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A Fresh Light on Women's Ministry

A Fresh Light on Women's Ministry

Andrew Bartlett introduces his forthcoming book Men and Women in Christ, asking the big questions and offering a fresh approach to a controversial topic.


At my church a Jewish Christian, who had recently joined, asked me if I knew of anything short that she could read on the topic of women’s roles in the church. I sent her some short downloads from each side of the complementarian-egalitarian divide. After she read them, her response was: ‘But they’re so partisan – isn’t there something more objective?’

Since my day job as an international arbitrator involves listening impartially to both sides and then carefully deciding, I thought perhaps I should try to apply this approach to adjudicating the complementarian-egalitarian debate. I wondered if I could make a non-partisan contribution, in the hope of fostering greater unity.

Not being in any leadership position in a church, I was under no pressure to defend any pre-determined position. I would be content to reach whatever conclusions the texts and reasons led to.

The egalitarian story goes something like this:

“God created men and women to be truly equal. But, ever since humanity first fell into sin, women have been oppressed by men. Patriarchal culture unjustly kept women under male control, both in the family and in wider society, treating them as less than fully human. Jesus came to redeem this world from sin and its effects. He intended his followers to be led by the Spirit, living in full obedience to God’s design. Among other things, this should have meant that women were liberated from male domination and were respected as equals, both in the home and outside. But, after a short-lived good start, the church accommodated itself to patriarchal culture, just as it did to the evils of slavery. Many centuries passed before the church woke up to the need to take a stand against slavery. It was even longer before the church woke up to the oppression of women. It is only recently that churches have begun to treat women as the equals of men. There is more work yet to be done. Complementarianism must be opposed. It is a misguided attempt to cling on to misinterpretations of the Bible which arose from the sinfulness of patriarchal culture.”

Complementarians tell a different story:

“God created men and women to be truly equal. It is right to acknowledge men’s bad behaviour towards women, which conflicts with God’s design. Jesus came to redeem this world from sin and its effects. He intended his followers to be led by the Spirit, living in full obedience to God’s design. Whenever the church has not regarded women as being of equal value with men, and as having equal standing before God, the church has been in error. The modern controversy over a woman’s place has had the good effect of highlighting and correcting some wrong attitudes. But a concern for equality does not justify departing from the plain teaching of the Bible, which is for our good and for God’s glory. There is an important distinction to be drawn between equality of worth and sameness of role. God has called men and women to different roles. The Bible shows that men are called to lead in the family and in the church. Egalitarianism must be opposed. It fails to distinguish correctly between God’s Word and cultural misinterpretations of God’s Word. It throws out the baby with the bathwater.”

Which story is right?

In regards to women’s ministry in the church, I thought when I started writing that I might find reasonably strong and finely balanced arguments on both sides. This would mean that any conclusion on that issue could only be tentative.

I was wrong.

Close study of context drove me to some fresh interpretations of familiar passages. Although I found on both sides a mixture of sound reasoning and unsatisfactory reasoning, my book reaches firm conclusions.

You may wonder whether someone who is not a professional academic can bring anything fresh to the party.

Let me explain.

Everyone agrees in theory that attention to context is vital for understanding what someone has written. But in my field of work, my attempts to understand from context get tested.

The adjudication of a legal dispute often requires an understanding of commercial correspondence which takes into account the real-life context within which the letters were written. In my work I often have the experience of interacting with people who wrote the letters which are being interpreted, and who therefore correct my misunderstandings. Time after time this has provided sobering practical lessons in seeing how radically context can affect the meaning of what is written. The book tries to apply those lessons to reading letters written by Peter and Paul.

My principal objective is not to persuade anyone that my conclusions are right, but to help them see that this is an issue of interpretation, not of obedience, and accordingly that Christians who regard the Bible as authoritative should be able to work together, respecting the fact that differing interpretations are held.

My hope and prayer is to bring a more constructive tone to the debate and help move people closer together.

Men and Women in Christ is released 21 March 2019.

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