On Boxing Day, Zondervan released 3 new e-books on women in ministry: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry by Michael Bird, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons by John Dickson, and Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller. They’re part of the new ‘Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry’ series. It’s great to see two Australian voices here, not least because the gender in ministry discussion tends to be more nuanced in Australia than in the US.
These three books exist on a spectrum. Mike Bird and John Dickson are both uncomfortable identifying either as complementarian or egalitarian. Though Kathy Keller identifies herself as complementarian, she distances herself from others of that camp as well. All recognise that egalitarianism is not the same as feminism. At the very least, these little books fill out the stereotypes of those categories and provide alternatives to them.
Bourgeois Babes, etc. (Mike Bird)
Mike Bird tells of having been patriarchal prior to his conversion and easily identifying with the gender theology of the likes of John Piper and Wayne Grudem after it. A confluence of experiences and reading scripture led him to question this: he couldn’t square reading of Miriam with his church experience of women being prohibited from worship leading, for example. The version of complementarianism he was reacting against is more conservative than what I’m familiar with.
The strength of Bird’s book is his inventory of women and their roles in the New Testament, including a particularly amusing account of talking about Phoebe with his theological students. He characterises her as the first expositor of Romans. Others like Ben Witherington have also used social science to highlight this role.
However, at times I wasn’t sure of the implications of his exegesis. At one point, Bird argues that 1 Corinthians 11 limits women in line with a cultural value in order to maintain propriety, but goes on to argue that 1 Timothy 2 prohibits women from speaking in order to stand against the sexual revolution going on in the first century. While propriety is a common theme here, in the former Paul is shown to be contextualising, and in the latter he is being counter-cultural. What’s the rationale for discerning how to relate to cultural gender norms?
While Bird effectively displays the breadth of ministry women were involved in in the first century, his discussion of 1 Timothy 2 adds little to a standard egalitarian reading — a reconstruction of the situation in Ephesus and a negative reading of the contentious words διδασκω and αυ͗θεντειν.
Hearing Her Voice (John Dickson)
Dickson’s book is much less ambitious in scope. His aim is merely to argue that women can give sermons. He takes 1 Timothy 2’s prohibition of women teaching to be relevant beyond the 1st century Ephesian context but argues that ‘teaching’ does not coincide with ’21st century sermon’. There are stacks of public speaking roles in the New Testament, he argues – prophesying, exhorting, evangelising, teaching – all of which involve ‘lips and leadership’. Teaching is not a catch-all term for speaking God’s word (as we use it today) but had a specific usage. It is only this role which is prohibited to women. So, what is that role?
In Dickson’s words, teaching was ‘repeating and laying down the oral apostolic tradition.’ In the first century, when no New Testament yet existed, the oral tradition was all important and authoritative. ‘Teachers’ were the approved apostolic men who were responsible for guarding and passing this on, weighing all other prophesying, exhorting, evangelising, etc against this. He considers this to be a defunct role because that oral tradition is now deposited in the New Testament. He argues that Paul’s use of ‘exhort’ (παρακαλεω) is more like the ‘explain and apply’ task of the modern day sermon and so sees no reason to exclude women from the pulpit.
I found Dickson’s argument that ‘teaching’ and ‘sermon’ are not equivalent pretty compelling. However, I was less convinced by his assertion that the ‘teaching’ role is redundant today. Surely a senior pastor’s role is not only to exposit and apply scripture but also to guard the doctrine of a church. Dickson hints at this in a comment at the end where he imagines a response to his argument which would be allowing women to preach expository type sermons but not strictly doctrinal sermons.
Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles (Kathy Keller)
Kathy Keller’s more conservative book nevertheless contains considerable overlap with Dickson and Bird: she also recounts the breadth of women in ministry in the New Testament. She’s convinced that women are not prohibited from public speaking, just from ‘authoritative teaching.’ This view also recognises the importance of oral tradition for understanding the roles at work in the New Testament: in the absence of seminaries and trained Bible teachers, ‘there were elders whose job it was to judge what traveling teachers said.’
So, what is this ‘authoritative teaching’ then? Keller is not so clear at this point. At one level, it appears to be about content: there’s a brief story about how people can reject her teaching on gender roles but not Tim’s teaching on the atonement. But then, it also appears to be about position: she quotes Elisabeth Elliot saying that she’s happy to use her gifts of exposition, application, etc in a theological seminar but not in the pastoral role of ordained ministry.
Keller is keen to avoid being legalistic and laying down intricate rules about what women are and aren’t allowed to do. Her general rule of thumb is that of Redeemer: anything an unordained man is allowed to do, a woman is also allowed to do. But then, the question becomes, what is an unordained man allowed to do? That remains vague.
Where Keller departs from Dickson and Bird is in her attitude towards egalitarians. At her most generous, she characterises them as saying something like ‘the cultural situation has changed so we don’t need to obey this passage’, with little recognition that egalitarians are seeking to obey scripture, once it’s been appropriately applied or contextualised.
Additionally, in her desire to encourage those who despair at being able to work out this tricky issue because of the diversity of opinion, she sounds like she’s arguing that those who recognise the validity of the other camp’s viewpoint are sold out to a postmodern relativising of scripture. I wondered how much room she would have for unity with Christians who read the Bible differently.
These three books are written for the pastor or interested layperson rather than the academic. They’re cheap ($4.20 on Kindle), short and easy to read. All three hold high views of scripture and consider much of the same social scientific material, but end up with different conclusions. These are nuanced views, moving us beyond a simple egalitarian/complementarian dichotomy. Read together, they highlight the subtleties of each other’s view and provide breadth to the discussion. Dickson’s view in particular was one I hadn’t heard before but I found all three stimulating.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.