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An Open Letter to Pastors

Dear Pastor,

I'm writing in response to the article "Can a Woman be a Pastor-Teacher?" by Harold W. Hoehner.

A look at church history reveals that women served together with men in the early years until the institutionalization of the church transformed leadership into the sole prerogative of men. From the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy at Pentecost ("Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy") through the early years of the church, women and men contended for the faith side by side. According to Catherine Clark Kroeger's research, women acted in various leadership roles, including bishop (or elder) and deacon.[1] The early church may have even recognized the ministry of the widows as a "clergy" function. Boccia states that both Ignatius and Tertullian list the order of widows as clergy, rather than as a domestic order.[2] In any case, in the second and third centuries the church ordained women deaconesses along with male deacons. These women ministered to other women in a variety of ways, including instructing catechumens, assisting with women's baptisms and welcoming women into the church services. They also mediated between church members, cared for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the imprisoned and the persecuted.[3]

Regarding the ordination of women and excluding them from pastoral leadership, Hoehner quotes 1Timothy 2:12-14, one of the most disputed passages of Scripture. I believe Paul's words about silence are simply calling for teachableness in his new female followers. In 1Timothy 2:2, Paul says that all Christians-both males and females-are to lead "a tranquil and quiet life." Does this mean men are supposed to refrain from speaking? Of course not.

Because women had not been trained to understand the Scriptures (in fact, they had been denied the opportunity!), he was calling them to embrace the discipline of learning the Word of God. In order to become faithful disciples in the true rabbinical tradition, they needed to approach the Scriptures with reverence and a submissive attitude. They could not be disciples if they were know-it-alls or if they opposed God's Word or if they flippantly questioned it. Humility is the only posture a disciple can take if he or she expects to please the Master. Paul was telling women to listen and to learn, not to shut up and be invisible. He was inviting them to enroll in the seminary of the Holy Spirit and to become active followers of Christ. He was not commanding them to shut their mouths and fade away into the background of the church. And if Paul was calling women to learn, then he fully expected them to teach and preach what they had been taught when the process of discipleship was complete.

Hoehner also reminds his readers of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. There are several reasons scholars believe that these two verses are quotes from the letter Paul is answering. The most important reason is that the Greek symbol h (with a grave accent) is used at the beginning of verse 36 to signal to the reader that the preceding statement is quoted. Because Greek does not use quotation marks, this is used instead.

This would explain why verses 34 and 35 seem to contradict everything that Paul has said up to this point about the full participation of all believers in NT worship. The apostle has spent several chapters telling the Corinthians that all can "prophesy one by one" (vs. 31). He even stated in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that women can pray and prophesy publicly. So why would he contradict himself in 14:35 by saying that women cannot speak in church?

Another point to think about is why does verse 34 say that women are not allowed to speak "just as the Law also says"? What law is this verse referring to? There is no law in the OT that says that women cannot speak. There is no reference to a Scripture given here. That's because it is not referring to an OT law, but to a Jewish rabbinical tradition that the Corinthian church had adopted.

The harshness of the language in verse 35 gives another clue that this Law is actually a man-made rule invented by the same type of legalistic Judaizers that Paul publicly opposed in Galatians and Colossians. The phrase "It is improper for a woman to speak in church," can actually be translated, "It is shameful for a woman to speak." Does this truly reflect the heart of God? I do not believe so. Paul is quoting those who held a degrading view of women- those who actually described women in their Jewish writings as vile and disgraceful.

And because Paul opposed this degrading view of women, he responds to the Corinthians in verse 36 with a sharp answer: "What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only?" (KJV) This strange response makes no sense if we believe that Paul penned verses 34 and 35. But if he is contradicting the statements made by the Judaizers of Corinth, then we can understand the defiant tone of verse 36. To paraphrase the apostle, he is saying, "What? You are going to silence women after they saw Him at the tomb on Easter morning? Do you really think the gospel is only for men?" This is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible.[4]

In the past, discussion of the place of women in the church largely focused on the extent to which male dominance precluded female leadership. More recently, though, certain historians have been raising a more difficult question. They not only want to learn why men have traditionally dominated church life, but why women leaders repeatedly reemerge. This research has revealed an interesting historical pattern.

The ebb and flow of women's participation in leadership does not merely fluctuate according to changes in biblical exegesis or the reigning interpretation of particular passages of Scripture. Rather, the pattern can also be traced to institutionalization of the church (the development of organizational structures), influences from the surrounding culture and the theology of leadership at work in the church. Thus, renewal movements initially open the door to greater female involvement, only to shut the door as they subsequently become institutionalized and seek respectability in the broader culture.[5]

Maria L. Boccia describes this pattern, which she claims repeats itself over and over in the history of the church:

When leadership involved the charismatic choice by God of leaders through the gifting of the Holy Spirit, women are included. As time passes, leadership is institutionalized, the secular patriarchal culture filters into the Church, and women are excluded.[6]

Revival and renewal break through gender distinctions and call into question the barriers of socioeconomic class and professionalization. Galatians 3:28 is likely to be experienced, as the Holy Spirit is welcomed.

The pattern is roughly as follows: 1) The first generation or the charismatic phase where the Holy Spirit sovereignly works in the Body of believers, using both men and women as He wills, 2) The second or third generation, where leaders desire the respectability afforded by credentials, which may take the form of a push towards more education and training, and as a consequence, this would tend to discriminate against women, and 3) The bid for full institutional respectability, which completes the marginalization of women. As participants in the movement desire acceptance by other denominations, most of which do not sanction female leadership, women are increasingly excluded from positions of responsibility.

A glance at the last two thousand years of church history reveals the continued reemergence of women in leadership positions. Jesus Christ elevated women as no one had done before Him, and women in the early church were as mentioned above. In the New Testament nearly every letter written to the early churches, the authors recognized women as well as men. Then, over the next 300 to 400 years, women were systematically excluded by decrees of the Church Councils, actions of the bishops and popes, and sociocultural pressures.[7]

Yet women found ways to exercise their leadership gifts, especially in monasteries. (In fact, ascetic communities of female virgins predated the male monastic movement of the Middle Ages.)[8] In the centuries following, the rise of the male monastic movement did not come from advances in biblical exegesis, but rather from the institutionalization of the church accompanied by the ever-present conflicts over power and control.

In the late Medieval period was the Wesleyan Revival. Suzannah Wesley's influence reached beyond her family. She is known to have held meetings in her home, which grew in popularity until she had to turn people away. God used her as she shared her understanding of the Gospel. Her sons became preachers of righteousness and John founded the Methodist Church. John Wesley allowed women to fully participate in the meetings, including serving as leaders.[9]

The pattern of male dominance reemerged in the Wesleyan revival. When Methodism abandoned its fluid revival structure to become more institutional, women's roles diminished. The opportunities for women sharply declined after Wesley's death.

The Sunday School Movement began as an outlet for women's creative energies in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. It grew out of a concern for impoverished children who worked such long hours during the week that they could not take advantage of public education. Because ministers often were opposed to teaching literacy skills in the churches, it was left mostly to the women. Despite the opposition the movement grew. Soon the male leadership co-opted the movement, forming the "American Sunday School Union." The men set the policy and governed the organization while the women, who composed the majority of the teachers, did the grassroots work. As the movement gained respectability and became established, women effectively handed over the reins of leadership to the men. Once again, institutionalization virtually eliminated women from leadership positions within an important area of the church's ministry.

According to Hoehner, if we could keep a distinction between being gifted by God, and being called by Him to an office in the Church, then 85 to 90% of the problems raised about women's ministry would be resolved.[10] He concludes and encourages that evangelical churches use gifted women to minister inside and outside the local church and that women who have the gift of pastor-teacher use their gifts in parachurch situations such as mission organizations, colleges, or seminaries. Hoehner even encourages the ordination of women in recognition of her giftedness, but with a "clear understanding that her ordination is not a recognition of office"![11]

Because I am challenged to live my life as a woman, I cannot help asking Mr. Hoehner if, for him, the real difference or distinction between being gifted and holding an office within the church just might rest in the matter of receiving a paycheck for the work. (I am no "feminist," but would any male be so treated?)

In conclusion, I want to tell the sequence of events as they happened to me in my walk with the Lord in all of this. First, I must make clear the fact that I did not seek this change of thinking regarding women in ministry. I am very comfortable in my church and am loathe to change. I have loved this particular church more than any before in my life, so one can readily see that my heart is truly seeking God and not self.

After I was told I made you uncomfortable when I was teaching, I became convinced, through the process of logically reasoning it out, that something was very, very wrong. After much prayer about it, the only thing I could come up with is the fact of my gender. Well, I reasoned, God made me this way. But because I am a woman, there is something "unacceptable" about me. But what?? As I continued to think about it, I reasoned that if there is something unacceptable about me, then there is something incomplete about Christ's Redemption of me! But I know that the horizon of the Redemption reaches the horizon of the Fall, and that includes the guilt and stigma of every woman who has ever lived. I finally began to realize that my church's view of the Atonement must be flawed. Is this true?

The very next day I received in the mail a book that I had ordered, and I was shocked when I realized that the author had come to the same conclusion that I had the evening before. And this author lived from 1856 to 1946. She called this exclusion of women from leadership roles in churches "doing penance" for Eve's sin.[12] "Penance," she wrote, "has no purpose excepting to expiate guilt. When women are taught that they must take a specially lowly position; that they must meet their husbands' sexual demands with unquestioning obedience; that they must be silent in church; or go veiled; must not preach or teach; that they must have no part in church government,--and all because Eve sinned, they are taught to do penance, and they are taught thereby that in some sense guilt adheres to them. The teaching of all these things (whether acknowledged or not), is precisely what Tertullian dared to say, namely: 'God's verdict on the sex still holds good, and the sex's guilt must still hold also.'" It's as if Christ's atonement is not sufficient for Eve's sin! Apparently, Tertullian never read Romans 5:12 for the Apostle Paul wrote: Therefore as sin came into the world through one MAN, and death as the result of sin, so death spread to all men, (no one being able to stop it or to escape its power) because all men sinned. (Amplified Bible)

I find it not surprising at all that all of this has happened after I spent a time of prayer face down on my living room carpet sometime during the first half of November 2010. I remember telling God that I wanted to know Him better "no matter what, and to keep me teachable." He is graciously answering that prayer. And please know I am praying for you in all of this, too, that you will also be teachable, because isn't that how it's best to be? Thanks for being willing to go through this with me.

Alice S.

[1]Catherine Clark Kroeger and Richard C. Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) 88
[2]Maria L Boccia, "Hidden History of Women Leaders of the Church," Journal of Biblical Equality, September 1990, 58
[3]Constance J. Tarasar, "Women in the Mission of the Church: Theological and Historical Reflections," International Review of Mission 81, no. 322 (April 1992) 195
[4]Kenneth S. Kantzer, "Proceed With Care," Christianity Today, October 3, 1986
[5]Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Downers Grove,Il: InterVarsity Press, 1995) 37
[6]Boccia 40
[7]Boccia 59-60
[8]Grenz 40
[9]Grenz 43
[10]Harold W. Hoehner, "Can A Woman Be a Pastor-Teacher?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 50, no. 4, December 2007, 771
[11]Hoehner 771
[12]Katherine C. Bushnell, God's Word to Women-orig.1921 (LaVergne, TN: CBE Publishers, reprinted 2010) 321

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