Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Various Thoughts on the Role of Women 1 

Having had reason recently to collect some thoughts that I have put together in the past on the role of women, I thought that I might as well post them here on my blog. They are far from comprehensive, some of them are tentative and there is little here that has not been said better elsewhere. This post is designed to serve as a discussion starter, an interim report on my thought on the subject and an introduction to some of the issues for those who have not yet studied the role of women in much depth. I have found James Jordan and Rich Lusk’s treatments of this subject especially helpful.
It is important that we appreciate the manner in which the doctrine of God underlies many of the debates about the role of women. At root many of these debates boil down to the question of whether God must be spoken of as ‘He’. I believe that the biblical teaching on this subject is completely decisive: to speak of God as ‘She’ is to seriously distort the biblical picture of God. If God is a ‘He’, then authority is fundamentally male. This single fact must orientate our whole discussion of the role of women and the exercising of authority in the Church and the world. In the light of this fact we should appreciate that differing views on the role of women reveal, or at least imply, differing views about God.
Having this truth firmly in place at the heart of the picture, we can begin to insert some of the other pieces of the puzzle around it. I will follow a similar approach to the one adopted by James Jordan, who explores the role of women in the light of the threefold human calling as prophet, priest and king. At the very outset, Jordan challenges the common tendency to view the roles of prophet, priest and king as more fundamental than sexual differentiation. He argues that women are not prophets, priests and kings, but rather, prophetesses, priestesses and queens. The prophet is not just someone to be sent on errands; the prophet is one who stands in the council of God. God takes counsel with His prophets before He is about to do something. Prophets are not mere human conduits by which God relays the revelation of His will to His people. Prophets often seek to change the will of God, interceding on behalf of others. A prophet speaks as a symbol and a representative of God. However, a prophetess only speaks as a representative of God. A prophetess, for example, could not have fulfilled the role of someone like Hosea (a number of the prophets had messages that necessitated their playing the role of fathers and husbands). The king is God’s vicegerent. He exercises judgment over the people. Man’s earliest exercising of kingship can be seen in Adam’s naming of the animals. Through such activities man would grow into positions of greater authority and control over the creation. Man’s kingly task was always the task of service. To be king in the Garden is to ‘serve’ the Garden. To be the king over Israel is to be the servant of Israel. The king exercises authority as a symbol and a representative of God. The queen exercises authority only as a representative of God (although there is reason to argue that, in some sense, she exercises authority over the general creation as a symbol of God). The priest is a minister in the Palace of the Great King. His role is not quite the same as that of a vicegerent: the role of the king. Rather, he is an administrator of the Royal Household. His role was to offer prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people and to teach, judge and guard the people. Unlike the king, the priest is more of a servant administrator than a master in the House in which he serves. However, the House in which he serves is the house of a far more glorious ruler than the king (the House in which the priest serves is, by extension, the whole congregation of Israel, not merely the Temple or Tabernacle). The king and his house were subject to the Great King and His House. As a servant administrator, few things were left to the personal discretion of the priest. God’s requirements of the priest were precise and exact; little room was left for the priest to come to his own judgments. The king, whose office required the development of wisdom, differed in this respect. The important thing to notice at this point is that, despite the occasional presence of queens and prophetesses in the OT, no allowance was ever made for priestesses.
Why weren’t priestesses allowed? Let’s try to unpack the roles of the prophets, priests and kings a bit more. The king has a role of husbandry with relationship to society, but his role is always subordinate to God’s place as the Husband of His people. It is not a sine qua non of all forms of royal ministry that one be the symbol of God in relation to the people. The prophet’s role is not so much that of direct husbandry. The prophet is a member of God’s council, privy to God’s will and judgments. The prophet speaks on behalf of others in the council of God and informs people of God’s will and judgments. In this position the prophet exerts considerable influence. The prophet’s role is, in many important respects, more glorious than that of the king or priest. To be counted as the Great King’s intimate counsellor is arguably a greater role than that of an administrator in His House or of that of the king who reigns under Him. The husbandry of the priest is not so much his own, as another’s. It is God’s role as Husband that the priest must administer. The conducting of God’s side of the marital relationship with His people is entrusted in a large measure to the priests, as those authorized to act on His behalf. They share in God’s own husbanding task. The priests represent God as the Divine Husband in relationship to His Wife. Given this crucial factor, it should be recognized that it is a sine qua non of the principle forms of priestly ministry that one be the symbol of God in relation to the people. Only a man can exercise the priestly calling of guarding the Bride. Women do have priestly roles (in both the OT and NT), but they can never exercise priesthood in its fullest sense.
Man was created in the image of God. Man was made male and female. For this reason Adam is the head of the human family. The statement of man’s headship is indicative, not merely imperative. Man is the head; he should not merely try to be the head. When humanity sinned it was Adam that God called out to, not Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:9). Adam bore the final responsibility, rather than the serpent or Eve. The curse of death was the curse on Adam, not the curse on Eve. Adam stood by his bride (cf. Genesis 3:6) and failed to protect her from the serpent’s wiles. Adam failed in the role of guarding the bride. As one given the responsibility of guarding the bride, Adam was a priest. The OT is full of accounts of Satan’s assaults upon the Woman (e.g. Sarai and Pharaoh, Sarah and Abimilech, Rebekah and Abimilech, Israel in Egypt, etc.). The priests were called to guard the Bride from the deceptions of Satan, who wanted to pollute God’s people by leading them into the adultery of idolatry. As those who shared in God’s husbanding task, they also expressed God’s jealous anger on key occasions (e.g. the Levites slaying their brothers in Exodus 32, Phinehas’ zeal in Numbers 25). An interesting article on Joseph’s priestly role in relation to Mary can be found here (towards the bottom of the page). The woman is created in the image of God and, as such, symbolizes God in an important respect. The notion of the ‘image of God’ is similar to the idea of an emperor’s establishing of an image of himself within a city, as an expression of his authority. God has established humanity as the image of His authority in the world. However, the concept of the image of God is slightly more complex than it might originally appear. Christ is the image of God par excellence (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). He is the great symbol of God’s authority in relationship to the world and all of humanity. Although we partake in Christ’s headship over creation (as members of His Bride, the Church), it is not a headship that is proper to us. No human being can be the image of God in the sense that Christ is. In addition to the distinct manner in which Christ, as a human being, is the image of God, we must recognize a distinct manner in which the human male is the image of God. The human male is the image of God in relationship to the female in a manner in which the female cannot be the image of God in relationship to the male (1 Corinthians 11:7). Scripture does not merely limit this to the realm of marriage (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3). We must also recognize other settings in which different dimensions of the image of God come to the fore. Within worship the priest/bishop/pastor must act as the image of God in relationship to the Church as the Bride. In the setting of worship the order of the laity (for we are all ordained in Baptism) is regarded as feminine in relationship to the pastor and elders, who are regarded as masculine. As woman is not the image of God in relation to man, women cannot act in the priestly capacity in relationship to the congregation. To do so is to establish a fundamentally false image of God — an idol. This is to return to our earlier comments regarding the role of the priesthood. The picture of maleness and femaleness given here is one of ‘asymmetric mutuality’ (as John Frame puts it). Men and women are equal in important senses, but there are also differences between them and a hierarchy in place (patterned after the relationship between Christ and God the Father — 1 Corinthians 11:3).
Paul grounds his teaching on women in the Trinity (1 Corinthians 11:3), the gospel (Ephesians 5:22-33) and creation (1 Timothy 2:13-15). The role of women serves to image the internal life of God. It is an order illustrative of grace. It is also consistent with the way that we have been created. It is important that we recognize that Paul does not base his teaching on the role of women on the cultural norms of his day. The basis upon which Paul develops his teaching on the role of women should call into question the position of anyone who wants to regard his teaching on this subject as culturally relative.
The Bible clearly teaches that man is not independent of woman (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Man without woman is inglorious; woman without man is headless (1 Corinthians 11:7). No part of the body of humanity can say to another, “I have no need of you”. God is against machismo. The woman is absolutely necessary for humanity’s task in creation, and not merely (nor even, I would argue, primarily) through childbearing. The manner in which men and women are interdependent goes far beyond the realm of marriage. Part of our problem is that we fail to realize that our genders are not merely social constructions, but penetrate to the core of our identities and shape all of our relationships. To treat human beings as if they were androgynous, neutered beings for all intents and purposes, outside of the context of genital sex, is to fail to understand what our sexuality is about. It is to lose sight of true masculinity and femininity as virtues gained as we participate in certain shared practices, in certain narrative contexts, which serve to develop particular forms of character. The personal narratives of men and women take fundamentally different shapes as a result of their sexuality. This goes far beyond mere biology. The narrative shape of the male story is (very broadly speaking) one of initial union (e.g. with father and mother), separation and reunion (e.g. with his wife). The narrative shape of the female story is (very broadly speaking) one of reception (not a passive reception), adaptation and communion (as Rich Lusk puts it). Leon Podles writes:—
The masculine is a pattern of initial union, separation, and reunion, while the feminine is a maintenance of unity. This pattern is found on the biological level, and even more on the psychological, anthropological, and cultural levels…
This is not to be confused with the Aristotelian view of man as aggressive and woman as passive. Rather, it is to appreciate that the natural condition of humanity is femininity, the state of initial union. The masculine story constitutes a radical break from this initial union, in a manner that the feminine story does not. The masculine story is characterized by leaving father and mother, undergoing initiation ceremonies and other symbolic ceremonial departures from ‘original participation’ in order to arrive at ‘final participation’, being rejoined to the feminine in a new manner. Studying feminist liturgical texts can be interesting. They often tend to lean towards pantheism. This is not an accident. If God is our Mother, then we live in the divine womb. However, if we focus on God as our Father, a far greater distinction is maintained between the Creator and the creation. Our liturgy, although not intentionally feminist, often has much the same effect. We can sometimes focus primarily on God’s immanence and mute the primary note of His transcendence. The result of this is the feminization of God. The failure of the Church to clearly articulate initiation rituals that serve to reinforce and shape masculinity (e.g. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc.) has led to this role being usurped by other groups within society. As a result we have masculinity being shaped in unbiblical ways. Masculine violence, machismo, feminization and homosexuality (self-glorification, the denial of the need for the feminine) are key examples of this. The gospel message proclaimed by many churches leaves little room for a masculine shape to the call to discipleship. Whilst we are all feminine in relationship to God and there is an important sense in which every man must hear the message of the gospel in terms of reception (e.g. ‘receiving Jesus into your heart’), if we are to develop biblical masculinity we must go beyond this. The man especially needs to hear the message of leaving his father and mother to become Christ’s disciple (Luke 14:26-33; women need to hear it too, but for slightly different reasons). The man needs to hear this message because, all too often, in order to become a Christian men are subtly recast as women. The standard of piety is a feminine one. To become a Christian is to surrender your masculinity. The overwhelming focus on a feminine form of piety (particularly seen in many modern hymns and choruses) has led to men becoming disillusioned with the Church. A feminine form of piety has also led to the Church retreating from the more ‘masculine’ public square, into private heart religion. The more ‘masculine’ role of husbanding society has been left to pagans (this, of course, is not to deny that women may legitimately occupy even the highest roles in civil government). When men play roles within the Church or society, they must do so in a manner that is consistent with the fundamental shape of their engendered narratives. The same is true of women. When women rule in government, or are leaders in business, they fulfil their roles as women, not as men. Every role that we play in society must be coloured by our more fundamental roles as men and women. It is worth observing the manner in which the ministry of the judge Deborah differed from that of male judges. Israel came to her to be judged; she didn’t go to Israel as the male judges did (Judges 4:5). Similar things can be observed concerning Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). A feminine form of piety has led to the Church retreating from the more ‘masculine’ public square, into private heart religion. The more ‘masculine’ role of husbanding society has been left to pagans.
The ministry is not a profession, but a vocation. No one has a ‘right’ to be a minister. We are called to areas of ministry and we have a duty to obey. Most men will never exercise positions of leadership in the Church either. Nor is the ministry to be regarded as a ‘privilege’ from which women are barred. The Church is not a merely functional institution; Christian pastors are not like the management in a company. The ministry is God’s gift to the Church as a whole. Christian ministers exercise their calling for the sake of the body. Ordination is not a matter of giving power to a private detached individual. Ministers are servants, symbolizing Christ to His people, for the sake of the people. Christ did not just become man; He became male. His role as the Head can only be symbolized by a man.
The drive towards women ministers has been described as the ‘bitter fruit of clericalization’. By reducing the ministries of the Church to the ministries of the priesthood or eldership, women have been marginalized. The solution to this is to reassert the character of the Church as involving many different ministries. By focusing on authoritative teaching over all other forms of ministry, Reformed churches have often tended to marginalize women. Much Reformed preaching also emphasizes a prophetic model, over a priestly model. The Reformed preacher is one who hears and explains God’s Word and brings it to the people. However, there has been a tendency to focus on the word as addressed to sinners outside God’s household and to accent the element of denunciation. This is more akin to a prophetic model. A priestly model would focus more on the day to day upbuilding and upkeep of the House of God (His people), rather than upon the condemnation and calling to repentance of sinners outside the house. I believe that we should move more towards a priestly model. Within the priestly model the teaching is seen as part of the task of husbanding the Bride of Christ (notice the role of the Levites in teaching and judging Israel). The Scriptures are the means by which God exercises His authority in the Church (as N.T. Wright frequently observes). Within the prophetic model this connection is not always so clear. Once we have moved towards a more priestly model, the rationale for the prohibition of women from leadership of the Church becomes more readily apparent. The woman is prohibited from leading the Bride of God in worship (this is the Husband’s role — Christ leads the Church in its worship). The woman is also prohibited from husbanding the Church by teaching authoritatively and exercising Church discipline. While this approach shows the limitations placed upon the role of women, it also helps us to recognize the existence of teaching roles that woman can play that are not prohibited by Scripture.
The existence of prophetesses (irrespective of whether we would see the role of prophetesses to be merely a charismatic and temporary one) should challenge us to explain the manner in which their role is not contrary to the biblical prohibition on women teaching.
There are special contexts in which the natural differences between men and women are intensified. Within the context of formal worship this is most pronounced. Even inspired prophetesses are not permitted to speak within the context of formal liturgical worship (1 Corinthians 14:26-35). The formal worship of the church takes place when the church gathers together to celebrate covenant renewal in the Lord’s Supper. Such gatherings must be led exclusively by men. Even the Bible readings must be done by men. We must remember that Scripture sees the act of public reading of the Scriptures to be a particular role to be performed by men set apart for the purpose. We should keep our Bibles closed and submit ourselves to the Word proclaimed. We are not attending a Bible study. Alongside such meetings, churches are to have many other less formal services in which such gifts as those of prophetesses can be exercised freely. There are to be meetings of sharing, Bible studies, evangelistic meetings, and other such things. In these meetings, the priestly role of the Church’s leadership is not always the most prominent one. I see no problem, in principle, with women theologians leading Bible studies attended by men, provided, of course, that they lead them in a manner appropriate to their sex. I do not believe, however, that men and women should exercise these roles in equal proportion. Woman leaders in society may not be a bad thing per se, but too many of them is regarded as a curse in Scripture (Isaiah 3:12). The natural difference between the roles of men and women are intensified in special worship; we should never deny these differences outside of the context of worship.
There are numerous biblical examples of women instructing men (e.g. Acts 18:26; 1 Samuel 25:23-35; 2 Samuel 14). Wisdom is depicted as a woman instructing foolish men in the book of Proverbs. Woman can certainly teach men in various ways. We should not allow ourselves to entertain the notion that women are somehow less gifted than men. They just exercise their gifts in different ways and in differing speheres. Many of the most gifted theologians in the Church today are women.
By failing to appreciate the manner in which all our roles are conditioned by our sex, many feminists have sought to be the same as men and have ended up renarrating their personal narratives in a masculine form. They should not be surprised that this process feels painful and unnatural. It also devalues women, but failing to value what corresponds to femininity and striving after the place of men instead. Christian women need to seek to develop biblical femininity in whatever roles they play and not devalue roles that are less ‘masculine’, like the role of a housewife.

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