Male and female leadership questions (2) A framework for discussion

David Peterson, former principal at Oak Hill and NT scholar, suggested that it is helpful to set out a framework that provides the boundary for discussion.  This provides for charitable disagreement and variation in practices within those parameters.  So for example, we could draw the lines as follows

Therefore, the models start by looking at where the Bible text stands in relation to the culture of its time and the culture of the reader.  It may be assumed that in certain cases the scriptural injunction will result in better treatment of people than the culture of the day; however, that treatment may still be inferior to what is suggested by contemporary culture.[1]  If this is the case, then the application of the injunction is likely to be culturally constrained.  Webb then suggests a further set of clues from within Scripture that will confirm this to be the case.[2] Additionally, the reader should consider extra-biblical clues such as science and social science.[3]

In other words, morality can be portrayed as in the diagram below progressing with time.  Scripture contributes to that progression –indeed even escalating it.  However, the progression continues after the completion of the canon of Scripture.  This means that rather than simply looking at what the Bible says at any given point, we should attempt to trace out the trajectory of moral travel which Scripture places us on.

Webb argued that this was the approach taken by the Abolitionists when campaigning against the Slave Trade and therefore that the same approach should be taken when looking at women in church leadership.

There are two problems with this approach however.

  1. It misrepresents or at least misunderstands history. Abolitionists such as Wilberforce saw no need to resort to such tactics because they saw clear teaching in Scripture against the slave trade of their day.  Indeed their understanding of Scripture put them in conflict with the dominant culture/morality of their time. 
  2. More importantly, it places our culture as authoritative over Scripture which is completely the wrong way round.  It is also a gross misrepresentation of history. 

Now this isn’t to deny the place of culture in our understanding of Scripture.  Paul writes as a 1st Century Jew and he writes to people living in specific circumstances.  Scripture is not written in a vacuum.  We will see some examples of cultural context as we look at specific passages.

However, Paul is very careful to explain when he is dealing with a specific culture contextual situation.  Also inspiration must mean that we can trust God’s Word to be protected from human error and limitations so that it transcends culture challenging both the culture of Pauls’ day and ours. The cultural argument suggests that Paul did not feel able to challenge some of the aspects of the culture of his time head on and so just left clues as to his true feelings.  One must ask whether that sounds like the Paul we know and see in the Bible, or indeed anyone who exercised a prophetic role challenging the idolatry and sin of the times in which they lived.

There is a further problem with this. As I suggested at the start, in order to reach preferred conclusions, people have changed their methodology for how they handle the Bible. The result has been that how they answer other questions has been affected. For example, in his book, Webb went to great lengths to try and argue that the approach did not support same-sex marriage but that is exactly how it has been used more recently. Furthermore, because it moves us to a place where we sit in judgement over God’s Word rather than allowing it to disagree with us, it becomes a human book. This has enabled people like Rob Bell, Steve Chalke and others to question the place of the Old Testament and to cast doubts on why Jesus died for us so that even the Gospel itself is changed. Fascinatingly and somewhat sadly, this was exactly what key evangelicals were warning would happen when the issue of women’s ordination became political in the Church of England nearly 30 years ago. 


[1] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 31.

[2] See Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 69-70.

[3] See especially chapter 7. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 209-235.