Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian
Part 5: Interpretive Strategies
My last two posts identified 10 examples of women serving in ministry and leadership positions in the Bible. The Spirit called these women to serve God through teaching, preaching, prophesying, encouraging, ministering or serving, leading, governing, and overseeing other leaders. I believe that these examples lend powerful support to the egalitarian position.
Now, the trouble with listing examples is that one could just as easily come up with a list of counter examples to support the complementarian position (1 Tim. 2:8-15 is a common counter text). So, listing examples or proof texts from Scripture is not going to clinch the argument either way.
This is why I have long thought that the key to resolving the debate over women in leadership in the church lies with hermeneutics (interpretation) and biblical ethics, not with exegesis (analyzing particular passages) and proof texting. Of course, the relationship between text, interpretation, and application is complex. One’s exegesis ought to inform one’s interpretive strategy. Yet one never reads the Bible or performs exegesis without some interpretive framework, or at least a bunch of interpretive assumptions, already in place. For example, my belief that God exists and intends to communicate with believers through the Bible always impacts how I read it, even if a particular passage I’m working with does not say that explicitly.
The key question then, given the examples and counter-examples about women in leadership in the Bible, is: How do I integrate these various viewpoints into a coherent whole? Stated differently, what is my interpretive strategy? Then we must ask: Does my interpretive strategy make sense of the biblical data in a coherent and consistent way? Does it account for all of the facts and does it explain the anomalies or counter-texts satisfactorily?
Egalitarianism and complementarianism are both interpretive strategies. They are lenses through which believers read and reflect on the biblical text. Both, I believe, are seeking to be faithful to the Bible. But—it must be stressed—both are engaged in interpreting. Both rely on interpretive assumptions and employ an overarching interpretive strategy to argue that the Bible supports their position.
In light of this, I don’t think that the most helpful question is: Which position is correct and which is in error? Given the complexity of the biblical data, that’s just too simplistic. It’s more a question of better fit and clarity. Which strategy ‘fits’ better? Or, which interpretive lens brings higher clarity and allows one to ‘see’ more effectively? N. T. Wright has used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. Which interpretive strategy uses the most number of puzzle pieces to create the most beautiful and coherent picture? (A picture that looks fine but leaves 20 pieces in the box might not be the best in terms of overall fit.)
This question of fittingness is not unique to the issue of women in leadership in the church. It’s one that arises for all theological doctrines, particularly in their development in history. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in the Bible explicitly and in a straight-forward manner. You will not find the word “Trinity” or phrases like “one God in three persons” or “one substance and three hypostases” in Scripture. Rather, a Trinitarian lens integrates and makes sense of the Bible’s overarching narrative recording the one God’s self revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. I like how Alister McGrath puts it: the doctrine of the Trinity developed in light of “reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in Scripture, and continued in Christian experience . . . Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner” (Christian Theology, 5th Edition).
My view is that the egalitarian interpretive strategy is superior to the complementarian interpretive strategy. It is the better lens for interpreting Scripture. It accounts best for the facts of Scripture while making sense of apparent anomalies. It is the better fit, aligning our reading of the Bible with Christian experience and our discernment of the Holy Spirit’s leading and gifting.
Over the next few weeks, I will explore how the egalitarian interpretive strategy clarifies our reading of the overall narrative of Scripture and accounts for the so-called “problem texts” or anomalies with respect to the gender debate.