Further reflections on men, women, training and the church

The other day I mentioned a little bit of controversy around the question of whether women should go to seminary.  John Steven’s, the National Director of the FIEC and a staunch complementarian has added his voice in support of women training at seminary sharing an article from Michael Bird who happens to be an egalitarian.

This is important because it helps to emphasise where the real difference between complementarianism and egalitarianism is. It’s important to note two things, first that properly speaking, this is a second order question, not a first order one.  Secondly, that true complementarianism does not see there being a hierarchical difference between men and women.  Men and women have the same human nature.  Complementarianism is focused on two very narrow questions, the first is whether there is a distinction of roles between husbands and wives. The second is about who can be elders within the church.

What this means is that in fact if we are honest, we are not give a lot of detailed data on general differences between men and women.  In fact, I would argue that Scripture is not prescriptive about how you divide things up in the home.  This is important with reference to church as well.  The argument that people like John and I have been making is that women will be involved in teaching God’s Word within the life of the church, discipling younger believers and offering pastoral counselling to those who are struggling.

Yet, some from within the complementarian perspective have been arguing back that women should not receive the same ministry training as men.  They’ve argued that this will encourage women to seek to do the same role as men.  One argument has been that Jesus didn’t give the same training to women as he did to men.

John Stevens helpfully has pointed out that in fact we do have examples of women benefitting from the teaching and training offered to male disciples. That’s the whole point of the altercation with Martha when Jesus visits the family at Bethany. Martha believed that her sister Mary should have been helping her with the domestic chores. Jesus doesn’t demean those responsibilities but he fully commends Mary as being in the right place, sitting at the feet of Jesus as his disciple, learning from him.  He also offered the example of Priscilla teaching Apollos alongside her husband, Aquilla.

I might add in at this point that it is the women who we see as eye witnesses, continuing to receive instruction right at the point of the crucifixion.  It is women who are there at the empty tomb to receive teaching and training from the risen saviour. They are there at the beginning. They are there at the end.

So, we need to be very careful before we insist that women need something different, especially if what we really mean by this is “something less.”  Our women pastoral workers are going to be involved in some of the most challenging, complex pastoral cases. They’ll be the ones helping abuse victims and deserted wives find hope, peace and healing in Christ. They’ll be the ones reassuring devastated mothers who are watching their kids go off the rails. They are the ones who will be seeking to counsel mothers struggling with the guilt of an abortion or the perceived shame of a divorce. These are the people who will be helping teenagers navigate a confusing world that of mixed messages, a world that claims to offer them freedom and identity in one breath and then objectivises them the next.  We want our women workers to be fully equipped for this task, to be the best possible gift to the local church.

Now, as a complementarian, I do believe that there are distinctions between men and women.  We are equal and like each other but also different.  I’ve argued before that this can be summed up in terms of men primarily having a provision and protection role whilst women nurture.  This may be a generalisation and a simplification but if we are alert to that, it can be helpful.  I think this means that there is a particular shepherding focus for men and that feeds into the role of elder. But as ’’ve said so often before, families need fathers and mothers, so too churches.  I think those are reasonable conclusions to draw from what Scripture teaches but we need to be careful not to say more than what Scripture tells us and not to say less.

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