I’ve been asked a couple of times to hit on this topic. It’s been two years since I said anything about it on this blog. To be honest, it ranks right down there near prophecy for me. In other words, I find it hard to care about on many levels.  But if I’m going to spend time on eschatology, why not this one? In case you aren’t familiar with the terminology of the debate, you can get caught up by following these links for “Christian egalitarians” and “complementarian.”

As a strategy for keeping my interest, I’ve asked my friend and fellow blogger John Hobbins (Ancient Hebrew Poetry) to do this one in tandem. John is an egalitarian, which means he would support the idea of women being ordained to ministry. Good thing, since both he and his wife are ordained ministers!  This post is designed to start things off. John will be responding. His task will be of course to inform readers and, more difficult, to make me care.

So does the above mean I am a complementarian?  Actually, I’d describe myself “unconvinced of egalitarian views while being relatively unconcerned over complementarian fears.” But, because of the nature of the debate, I guess that makes me a complementarian, and I’m comfortable with that (since it is the traditional view, it’s also the default view). I really don’t feel any need, though, to oppose a woman’s sense of calling who feels called to the pastoral ministry. I’ve had women professors in biblical studies who were wonderful. I’ve heard women preach in church and wished I could hear them more often. I can look a woman seminary student in the eye and tell her I hope she has a fruitful ministry and is a blessing to anyone under her leadership. My view is that such a sense of calling is between her and God.

The trade-off is that I don’t feel like I could honestly defend her view exegetically. Frankly, I know of no clear exegetical argument in favor of female ordination. Yes, one can theologize the topic to the point of stupor, but I really don’t care about theologizing. I want something that clearly derives from the text and which cannot be coherently defeated on the basis of exegesis.

So why do I feel this way? Why do I feel I could not exegetically support an egalitarian view, but don’t care to oppose it? I’ll try to succinctly explain.

Let’s get the major points out of the way first.  If this debate is new to you, I’m sorry, but I can’t explain everything in this post or maybe even a few dozen.

1. “Junia” arguments are a stalemate at best.

Yes, the textual evidence that Junia (Greek Iounian) in Romans 16:7 is a woman is weighty, and the male-female pairings elsewhere in the benediction of Romans 16 also suggest Junia is female. (For a recent summary of the evidence by a well-respected textual critic, see this book). But all this solves little because:

A. The real issue is what “en tois apostolois” means (translated “to the apostles” or “among the apostles”; the latter would mean Junia was an apostle). The phrase is ambiguous in my mind.

B. Even if we go with “among the apostles,” there were apostles outside the 12 disciples. That is, the word is used of others “sent” (the word = sent ones, messengers) to do the work of the ministry (like missionaries nowadays). Whether that ministry meant a pastoral ministry (a pulpit ministry) or some other type of ministry cannot be determined with certainty or clarity. So, who cares if Junia was an apostle — what does *that* mean?

An article by Burer and Wallace argued against “among the apostles” (some of that is summarized here); a response to that article by the egalitarian scholar Linda Belleville followed.1

If you cannot obtain these articles, here’s a complemetarian analysis that interacts with Belleville.

C. Despite the text-critical evidence, Al Wolters has shown in considerable detail that the name may be male anyway.

2. “Kephale” arguments seem to favor the complementarian view.

I saw “seem to favor” because the arguments made by complementarians on this matter are more coherent in my judgment. But even if Paul meant “authority over” and not “source,” the situation at Corinth may have specifically called for what Paul said in 1 Cor 11:3.  That is, it may reflect Pauline opinion on a specific matter. That means it may not be a universal idea binding on us today — but that is a theologizing argument (an academic way to say “guess”). Egalitarians of course favor that caveat, and I feel I need to honor it to the extent that it would be less than honest to say we know the complete context.  But I would add that honesty requires egalitarians to come up with a clearer argument for their view, since to base one’s position on a supposition about our own cultural limitations is *not* an argument from exegesis. It’s building a doctrinal position on a guess.

For those unfamiliar with this debate, it was Grudem’s article (1985) that sort of (pardon the pun) brought the issue to a head. This was followed by a rebuttal by Cervin (1989) and then a sixty-nine page rejoinder to Cervin and other detractors by Grudem (1990; can we say “overkill”?). There have been other articles on both sides, but nothing that really wins the day.

3. Arguments from Deborah and female prophets are basically worthless.

Why do I feel this way? Several reasons:

A. Deborah was not a priest. There are no examples of female priests in the OT, which office would be the natural spiritual leadership role for “pulpit leadership” of the early church and today.

B. Female prophetesses in both testaments were not priests. Ditto the above.

C. Connecting either of the above to the issue at hand (female ordination) requires (for coherent logic) demonstrating that what they did as prophets was either (1) exercised normatively by priests in the OT (can’t be done); or (2) was inseparably linked to pastoral or apostolic ministry in the NT (also can’t be done).   What I mean here is that, since judgeship and prophetic preaching (predictive or otherwise) were done by people who were not priests or apostles (“pastors”), then those abilities or gifts cannot be used to prove one was a priest or apostle (“pastor”).  It’s a dead end.

I am aware that, on rare occasions, women in ancient Israel did “priestly things.” But you have to consider Zipporah’s circumcision of her son to save Moses’ life normative for that. Hardly an argument for female priests.

4. “Mutual submission” arguments are about relationships within the home.

Paul’s words ought not to be extrapolated (by either side) to refer to male relationships with women to whom men are not related, not married to, or pastoral leadership. Any of those areas are outside the context of what Paul is saying.

5. Arguments from “creation order” are also a stalemate.

What I mean here is that both sides can drawn on Genesis (before the Fall) for their view. An egalitarian could appeal to the textual fact that both men and women were created to image God equally. A complementarian could acknowledge that, but point out that certain elements of the description point to a hierarchical relationship between the two equal imagers of God. For example, an ANE/Semitic view of the act of naming (Adam names Eve) would be viewed as the act of a leader figure to a subordinate. While we might not like the perspective of an ANE/ Semitic culture, and could point out the obvious fact that we aren’t that culture, it is indeed the perspective of the biblical writer — the guy God chose to write/edit the text we have.  One cannot demonstrate the biblical culture would be egalitarian on points like this because, well, the rest of the Old Testament would be contrary evidence, being stilted in a hierarchical direction. Hence these sorts of arguments are tied to the culture argument (how and whether the biblical text as we have it ought to or can be bent to our cultural times).

This last point — the cultural hermeneutic — is probably my real concern in the debate. That hermeneutic has few objective restraints to it, making its use far too arbitrary and subjective. Our motto here at Naked Bible is “just the Bible,” and I think my position is consistent with that. I don’t see absolute clarity on this issue — I think that is where the biblical text leaves us — and that’s okay with me. I leave the text where it is and don’t supplement it with my own wisdom.

That ought to summarize things for now. For me, the only real argument for female ordination is the fact that one can find women as heads of house-churches in the early church. There is such textual and archaeological evidence.2. But all that means is that *some* early Christian contexts tolerated or embraced this (we don’t know which verb is appropriate, and maybe both are for a number of reasons). We have no idea what was behind the decision. It certainly wasn’t normative, but I’m not sure what that ought to mean to me, either.  I’d also suggest we don’t want early church data to necessarily drive our exegetical conclusions. This sort of data is notoriously conflicting and, in some cases for my tastes, wacky. It just doesn’t solve the issue — but it does make me feel that I ought not to dismiss the egalitarian view out of hand. I’m willing to bet God honored the ministry of these women pastors in the early church, and gave them a “well done, thou good and faithful servant” when they met the Lord after death. Who am I to say otherwise?  Hence I leave this to conscience.

But maybe John or one of you can move me.

  1. See Michael H. Burer and Daniel B. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-Examination of Rom 16.7,” NTS 47 (2001): 76-91; Linda Belleville, “IOUNIAN … en tois apostolois,” A Re-Examination of Romans 16.7 in Light of Primary Source Materials,” NTS 51 (2005): 231-249.
  2. See Carolyn Osiek, A Woman’s Place: House Churches In Earliest Christianity;  Karen J. Torjeson, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity.