Regular readers of these blog post posts will know that my attention has been drawn to the events and debates among evangelicals in Australia. In some ways these discussions among evangelicals are easier to follow than those in the UK as there as there are fewer contributors. A further reason for my interest in Australia, or rather the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, is that it is a major player and centre of influence amid the splits and divisions that are taking place across the Anglican Communion. To understand something of Sydney’s theology is to understand the way a particular brand of conservative theology affects Anglicanism right across the world.
Recently in my perusal of on-line documents that relate to the debates that Sydney diocese is having, I found a pamphlet by one Dr Kevin Giles. Giles is a professional theologian, trained in the evangelical power-house of Moore Theological College but some time ago he came out against the subordination of women – a much debated issue among Sydney Anglicans at present. In the UK, thankfully, this whole area has now become for most evangelicals a non- issue and even the question of women’s ordination has been pushed right to the edge of theological debate. In Sydney, on the other hand, the position that declares the impossibility for women to be ordained or achieve true equality with men is energetically proclaimed by many Sydney Anglicans. To be a member of the club, a paid-up Sydney Anglican, there is an understanding that you have to have bought into this position of believing that Scripture forbids and always will forbid the ordination or even the equality of women in the church.
This blog does not intend to go deeply into the arguments for and against the ordination of women. The preamble is to introduce us to some of the theological arguments put forward by Giles that argue against a particular way of applying Scripture in this and other debates. The technical term for this application and interpretation of Scripture is hermeneutics. In summary Giles strongly contests the way scripture is being applied by those who oppose the equality of women in the church. In an examination of a paper by Martin Pakula, which seeks to deny the idea that women and men do not possess equality before God, Giles notes that the whole argument of the paper depends on a single passage from Scripture, I Timothy 2:11-14. Pakula in other words argues that the whole Biblical understanding about the role of women can be stated clearly, based on just this one passage. But according to Giles, such a use of the Bible creates ‘monumental problems’.
In the first place Giles states that it is wrong to take just one passage from Scripture to establish what the Bible as a whole says on a topic. To know what the Bible says on any topic will involve starting at the beginning with book of Genesis and going right through to see what is said about the topic under discussion, whether it be faith, sin, salvation or homosexuality. Such a method will inevitably establish that there is a variety and diversity in what the Bible overall has to say on any subject. It would be dishonest to claim otherwise. The second ‘monumental problem’ that Giles identifies is that it should never be possible to take one particular statement or injunction from Scripture and declare that passage to be normative or universal. He gives a vivid example of this way of using the New Testament on the part of German Christians wanting to persuade others to support the Nazi regime. By universalising the first verse of chapter 13 of the epistle to the Romans, Nazi tyranny could be justified as deserving the support of all German Christians who lived at the time. But in fact the approach to the State in Scripture is far more nuanced than this one passage would suggest. Jesus’ command to pay Caesar ‘the things that Caesar’s’ is scarcely more than a acquiesence in the status quo while the 13th chapter of Revelation can be read as a full frontal attack on the Roman government. Without conceding anything to a ‘liberal’ perspective, we would be right to point out that the Bible has a variety of approaches to the rights of government over its citizens. Each relevant passage must be studied according the context where it occurs. There is a quote given by the German biblical scholar, Oscar Cullmann which sums up this whole issue well: ‘the fountainhead of all false biblical interpretation and all heresy is invariably the isolation and absolutising of one single passage’.
It is with this argument that Giles rounds on those who wish to build a ‘biblical’ view of the relation of men and women in scripture based on a single text. If we absolutise the passage from 1 Timothy about the subordination of women we contradict two clusters of scriptural texts which say something quite different. In the first place we have the constantly repeated injunction of Jesus about the need to be humble and serve. Matt 20.26-28 & Mk 9. 35 etc. It is hard to fit a teaching about the dominance of the male sex over the female into such teaching. The second group of texts concerns Paul’s understanding of ministry. There seems also to be a clear understanding on the part of Paul that ministry is not restricted to the male sex alone. There is no hint of sex-discrimination when Paul sets out his famous list of ministries in Romans 12: 4-8. He has also absolutely nothing to suggest that the gifts of the Spirit are restricted to the male sex in I Corinthians 12 to 14. We have also the reference to female leadership in Romans 16.7 when Paul speaks of Junia as a fellow apostle.
Kevin Giles writes as an evangelical, schooled in the Moore College traditions, but he is loud in his protest against a use of the Bible which my words would describe as dishonest and faulty. It is normally difficult to spot this kind of dishonesty in biblical interpretation because the one who practises it is adept at switching from quotation to quotation in a way that leaves the hearer breathless. When the Bible speaks in a clear way as it does in 1 Timothy 2. 11-14, it is hard to believe that such words might actually be contradicted by what is said elsewhere in Scripture. The conservative interpreter tries to hide these contradictions but the ordinary reader who tries to understand the natural meaning of these passages is left thoroughly confused. A further argument not mentioned by Giles, but of probable relevance to the dilemma of scriptural integrity, is the fact that 1 Timothy is not considered by scholars to be an Pauline document. But whether that claim is introduced into the discussion or not, it is clear that Giles’ discussion of the detail of the actual text is of help in enabling us to navigate our way around an important ‘proof’ text used by those who wish to put women in a place of inferiority in both in the family and in the church.
We have in past blog posts already questioned the statement ‘the bible clearly teaches’. Perhaps my reader will learn to be suspicious whenever he/she hears that triumphant claim. Whether we have recourse to the scholarly resources of an academic scrutiny of the text or a simple close attention to the actual words of scripture, the claim is unlikely, if ever, to be true!