A Reply to Renew’s Response to My Response

I am pleased to receive an answer to my response to Renew’s review (first installment) of my book Women Serving God. I appreciate the tone and care in this piece. I reproduce, with Renew’s permission, their response below in toto from their Facebook page. My response follows their text below.

Renew wrote:

Reflections on Part 1 of On Gender and the Bible
(a Response to John Mark Hicks)
By 
Renew.org

Many thanks to John Mark Hicks for engaging us in dialogue about his recent book Women Serving God. We are grateful for the gracious tone he responded with and we appreciate him as a brother in Christ. We agree with John Mark on a great many important things, including the importance of arriving at biblical views of gender and church ministry.

In addition, there is a great deal in his book which is admirable. Very importantly, he champions servant leadership, encourages leaders not to stifle giftedness, and calls us back from traditionalism to the standard we should all affirm: the Word of God. Hicks writes, “Sadly, control and power are more often at play among the people of God than self-giving service” (146). This is a sad, true observation, and one which has often gone under the radar even as Christians have busily tried to cultivate correctness regarding these issues.

It will become clear in upcoming articles that we at Renew.org arrive at different conclusions from Hicks when it comes to the meaning of some biblical texts relevant to this topic. Our first article, however, dealt with how we interpret the Bible as distinguished from Hicks’s methodology. We are writing this to engage with some of Hicks’s responses to our first article.

A Possible Overstatement

It is true, as Hicks notes, that he never uses the word egalitarian to describe his position. Likewise, the point of Women Serving God is not to give a sustained argument about leadership structure in the church or in the home. Rather, the point of Women Serving God is more modest: he argues for full participation of men and women in their areas of giftedness when the church assembly is gathered. For this reason, we might have been overreaching to call Hicks’s position “egalitarianism.” He has the right to label his own position, and we don’t want to attach a label which isn’t the best fit.

Elsewhere, Hicks has defined egalitarianism as “the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position denies male headship as a theological value and opens all functions in the church/assembly to the church/assembly to women. There are evangelical (those who believe in biblical authority) and non-evangelical versions of egalitarianism.”[1] From this definition, we see that Women Serving God is arguing for at least some of the egalitarian perspective as he has defined it, although he hasn’t yet dealt specifically with leadership offices per se (i.e., “functions within the leadership”).

To be fair, however, Hicks gives arguments in his book which match the egalitarian position as we have seen it articulated by others. Whenever male authority is mentioned in his argument, it is implied to be something which is merely situational, with no binding implications. This is true of the maleness of the first human (121), the maleness of the Old Testament priests (138), the maleness of Jesus (143), and the maleness of the 12 apostles (148).

Whether or not the label fits, Hicks has certainly set up premises for an egalitarian conclusion. He is right that leadership is a gift the Holy Spirit gives to men and women (Romans 12:8). However, add in the idea that male leadership in the Bible is merely situational, and it takes no imagination at all to land on a church structure with female elders and senior ministers. The argument for egalitarianism has practically already been made. Yet the label “egalitarianism” can bring in unwanted or unintended connotations which we didn’t mean to import by calling his position egalitarian.

Q: A subjective hermeneutic?

It is indeed all too easy to use the label “subjective” for other people’s interpretations which you don’t like. Hicks is absolutely correct that the “blueprint” when it comes to gender roles “is not as clear as we have sometimes assumed” (26). To look at someone’s honest hermeneutical attempts and immediately cry, “Subjective!” would be ungracious and unfair.

When we use the word subjective, it isn’t because Hicks is trying to use cultural discernment in reading the text (as he points out, aren’t we all?). Rather, when it comes to Hicks’s hermeneutics regarding gender issues, it’s a selectivity which suggests subjectivity. He seems to be selective in what he emphasizes. Hicks articulates his case in a way that makes it appear the Bible is overwhelmingly stacked against the norm of male authority, except for one verse: 1 Timothy 2:12. Numerous times (116, 152, 153, 157, 160), he sets the rest of the Bible against this single verse when it comes to male authority in the assembly. Indeed, it was his one remaining “firewall” to embracing the full participation view.

To be fair, his book does present a defense of a particular position, and he is marshalling the best evidence for the full participation view. As a defense of a position (and since this isn’t a systematic theology of the entire Bible), there is going to be selectivity involved when it comes to which passages receive emphasis. When does selectivity therefore become problematic?

Being selective when it comes to Scripture becomes problematic when it brings about an overemphasis which overshadows other important truth. Hicks’s sincerity and diligence cannot be called into question. Still, in the interest of showing each and every actual and possible instance when women held positions of leadership in the Bible, there does seem to be an unfortunate overshadowing of a norm of godly male leadership which God set forth in both Old and New Testaments.

For example, the Persian Queen Esther gets her own subsection as a political and religious leader over God’s people, yet the book contains no mention of God’s pattern of placing kings over Israel (with the only queen in Israel being the usurper Athaliah). Shouldn’t either fact be just as frankly acknowledged? Another example: In describing Eve, Hicks uses language such as “powerful helper or rescuer,” “full and empowered partner,” and “the one whose creation fully equips humanity” (121-22). Meanwhile, Hicks implies that Adam holds “no hint of any rank or authority” before the Fall (123). That language feels a bit imbalanced, and the presentation a bit selective.

Q: The full story?

One of the definitive features of Hicks’s hermeneutic is to read each text through the lens of the eschatological goal (i.e., the new creation). When reading and applying Scripture, it is indeed imperative to know where we are in the storyline of Scripture. Likewise, we shouldn’t attempt to fossilize ourselves in First Century cultural norms; we should be diligent about effectively and faithfully contextualizing the kingdom of God in whatever culture we find ourselves in.

Still, we wonder if Hicks’s way of framing the Bible’s big-picture story of the Bible is complete enough. Is it the case that the complementarian view bloats a few texts (most notably, 1 Timothy 2:12) out of all proportion so that the larger trajectory of Scripture is muted and truncated? On the contrary, we suggest that it is soft complementarians who are best positioned to apply the whole of Scripture. While we gladly acknowledge the glorious giftedness that the Spirit pours out on woman and man alike (i.e., numerous passages of Scripture), we also recognize godly male leadership as a norm that God employs in both Old and New Testaments (i.e., numerous passages of Scripture).

It seems that Hicks minimizes the latter of these two Scriptural realities. Is the maleness of Old Testament priests significant, given that many ancient pagan civilizations had priests and priestesses? Probably not, Hicks concludes; he suggests that the maleness of the Old Testament priests was probably no more theologically significant than having something to do with women’s menstruation periods: “The sanctity of blood probably excluded women from the priesthood due to their menstrual cycle” (138). We are told that the maleness of the apostles is no more instructive of how Jesus wants the church to be led than their ethnicity as Galilean Jews (148). However, why was it that the apostles chose ethnically diverse men to lead in the Acts 6 distribution of food? And when the church branched out into Gentile territory, why was it that Paul continued to plant churches with male elders? There appears to be a norm of godly male leadership over the church, something which traces back to the church’s Founder. When you deemphasize this norm of godly male leadership which spans both testaments, you end up deemphasizing seemingly relevant parts of Scripture’s storyline. Even when it comes to the first stage in the storyline—Gen. 1-2—Hicks claims there is “no hint of any rank or authority” for Adam, yet Gen. 1-2 is precisely where Paul goes when establishing gender distinctions in church and marriage (1 Corinthians 11:8; 1 Timothy 2:13-14; Ephesians 5:31).

This metaphor is an oversimplification; so please don’t take this as a summary statement of Hicks’s position. But it’s almost as if the big-picture story of the Bible is being portrayed as a train which could move forward unimpeded, if it weren’t for a single log in the way. The train symbolizes full participation in the assembly with no gender distinctions in leadership, and the log is 1 Timothy 2:12. The log, we are told, can be removed if rightly interpreted. Could it be that, in keeping with the train metaphor, a more accurate portrayal would be that a healthy church moves forward when everybody’s giftedness is recognized and encouraged, and that the norm of godly male leadership—properly understood and humbly exercised—is not logs to be removed but rather railroad ties upon which a gifted church can move full speed ahead?

Ours is not a statement endorsing male leadership per se. We’ve all experienced how power-hungry males in leadership can completely wreck whatever they touch—including churches. Instead, ours is an endorsement of humbly following God’s way of doing church. We share this goal with our brother John Mark, but we suggest that there is a fuller way of incorporating all the relevant Scripture regarding this important topic than the model we read in Women Serving God.[2]

Two Final Observations

Hicks takes issue with our statement that he “interprets away the key texts.” As he puts it, “It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument.” Hicks is right that we made that assertion without making the argument. That argument will come in future articles, in which we will do a deep dive into these key texts. For now, please note that it’s a point well taken, and we should have waited to make such a claim until we presented the argument on which it is based. We anticipate waiting until after we have published the rest of the series before we respond to any of Hicks’s future responses to our articles.

Finally, we want to close with a very helpful statement from Hicks’s book, followed by a single reflection. Here’s his statement: “It is time to honor all the gifts God has given to women and for male leaders to recognize those gifts, share God’s mission with the other half of the church, and hear the gospel through the faithful voices of our sisters” (207). Yes, there are areas of disagreement we have with Hicks’s argument, but let us punctuate this summary statement of our brother with an “Amen.” This statement is precisely what we want to see in our churches.

[1] See John Mark Hicks, “Hermeneutics and Gender,” http://johnmarkhicks.com/…/2…/06/hermeneutics-and-gender.doc.
[2] For more on this fuller way of incorporating all the data, please read “Q: Is there a better way than seeing WDWD passages and WKSP passages as exceptions to each other?” at 
https://renew.org/on-gender-and-the-bible-what-john-mark-h…/.

My Response

To be sure, there is overlap in my position and egalitarianism, specifically the full participation of women in the assembly. At the same time, egalitarianism typically involves a much broader vision than I articulate or defend in this book. The term “egalitarianism” has connotations and associations that would have distracted from what I was doing in this book, and some of those associations are not commitments I share. My book focuses on a specific question. I appreciate Renew’s recognition that I wanted to keep this focus and not import extraneous meanings often associated with the term egalitarianism into their review of my book.

I’m not clear as to how my selectivity (which we all do in marshalling an argument or proffering an interpretation of Scripture, as Renew notes) is subjective when I address the perceived male patterns that supposedly ground male authority over women in the assembly.  They seem to think I ignored that. More on that in moment.

The only two instances of my supposed subjective selectivity noted are: (1) I call attention to Esther, but I don’t mention the Kings of Israel, and (2) I imply that Adam did not hold any rank or authority before the Fall.  I’m not sure how these are examples of selectivity, especially #2. I don’t think Genesis 2 teaches that the man held any authority or rank over the women before the Fall unless one adopts a misreading of Paul’s understanding of Genesis 2. The book addresses this in relation to both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.

As to (1), I don’t see how this is subjective selectivity when the point of the section in which I talk about Esther is discussing the activities of women in the story of Israel. As a godly ruler, she exercised religious and political authority among God’s people. (Athaliah ruled in ungodly ways, just as many men did.) Male kings also exercised authority as well, which is uncontested and well-known by students of Scripture. Both did. And that is the point. Both did.

I do address each of the points raised to support the “norm of godly male leadership”—male priests, Jesus as male, male apostles, and male elders. The reader can see how I address those topics in the book. More on that in a moment. At the same time, it is important to remember that Scripture also pictures women who exercise authority and leadership over men like Deborah and Esther (consistent with the theology of creation since God does not sanction what violates the divine intent in creation, right?). It is not a uniform “norm of godly male leadership.”

I am grateful to see the affirmation of reading Scripture through the lens of the eschatological goal (new creation). Is it true, however, that I bloat the significance of 1 Timothy 2:12 for soft complementarianism?  Is this not the primary text, if not the only one, in the New Testament that is used by soft complementarians to delimit women from preaching or speaking authoritatively in the assembly (however authentein, “exercising authority” or “usurping authority,” is understood)? What other text does a soft complementarian (limited participation) use since 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 are typically understood to permit rather than prohibit the participation of women in the assembly, even encouraging praying and prophesying in the assembly (unless 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 prohibits “judging” as an authoritative function)? I am open, however, to hearing how the Corinthian texts might supply a principle or prohibition that grounds the “norm of godly male leadership.” I will await that discussion.

The part of the story Renew thinks I too easily dismiss is the thread of male leadership from priests in Israel to Jesus as male to male apostles to male elders. Thus, my understanding of the story, Renew claims, is incomplete. There is an assumption that this trajectory entails a pattern or norm of male leadership and authority over women. In the Lord, however, women are priests. Jesus represents all humans, and the goal is to conform all humans to the image of Christ. Nowhere does Scripture ever limit the gifts or authority of women because of the male gender of Jesus. The Twelve was limited to Jewish males, but this places no limit on the gift of apostleship Post-Pentecost (others than the Twelve are called apostles without being included in the Twelve, including a woman, Romans 16:7). Even if I grant only male elders for the moment (which I do not explicitly contest in the book), does this limit the gifts of women in the assembly? Is there a role in the assembly that belongs only to male elders? What text would provide that limitation other than 1 Timothy 2:12? So, we are back to 1 Timothy 2 as the lone text for delimiting the participation of women in the assembly.

Permit me to drill a bit deeper for a moment. Renew asks, “why was it that the apostles chose ethnically diverse men to lead in the Acts 6 distribution of food?” We are not told why. If we understand this as part of a pattern or “norm” of male leadership, would we not have to say a woman should never have that kind of function in the ministry of benevolence within the church? If we are going to use the exclusive male selection in Acts 6 as an example of a pattern or norm of male leadership and authority, then we must be careful to make sure that part of the pattern is carried out in the contemporary church? If that is a blueprint pattern, then may women ever serve as deacons? May they lead benevolent ministries? In what ways may they “serve tables” or are they excluded from serving the sorts of tables Acts 6 envisions? The illustration of Acts 6 and male leadership, it seems to me, highlights the danger of seeking male patterns where there are none explicitly identified or explained as such. This is the danger of inferences. This argument would exclude women from “serving tables” and ministries for which they are gifted and for which we have examples in Scripture, even as deacons (Phoebe, for example). It seems to me this illustrates how one might mistakenly discern a male “norm” and extrapolate from it more than intended by the story of God or the narrator (Luke).

It is nowhere stated that male priests are chosen because of some pattern or “norm” of male leadership rooted in creation. It is an inference that fits a particular way of reading. This inference, even if correct, is tempered by the fact that, in the Lord, women are priests who offer sacrifices of praise and serve as well as men. There are many examples of this kind of movement in Scripture. Why are not eunuchs chosen as priests in Israel? They are, nevertheless, priests in the Lord. Just as with eunuchs, there may be reasons for the exclusion of women from the priesthood that have nothing to do with the “norm” of male leadership.

Contesting my claim that there is “no hint of any rank or authority” for the man over the woman in Genesis 1-2, it is suggested that Paul sees it there. I don’t think he affirms that. In my opinion, that is a misreading of Paul. But we will get there when we discuss 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14 in later posts.

I appreciate Renew’s concern to combat male abuse and power-seeking male leadership. I fully believe Renew wants to embrace God’s design for humanity. Where we disagree, after we fully incorporate “all the relevant Scripture,” is whether God intends women to fully participate in the assemblies of the saints or not. I think “all the relevant Scripture” answers “Yes”.  Renew thinks otherwise.  We will let the readers judge as they walk with us through the various texts in future posts.

Renew, thank you for the response.  It is much appreciated, and I look forward to further discussion through the blog posts.