Scriptural: Exploring Why We Think the Way We Do About Women in Ministry

The Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2000, excluded women from the office of pastor. The newly adopted Baptist Faith and Message states that while "both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

Many Southern Baptists explained their action as a move to counter liberal culture.Christianity Today quoted Mike Whitehead, interim president at Midwestern Baptist Seminary: "It is not news that God assigned roles in the home and in the church. This principle is not a cultural relic but a divine order. Most Baptists are pretty squeamish about tinkering with the words of God."1

Where does this leave the Assemblies of God? By permitting the ordination of women and permitting women to pastor, are we tinkering with the words of God? Have we capitulated to the liberal culture by credentialing 5,225 women of our 32,304 credentialed ministers (16.17 percent), and by having 387 women pastors among our 12,055 churches (3.21 percent)?

My purpose is not to denounce the Southern Baptists. I have great respect and admiration for what they have done to advance the cause of Jesus Christ. My reason for referring to them is to surface the hard question that is often asked the Assemblies of God. The Southern Baptists, along with some believers inside and outside our Movement, assert that permitting women every role in ministry available to men violates Scripture. As Pentecostals, we better have an answer to that. And, we do.

Within this issue of Enrichment is an excellent exegetical article by Craig Keener: "Was Paul For or Against Women in Ministry?" Since Craig deals with the biblical text, I will not retrace his work. However, the approach I take must include the foundational exegetical arguments advanced by Craig, and also by Stanley Horton is his superb article, "Rediscovering the Prophetic Role of Women," as well as Doug Clark’s article, "Jesus and Women."

Peter and Cornelius

Acts 10 starts us on a hermeneutical approach to resolving difficult issues. Men are on their way from Cornelius to Peter in Joppa with an invitation for him to come to Caesarea. Peter has no clue they are approaching. At the noon hour, on the rooftop of Simon the tanner’s house, Peter falls into a trance while waiting for lunch. He has a vision of a sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of nonkosher animals. He’s told to kill and eat. To use a modern idiom, Peter replies, "No, Lord, I cannot do that. I’ve never eaten a cheeseburger in my whole life." (Cheeseburger is not in the text, but a cheeseburger is nonkosher. If the vision occurred in 2001, cheeseburgers would have been on the sheet. To this day, an orthodox Jew will not eat a cheeseburger because the Levitical law is interpreted to ban the eating of dairy products and meat at the same time.)

Notice carefully what Peter said, "Surely not, Lord!…I have never (emphasis mine) eaten anything impure or unclean [i.e., nonkosher]" (Acts 10:14).*

This is an astonishing admission. Was Peter absent the day Jesus taught on clean and unclean foods? Several years before Peter’s rooftop experience, Jesus asked: "Are you so dull?…Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." Then comes Mark’s tag: "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’ " (Mark 7:18,19).

Do you see the issue? For years Peter had the clear, straight-line teaching of Jesus on the subject of kosher and nonkosher foods; but it took Peter’s experience of the vision to actualize the teaching as applied to his own life. Without the experience at Simon the tanner’s, Peter would have probably lived the rest of his life and never eaten any nonkosher item, even though the Lord had expressly given permission to do so.

Look next at Peter’s explanation to the Jerusalem church on the coming of salvation and the Spirit to Cornelius’ house. Peter is up against a traditional interpretation of the Old Testament text as he explained to Cornelius, "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him" (Acts 10:28). Why then did he come? "But God has shown me…."

Once the Holy Spirit is poured out on Cornelius, Peter has some explaining to do to the Jerusalem church. He defends himself two ways: (1) the experience itself (Acts 11:4—15), and (2) a biblical text, "Then I remembered what the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’ " (verse 16). On the basis of the conjuncture of experience and Scripture, Peter rests his case and the Church makes the proper conclusion (verses 17,18).

Had the Lord left it to the Early Church to engage in theological debate concerning whether or not the Old Testament text permitted an observant Jew to visit a Gentile’s house–or the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of God without circumcision or maintenance of the ritual law–the issue would have been argued until the cows came home. The Holy Spirit simply chose to take initiative and decide the matter by fiat, and then leave it to the Church to attest His work by reference to the written Word.

This provides for us a clue concerning how to adjudicate an issue such as women in the ministry. Is it possible that, in addition to looking at the biblical text, we should survey what the Holy Spirit is doing within the experience of His people?

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting we forsake the objective grounds of Scripture for the murky dangers of ascertaining truth by subjective experience. We must never forget the prescient statement of former

General Superintendent Thomas F. Zimmerman: "A river is designed to flow within banks. For Pentecostals, experience is the river, but that river must stay within the God-ordained banks of Scripture."

However, a key perspective has often been lost when Bible believers divide on a doctrinal issue: What does the Bible itself teach us concerning the method by which the Early Church resolved doctrinal differences? It is that method I am looking for; this shapes my hermeneutical approach to the text.

The Jerusalem Council

I have presented an opening example from the biblical text itself. Had it been left to the Jerusalem church to debate from the Old Testament on whether Peter should be given permission to go to Cornelius’ house, and whether these Gentiles should be received into the community of faith and baptized without being circumcised, I don’t think there would be too many who would deny that the Jerusalem church would have banned the visit. The Holy Spirit, though, acted unilaterally in taking the initiative, in keeping with the Lord’s promise that when the Spirit came, He would lead into all truth (John 16:13).

Is the example of Peter and Cornelius an aberration, or is the same principle repeated again? The answer to the last part of the question is a clear and resounding yes.

Look at the Jerusalem Council, recorded in Acts 15. They were no longer dealing, as with Cornelius, over the inclusion of one Gentile family into the Church. The Early Church was dealing with the inclusion of entire Gentile communities resulting from Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. A good segment of the Jerusalem church is upset. Why? Because they feel the text of the Old Testament is violated. The group for Gentile inclusion feels otherwise.

How do you resolve an issue when both groups have a very high view of Scripture? Does the Assemblies of God have any less high a view of Scripture than the Southern Baptists? No. Our Statement of Fundamental Truths begins by affirming, "The Bible is our all-sufficient rule for faith and practice." The first article relates to the Scriptures inspired: "The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct (2 Timothy 3:15—17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:21)."

The Jerusalem Council provides a paradigm for resolving a textual dispute among believers over doctrine. First, there is a full-scale discussion of the issue. The Judaizers led with their thesis, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). In the "much discussion" that followed (verse 7), the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees probably quoted volumes from the Old Testament text supporting their position.

While teaching a college-level course on Acts, I once set aside a class session for the students to role-play the Jerusalem Council. Some students were assigned to play the role of the Judaizers; others, the pro-Gentile party. A student assumed the role of the moderator, James. Two other students played the roles of Barnabas and Paul. A very lively discussion followed. I noticed one thing through the reenactment–something I should have known earlier, but hadn’t really paid attention to it. The weight of the biblical text was on the side of the Judaizers. The role-playing Judaizer students quoted Scripture by the yard in advancing their view of "be saved and be circumcised," or "no circumcision, no salvation."

In fact, if you stack up all the texts supporting circumcision on one side of the scale, and the texts affirming inclusion of Gentiles without circumcision on the other side, the Judaizers clearly had the scales tipped in their favor.

However, since the Scriptures cannot be broken (set against each other), it became the task of the Jerusalem church–and it is ours today as well on other matters–to harmoniously resolve texts that appear to be contrarily engaging each other.

The "much discussion" of Acts 15:7 dealt first with the question, What does the text of Scripture say? The Judaizers answered one way; Paul and Barnabas the other. How do you affirm truth when believers are throwing texts at each other?

Here is where the Jerusalem Council has a most important lesson for us–and it’s the same lesson discussed above regarding Peter’s going to Cornelius. We must listen to the experience of seasoned leadership who give testimony to being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Following the textual debate, Peter stood and recounted his testimony of years earlier with Cornelius at Caesarea. His clinching line is, "God, who knows the heart showed (italics mine) that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us" (verse 8). Peter quoted no Scripture; he simply restated his experience.

Then Paul and Barnabas stepped to the microphone. They too spoke of their experience. "The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them" (verse 12).

The Judaizers have no testimony to share. Their arguments are based solely on proof texts, and they totally ignore what the Spirit has done.

James, presiding at the Council, drew a conclusion supported by those assembled. He affirmed the testimony of Gentile inclusion and attested it by reference to key texts from Amos 9:11,12 and Isaiah 45:21, pointing to the ingathering of the nations and God’s eternal plan for such (Acts 15:16—18).

The essential matter decided, four conditions are laid down for Gentiles to follow (Acts 15:19—21) as essential either for moral purity (abstain from sexual immorality) or table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles (food offered to idols, strangled meat, and blood).

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