In the latest Mere Fidelity Andrew Wilson, Matt Lee Anderson, and I take up Andrew’s recent interactions with John Piper and Tom Schreiner on the question of whether women should preach. Lots of interesting discussion ensues.
John Piper’s piece that initially sparked the discussion is here. Andrew’s response was addressed in a post by Tom Schreiner. Finally, Andrew responded to Schreiner.
Share your thoughts in the comments!
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About Alastair Roberts
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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The concern I’d have with Andrew’s position is that the location in the liturgy may dictate what sort of speech is engaged in there, so that saying “this isn’t Teaching, but teaching” may amount to hanging a sign on a desk that says “this is not a desk”.
Very much agree. Or, conversely, the common practice of ‘teaching’ rather than ‘Teaching’ may debase the currency of preaching within the liturgy more generally. The distinction between the two tends to operate more at a theoretical level than at a practically embedded one.
Is there a difference between ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’? I tend to think that there is. For instance in our church we have formal sermons in some services, usually in services where we also have Holy Communion, whereas in other services, usually all-age services, the teaching is similar in some ways to an interactive lesson in a school classroom, with lots of visual aids, pair-work, small-group work, and ‘feed-back’ time ( a sort of mini-plenary), followed by a short talk by the leader. At our sister church, this style is called ‘Cafe Church.’ I like both styles, but I wouldn’t describe Cafe Church as preaching – but I’m still reflecting on it all!
Terms such as ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching’ may not be especially illuminating here because they can carry multiple senses and the precise senses that they should carry are often at issue within these debates. Also at issue is the place different sorts of speech should have within the gathered assembly of the church.
Another important difference between Andrew and me is the way that we seem to use the word ‘authorizing’. He seems to use it more in the sense of ‘signing off on’ or ‘giving permission’. By contrast, I use it more in the sense of ‘vesting authority’. The sermon, as I understand it, is not just something that should just be OKed by the eldership, but ought to be a positive expression of their authority. The question then becomes that of whether the eldership can vest their authority in such a manner and, if they can, in whom they can do so. The distinctive thing about the sermon, understood in this manner, is not some particular feature of its style, but the party whose action it represents.
I think that there are many other sorts of speech in the Church that need not be a positive expression of pastoral authority, but which can be more general teaching and sharing under their broader supervision or with their permission. For instance, the position I have outlined is not opposed to a woman teaching theology to seminary students. Or to a woman giving a lecture or exhortation about the Bible or Christian living to a general audience. Or to a woman sharing within the context of the Eucharistic assembly. However, I would place a higher emphasis upon the need for and appropriate prominence of speech representing the pastoral authority of the Church’s leadership within the context of the weekly assembly than Andrew would.
I’d like to know more about how didasko and authenteo function together in the passage. I know didasko is a fairly generic word for teaching and authenteo is a rare word for authority that seems to be very strong. My LSJ lists a second meaning for the term as “to murder”, which , if it reflects something of the underlying meaning of the term, suggests to me the word means an authority over ultimate things, or an unlawful authority. I also wonder if there is a hendiadys there, two words to explain one concept.
Given the reams of literature on this, this is a huge discussion if there ever was one! Fortunately, the sort of position that I am putting forward doesn’t rest as heavily on 1 Timothy 2 as many complementarian positions do, but develops out of a more general account of pastoral leadership.
I’m glad you replied to this, Alastair! William, I have now set myself a bit of homework, because I’ve never even heard of ‘didasko’ and ‘authenteo’, though I could hazard a guess. Interesting!
Regarding styles and authority, Alastair: because of a glitch on the rota, we had one service last year with no leader present at all! This was done in the ‘Cafe Church’ style I mentioned earlier and led by three women, and we all thought it went well. A few mentioned ‘When two or three are gathered together in my Name…’ It does seem to fit in with what you wrote about women as teachers, Alastair. I need to do a lot more homework and thinking about this whole subject, but I just remembered that service and I thought I’d mention it.
In Matt 18:20 (“two or three gathered in my name”), the immediate context is binding and loosing and passing judgement on the unrepentant brother.
In 1 Cor 14:34-35, the immediate context is ordering and evaluating prophecy within the meeting. Curiously, the specific admonition is that women not ask questions in church (instead to ask husbands at home), not that they do not prophesy. Contrast 1 Cor 11:5; if the prophesy is in the church, then 1 Cor 14 isn’t a blanket ban admonition against all speech but against a particular type of speech (or a particular context).
In 1 Tim 2, each sex gets a specific contrast. Men: pray, not quarrel. Women: do not dress for show, but with modesty, good deeds, and submissiveness. To me, it has the vibe of: men, do not fight for dominance; women, don’t try to manipulate your way into dominance either.
It’s interesting that in both situations where Paul admonishes women to be silent in churches there are already power plays among the men. I don’t think the lesson is that women only need be silent when there’s disorder, but rather that disorder among the men will encourage it among their women also.
Alastair, how do you see women “doing theology” in the church? Why is a woman teaching me in a theology class less authoritative or important than my pastor preaching a sermon? And, on a more practical level, how would I justify to a woman (beyond merely quoting Scripture) the position that she is permitted to study and teach academic theology, but never to speak in a liturgical gathering before a mixed assembly?
First, my position is not that women can never speak in a liturgical gathering before a mixed assembly. Rather, my position is that there are forms of speech that represent the authoritative pastoral leadership of the Church in such contexts and that women cannot exercise those particular forms of speech. This does not exclude them from other forms of speech. The point about speech here is really a point about Church leadership and those who can represent the persons holding such offices.
The difference between a women teaching you in a theology class and your pastor might be akin to the difference between the way that we ought to relate to what our parents tell us and the way that we relate to other persons telling us the same sorts of things. Your pastor represents and exercises an authority in relation to you as one particularly charged with overseeing your spiritual well-being and representing Christ’s authority to you that other Bible teachers cannot.
I think this had better be my final comment on teaching! Having earned my living for many years both as a schoolteacher and teaching adults, I obviously have a perspective on what teaching is. Until Andrew distinguished between ‘teaching’ and ‘Teaching’ on the podcast, I had never encountered such a distinction. I don’t actually understand the distinction that Andrew is making, though I have attempted to, so I’m now settling for it as ‘one of life’s mysteries’. The thought ‘splitting hairs’ did cross my mind, but I decided that this thought was unbecoming 🙂
Oh, don’t worry, Matt and I both expressed that concern to Andrew in pretty much those terms. Andrew is a delightful person to disagree with, because it is easy to be direct with him without him taking the slightest offence.
:-). Thank you!
This is now a response to your comment above about a pastor being ‘particularly charged with overseeing your spiritual well-being and representing Christ’s authority to you.’ The word that keeps coming into my mind is ‘accountability’. The pastor is accountable to God, to all members of his/her* flock, and also to the church hierarchy. I think that this accountability applies to the pastor’s office, but that it must inevitably also flow into his/her sermons.
* I put ‘his/her’ because we do have some women pastors and I am still formulating my thoughts about this.
Why didn’t you invite any women to participate in this discussion?
Thanks for the question.
Partly because the subject of the episode was only settled on the afternoon beforehand. But mostly because, for the more specifically theological and exegetical questions under discussion, issues of women’s identity and experience were of limited pertinence and could potentially obscure the real issues that we were foregrounding. There is definitely a need to emphasize dimensions of women’s identities and experiences at various points in the women and ministry conversation, but this was not one of them.
Thank you for your answer!
By saying, “the subject of the episode was only settled on the afternoon beforehand”, I take it that the default position was to have an all-male panel. Is that correct? Why not invite women on to every panel? Would you agree that female theologians and writers are just as likely to have meaningful contributions to make on any subject as male theologians? Or is it your view that women should only contribute to the discussion of some issues?
Equally, would you only invite women to discuss female “identity and experience”? Why not invite women to deal with “theological and exegetical questions”? Or is it your view that men don’t need the contribution of women to consider “theological and exegetical questions”?
It seems to me that there is an implicit hierarchy in your answer which places “theology” above “experience”; and genders “theology” male, and “experience” female. Would you agree?
Finally, during the discussion, were you participating as a theologian, whose gender was irrelevant; or as a theologian whose masculinity was relevant (in some sense) to the positions you were putting forward and/or the activity in which you were engaged? If the former, why not seek out women to contribute on equal terms as a matter of course? If the latter, why not seek out women to contribute on equal terms as a matter of course?
Thanks for the question: here’s a fairly thorough answer.
The podcast originated from four of us, who decided to share the sort of friendly conversations that we were having in private with a wider audience. We aren’t anything remotely near as formal as a ‘panel’, just four guys who like to talk about a range of issues in theology. From the outset we have sought to maintain an amateur flavour to what we are doing and to approach the podcast as something grounded in our friendship and shared passion for theology, rather than as some more incipiently institutional or career-motivated endeavour.
Like most other academic subjects, theology exhibits a marked skew towards one sex—in its particular case, males. Theology’s skew is of a similar sort of size and direction to that of philosophy. Such skews can also be more pronounced when it comes to more amateur contexts. Much as 90% of Wikipedia editors and 80% of commenters on news sites are male (while writers of fan fiction are 80% female), so theological hobbyists are predominantly male. The significant differences between men and women in the area of thing- vs. person-orientation are probably a factor here, among others. If our podcast was on educational psychology, for instance, it is likely that most of our participants would be female.
Then there is also the factor of differing male and female tendencies in sociality. Men are far more likely to form larger social groups around such wide-ranging and relatively abstract theological, political, or philosophical discussions in their free time. One seldom sees the same thing in anything like the same pronounced form among women. So, it is highly likely that any expression of theological discourse grounded in informal sociality and friendship will be predominantly male in composition. Likewise, being a male group of friends, we are freer to be rougher with each other and to push each other around a bit, allowing us to challenge other viewpoints more forcefully when we disagree. This is a dynamic that tends to shift when women join a group. However, the particular type of friendly dynamic we share is why we are doing the podcast in the first place. The flattening out of male and female spaces really can be a problem here, entailing significant losses for both sexes.
You are asking a number of questions that need to be carefully distinguished from each other.
Why not invite women on to every panel? Because we are a group of guy friends and enjoying spaces of predominantly male companionship and interaction is a healthy thing. Most guys have mostly male friends and enjoy all-male conversations, while also appreciating mixed contexts and conversations on occasions. Because the field of theology is heavily male in composition and the women who are in the field are generally much less available. Because we don’t believe that the presence of both sexes in every context of discourse is necessary, or that it is good to believe that it is so. Because mostly guests pitch ideas to us, rather than us sending out an invitation to them.
Would you agree that female theologians and writers are just as likely to have meaningful contributions to make on any subject as male theologians? In practice, the primary thinkers on most theological issues are male. Take most topics in theology and you will generally find that the most important people working in the area are chiefly male. Is this because men are naturally better in thinking about theology? Not at all, but they are primarily the ones who are inclined to devote their studies and time to it. You would find the same in a subject like philosophy.
Or is it your view that women should only contribute to the discussion of some issues? ‘Should’ isn’t really part of it. We have our own conversation and we occasionally have women on to talk with us about issues. Not just about certain issues; we have had women on to talk about subjects such as satire, animals, or the theology of work. If they have interesting things to say on the subjects and want to talk with us, we are usually delighted to have them on. Not because they are women, or because the subjects are women’s subjects, but because the conversation promises to interest us and our listeners. Not all subjects interest us or our listeners as a group, and that’s OK. We don’t all have to like or be interested in the same things. There are plenty of other conversations going on out there and we certainly don’t claim to be the only type of Christian conversation worth having.
Or is it your view that men don’t need the contribution of women to consider “theological and exegetical questions”? Such issues are seldom gendered. There are plenty of women who we really need to be listening to, because they have something worth saying. Most women don’t, though. Most men don’t either. When you are discussing subjects such as the theology of 1 Kings, the ethics of technology, Augustine’s Confessions, the film Silence, Bible design, theophanies, the practice of Lent, and a host of other subjects that we discuss on our podcast, whether someone is a man or a woman is largely irrelevant to the issues under discussion. Indeed, any attempt to foreground the sex of the participants will tend to detract from the topic of the conversation (and quite possibly also stifle the manner of the conversation). If someone like Sarah Ruden were free to join us to discuss Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, we’d pounce at the opportunity, but that is because she is a brilliant scholar and translator of Augustine, not because she is a woman.
It seems to me that there is an implicit hierarchy in your answer which places “theology” above “experience”; and genders “theology” male, and “experience” female. Would you agree? No, I wouldn’t. The point is not any hierarchical valorization of theology over experience. Rather, the point is that experience is irrelevant or of limited relevance to perhaps the majority of theological questions and most attempts to foreground experience, identities, and subjectivities will be more obscuring than revealing.
Most of the things that we are exploring are not directly about us and we really need to get any fixation upon our identities out of the way. While there are occasions when feminist or post-colonial readings of Scripture can be genuinely illuminating, for instance, after a while the narrowness of their respective foci of interest cause us to lose sight of the big picture. Whether you are a man or a woman should have relatively limited bearing upon your approach to the discussion of, say, apophatic theology or Augustine’s Neoplatonism. The more you foreground your identity and experience, the less equipped you will be to think well about such subjects.
This, it should be noted, is far from an uncritical assumption of the neutrality of one’s current vantage point: a primary end of the discussion is to make us all mindful of the factors conditioning our perspectives and to press towards vantage points that are more apt for understanding. These vantage points are very, very seldom straightforwardly those of another identity group. Rather, they typically challenge presumptions of every such group. Anyone who consistently and uncritically foregrounds their experience is in grave danger of rendering themselves unable to assume a posture of appropriate receptivity to the reality of the object of their study and seldom has a strong grasp upon it.
Is theology gendered ‘male’ and ‘experience’ female? Not in any straightforward manner. However, there are complicating factors here. Male discourse and sociality are far more likely to organically produce conversations that are objectifying in their impulse, ordered towards an external end, reality, or object of shared attention. In theology, this can involve a stress-testing of all perspectives to downplay subjective elements and to produce theological hypotheses and theories that are formally cut loose from the identities of their developers and which function in realms of public contestability or ‘objective’ theory. This is never completely achieved—the particularity of our vantage points as subjects always lingers in various features—yet the impulse and tendency are important to note. However, if you want to have a conversation about most theological subjects, this is a very helpful way to go about it. At its best, it rigorously foregrounds the theological object, compelling scrupulous attention to it, dis-privileging the particularity of our vantage points, and agonistically striving towards a Gadamerian fusion of horizons.
Informal female discourse much less typically adopts the same dynamic as male discourse (the point isn’t that women can’t—they frequently do in various settings—but that they are much less likely to be motivated to adopt, to bond through, or to find satisfaction in such dynamics of discourse). In informal settings, most women are far more likely to bond over the sharing of commonalities in their subjective vantage points or by relating broader issues to their vantage points, subjectivizing issues. These differences in conversational and social dynamics have been observed and studied from the earliest years of childhood.
Both the struggle towards the sharing of a fused horizon that dis-privileges the subjective particularity of our vantage points and the greater foregrounding of the subjective vantage point are important. However, not in any indiscriminate way. Rather, it really depends on the matter under discussion. For most of the sorts of theological issues that we discuss on the show, understanding will primarily be found in the pursuit of fused horizons and dis-privileging our perspectives, sexed or otherwise (while recognizing that male tendencies in sociality may typically, but not universally, give us a greater appetite for such conversations). If we were talking about a different range of subjects, this wouldn’t be the case.
There are occasions when this approach is more fraught, occasions when our subjectivity is likely to intrude upon the horizon in obfuscating ways. On such occasions the challenge of different vantage points can be healthy, not in the foregrounding their own vantage points, but in their identification of the uncritical assumptions and blindspots entailed by our own. On yet other occasions, it is necessary to foreground the interplay of subjective vantage points themselves, revealing the impossibility of any simple subject/object divide and the need for cognizance of both the validity and the insufficiency of given vantage points, which may exist in some tension.
The fact that we are men in conversation with each other does have a bearing upon the character of the podcast. It is reflected in the greater scope of the topics that we talk about, for instance. If you compare the range of topics chosen by female podcasts or mixed sexed podcasts with those on ours, you will probably notice that ours are far less closely tied to our identities, subjectivities, contexts, and the world of our relationships. We can explore a far more variegated and wide-ranging assortment of issues as a result. Conversations that focus on such issues are extremely important, but the fact that the participants in our conversation are overwhelmingly male is an important factor in allowing us to have the sorts of conversations that we most enjoy.
If we were to pursue equal representation of the sexes, or merely more regular female conversation partners, as an end in itself, our conversation could easily lose the distinct character that makes it attractive both to us and to our listeners. If we started to prioritize issues of representation and foregrounded the identities and subjectivities of participants, we would risk becoming similar to one of various other podcasts out there. This doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be valuable in different ways, but it would be a rather different sort of thing.
Indeed, what we have noticed is that, overwhelmingly, the people raising the issue of gendered representation are not regular listeners. Our regular listeners—a great many of whom are women—are far more concerned about whether we are having illuminating conversations on interesting and unusual topics with stimulating and informed conversation partners than they are about whether those conversation partners are primarily men or women. We are just four male friends who like carrying on certain sorts of—perhaps relatively unusual—conversations, with a certain audience that likes to listen. We are delighted to see a wide range of other podcasts out there, with various different dynamics to our own—some with two women, others with mixed groups, others with solo presenters. We are also pleased to know that the bar for anyone starting their own podcast is fairly low. We strongly believe in the value of such diversity and part of what it means to preserve this diversity is that we focus on doing our own sorts of conversations well, rather than developing complexes about representation. Podcasting and video blogging are extremely accessible media: if people are concerned to see other sorts of conversations being developed, we’ll happily cheer them on as they set things up.
Just a brief note that I won’t be able to follow up further on this thread. Tomorrow I’m back to a busy working schedule and won’t have time free to do so. But thank you for the interaction!
Thank you for your fulsome response!
My essential point is this: how is complementarity compatible with the notion that men can understand and explore any aspect of intellectual life fully without the help of women? You say that gender is not an issue when it comes to theological understanding. But if women are created to be the helpers of men, surely men need the help of women in the area of theology? In that sense, I am not interested in trying to create a neutral theological perspective, or an objective theological perspective (whatever those terms might mean). Rather, I am interested in creating a *good* theological perspective: a perspective which emerges from, and reflects the complementarity which should characterise all human activity (short of Church leadership). I’d add that I am not interested in gender balance for its own sake, but because women and men working together is the God given pattern that we should follow, and exemplify in all aspects of life (setting aside Eldership).
On that note, I’m interested that you think making spaces accessible to women is a ‘real problem’ for male sociability. As women and men are complementary, I would have assumed that any situation or activity (short of Eldership) would be enriched by women and men participating together. How then, is complementarity compatible with the notion that the presence of women creates a ‘real problem’ for male sociability? Indeed, could you flip the problem on its head: if the presence of women does create a ‘real problem’ for male sociability, shouldn’t you ask, what is the problem with male sociability (as it is currently constructed) which means it is incompatible with complementarity? And on that basis, how can we remake male sociability, so it is more appropriate to God’s created complementary order? Notably, not all differences are complimentary. By stressing the danger the women pose to male sociability, you appear to be implying that that gender differences, rather than being complimentary, are antithetical to mutual flourishing.
Obviously, I wouldn’t want you to ‘develop a complex’ about representation! But equally, I see no reason to pathologize the desire to respect women as equals of men, and value the contribution of women in all areas of life. Indeed, rather than thinking of including women as a burden, think of it like this: what better way is there to value women than to ensure their voices are heard everywhere? What better way to demonstrate your commitment to respecting the dignity of women than to ensure you are always listening to women’s voices, and that you are always paying heed to women’s views about your work? As I say, rather than thinking of female participation as a problem, think of it as an opportunity to realize God’s plan.
With that in mind, what about putting out a Call for Participants? Women who don’t want to be involved need not be. And you could have safeguards so you’d only need to consider female applicants who have some level of theological understanding, and are practicing Christians. By the way, 60% of theology undergrads are women (as you say some disciplines are skewed in terms of gender), so you’ve got a large potential pool. Would that not make your podcast a better reflection of complementarity?
I’m sorry to hear that you’re busy – business is one of the curses of the modern world! Although with the Eurovision semi-finals this week, there’s plenty of distraction. Maybe you’d be less busy if you worked more collaboratively with women?