In 1992, on the 11th of November, the General Synod of the Church of England voted by a majority of more than 2 to 1 to ordain women to the priesthood in the Church of England. That vote raised considerable discussion among evangelical Anglicans. One who survived the debates to write about it all is the well-known evangelical NT scholar and theologian, R.T. France, in his exquisitely written, irenically shaped book Women in the Church’s Ministry. With your good behavior, I want to go through this book with you for the purpose of education and conversation.
I want you to know that I think the evangelical church is tightening up on this issue; it is not loosening up. I favor the loosening.
I begin today’s post with a story. In the Spring of 1982, I got a phone call at our home in Nottingham, when I was doing research for my dissertation at the University of Nottingham, from none other than F.F. Bruce. A mutual friend had told him we were in England and wondered if he would be willing to meet us; he was and called us to say so. So, Kris and I, with Laura and Lukas, drove up to Buxton to meet F.F. Bruce and his wife. It was a great day — and Lukas (age 2 at the time) greeted Professor Bruce by spilling orange squash on his rug. To which Professor Bruce said, “What can be spilled on a rug, has been spilled on this rug.” Still, Kris was mortified!
At one point I asked him about women in the ministry and Paul. He said two things, and I quote in a rough summary. First, if Paul knew we were taking his words and turning them into Torah, he’d roll over in his grave. Second, I’m (he said) for whatever causes the freedom of the Spirit. In other words, if the Spirit prompts ministry in a woman, let it roll.
R.T. France is in the school of F.F. Bruce on these matters, though I don’t think he makes either of these points. I begin today with his introductory first chapter, and it’s a good one.
There is exegesis — the careful study of the Bible; and there is hermeneutics — the bringing of the Bible into our world. The two are not the same, and great advances have been made in the latter in the last three decades. In fact, they are related to one another — more than many of us admit.
Even if evangelicals agree on the authority of Scripture, they differ wildly on all kinds of matters once they begin interpreting it or “hermeneuting” it, not all of them minor — like baptism, creation and evolution, war, church government, politics, millennial schemes, “eternal punishment,” and many other issues — like Calvinism and Arminianism. This means that we are learning that exegesis is mediated to us through interpretation and hermeneutics — it is not as simple as some think.
He then argues that we have all changed our minds on slavery — “The two issues are not of course parallel in every way (though at some points the similarity is a little too close for comfort), but for our present purposes the point is valid” (16).
France discusses how changing one’s mind occurs in the pages of the Bible, and he usefully explores how the Church came to terms with how to deal with Gentiles who converted. His point is not that there is biblical support for both views — make them get circumcised; leave them alone — but that what the Church learned was that passages we previously leaned upon have shifted, and there is more in the Bible than we realized. Exclusivist passages gave way to universalistic passages as the Church encountered the influx of Gentiles. Paul, himself, explored the universal dimension of Abraham’s covenant (Gal 3:6-9).
How, then, do we decide? We ponder the Bible through exegesis and then we discuss the Bible with others and we learn over time which texts speak with weight.
Would anyone disagree that slavery is overturned, not by looking at passages that seem to affirm it (say Philemon), but by looking at passages that provide a more central, theological core that transcends even what was permissible in the Bible? Say, Galatians 3:28. What brought Gal 3:28 to the fore was not simple exegesis, but the hard-core reality of the despicable nature of slavery and the ends to which some were taking it. There is ongoing development within the pages of the Bible; does that not keep on going in the Church? What is sometimes only in introductory form becomes more central over time.
Today let’s keep the discussion to this hermeneutical point: that, at times, we learn some practices rooted in some texts are overturned by the deeper implications of other texts.
We could deal with some examples — say Roman 13:1-7 (was it right to resist, as Bonhoeffer did, Hitler?) or the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles or even the food laws. Most of us would support changes on washing feet and hair codes for women (1 Cor 11:2-16) and clothing style of women (1 Peter 3:1-7), or even greeting one another with a holy kiss. There are others; we might explore some of these to show that we have changed.