What is Jesus doing? (female ordination)

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123, 4, 6789101112131415.

Last time in this series we looked at how Anderson addresses ministry as not what we do for Jesus, but what we do with him---our participation in his ongoing ministry to the Father, through the Spirit, for the sake of the world. In order for us to participate meaningfully with him, we must discern what he is actually doing---a challenge that frequently will require that we set aside some of our presuppositions about what our risen, ascended Lord will or will not do.

Christ in the house of Mary and Martha by Henryk Siemiradzki
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What about female ordination?

One of the issues that has challenged the church is to discern the mind and activity of Jesus concerning the role of women in pastoral leadership. Anderson frames the issue this way:
Are Christians who testify to God's calling [of women] to receive ordination and serve as pastors of the church in disobedience to the teaching of Scripture, or are they in obedience to the Spirit of the resurrected Christ at work in the church? This issue is surly one that requires a patient and careful hermeneutical approach that honors the Word of God and makes manifest the will and power of Christ in his church in our present situation (p. 90).
Icon depicting Andronicus, Athanasius,
and (at right) the clearly female Junia.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
When we examine the New Testament, we find that in some cases it excludes women from certain teaching and ministry roles (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12). But then in other cases it speaks to women's full participation and parity with men (e.g. Phil. 4:2-3; Romans 16:1-2 where Phoebe is listed as a deacon; and Romans 16:7 where Junia, a woman, is listed along with Andronicus as an apostle). Given this diversity of testimony, which set of texts should be given priority? Note Anderson's answer:
It is in cases like this that the resurrected Jesus as the living Lord of the church can serve as a hermeneutical criterion. For surely he knows what his will for the church is in the particular situation of the contemporary church. And there are many of us who feel that he has already shown us what his will is by calling and anointing women for pastoral ministry in full parity with men (p. 92).
Thus in determining how to interpret and apply relevant biblical instruction, Anderson advocates that we factor in the present activity of Jesus, through the Spirit. Along with many other denominations, Grace Communion International has done this, concluding that females should be ordained to pastoral ministry given that God clearly has called forth and gifted many women for this office both in our day and down through Christian history.

Caution needed

Of course, we must be very careful in using present experience as a means to interpret and apply Scripture. Anderson comments:
It must be made absolutely clear that what I am suggesting here as an argument for the freedom of the church to recognize and affirm full parity for women in pastoral ministry does not give permission to set aside the normative role of the Bible in favor of some contemporary criterion. This is true for several reasons. First, all Scripture is subject to the purpose of God's word as a construct of truth and infallibility. Second, the  Spirit of the risen Lord is not just another "contemporary" spirit but is the Spirit of the incarnate Word, where authority is vested in the apostolic witness and communicated through the inspired word as holy Scripture. Third, there is an eschatological tension between the now and the not yet within which Scripture stands as the Word of God written. In certain areas, of which the role of women in the pastoral ministry of the church is one, we can find the resurrection of Jesus as the critical and helpful hermeneutical criterion. Apart from that criterion... there will be a tendency to impose on Scripture a hermeneutical criterion that "wrestles" the exegetical task into submission to a priori principles.... The resurrected Jesus is not a criterion of new revelation that replaces Scripture; rather he is the hermeneutical criterion for interpreting Scripture in such a way that his present work of creating a new humanity fulfills the promise of Scripture (pp. 100-101).

First century or the last century?

Part of the problem in making these interpretations is when churches assume that their calling is to return the church to a "once and for all delivered" ideal way of doing things established in the first century church. Given this assumption, the right interpretation will go in the direction of reinforcing or restoring past practice. But this is an erroneous assumption in that it does not align with the New Testament itself, where we see that the Spirit was moving the church as it developed to bring into the present not some sort of normative practice of the past, but the hope and promise of the "last century"---that which lay yet ahead. Anderson comments:
It is clear that the Holy Spirit used the criterion of eschatological preference rather than historical preference... [Therefore] we should expect that the Spirit will more and more prepare the church to be the church that Christ desires to see when he returns not the one that he left in the first century (pp. 106-107).  
The first century church was not always able to achieve the fullness of Christ's ultimate for the church. Paul had to make concessions that limited the full freedom Christ desires for his people, in light of certain cultural norms and constraints. For example, he limited the role of women in some churches, while expanding it to full parity with men in others. Anderson comments:
Paul allowed for the eschatological preference of the Holy Spirit where it could be implemented without causing disorder and confusion in the church. Giving way to expediency where it was necessary for the ministry in special situations apparently was not considered by Paul to establish a principle and precedent for all time. To make what was merely expedient normative would have supplanted the eschatological freedom of the Spirit of Jesus to prepare the church for the last century (pp. 107-108).

Is there a biblical antecedent?

Are we then free to make any interpretation/application of biblical practice we might want, in order to accommodate current cultural norms and preferences? As noted above, Anderson answers an emphatic "No!" The Spirit of the risen Lord (which often is runs counter present cultural norms) constrains us. Moreover, Anderson notes that in making such decisions, we as Christians must always have a clear biblical antecedent that points in the direction of our contemporary application. We see this dynamic at work in the first century church when Paul argued in support of doing away with the requirement that Gentile converts be circumcised. Paul saw a biblical antecedent for this change in policy in the Old Testament account of how God worked with uncircumcised Abraham. Here was a biblical precedent for allowing uncircumcised males to enjoy full privileges reserved for the people of promise.

Today, in evaluating whether or not to ordain women to pastoral ministry, we find in both the Old and New Testaments a clear and compelling biblical antecedent where God frequently used women in leadership roles that (in those cultures) were reserved for men.

Next time we'll look at other issues that challenge the church in our day to discern and then align with the mind and activity of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Like Anderson, our goal is to walk in step with the Spirit, which means acting in ways that 1) align with the present activity of Jesus through the Spirit and 2) are faithful to Spirit-inspired Holy Scripture.
For study papers from GCI on the topic of women in ministry, click here.