Friday, 5 October 2012

I'll Take My Hat Off To People Who Eat Shellfish

At primary school, I was a first. One day I turned up with this black and yellow piece of headgear. It had "Township of Sullivan" on it and was a present from indirectly distant relatives in Canada (my great-aunt's husband had a sister in British Columbia).

So, I amazed the other children by wearing a baseball cap, something they'd only seen on TV shows imported from North America.

I lost it in the summer of 1995 on an Operation Mobilisation Love Europe team in Linz. If you ever see someone in Linz wearing it, whip it off their head and run off and then contact me.

I quite like wearing baseball caps. But there is one place I won't wear them. That is in church, or even a building (or a big tent) that is being used at some point for worship. My thinking comes from I Cor 11:2-16 and in line with this I try to ensure I have short hair as well.

I know that in this modern 21st century Christianity we are all supposed to accept that teachings on gender differences in Corinth were just due to local circumstances. Now, I have some problems with this. We are often told, as fact, that there was synagogue-style gender separation in worship, and that there was a group of noisy women, so controversial passages such as I Cor 14:26-40 are simply not relevant, and we can ignore bits where Paul says "As in all the churches of the saints..." (v. 33) and "If anyone thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord." (v. 37).

Quite strong there- hard to reconcile with it just being about a little local difficulty. And hard to reconcile with it just not being relevant in today's church.

By this stage Christianity could not be dismissed as a Jewish sect. There had been the arguments over how much Jewish practice there should be, but issues like circumcision and the Levitical dietary laws had been settled. Yes, there were Jews in Corinth, but also Greeks and Romans.

When I hear the church-was-like-a-synagogue line, the image in my mind is the typical English parish church- but one where the menfolk have to be one side of the aisle and the womenfolk the other.

But, whenever we read of a church meeting in the New Testament- after the Jerusalem church (which appeared to meet in part of the Temple)- got scattered- the only examples seem to be groups meeting in people's homes. We do not come across New Testament church fellowships meeting in synagogues. Why would they when mainstream Judaism was so opposed?

Now, I'll admit it is possible that church fellowship meetings might have gender separation. The Jewish Christians might have expected that. But the Graeco-Roman ones? And in something like a large homegroup setting, wouldn't it be possible that families were sitting/standing together?

The problem I have with the whole "the Corinthian church practiced synagogue-style gender separation and so Paul gave teaching that could not apply today" is that it relies on a set of assumptions.

This is Corinth we are talking about. The place where Paul met Aquila and Priscilla. Later that chapter, they take Apollos into their home and give him a basic Chriatianity Explored course. In the past I have had it put to me that Priscilla was a preacher based on this- there is no difference between the couple taking a man into their home and explaining the Gospel to him and her getting in the pulpit to the shouts of "Preach sister, preach!"

Suppose Priscilla were a preacher. Don't you think the Corinthian church would be going "Er, Paul, we know you're an Apostle and all that. But how do you reconcile telling our women to be silent here when you don't mind one of ours going round cburch to church preaching?", hmm?

But churches do make the distinction in practice. Do they insist that only the preachers can run Bible study groups in their homes, or that only preachers can give the talks at small groups for new believers? Of course not! We all accept that there are preachers, and then there are people (who might include the preachers) who run Bible study groups or explain the Bible to small groups outside of the weekly congregational worship- so why refuse to draw a distinction in the early church?

Another area of controversy is I Tim 2:11-3:13. Dealing with chapter 3, there is one interesting thing- Paul talks about presbyters (vv. 1- 7), then deacons (vv. 8- 10 & 12- 13). What's the gap? Well, verse 11 is about deacons' wives- or is it?

Why have a verse dealing with deacons' wives, and not one for presbyters' wives? Could it be translated "women deacons" instead?

As I look and meditate on it, the conclusion I draw (and I appreciate others may draw different ones) is that Paul is outlining an all-male presbyterate and a mixed-gender diaconatte.

There is one issue I now need to tackle- presiding at the Lord's Table. Now, I don't believe that it is a conjuring trick involving a priest saying a magic incantation over bread and wine, much less that the magic wouldn't work if the person saying it doesn't have a certain something between their legs.

The same thing happens to the bread and wine if a man or a woman says the words of the communion service- i.e. nothing. Christ is present in the service, His Body is the Church. So, on one level I don't have a problem with a woman presiding at the Lord's Table. Yet, if I am at an Anglican service and a woman is presiding I stay in my seat but don't stop anyone else going up, nor do I rush to the Lord's Table and shout "Jezebel, stop it. You cow of Bashan!".

Now, in the New Testament I find nothing to say that only a presbyter can preside at a celebration of the Lord's Supper. Church of England policy is simply a matter of church order, not Scripture, and in line with Article XX (an Article I'll return to later as it's important) it has the right to draw up ceremonies as long as they don't contradict Scripture. Having a presbyter-only-can-preside rule is not in the Bible, but neither is it contradictory to the Bible. The Bible is silent on who can preside, so it is up to individual churches and denominations to draw up their own policy.

So, if I were in a church where the policy was that a deacon or layperson could preside, and there was a woman presiding at the Lord's Table, then I would have no issue going up and receiving the bread and wine. The problem with the Anglican system is that by going up and receiving the bread and wine you are recognising the person presiding as a presbyter- which I cannot do with a clear conscience.

Going back to I Timothy, I now turn to chapter 2. I once outlined my concerns about the ordination of women to the presbyterate, and one lady I know emailed me back to point out that I cannot explain what v. 15 means, and until I can explain it I shouldn't really be relying on anything else there.

Yes, there are parts of the Bible that are unclear. But there is much of the Bible that is crystal clear.

When we say that a passage is "hard to understand" when it is crystal clear, do we really mean "hard to accept"?

We sometimes come across the idea that Paul and the other Apostles were somehow culturally bound. This meant that men who Jesus chose to be His Apostles still had their blinkers on, while us, with two millennia of progress, have taken the blinkers off and can see where they went wrong.

Could it not be a case that we are the ones who are culturally bound and wearing blinkers? That where there is an Apostolic teaching which we find hard to accept the Apostles could be right and the problem lies with us rather than with their ignorance?

One of the most controversial parts of chapter 2 is verses 11 and 12. Sometimes this is explained that there were peculiar religious practices in Ephesus. One argument I've heard is that the other religions did not have priestesses, so Christianity would seem peculiar (just in Ephesus) if it allowed women to hold ministry positions, so Paul imposed a local ban. Another is that the other religions did have priestesses, so Paul banned women from ministry in Ephesus (and nowehere else) to ensure that Christianity remained distinctive.

As a side issue on this, I would be careful of any exegesis which has Paul flitting back and forth between something binding on today's church and something that only applied to a local circumstance. If you use v.8 to argue we should be raising our hands in worship, what's the logic in assuming the rest of the chapter doesn't apply to us?

The other argument is that Paul is barring undeducated women from the pulpit. Women just didn't have the education to be able to preach. But neither would most of the menfolk. Surely, if Paul wanted to say that uneducated people shouldn't preach then he could, well, you know, say "I do not permit anyone without at least 5 A*-C's at GCSE to preach- and I'm not including Mickey Mouse subjects like Media Studies among the 5." And if he did ban uneducated people from the pulpit, surely that would include Peter and John (Acts 4:13).

Years ago I was attending an Anglican church and the vicar's wife wrote a little bit about the book of Romans, and for her the key part was chapter 16. And the important thing there was that right at the start of that chapter we have a woman called Phoebe, who is taken to be a deacon. And then perfect circular logic which can be summarised as:

  • Phoebe is a deacon
  • What is a deacon?
  • Well, a deacon is someone serving his or her diaconal year before being ordained to the presbyterate
  • Ergo this shows that the early church had women presbyters, which groups like Reform or Forward in Faith ignore

The problem is two-fold. Firstly, many Protestant denominations and free churches outside the Church of England have no concept of the peculiarly Anglican "diaconal year". Secondly, it only makes sense in a church which ordains women to the presbyterate. So, starting from the assumption that there were women presbyters in Apostolic times she has shown that there were women presbyters in Apostolic times.

I remember hearing a sermon a few years back where an interesting point was made. When the first women were ordained to the diaconate in the Church of England in 1986, something new was happening. For probably the only time in its existence, the Church of England was ordaining deacons who were not going into their diaconal year. Instead it was ordaining deacons which it had no legal power to subsequently ordain to the presbyterate. His point was that suddenly there were these ladies who, without guide book or precedent, had to define and work out what exactly does a second-, third-, fourth- etc year deacon do. Rather than being a staging-post to the next order of ministry, the diaconate could have become an important ministry in its own right.

There is one confusing thing sbout concentrating on Phoebe. Why concentrate on the lady in her diaconal year when you have Priscilla the preacher (v. 3) and better than a deacon, better than a preacher, you have an apostle herself? Step forward Junia (v. 7).

Now, some texts give Junia as Junias. And it is unclear what Junia(s) was. Yes, some translations say (s)he was "well known among the Apostles", others simply "well known to the Apostles".

There is one thing I have heard about Junia(s), which is that (s)he was identical to Joanna, who is one of the women who accompanied Jesus (Luke 8:3), someone who found Jesus's tomb was empty (Luke 24:10), and, given that, is probably someone on whom the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost (Acts 1:14-2:13). So, definitely someone who, if you mentioned her name to one of the Apostles, would lead to the comment "Oh, yes, I remember Joanna", perhaps followed by "how are she and Andronicus getting on?"

Although one would have to wonder what had happened to Chuza in the interevening years.

By the way, although many translations will describe Joanna in Luke 8 along the lines of "the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager", it is a step too far to assume that it was Joanna who was the household manager.

Junia/Junias relies on a lot of maybes and vagaries. Hard to draw any conclusion from him/her to be honest.

And this brings me on to Jesus Himself. A common defence for an all-male presbyterate was that when Jesus chose the 12 Apostles (Matt 10:1-4), He chose 12 men. And one comeback is that He chose 12 Jews, so shouldn't we restrict the presbyterate to Jews?

No, as there were few Gentiles around. There were oodles of women - around half the population - around.

So, why 12 men? I have little time for the idea that He didn't want to antagonise the religious leaders by appointing women apostles- "Sorry, Joanna. Sorry, Susanna. I really wanted to make you Apostles, but you know, the Pharisees would get narked about that"- when He spends His ministry challenging them? Jesus does what is right, and isn't cowed by the Pharisees- so why assume He was on this issue and no other?

Another explanation gives us the culture-bound Jesus (and remember folks, whenever we feel we can ignore something an Apostle says because he's cĂșlture-bound, what we mean is we're culture-bound), or asks the questions about what the "trajectory" is of His teaching on gender issues and whether he is "progressive" or "reactionary".

Now it is true that there is a progressive revelation in the Scriptures, as God's plan of salvation unfolds. However, there is also a back cover to the Bible, and the revelation is complete.

And, if a spacecraft is launched on a "trajectory", then there are various outcomes:

  • It can arrive safely at its destination- but that means we know what the destination is. What has been the intended destination?- different people have different aims, which I need to come on to in a bit.
  • It can go off at a fast speed, and end up racing away and be lost in outer darkness.
  • It can go round and round and round, again and again, with the friction eventually burning it up.
  • It can fall to the ground and lie in pieces.

Is Jesus "progressive" or "reactionary"? My answer is neither- He's God. He didn't wander around first century Palestine sounding like a Guardian editorial. Nor did He sound like a Daily Mail editorial.

Indeed to ask if He were "progressive" or "reactionary" is to ask an invalid question.

Sometimes, after there has been an election in Europe, there will be American commentators who wonder if the people were pro-American or anti-American, sounding as if Europeans walk into the polling booths thinking "I love America. Now which are the pro-American parties?" or "I hate America. Now which are the anti-American parties?"

I have done door-to-door campaigning, in Southampton City Council elections and general elections. Never has anyone even mentioned the USA at the door. It's a non-issue. To ask whether voters are pro-American or anti-American is projecting a framework which doesn't exist onto them.

Is Jesus "progressive" or "reactionary"? My first response is that Jesus judges us (Acts 10:42), not vice versa.

My second response is that such a question judges the Judge by a set of criteria that apply to the twenty-first century Western world.

My third response is that, if we decide Jesus is a "progressive", do we follow that to its logical conclusion that He is a supporter of current progressive causes, such as euthanasia, abortion on demand or same-sex marriages?

This brings me round to my earlier comment about the "trajectory" argument, as we really can't decide what the destination is. Remember when the Church of England was approaching the decision to ordain women to the presbyterate, and a common argument was the "just 4 paragraphs" one. That was all it was- can a woman say just 4 extra paragraphs- the Absolution, the prayers of consecration over the bread and the wine, and the Blessing? What a fuss over 4 paragraphs! Of course it wouldn't lead to women presbyters being consecrated to the episcopate. Was not the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 later clear on that?

The thing is that different supporters had different aims of where the final destination is. Just having women ordained to the presbyterate? Just ending with women presbyters being consecrated to the episcopate? Or further changes?

I remember being in an Anglican church when Michael Scott-Joynt, then the Bishop of Winchester, visited. And there were questions afterwards. One lady wanted to know whether, now the Church of England had accepted the Bible was wrong on slavery, and that it was wrong on women, would it now accept that the Bible was wrong on homosexuality?

Precisely. While evangelicals who supported the ordination of women to the presbyterate might simply be saying "oops, we misinterpreted the Bible for a couple of millennia. Sorry about that", for other supporters it's a more basic "the Bible is wrong".

I did A-level History, and one of the interesting topics was the last (so far) Liberal Government, from December 1905 to May 1915. Although the January/February 1906 election was a Liberal landslide- the January 1910 and December 1910 ones led to hung Parliaments where the Liberals were relying on Labour support- one factor in this was the "Lib/Lab pact", which played a part in Labour increasing its representation from 2 to 29.

We saw a political cartoon (probably in Punch) which was the Edwardian gentleman walking and being joined by a labourer. I cannot remember the exact words, but the labourer was saying something like "Can I walk with you? I'm going the same way". And, then, in a whisper "An' much further".

Did we (and I include myself, as 20 years ago I supported the ordination of women to the presbyterate) evangelicals listen to the liberals walking alongside us telling us they were going the same way, but close our ears to the whispered "An' much further"?

Did we allow ourselves to be the liberals' useful innocents?

In June 1965, the US Supreme Court gave its ruling in the Griswold v. Connecticut case. One key aspect was that there were rights not defined in the Constitution but were implied in its "penumbra".

My concern is that this is an issue where too much weight is put on the penumbrae. There in the shadows is someone- they might be a man or a woman. They might be well known among the apostles or just well known to the apostles. They could be a woman apostle. This might be the situation in the Corinthian church. This could be what was happening at Ephesus. Perhaps Priscilla peripatetically preached. Maybe the elect lady to whom II John is addressed is not a church but its pastor.

These perhaps, maybes, could bes then become are, is.

And then you come to the trump card. The verse that supersedes all other verses. I refer, of course, to Gal 3:28. Here it is, the proof that all ministry posts are open to women- from lay preacher to Pope:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Well, case closed? Not quite. For this isn't a verse about ministry. It's about salvation. All Christian people- whatever race, social class or gender- are in Christ and are children of God.

And it was written early on- probably in the fifth decade AD. Are there similar passages? Yes, there is.

Colossians was probably written around a decade later than Galatians. And Col 3:11 is remarkably similar:

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all.

Hmm, so Paul is writing something similar to his words to the Galatians, but missing out the bit about gender..

I have a problem with trump card verses. Bsck to Article XX and its wording that the Church may not "so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

What is being said here? Well, we should really accept that Scripture is a whole. We should not take a verse in Galatians, and wave it around, interpreting it in a way that is repugnant to other parts of Scripture. Beware of when a verse- any verse- is used to prove that another part of Scripture is wrong.

And one dangerous attitude is that a story is worth a thousand verses. Yes, there are these verses which restrict women's ministry in the Church, but here we have Deborah whose story must overturn any verses that restrict women's ministry.

Hmm, but the more I read it, I wonder if she were the equivalent of the Prime Minister rather than of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And I have a hunch that Paul might, just might, in all his training, have heard of her.

Yes, we will come to different conclusions sometimes based on a different set of verses. The way to deal with this is not for group A to wave its verses around and dismiss group B's verses, but for both to ask how can these verses together be interpreted. Have they taken something out of context? Have they misunderstood?

When Christians speak out on issues of sexual morality, there is one response you might get- namely, that if you take Leviticus seriously you should avoid shellfish. You don't follow the Levitical dietary laws, so why make a song-and-dance routine about sexual ethics? Ooh, you're struggling and are desperately trying to say that some bits of Leviticus are binding on us, others aren't. Stop digging, faith-head.

Now, I don't have the time to go into the threefold division of the Law- there is The Threefold Division of the Law, a publication you can get from the Christian Institute which goes into more detail. Basically, from the early days of Christianity, we have had a threefold division - civil/judicial (relating to the nation of Israel), ceremonial/religious (relating to Judsism and in particular the system of Temple sacrfices) and the moral (still binding).

And at this point, a baseball cap appears. Not the Township of Sullivan one- maybe my European Union one or Hawai'i one. For one criticism I saw of those of us who feel that the New Testament places restrictions on the role of women in ministry are being inconsistent, as we don't insist on women wearing hats.

Well, there is something wrong with this, and something right.

Deal with the wrong first. So, are you saying that because a church is not following every last item of New Testament teaching on how we conduct worship we are being wrong in following any of it? In which case, how much are you following?

And yes, they are right. We all have our blinkers on. We are all culturally bound. We have to decide whether there is an equivalent of the sexual ethics/shellfish division in the New Testament. Are parts of the teaching on how we conduct worship local issues? Are they binding on us? Guidelines? We all find things in the penumbras of Scripture which get elevated above things that are crystal clear. There is always the danger of taking a viewpoint and then becoming fishers of verses- that one agrees with me, keep it; that one, nah, don't like it, throw it back.

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