Changes of mind concerning women in ministry seem to be much in the news these days.
According to EthicsDaily.com, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, wrote a doctoral dissertation years ago in which he concluded that there were “solid biblical bases for a full recognition of the freedom and responsibility of woman in ministry.” He now reportedly explains that he “abandoned that position after the Holy Spirit instructed me otherwise in my study of Scripture.”
Similarly, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has described his own change of heart concerning women in ministry. Having accepted a position of support for women in ministry based on the influence of seminary teaching, he later came to view this position as “wrong, violative of Scripture, inconsistent with my theological commitments, injurious to the church, unsubstantiated and just intellectually embarrassing.”
Some years ago now I, too, was “caught in the act” of changing my mind about women in ministry, albeit in a different direction.
I absorbed many of the same influences as Mohler at Southern Seminary, and even before that had many of the same professors he had at Samford University. I was a couple of years behind Al, but we were collegial acquaintances and even worked together one semester grading for a professor.
So, perhaps for many of the same reasons as Mohler, I came to embrace a position of support for women in ministry, reversing the position I had been taught and had defended previously.
My experience since that time, however, has been very different than that of Mohler and Page. My commitment to supporting women in ministry has only grown.
I have been moved by the stories of women who have felt a call to ministry. I have been humbled by their gifts for preaching and teaching and a multitude of other ministries. I have felt honored to participate in their ordinations which have reflected the confidence of whole churches and extended church families that their call is from God’s Spirit.
I do not doubt that Mohler and Page are earnest in their convictions about women in ministry. But I take issue with their attribution of this stance to what Mohler refers to as “the clear teachings of Scripture.” I don’t know whether Page would use this language, but he has signaled clear support for the language of the Baptist Faith and Message statement that essentially forces this single interpretation (proscribing women in certain ministry roles) upon all cooperating Southern Baptists.
If indeed this is such a clear teaching of Scripture, how is it that two bright, sincere seminary students diligently considering the matter failed to see it? How could one of them have spent long months researching and analyzing and thinking through the issues, then write a dissertation with such a different conclusion from what he now holds to be the truth?
The story here is not these men’s stance on women in ministry, it is the light this whole controversy sheds on the violence we all do to scripture at times in service of our own understandings. When we insist that Scripture speaks with a clear and unified voice concerning women in ministry (or any of a number of other issues), we are making God’s message into our own image.
The Bible is not a policy manual, nor is it a legal code or a scientific treatise. It is a diverse collection of writings reflecting a variety of genres, contexts, personalities and understandings of how God has been revealed.
As Baptists, we believe that God has inspired all of these writings, but that does not mean, to borrow from the language of the poet Billy Collins, that we can “tie [it] to a chair with rope and force a confession out of it.”
The truth is that the confession we hear from Scripture when we treat it this way is almost always an echo of our own interpretive traditions, drawn from selected texts and read through selective interpretive strategies.
This goes for “moderates” as well as for conservatives. No matter how many times we trot out Galatians 3:28 or refer to Paul’s female coworkers or show that Junia is almost certainly a woman referred to as an apostle in Romans 16, we have not proven the biblical position on women in ministry.
There are other passages that clearly reflect either reservations by biblical writers about women in certain roles of leadership in the church (and perhaps even downright rejection) or their lack of consideration of the possibility that women might fill some positions.
The biblical witness that leads me to embrace women in ministry is complex and nuanced, and yet compelling. In addition to the direct references to women or femaleness I have just mentioned, there is the example of Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem church over the full inclusion of Gentiles without the limitations that some would have imposed based on religio-cultural expectations.
There is also the concern of Paul and other biblical writers that Christians maintain their honor–were they speaking in regard to the cultural values of their time?
After all, if those writers were expressing a practical concern that women leaders might bring shame to the church in light of the societal standards of their day, should we not be concerned that the exclusion of women leaders might bring shame to our churches in the vastly different culture that our modern western society represents?
I am influenced as well by biblical references that emphasize that the Spirit moves at will and that warn against quenching the Spirit or blaspheming the Spirit. Most of all, perhaps, there is the example of Jesus defying social barriers and conventions in his proclamation of the good news.
I will admit that it is impossible to ascertain how Jesus or Paul or other biblical writers would weigh in on the question of women in ministry if they were here today, but my sincere reading of Scripture leads me to doubt they would support restrictions. I confess that I see only in part, as through a glass darkly, but all I can do is to evaluate Scripture as honestly and thoroughly as I can while seeking to practice a love that does not insist on its own way.
Women in ministry is a particularly vexing question for the church, because even if we leave the interpretation of the biblical witness to the conscience of the individual, the practical implications involve the body of the church in a very direct way. A church either does or does not accept the presence of women in certain leadership positions. It will take much love and patience and a true desire for peacemaking for us to embrace one another and find unity in spite of our differences.
Confessions of individual perspectives and positions, and even of changes of heart, may be helpful. Claims of biblical certainty, however, will not help, and Baptists should chafe at the imposition of statements or guidelines that would prohibit us from listening to the witness of scripture to our own consciences within the community of our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Dalen Jackson is associate professor of biblical studies at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
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