On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

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What the Archbishop of Westminster really said…

The top news story on several UK sites on Christmas morning ran as follows: the Archbishop of Westminster, knowing that his midnight Christmas mass homily would be widely reported,  had used the opportunity given to him to attack the government’s plans to introduce same-sex marriage. Christian comment on (those bits that I see of) FB and Twitter was highly critical, suggesting that – even if he happened to be right about equal marriage, which most people who took the trouble to comment seemed to think he wasn’t – to make this the central message of Christmas was totally inappropriate. All this was rather predictable; also rather predictable was the fact that the media reports were at least highly misleading, if not actually inaccurate, and that the Archbishop was not guilty of any of the things he was charged with by social media commentators. The full text of Vincent Nichols’s homily is available here; his central point is that the fact of incarnation brings earth and heaven together, a fact which means the apparently-mundane activities of daily life are charged with eternal significance. He offered three examples: our daily work is a sharing in divine creativity; love expressed in human life is an expression of the love of God; and – combining these two points – the particular love expressed in marriage is a uniquely creative act, bringing into being a new human soul. He went on to suggest that each of these points is capable of distortion by sin: work can become exploitative, and a ‘corrosive disrespect can fashion the culture of a business and put it in need of refashioning’; charity can be motivated by self-interest, not genuine love; and marriage can be distorted: the Archbishop said: Sometimes sexual expression can be without the public bond of the faithfulness of marriage and its ordering to new life. Even governments mistakenly promote such patterns of sexual intimacy as objectively to be approved and even encouraged among the young. (This was, to be clear, the complete content of his statement on marriage; there was nothing else.) Now, it is fair to say that underlying this is an assumption that marriage is ordered to procreation, and so that same-sex relationships can never be ‘marriages’, but it is not news that a Roman Catholic prelate believes this, and it is left as an underlying assumption, not a point argued for or highlighted. The direct criticism here concerns sexual activity outside of marriage, and governments are criticised for approving of and promoting that. If one wanted to link the Archbishop’s comments to a current news story, the criticism of corporate culture, particularly in the context of corporate tax avoidance and the LIBOR fixing scandal, would surely have been the obvious place to go; equal marriage just was not on his agenda. So, whence the stories of attacks and quotes about the plans being ‘shambolic’? The Archbishop gave an interview to the BBC – presumably on Christmas Eve, although this was not made explicit in any of the reports. In the interview, he was asked about the government’s plans for same-sex marriage and responded; he said, as far as I can determine, nothing that has not been said repeatedly previously by Roman Catholic – and Anglican, and Evangelical, and Muslim – leaders; the press stories that appeared on Christmas Day conflated comments made in this interview with his homily to give the impression that the theme of the homily had been criticism of government plans concerning equal marriage. The BBC story, here, leads with the interview comments, but the story focuses sufficiently on Christmas sermons to give the impression that this was the context for the comments. At one point there is a quotation in a headline ‘”Shambolic” Process’ which is immediately followed by the line, ‘Speaking in his sermon at Westminster Cathedral…’; the word ‘shambolic’ came in the interview, but this arrangement of words appears almost designed to confuse and conflate the two comments. The Guardian similarly located the interview comments within a story that discussed the content of Christmas sermons, and so invited, perhaps encouraged, readers to confuse the two. Does this matter? Yes; it was clear from my FB/Twitter feeds that people I know to be intelligent and thoughtful were misled by such reporting, which surely makes it bad reporting. A festival sermon and a press interview are very different contexts, and to imply that something said in one was in fact said in another is to mislead readers badly. It would be possible to imagine intent in all this: the press were trying to paint the Archbishop in the worst possible light; I am sure...

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On not having preached about sexual violence

I’ve been involved in an online Bible study organised by the excellent Sophia Network, and we have been looking this week at narratives of sexual violence in the Old Testament, particularly (or I was particularly struck by) Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13) and Shechem raping Dinah (Gen. 34). Various points were made in the discussion, but one which struck me was a contributor saying ‘I’ve never heard a sermon about sexual violence’. It struck me that in twenty something years of preaching, I’ve never preached a sermon about sexual violence. I am fairly confident that I have not avoided the subject deliberately: I cannot recall either planning a series and thinking ‘Let’s skip that text’, or facing a text with a narrative of rape or abuse and thinking ‘I don’t think I’ll mention that issue’. That said, I’ve generally preached series as part of a team and when others have planned a series on the life of David, or on Judges, and have chosen to omit the stories of male violence against women, I have not challenged the omission either. In view of this week’s discussion, I feel that this has been a very serious gap in my ministry. Of course, this is an issue we would like to ignore. It is ugly, and painful, and messy – and even with my level of pastoral awareness, it is an obviously difficult topic to deal with adequately from the pulpit. I think, however, it needs to be raised. Why? First, the statistics are, as is (or should be) well-known, appalling: Credible statistics (from the UN) suggest that, worldwide, one in three women will suffer some form of sexual violence in her life; in the UK, the figure is only slightly lower at one in four (source). UK police received one report of domestic/sexual violence every minute in 2000, but data from 2002-4 suggests that between two-thirds and three-quarters of incidents of domestic/sexual violence in the UK are never reported. Sexual violence is a massive issue in the world and in our local culture; it would be simply foolish to assume it is not an issue in our church congregations. Second, we face a major attitude problem that needs addressing. A 1998 survey suggested that, amongst young people in the UK, 10% of women and 20% of men believed abuse or violence within a relationship is acceptable (source). This, we should note, was when they were asked the question directly; the number of men in particular who justify abusive actions by suggesting it was only in fun, or that they didn’t really mean it, or that it was just the drink, or whatever, is no doubt far higher. Such attitudes can never be changed unless we challenge them directly and explicitly; surely the pulpit is precisely the place for such necessary and timely moral instruction? Third, there are issues of silence and shame that need naming directly. Women who experience sexual violence often – routinely, perhaps – feel shamed by, or even guilty about, their experience (the same is true of male victims of homosexual rape male on male sexual violence, of course [see below for reasons for edit, and apology]). An unwillingness or inability to report the crime leads to a situation where it can be repeated. Only open conversation in places that carry significant cultural weight can hope to lessen this stigma – this doesn’t just mean the pulpit, but it at least means the pulpit. Fourth, we need to acknowledge that there is a specifically ecclesial dimension to this problem. Scripture, and Christian theology, have been, and are being, used to justify sexual violence against women. I do not believe the Bible to be inherently misogynistic, or justifying of sexual violence – but I know it can be used like that. A primary role of the preaching ministry is modelling good use of Scripture in public; specifically naming and denying (ab)uses of Scripture that justify, or lessen the offence of, sexual violence is a necessary part of the contemporary preaching ministry, therefore. In telling the stories of Tamar and Dinah, and of several others, the Bible refuses to ignore the reality of male sexual violence against women; no preacher who pretends to be taking the Bible seriously can ignore that reality – and no preacher concerned to speak seriously into our contemporary culture can ignore it either. This is not a topic for every sermon, of course, but I can’t help feeling that not having addressed it once in twenty years of preaching ministry has been a significant failure on my part. [Restored do great work on this issue; they offer links here...

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Why Baptists can’t (currently) be ‘complementarians’

I gestured at this argument in an introductory book on Baptist theology I have coming out soon; reading the proofs, it occurred to me that a more substantial discussion would not be out of place. Probably, I ought to write a journal article – ‘had we but world enough and time…’ One of the themes of the book is the extensiveness of ecclesiology; I argue (contra various people) that Baptists are distinguished only by their ecclesiology, but then argue (contra various other people) that ecclesiology is actually quite far-reaching, and so our distinctiveness here makes (or should make) us a quite distinct body of believers. I illustrate this in various ways, with various arguments, as the discussion proceeds; one has to do with the question of gendered accounts of various church ministries. Historically Baptists have some ‘form’ on this issue; we were already being castigated in print for allowing women to preach in 1646 (Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena, unsurprisingly). Of course, that practice has not remained universal in the history since, but, considering the period before the founding of the Salvation Army, only the Society of Friends can realistically claim to have be more open to the ministry of women than Baptists were. BUGB was amongst the first denominations to open the ordained ministry to women in the C20th, and has now committed to ‘radical equality’. If some of the churches have lagged in recent times, the denomination has led. My reflection, however, was very contemporary. No student of evangelical theology can fail to have noticed that the justifications for denying the ministry to women have changed in recent decades. Very crudely, a ‘proof-texting’ approach, resting on appeals to a couple of (apparently-decisive) verses, has been replaced by a developed theology of gender, in which male ‘headship’ is intended by God in creation, and so shapes proper gender roles in family and church (& possibly wider society). I am happy to acknowledge the power of this presentation, even whilst disagreeing with it. In its best forms (I have never seen in well-expressed in a published piece – it may be there, but I’ve missed it – but in conversation, I have heard remarkably impressive presentations) it feels to me a bit like the best versions of dispensationalism: it is an overarching narrative which appears to make sense of many otherwise-troublesome Scriptures, and which can be rejected only by the articulation of an equally convincing counter-narrative. As such, I respect those who profess commitment to it, whilst disagreeing with them. Unless, that is, they are Baptists. If this ‘headship’ account of how to interpret Scripture is correct, then Baptist ecclesiology is wrong. And vice-versa. On this definition of what it is to be a ‘complementarian’, Baptists cannot be ‘complementarian’. The ‘headship’ account of ‘complementarianism’ turns endlessly on a narrative of ‘authority’. Men are created to exercise authority; women to sit under authority. In the family, the man (all men?) are to take a lead, the woman (all women?) are to follow. In the church, a woman should not exercise authority over a man; in the world, even, in some worked-through accounts, a woman should not be in a position where she is required to tell men what to do (John Piper speculates openly as to whether women may properly drive buses on this basis). Now this can be made sense of in an episcopalian or presbyterian polity. In either case, the church is composed of those who exercise authority (clergy/elders) and those who submit to it (the rest). If only men are permitted to exercise authority, then only men should be clergy, or elders. I have Anglican and Presbyterian friends committed to a male-only ministry and, whilst I disagree with them, I accept completely that their stance is defensible and coherent given the current terms of the debate, and their churchmanship. I cannot say the same of Baptist friends, however. In a congregationalist polity, which is at the core of Baptist identity, authority, which is of course held by Christ alone, is mediated through the church meeting. All members, female and male, have an equal role in discerning Christ’s call on the gathered church; all members, female and male, have an over-riding (and so equal) responsibility to watch over each other, and to bring rebuke and challenge when they see a sister or brother fall into sin. In a Baptist church authority is necessarily exercised by all the members, over all other members, indifferently. Unless membership is denied to women, which has – in my view shamefully – happened in Baptist history sometimes, women and men, and all other believers, regardless of status, are called to an...

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How much Scripture to preach on?

It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me, virtually or in real life, that one of the (fairly few) things that annoy me about the contemporary, ‘soft-charismatic’ style of worship that represents the British Baptist mainstream these days is the relative lack of Scripture heard in the services. I’ve written elsewhere about my desire to return to, at least, ‘Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel’ patterns of lectionary reading as opposed to just reading the passage preached on. (We’re just back from holiday in the Lake District, which allowed us to return to the delightful little fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church. Three passages of Scripture, read and allowed to mutually interpret, during the sermon; another read and used to shape the worship. Many fellowships could learn from that…) I observe further a strange phenomenon, that in contemporary church life in Britain, the more a particular church/preacher trumpets their high view of Scripture, the less actual Scripture we hear read in their services. The reason for this is rather simple: there is an recent British tradition of ‘expository’ (meaning of scare quotes will become obvious) preaching, traceable back to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, although not much further, and presently reinforced by currently-popular neo-Reformed  writings, that measures commitment to Scripture by, roughly, how slowly you preach through it. The practice of spending several years preaching through Romans or Philippians verse by verse-fragment demonstrates, it is held, a high view of Scripture because it is being taken seriously, mined slowly for all of its meaning. I confess to being profoundly unimpressed by this argument, I take it as a theologically-necessary claim that it is impossible to mine the Scripture for all of its meaning; we might get, by such slowness, everything a particular preacher has been able to discover from Scripture, but that is a rather different, and much less interesting, body of insight. And it seems like bad, or at least lazy, preaching. The preacher’s task is to determine and proclaim God’s word for this people, in this place, at this time; to do this, she must necessarily be selective. Her text might well, for instance, be significant in offering a refutation of Melchior Hoffmann’s Christological errors, and at points in history (even British Baptist history), that might have been vital. It is not now. It should be left out, so that what is vital is not obscured in the noise. Further, it has always seemed to me that (roughly) the less Scripture preached on, the more there is a danger of the sermon becoming thematic, rather than expository. I once had the misfortune to worship in a church where the preacher had been working desperately slowly through Colossians; the Sunday I was present (I never returned…) he had reached the injunction ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children’ in 3:21, and was giving four Sundays to this verse, to examine ways in which we might ‘exasperate’ our children. (He had twenty. All beginning with the same letter.) None of this, of course, was exegesis of Colossians; the text had become the occasion for a thematic discourse on child-rearing. Earlier sermons in the series would, of necessity, have been thematic discourses on Christology, or sanctification. Such thematic sermons might be Biblical, instructive, or edifying (although the one I heard failed fairly badly on each of these criteria); they are not the mark of a commitment to the disciplined interpretation of Scripture as the foundation of the church. The church in question would have described itself as thoroughly committed to Scripture and to expository preaching, but their practice meant that there was no exposition of Scripture at all in their pulpit. I take it (whilst being aware of arguments, ancient and postmodern, to the contrary) that the task of exegesis is, roughly, the determining of the meaning inherent in a chunk of text. (And the task of exposition is the restatement, illustration, defence, and application of this meaning.) Meaning inheres in texts at almost every level, from the whole down. At one extreme, we can ask ‘what does Paradise Lost mean?’ and give a reasoned and defensible answer. Indeed, such work of precis, summary, or abstract is a standard task, set by instructors to teach students the reading and writing of English (and, I presume, other languages), and routinely engaged in by journalists, academics, and other professional writers (‘In his speech he argued…’ ‘This book claims …’ or consider the endlessly popular form of the book review). At the other extreme, how small a text-fragment may still contain meaning? The obvious answer is the sentence; after all, the grammatical function of the sentence is, roughly, to...

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