Saturday, December 29, 2012

Gender and Ministry: Why John Dickson is Right about Women and Ministry

For those happy few that have not succumbed to the lure of the Smart Phone, Instagram is a photo filter app that "retros" ordinary photographs taken with a mobile phone so that they look like they could have been taken circa 1979.  There are a variety of light finishes and picture borders to choose from, the end result being a photo gallery that looks like the picture album at Grandma's house that bizarrely reveals everyone's parents had been hipsters.  The (dramatic) irony is, of course, that as mobile phone companies have been stretching themselves to provide their customers with better portable cameras the customers have started using an app to rob their photos of clarity and natural light and colour.

Complementarianism in practice can be a lot like using Instagram.  We start with a perfectly clear picture (Scripture) that has a lot to say about men and women working together for the glory of God and the message of Jesus.  However, we find that there are certain aspects of the picture that we recognise as important (the headship of the husband in Ephesians 5, restrictions on women "teaching" in 1 Timothy 2:12, and so forth), and so we consciously or otherwise apply a "filter" on the whole picture to highlight these aspects.  The result is that other parts of the picture get a bit fuzzy.  These filters rarely get applied at the theoretical level, such as in academic discourses on gender and ministry, but a few steps down the line when it comes to shaping particular church services and ministry structures.  Because headship and "authority to teach" is perceived to reside exclusively with the Male, any ministry structure where men and women are working together and the Word might be involved is deemed to require a Male Head.  As a result the leadership of a variety of ministries that have no connection to 1 Timothy 2:12 - music, prayer, evangelism, leadership training, community care, and so forth - are frequently passed automatically to a Male when a godly and more qualified Female could be the best person for the job.  When pressed about this, complementarians fall back on texts that do not speak to the particular situation or state that "we don't want to cause confusion on this issue."

John Dickson doesn't want to Instagram the New Testament.  He wants to see the texts that apply to the ministry of the Gospel brought into High Definition, and his exegetical method in Hearing Her Voice is nothing if not consistent.

Dickson points out that even hardened complementarians do not advocate women never speaking God's to men (p.8).  For a start, there are references to women prophesying in Acts 21:9 and 1 Corinthians 11:5.  Women such as Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche are described as "fellow workers", a label which in the context of the New Testament implies Gospel proclamation that was probably not limited in scope to Women Only.  He contends that a major problem of the complementarian position is that it has collapsed a variety of Word ministries into the category of "teaching" with the result that many women are denied opportunities to use their God-given abilities for the good of the Church.  He points, for example, to the image of the body that Paul uses in Romans 12:4-8 and the variety of spiritual gifts (teaching, exhorting, serving, etc) that follow (p.13).  While these gifts may share some similar attributes, the metaphor that Paul uses cannot stand if "prophesying" or "exhorting" are seen as synonymous with "teaching" or any other gift.  Paul is satisfied in his own mind that these gifts, whatever they may look like in practice, are different and the exercise of this difference is a Good Thing for the benefit of the Church as a whole.  Since, Dickson argues, the gift of prophecy is used  in a way which is distinct from that of "teaching" and women are allowed as prophets according to 1 Corinthians 11:5, to restrict ALL women from ALL ministries of the Word is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.

While the precise definition of many of the "spiritual gifts" mentioned in the Pauline Epistles is still contentious (more on that to follow in the next post), it is hard to fault Dickson's argument on this point.  Despite the fact that many of the words used for various ministries carry both a general and specific use in the New Testament, those which apply to the proclamation of the Gospel in the are too easily confused in practice by complementarians seeking to uphold an important Scriptural truth.  The examples of women being involved in the work of the Gospel in the New Testament and the language used to describe such work are too varied to ignore.  The reality is that in a variety of places in our communal life the voice of our Sisters in Christ has been silenced to protect a misapplied principle.

Much of the evidence that Dickson discusses in the first section of his pamphlet are familiar to complementarians and few would deny ignoring their examples.  It might be possible, on the other hand, that our perception of these examples have been Instagrammed to the point where we might be blinded to the radical nature of the extent of female participation and leadership which is in the text in front of us.  For myself, I am convinced that I need to work harder and understanding the shape of the Gospel partnership of men and women as it is presented in the Bible.  I need to wrestle with particular words, not just be satisfied with abstract concepts.  I need to look at the shape of our communal time, to investigate whether space is being given for both men and women to use their various gifts for the benefit of the Church.  And I need for women not just to "get involved" but to lead ministries that build up the knowledge and faith of their brothers and sisters.  It's time to take the filters off.

Next time: Why John Dickson is Wrong about Women and Preaching (part 1)

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