A Woman’s Place is in the…
By Drs. Brad and Dorothee Cole
Doug Batchelor’s recent sermon, “Women Pastors: A Biblical Perspective” has been the subject of much debate over the last few weeks. This sermon should ignite a healthy discussion not only because of the issues raised about women, but also because it highlights the importance of “inspiration” and the methods of Biblical interpretation. Also, it should be said that while we disagree with his position on this issue, we want to be respectful of his opinions and we hope to express ours in a way that is not sarcastic or condemnatory toward Pastor Batchelor.
Before addressing the subject of inspiration, we’ll include just a few excerpts from the sermon to appreciate where Batchelor is coming from. He makes the point that, “Up until the feminist movement became very prominent for the first 1900-2000 years of church history, it was understood that sort of the final authority within the church was to rest solely with husbands and the men pastors.” Batchelor goes on to explain that this is the way it should be and has been from Adam until our current generation. He laments the fact that the percentage of women studying at Adventist seminaries (“which comes from the same word for semen”) has increased from 19% in 1978 to 51% today and attributes this change to “social cultural pressure” and that “we have been badgered and intimidated so that we are not really going by what the Bible has to say.” He expressed embarrassment that his colleagues from other denominations couldn’t understand the Adventist direction in this area, “I have to hang my head and say I can’t understand it either.” He sprinkles anecdotal stories throughout the sermon, for example, suggesting that God punished Miriam with leprosy (and not Aaron) when she and her brother complained against Moses’ authority because, as a woman, she really overstepped her boundaries.
He then makes some comparisons between the brains of men and women. For example, he points to a single controversial study that showed that men score 5% higher on IQ tests and states that “men have more neurons.” He then says that women tend to communicate better than men but get more distracted, “Which causes problems in marriages because men will want to address a specific problem in a discussion and all of a sudden in the discussion there’s this quantum leap to something that happened three weeks ago.” Women are more likely to befriend, men are better in a contentious situation. Women have a lower pain threshold and are more susceptible to anxiety and depression. “Men can think better in 3D.”
While Batchelor might say that he’s merely trying to point out scientifically proven differences between men and women, he leaves the distinct impression that, “Women shouldn’t be pastors because they aren’t as smart as men, they aren’t as strong as men in standing up to confrontation, they bring up irrelevant stuff in conversation and keep getting off track, and they are more susceptible to anxiety and depression.” The only negative comment about men was that they aren’t as good at language and that “on combat men are better suited.” Yet, if women are to be disqualified from the ministry for getting distracted more easily, couldn’t men just as easily be excluded for continually resorting to fighting at the drop of a hat given that men are responsible for almost all the atrocities of war, torture and genocide in the history of planet earth?
Others have pointed out the controversial nature of the supposed IQ and other reported differences between men and women, yet even if these differences were solid, they would not present a good argument against women ordination. For example, if the real issue is that pastors should have a minimum IQ then a simple IQ test could be administered as a criterion for entering the seminary; “less than 120, you’re out!” Or, if there are certain personality types that have qualities that are felt to be detrimental to pastoral leadership, that could be solved as well. For example, simply perform a Myers-Briggs test to every seminary applicant and eliminate all the INFJs and ISTJs (these are just a crazy examples) if those are the personality types that are undesirable for the ministry. Pain threshold testing and screening for anxiety and depression could also be performed, etc. The point is that none of these issues make a case against women ordination.
While these are all tantalizing details to dissect, the main issue that needs to be addressed is the subject of inspiration. For Batchelor and many others, the words of the Bible about women and other topics are so clear that no matter how strange the advice may seem in our world today, “we must go with what the Bible says.” Here are just a few statements that echo this commonly held position:
“Those who come to the conclusion that there is not a distinction made in the Bible all the way from Adam to Revelation in the roles of men and women in the church have to go through the most phenomenal mind bending gymnastic to escape the plain truth, that it’s incomprehensible to me. But you know if you tell people a lie often enough they’ll believe just about anything.”
In the midst of a string of quotes from the writings of Paul such as, “Women submit yourselves to your own husbands…” (Ephesians 5:22), Batchelor then makes his most revealing statement in the sermon:
“Some will say, well he (Paul) was off his medication those days. [Or] that [this] just doesn’t really matter. Paul was being influenced by the traditions of the culture. So we’re not supposed to take these verses seriously. What’s gonna happen to your Bible? How are you gonna chop up your scriptures if you start picking and choosing what passages and commands you think the writers were under some imbalanced influence of the cultures of the day?”
He went on to say,
“The ultimate authority biblically, for God’s people, from Adam to the present day, has been that men are to be the priest leaders in the family and in the church. They are to be ordained. What that means is, God has designed in his order of things, doesn’t matter how popular it is, or what the world says, it’s what the word says – that men should have the authority to be the spiritual guides, the leaders in family…So when God says things in his word should be a certain way, are we going to tell him he’s wrong? We may not understand it, but the first thing before we understand is to submit to what he says.”
In other words, Batchelor is saying that whatever the Bible writers wrote 2,000 years ago holds just as true for us today, in specific detail and in specific situations, otherwise we are “picking and choosing” what we want to believe. But should we completely detach Paul’s advice about women from the setting of the 1st century? Or are Paul’s words meeting the needs of that specific time and culture? It seems that if we read the Bible completely out of its historical context, we are in trouble in a hurry.
Let’s consider whether these Old Testament passages primarily apply to that time and culture or if they apply to us today:
- In the Old Testament, if a woman was “proven” not to be a virgin when she married (which was determined by how much blood was on the wedding sheet) she was to be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
- “When two men are in a fight and the wife of the one man, trying to rescue her husband, grabs the genitals of the man hitting him, you are to cut off her hand. Show no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11) – [ some have argued that this verse should be translated, “You shall shave her groin.”]
- “If a man takes a second wife, he must continue to give his first wife the same amount of food and clothing and the same rights that she had before.” (Exodus 21:10)
A person would end up in jail if he or she tried to enforce any of these three examples today. These examples do not apply to our time and culture. We need to be able to read passages like this and say, “The Bible is the inspired word of God, but these words were given for a time and culture that is very different than the one I live. In this specific case, I will not do what the Bible says. It’s amazing how God condescends to meet people where they are.”
Numerous Old Testament verses like this could be listed. The New Testament presents more of a problem, however. We assume that, “Now we get it straight,” that there’s nothing in the New Testament that is tainted by culture and that everything in the New Testament specifically applies to us today. But what about these passages?
In the context of saying that “the head of woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3), Paul goes on to say,
“A woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair…a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority” (1 Corinthians 11:5,6,10).
If we read on, however, Paul admits that these words can only be read in the context of his culture: “But if anyone wants to argue about this, I simply say that we have no other custom than this, and neither do God’s other churches” (1 Corinthians 11:16).
A few chapters later, Paul advises,
“The women should keep quiet in the meetings. They are not allowed to speak; as the Jewish Law says, they must not be in charge. If they want to find out something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in a church meeting” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35).
In the 21st century, is it really a “disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in a church meeting”? Interestingly, Batchelor’s does allow for some cultural interpretation of this particular verse. He rightly points out that the “Oracle of Delphi was a priestess” and that Paul is trying to prevent Jewish women from acting like those priestesses and “in that context, Paul is saying, tell them [the women] to be quiet. They’re not supposed to be teaching – meaning in the capacity of a pastor.” If cultural context is appropriate for this particular text, we should be able to apply the same standard to other texts as well.
In fact, those who deny that there is no room for contextual interpretation and apply Paul’s words about women in this passage to our time and culture, should be the first to go all the way and to also follow Paul’s advice for men, “It is good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7:1).
These words can only be understood in the context of a specific time and culture. During the time of Corinth, it is said that there may have been as many as 1000 temple prostitutes at the Temple of Apollo. These early converts to Christianity were coming out of paganism and had many pagan remnants in their worship and beliefs about God. For example, Paul counseled people against baptisms for the dead, not to get drunk at the Lord’s supper, to avoid the wild and unintelligible speaking of tongues, to “keep away from the worship of idols” (1 Corinthians 10:14), and even how to deal with a man in church who was sleeping with his stepmother. Finally an exasperated Paul says, “I declare to your shame that some of you do not know God” (1 Corinthians 15:34). What Paul is saying with regards to women is that the early church must distinguish themselves from the pagans and to at least take a step in the right direction in comparison to the role of woman as temple prostitutes, for example, in the pagan religions.
In addition, it is helpful to consider the view of the Jewish leaders (all men, of course) toward women in this time. This view went far beyond “keep quiet in church” to this extreme position:
“Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity” (1st century Rabbi Eliezer).
When Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husband’s as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), we need to read on a few verses and to “hear” that Paul would also say, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear…just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Just as we should not make the case that slavery is the ideal, neither should we conclude that submissive wives are the ideal.
Batchelor also quotes 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing-if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
Batchelor uses the first part of this passage to state that women should be submissive and should not teach or have authority over a man. But if this is literally true today, what about the second part of the passage where Paul states that “women will be saved through childbearing”? Is it fair to take a strictly literally interpretation for just half of a passage?
Just imagine some of the implication of the words for today, “Wives, submit to your husbands…” What if a man and a woman read the Bible together and they both come to different conclusions about a passage in scripture. Is the man’s opinion more inspired or should his wife “give in” to her husband’s interpretation simply because he is the man? What if the woman speaks Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, and has a Ph.D. in Biblical interpretation? Should she still submit to her husband’s interpretation in spiritual matters or was it wrong for her to have gained the knowledge if it placed her at an advantage over her husband?
Most importantly, however, we should always ask what Jesus revealed on this subject. What we find is that Jesus was remarkably countercultural in the way He treated women. He ignored the Jewish ritual impurity laws which said that a man should not speak to a woman (other than his wife or child) during her period (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus also broke the rules of the day by conversing with foreign women (the Samaritan and Canaanite women), and even went out of His way to help both of these women. Jesus disregarded the Jewish philosophy that women should not be taught and He praised Mary who chose to sit at his feet rather than work in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus referred to a woman who was “bound by Satan” as a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:16), an expression found nowhere else in the Bible. This phrase stands in contrast to the frequently used male dominant phrase “sons of Abraham.” Jesus told stories that expressed concern for widows. He overthrew divorce traditions that gave a husband permission to unilaterally serve his wife with a bill of divorce. And finally, just consider His gracious treatment of the woman caught in adultery. Some have argued that this story shouldn’t be in the Bible at all given that some ancient manuscripts don’t have it. But there is absolutely no way that anyone would have made up such a story, it was so countercultural – in fact, literally “unthinkable!”
As a result, Jesus was loved by women. For example, while it would appear that most of the men were cowards and fled during Jesus’ crucifixion, the women were there in numbers (Matthew 27:55,56; Mark 15:40,41). And, who was there to greet Jesus when He was resurrected but women. What were the “strong” men doing with their “larger brains,” “higher IQ’s” and “greater mental capacity to rotate objects in 3D”? They were hiding in fear behind locked doors (John 20:19).
The treatment of women with regards to spiritual matters lags behind other areas in our world today. But if we read the Bible as a story where God’s character is progressively unfolded and in which God meets people where they are, always trying to lead them out of spiritual darkness and closer to His truth, then we should be at the forefront of creating equality for women in every area. Christians should be more like Christ and progress beyond today’s cultural norms to something that looks like this:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
On this verse, Bonita Joyner Shields, a woman pastor, makes the following observation:
Ellen White comments on Galatians 3:28 as follows: “It was not the apostle’s work to overturn arbitrarily or suddenly the established order of society. To attempt this would be to prevent the success of the gospel. But he taught principles which struck at the very foundation of slavery and which, if carried into effect, would surely undermine the whole system.” (AA pg. 459)
From their context of Galatians 3:28, I believe these words can also be applied to race, class, or gender. Jesus had females within his inner circle of followers. Paul labored side-by-side with females in spreading the gospel. They lived and taught the gospel principles that strike at the very foundation of the devaluation of females and which, if carried into effect, could surely undermine the whole belief system.
Can you imagine a community of faith where we empowered males and females by our writings, attitudes, and voices? Where males and females strengthened each other for the work of the gospel? Where males and females partnered in ministry to give the world a more complete picture of God? Where everyone in the priesthood of all believers was ordained for ministry? I want to be part of that community.