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Women in ministry in cross-cultural perspective

So, there’s been this uproar in Sydney Anglicanism because John Dickson wrote a book suggesting that women could sometimes give some sermons in some circumstances. (I reviewed it here.) So then the more conservative end of Sydney Anglicanism had to write a response book. What’s striking about this debate is how modest Dickson’s proposal is, and how vehement the response, even though he is fairly and squarely in the complementarian camp.

For me, following a bit of this discussion has made me wonder if it would make any sense at all in a Tanzanian context. Now, on one level, it doesn’t have to. After all, in this case the players come from one tiny sub-culture (Sydney Anglicansm). However, I think it’s always worth asking how our Christian brothers and sisters from other parts of history and the world might view western discussions. With that in mind, I offer two cross-cultural perspectives here: a question for egalitarians and a question for complementarians.

For egalitarians: how do you make your argument make sense?

My issue here is not that I find the egalitarian argument uncompelling, far from it! However, that argument often centres on reconstructions of the cultural location of problem passages, as well as quite intricate readings of complex passages. Now, I’m all for reading passages in context, and the proof texting we see often here in Tanzania can be both incoherent and dangerous. I’m also not an advocate of the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture — you don’t have to live cross-culturally for very long to work out that something that seems ‘plain’ to one group means something completely different to another. Don’t hear me saying I’m anti-scholarship or anti-depth in our reading of Scripture. However, in a culture like Tanzania, arguments based on extra knowledge about the Greco-Roman setting or about the details of a passage just aren’t that compelling; they end up sounding like the text of scripture isn’t that important.

They also smack of neo-colonialism.  How do you explain to a Tanzanian that ‘I do not permit a woman to speak’ doesn’t mean women can’t speak in church without it sounding like you’re dismissing scripture or playing the ‘I’m better educated than you’ card? There are more apt ways to make your point, ones that stick with what the ‘ordinary person’ can see, without re-translating or delving into social-science or doing really heavy exegesis. My suggestion is that a far more credible way to make this kind of point from the Bible is to consider the breadth of ministry we see women doing in the New Testament. While that might not get you as far as many egalitarians want to push their argument, it is, funnily enough, a far more egalitarian way of having the argument, globally speaking!

For complementarians: how do you make your argument a challenge?

Complementarians have long been claiming the ‘plain reading’ high ground, which does make more sense in Tanzania where often the only thing a pastor has in front of him is a Bible, and even those with access to commentaries or western academic know-how don’t necessarily find them that helpful. But consider this situation: I live in a country where in some tribes and places women still prostrate themselves when their husbands walk into the room. What do you have to say in response to this? I’m horrified by that. No doubt you are too. In this context, to speak of limiting the roles of women in the church can easily become an extension of existing patriarchy. If you’re a complementarian, you might want to argue that this not the case, or a logical fallacy, but how much time have you spent interrogating those ideas?

My point here is about what complementarians have to offer the global church, and my contention is that they bring little challenge to patriarchal thinking in Tanzania. It’s not that they don’t have anything to offer. On the contrary, I think there are significant resources from a complementarian perspective with which to affirm women’s vital and unique contribution to both men and women in the church, if only we would utilise them. The expansion of the role of women in a complementarian framework is worthy of far greater attention that it has received, because, unlike the ‘defending headship’ stance which is primarily relevant only in a western context, it has the potential to be much more life-giving in the global Christian movement.

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. I haven’t read the books but I’ve seen a lot of the blog commentary, including Tim Harris’ lengthy contributions to the topic (he goes further than Dickson). Although they bring in Greek and history, they also do things the ordinary bible reader can do, eg looking at the whole chapters where the key verses are found.

  2. Good post Tamie, and I certainly recognise the cross-cultural challenges. I think an initial element might be to revisit our translations so that some of the nuances are more clearly expressed, including a well-informed paraphrase within the culture in view (paraphrases reflected a greater degree of cultural idiom). The other dynamic us that cross-cultural reflections run in both directions. Many parts of ancient middle-eastern culture are more readily recognised in non-western cultures, so I have found interpretations from a Kenyan friend provides insights western interpreters overlook.
    Thanks for the post – very interesting!

    1. Hi Tim, thanks for your idea of the paraphrase idea. In Swahili, there aren’t two distinct words for ‘submit’ and ‘obey’ so the problems we encounter in English are further compounded and would be well-served by a more dynamic translation! One of the ironies of course, is the great time and energy that has been put into translation after translation in English, while many other languages still have the Bible only in King James equivalent language or not at all! Some of the Wycliffe/SIL people here in Dodoma are doing some very interesting work in this area.

      And thanks for mentioning the two-way-ness of cross-cultural interaction. I neglected to mention that. I benefited greatly from hearing an Iranian friend read Ephesians 5 and describe it as ‘beautiful’.

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