Why fight this battle?

I have recently been in some discussions about the role of women in the church (not just my previous post, but in a train of my own thought that stretches back at least a year). These are the kinds of discussions that sublimate into unprofitable disputes. With all the vitriol that gets flung in both directions on this debate, why even participate?

Back maybe nine years ago I visited a Plymouth Brethren church once or twice. The Plymouth Brethren type of organization (with multiple teaching elders) is at first glance an example of what I think the New Testament shows us for the gathering of believers. The more common arrangement of a few men (usually with external credentials) running the whole church distorts the priesthood of all believers, the familial nature of the church, and the true character of servant leadership.

So you might think I’d be happy with the Plymouth Brethren. As part of their overall conservative and primitive (historically early) interpretation of scripture, the Brethren do not permit women to speak in church (other than to sing).  I found the silence of the women to be an even worse distortion of the priesthood of all believers, a burden I could not bear up with merely to go along with a group.

On the other hand, in more recent history, Jon Zens has taken the Searching Together group in a more liberal direction with respect to women, arguing that women have functionally equal roles within the gathering of the church and that passages traditionally understood otherwise have been deliberately distorted by translators. Since I agree that there is a deliberate distortion behind the restricted translation of terms like pastor, church, and baptism, and Jon has done an excellent job deconstructing other man-serving traditions, I take his charges quite seriously. Central to some of Jon’s arguments, however, is the necessity of interpreting the meaning of scripture through extra-scriptural sources. Once the sufficiency of scripture is thus rejected, any other doctrine can be reinterpreted within a framework that results in the desired outcome–or the corrective original context can be freely imagined as “lost to us,” and re-invented as desired. So Jon’s arguments leave unanswered questions for a scripture-reliant understanding.

I mention and acknowledge these contrary influences not to suggest that one of them must be right, nor that a compromise must be the solution. Since the first moment (indeed, before) the relationship between creation and Creator has been mediated by Jesus Christ. All the Big Questions are resolved in him, from the problem of evil to the meaning of life. And mixing the philosophies of men does not produce the mind of Christ. He is not the political messiah some have hoped for, nor the free-loving hippie that pleases the imagination of others. His forgiveness and love have an intensity and scope we cannot comprehend because we cannot comprehend the rejection and destruction that he saves us from. I do not seek a compromise but a clearer view of the perfect truth in Christ.

But I speak as a man among men; the tides of men have their pull on me. My choice of words and my thoughts themselves might be swayed. I don’t think I could be a regular participant in a fellowship that required the silence of women; nor could I be at home in a church where women were given the leadership. But how much of this comes from Christ and how much from habit and convenience, I could not say.

What does it matter? To rid yourself of all error is a dangerous quest that usually ends in delusion. To rid your fellows of error is even more perilous. If there is one consistent feature in all of humanity, it is to be morally wrong about something. One must be restrained in the destruction of error if humanity is to be preserved (and thank God, he is). So why do I think this issue requires my pronouncement?

First I should admit that of course this issue does not require my pronouncement. The world will get along just fine without it. But, insofar as it concerns me, the matter of women seems to follow along right behind the matter of clergy in the fellowship of Christians. Those gatherings which have done anything to redress the poisonous distinction of clergy quite often have also silenced women completely or else kept no distinction between the roles of men and women. I have a feeling this choice is false and a better way is open to us, but I am not presently able to describe it. I don’t expect to find the ideal arrangement (whatever it is) in practical reality, but if I do not even know what it might look like I have little basis for critiquing reality as a find it.

So I am going to continue on to say some things about authority, men, women, and God; but I am not sure what it is exactly that I am going to say. I suppose there may be little controversy indeed, since when I am up on my own private soap-box here very few men (let alone women) speak up. But if you do feel inclined to say something, by all means do. I have something to learn, but I learn by exploring and exploring is not an assured way of reaching a destination.


4 Comment on "Why fight this battle?"

  • I was going to write a comment on your post “Weak Heirs” but then just as I started I saw you had edited the post to say Leah had corrected you, I read her comment and it said substantially the same thing I was going to say. In that context then, “weaker” would not mean “delicate” but is indicating the one who is without power, as “master” is the one with power.

    Moving on to your present post, I agree with your observation that the role of women in the church is tied up in the other questions of assembling together. How you perceive how we should handle all the other questions involved in assembling together that will end up being the same method used in this matter. I think a big danger across the board with all these questions is the tendency of people to create law in answer to questions. Some times this is literal “church covenant” law. But whatever the literal manifestation, it is the determining of how church should fellowship outside the fellowship of the church. Meaning, for example, you studied the matter of church assembly, determine what you believed was right, and then called all who agree with you to assemble with you, and cast out those who do not.

    One can observe general things about church assembly (love God, love one another, be patient, etc, etc), but in coming to terms with the nitty-gritty I believe that is best done in the act of assembling with others whom the Spirit testifies to you that the Spirit is working in them. I suppose I would not go so far as to say it is impossible to reach the truth apart from this assembly, but I would suggest that it offers a better environment for humility in the study. Also, in the abstract it is easy to miss problems that become suddenly apparent in reality, or (on the other hand) to spend great lengths of time addressing problems in the abstract that never come up in reality.

    For myself, I feel fairly comfortable in the broad outlines of my understanding on the subject. However, I feel clueless as to exactly how all the details would work out in reality–and I am not certain I should be seeking to feel confident on such details prior to the living of them. Something tells me any such “confidence” would really be delusion. Even more, I am doubtful that I should be telling other people whom I do not personally know or fellowship with how they are supposed to live out those details.

    In studying the passages dealing with women in church assembly I think it is important to take the passages as they are written, and to not go beyond what is written, and to realize that this means some questions you bring to the text may not be answered by the text, and you (anyone) should not try to make the text answer those questions.

    Incidentally, I feel that a lot of the problems that seemingly crop up around the “women” issue do not really begin there and are only a manifestation of a deeper underlying problem and that trying to somehow reach a resolution on the “woman” issue while ignoring the other elephants accomplishes nothing good. So often I observe that men are not being held to the biblical standard of church assembly, and so it is no wonder when such a group cannot come to a profitable understanding of the place of women.

  • Meh. My previous comment was a bit vaguely (and thus badly) said.

    If you ask “Can anything be profitably said on this subject on the internet” My opinion is yes, some. But I see a limit (and that is what leads into my previous long-winded comment).

    What I desire to see is serious and calm study of the text(s) in question. Typically, when I read around the internet I see a lot of drive-by interpretations. So if you want to add to the discourse, my suggestion is to try some other approach.

    It is hard. When Paul says things like, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” or “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.“….then people really squirm. The default seems to be either they take the Plymouth Brethren approach or simply brush off what Paul said.

    How would you avoid handle it?

    That is what I am curious to see.

  • Arlan Post author

    If I get through the actual writing, the purpose will not be to convert people of a different opinion, but cast a line out to those floundering between two shores as I (to some extent) find myself.

    I think we are called to put up with a lot more than we realize in fellowship; forming cliques of like-mindedness is certainly stepping off in the wrong direction. I would try to limit how much of my conclusions were make-or-break for fellowship.

    But, as I tried to express, a great part of the reason I am even asking myself questions about this subject is that it seems intrinsically involved in fellowship. “Women must be silent” says a lot about what fellowship IS – and it often reduces fellowship to a ritual. “Women may lead” also says a lot about fellowship, and it often reduces to “Love is whatever feels best to me.”

    In saying that I could not join those fellowships, I do not mean I could not be friends with people who believe such, nor that I could never sit in their church. But in a sense of belonging to a fellowship, there are some things that would propel me out the door. I couldn’t own up to that meaning of fellowship.

  • It does say something about what fellowship is. The question is a meaningful question.

    I think some clarity of distinction comes when a person realizes the assembly of the church is not one and the same as any fellowship. The gathering of the church is not just having someone over for tea or lunch. (And that idea is getting popular in various forms.) It is not some informal free-for-all. If it were, the rebukes Paul gave to the NT churches (Corinthians especially) would not have been needed.

    If gathering as a church is more than just hanging with friends, then there are some regulations. Not following them doesn’t make you non-Christian, but it means your gathering will be foolish, unprofitable, and cause more harm than good.

    That is not limited to the role of women (properly or improperly understood), but the role of women is certainly included.

    I think we are called to put up with a lot more than we realize in fellowship; forming cliques of like-mindedness is certainly stepping off in the wrong direction.

    Very true. But is that helpful? We could reverse the statement and it would be equally true. You and I both know of plenty of churches that put up with things they should not put up with. And Paul calls us to be like-minded.

    The resolution to the quandary is found in the living and active work of the Spirit. You can come to one group that is messed up in a multitude of ways and yet you perceive the Spirit is leading and calling the gathered people into a better and fuller understanding of truth and grace. You go to a second group and though they technically have it more “together” you perceive that they are dead, empty, and falling away from the truth. In the end both groups are measured not by some sliding scale you have in your hand, but the testimony of the Spirit in your heart about what He is doing in their spirits.

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