By Jonathan Soder, Faith Co-Editor
The entire month of March is Women’s History Month – a dedicated celebration of women’s contributions to and accomplishments in past and present societies. Within Christianity, March may prompt conversations of figures such as Lottie Moon, Beth Moore and even Mother Theresa. Among these recollections, debates regarding the role of women in the church and broader ministry naturally spring up. In a month meant for celebration, how do Christians cordially address this issue which dates back to Paul, Timothy and the Ephesian church?
Dr. Alan Bandy, associate professor of New Testament, said that the debate centralizes not around clashing Biblical texts, but primarily around differences in scriptural interpretation. The two premier views identified in this debate are egalitarianism and complementarianism.
“Egalitarians believe that there is complete and total equality between the sexes,” Bandy said. “They would read, for example, that [in] Genesis it was the Fall that introduced gender role distinctions, and the redemption of Christ evens that out.”
Contrarily, complementarianism suggests that role distinctions are a part of the original divinely created order Adam and Eve would have experienced in Eden, and the roles of male and female are such that they fill in the gaps in each other’s roles.
“The difference is, on [egalitarianism] they see equality as the goal, there’s a sameness,” Bandy said. “Complementarians see a differentness, but those differences work together in a unified way.”
Director of global mobilization Dr. Joy Turner, who worked as a missionary in Hawaii from 1992 to 2011, said that many stereotypes and reservations that Christians hold about this topic are due to mishandled interpretation.
“Many people hold views on women in ministry that have been passed down based on tradition and not always from a clear understanding of scripture,” Turner said. “Others hold views that are based on such things as modern feminism. It is important to study and understand what Scripture is teaching based on the context of the passage.”
Regarding the role of women in the church specifically, the passage in question is 1 Timothy 2:11-13 (though this passage could be extended all the way through 1 Timothy 3:7). Paul wrote to his young protégé, Timothy, with directions for successfully leading the church at Ephesus, where Timothy was pastoring.
“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness,” Paul wrote. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
This is when the interpretive process kicks in. Complementarians say that the leadership of the church must parallel the headship of the home, which is thought to have been given to Adam in Genesis 2 as the first of the pair created.
Contrarily, egalitarians look to Genesis 3 and interpret Paul’s declaration as reflecting God’s pronouncement upon Eve for her guilt in eating the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a cultural thing which sprang from the consequences of the Fall, and Christians are freed from gender inequality through Christ’s redemption.
So, who’s right? Can we ever know completely? And, is this question worth pursuing?
In answering the first question, Bandy said that there are three contexts through which Christians ought to view any scriptural text in order to start down the path of accurate interpretation – literary, historical and grammatical/syntactical.
“I think that the Bible doesn’t have multiple meanings. It’s not open to however you want to see it,” Bandy said. “I do think that there are interpretations that are more correct than others, more faithful to the entirety of Scripture than others.”
Bandy said that this approach is like looking through a telescope instead of a microscope where the grander whole is blocked out by tunnel vision. Another part of the process, arguing for probability of an interpretation, brings the reality that on many topics 100 percent certainty can’t be realized.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, considered one of the greatest influencers of Western Christianity, called for “unity” amongst all Christians on those topics which can be known with certainty and “liberty” on those which can only be known probably.
“There are many views on the role of women in ministry. Some align with scripture and some do not,” Turner said. “But again, it is our responsibility to examine the scriptures correctly, seeking God’s wisdom by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Part of the interpretation process is understanding that, similar to emergency room practices, Christians must conduct “spiritual triages” to determine the essentiality of certain beliefs to the integrity of the Christian faith. Regardless of which side is more scripturally accurate, all Christians – men and women alike – are called to some form of ministry by the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.
“Also, every believer is given spiritual gifts that they are responsible to use in building God’s kingdom, so we should find ways for both men and women to exercise these gifts,” Turner said.
In determining which ways align most closely with Scripture, Christians must practice exegesis, drawing meaning out of Scripture, not eisegesis, imposing meaning onto a passage.
“Just because it makes me uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Bandy said. “Scripture does not always conform to our opinions and perspectives. In fact, if Scripture just reaffirms what we already think, then we’re probably not reading it well.”
Bandy said that Scripture also has nuances. Its meaning is not always black and white. This question in particular, while possibly a non-essential point in Christianity, leads into bigger issues such as God’s omnipotent creatorship.
“Foundational to this issue is the fact that men and women are created in the image of God,” Turner said. “Even though each may have different roles and responsibilities in the church and home, men and women are absolutely equal in essence, dignity, and value.”
Understanding and engaging in the interpretive process is necessary to have civil discussions on this issue.
“If we all have the same rules involved of how we evaluate these things, then we have to do the hard work of thinking through theologically and Biblically what is more faithful to what the Bible says,” Bandy said