular community or group of communities decides. The other factors to be considered when appointing people for ministry and leadership roles in the new redeemed community include matters of character, spiritual maturity, sanctification and trustworthiness and those of the kind listed in – 1Tim 3:1-12, Titus 1: 5-9. There is no essential or ontological hierarchy in the Church apart from Christ who is the head of the body.
The following are notes on: The Pauline texts on men and women in Christian marriage and women in Ministry and two of the major solutions proposed to resolve the difficulties encountered in the NT and the disagreements that have resulted. They are: (a) ‘Equal but different’ (Complementarians) and (b)The idea of ‘Strategic cultural adaption for the sake of evangelism’ by the NT church alongside its radical redemptive teaching on human relationships of equality, unity and mutual servant hood.
1. Christian marriage: In the NT Christian marriage is seen as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his people – we are ‘the bride of Christ’ – Eph 5:31-33, Rev 21:1-2. Christian marriage is to be understood as a sign and expression of the new people of God in which the original intentions for the relationships between men and women described in Gen 1-2 are to be worked out in a partnership of unity, equality, love and mutual servanthood. – Eph 5: 21. The binding covenant and promises required in Christian marriage provide the security and commitment for this process to take place in the intimacy of the marriage relationship. In this way marriage becomes a sign of: (a) the Gospel of redemption and (b) the intimate relationship possible now between Christ and his people and (c) the new redeemed community, the Church.
But this ‘meta theological’ view creates an apparent tension or paradox with Pauls other statements on men and women. In Ephe 5:22-24 the tension between Paul’s statements about submission of wives and the idea of the restored equality under the new covenant is within the text of Eph 5 itself as vs 21, which introduces the section on marriage, says we are to submit to each other! Paul also expects in vs 25 the husband to adopt Christ’s servant example in his relationship with his wife. Is Paul taking for granted their fundamental unity in Christ, as per Gal 3:26-28 (etc.), and referring to their roles – and therefore stating the ‘equal but different complementarian approach’? The other alternative is that this is an example of ‘strategic cultural adaption.’ These alternatives and their various merits and difficulties will be discussed further below.
2. Women in ministry: The question is how are we to resolve the tension between Paul’s restrictions on women in ministry and the macro theological picture presented in the Bibles redemption narrative?
(i) The Complementarian approach. In this resolution men and women are seen as equal but different, having different roles in the family and in the Church, particularly in relation to leadership and ministry. The problems here are as follows: (a) That it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the man and the woman in Gen 1-2 and Gods original intention and imports into the creation account role differences like leadership. The account has no mention of role distinctions and, as we pointed out earlier, the Hebrew word in Gen 2:18 translated in English as ‘helper’, which has given rise to much misunderstanding, does not refer to a particular role that is different to the mans but actually means ‘one who corresponds to’, or as we might say, ‘the other half of the coin’. It is a description of their mutual interdependence – they are only complete together – “one flesh”. The only difference is in their male and femaleness and the woman’s ability to bear children. (Later in the Mosaic instructions it will be clear that the responsibility for the children’s nurture as in their conception is a mutual responsibility.) It is one of the goals of the redemption plan to restore this original relationship disturbed by the fall. (b) That particular roles like leadership and eldership are associated with authority, power and control which frequently conflict with expressions of equality. (c) That because of the effects of the fall we are all vulnerable to the temptation of “the will to power” and the seduction of hierarchy, and our vulnerability to this is particularly acute in male female relations. (d) Pauls teaching appears to hold an unresolved tension between his radical redemptive teaching on the effects of the Gospel on human relationships in the new covenant community (Gal 3:26-28, Colos 3: 9-11 etc.,) and his comments on male and female roles in the family and the Church.
(ii) The Strategic cultural adaption approach. This resolution sees Paul’s instructions as an expression of strategic cultural adaption for the sake of evangelism. Because first century culture is highly patriarchal it would have been culturally unacceptable for women to lead in church or to publically evangelise. So the Church accepts some of the limitations of current cultural norms for the practical reason of the ability to publicly witness. But at the same time it teaches within the fellowship the radical redemptive ideas of equality in Christ. This creates certain tensions. It should therefore not surprise us to find in such a dynamic and developing environment as the NT Church examples of cultural and practical inconsistencies regarding women and ministry. For example women are described as ‘fellow workers’, ‘deacons’ and ‘Prophets’. In Paul’s list of people and fellow workers he wishes to thank in Romans 16: 1-27 there are at least nine women’s names! He begins his list with Priscilla who we know from Acts 18:24-28 instructed the gifted teacher Apollos .(For further examples see the notes in the references )
There are a number of examples of this tension in other areas of cultural clash between the Gospel and the first century world: (a) Slavery – there were many slaves among the members of the new Christian churches. Paul clearly takes the cultural adaption approach with Onesimus the runaway slave in his letter to Philemon his Christian master as he sends him back as Roman law required. At the same time he exhorts Philemon to see Onesimus as his brother in Christ – vs 15-16. In 1Tim 6:1 the sensitivity to the cultural issue is very clear – “so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered”. In Coloss 3:22 he encourages slaves to obey their masters and then in 4:1 relativises their authority by saying both master and slave are under Gods authority. In I Cor 7:21-23 he says to Christian slaves that in Christ they are really free people and if they can gain free legal status they should. In 1Tim 1:8-11 he describes slave traders as evil and breakers of God’s law. These references show clearly the tension described above.
(b) Circumcision – Paul argues strongly in Gal 5:1-3 against non Jewish Christians being circumcised as this conflicts with the Gospel of grace (see also Coloss 2:9-12). Paul with Barnabas argued strongly against requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised at the first Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the Council agreed –Acts 15:19-21. And yet Paul has Timothy who has a Jewish mother and Greek father circumcised for the reasons of cultural sensitivities among the Jews they were attempting to evangelise at Lystra – Acts 16: 1-5. Another example of cultural adaption for the sake of witness and a very controversial one! (c) Clean and unclean food: The Council at Jerusalem had put forward the cultural principle (Acts 15:19-21) of respecting the sensitivities about foods that were forbidden to Jews and Paul respects these. But when teaching non Jewish converts about their new freedom in Christ he makes it very clear that these are not required by the Gospel and are only to be considered in evangelism to Jews and discipling young Gentile believers who are still influenced by Pagan sensibilities of idol worship and the food offered to them – 1Cor 8:1-13, 10:23-33. (d) Head covering and uncovering – men and women: This is another area in which the cultural principle can be observed. In Pauls day for a woman to remove her head covering and expose her hair in public was a sign of loose morals and sexual promiscuity. If she was married this would be a sign of gross disrespect to her husband. Men were to worship uncovered. I Cor 11:1-16 deals with this issue, it is a passage that is notoriously difficult to exegete and has been the subject of much controversy but it is very relevant. One thing is clear it is about cultural propriety in public worship and the common custom of the churches at the time, as vs 13 & 16 shows. In the process of his argument vs’s 11-12 reveal another example of how Paul grapples with the tension between the creation accounts of the equality and the mutual interdependence of men and women and the pressure of cultural adaption. The tension is clearly revealed in his equivocation about the instructions he is giving in vs’s 11-16.
The I Tim 2:11-16 passage should also be commented on at this point as it is Pauls response to another occasion of the issue of cultural proprietary in public worship. This passage is much commented on and the interpretations are vigorously disputed so my comments will be brief! The following points should be noted: (i) Verses 9-10 indicate that the instructions arise because of the proprietary of women’s dress and hair adornment in worship. This is similar to the occasion for the instructions in 1Cor 11. This was obviously a sensitive issue in the culture of the day! (ii) The context of 1 &2 Tim also indicates that there were specific issues with false teaching at the Church at Ephesus – 1Tim 1:4-7, 2 Tim 2:16-19, 3:6-9, 4: 2-4. (iii) At this time most women in the general culture were uneducated, it was similar in Judaism where the Rabbis were very reluctant to have women as disciples. This would have added weight to Paul’s concerns for women to be teaching in Ephesus at a time when false teaching was present. Paul presents two strategies to meet these concerns: (a) The short range one – to forbid women to teach. (b) The long range one- educate the women , Vs 11 “a woman should learn.” It is worth noting in the cultural context Paul was addressing that this gender specific encouragement is actually counter cultural! So once again we see the cultural tension issue arise – adaption alongside radical redemptive change. (The footnotes have further comments on the 1Tim 2:11-15 passage, in particular on Pauls remarks on the “creation order” in Gen 1-2. See also Craig S Keener’s excellent but brief commentary on these passages. )

Paul’s general cultural principle in evangelism: This is found in 1Cor 9:19-23. “Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jew I became a Jew……I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some..….” For Paul his Mission was always the priority, if that required strategic cultural adaption he was prepared to take the risk!

The danger of cultural adaption is of course cultural conformity that reduces and compromises the radical redemptive message of the Gospel. It certainly seems when you look at the NT evidence in this way that the early Church did a balancing act walking the fine line of strategic cultural adaption to its culture for the sake of evangelism and at the same time avoiding cultural conformity. It is also clear that the NT contains evidence of failure to resist the conforming and corrupting influence of certain cultural forces such as the Gnostic influences that Paul tackles in Colossians and the constant tendency for Jewish converts to drift back to the legalism of Judaism that he tackles in Galatian’s and is also seen in the letter to the Hebrews. Also the corrosive effect of the general ungodliness and moral decadence of the first century Greco/ Roman culture that we see reflected in I Corinthians and described in 2Tim 3:1-5 had its effect on some.

The reason the early Church did not fall into complete cultural conformity is I believe because of the following :( 1) The NT Church was gripped by a living experience of the Holy Spirit. (2) The nature of the freedom that the Gospel brought to them was so radical and fresh in contrast to their 1st C culture, whether Jewish or Pagan, that they really felt ‘saved, liberated and redeemed’ – like converts in Africa, Asia and China or converts from Islam feel today. It is also why evangelism is so hard in the jaded post Christian West. Its people have the hard won fruits of Christian freedom and its radical view of the equality and dignity of every human person, which they take for granted, but are no longer aware of the origin of these values, they have also rejected their transcendent source. (3) While the early Christians were culturally savvy and pursued their outward evangelism strategies with great courage, energy and cultural sensitivity, it is also clear from the NT letters that the Apostles and teachers continued to teach within the Churches the radical nature of the redemptive and relationally transforming power of the Gospel. This would have been supported by the regular reading and reflection on the Gospels and the radical teachings of Jesus. (4) There were also clear points at which they drew a line in the sand in cultural adaption. For example; the Lordship of Christ over their lives could never be compromised, there was only one who could be called Kurios (Lord) and that was Jesus. That led eventually to persecution when they would not take part in the civil ceremonies of allegiance to the Emperor that involved or implied his worship as a God. They were also uncompromising in matters of sexual morality. (5) While they made some strategic cultural adaptions they also developed new cultural innovations based on their redemptive theology that had significant impact, for example:
(a)Their practice of caring for prisoners who were not members of their families
(b) The rescuing and adopting of abandoned babies
(c)Their willingness to become involved in caring for the sick and dying in the numerous epidemics that regularly broke out in the crowded cities when most people withdrew from the sick.
(d) The practice of not allowing their daughters to be given in marriage before the age of 18 years.( Rodney Stark in his excellent history of the early Churches influence on Roman culture points out that their treatment of and regard for woman was one of the factors for the churches rapid growth in the first three centuries. His book lists other ways in which they were counter cultural and innovative )
(e)The treatment of slaves due to their understanding of their oneness in Christ.

The Biblical theology of Creation, Redemption and New Creation creates an overwhelming case for the equal and mutual interdependence of men and women in Christian marriage and ministry. It also means that there should be no gender distinction in leadership and ministry in the Church.
Contemporary cultural factors that run counter to that theology and reflect our fallen nature require the Church to teach and model a counter culture of Kingdom values in its community, but they also require a missional sensitivity so that the Churches culture does not hinder evangelism or place unnecessary cultural barriers before non-Christians.
‘Strategic cultural adaption’ for evangelism is complicated and vulnerable to the danger of cultural conformity to the world’s standards. There is also the question of the difference between first and second order issues. Some cultural practices at certain points in history are so opposed to the Gospel that they have to be challenged from the outset. For example the custom of honouring the Emperor was expected by the ruling power of Rome and Paul encourages that respect in Rom 13: 1-7 but in certain civic ceremonies it was extended to a formal act of worship, and as pointed out earlier in the paper, this was a bridge too far for the Christians. By the time we get to the Book of Revelation and the period of fierce persecution Rome has become the Anti-Christ!
Culture is also constantly changing and so must ‘strategic cultural adaption’. Some examples: if a woman in public leadership in the first century was a cultural barrier, in the twenty-first century for women not to be in leadership in the Church is a cultural barrier! A less serious example is the custom of women wearing a scarf or hat in Church, based on Paul’s injunctions in I Cor 11. This was still common in the 1950’s in Australia even though the original reason was hardly remembered and was by then more connected to the idea of dressing up for Church – so hats for ladies and suits and ties for men! It is almost never seen now in Protestant Churches and would be seen as culturally ludicrous to call for today. On the other hand if you were doing evangelism in a Muslim culture today head covering for women might be advisable! If we consider the question of slavery any tolerance today by Christians for slavery would be seen as an intolerable barrier to the Gospel’s integrity. On the other hand if we take the question of food and drink it has been a largely irrelevant issue in Western Churches for a long time but if you were evangelising in a Muslim subculture in Australia today it would be important, and you certainly would not serve alcohol at an Alpha dinner for Muslims! The issue of polygamy is still a factor in evangelism in parts of Africa today and often a difficult question to resolve practically for new converts from a tribal culture that practices polygamy – which wife does the man keep! These examples could be multiplied.
Then there are the more subtle cultural factors to bear in mind when evangelising sub cultures of a dominant culture. For example in the dominant Aussie culture there are the subtle issues of dress style, language, choice of illustration, music genre, etc., all can affect you being ‘heard’ in a particular sub culture of our many Aussie tribes!
If you are serious about effective evangelism ‘strategic cultural adaption’ is unavoidable, as St Paul knew so clearly.
These factors have great significance for the contemporary Church in a multicultural Australia today.
Peter Corney 4/1/17
(Notes: There are extensive footnotes available for this article on request)