The Bible’s View of Women and Wrong Presuppositions

None of us come to a conversation clean. By clean I mean we don’t listen without making assumptions. Most forms of personal communication rely heavily on assumptions. They are those unspoken thoughts and ideas that are “between the lines.”

Assumptions ease and expedite communication, if they are right. But if an assumption is wrong, then all sorts of misunderstandings and problems can occur. For example, if my friend asks me to “meet her at the park,” and I assume that she means Central Park, but in fact she means Golden Gate Park, then we’ll end up on opposite sides of the United States.

This, of course, is a ridiculous example, but not without application to the issue of women in ministry and leadership. If we begin our study of the Bible with wrong assumptions, we will land far from the intended meaning of the biblical writers, particularly those supposed prohibitions made by the Apostle Paul on the involvement of women in the churches.

So how do we come clean of our assumptions? Well, we must first realize that we all approach the Bible with assumptions. Or to use the linguistic term, everyone reads the Bible with their own presuppositions.

Presuppositions (like assumptions) are based on experience and knowledge. For example, if one is raised by a cruel and unfeeling father, one will most likely arrive at Bible passages that refer to God as Father with some reserve, and one might even reject the idea of God being a father all together. Any reserve or rejection of God as Father is based on presuppositions formed by experiences. Presuppositions influence how we interpret the Bible, and so it is of vital importance that we identify and own our presuppositions and honestly consider how our presuppositions influence our understanding and interpretation of specific passages.

I have taken a long time to write again on the subject of women in ministry because I didn’t fully understand that presuppositions rather than a “high view of Scripture” were influencing my views. I thought that I was functioning from these three presuppositions and these three only:

  1. The Bible is the Word of God.
  2. As the Word of God, the Bible is without error.
  3. As the Word of God and without error, every command and directive in the Bible is to be obeyed in its totality.

I discovered recently that my understanding of key passages on women in ministry and leadership have not been based on the above three presuppositions but on wrong presuppositions held (and promoted) in my primary church circles of the last twenty years. That presupposition views women as subordinate to men in church and family life. This presupposition is primarily based on an interpretation of passages, such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which state that women, in all churches everywhere and in all times and epochs, should submit to the “headship” of men in general and never exercise authority over a man by teaching or preaching or by holding a position of leadership in the church.

Before God called me to become a missionary, I began to perceive inconsistencies with my church circles’ teachings and interpretation of the above named passages and other Scriptural passages that seemed to indicate that women could indeed speak in a church service. One of these perceived inconsistencies appeared in the same letter (1 Corinthians) that an apparent universal prohibition was made. I was confused, to say the least, and felt pushed to determine who was in the wrong based on my three core presuppositions.

I reasoned: If the Bible had inconsistencies, then it could not be without error. And if the Bible had errors, then it could not be trusted as the truth. And if I couldn’t trust the Bible as the truth, then I certainly could not obey it as God’s Word.

As a missionary, I have been asked to speak on several occasions to large congregations of men and women, during worship services and at conferences. To do so, troubled my conscience. And I asked myself, every time I stood at the podium, was I acting in a way that was displeasing to God? Was I being arrogant and prideful to dare teach men through the retelling of my experiences? Was I acting like one of those “feminist types” that want to overthrow the rule of men and diminish the authority of Scripture?

The hermeneutical work of Dr. Gordon Fee has been invaluable in answering my questions. My conscience is finally in a place where I can say I’m not violating Scripture nor am I offending God by speaking to a congregation of men and women. I understand now that these prohibitions in the Pastoral Epistles regarding women in the worship service had a cultural context and a specific church context that cannot be dismissed. In other words, I understand such passages as 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to not be universal plan for church order.

Fee, at the end of a convincing piece on the ad hoc nature of the Pastoral Epistles, observes:

“A considerable literature has emerged over 1 Timothy 2:11-12, pro and con, as to whether women may teach, preach, or be ordained. But there is not a single piece that argues from [1 Timothy] 5:3-16 that the church should care for its over-sixty widows or require younger ones to be married. One can understand the reasons for this, of course. Our agendas have been set by our own cultural and existential urgencies.”

Elsewhere, Fee has also insightfully remarked that the Bible is not a law book. And if you approach the Bible as a law book, you will arrive at some wrong interpretations and fail to rightly understand the Bible for all it is worth. While the Bible does contain moral commands intended for all peoples of all eras to follow, 1 Timothy is not to be read as a book of church order. It is a letter to a young pastor named Timothy charged with the shepherding of a specific group of Christians living in the Greek coastal city of Ephesus 2,000 years ago. The church at Ephesus was dealing with specific problems involving false teachers and certain young widows. While the culture of Ephesus might have had some similarities to the culture of a city like modern-day Los Angeles or San Francisco, the widespread, ancient participation in the cult of the goddess Artemis has no equal in North America or Europe (to my knowledge). The Ephesians believed that Artemis had the power to bring about life or death. She was worshiped as a helper of pregnant women and animals. In the ancient world, to possess the favor of such a deity was seen to have great social, financial, and physical advantages. Both women and men in Ephesus were devoted to Artemis. This devotion had impact on the early church in Ephesus (as any native culture does on a local church) and is hinted at in the advice given to Pastor Timothy. To make the assumption that everything written in 1 Timothy was meant to be the basis for church order for all churches everywhere and at all times is to end up at Golden Gate Park when you should be at Central Park.

As to the prohibitions echoed in the 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 passage, there is considerable debate among textual scholars as to whether or not the passage was part of the original letter to the Corinthian church. There is evidence that it was added by a scribe at a much later date. But more on that in a future post.

Since my initial post on the question of women in ministry, “Why I’m Revisiting Feminism and the Bible’s View of Women,” I have read beyond my stated list. The works of several theologians, primarily Gordon Fee and NT Wright, have convinced me that the main problem with a subordinate view of women to that of men in ministry (aka complementarianism) is the commitment to wrong presuppositions. These wrong presuppositions see women as inferior both constitutionally and spiritually. Moreover, it assumes that men are somehow superior in their ability to resist temptation, make reasonable decisions and act wisely. Any review of history will reveal that male leadership (both inside and outside the church) has been fraught with pride, egoism, over aggressive behavior rooted in uncontrolled emotions and foolishness. Just like women, men have their own set of problems when it comes to handling the weight of leadership. Moreover, I find the idea that women must be subordinate to men to be more in line with cultures that see women as possessions than in accord with the Holy Spirit who inspired the Apostle Paul to describe all believers—men and women—as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and the authors of Joel and Acts to write:

‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth beneath,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned into darkness
and the moon into blood,
before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and manifest day.
And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

But then maybe my presuppositions about the Holy Spirit are too Spirit-filled and too Pentecostal.