A Quick Take From The Road: Women’s Ordination

I’m in San Diego because of a family emergency, and I may not have much time to address Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog blather Monday regarding N.T. Wright and the ordination of women.  It does, however, need to be addressed, and as things settle down, I’ll write more.

For now, though, let me say that 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is one of those verses rabid complementarians like Wilson cling to when they don’t know what to do with the New Testament verses that speak of inclusivity and mutuality between women and men in the Body of Christ — because, on first read in English, it appears to utterly prohibit women’s teaching from the pulpit and, Wilson insists, makes the ordination of women a sin.

Wilson likes the easy verses that look cut-and-dried, even when they’re not — unless they’re cut-and-dried in stating something he disagrees with.  This passage, however, isn’t an easy, immediately clear one.  Wilson and other patriarchs pull v. 12 out to deny women the right and ability to use their Spirit-given gifts — after all, he says, it’s right there in plain English.  And, he warns, where Paul says “blue,” we are not to suggest “pink.”  Therefore, N.T. Wright and every other egalitarian is simply denying the obvious prohibition in Scripture of women’s teaching and ordination.

That would be tragic, and certainly wrong, if that were the case.  But it isn’t.  These verses are some of the most problematic, least clear words in the New Testament — in English, yes, but more so in Greek.  The word for what Paul doesn’t allow women to do is, in the Greek, “authentein.”  It means everything from usurping, bullying, engaging in coup attempts, to murder of reputation by slander, and I doubt that Wilson is as able as Wright, or many other scholars, to apply “authentein” to the issue at hand.  That word helps us understand what women must not do.  Not understanding it does not allow us to simply reach for the most simple, most convenient, or most agenda-serving explanation.

Further, most Bible scholars agree that Paul is saying that he is not NOW permitting a woman to teach men, something understandable in light of the pagan culture in Ephesus that sometimes catapulted unstable women into positions of authority and rule in a reckless, excessively liberal response to the worship of the goddess Artemis.  Paul commends the teacher Priscilla, the apostle Junia, the deacon Phoebe, and the house-church leaders Lydia and Nympha elsewhere in the New Testament, while here, in v. 11, insisting that women learn.  It’s not a stretch, and it certainly isn’t in response to some feminist agenda, to suggest that his concern in v. 12-15 is the proper preparation for and conduct displayed by anyone, male or female, who has a Spirit-given gift of teaching. 

But it’s not the Greek that trips Wilson up; he trips over the English “first read, plainly read” verses that follow by insisting that v. 12 be taken rigidly and at face value, something neither he nor any other evangelical can claim for v. 15.  Women are not “saved” through the bearing of children, no matter how their conduct is judged.  Scripture is clear that women and men, as well as children, are saved by grace through faith.  Wilson knows this, and because he does, he can’t take this verse literally — which is the only way, he insists, v. 12 can be taken.  In the span of four verses, he goes from a fundamentalist insistence on what scholars have debated for centuries to an avoidance of a literal take on v. 15 — because he has to.

Not even Doug Wilson, who finds reason and opportunity in far lesser things to divide and order the sexes, can claim that the salvation of women is achieved differently from that of men.  And, should he read “saved” as some do — “saved through childbirth” — his experience has to tell him that even good, devout women sometimes die in childbirth.  The passage, v. 12-15, cannot be read out of the context of the New Testament at large, and the verses cannot be separated like so many links on a chain.  If v. 15 cannot be taken at literal face value — suggesting that women are somehow saved in a manner different than men, or will never, ever die during childbirth if they show virtuous character — a reasonable exegesis would suggest that v. 12 can’t either, particularly with a Greek verb that can mean many different things.

Further, while v. 13 rightly remarks that Adam was created first, v. 14 points out that Eve was deceived; she didn’t sin intentionally but fell because a lack of understanding.  This suggests, and is confirmed by Romans 5-7, that Adam sinned with understanding.  Wilson and his fanboys, as evidenced in the comments following his post, may be comfortable suggesting that this verse teaches what life experience contradicts — that women are simply more gullible and more prone to sin and deception than men — but seem blissfully unaware that the take-away from v. 13 and 14 is that Adam’s sin was one of intention.  That hardly seems, and isn’t here, a reason for women not to be able to teach.

It’s a great sin, Wilson says, to ordain women or let them teach authoritatively from the pulpit.  I would suggest that it’s a worse sin to isolate in the service of one’s unwavering prejudices an uncommonly difficult passage of Scripture — one that seemingly contradicts not only the ability of the Holy Spirit to gift whomever He wants however He wants, but also flies in the face of other New Testament teachings that command the abolishment of class, race, and gender differences as barriers to full service and participation in the community of Christ Jesus.  To malign the integrity and wisdom of the exegete who disagrees with him, while entirely Wilsonian in character, compounds that sin. 

But Wilson can’t bear disagreement in his ranks, and so the reputation of N.T. Wright and every other defender of women’s full participation in ministry is sullied, and every woman who is ordained and does teach mixed-gender groups is called a sinner.  That’s Wilson’s M.O. — but it isn’t anything at all like that of the Holy Spirit, who gifts and calls women and men together to serve His Church and serve it based not on their gender, but on their gifts.

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