Women in Ministry #3—Is God Arbitrary?

I’m not a blank slate.  I grew up in a Chinese-American church in southern California (complementarian).  My faith matured at a Presbyterian church in Berkeley (PCUSA, egalitarian).  I served at an independent Chinese-Canadian church in Vancouver (complementarian), and I currently attend an Evangelical Free church in Madison (complementarian).  In addition, I helped my mentor, Bruce Waltke, write a book that is explicitly complementarian.  This bit of history might explain my approach.  I come out of a mostly complementarian background, so it makes sense that I begin by trying to work out a complementarian position that makes sense of the Bible and the world as we know it.

In my last post, I survey the possible reasons God would have for different callings for men and women (trying to work out the C-people position).  Pastor Matt Rusten responds:

I would add a fourth reason to the three that you list at the end of the essay, and that is the, oh I don’t know what to call it…perhaps the “Trinitarian dance” reason, or perhaps the “Theo-symbolic” reason. It would read something like this: The picture of a husband and wife is like the dance of loving unity that plays out between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of them takes on unique roles, and though they possess ontological unity and equality, nonetheless, play different parts (at least during Jesus’ life on earth). It’s the idea of the economic Trinity. The husband represents Jesus’ role to the church, and the wife represents Jesus’ role to the Father while on earth. People, looking at the relationship between husband and wife, should learn something about the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (but especially Father and Son?), and the nature of the church. Any functional difference is for the purpose of symbol and witness.

Rusten’s response shows that my last post is somewhat unclear.  So let me clarify.  I believe that God likely has many good reasons for creating two sexes and assigning them different roles (Theo-symbolic is entirely plausible).  However, I am trying to make the point that the assignment of one particular sex to one particular role is most likely arbitrary.  If we assume for the moment that God chooses to give men the priority in government, I’m interested in God’s reasons for that choice.  Is it because men are better at it?  Is it because male rulership symbolically represents God’s (masculine) rulership? Is it something else?

It seems to me that if God makes the choice for a particular reason (not merely whim), then that reason would entail some kind of male superiority (functional: men are better at it; ontological: men are closer to God in some way or represent God better in some way).  Thus, if we embrace the C-position (I’m still holding off), then we have to choose either affirming some kind of male superiority or embracing the entirely arbitrary nature of God’s assignment of roles.

I reject the former.  Both the Bible and my experience of the world tells me otherwise.  Thus, for me, it seems the only plausible complementarian position entails arbitrariness in God’s choice.  And I think a belief in this arbitrariness has all kinds of implications that we need to work out if we are to hold a God-honoring complementarianism.

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Women in Ministry #2—Mapping the Options

I’ve decided to circle around the issue for a while instead of moving straight into the disputed texts.  Two reasons: One is that there are many NT scholars who are better trained on these texts and have published on them extensively; the other is that I tend to like big pictures.  I like to map things out to see the broad contours of the issue.

A caveat:  This is my map.  It is a work in progress.  I welcome feedback.  It helps me organize the various positions and arguments.  In all summarizing and categorizing, there are the inevitable distortions.  I apologize for that in advance.

 • Three broad positions

A. Apart from anatomy, there are no differences between men and women.

B. While there are differences between men and women, the differences do not affect a woman’s gifting or calling to be in any role of authority.

C. There are differences between men and women, and the differences do affect a woman’s gifting or calling to be in certain roles of authority.

I have not run across too many A-people within evangelical scholarship; rather, the debate is between the B-people (labeled “Egalitarians”) and the C-people (labeled “Complementarians”).  (If we understand the word “complementarian” etymologically as asserting male and female differences, then much of the evangelical discussion is between two “complementarian” camps.  This is the reason why many think that the term is unhelpful.)

• What are the differences between men and women, and how do they affect women in leadership roles?

Well, it turns out that B-people can get away with being rather vague about answering this question because they are arguing a negative:  whatever the differences, they do not affect a woman’s gifting or calling.  In contrast, the C-people need to make a positive case to explain how the differences affect women and leadership.

 1. Women are not gifted for leadership relative to men

While this explanation is no longer accepted by any serious evangelical scholar (B-people or C-people), it was however the predominant view of the Church for many centuries.  In line with the secular cultures of her time, the Church understood women as “the weaker sex,” unqualified to lead men.

2. Women are not called to leadership

As the successes of many women in leadership positions have thoroughly falsified the traditional view, biblical scholars have also recognized God’s gifting of women in salvation history.  Thus, the question is no longer one of gifting (it is widely accepted that women have a similar capacity for leadership as men), but one of calling.  Simply put, C-people argue that God does not call women to be in certain positions of leadership.

• Possible explanations for why God does not call women into certain positions of leadership

The obvious question, of course, is “Why?”  I have encountered three types of explanations (if you can think of more, please let me know):

a. The Adam and Eve Explanation

Within the Adam and Eve story lie two potential explanations for why God would choose to give man the priority in government.  The first is the order of creation, Adam being created first, then the woman.  However, this explanation merely pushes the question backward: Why did God create Adam first?  If it’s something inherent about Adam, then it takes us to the traditional argument of male relative superiority; if not, then we are back to needing an explanation.

The second relates to the woman’s main role in the rebellion.  It is possible that God gives leadership to men in remembrance of the actions of the first woman.  However, this is not a good explanation because it characterizes the arrangement of male authority as a punishment for all womankind, a case of collective punishment for the errors of a single woman.

 b. The Fragile Male Ego Explanation

One possibility, not yet explored in detail though mentioned by some interested in the sociology of the church, relates to the problem of the male ego.  That is to say, men are given priority in government not because they are better at it but because some of them (especially younger males) can’t handle women being in charge.  This puts women into a position of Christ-like self-sacrifice, ceding their privileges for the welfare of the souls of their brothers.

This explanation is also problematic because Christ gave up his privileges voluntarily.  Any parallel would mean giving women the option to refrain from positions of authority voluntarily.

c.  The No-Reason Explanation

God simply made a decision.  For God’s purposes of manifesting his own nature of community in submission in the human realm, God created two sexes and chose to offer priority of government to one sex instead of the other.  There is nothing inherent about men or women that determines this choice.  He could have chosen, just as easily, the other way around.

This may not be terribly satisfactory, but is perhaps the best that the C-people have.

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Women in Ministry #1—The Fatal Flaw of the Analogy from the Trinity

Since my seminary days, I have studiously avoided thinking too hard or taking a stance on the women in ministry issue.  It’s probably because I deeply admired my seminary professors, who happen to differ on this issue (e.g., Bruce Waltke, J. I. Packer, Stan Grenz, and Gordon Fee), and I didn’t want to disagree with any of them (something to do with being Asian and the youngest child).

Now that I am a campus theologian for InterVarsity, I can no longer maintain my childish refusal to get off the fence.  So I’ve been reading and talking to people who are passionate about the issue (Thank you, Melodie and Ashley).  To help me think through this, I’m starting a blog series on my changing perspectives; it does not follow any grand organization, but reflects my emerging convictions:

My recent readings deal with the nature of the Trinity and its relevance to this issue.  Complementarians assert that God created man and woman with equal essence yet with role distinction in authority.  They argue that this combination of equality and distinction is possible because we find it in the Trinity.

9. Trinitarian Analogy – Complementarians understand the Trinity to present an analogy to the male/female relationship, as God designed it. God is one in essence and three in persons. The three persons of the God-head are absolutely equal in essence (in fact, they each share fully, simultaneously and without division the one divine essence), but they are distinct in function. Specifically, their distinction of function is marked by an intrinsic relation of authority within the God-head, by which the Son is subject to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. 1 Cor. 11:3 states part of this: “God is the head of Christ.” The clearest biblical example of Christ’s subjection to the Father is in 1 Cor. 15:28 where the exalted and victorious Son “will also be subject to the One who subjected all things to Him.” Given this understanding of the Trinity, it makes sense for Paul to say what He does in 1 Cor. 11:3. He speaks here of three authority lines that exist: Christ is the authority (head) over every man, man is the authority (head) over a woman, and God (the Father) is authority (head) over Christ. Just as the persons of God are equal in essence and yet they relate within a structure of lines of authority, so too men and women are equal in essence while relating within a similar structure of lines of authority. (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)


I have always found this argument unpersuasive, but only recently have I realized why.  In analogical reasoning we use simple, clear things (those we have intuitions about) to explains complex, opaque things.  Thus, we use common concepts like wave or particle to explain the nature of light.  Our intuitions and familiarity with the simple concepts help us gain insight into what is complex.

This is why the Trinity argument is fatally flawed.  The argument uses Trinity as an analogy to explain male and female relationship; that is, it uses an opaque, mysterious concept (one about which none of us have any direct knowledge or access or intuition) to explain something we actually know quite a bit about.  This is why the argument is so unpersuasive for me: I do not have any intuitions about how the persons of the Trinity relate to each other; I do not understand how the Trinity works; and I rely simply on what the creeds tell me.

This does not mean that it is impossible to have equal essence with role distinction in authority.  It just means that complementarians need to come up with a better analogy, one that we can actually understand.

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InterVarsity Graduate Faculty Ministries National Conference

Spending a couple of beautiful days at Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois:


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How Do We Preach the Sermon on the Mount?

A couple of days ago, an old friend who’s a New Testament professor pointed me to Matthew 5:19.

Matt. 5:19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (RSV).


He argues for reading “these commandments” not as referring to the commandments in the Torah mentioned in 5:17 and 5:18, but referring to the commandments that Jesus teaches in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount; he believes this makes better sense of 5:20—that is, these upcoming new commands reveal a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees.

I find his argument compelling, and I’m trying to work out its implications: Rhetorically, this verse serves as preemptive warning against anyone who is tempted to relax the upcoming commands, and this warning is very necessary because we are very tempted to do precisely what we are warned against. The number one homiletic challenge for this passage is to find some way to relax (explain away) these extreme injunctions for eye-gouging and hand-chopping (5:29–30), the implication that remarried people are living in sin (5:32), unlimited generosity (5:42), etc.

So how do we teach the Sermon on the Mount without “relaxing one of the least of these commandments”?

First, I take comfort in that those who violate Jesus’ warning in 5:19 are still “in the kingdom of heaven.” That is to say, this is not an issue that affects our membership in the covenant community.  This is a good thing.

Second, Jesus’ rhetoric is maximal, extreme, unnuanced, provocative; this is intentional. The text challenges every Christ-follower at every point of our journey with God, forcing us to struggle with who we are and how we should live in concert with the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit. We should beware of any exposition that removes this rhetorical edge.

Third, we are called to live and teach the Sermon on the Mount as both ideal and reality. The “traditional (in some Protestant circles)” way of discounting all these commands as Jesus’ way of showing us that we cannot earn our way to heaven is not an exegetically live option. On the contrary, the Kingdom of God aims to bring about a transformed humanity that becomes fit to rule creation in Christ. If so, we have to embrace a superior brand of ethics (however short of it we may fall at times). In these passages, Jesus exposits the ethics of the Kingdom and expects that they should mark the people of God. Given the common understanding of inaugurated eschatology, there is no reason why we should not teach them as at least partially realized in our lives here and now and as an ideal that we should pursue.

Finally, we must supplement this passage.  For it is understood by Jesus’ audience (and those familiar with the Old Testament) that the Kingdom comes with the circumcision of the heart and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That is, God is making a people fit for his kingdom; he is the agent of our transformation.  Our faith is not merely in God’s ability to establish his rule on earth, but his ability to establish his rule in our lives. Thus, our transformation is our hope of glory, and we yearn for it in faith.

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New Video for Romans 9–11 Uploaded

The video for the lecture on Romans 9:30–10:13 is now online.  All the videos for the Romans 9–11 course can be found on the course page through the Pauline Epistle Series link above.


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