A surprising consensus?

Well it's been an interesting summer in Sydney.

It has for all kinds of reasons (apocalyptic weather, anyone?), but in particular I am thinking of the debate and discussion surrounding the release of three e-books by Zondervan on the issue of women in ministry. The series is entitled ‘Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry’.

It is worth noting how this media event has taken off, as a new kind of pamphleteering. The Kindle/e-book format is cheap and instantly accessible with a minimum of online know-how. Then the books can be brought to the attention of the target audience through social media and then debated on blogs and on Facebook. It is simply misguided these days to complain that Facebook is a kind of secret world, since almost half the planet is on it.

Rather, it has been fascinating to see how quickly this has enabled specialists to interact with one another, and to have a wider public discussion. There’s dross on the internet, but like Wikipedia, it is able to flush its system. People who don’t debate fairly or who refuse to read and simply heap on invective are quickly called to account and disregarded. There’s a chance for a back-and-forth which can be really productive - and has been in this case I think.

I am not here going to offer a full analysis and critique of the three e-books, but rather make a couple of general observations about the debate.  As for the three books: Mike Bird of Ridley, Melbourne offers us Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry. Bird charts how he has come to a more egalitarian view of church ministry while still retaining a view of male headship in the family. A more conservative take is Kathy Keller’s Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry, whose argument (from a Presbyterian framework) is that ordination should be restricted to men, while the various speaking activities in the church can be shared.

Local scholar and rector John Dickson’s e-book Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons has been the focus of most local debate (now available for free!). The centre of John’s argument is that the word for ‘teaching’ in 1 Tim 2:12 actually relates to the apostolic teaching which has now become the New Testament. Since what a sermon is is not, in John’s view, what 1 Tim 2:12 is talking about, women can be invited into the pulpit. John is still working from within a complementarian perspective overall, and he, like Keller, would restrict ordination.

There have been a number of interesting responses to John’s book, the best of which are Lionel Windsor’s (which appeared on the Briefing website) and Peter Bolt’s. However, I would urge you to download and read John’s book as well as reading the critiques and John’s replies. I am certainly still thinking through the implications of his argument, but there is a great deal in his book that is convincing. What he helpfully notes is that there is an inexact match between the various NT practices of speaking in the church - exhorting, teaching, prophesying and preaching – and our contemporary notion of the sermon. Minding that gap is crucial, lest we misapply the text, and theologise our habits and traditions.

Nevertheless, what is interesting to me is that there seems to be emerging an agreement from all sides in this discussion that the New Testament features women in speaking roles in front of mixed congregations to a far greater extent than is often now practiced in Sydney Anglican churches. Some of the implementation of complementarian thinking about ministry has been over-zealous, to the point that it ignores what is plainly the case in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 11 (to take the obvious example) women prophesy in the church gathering, and there is no forbidding them from doing so. Why do we not see this more often in our church meetings? My colleague Jane Tooher from the Priscilla and Aquila Centre has been advocating and modeling this practice in the last couple of years.

There also seems to be a consensus emerging that 'teaching' is relational rather than functional. It is interesting to see this point emerging from the critiques of John's position, since it doesn't seem to counter his argument per se. But it is a useful thought: authority and teaching belong together not in the sense of an act but through an office or role, which is expressive of a relationship. For some, this means an exclusively male pulpit. For others, it is easily possible to imagine that the person in the pulpit on a particular occasion may not be recognised leader of the congregation, though it would usually be the case that it is. Student ministers in their early 20s, for example, frequently give sermons and it is clear to everyone that they are there at the invitation of and by permission of the rector.

In any case: it will be interesting to see how this debate develops in the coming weeks.

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (3)

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  • Craig Schafer
    January 24, 13 - 3:28pm
    Michael, I think it is a little early to talk about a consensus emerging if you have in mind anything beyond the small group of people who have made early responses of any length. Some of us are still trying to find the time to read John's stuff carefully and think it through, let alone respond in some sort of 'public' way (if at all). I was quite chuffed that I managed to find time to READ the introduction and first chapter and I dream of time to sit down and right up my response to it.
  • Michael Jensen
    January 24, 13 - 10:23pm
    Thanks Craig -

    perhaps 'convergence' is what I am after rather than 'consensus'. Your point is fair enough. I just noticed some interesting agreement in the responses thus far. It may not be sustained, of course.
  • Michael Jensen
    January 25, 13 - 8:55am
    John has replied to Peter Bolt's response: