How I Changed My Mind on Women in Ministry, conclusion (part 3)

By Sam B. Sears

        In my last two articles, I addressed a controversy stirred up by John MacArthur’s recent comments about Beth Moore, along with something that has long been controversial — women’s roles in ministry. In the first article, I discussed the inappropriate attitude and way in which MacArthur responded. Even if he felt that women shouldn’t be pastors (and, to be fair, Beth Moore is not a pastor, nor do I agree with her on every theological issue), she shouldn’t “Go home.” We are all called to “GO” and spread the gospel! Last month, I shared more personally my own journey with the abuse and misunderstanding of the 1 Timothy passage so often cited on this issue, but now I want to move more directly to women in ministry.

              Let me tell you where I was before college. I had no issues with women serving as deacons, especially in the biblical sense, as it simply means “servants,” and 1 Timothy 3:11 in the Greek clearly refers to female deacons. I understood that the deacons of the New Testament were very different than the way “deacon” was used in Baptist churches. It meant “elder” there, so I had no issue barring them from the role at the time, because the duties, not the title were the key. I had no, or at least, very little, issues with female youth pastors, etc. But I was still holding on to reservations about women serving in additional roles in church leadership.

              I never met Professor Scott Henderson, Ph.D. face to face. I went to school online, but he did have a profound impact on me while pursuing my M.A. He introduced (required me to read) a little book entitled, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. My copy is littered with notes that reflect my wrestling with the content. I loved some parts for insight, and others I initially loathed, as they challenged me deeply.  The book focused on the differences between our modern American (Western) culture — the way we think and communicate — vs the culture, thoughts, and communication styles of the original writers of the New Testament. Some of it I had heard before, but some of it I was really encountering for the first time, and my notes scrawled in its margins reflect the literary equivalent of someone yelling at their TV… but eventually coming around.

              Dr. Henderson emphasized parts of the book and provided additional information. He wanted us to be real Bereans, taking the Bible at what it said, and what the biblical authors intended to communicate, and not simply accepting that it meant what our traditions said it communicated. This idea is similar to how Michael Hieser came up with the name for his Naked Bible Podcast: looking at the Bible without all these extra lenses of traditions and denominations. It also fits well with our view and heritage as a church, trying to get back to the basics.

              First, Junia being an apostle was made abundantly clear. She appears in Romans 16:7 and is “Known among the Apostles.” Here the term apostle isn’t used to mean “the 12” who were Jesus’ closest disciples, but one sent with authority. In modern context, this would have been more like traveling evangelists and church planters. Paul was an apostle, and he wrote and guided pastors like Timothy and Titus. Although the name “Junia” is sometimes translated “Junias,”and some claim it is male, the Greek is actually very clear that it’s a feminine word. Attempts to make this like a “boy named Sue” are done not based on the Greek, but on the fact that a few early commentators and our own modern lenses had already concluded that women couldn’t possibly be in that role.

              Romans is fresh on the mind of Friday morning men’s groups, and it too contains important information about women’s roles in church leadership. N.T. Wright was the first I heard pointing out that Paul sent the letter of Romans with Phoebe (16:1), which likely means that she — a woman! — was the first to teach Romans. Numerous commentators and scholars agree in other instances that the ones sent with the letter were the first to teach the letter, but most are silent on the issue here, in the sole cause it’s sent with a woman. Those who affirm that Paul is somehow anti-women or that women may never teach in front of the congregation are setting up a contradiction in Scripture. When it appears that there is a contradiction if one takes a certain interpretation, a wise Bible reader will examine the text to see if he has misunderstood.

              Currently, there are two main theological stances on women’s roles. One is “Egalitarianism.” It is correct to define the word “helpmate” in Genesis as being “completer.” The word doesn’t mean some sort of sidekick; it goes beyond even partner, to someone who completes something that is missing. It’s a mutual and beautiful thing where both are made whole by the other. Equaltirians draw on this original state of mankind as an ideal status to reach back to. They also suggest that since “there is no male or female,” that gender distinctions are invalid in Christ; although I think that verse can be pressed too far, as the context here is about value. The other major view is “Complementarianism” and is far more widespread and “traditional.” Its view is that women and men are of equal value but have different functions that complement each other. This group often points to the obvious physical differences between us. No matter how much some may deny it, men have more testosterone, and are thus more likely to and can more easily build muscle mass. Our brains are indeed chemically different, and our physiological differences have an impact on our behavior. While these two sides continue spirited debate inside the body of Christ, I’ve become convinced there is a third option.

              Dr. Henderson shared a story in seminary about going to a pastor’s conference overseas. Only the senior pastors were invited, and the denomination only ordained men. When he looked out into the crowd, he was surprised to see a few women, so he double checked that only the senior pastors were there and that they didn’t ordain women. His local contact affirmed both and saw no contradiction in doing so. What he learned was that “all” and “only” didn’t carry the same level of literal weight in their country. Afterwards, through further study, I came around to the same conclusion as my professor, the authors of “Misreading the Bible through Western Eyes” and many others. 

              What Paul intended to do was set up a norm, not a universal literal “all” or “none.” In their culture it simply wasn’t done that way. The Complementarians have a very valid point. Men and women are different, and it often leads to generalities about the way men and women behave differently. Outliers do exist, though. I’m the man, but it was me who stayed at home when our children were younger; we decided that was best for us, even if it wasn’t the norm. Egalitarianism also has a point: women can step up and do additional roles, and shouldn’t be barred from them just because of their gender, and the Bible doesn’t teach women as some sort of second-class human beings. 

              I’ve settled comfortably into a third option when it comes to women in ministry, one that I think makes the most sense of the biblical text. When it comes to marriage, I probably do fall more in line with complementarianism, but it has its limits. If we apply that view to the broader church structure, it doesn’t seem to match some of the verses that include women in “non-traditional” roles. In this third view, Junia can be an apostle, Phoebe can teach in Rome, etc. and yes, the majority of pastors, especially senior pastors, are male. When I was starting out in Baptist churches, I didn’t initially know who Lottie Moon was. Anyone who was in a Southern Baptist Church would know about Lottie Moon Missions Offerings, but most didn’t know that this female missionary actually was the pastor of the church she founded overseas! It’s our Western view that has morphed a “most” into an all or nothing, because we aren’t reading it like the original writers intended and in their cultural context. That included less educated women than we have today and problematic female pagan priests in Ephesus, whom Paul was concerned about. We have to look beyond 1 Timothy to understand Paul’s full view. 

              My view could be summed as a “Most of the time” kind of view. Men and women are really different in the way they think and behave, and it does tend to favor men in certain roles. It’s also because of those differences in men and women that I really value women in leadership. How could I disciple women in the same way Carrie, Judy, Ann and others could? I’m thankful to serve alongside both men and women in our leadership here at The Fountain. 

If you would like to learn more about the topic, I’d also recommend Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and The First Letter to Timothy by Hoag. It's next up on my reading list on the topic, as I want to continue to learn and explore in this area. I wasn’t able to delve into the rich context behind Paul’s letter to Timothy as much as I would have liked to have done in this short article, but the more you know about when and to whom Paul was writing and their culture, the more you can correctly understand what he is talking about and what he intends to communicate.