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.