The church can expect opposition from an unbelieving world
At the end of January our Dutch sister churches officially came together to begin meeting in General Synod, although according to their website regular plenary sessions are not planned to begin until March. One of the items on the agenda is a report, commissioned by the previous synod, on whether women can be ordained to ecclesiastical office. This report, Rapport deputaten M/V en ambt: samen dienen, is a huge disappointment. It recommends that women be ordained to all the offices of the church: minister of the Word, elder, and deacon. After about two thousand years of the church’s consistent understanding of Scripture that it is not God’s will that women be ordained into ecclesiastical office, this report boldly says the opposite and recommends accordingly. How did this come about? How can this report justify such a course of action? This article is a brief preliminary look at some of its features.
This seventy-five page report (to which reference will be made by page number) is available on the Internet and is well-written. As a matter of fact, the whole set up and development of the report, starting from Scripture and moving through history to today, is very cleverly written so that it will easily convince any church member who is not very knowledgeable about the issues involved. For those who wish to go with the times and not be too different from the culture in which we live, this report fits the bill. And culture is a major issue here.
The place of culture
This report attaches great significance to culture, both in biblical times and now. Those who wrote the report are convinced that their recommendations are based on Scripture and they emphatically deny that they are influenced by the demands of our current culture (61-62). Without questioning the integrity of the deputies, this denial has some credibility issues within the context of this report. It is, for example, remarkable that the report states that the husband’s authority over his wife is basically determined by the culture of that time and is thus in essence not normative for today (13,15). It is also striking that among the grounds given for urging the churches to create room for women to show their gifts in proclamation and education, the pastorate, and diaconate, is the matter of our current culture. Since both men and women are now educated and have equal access to positions in society, the same should be the case in the church (67-68). This is not the first time that such a rational is mentioned in our Dutch sister churches. Myriam Klinker-deKlerck in her 2011 study, (Als vrouwen het woord doen, 134), voiced similar sentiments.
Most important are, of course, the actual grounds for opening up all the offices to women, which the report seeks to base on Scripture. Here too we run into a reasoning by which the cultural context of a biblical text (e.g. 1 Tim 2:11-14) is used to interpret Scripture in such a way that the Bible ends up meaning the opposite of what the text plainly says. We will come back to this example. The point that needs to be made is that the report’s use of culture in understanding and applying Scripture is a central feature and it is also the report’s Achilles’ heel, its vulnerable point and fatal weakness. The deputies have followed a method of interpretation by which Scripture is read and explained through the lens of the culture of that time, as they understand it. So, unless you are familiar with the culture of, for example, the time of the Apostle Paul, you cannot correctly understand what he has written and apply the text to today. This method of interpreting which places such a high premium on culture has enormous consequences. When you stop to think this method through, then logically speaking it is only in our time with all the available resources of archaeology, cultural, and historical studies that we can finally find out what the Lord our God is actually teaching us in the apostle’s writings.
It is of course true that the latest discoveries can help us to better understand Scripture. But, God’s Word is clear with respect to the intended basic meaning, not just to our generation but to all those who have preceded us as well. No reader of God’s Word should be held hostage to the latest cultural studies in order to finally find out what God really meant to tell us about female ordination to ecclesiastical office. Yet this is essentially what this report says and it admits that their recommendations mean a break with the past (62).
Is such a break with the traditional understanding of the biblical text which has served the church since Pentecost warranted? Since the biblical evident is critical, let us consider two key passages. 1 Corinthians 14:34 reads: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (ESV). In 1 Timothy 2:12, the apostle writes: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (ESV). How does this report deal with these texts? Within the constraints of this article let us briefly consider these texts.
1 Corinthians 14:13b-35
The report begins by stating that we do not know for sure what this passage means because we do not have enough information about the situation to which the apostle is reacting. A number of exegetical points are covered. The report correctly mentions that the command to keep silent in the churches is meant for all the congregations and not just the one in Corinth. The report then notes that the demand for silence only applies to a specific situation since women were permitted to pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor 11:5; 14:26). The report repeats that what the words mean for our time is unclear (19-20). However, this passage should not in this manner be shunted aside and made of little consequence in this discussion. More can be said that is relevant for the topic at hand.
In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul deals with prophecy and speaking in tongues with a view to ensuring that all things be done for building up. Thus, to prophesy is better than speaking in tongues unless the prophecy is interpreted for the benefit of those who hear it. Prophecies, however, need to be carefully weighed (v 29) for there was the danger of false prophets (cf. 1 John 4:1). In that general context, the apostle says that women should be silent because they ‘should be in submission, as the law also says” (1 Cor 14-34). “The law” probably refers to the Old Testament, with the creation account being specifically in view since the apostle had appealed to creation earlier in regard to the relationship of men and women (1 Cor 11:8, 9). The point is that when prophecies are being judged, women are not to speak for that could involve having authority over a male prophet. The demand for silence is repeated three times (1 Cor 14:34-35) underlining the importance of this prohibition.
With respect to 1 Corinthians 11, it should be noted that the practice of women praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:5, 13) does not constitute a warrant for their having an official ecclesiastical office. The passage does not specifically state where this praying and prophesying was done. Some scholars have argued that the praying and prophesying of women in 1 Corinthians 11 took place outside the official worship services (cf. Acts 21:9-11). There is then no contradiction with the demand for silence in church in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35. However, this interpretation is not completely convincing since nothing in 1 Corinthians 11 gives the impression that this prophesying was a private activity and prophecies were to be evaluated in church (1 Cor 14:23-29). Regardless whether one interprets this activity as inside or outside the church, more to the point is the fact that the gifts of prophesying and tongues were temporary gifts of the Spirit in the apostolic era of the church. Prophets were part of the foundation of the church along with the apostles (Eph 2:20). Since a foundation is only established once, there are no more inspired prophets or prophetesses today. Such prophesying and speaking in tongues as well as the manner in which they took place are therefore not normative for the church today. The cessation of the gifts of prophecy and tongues means that 1 Corinthians 11 has no direct bearing on the issue of whether women should be admitted to ecclesiastical office.
One of the most important and clear passages in dealing with the issue of whether female ordination is warranted is 1 Timothy 2:11-14.
1 Timothy 2:11-14
The report correctly notes that in this chapter the Apostle Paul appeals to both men and women to behave properly in church, each in their own way, with an appeal to creation. The report then states that the words: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” do not constitute a general pronouncement (19). In other words, it is not normative for all times and places. This is so, according to the report, because Paul told Timothy that he had to see “older women as mothers” who had authority over their daughters and sons (1 Tim 5:2). This reasoning however does not hold. Within a domestic setting, mothers indeed have authority over their sons but in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 the context of the prohibition to teach and have authority over a man is public worship.
In trying to make its case for women in ecclesiastical office, the report asks whether women had to be silent because they lacked knowledge. As reason for raising this point, the report notes it was not usual in the culture of that time for women to be educated, yet in 1 Timothy 2:11 the apostle says: “Let a woman learn quietly and in all submission.” So it appears that women were to be silent because they needed further instruction. That would also explain why the apostle did make use of gifted women such as Priscilla. The essence of the matter, according to the report, is that everyone is permitted to prophesy and to speak, but knowledge and insight is needed and without education it is not wise to speak. Furthermore, it is incumbent on men and women to behave appropriately when speaking. What is appropriate is culturally determined and what was culturally fitting in the apostle’s day does not have to be culturally fitting in our day. Thus, the passages telling women to be silent (1 Cor4 14:34 and 1 Tim 2:9-10) form no basis for keeping the ecclesiastical offices closed to women. Rather, according to this report, these passages “contain a call to let oneself be educated in all modesty – something that pertains to both men and women – although that means something different for each of them as also determined by the culture of the time” (20).
The report basically argues that these critical passages do not speak of barring women from ecclesiastical office, but rather these verses tell women to get educated so that they can teach and exercise authority over a man. A difficulty with this analysis is that nowhere does the apostle say this. There is no reference to the fact that their lack of education is the reason that they are not able to teach or have authority over men. Rather the reason given is that God created Adam first and then Eve. In other words, the prohibition is not based on their lack of education but the text clearly justifies it by the order in which God created male and female. The text explicitly gives this as the reason. The passage reads: “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; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:12-14, my emphasis). In other words, the reason for a woman to keep silent is based on creation, just as in 1 Corinthians 14:34.
In sum, there is no biblical basis in the passages just discussed for the report’s conclusion that women may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. The report’s imagined cultural rationale for silence that women needed more education before being allowed to speak has no warrant in Scripture. Indeed, the report makes the text say the opposite from what it actually states.
A major omission and problem
Surprisingly the report has no discussion of the biblical qualifications for the office of elder which assume that males are in view (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6). Judging from the direction of the report as a whole, if it had dealt with the criteria for becoming an elder, it would probably have said that those were the relevant qualifications for the culture of that time but they no longer apply to today since men and women have equal education and employment opportunities in our current society. Such an approach makes the biblical text mean something different from what the text states and denies the clarity and authority of Scripture. This method of interpretation leads to the church absorbing worldly thinking and cultural values and thus losing its distinctiveness as the holy body of Christ.
The church can expect opposition from an unbelieving world (cf. John 15:18-19). The church must be obedient to the plain teaching of Scripture and if that means being counter-cultural and assigning different roles to men and women than what is customary in the society in which we live, so be it. We must be prepared to endure the possible scorn and ridicule, and even suffering (1 Peter 4:12-17). The biblical norms for office bearers as understood for millennia must be upheld in obedience to the head of the church.
We hope and pray that Synod Meppel does not adopt this report.
By Cornelis Van Dam, Professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton
This article was published in Clarion February 10 2017 and has been published on Defence of the Truth website with the author’s permission.