Monday, 25 May 2020
Equality is Biblical
I wanted to write this book because I saw a gap in the way the church approaches the issue of male-female equality in leadership and service.
Everyone agrees that women may be equally as capable as men of leadership, but not everyone agrees that women can be permitted to lead.
The church mainly divides into two strands on this issue — theologically liberal groups/individuals, who believe men and women may equally lead and equally serve; and theologically conservative groups/individuals, who believe in male headship (that men should lead and women should serve men).
This extends into the domestic sphere with the (conservative theological) assumption that women should take responsibility for cooking, cleaning and childcare (the work of a domestic servant) and obey her husband, and that men occupy the position of master/head of the household and their work is in the public sphere (as a businessman, artisan, farmer, factory hand, or whatever). I have even known a theologically conservative Christian man, with a wife and children of his own, offer to extend the protecting shelter of his spiritual authority over another household — a mother with two boys. Being also theologically conservative, she was pleased to accept.
It also ramifies into the question of being heard, as women's voices are silenced by a subservient role; they are not part of making the decisions, and therefore do not shape the faith community (in a theologically conservative setting).
The two strands of attitudes to this issue proceed from two different understandings of biblical authority. The more liberal groups sit looser to biblical authority and are more inclined to move with the times, and may not even consider the Bible to be divinely inspired (there is variety of opinion on this). The more conservative groups look to biblical authority to govern all aspects of their lives, and believe the Bible to be the "Word of God".
There is between these two approaches an apparently uncrossable chasm.
But I have for some while thought there is a third way, which this book proposes, that I hadn't heard anyone teaching so I wanted to share it.
It is common, in those who revere the Bible as divinely authoritative, to look to proof texts for direction in establishing how to proceed. But I think, even for those who reverence the Bible as God's holy Word, that this is an incorrect handling of holy Writ.
Through the pages of the Bible we see the development of the people of God — changing attitudes. For instance, in the Old Testament we see the Law of Moses establishing purity codes of separation for holiness of Jews from Gentiles, and dietary rules for kosher food. But in the New Testament (in the book of Acts) we see God communing directly with Peter, and God's Spirit at work in Paul, moving them to leave behind these former restrictions and embrace a church where Jew and Gentile can mingle together, eat together, live together and inter-marry. There are other examples, but that is a very clear one.
So, in seeking biblical wisdom we can see it is important to trace the journey — the direction — in which the Spirit is leading us, not merely take a snapshot moment and apply it as set in stone for ever.
In the example of Paul and in some things Jesus said and did, we see a very clear difference in attitude to women from the Old Testament view of them as chattels given as multiple wives to men.
It is therefore important that those who are serious about reverencing the Bible as divinely inspired should take account of the the journey or direction in which the Scriptures are leading us, in order to follow in the way, not get stuck in the mud. Proof texts do not give us all the information we need. We also have to trace the direction.
I would say, then, that we do better to consider the Bible as a map than as a manual, showing us where we are now, where we have come from, but also — crucially — where we should be headed.
With that in mind, in Equality is Biblical I trace the role of women in the church from its origin through to where we are now, and where the direction that becomes thereby apparent will take us next.
As well as taking note of the direction of biblical teaching on any given issue, it is important to consider that issue in the context of biblical teaching as a whole. For those who are strictly conservative and reluctant to accept the illumination of textual criticism of the Bible, let me add the reassurance that I mean considering an issue within the context of the whole Bible, not considering the Bible within the context of what scholars say about it (though I personally evaluate scholarship as helpful). Even the most theologically conservative Christian on the planet should surely welcome a holistic reading of the Bible, holding in mind and taking account of all its texts in reading any one.
My book also looks at examples showing how the role of women has changed at different times in church history.
So, in considering the role of women in society and in the church, and how we might shape this by biblical principles as applied by those who hold the Bible to be the divinely inspired Word of God, I have looked at the matter within the context of salvation history as the Bible describes it. I have written with the assumption that cursing and blessing are real, not quaint archaisms, that there is a divine order, and that biblical teaching is a trustworthy foundation for us to build our lives on. I have only gone outside the text where some of the philosophical and contemporary sociological resonances usefully illuminate the biblical material.
In tracing the direction of development within the Bible itself (not the development of attitudes to the Bible) and in taking into consideration what the Bible has to say about leadership, service, and salvation, I have come to the conclusion that equality is biblical.
I also spend a little time thinking about how increasing feminine energy in the way we worship might moderate the masculine energy currently dominating our models of worship, to build safer and more spiritually robust faith communities.
If all that sounds interesting to you, Equality is Biblical is now available in the UK (publishing later in the year in the US), from a variety of bookstores, such as Eden, Waterstones and Amazon UK, or directly from the publisher SPCK.