Thursday, October 2, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 25: The Theology of Well-Being

Issues Facing Missions Today 25: The Theology of Well-Being


The discussion of spiritual versus social Gospel—or both in a holistic Gospel—is now extended further into issues of health, fitness, diet, well-being, medical mission (which fits in but is an older emphasis), psychological health, and so forth. While the new emphasis is something that has been going on under our noses for several decades, a theology of well-being seems to have come of age only recently.

A theology of well-being involves some very subtle shifts, sometimes with the same terminology, taking place. 'Holistic,' e.g., used to mean 'not only spiritual but also social' in theological circles. Now people are using it to refer to 'not only spiritual but physical'. This theological move is seen as extending of the tracks rather than a different line for the Gospel train.  Just what is driving this new theological dialogue?

Six Forces Driving a Theology of Well-Being

There are actually powerful theological forces at work here, and they might not be related in themselves, but they are coming together in a new theology of well-being. Apart from decades of liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel, new theological ideas are working towards this emphasis on the Gospel and the body.

1. Physicalism:

One new theological idea is physicalism, which downplays the supernatural world (angels, demons, life after death, etc.) and therefore brings the focus on the physical.[1] Another approach is to see spirituality in Scripture as human health in real and embodied relationships.[2] One related consideration is how to understand Jesus' healing ministry: was it first about the coming of the power of God at the end of the age (1 Cor. 10.11), or was it first about God's compassion and Jesus' great example to care for the needy? Are the gifts of the Spirit to be understood as a community ethic or as a Spirit-gifted community of faith? In a word, to what extent does the new physical theology entail belief in a spiritual power at work in and through Christian faith and ministry and in Christian communities? This physical theology is found in modernist theologies that oppose spiritual emphases in traditional Christian theology. It is everywhere present in non-Evangelical, liberal theology, which denies all miracles outright. But it is also present in Cessationist, Evangelical theology, which denies miracles today but, for reasons of Biblical authority, accepts them as they are stated in the Scriptures.[3]

2. The New Pneumatology

Another theological trend is thinking about the Spirit as life force. The Spirit is understood theologically in this new line of thought not so much as a person as what gives us life and makes us thrive as creatures.  This is well represented in Moltmann's theology, who advocates a new era of thinking of mission as a theology of the Spirit (versus Christology).  The new approach is not narrowing, as a mission calling for people to believe in Jesus Christ.  A theology of the Spirit is, on his view, more ecumenical, because it affirms whatever promotes life.[4]

3. Creation Theology

A third focus is on creation theology, which offers a theology for all people, not just Christians, and emphasises the gift of life that everyone wants to acknowledge and promote. This is easily related to the previous point that emphasises a certain understanding of the Spirit. Interestingly, it takes the focus off of Jesus, the cross, and suffering. It is as though creation theology is now about ecology and personal health, and it does not engage a doctrine of sin and the need for new creation in Christ.  Theology becomes very general, whereas the specifics of belief have to do with ecology: climate change, biodiversity, genetically modified foods, etc.[5] The 2013 statement by the World Council of Churches entitled, ‘‘Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,’ includes understanding health, healing, and wholeness as part of mission and evangelism. Quoting from the document:

‘This understanding of health coheres with the biblical-theological tradition of the church, which sees a human being as a multidimensional unity of body, soul, and mind as interrelated and interdependent. [Note the subtle shifts in view of authority, not using ‘spirit’, etc.] It thus affirms the social, political, and ecological dimensions of personhood and wholeness. Health … [is] the sense of wholeness’ (Section 51). 

Thomas Kemper points out other reasoning in this document.[6]  This emphasis has its roots in Jesus’ healing ministry and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It is articulated in terms of community, as all the parts of our lives and community are brought together in love.  It practically means work in health mission and ministry.  It works together with other emphases in holistic mission—peace, justice, and liberation.  It unifies the community of faith and helps to build relations with persons of other faiths since healing and wholeness are concerns of all humanity (concerns of having abundant life and affirming the integrity of all creation). The encouraged reader needs to pause, however, and ask where Jesus is in this physio-political description of the mission of God.

4. Ecumenism

The fourth point has already been stated but needs to be represented separately.  Ecumenism is, for some, an end in itself, or at least a powerful driving force in theological work.  Thus, it is either a stated or unstated argument underlying the urge to move to abstract levels of thinking so that greater relationships can be forged between religions. This can lead to people seeing evangelism as problematic, since it can stir disagreement and even result in violence. Thus, a general, international 'ethic' of tolerance lies at the root of some global, ecumenical efforts to promote health.  The issue here is not about health, per se, but about arguments used to speak about promoting health.

5. America’s Religion

Fifth, in America, the current focus on personal well-being fits with a cultural interest in national health, fitness, and diet that, at times, becomes a political focus with significant social implications (who to hire/include in the group, what to permit--as the size of sodas sold in New York, etc.). We do well to understand American culture as a religion that interacts with Christian faith, often influencing and altering it. An example is the Daniel Plan, which reinterprets the Gospel in terms of health and fitness.[7]

6. Spirituality

Sixth, there is a current in popular preaching of what might be called spiritual wellness. This idea is represented in the televised addresses of Joel Osteen, who tells people that they have a force within them to overcome their problems. As the present iteration of the power of positive thinking, earlier associated with Norman Vincent Peale, it is appealing to people who want a good news that is not about God so much as oneself, although the lines get blurred. The result, though, is a theology with little use for Jesus even if God is regularly invoked as the source of the internal energy for overcoming the struggles and challenges of life.

Conclusion: A Christian Alternative—a Theology of the Cross

The theology of well-being brings together diverse and powerful theological traditions and cultural forces, and the result is a direct, albeit subtle, attack on orthodox theology. It is more of an anthropology than a theology, focussing on the physical without the spiritual, anthropology rather than theology, generic theology rather than Christology and Pneumatology, a ‘life-giving’ Pneumatology that is for everyone rather than the breathing of Christ on the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20.22), and on what humans can do to overcome the curse of Gen. 3. It reinterprets what has been understood of Jesus' ministry, it deemphasizes the cross, and it reframes a doctrine of the Spirit. Practically, it presents itself as a positive theology about well-being for body, mind, and spirit.

The alternative theology is a theology of the cross.  It is clearly articulated throughout the New Testament.  It is, first of all, Christ-focussed.  Any theology of creation is now to be understood in terms of Jesus Christ and not as a theology without Christ (cf. Col. 1.15-20).  Creation is now to be thought of eschatologically as well: if anyone is in Christ, ‘New Creation!’ (2 Cor. 5.17; cf. Gal. 6.15).  A theology of the body is now understood in terms of Christ’s purchase of us that we might glory God in our body—and this is said not in terms of health and fitness programmes but in terms of being done with sexual sins; 1 Cor. 6.20).  And so forth—numerous examples could be given from Scripture.  Such a theology must also be held with reference to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15).  Paul simply takes every theology captive with his Christ-focussed theology.  Moreover, in Paul, we find how the theology of the cross of Jesus Christ becomes the reality (more than ‘story’ or ‘paradigm’!) in which Paul lived.  The cross is an essential reality in believers’ lives in terms of dying to sin (e.g., Rom. 6) and facing opposition, persecution, and suffering in this life and in ministry (e.g, 2 Cor. 10-12).

The other corrective to this general drift of theological writing in our day is to realize that the Gospel entails the good news of the transforming power of God in people’s lives. Healing is reduced to mere well-being when we articulate it simply in medical and psychological terms. If it is to be understood in terms of Jesus' ministry, it is the in-breaking power of God to transform sinners, heal the sick, and exorcise the demon possession. Healing is all about the fact that Jesus has inaugurated the reign of God. If we miss this, then we'll limit ministry to a homosexual or paedophile or person addicted to pornography to the level of offering a few precautions to take to avoid temptation. Such a mindset denies the power of the Gospel.  Christian ministry of the ‘good news’ will involve praying for the power of God to transform a person’s life to free them from sin and to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and unblemished to the Lord (Rom. 12.1f). God’s grace is not just forgiving grace but transforming grace.  It is a power at work within us (Eph. 3.20).

If we miss the point that the Gospel is good news because it announces the transforming power of God, then we will try to talk about well-being for pastors in struggling circumstances in merely human terms: stay fit, eat well, take sabbaticals, have a good rhythm to the work-week, go to seminars on dealing with conflict, etc. Absolutely none of that (and let's grant it is all fine to a certain extent) comes close to Paul's understanding of ministry. He could say that he was outwardly wasting away but inwardly being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4.16). He was 100% Christ focussed (Gal. 2.20, e.g.). He held out the hope to abound in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15.13).

As Luke demonstrates in Acts, the early Church was a ministry of and in the power of the Holy Spirit in a sinful world of suffering and death.  This does not lead to a Prosperity Gospel.  Suffering and death are part of the present age.  Yet we are ministers of good news, that there is in Christ forgiveness, redemption, salvation, reconciliation, healing, freedom from demonic forces, and ultimately resurrection in Christ Jesus.  This does not lead us to a theology of well-being, of physical health, contentment in ministry, psychological strength, and so forth.  It rather leads us to say that, whatever state we are in, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4.12-13).

None of this, to be sure, restricts us from doing good to all, especially to the household of faith (Gal. 6.10).  Rather, the issue is the right perspective, that whatever we do, whether in word or in deed, we do it in the name of our Lord Jesus (Col. 3.17).  With this, we move from understanding ministry as leadership instead of service, discipleship as satisfaction instead of sacrifice, and the Christian life as well-being instead of suffering.  With this, we hold on to our future hope in Christ rather than cash in our theology for what it offers us here and now--for when Christ, who is our very life, appears, we will appear with him in glory (Col. 3.4).

[1] For example, see Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[2] James K. Bruckner, Healthy Human Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).
[3] For a discussion of views, see Wayne Grudem, ed. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
[4] J. Moltmann, 'The Mission of the Spirit--The Gospel of Life,' in Mission: An Invitation to God's Future, ed. T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2000), pp. 28f.
[5] See papers from The John Ray Initiative connecting environment, science, and Christianity.  Accessed 2 October, 2014:
[6] Thomas Kemper, ‘The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context,’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38.4 (October, 2014): 188-190.
[7] See the website for the Daniel Plan.  Accessed 2 October, 2014:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 24: Some Methodological Questions for Leadership Studies

Issues Facing Missions Today 24: Some Methodological Questions for Leadership Studies


In the following essay, I would like to ask three questions related to the study of ministry and challenge the idea that ‘leadership’ helps us in this study.  The questions are: (1) How should Christian ministry appropriate the social sciences? (2) Is ‘leadership’ an appropriate concept for Christian ministry?, and (3) What exactly are terms for ministry in the Church, and do they involve the notion of leadership?

Three Questions

First, ‘How should Christian ministry appropriate the social sciences?’  The issue here is not whether the social sciences are worth investigating, but how they should be engaged.  One approach might be to adopt a theory from the social sciences as a starting point.  Another, opposite approach might be to try to derive a theory from Scripture.  For example, methodologically one might begin with pedagogical theory from the field of education or one might attempt to discover Jesus’ teaching methods.  Another example might be that one might adopt a counselling theory from the field of psychology or one might try to articulate an approach to counselling that is somehow derived from Scripture.

In either case mentioned in each of these two examples, we need to ask whether Scripture is actually teaching something or whether we are merely using Scripture to illustrate a notion—in which case Scripture is not functioning authoritatively.  If we were to say that we can illustrate facilitative and active learning, analogical reasoning, or the use of figures in rhetoric in Jesus’ teaching, we would not be using Scripture authoritatively.  Jesus would merely be our illustration of teaching methods and communication theory (or rhetoric) that we derived from those fields of study.  If we were to argue that Scripture teaches us something about what it means to be human, that there is a struggle with passions of the flesh and desire, and that we are more than physical beings, we would be working towards an approach to counselling based on the authoritative teachings of Scripture that will certainly challenge reigning ideas in the field of counselling.  As a teacher, I may learn much that is helpful about teaching from the field of adult education.  In fact, I am far more inclined to turn to the field of education than to Scripture to learn about teaching, since Scripture is not a textbook on teaching.

Such examples are offered so that we might consider the idea of leadership when discussing ministry.  When Scripture is engaged in leadership studies, we must ask whether a contemporary author is (1) merely illustrating some notion derived from another field of study altogether (‘Leadership Studies’) or (2) is identifying an essential Biblical teaching.  Even if we have derived a part of our theory from what Scripture actually teaches, we further need to realize that Scripture is not teaching our entire theory.  A collection of different points, even if Biblical, does not make the whole—a theology or theory—Biblical.

The even more basic question to ask with leadership studies is whether leadership is in fact a helpful notion at all for discussing Christian ministry.  It may be an established field of study in the social sciences, but is it relevant for ministry in the church?  For example, a student once asked the question whether we do not need a theory of leadership in our day because we have so many large churches.  We might, I would suggest, rather ask, ‘In what way does a large church strain the Biblical notion of a ‘gathered community’ that experiences spiritual gifts and fellowship?  Is a large ‘church’ really a ‘church’—especially if we find ourselves forced to move from the concept of ministry (service) to leadership because of our new ecclesiological focus?’  I realize that I am pushing hard here, but not inappropriately, against merely accepting categories that come to us already endorsed by our contexts, our present state of learning, our assumptions, and our cultures.  We might find ourselves adopting certain theories from the social sciences, but we need to be careful each step of the way that we have not distorted our reading of Scripture.

As an alternative, for example, consider the consultancy work of Greg Troxell, called Professional DynaMetric Programs or PDP.[1]  Instead of discussing ministry in terms of leadership (although he does use the term on occasion but not in his analyses), he uses the field of psychology to explore ministry discernment and discipleship.  He uses simple testing to clarify a person’s ministry (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher),[2] spiritual gifts (prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, administration, and mercy), availability, experience, talents, Christian spirituality, personal and behavioral style, and motivational needs.  The method of research is not about defining a single category but working with multiple categories: it is not about what makes a good leader but about (1) who makes a good colleague for this team and (2) what various personalities (and other factors) aid or hinder a person in his or her calling to that ministry.  Such a method seems to leave Scripture to define gifts, ministry, the church, and so forth while it uses psychology and testing to facilitate forming a staff and to help persons be more self-aware of their strengths and challenges as they offer their services within certain contexts.[3]

Second, Is ‘leadership’ an appropriate concept for Christian ministry?  One question I would like us to think about long and hard is whether we need the category 'leadership' when we speak about people in various oversight roles. ‘Leadership’ is not the same thing as ‘oversight’.  Think about the difference between the words 'authority' and 'responsibility.'  The former moves us to speak of power and its use, the latter to speak of obligation and obedience.  The former is a 'leadership' term, the latter is a 'servanthood/discipleship' term.  If I have oversight of something, I think of my responsibility in regard to that thing.  For example, if I am entrusted with oversight over a classroom of students and their learning in my class, I am not approaching this task as a ‘leader’ but as a teacher, responsible to educate these students in the right ways with the right curriculum. The concept of 'leadership' is irrelevant to my service or ministry as a teacher.  In fact, it would confuse the ministry I am called to do.  I think about gifting--my gift is teaching.  I do not think about holding an office, wielding power, how to control people, and the like.  I think about responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to teach students the Scriptures.  So, my question is, if we want to speak about elders, overseers, deacons (the word means 'servants'!), pastors, teachers, etc., would it not just be best to explore what these roles of service are and how to go about them?  Do we need some catch-all concept like 'leadership' to understand them?  And, if we are to have a catch-all term, why ‘leadership’ instead of ‘ministry’ (that is, service)?

Third, What exactly are terms for ministry in the Church, and do they involve the notion of leadership?  When we find persons in some oversight role in Scripture, such as 'apostle’, we need to examine in great detail what in fact is said about this.  So, e.g., Paul is aware that 'apostle' could carry rights and authority (1 Cor. 9; 2 Cor. 11), but he radically undermines this understanding for his own role as an apostle.  He rather turns his role as apostle from being a leadership notion into a responsibility and service notion having to do with faithfully discharging the Gospel (Gal. 1.8) or servicing of others (1 Cor. 9.15-27).  His apostleship is not the exercising of authority over others but the fulfillment of a charge, like an ambassador (2 Cor. 5.20). 

From 1 Tim. 3, we see that the overseer (or elder) and the deacon in the church are entrusted with responsibilities such as teaching, finances, and other ministries of service.  Their roles are understood in terms of responsibility rather than authority, service instead of office, function instead of status, and the qualifications for these ministries have to do with whether candidates have proven themselves over time and can be trusted to fulfill their responsibilities.  There is only the slightest element of authority over others in the qualification that they have control over their own households (vv. 4-5), but even that could be understood more from the perspective of responsibility (‘how will he care for the church of God so that members are guided in the right direction of truth rather than false teaching?’) than how to exercise authority over others. 

Elders are called ‘shepherds’ in 1 Peter 5.  They are not to lord it over others but to be examples to them (v. 3).  In Hebrews 13.7, where the word ‘hēgoumenōn’ is translated as ‘leaders’ in the NRSV and ESV, we should probably have more in mind ‘those who guide you,’ since that is the idea.  The passage goes on to say to those following these ‘leaders’, ‘consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.’  Finally, in Rom. 12.8, the word translated ‘leader’ in various English translations comes from two Greek words: to ‘stand’ ‘before’.  A leader stands before people, but also the person who shows others how to do something.  It likely is to be understood in the same sense as 1 Pt. 5.3 and Heb. 13.7: there are people in the community who set the example for others.  The community recognizes them in this role, and they can carry responsibility.

If we think it appropriate to call this ‘leadership,’ we need to recognize that this is not ‘servant-leadership.’  Servant-leadership is a notion of the use of power to serve others, but such passages have in mind serving and caring for others by showing them the way to live, and being faithful stewards.  Is this Biblical understanding of ministry at all enhanced by speaking rather of leadership and deriving information from leadership studies from the business world?


The way forward in considerations of Christian ministry is to be radically Biblical, avoiding the appropriation and misuse of Scripture in ways that give the appearance of being Biblical while really deriving notions and practices from other sources.  This does not mean jettisoning the use of the social sciences, but it does require us to be clear about what is Biblical and what is not.  Psychology can be used to discuss various types of ministries and ministry settings, for example, without suspiciously trying to implant notions from the sciences in Scripture.  We need to be aware of our assumptions and methods all along the way.  Ultimately, ‘leadership’ proves to be too problematic a concept to discuss Christian ministry, bringing with it misunderstandings at so many levels that it can only distort Biblical teaching.  This is true even where we think that we have ‘leadership’ terminology in the New Testament Church.  An appropriate Biblical understanding of ministry will best be derived from careful study of each ministry role on its own and by understanding these roles in terms of the responsibility, not authority, that each carries.

[1] See the description at
[2] This list comes from Eph. 4.9. It is worth noting that the list of ministries is neither incomplete nor mutually exclusive.  In fact, Paul’s syntax with ‘pastors and teachers’ in the list suggests some overlap between the two.  Still, if such categories are used to probe discussion rather than restrict a person to a certain ministry, they can be helpful.
[3] My purpose in mentioning this is only to offer one way someone might explore things differently that others have tried to discuss under the terminology of ‘leadership’.  I am not sufficiently familiar with Troxell’s actual work to endorse it as such.  I remain wary of simplifications, classifications, and categories that get overused and end up limiting rather than opening up considerations.  For a simple example, Moses had a speech impediment that would have, in his mind, hindered him from the ministry to which he was called.  For God, that was simply an issue to overcome rather than a limitation that disqualified him.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today: 23 Women’s Ordination: Contextual Considerations

Issues Facing Missions Today: 23 Women’s Ordination: Contextual Considerations
‘Why Anglicans Should Probably Oppose Women’s Ordination at This Time and Why Pentecostals Should Continue to Support it: An Enquiry into the Engagement of Scripture for Christian Practice’


I intend to consider some contextual issues in the debate over women in ministry—specifically a teaching ministry.  I will touch on some exegetical issues, but this is not the place to examine all of them.  I will address some hermeneutical issues, but only some.  What concerns me more directly in this essay is how context—our context and the context in Ephesus and in Corinth in the first century—speaks to the issue of women in teaching ministries both then and now.  Our context today is diverse and calls for diverse approaches to a situation such as this.  The sensitivity to culture and context that missionaries hone to be successful in their calling can be a helpful hermeneutical tool for reading and interpreting Scripture.  Indeed, as I will discuss, my own involvement in different contexts in various Christian traditions leads me to accept different views on the issue of women in teaching.

The primary texts to consider exegetically in a larger discussion of this matter all come from Paul: 1 Cor. 11.2-16; 14.33b-36; 1 Tim. 2.9-15; Eph. 5.21-33; and Col. 3.18-19.  None of them speak directly to the issue of ordination.  In fact, ordination itself means different things to different churches today, and we need to be careful in assuming that a contemporary practice of ordination is practiced in a way that it was in the first century churches.  Moreover, some of the passages speaking to the issue of the role and status of women in the Church are more relevant to the relationship between husbands and wives (such as the Ephesians and Colossian passages).  Yet out of all this there are some matters to consider in discussing the question of whether women should be ordained to a teaching ministry.

That is how the question is typically asked: ‘Should women be ordained?’  As we look at contextual issues, we may find that an absolute answer to this may be impossible.  In what follows, I would like to consider contextual issues in these Pauline letters and then turn to contextual issues in our own contexts.  To make this more interesting, I propose the cheeky proposition that Anglicans should, in most contexts, probably oppose women’s ordination at this time while Pentecostals should surely continue to support it.  Others in other traditions will read this with their own traditions in mind and some—I have the Presbyterian Church in America in mind—should probably now begin to move to ordaining women for teaching ministry.  Those considerations belong in the respective traditions—it is not for me to say.  What I do believe, however, is that context does make a difference in this much debated issue.

Paul’s Contextual Arguments

In 1 Timothy 2.12-14, Paul clearly excludes women in Ephesus from teaching.  The paragraph says,

8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;  9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes,  10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.  11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;  14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (1 Tim. 2.8-15, NRSV).

Paul supports his argument with a narrative reading from Gen. 1-3 and addresses a very specific although somewhat elusive problem in the church.  Just how contingent is such an argument?

Sandwiched between a word about women not wearing braided hair, gold, pearls, and expensive clothes (v. 9) and a word about a woman being saved through childbirth (v. 15) in 1 Tim. 2.9-15 is what Paul says about women being quiet, not teaching, and not wielding authority over a man.  One would be hard-pressed to find a person who insists that braided hair is always wrong or that women are saved through childbirth today, and so the matter of a contextual reading of the matters press upon the interpreter.  However, Paul’s words appear to involve a transcultural authority when he bases what he says about a woman not wielding authority over a man on the fact that Adam was created first and then Eve.  On the other hand, when Paul says a woman should not teach because Eve, not Adam, was deceived, he seems to be presenting a relative argument that pertains to actual false teaching in the Ephesian church.  We can learn from both of his arguments, the transcultural and the culturally relative.

False Teaching

To appreciate the contextual and culturally relative arguments in 1 Tim. 2.11-14 in particular, we need to understand that false teachers have taught in Ephesus that women should not marry (1 Tim. 4.3, ‘They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods…’).  This helps us understand why Paul draws attention to the fact that a woman, Eve, was saved through childbirth in 1 Tim. 2.15.[1]  In the context of the Ephesian church, some young widows have vowed not to marry and become dependent on church funds.  Subsequently, however, they have found themselves attracted to men and wanted to marry (1 Tim. 5.11-12, ‘But refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry,  12 and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge’).  In the culture, unmarried women outside their father’s household enjoyed an unusual freedom that must also have been very difficult economically and culturally.  This explains why these young, single widows were turning to church funds for support.  Vows to celibacy also ran counter to many younger widow’s sexual nature, and their unmarried state could lead them into a sexual temptation that Paul says is a turning away to Satan (1 Tim. 5.14-15, ‘So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households, so as to give the adversary no occasion to revile us.  15 For some have already turned away to follow Satan’).  Furthermore, the young widows gave their time to idleness, gadding about from house to house, gossiping and being busybodies (1 Tim. 5.13, ‘Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say’).

Thus, Paul counters this bad teaching against marriage and this bad practice among young widows in Ephesus by saying that the younger widows should not pledge celibacy but should get married, have children, and manage their households lest their freedom be their downfall.  He sees a practical matter of marital status related to the very serious matter of spiritual life.  Paul’s advice regarding women is a concern about women breaking their vows, destroying Christian community, and endangering their souls through sinful practices.  Certain sinful characters, says Paul in his second letter to Timothy, work their way ‘into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim. 3.6-7).  One further contextual issue should be noted here as well: all these matters are taking place in a general cultural context in which the education of women was frowned upon and simply rarely offered in the 1st century.

Gender Status

In 1 Timothy, there is also a concern on Paul’s part that women remain in their God-given status, a status embedded in creation itself and not susceptible to cultural contexts, even if the expression of this can be cultural.  Women should not wield authority[2] over men, for Adam was created first.  Here, Paul is concerned about a reversal of what God intended in creation, a confusion of gender status.  1 Cor. 11.2-16 is a similar text in what it says about avoiding confusion over genders.  It is a difficult text to interpret in many ways, but Paul is clearly arguing against a confusion of the male and female roles that is expressed in his culture’s view on hair length and covering.  Moreover, in the household codes of Colossians and Ephesians, Paul also sees the man as the authoritative head over the woman—not the ‘source’ of the woman, as some have valiantly but unsuccessfully attempted to argue since the 1980s.[3]  Paul’s arguments against homosexuality in Rom. 1.24-28 also involve a challenge of his culture’s confusion of gender.  In Paul’s cultural context, gender confusion could be expressed in women wielding authority over men in a teaching role.  Yet gender confusion and women teaching men can be separated in other cultures, as we are well aware today.

Our Western Cultural, ‘Liberation’ Reading of Scripture

Perhaps the most prominent cultural lens through which many read Scripture in the West is that of liberation.  One presentation of this modernist, totalizing metanarrative of liberation is that there is a liberation principle in Scripture that can be used to undermine certain practices in the Scripture itself as well as in history and society today.  Thus, it is argued, the liberation principle should be used against the patriarchalism of the Bible, against the practice of slavery, against any inequality for women, against Jesus’ overly strong words on a subject such as divorce and remarriage, against Western colonialism and subjugation of other cultures, against restrictions on women choosing whether or not to have abortions, and now on the issue of homosexuality.  By using a single lens, this perspective is characteristic of modernity instead of postmodernity, and by using this perspective for viewing so much of life and ethics, it is a totalizing metanarrative, as Francois Lyotard pointed out in his description of modernity versus postmodernity.[4]

The connection between these various issues is forced, however. The modernist, liberationist principle for reading Scripture is not necessary to oppose an issue such as slavery.  The view that Scripture supports slavery is simply impossible to hold when one understands that the Old Testament was correcting certain practices of slavery and, especially when one understands how the early Church was responding to the practice of slavery that included about 1/3 of persons in the Roman Empire.  Paul’s approach in the letter of Philemon was not to forbid the practice but completely undermine its abuses.  Other passages, such as 1 Cor. 7.21-22, 1 Tim. 1.10, and Rev. 18.13 also undermine the practice itself.  Moreover, the view in the modern West that Scripture supports slavery is an instance of a culture economically dependent on slavery reading what people wanted to find in the Scriptures—an affirmation of its exploitative and abusive practices.  In this case, texts mentioning the practice of slavery were taken normatively over against texts that undermined that very viewpoint because of the contemporary culture. The use of Scripture in the cultural context of America in the 19th century to affirm slavery and the use of Scripture to affirm homosexuality in the 21st century are one and the same.  Both involve a particular culture forcing its perspective on the Biblical text.  While liberation interpreters might imagine that the overarching hermeneutic is one of liberation, in fact the issue is simply the contemporary culture’s imposition of its perspective on the ancient text (whether reading its values into the text or reading against the text).  Hermeneutically, those arguing today in favour of homosexuality are doing what pro-slavery advocates did in the 19th century: arguing for their cultural values over against the Biblical text.

My Contextual Lenses

I should explain my own inclinations in this matter of women in ministry that can affect and have affected my reading of Scripture.  First, I grew up within the Pentecostal tradition.  My family history almost runs back to the very beginning of Pentecostalism in America.  Pentecostalism grew out of the 19th century Holiness Movement in America, and both expressions of Christianity accepted women in ministry positions.  My grandmother and mother were missionaries in South Africa, and both would preach and teach as part of their calling in ministry.  They would do so in their own roles as ministers of the Gospel, not because there was a man present or because they only spoke to other women or any other such limitation that we have seen proposed during the 20th century to distinguish women’s ministry of teaching from men’s.  Thus my own upbringing inclines me to affirm women in any and every ministry, including teaching.

Second, I am also a missionary and have had the privilege to look at issues from a variety of cultures and Christian traditions. My experience of cultures tells me that the role and status of women in society is a highly contextual and socially important matter—not to be overrun by some ethic of ‘rights’.  Growing up as a missionary kid in South Africa, there were times when we, members of the missionary family, were permitted to eat with the man of the house at the table when invited for a meal, but the women who served us had to eat in the kitchen with the children.  This was terribly awkward even as a boy, given my European (as South African whites would call themselves) culture.  I am very aware that social contexts are wildly different from one another, and a ‘human rights’ or ‘feminist’ ideology appears to me to be painfully modernist in its totalizing agenda and to be blissfully ignorant of legitimate, postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives, whether liberation or some a-contextual, redemptive principle.[5]

Why Pentecostals Should Continue to Support Women in Ministry

The Holiness Movement and Pentecostal movement in the American Church supported women in ministry roles over against the culture.  The conviction was that these women had mighty gifts from God to do what they were called to do.  They did not minister because they were equal to men; they ministered because the Holy Spirit had empowered them to fulfill a calling in ministry that they were compelled to fulfill.  The issue of equality or liberation simply did not feature in the discussion.

My mother’s entire life as a missionary was based on a vision that she had while in prayer as a child.  In the vision, she saw herself teaching children underneath a thorn tree in Africa.  Her calling was the basis for her ministry, not some view that she could and should be able to do what men do.  In 1 Timothy, Paul says that women should not teach because Eve was deceived by the serpent (1 Tim. 2.12, 14). Yet he encourages older women to teach younger women in Tit. 2.3-5. He clearly did not believe that women were, by nature, open to deception and false teaching.  In my mother’s case, equality was not the basis for her ministry but a calling from God and an empowering from the Holy Spirit.  As long as the focus is on being gifted and empowered by the Spirit and on opposing false teaching through Scripture, Pentecostals should continue to ordain women to teaching ministry.  That the culture today finds this more acceptable is irrelevant.

Why Anglicans Should Probably Not Appoint Women to Teaching Ministry at This Time

The case was entirely different for mainline denominations, where the culture’s liberationist lens was used to reform culture and, eventually, the Church.  The feminist movement in the US picked up great steam in the 1960s.  Women had already won the right to vote.  Birth control had already been invented.  Women had already entered the work force in cities and had independent incomes from men.  But the social revolution of the 1960s pressed these wins still further and, with this, came increasing calls in mainline denominations to approve women in all ministerial roles.  That trajectory came to affirm abortion as a right for women to exercise, and now it is used to support homosexual marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.

Mainline, Protestant denominations had already hitched their reading of Scripture to the cultural wagon, and yet they were at the same time traditional expressions of Christianity that did not easily change with the culture.  However, once they capitulated to the culture, jettisoning historical orthodoxy and Biblical authority, they became much greater prey to the culture.  They were always a step or two behind culture, but they were nonetheless tethered to it and were eventually pulled along by it.  Pick an issue, any issue, and the mainline denominations were following in step with the liberal elements of Western culture.  They became chameleons of culture.  Their views about Scripture were shaped not through Biblical interpretation but by the culture, and they either read with Scripture or against it, depending on whether their cultural views could be affirmed or not affirmed by Scripture.

Thus, the argument that women should be ordained to parish ministry and be allowed to become bishops comes across for many in global Anglican circles as just another example along the way of how culture determines what one will read in Scripture and what one will practice in the Church.  Anglicans in America have divided between the Episcopal Church, largely a liberal, oldline denomination that has blended into Western culture and thus declined in membership by half over the past fifty years, and the newer Anglican Church of North America that holds to historical orthodoxy.

The discussion of women’s ordination in that context is very different from Pentecostalism.  The discussion comes on the heels of a division centering on whether the Church is shaped by Scripture or the culture.  Having just faced the gender confusion of the homosexual debate in the Episcopal Church in America, it may be premature to press for women’s ordination in the Anglican dialogue on the issue.  If the Anglican Church of North America can accept the Pentecostal view of ordination as the affirmation of spiritual gifts and not the liberationist view of gender equality and sexual permissiveness, the door may open for women’s ordination.  But it is probably too early for most international contexts to address the issue after the wounding of the Anglican Church by so many Western theologians, bishops, and priests.  The danger for orthodox Anglicans is that the orthodox movement of GAFCON will be split apart by pressing the issue at this time of women’s ordination.  As I understand it in Africa, the Nigerian Anglicans are against women’s ordination, whereas Ugandan and Kenyan Anglicans are in favour: and yet all are Evangelical.  In the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, a strong liberationist interpretation (originating in the time of Apartheid) has dominated, such that the discussion of women’s ordination is hopelessly entangled with any liberation agenda, including, it now appears, with the push for the affirmation of homosexual practice.

It seems to me that Paul would say, as he did in 1 Timothy to the Ephesian context and in 1 Corinthians to the Corinthian context, that, as long as there is a heretical teaching about gender, a recent history of rejecting Scripture in favour of culture, and the possibility of dividing a large Christian communion, the better path is at this time is to forego women’s ordination.


The antidotes to a cultural reading of Scripture that is contextually unaware involve, first of all, good exegesis.  We need to do our homework and properly hear Scripture in its context.  A second antidote to cultural interpretation is to ask ourselves whether we are pressing an issue that our culture is also, at the same time, pressing.  Third, we might ask whether an issue in our culture fits into a totalizing metanarrative that cannot appreciate contextual issues and interpretation in Scripture, such as liberation in Western culture.  Fourth, we should also be very wary of any use of general principles or values that are too abstract to bring clarity to ethical issues.  Such general values and principles—liberation, love—can easily be twisted one way or the other to validate certain convictions or practices.  Liberation is far too general a value, as is a redemptive trajectory or some other wobbly tool, to be of any use to guide us in interpretation.  To the extent either is invoked, it must be in conjunction with other compelling reasons that help focus interpretation better and help interpreters see how a Biblical text applies to its original culture and to the present situation.  Fifth, as argued here, we need to realize that there might be alternative practices within the Church around the world even if we favour one over another: the same convictions may lead to different expressions of them in different times and cultures.  Even transculturally normative convictions may find diverse expressions in various cultural contexts.  For one culture or one tradition’s current discussion, women teaching men might not at all be related in people’s minds to a confusion of gender.  For another, the issue of women teaching men might be directly related to a confusion of gender issues, if not also other theological errors and a denigration of Biblical authority.

This leads to one final point about context.  If one church tradition entangled with theological error and confusion over gender should probably not throw into the debate the issue of women’s teaching at this time, and if another tradition’s stand against cultural interpretation and affirmation of God’s calling and gifting for ministry should lead it to continue to affirm women in teaching roles in the Church, then it is possible that some Church traditions should consider moving their practice to affirm women in teaching roles in the Church.  That context would be where women’s ordination to teaching ministries is understood in terms of calling and gifting rather than as a right, where there is no gender confusion between males and females, and where heretical teaching is not tolerated.  In my understanding, this ought to lead some Evangelical denominations that do not ordain women to consider doing so, lest their practice be more an affirmation of a conservative culture than of Biblical views on spiritual gifts and sound teaching in the Church.

[1] Note that Paul uses the singular in the beginning of this verse and the plural, ‘they’, in the rest of the verse.  In the beginning of the verse, he still has Eve in view as he is arguing from the Genesis narrative.  From the text’s perspective, she ‘will’ be saved through childbirth even though she was deceived and became a transgressor.  Paul sees this as analogous to the situation that Timothy is facing in Ephesus, since preaching against marriage and the failure to marry in the case of younger widows is endangering the spiritual lives of women in the church.  As he did in v. 10, Paul follows up his contextual argument with a more general statement that is applicable to any context in the second half of v. 15.
[2] The Greek word appears only here in the New Testament and has been understood simply as a synonym for kuriein, the more common word for ‘to have authority over,’ or as a term suggesting abuse of authority.  I take it more in the latter sense: it implies abuse of some sort—which is Paul’s point.  Eve overstepped her status as well as taught the deception of the serpent.
[3] The discussion of the meaning of ‘kephalē’—‘head’—has produced a mound of literature since the 1980s.  Without presenting my argument here, I would simply say that the meaning of the Greek word clearly (I do not see this as disputable) could and did in Paul’s usage entail authority.  This was already evident in the Septuagint and was how Greek speaking Christians in the Patristic era understood the word.
[4] Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester University Press, 1984).
[5] The idea that a ‘redemptive principle’ should be seen in Scripture that helps determine what is transcultural and what is culturally relative was proposed by Robert J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).