I was recently sent a link by a friend of mine which had a short article by Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Boyce college, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptists. He briefly responded to an article by NT Wright, in The Times, republished on Fulcrum on the recent vote on Women Bishops in the Anglican church. His point was narrowly about how NT Wright interprets a specific passage in Timothy, which seems to say that women should not teach or be in authority over men. However, the thrust of Wrights article was about the nature of the established church and why the it is problematic when the Prime Minister of the UK starts indicating that he will push the Church to “do the right thing”. Wright is for the ordination of women, and is pro women Bishops, but he does not think that the state should force the internal hand of the church. I must say, when a professor at a Southern Baptist college has an interest in Wright, eyebrows can legitimately be raised. Perhaps its because he is gaining in popularity in that denomination, or at least seems to be talked about. But what is a little disturbing though, is that both Burk, and Doug Wilson don’t engage with what Wright’s main point is, but rather raise a matter of scriptural interpretation. No hint at supporting a fellow churchman when he is arguing against statist interventions to what is essentially an internal church debate.
I think the presenting difference between Burk and Wright is a cultural one (at least to the extent to which Wright is speaking into a specific context that is not Burks). Burk basically says he is not interested in what Wright was doing in the Times article, which was setting up the difference between why Wright agrees with ordaining women and why David Cameron does and why the world view, and the cultural assumptions behind their positions matter. In that sense Burk is ignoring the thrust of Wrights article and focusing on the presenting problem he has with egalitarian views of ordination. His problem with Wrights theology, which is fine, but there is more going on here.
My initial response and you should know that I am neither egalitarian nor complimentarian (just confused), is that Burk’s gripe seems to centre on a theological point which would need to take much more nuance to unpack than Wright would have been given (or be allowed to take) in a Times opinion piece, which has a largely secular audience.
If I am reading Wrights intentions within the British context correctly, which as Burk rightly points out is not american as the CofE is an established church, Wright is acting as a secular-saint (for he is accountable to God and then the Queen, and here is where the irony actually lies) in speaking truth to another part of the ruling order of the UK, where both the State but also the Church (in a diminished capacity) has a responsibility to the general public for the common good of the country. In other words, while it might not be appropriate in the US for a special church to preach what is right or wrong, in the UK this responsibility (to a greater or lesser extent) is found in the Church of England who seek to make room for other denominations (and to a lesser extent other faiths) when it comes to debates about the public or common good.
Hence the thrust of Wrights theological justification in telling the Prime Minister where he may have overstepped the line. The global application to that point is outlined in this quote here:
“That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church.”
Further to this point is that while Wright and Cameron might agree that ordained women should be allowed to become Bishops, it may well be for wholly other reasons. And the reasons determine the process by which the legislation required to make it legal and the time it might take, might be different. So Wrights point is one deeper and about world views, rather than simply about the presenting issue.
On the specific passage of 1 Timothy, my hunch is that the translation of the text is important because it uses words which are not used often and secondly Wright is big on understanding the culture into which Paul might have been writing, which tends to be something we forget when we read the books as if they apply specifically to our time in our place. Now that does not mean that Paul does not say what he means to apply to all time, though it may. The question to the literalist then is, why doesn’t Burk ask his female flock to cover their head, as Paul asks them to do in other texts.
As I say, I am confused on this matter. Recently I spoke to a Pastor I trust, who is certainly on the conservative side of this debate and he said: if a women would come to him and ask if she might preach he would say yes, lets talk. But if she asked to become an elder, he would say no. He had a women missionary come to him and say I would like to preach and he said, lets talk. I would love you to, but know this: You might split the church I am a pastor to. She said, thank you and never brought it up again. In that sense he intimated to me, that she was a godly woman worthy of preaching, because she knew when it was not right for her to preach, because her message would just not be heard.
I did not ask him about the reasoning he has, in why he does not allow women to be elders but does think they might preach, but my instinct is that he believes that when a message needs to be given, God choses those by whom he wants the message to be given.
Finally Burk does say that at the end of Wrights article he tries to justify egalitarian reasons for why women might be ordained. But he leaves out the arguments that Wright makes, which are broader than just once verse and hence are not just based on using specific verses to prove a point, which may or may not be the right way forward. Wright says, and this is a whole third of his article:
“ All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.
Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.
The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.
The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality. Modern ideas of “progress” are simply a parody. Next time this one comes round, it would be good to forget “progress” — and ministerial “programmes” — and stick with the promise.”