Women, Ministry and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms

06.01.07 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Mark Husbands | by Timothy Larsen

    A review of Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen's, "Women, Ministry, and the Gospel," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.

    Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen, eds. Women, Ministry and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms. Downers Grove: IVP, 2007. $24.00, 304 pp., paperback. ISBN 978-0-8309-2566-0.

    Can anything more be written to advance the debate over gender roles in evangelicalism? Hasn't almost everyone by now picked sides, aligning themselves with positions like those espoused by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood or the Council for Biblical Equality? The editors of this volume of papers from the 2005 Wheaton Theology Conference believe that the answers to these two questions are yes and no, respectively. Their goal is to present a collection of "new paradigms and fresh perspectives" on the issues from a multi-disciplinary perspective, modeling an uncharacteristically irenic perspective and seeking to bring complementarians and egalitarians closer ideologically to one another. Overall, they have succeeded remarkably well in doing all of these things!

    Part One offers three chapters on biblical evidence. Rebecca Idestrom takes a detailed look at Deborah, demonstrating the inadequacy of views that attempt to restrict her leadership solely to the "secular" arena. Still, she is not a priest, and Idestrom stops short of arguing for full-fledged egalitarianism from her study. But a standard complementarian interpretation like Daniel Block's is too confining; intermediate alternatives must be sought.

    James Hamilton offers a wide-ranging survey of the biblical data from a standard complementarian perspective. In places, what seems to be his fresh contribution is his suggestion that the only role from which women are barred is the eldership and that, even then, we can do a whole lot better encouraging women to use their gifts to the fullest in complementarian settings which adopt that polity. But then he falls back, without much exegetical warrant, on upholding the older ban on women authoritatively teaching adult men biblical truth more broadly, making his chapter the only one in the volume with little new to say.

    Finally, Howard Marshall offers a "fresh perspective" on 1 Timothy 2; fresh, that is, for those who haven't read his 1999 revised ICC commentary on the Pastoral Epistles at that point (which New Testament scholars, at least, by now should have). No individual part of his exegesis is unprecedented, though perhaps the combination is a little bit so--understanding authentein as "to domineer" along with seeing situation-specific elements in the promotion of the false teaching creating prohibitions that might have to be implemented elsewhere in sufficiently similar situations but which do not thus apply in most parts of the Western world today. Perhaps Marshall's most valuable contribution is to point out the inconsistencies of some of the most conservative complementarians, especially when they try to enunciate in detail the situations in which women can or cannot teach the Bible to men (e.g., it is OK in written forms that would not be acceptable if spoken aloud publicly in mixed company). Marshall rightly notes that such lists prove too reminiscent of the Pharisaic Sabbath casuistry and its thirty-nine regulations defining "work" that was proscribed.

    Part Two contains two chapters dealing with "the body of Christ" more broadly. Lynn Cohick offers a very helpful taxonomy of five main interpretive approaches to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, opting for a combination of differentiation of genders plus mutuality without hierarchy in relationships. But while her presentation and critique of each perspective is quite lucid, it is less clear how she comes to her conclusions as to what she will endorse herself.

    Frederick Long focuses on the theme of the gifts of the Spirit, particularly as Acts 2 appropriates Joel 2, to show how much further women should be encouraged in ministry, based on a biblical theology of gifts alone, in which almost all parties agree there are no restrictions according to gender. En route he applies some of the growing body of literature on voluntary Greco-Roman associations, which early churches would have resembled, and in which women often played active roles.

    Part Three turns to theological reflection on "identity and ministry." Mark Husbands tackles the topic of "reconciliation as the dogmatic location of humanity." Among a number of diverse points hard to weave together into a simple summary, he stresses that even if something is a "creation ordinance," it may not be appropriate for the era of new creation, which may advance even beyond original creation. But he fails to deal with Ephesians 5, in which husbands' and wives' roles are unambiguously modeled on the new creation activity of Christ and the church.

    Margaret Kim Peterson's offering in this section is more valuable, as she reflects on a theology of ordinary work, including that which has often deemed to be the domain of women. Just what is the work of "ministry�" Is it the planning, strategizing, preaching/teaching and debriefing that occupy a large percentage of many men's professional ministry responsibilities, or is it the pastoral care, private instruction, crisis intervention, and other "sheep-and-goats-parable-like" activity often done more by unpaid, lay women leaders, including the wives of ministry professionals. And we're trying to bar whom from doing what, and why?

    The fourth part of this book moves the discussion into other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Mary Stewart van Leeuwen remains as helpful and cogent as in her book-length works in debunking many widely held stereotypes about differences between men and women as simply not having empirical support as anything biological or "hard-wired" into our genders. So much is the product of conditioning, and even some of what may have biological roots may also stem, at least in part, from the Fall. Though she never mentions them by name, the Eldredges' wildly popular writings on men needing something to conquer and women wanting to be conquered come readily to mind. Of course, anything that plays to our fallen natures may be wildly popular, but that hardly makes it right, especially when it is supported by very little true exegesis and virtually no social-science research.

    Cheryl Sanders more briefly introduces us to a number of key but little-known women preachers in the rise of the holiness movement in this country, including within African-American Christianity.

    Timothy Larsen does the same, but for evangelicalism more broadly, from the time of the Great Awakenings onward. Based on his own specialized research, he pays special attention to Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958), who regularly preached in distinctively fundamentalist circles in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. He highlights, as Janette Hassey and Ruth Tucker have done previously, the number of fundamentalist churches and parachurch groups that ordained women and encouraged gifted women to preach prior to the 1920s, at which time a retrenchment occurred due to a desire for social respectability (and, he should have added, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy). Indeed, Larsen argues that evangelicalism proved inherently more favorable to women's preaching for quite some time because of its respect for the authority of the whole Bible, which liberalism lacked and thus lagged behind in making similar opportunities available to women.

    The final segment of this stimulating volume seeks new paradigms to help move us "beyond the impasse." Henri Blocher proposes distinguishing between ordinary ministries and extraordinary ones, as occurred two generations ago in his family's French Presbyterian congregation, with extraordinary ones being open to women. But this still seems unnecessarily limiting and fraught with subjectivity.

    Sarah Sumner, who may be the most important current spokesperson in the quest for a via media, exhorts us to four tasks: (1) build relationships with those who disagree with us (which will make us less likely to treat them uncharitably); (2) reframe the debate so that neither side's genuine Christian and evangelical commitment is doubted and so that both sides recognize that their positions are comparatively new in church history (thus, e.g., no one can claim for support the weight of tradition, which actually argued for women's ontological inferiority and often for their representing less than the full image of God); (3) distinguish between divine choices (the gifts the Spirit gives as he wills indiscriminately of gender) and human ones (the people we appoint to specific offices); and (4) work together as a team.

    Timothy George, finally, as an invited commentator on the conference, unpacks this last concept in a call for a new ECT: instead of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," now we need "Egalitarians and Complementarians Together." Given the number of things we agree on and could work together on, it is a tragedy that we are as separated as we are. Consider, George suggests, the issues of fundamental Christian doctrine (the so-called Great Tradition), shared conversion stories, the sanctity of life, strengthening marriages and the family, combating sexual abuse, and having concerts of prayer and joint missions and evangelistic effort. George's and Sumner's proposals would surely temper the unnecessarily harsh rhetoric and overly narrow line-drawing in many circles, to which we much more readily succumb when we do not have strong relationships with one another as Christian sisters and brothers.

    Short reviews seldom do justice to singly-authored works; it is almost impossible to summarize adequately thirteen splendid essays in so short a compass. Most every writer has points that prove less than convincing; almost each chapter at least once abandons argument in favor of affirmation. But overall the editors have marvelously accomplished their objectives, and in many instances we are introduced to newer and/or younger scholars whose work holds out great promise for future, more definitive contributions. For anyone who thought that Wayne Grudem's Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth and Ronald Pierce's and Rebecca Groothuis's edited collection, Discovering Biblical Equality (the two works most frequently cited by these conferees) marked out the only two viable options in the debate, this book is must reading. Perhaps the only major disappointment caused by the volume is a personal one: not one of my six works impinging on this topic and already in print by 2005, appeared anywhere in the discussion or documentation, despite my sympathies and positions fitting to a tee the very middle ground that many of these authors were seeking. But they must increase and I must decrease!

    Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    June 2007

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