Monday, January 28, 2013

Gender and Ministry: The "Smoking Gun" of Romans 16?

Apologies for the delay in this series, but I have been away from my desk for the last week or so.

As I have noted previously Michael Bird's new work, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives and Bobby Haircuts is driven by a desire to restore the respect for women in Gospel Work that Bird believes has been harmed by the strict complementarianism that he sees as prevalent in much of modern Evangelicalism.  Such an aim is admirable and well worth collective attention.  It is a shame, therefore, that it is unlikely that Bird's rather 'conservative' work will stimulate the changes in culture which he desires.

The title of Bird's tract is adapted from the title of a strict complementarian booklet by the late fundamentalist author John R. Rice.  In many ways the mode of styling is appropriate, as there is very little in this work which might be considered "new".  Unlike John Dickson, who has approached the various uses of Word ministry designations with care and precision, Bird prefers to blur the distinctions between the labels.  Roles such as Prophets and Apostles, for example, are treated as virtually synonymous, and all should be interpreted according to the Egalitarian Manifesto of Galatians 3:26-29. (p.30-34)  This is in keeping with the mode of argument used by the egalitarian position in the past, which has accused complementarians of ignoring instances of women "teaching" in the New Testament.  Complementarians, in contrast, have consistently held that while there are various Word ministries that the New Testament shows are clearly held by men and women alike (e.g. prophecy), there are good reasons to think that there should be a differentiation in how these gifts are to be used and, furthermore, that a particular differentiation is present in the circumstance of "teaching" described in 1 Tim 2:12 that needs to be maintained.  Bird's conclusions, moreover, lack clarity and conviction to the point where the reader is left wondering if he has any positive vision on the issue or merely doubts.  He says:

"...I do not consider myself a complementarian because I have had to bow my knee to the biblical evidence that I think shows that women did teach men in the early church...I do not know what the middle ground is called, who holds it, or where it even is, but I have reached the point where I do not want to be pigeon-holed into either camp." (p.46)

I do not propose to examine the tract in detail here.  Most of Bird's exegetical arguments have already been addressed by Sydney author Claire Smith in her book God's Good Design, which I highly commend to all readers interested in the history of the debate.  However, there are a few points of interest in Bird's tract which require some special comment.

With respect to the key issue of 1 Timothy 2:12, Bird takes a slightly modified form of a previous thesis to argue that this text represents a particular restriction on a unique social condition and should not be automatically applied to all situations.  Rather than seeing Paul's restrictions as applying to the lingering influence of the Artemis cult in Ephesus (a popular thesis in the past), Bird proposes that the 1st Century cultural phenomenon of the "new Roman wives" (women who openly flouted gender conventions and sexual morality) was most likely to be the driving factor. (p.42)  These women may have been involved not only in undermining the moral standards of the Church, but were probably involved in the spreading of false teaching regarding the nature of the Fall and implications for marriage.  Therefore, if Paul is advocating a restriction of women teaching, it is related to a particular type of false teaching and should not be generalised.  As he states:

"Paul is writing to a situation where certain well-to-do women, riding the cultural wave of feminine liberation, are trying to assume aggressively the mantle of leadership before they have properly learned the apostolic faith, and while they have come under the influence of false teachers who are rewriting the creation story to suit the inclinations of the new Roman women.  Paul won't stand for it." (p.43)

Now, it is important to make a concession at this point.  The reading of 1 Timothy 2:12 which Bird (and many others) propose must be considered Plausible.  It is quite possible that an extraordinary circumstance existed in Ephesus at the time Paul gave this injunction and nothing in the epistle could contradict this.  However, this reading has always been considered by complementarians as Unlikely.  This is not only because this reading would seem to go against the more general nature of chapter 2 (e.g. the use of "everywhere" in v.8), but also because in 1:7 Paul labels those involved in the false teaching as those who "want to be teachers of the law", indicating that it was questions similar to those faced by the Galatian church regarding Jewish observance that was the main problem.  The fact that the two false teachers that Paul names in 1:20 were both male also weighs against a particular problem with women who had been deceived with false teaching.  The challenge has therefore been for those who argue for the circumstantial reading to find evidence in Scripture that shows Paul authorised teaching by qualified women in other circumstances and thereby prove that the task of "teaching" was open to men and women in the apostolic period.  An explicit reference in the New Testament does not exist, so egalitarians have searched for a "smoking gun" to move their 1 Timothy 2:12 reading into the Likely category.

Bird thinks that he has found one in the person of Phoebe in Romans 16.  Indeed, so important is Phoebe held to be that she is given a whole chapter of the tract to herself.  Bird views Paul's decision to send Phoebe as the ambassador to the Roman church as an act calculated to undermine the pretensions of both Jew and Gentile to spiritual supremacy.  As both Paul's benefactor and a helper in his Gospel work, she would have been held in high regard by the church at the time.  It is therefore likely that Phoebe would have had a "teaching" role for the Roman church as she brought Paul's letter to the Roman church, not only to clarify any points that Paul may have made, but also to bring healing to the church in order to prepare them for their upcoming role in Paul's mission to Spain.  As Bird concludes:

"My conclusion is that Paul's commendation of Deacon Phoebe, her position as his benefactor, and her role as both a letter carrier and his representative to the Roman churches indicates that women were part of the didactic life of the church and Paul specifically encouraged it.  That is the central thesis of this little ebook!" (p.18, emphasis mine)

In other words, Bird interprets Phoebe's role as the model for the ongoing teaching role of women in the Church.  She is the figure who proves that Paul had no objection to women "teaching" men in the ordinary congregation.  Without this piece of evidence it is unlikely that the particular reading of 1 Timothy 2:12 which Bird advocates can be sustained.

In my estimation, there are three main reasons why Bird's assessment of the role Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 cannot be accepted.

  1. It is an Argument From Silence.  By itself this is not a major objection, but an Argument From Silence usually has to be backed up with other evidence (direct or circumstantial) that makes the argument Likely.  Bird imposes a spiritual-political interpretation on the choice of Phoebe to carry the letter to Rome, but there is no obvious reason why this reading should be preferred.  It may have been that Phoebe had a particular reason to go to Rome at that time, either for business or family reasons.  It may have been that Paul saw no obvious spiritual problem with a woman taking the letter as she would not have been expected to fill the same authoritative "teaching" role as described in 1 Timothy 2:12.  If a case is to be made that Phoebe would have been expected to take such a role then some evidence from the text of Romans (or even the New Testament more broadly) should be offered in support.  However,  no evidence is offered and Phoebe's role as a teacher is merely asserted.  There is much which is hypothetical in Bird's presentation of the circumstance of Phoebe's visit to Rome and it appears more to be eisegesis rather than exegesis which is at work.
  2. It contradicts what Paul wrote in Romans 15:14-16.  Bird's thesis rests on the understanding that Paul's letter to the Romans would have required some sort of "interpretation".  For example, if the Roman church had needed clarification on what Paul meant by "the righteousness of God" they would have asked Phoebe to "teach" them what this meant. (p.17)  However, the way that Paul begins his conclusion to the epistle suggests that he was not expecting that his letter would require interpretation by the letter-carrier.  Paul states clearly in 15:14 that he considers the Roman church to be "complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another".  Bird fails to appreciate that the "difficulties" that Christians in the 21st Century may have with the text of Romans may not have been confusing for the initial recipients.  If there were debates about Paul's meaning, it seems that Paul felt that the elders who were already in Rome would have had no trouble in interpreting his meaning in line with the instruction that they had already received (a reasonable assumption as he refers to many of them personally in his final greetings).  Indeed, Paul's language in 15:15 suggests that Paul is not conveying any information that was not already at least basically familiar to the church.  His aim is to "remind" the Romans of certain points of doctrine, not bring an entirely new set of teachings. If this is the case, the need for Phoebe as an authoritative interpreter seems redundant.
  3. It reverses the meaning of 16:2.  Bird contends that the purpose of Phoebe going to Rome was to be a help to the church there.  If this is so, it is unusual both that Paul would not say as much and that his language hints toward precisely the opposite motivation.  If Paul had said, "I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to receive from her any help you may need from her", then Bird's argument might have had merit.  There would have been a clear understanding that receiving Phoebe as Paul's ambassador means receiving the teaching that she would deliver in Paul's name.  However, this is not how the logic of the verse seems to proceed.  Instead, Paul's point is that as Phoebe is a servant of the church in Cenchrea and a great help to many people (including Paul), she is worthy of help and support  by the church in Rome while she is separated from her home community.  Therefore, Paul is not asking Phoebe to take on his role as Authoritative Teacher for the Romans, but is asking the Romans to take on his role as Grateful Benefactee towards Phoebe by repaying the grace and service that she has already shown to so many.  Of course, Phoebe might have been a help to those in Rome in the same way that she was to the church at Cenchrea, but this is clearly not Paul's expectation.  Paul instead hopes that Phoebe will be served in her hour of need by the Roman church, not that she will serve the Romans in theirs.
In summary, while I support Michael Bird's call for a more loving and Biblical approach to gender relations with respect to Word ministries, I must confess to finding his tract as a whole rather disappointing.  The arguments that he puts up for the acceptance of women as preachers for the regular congregation have not added anything radically new to the debate.  Furthermore, his reliance on Phoebe as the "smoking gun" of women preaching during the apostolic period is particularly weak and is unworthy of his otherwise excellent academic record and standards.

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