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Issues Facing Missions Today: 23 Women’s Ordination: Contextual Considerations

Issues Facing Missions Today: 23 Women’s Ordination: Contextual Considerations
‘Why Anglicans Should Probably Oppose Women’s Ordination at This Time and Why Pentecostals Should Continue to Support it: An Enquiry into the Engagement of Scripture for Christian Practice’


I intend to consider some contextual issues in the debate over women in ministry—specifically a teaching ministry.  I will touch on some exegetical issues, but this is not the place to examine all of them.  I will address some hermeneutical issues, but only some.  What concerns me more directly in this essay is how context—our context and the context in Ephesus and in Corinth in the first century—speaks to the issue of women in teaching ministries both then and now.  Our context today is diverse and calls for diverse approaches to a situation such as this.  The sensitivity to culture and context that missionaries hone to be successful in their calling can be a helpful hermeneutical tool for reading and interpreting Scripture.  Indeed, as I will discuss, my own involvement in different contexts in various Christian traditions leads me to accept different views on the issue of women in teaching.

The primary texts to consider exegetically in a larger discussion of this matter all come from Paul: 1 Cor. 11.2-16; 14.33b-36; 1 Tim. 2.9-15; Eph. 5.21-33; and Col. 3.18-19.  None of them speak directly to the issue of ordination.  In fact, ordination itself means different things to different churches today, and we need to be careful in assuming that a contemporary practice of ordination is practiced in a way that it was in the first century churches.  Moreover, some of the passages speaking to the issue of the role and status of women in the Church are more relevant to the relationship between husbands and wives (such as the Ephesians and Colossian passages).  Yet out of all this there are some matters to consider in discussing the question of whether women should be ordained to a teaching ministry.

That is how the question is typically asked: ‘Should women be ordained?’  As we look at contextual issues, we may find that an absolute answer to this may be impossible.  In what follows, I would like to consider contextual issues in these Pauline letters and then turn to contextual issues in our own contexts.  To make this more interesting, I propose the cheeky proposition that Anglicans should, in most contexts, probably oppose women’s ordination at this time while Pentecostals should surely continue to support it.  Others in other traditions will read this with their own traditions in mind and some—I have the Presbyterian Church in America in mind—should probably now begin to move to ordaining women for teaching ministry.  Those considerations belong in the respective traditions—it is not for me to say.  What I do believe, however, is that context does make a difference in this much debated issue.

Paul’s Contextual Arguments

In 1 Timothy 2.12-14, Paul clearly excludes women in Ephesus from teaching.  The paragraph says,

8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;  9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes,  10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.  11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;  14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (1 Tim. 2.8-15, NRSV).

Paul supports his argument with a narrative reading from Gen. 1-3 and addresses a very specific although somewhat elusive problem in the church.  Just how contingent is such an argument?

Sandwiched between a word about women not wearing braided hair, gold, pearls, and expensive clothes (v. 9) and a word about a woman being saved through childbirth (v. 15) in 1 Tim. 2.9-15 is what Paul says about women being quiet, not teaching, and not wielding authority over a man.  One would be hard-pressed to find a person who insists that braided hair is always wrong or that women are saved through childbirth today, and so the matter of a contextual reading of the matters press upon the interpreter.  However, Paul’s words appear to involve a transcultural authority when he bases what he says about a woman not wielding authority over a man on the fact that Adam was created first and then Eve.  On the other hand, when Paul says a woman should not teach because Eve, not Adam, was deceived, he seems to be presenting a relative argument that pertains to actual false teaching in the Ephesian church.  We can learn from both of his arguments, the transcultural and the culturally relative.

False Teaching

To appreciate the contextual and culturally relative arguments in 1 Tim. 2.11-14 in particular, we need to understand that false teachers have taught in Ephesus that women should not marry (1 Tim. 4.3, ‘They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods…’).  This helps us understand why Paul draws attention to the fact that a woman, Eve, was saved through childbirth in 1 Tim. 2.15.[1]  In the context of the Ephesian church, some young widows have vowed not to marry and become dependent on church funds.  Subsequently, however, they have found themselves attracted to men and wanted to marry (1 Tim. 5.11-12, ‘But refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry,  12 and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge’).  In the culture, unmarried women outside their father’s household enjoyed an unusual freedom that must also have been very difficult economically and culturally.  This explains why these young, single widows were turning to church funds for support.  Vows to celibacy also ran counter to many younger widow’s sexual nature, and their unmarried state could lead them into a sexual temptation that Paul says is a turning away to Satan (1 Tim. 5.14-15, ‘So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households, so as to give the adversary no occasion to revile us.  15 For some have already turned away to follow Satan’).  Furthermore, the young widows gave their time to idleness, gadding about from house to house, gossiping and being busybodies (1 Tim. 5.13, ‘Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say’).

Thus, Paul counters this bad teaching against marriage and this bad practice among young widows in Ephesus by saying that the younger widows should not pledge celibacy but should get married, have children, and manage their households lest their freedom be their downfall.  He sees a practical matter of marital status related to the very serious matter of spiritual life.  Paul’s advice regarding women is a concern about women breaking their vows, destroying Christian community, and endangering their souls through sinful practices.  Certain sinful characters, says Paul in his second letter to Timothy, work their way ‘into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim. 3.6-7).  One further contextual issue should be noted here as well: all these matters are taking place in a general cultural context in which the education of women was frowned upon and simply rarely offered in the 1st century.

Gender Status

In 1 Timothy, there is also a concern on Paul’s part that women remain in their God-given status, a status embedded in creation itself and not susceptible to cultural contexts, even if the expression of this can be cultural.  Women should not wield authority[2] over men, for Adam was created first.  Here, Paul is concerned about a reversal of what God intended in creation, a confusion of gender status.  1 Cor. 11.2-16 is a similar text in what it says about avoiding confusion over genders.  It is a difficult text to interpret in many ways, but Paul is clearly arguing against a confusion of the male and female roles that is expressed in his culture’s view on hair length and covering.  Moreover, in the household codes of Colossians and Ephesians, Paul also sees the man as the authoritative head over the woman—not the ‘source’ of the woman, as some have valiantly but unsuccessfully attempted to argue since the 1980s.[3]  Paul’s arguments against homosexuality in Rom. 1.24-28 also involve a challenge of his culture’s confusion of gender.  In Paul’s cultural context, gender confusion could be expressed in women wielding authority over men in a teaching role.  Yet gender confusion and women teaching men can be separated in other cultures, as we are well aware today.

Our Western Cultural, ‘Liberation’ Reading of Scripture

Perhaps the most prominent cultural lens through which many read Scripture in the West is that of liberation.  One presentation of this modernist, totalizing metanarrative of liberation is that there is a liberation principle in Scripture that can be used to undermine certain practices in the Scripture itself as well as in history and society today.  Thus, it is argued, the liberation principle should be used against the patriarchalism of the Bible, against the practice of slavery, against any inequality for women, against Jesus’ overly strong words on a subject such as divorce and remarriage, against Western colonialism and subjugation of other cultures, against restrictions on women choosing whether or not to have abortions, and now on the issue of homosexuality.  By using a single lens, this perspective is characteristic of modernity instead of postmodernity, and by using this perspective for viewing so much of life and ethics, it is a totalizing metanarrative, as Francois Lyotard pointed out in his description of modernity versus postmodernity.[4]

The connection between these various issues is forced, however. The modernist, liberationist principle for reading Scripture is not necessary to oppose an issue such as slavery.  The view that Scripture supports slavery is simply impossible to hold when one understands that the Old Testament was correcting certain practices of slavery and, especially when one understands how the early Church was responding to the practice of slavery that included about 1/3 of persons in the Roman Empire.  Paul’s approach in the letter of Philemon was not to forbid the practice but completely undermine its abuses.  Other passages, such as 1 Cor. 7.21-22, 1 Tim. 1.10, and Rev. 18.13 also undermine the practice itself.  Moreover, the view in the modern West that Scripture supports slavery is an instance of a culture economically dependent on slavery reading what people wanted to find in the Scriptures—an affirmation of its exploitative and abusive practices.  In this case, texts mentioning the practice of slavery were taken normatively over against texts that undermined that very viewpoint because of the contemporary culture. The use of Scripture in the cultural context of America in the 19th century to affirm slavery and the use of Scripture to affirm homosexuality in the 21st century are one and the same.  Both involve a particular culture forcing its perspective on the Biblical text.  While liberation interpreters might imagine that the overarching hermeneutic is one of liberation, in fact the issue is simply the contemporary culture’s imposition of its perspective on the ancient text (whether reading its values into the text or reading against the text).  Hermeneutically, those arguing today in favour of homosexuality are doing what pro-slavery advocates did in the 19th century: arguing for their cultural values over against the Biblical text.

My Contextual Lenses

I should explain my own inclinations in this matter of women in ministry that can affect and have affected my reading of Scripture.  First, I grew up within the Pentecostal tradition.  My family history almost runs back to the very beginning of Pentecostalism in America.  Pentecostalism grew out of the 19th century Holiness Movement in America, and both expressions of Christianity accepted women in ministry positions.  My grandmother and mother were missionaries in South Africa, and both would preach and teach as part of their calling in ministry.  They would do so in their own roles as ministers of the Gospel, not because there was a man present or because they only spoke to other women or any other such limitation that we have seen proposed during the 20th century to distinguish women’s ministry of teaching from men’s.  Thus my own upbringing inclines me to affirm women in any and every ministry, including teaching.

Second, I am also a missionary and have had the privilege to look at issues from a variety of cultures and Christian traditions. My experience of cultures tells me that the role and status of women in society is a highly contextual and socially important matter—not to be overrun by some ethic of ‘rights’.  Growing up as a missionary kid in South Africa, there were times when we, members of the missionary family, were permitted to eat with the man of the house at the table when invited for a meal, but the women who served us had to eat in the kitchen with the children.  This was terribly awkward even as a boy, given my European (as South African whites would call themselves) culture.  I am very aware that social contexts are wildly different from one another, and a ‘human rights’ or ‘feminist’ ideology appears to me to be painfully modernist in its totalizing agenda and to be blissfully ignorant of legitimate, postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives, whether liberation or some a-contextual, redemptive principle.[5]

Why Pentecostals Should Continue to Support Women in Ministry

The Holiness Movement and Pentecostal movement in the American Church supported women in ministry roles over against the culture.  The conviction was that these women had mighty gifts from God to do what they were called to do.  They did not minister because they were equal to men; they ministered because the Holy Spirit had empowered them to fulfill a calling in ministry that they were compelled to fulfill.  The issue of equality or liberation simply did not feature in the discussion.

My mother’s entire life as a missionary was based on a vision that she had while in prayer as a child.  In the vision, she saw herself teaching children underneath a thorn tree in Africa.  Her calling was the basis for her ministry, not some view that she could and should be able to do what men do.  In 1 Timothy, Paul says that women should not teach because Eve was deceived by the serpent (1 Tim. 2.12, 14). Yet he encourages older women to teach younger women in Tit. 2.3-5. He clearly did not believe that women were, by nature, open to deception and false teaching.  In my mother’s case, equality was not the basis for her ministry but a calling from God and an empowering from the Holy Spirit.  As long as the focus is on being gifted and empowered by the Spirit and on opposing false teaching through Scripture, Pentecostals should continue to ordain women to teaching ministry.  That the culture today finds this more acceptable is irrelevant.

Why Anglicans Should Probably Not Appoint Women to Teaching Ministry at This Time

The case was entirely different for mainline denominations, where the culture’s liberationist lens was used to reform culture and, eventually, the Church.  The feminist movement in the US picked up great steam in the 1960s.  Women had already won the right to vote.  Birth control had already been invented.  Women had already entered the work force in cities and had independent incomes from men.  But the social revolution of the 1960s pressed these wins still further and, with this, came increasing calls in mainline denominations to approve women in all ministerial roles.  That trajectory came to affirm abortion as a right for women to exercise, and now it is used to support homosexual marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.

Mainline, Protestant denominations had already hitched their reading of Scripture to the cultural wagon, and yet they were at the same time traditional expressions of Christianity that did not easily change with the culture.  However, once they capitulated to the culture, jettisoning historical orthodoxy and Biblical authority, they became much greater prey to the culture.  They were always a step or two behind culture, but they were nonetheless tethered to it and were eventually pulled along by it.  Pick an issue, any issue, and the mainline denominations were following in step with the liberal elements of Western culture.  They became chameleons of culture.  Their views about Scripture were shaped not through Biblical interpretation but by the culture, and they either read with Scripture or against it, depending on whether their cultural views could be affirmed or not affirmed by Scripture.

Thus, the argument that women should be ordained to parish ministry and be allowed to become bishops comes across for many in global Anglican circles as just another example along the way of how culture determines what one will read in Scripture and what one will practice in the Church.  Anglicans in America have divided between the Episcopal Church, largely a liberal, oldline denomination that has blended into Western culture and thus declined in membership by half over the past fifty years, and the newer Anglican Church of North America that holds to historical orthodoxy.

The discussion of women’s ordination in that context is very different from Pentecostalism.  The discussion comes on the heels of a division centering on whether the Church is shaped by Scripture or the culture.  Having just faced the gender confusion of the homosexual debate in the Episcopal Church in America, it may be premature to press for women’s ordination in the Anglican dialogue on the issue.  If the Anglican Church of North America can accept the Pentecostal view of ordination as the affirmation of spiritual gifts and not the liberationist view of gender equality and sexual permissiveness, the door may open for women’s ordination.  But it is probably too early for most international contexts to address the issue after the wounding of the Anglican Church by so many Western theologians, bishops, and priests.  The danger for orthodox Anglicans is that the orthodox movement of GAFCON will be split apart by pressing the issue at this time of women’s ordination.  As I understand it in Africa, the Nigerian Anglicans are against women’s ordination, whereas Ugandan and Kenyan Anglicans are in favour: and yet all are Evangelical.  In the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, a strong liberationist interpretation (originating in the time of Apartheid) has dominated, such that the discussion of women’s ordination is hopelessly entangled with any liberation agenda, including, it now appears, with the push for the affirmation of homosexual practice.

It seems to me that Paul would say, as he did in 1 Timothy to the Ephesian context and in 1 Corinthians to the Corinthian context, that, as long as there is a heretical teaching about gender, a recent history of rejecting Scripture in favour of culture, and the possibility of dividing a large Christian communion, the better path is at this time is to forego women’s ordination.


The antidotes to a cultural reading of Scripture that is contextually unaware involve, first of all, good exegesis.  We need to do our homework and properly hear Scripture in its context.  A second antidote to cultural interpretation is to ask ourselves whether we are pressing an issue that our culture is also, at the same time, pressing.  Third, we might ask whether an issue in our culture fits into a totalizing metanarrative that cannot appreciate contextual issues and interpretation in Scripture, such as liberation in Western culture.  Fourth, we should also be very wary of any use of general principles or values that are too abstract to bring clarity to ethical issues.  Such general values and principles—liberation, love—can easily be twisted one way or the other to validate certain convictions or practices.  Liberation is far too general a value, as is a redemptive trajectory or some other wobbly tool, to be of any use to guide us in interpretation.  To the extent either is invoked, it must be in conjunction with other compelling reasons that help focus interpretation better and help interpreters see how a Biblical text applies to its original culture and to the present situation.  Fifth, as argued here, we need to realize that there might be alternative practices within the Church around the world even if we favour one over another: the same convictions may lead to different expressions of them in different times and cultures.  Even transculturally normative convictions may find diverse expressions in various cultural contexts.  For one culture or one tradition’s current discussion, women teaching men might not at all be related in people’s minds to a confusion of gender.  For another, the issue of women teaching men might be directly related to a confusion of gender issues, if not also other theological errors and a denigration of Biblical authority.

This leads to one final point about context.  If one church tradition entangled with theological error and confusion over gender should probably not throw into the debate the issue of women’s teaching at this time, and if another tradition’s stand against cultural interpretation and affirmation of God’s calling and gifting for ministry should lead it to continue to affirm women in teaching roles in the Church, then it is possible that some Church traditions should consider moving their practice to affirm women in teaching roles in the Church.  That context would be where women’s ordination to teaching ministries is understood in terms of calling and gifting rather than as a right, where there is no gender confusion between males and females, and where heretical teaching is not tolerated.  In my understanding, this ought to lead some Evangelical denominations that do not ordain women to consider doing so, lest their practice be more an affirmation of a conservative culture than of Biblical views on spiritual gifts and sound teaching in the Church.

[1] Note that Paul uses the singular in the beginning of this verse and the plural, ‘they’, in the rest of the verse.  In the beginning of the verse, he still has Eve in view as he is arguing from the Genesis narrative.  From the text’s perspective, she ‘will’ be saved through childbirth even though she was deceived and became a transgressor.  Paul sees this as analogous to the situation that Timothy is facing in Ephesus, since preaching against marriage and the failure to marry in the case of younger widows is endangering the spiritual lives of women in the church.  As he did in v. 10, Paul follows up his contextual argument with a more general statement that is applicable to any context in the second half of v. 15.
[2] The Greek word appears only here in the New Testament and has been understood simply as a synonym for kuriein, the more common word for ‘to have authority over,’ or as a term suggesting abuse of authority.  I take it more in the latter sense: it implies abuse of some sort—which is Paul’s point.  Eve overstepped her status as well as taught the deception of the serpent.
[3] The discussion of the meaning of ‘kephalē’—‘head’—has produced a mound of literature since the 1980s.  Without presenting my argument here, I would simply say that the meaning of the Greek word clearly (I do not see this as disputable) could and did in Paul’s usage entail authority.  This was already evident in the Septuagint and was how Greek speaking Christians in the Patristic era understood the word.
[4] Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester University Press, 1984).
[5] The idea that a ‘redemptive principle’ should be seen in Scripture that helps determine what is transcultural and what is culturally relative was proposed by Robert J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).