First off, let me refer you over to a conversation on the femina blog from a few weeks ago which began with Nancy Wilson’s explanation for why she doesn’t normally speak at Bible conferences to co-ed audiences. She followed up with two additional posts (here and here) further elaborating her views, and Bekah Merkle followed up in the comments with additional thoughts and answers to questions. And I might add that there was for the most part a very swell exchange of views with good spirit and grace.
Second, and the primary point I want to make in this post is the power of categories, or if you prefer, the power of systematic theology. On the one hand, there were a couple of ladies in the comments representing Jim Jordan’s take on 1 Tim. 2, and on the other hand the femina gals were representing what is likely the more historic Reformed view. Don’t take that short hand analysis as in itself a disparagement or endorsement of either view. But let me explain what I see as the differences.
On the one hand, one of the key typological motifs that Jordan and others have developed over the years has been the priest-king-prophet story arc. This is much further developed than what you find in Reformation era catechisms and dogmatics. Of course you find the prophet, priest, and king offices fulfilled in the person and work of Christ, but Jordan has demonstrated (rather persuasively in my view) that those offices represent an even deeper maturity motif running from Genesis to Revelation. If you’ve looked at my commentary on the book of Job, you’ll find that particular interpretive grid doing a fair bit of heavy lifting. And I still find that narrative arc an incredibly helpful way of seeing the book of Job as well as many other portions of Scripture.
On the other hand, the more traditional Reformational systematic categories for ethics have tended to center around moral, ceremonial, and civil categories or else governmental spheres: ecclesiastical, civil, and familial. So for example, you might find the former categories used to understand various laws in the Old Covenant, and then those moral and civil laws that remain in force in the New Covenant must be applied to the ecclesiastical, civil, and familial realms.
My point here is simply to point out that both of these systems of interpretation were at work in the conversation about the teaching role of women. If you use the priest-king-prophet grid, part of the systematic force tends to include a set of corresponding spheres which are analogous to one another but not synonymous. The priest has authority in the sanctuary (roughly ecclesial, but more specific), the king has authority in the land (roughly civil), and the prophet has the authority of access to God’s councils (not clearly aligned with any sphere). Jordan has observed that in the Bible there are female civil magistrates (e.g. Deborah, Esther) and female prophetesses (e.g. Miriam, Deborah, Anna). However, it is striking that there are no female priests. Jordan takes this to mean that a woman may exercise authority in the former offices (king and prophet) but not the latter (priest). Priestly authority primarily pertains to the sanctuary, and therefore Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the impropriety of a woman having authority over a man by teaching him, seems to apply specifically in this regard. The immediate context of Paul’s exhortation seems to lend credit to this view: e.g. instructions for men to pray with lifted hands. The New Covenant “sanctuary” is the gathered, formal worship of God’s people. Ergo, no woman should exercise authority over a man in this particular setting, i.e. as the minister/preacher. These roles are reserved for the priestly office.
However, if you take the familial, ecclesiastical, civil categories as the grid through which we understand the roles of men and women, something somewhat different emerges. Here, you would have a similar appreciation for the significant role of women in the family and the civil realm — without obliterating the God-given distinctive glories of men and women, but the ecclesiastical realm tends to be seen as a lot more general, not nearly as narrow or specific as “sanctuary.” The ecclesiastical realm extends beyond the gathered worship of God’s people. The Church proclaims the Word in many other settings (small groups, Sunday school, informal evangelism, Christian schools, colleges, Bible studies, blogs, seminaries, books, conferences, articles, etc.). And reasonable questions arise. Should a woman author a theology book? How about a commentary on the Bible? Shall we invite her to share what she has learned in small group setting? What about Sunday school? May she write an article for the church newsletter? Etc., etc.
Thus, it strikes me that there are a number of interesting things that emerge when you compare these two interpretive grids. First, I suspect that the broad and generic category of the “ecclesial realm” is part of the challenge Protestant Christians have faced with the full court press of feminism and egalitarianism all around us. As soon as you’ve admitted an acceptable female role in one function in the ecclesial realm, there remains little to no logical resistance to all roles. If a woman can “teach” men through a book or article, why can’t she share the same lessons in person? This seems to me to be the immediate advantage of the Jordan categories. There’s initially a more precisely defined biblical logic to Paul’s restriction. In worship = not cool. Outside worship = cool.
Nevertheless, that’s only an initial precision. Because preaching/teaching is not really something limited to the sanctuary. Or, if we analyze our biblical theology categories carefully, we may find that the “sanctuary” extends beyond Sunday mornings between 10 and 11:30am. In other words, the sanctuary sphere does seem to be one helpful way of guarding what Paul intends, but its simplicity may also prove to be its own slippery slope. To take an example from another area: it is certainly right to carefully prohibit premarital sexual intercourse as the sin of fornication, but it’s not exactly wisdom to then proceed to allow all manner of foreplay. And you can’t really complain when you wake up in bed next to someone you were firmly committed to only making out with. In other words, gravity exists.
Finally, one of the haunting realities in a discussion like this is the fact that we are in the middle of a full frontal assault on every semblance of biblical masculinity and femininity. While we must always only be captive to the Word of God and refuse to enshrine human opinions as divinely inspired commands, there is nevertheless a great deal of wisdom in drawing straight lines and making careful working distinctions while we work and pray for more clarity on the issues. While there is much to be commended in John Frame’s article on these matters, I suspect that his third and final warning at the very end of the article deserves a much more prominent role in our deciphering the way forward. Frame is absolutely right to note the positive admonitions to women as significant, and I would argue that any church that wants to get 1 Timothy 2 right will need to already be an enthusiastic proponent of Titus 2. In other words, I highly suspect that there are numerous cultural practices that we are barely aware of that are already getting in the way of this conversation. And what I mean is that we have so devalued the true glory of a woman, we have (ironically) probably set ourselves up to either invite a naive functional egalitarianism on the one hand or we end up restricting women’s contributions unnecessarily on the other.
So in addition to the systematic theology categories at work in this conversation, we also need to recognize the systematic cultural tectonic plates shifting and colliding beneath our feet. And I hope to explore that further in a follow up post soonishly.