The Justification for Female Ministers in our Sister Churches
Synod Meppel of our Dutch sister churches approved the ordination of women to all ecclesiastical offices. We previously considered its arguments for the ordination of female elders and found them unconvincing.[i] This synod also declared that there were biblical grounds for the ordination of women to the office of minister of the Word. Five arguments were given. Let us briefly consider each one of them.
Synod’s first ground was that:
The Old Testament already makes mention of prophetesses (Exod 15:20-21; Judg 4:4-7; 2 Kings 22:14) or of prophetic activity by women (1 Sam 2:1-10).
In the New Testament also, already before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we read of prophetic activity by women. We note Mary and her Magniﬁcat (Luke 1:46-55). We also read of Anna, who prophesied together with Simeon on the occasion of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the temple, and who served the Lord day and night in the temple (Luke 2:36-38).
In an earlier Clarion article (July 28, 2017), we saw how Miriam (Exod 15:20-21) and Deborah (Judg 4:4-7), who both functioned as prophetesses, were exceptional both in their place in the history of redemption as well as with the specific content of their prophetic office. Their work cannot function as a paradigm and ground for female participation in the office of the elder, including that of the teaching elder, the minister of the gospel. The appearance of the prophetess Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14) and the mention of lsaiah’s wife as a prophetess (Isa 8:3) are also rare exceptions in the midst of the many male prophets that are mentioned elsewhere.
Indeed, apart from the examples just mentioned there are no other instances of true prophetesses in the Old Testament. Mary’s song of praise or Magniﬁcat has similarities with the Old Testament song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10), but like Hannah, she, too, is not called a prophetess. With respect to Anna, the prophetess, her prophetic activity consisted of “worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day” in the temple. When Jesus was presented, “she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).
All the instances of prophetesses underline the fact that God is able to raise up whomever he wishes for special service. But such instances do not form a pattern for us to follow, especially if God gives clear guidelines for the office of teaching elder elsewhere in Scripture (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-8). Synod’s ﬁrst justiﬁcation for admitting women to the ministerial office is therefore not convincing.
The next three grounds all deal with prophesying.
Prophesying in the New Testament church
The second argument which Synod Meppel used to justify female ordination into the ofﬁce of minister of the Word is as follows.
The fulﬁllment of the promise of Pentecost (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18) is that sons and daughters, old and young, will share in the gift of prophecy. The New Testament displays that reality. On the day of Pentecost the apostles, together with other disciples, among whom possibly women (Acts 1:14), anointed by the Holy Spirit, acted as Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 1:8; 2:4-8). Other places, too, make mention of women who prophesied (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:4-5).
When Peter proclaimed that Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled (Acts 2:17-18), he was explaining the striking phenomenon that all the believers, young and old, male and female, were telling “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). Thus, prophesying as explained by Peter is telling the great acts of God. One can say that by receiving the Spirit-given ability to tell the saving deeds of God to others, all believers are thus equipped to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this sense, all believers have the prophetic ofﬁce and calling. As we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, we share in Christ’s anointing and as prophets we “confess his name” (LD 12). However, the fulﬁllment of Joel’s prophecy on the day of Pentecost involved more than this general prophetic office of all believers.
The context of Peter’s referencing Joel’s prophecy is that the Holy Spirit came down upon the believers and they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The result was that when people came to see what was happening they heard the mighty works of God each in their own language (Acts 2:8, 11). In response to those who mocked this speaking in other tongues, the Apostle Peter declared that Joel’s prophecy was being fulﬁlled. Thus, not only the gift of prophecy but also of tongues were involved in this fulﬁllment.
In light of the above, one cannot use Joel’s prophecy to justify female ordination. The fulﬁllment of this prophecy does not address it. Furthermore, when it comes to spreading the gospel in an ofﬁcial capacity, Christ did speciﬁcally address the apostles to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8; Mark 16:13; Luke 24:48; cf. Acts 13:31, 47; Col 1:23).
Synod’s second argument also mentions “women who prophesied (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:4-5).” This brings us to Synod’s third and fourth grounds.
The third ground for the ordination of female pastors is: “the meaning of Scripture is that ‘the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation’ (1 Cor 14:3). This manner of prophesying applies to both men and women.”
The fourth ground for female ministers is that “New Testament prophecy, as to its content, has always been understood within the Reformed tradition as the explanation of Scripture, and a Spirit-guided application to the present day, speciﬁcally in the preaching.”
When considering these grounds, the key question is what is meant by prophesying in the passages that the synodical decision references? To answer that question, we will especially concentrate on 1 Corinthians, since this is where the biblical proof for the third ground comes from. Prophecy is a special gift of the Spirit (1 Cor 14:1, 14) which was given to both men and women (1 Cor 11:4-5; also cf. Acts 21:9). It involves giving revelation from God. This is evident from the close association of prophecy and revelation in 1 Corinthians 14. The apostle instructs: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the ﬁrst be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Cor 14:29-32). These verses form part of the Apostle Paul’s instruction for orderly worship. Signiﬁcantly, he earlier introduced this section by writing: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:26). By including “revelation” he clearly alludes to prophesying as his subsequent instructions show (vv. 29-32).
The revelatory character of prophecy is also seen by the apostle’s closely associating the gift of prophesy with understanding “all mysteries.” He wrote: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). A mystery is that which God needs to reveal. It is hidden to human beings. The Apostle Paul considered himself to be steward of God’s mysteries (1 Cor 4:1), which means that God used him to reveal what would otherwise have been hidden. As he wrote to the Corinthians: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Cor 15:51-52). Similarly, he wrote to the Roman Christians: “I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rom 11:25-27).
Dr. Richard Gafﬁn, emeritus professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, has shown in more detail than is possible here that the revelation given by the prophets in the New Testament church was “on a par and of one piece with the inspired revelation received and proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles.” Furthermore, revelation given through prophecy did not address “individualistic, purely localized interests, but concerns, along with apostolic revelation, the salvation in Christ with its rich and manifold implications for the faith and life of the church.[ii] Thus, it is not difﬁcult to see that “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor 14:3).
It needs to be recognized, however, that such a special revelatory prophetic gift was part of the foundation of the church and thus a temporary gift. And so, seeing that “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” has been laid with “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20), such special prophetic gifts have ceased to be given to the church. As a result, the New Testament passages dealing with prophecy that are mentioned in the decision are not applicable as grounds for female ordination in the church today?[iii]
Is Scripture clear?
Synod’s ﬁnal argument: “While there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the precise interpretation of the apostolic command to ‘be silent,’ comparative examination of 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 14:26 shows that in any case this prescription cannot be understood as an absolute prohibition to speak (or preach) in the worship service.”
This last argument is premised on the fact that Scripture is not clear since “there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the precise interpretation of the apostolic command to ‘be silent’.” Is this true? The apostle wrote: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26). These words reflect the situation in the apostolic era when God gave special gifts of revelation and tongues to both male and female (1 Cor 11:4—5). With the completion of the canon of Scripture, there is no reason to think that God will continue to give new authoritative revelation through the gift of prophecy. However, in the apostolic church revelations were received, but one had to be able to distinguish between true and false prophecy or revelation (1 Cor 14:29). In that context, the apostle charged that women were to be silent for judging prophecy could involve exercising authority over a male prophet which was not ﬁtting for women for they “should be in submission” (1 Cor 14:34). The fact that women were to be silent in that particular context was so important that this command was repeated three times (1 Cor 14:34-35).
A basic principle underlying the demand for the silence of women is that they should be in submission in accordance with the creation order as taught in the Law, that is, the Five Books of Moses, and speciﬁcally Genesis, chapter 2 (1 Cor 14:34; cf. 11:8-9). Similarly, God’s Word elsewhere says: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 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” (1 Tim 2:11-13). In other words, it is not ﬁtting for women and their role over against men to speak publicly in church. This inappropriateness is not conﬁned to the apostolic church since the reason for the submission of women is grounded in the order of the creation of male and female.[iv]
In light of the above, Synod MeppeI’s ﬁnal argument is unconvincing and does injustice to the clarity of Scripture, especially in light of the Bible’s requirements for the teaching and preaching ofﬁce as spelled out elsewhere in Scripture (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-8) and the prohibition that a woman may not teach in church (1 Tim 2:12). If one part of Scripture is not completely clear to us, it should be interpreted in light of the more clear passages.
It is very difﬁcult not to sense that the egalitarian culture of our times has had an enormous inﬂuence on Synod MeppeI’s reasoning, especially when one considers that Scripture has clearly reserved the teaching and preaching office for qualiﬁed males. In this connection, it is of interest to note that even a secular Jewish historian is not impressed with the so-called biblical arguments typically set forth for the ordination of women into ecclesiastical ofﬁce. The Bible is simply too clear on the requirement for male ordination into ecclesiastical ofﬁce. Here is what Yuval Noah Harari had to say in his book Homo Deus (Man is God) about the acceptance of gay marriage and female clergy: “Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible.”
He then explains that it came from cultural forces such as Michel Poucault’s The History of Sexuality or Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” But true believers cannot admit drawing their ethics from these people.
So they go back to the Bible. . . and make a very thorough search. . . until they ﬁnd what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that if interpreted creatively enough means that God blesses gay marriage and that women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”[v]
Need more be said?
Cornelis Van Dam (professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, Hamilton, Ontario. This article is from Clarion 8 Sept 2017, V66 N17, p502)
[i] [See http://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2017/08/dutch-decision-female-ordination-elder-weighed-found-wanting-1/ and http://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2017/08/dutch-decision-female-ordination-elder-weighed-found-wanting-2/.]
[ii] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: Studies in New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 62.
[iii] On the foundation character and cessation of the gift of prophecy, see Gafﬁn, Perspectives on Pentecost, 93-102.
[iv] For more a more detailed biblical discussion than is possible here, see, e.g., George W. Knight III, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 29-32, 36-40.
[v] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Toronto: Signal, 2015), 275-76, with thanks to Rev. D. de Jong, who alerted me to this passage.