Friday, 23 November 2012

Women Bishops


On Tuesday this week, a vote in the House of Laity put paid, for the time being, to a change in the law to allow women to become bishops in the Church of England.

The democratic vote which upheld the Biblical standard of no women bishops moved some members of the House of Laity to tears. Were these the tears of relief that the Bible won out? I sincerely doubt it. More likely they were tears of frustration and anger. As one person said to me in an online message, “If this kind of discrimination was happening in any other form of employment it would not be allowed. I fail to see why a woman with a calling to ministry should be treated any differently from a man. Women were priests in the early church, and the only reason this was changed was when the Church allowed itself to become male dominated and the men reinforced their position by centuries of oppressing women, giving them the worst press imaginable and basically blaming them for all the evil in the world in order to keep them subjugated.
So having this anachronism being perpetuated today when people should really know better is totally and utterly indefensible.”
Who is right? Is anyone actually right, or is this a matter to be determined by the individual churches of the day? What does the Bible actually teach on this subject? Over the next couple of days, these blog posts will focus on this issue and see what the Bible teaches and what the Anabaptists and Amish believe on this touchy subject.
This was the third vote in the Synod. Any motion has to be passed by three bodies before it can become enacted. The first two, the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, both agreed to the inauguration of women bishops. The last house, the House of Laity, voted to reject the proposal – by the narrow majority of 6 votes. Apparently it will be something like ten years before there is another vote. Somehow, I doubt it. I suspect that those with a vested interest in ordaining women to the status of bishop will get round the rule and there will be another vote before too long.
The Guardian ran an article about Jesus being happy with female apostles, yet gives not one shred of evidence for this assertion. Instead, it gets bogged down with some non-Biblical reference to menstruating women not being allowed to participate in the communion service and whether or not Junia, as mentioned in Romans, was a man or a woman:
In advance of Tuesday’s vote, the Independent printed an ‘open letter encouraging the Synod to ‘do the right thing’ and vote to accept women bishops:
We believe wholeheartedly that this is the right thing to do, and that the time is now right to do it. There are many reasons for this belief, and we highlight just some here.
First, because the Bible teaches that “in Christ there is no male or female”, but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic antisemitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.
Secondly, Jesus treated women radically equally. He encouraged them as disciples, and chose a woman as the first witness to His resurrection, at a time when women’s testimony was inadmissible in law.
Thirdly, we have promised as clergy to “proclaim the faith afresh in every generation”. We fear that failing to take this step would do the opposite, proclaiming instead that the church is more interested in the past than the future.”
There is an underlying assumption here that women have to hold the same positions as men in order to be ‘equal’ – they quote ‘there is neither male nor female’ but fail to recognise the context has nothing whatsoever to do with church leadership, but is to show that Gentiles as well as Jews are acceptable in God’s kingdom. (The kingdom of Israel was almost exclusively Jewish). The Independent also suggests that in not allowing women to have the same positions of leadership within the church, means they are somehow inferior. They conclude that preventing women bishops simply confirms that the church is a thing of the past and implies therefore that it is irrelevant ion the present day and age.
Where did they get such ideas? And are they right?
The arguments in favour of women bishops seem to major on assumptions, suppositions and what the Bible doesn’t say. For example. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene and sent her to tell the other disciples that He was alive, He had risen from the dead. From this, the pro-women bishops lobby deduce that Mary was an apostle. After all, the word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’. If therefore she was an apostle, why should she not have presided over the communion? “This is important as there are those that say such presidency (presiding over the Lord’s Supper) is an apostolic task and can only be exercised by those who are apostles...It is on this basis that some argue...only men can exercise this ministry. Yet it is assumed in 1 Corinthians that all members of the church are present and welcome at the Lord’s Supper and it is not clear that such presidency is limited solely to men [].
This is a great leap of imagination; the Bible nowhere says Mary either did or didn’t preside over the communion service, but from other passages, where women are enjoined to learn in submissive silence, it is clear that women did not in fact take positions of leadership within the church.
A further argument, which tries to be based on the Bible, says that women clearly shared positions of leadership in the New Testament. For instance, women were allowed to prophesy (1 Corinthians 12v5), women deacons (Romans 16v1), a woman working with Paul (Romans 16v3) and a woman co-hosting a church (1 Corinthians 16v19). Add to that the argument that there is an ‘obvious’ contradiction in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, because in chapter 14 he says women are to be silent in the church, yet in chapter 11, he allows them to pray and prophesy.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these points.
1.      Women were allowed to prophesy, 1 Corinthians 12v5. This verse actually says: ‘There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit’. It does not mention prophesying at all, whether by men or women. However, there are other verses which do speak of women prophesying. In the modern world, we have come to understand the word ‘prophesy’ to mean telling the future. But it also means speaking forth what God has revealed. If I am speaking to someone in the street about God’s plan of salvation and His kingdom, then I am also prophesying. Philip’s daughters in the Acts of the Apostles are mentioned as being prophetesses (Acts 21v9). Just as Philip did, his daughters went about preaching the gospel. There is no indication that these women exercised their gift in the assembly of the church, or that it allowed them to be leaders in any church. Ah, you object,  there is another verse that shows women prophesying in church: 1 Corinthians 11v5 ‘But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head’. So, the argument runs, as long as women have their heads covered, they are allowed to pray and prophesy in the church. Hang on a minute – where does it say they exercised this right to pray or prophesy in the church? The fact is, it doesn’t. The fact is, there is clear indication from 1 Corinthians that this verse applies to women at times other than in church. In 1 Corinthians 1v2, Paul addresses his letter to ‘the church of God which is at Corinth’ – that’s right, you say, these words are addressed to the church and therefore are regulating what happens in church. Not at all, for the verse continues beyond those words: ‘to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord’. Okay, so the letter is addressed to all Christians everywhere. How can I claim though that 1 Corinthians 11v5 does not refer only to women in church? After all, for decades, women have taken that to mean women ought to wear hats in church (and even that has been determined an anachronism and only cultural for Paul’s day). Take a look at the verses which immediately follow the instruction regarding head covering. Paul goes on to give guidance and correction regarding the way in which the Corinthians were celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Verse 18: ‘For first of all, when you come together as a church...’. So now Paul is addressing what happens when the Corinthians gather for worship. Which implies that the verses that come before about women wearing head coverings are not just for church services.
2.      Women were allowed to be deacons. The example the pro-women bishops lobby uses is Phoebe, mentioned once at the end of Romans (chapter 16v1). The word translated ‘deacon’ is actually the word for ‘servant’ (diakonos). All of Christ’s followers are servants – His servants, and servants to others especially to those in the church. The fact that Phoebe is singled out here is not because she held the office of deacon, but because her service in the church was exemplary and she is held up as an example to follow in service. How can I say she was not officially a deacon? Because Paul, when writing to Timothy, sets out the qualifications for a deacon: ‘Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well’ (1 Timothy 3v14). Does that sound like a description of a woman? Isn’t it funny that people will happily complain that a translation is wrong when it suits their purposes, but when their purposes are better served by accepting a particular translation, it is ignored? In modern translations, the word ‘diakonos’ is translated servant not deacon in relation to Phoebe.
3.      A woman worked with Paul (Romans 16v3): ‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus’. Was Paul a leader in a church? No, he was an itinerant missionary. Does this verse say that Priscilla was a leader in a church? No, it says she assisted Paul in his ministry. Does it say how she assisted him? No, so we cannot make assumptions that she was in any position of leadership. All Christians are commanded to take the gospel to everyone; Priscilla was doing just that, in conjunction with both Paul and her husband.
4.      A woman co-hosted the church (1 Corinthians 16v19). Again, this is a reference to Priscilla: ‘The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you, with the church that is in their house’. Does this verse indicate that Priscilla was a leader in the church? No, it says that the church met in their home. Maybe their home was the only one that was big enough to accommodate such a gathering. Maybe it was a home that was most central. Maybe it was in a location where the Christians were more likely to be free from persecution. We are not told and can only speculate. But to speculate that Priscilla was a leader in the church just because the church met in her home is a step too far. The verse does not even imply that Aquila was a leader in the church, let alone his wife! And no-one has suggested that Mary, the mother of John Mark was a leader in the church, yet the early Christians gathered in her house for prayer when Peter was in prison for his faith (Acts 12v12). No, meeting in someone’s house does not suggest or imply that the owner of the house was a leader of the church.
5.      Paul’s contradiction. We have probably covered this in point 1 above, but to recap, there are those who say that Paul allows women to pray and prophesy as long as they have their heads covered, yet tells them to be silent in the church elsewhere in the same letter (1 Corinthians 11v5 cf 1 Corinthians 14v34). The point is, if women are to be silent in the church, then it is clear that 1 Corinthians 11 is not referring to what happens within a church meeting. Women are to be involved in spreading the gospel (with their heads covered); they are not permitted to have positions of leadership within the church.
6.      Women are treated as inferior. A king or queen has a child; that child grows into an adult. They are not yet king or queen themselves; they have a different role from the parent. That different role does not make them inferior. Likewise, in the Bible, God has decreed different roles for men and women. In the army, one is a communications officer, another looks after the rations for the soldiers, another has to take responsibility for making the decisions. All are necessary for the proper functioning of the team. If the communications officer started arguing with the leader over who should make the decisions, or who should be giving the orders, then chaos would ensue. Within the church, women are to be silent; they are not to hold positions of authority over men. This does not make them inferior; it simply means they have a different role to fulfil. In the next couple of days, I intend to take a further look at the role of women in the church from a positive perspective. What not come back and see what God has planned for a woman that makes her indispensible, having an honourable role of her own in God’s plan?  
As a matter of interest, since when did only bishops officiate at Communion in the Church of England? If that is the last bastion of ‘male domination’ in the Anglican church, then it seems to me they already have it wrong in allowing women to teach and lead in the churches. We need to remember it is God’s church, not ours. We cannot join a ‘club’ and then remake it in our own image. God has set forth the rules He wishes people to abide by for good order in the public assemblies; we cannot simply change that to suit ourselves and the ever increasing dominance of women.

When both men and women learn to accept the Bible as it is in truth, the Word of God, then there will be no further discussion on the place of women in church leadership. As a final comment, let us leave the discussion with a self explanatory verse from Timothy. God did not leave us clueless; He did not leave the subject of women’s place in the church to our own discretion. He was quite clear: ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence’ (1 Timothy 2v11-12).

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