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Published Date: February 22, 2014

Published Date: February 22, 2014

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

The Historical Fallacy of an Inconsistent Ethical Evaluation

One states, “It has not been the practice of the church that women can be bishops.” The other responds, “Well, what about Bishop Theodora?” Perhaps you are familiar with such a conversation. One presents a practice in church history, and the other responds by giving a counter-example. Both are responding according to the logic that while each side needs a historical evaluation (for its presence or absence), this historical evaluation is connected to one’s present ethics. In response to the question above, if one were to be consistent with an ethic that prohibits women bishops, one would have to respond with an ethical judgment of Bishop Theodora. Yet, it is at this precise juncture where we see many flee from making an evaluation.

Instead of being consistent, they repeatedly fail to make the logical deduction from their own ethical standard: That the thousands of women in church history who have repeatedly disobeyed God’s prescribed creation order (to be subordinated to all men) are indeed unethical, immoral, and unworthy of sainthood. Rather than following this conclusion, they inconsistently praise the past actions of women in history who did the very things that they presently judge to be unethical in the 21st century. They evade making an ethical judgment. Why?

Present Ethical Judgment is Linked to Historical Evaluation

In general, if one praises the actions of the past, then the same actions of the present cannot be judged. Similarly, if one judges certain actions to be unethical in the Middle Ages, then these same actions must also be judged unethical in the 21st century. Likewise, if it is considered unethical for women to be bishops, then it would also be considered unethical for women who became bishops. We need a consistent ethical judgment for unethical activity. Ethics is not captive to one time period, but is applicable to all periods. Yet, too often those who hold this theological judgment cannot make a consistent historical evaluation. Consider this example:

Pastpraise of leading menPresentpraise of leading men= Consistent Ethics
Pastjudgement of leading menPresentpraise of leading men

= Consistent Ethics

Pastpraise of leading menPresentjudgment of leading men= Inconsistent Ethics

One cannot logically separate their ethical judgment (i.e. theology of women in church leadership) from their historical evaluation of its same history of activity. For if women who presently lead the church are disobeying scripture, then women of the past who did so have lived in repeated disobedience. Yet, a frequent complementarian tendency is to fail to connect their historical evaluation with their present ethical judgment.

The Illogical Jump: Historical Praise to Present Judgment

Since creation order theology refers to a social structure of human relationships that God established at creation, then according to this theology, one would have to conclude that this standard stretches back to Genesis. The ethics of women needing to remain permanently subordinated to all men would begin here. The ethics of “biblical womanhood” would be applicable for all time periods.[1] And in evaluation of church history, the ethics of women teaching men (1 Tim. 2:11-2) would have to be considered as well.[2] Yet, this theology is not made applicable in their historical evaluation regarding the many women who have done this precise thing.

In chapter 15 entitled “Women in the History of the Church: Learned and Holy, But Not Pastors” of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood there are descriptions of many women who embodied the defiance of the values of subordination and biblical womanhood that the rest of the book uplifts as God’s standard.[3]  This complementarian theologian mentions how Abbess Lioba discussed spirituality and ecclesiastical law with princes and bishops and how Abbess Hilda trained five bishops under her direction at Whitby.[4] He acknowledged that abbesses had the authority and jurisdictions of bishops, sometimes ruling double monasteries of men and women.[5] He acknowledged Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena as being named “Doctors of the Church.”[6]After describing these women who spent most of their lives teaching men, governing the church and holding offices of jurisdiction over men (which transgresses the biblical womanhood presented in this same book), he evades making an ethical historical evaluation of them that is any different. This inconsistency of theology and historical application must therefore point to another dynamic at work in one’s theological construction.

A True Encounter: Evading One’s Historical Evaluation

In a particular class, a group of pastors had to discuss women in church leadership. One male pastor said (my paraphrase): “Well, I believe we need to think about history when we consider this topic.” As one against women church leaders, he stated this assuming women pastors had never existed in church history. Another male pastor responded, “My church was founded by a woman 110 years ago.” His own logic backfired. He was silenced and later admitted that he would stop exploring the topic. This is probably linked to the fears he expressed during this conversation as to what would happen if he did take this view. As a result, instead of making a consistent ethical judgment or revaluating his own perspective, he evaded making an ethical evaluation. In conclusion, though this seems to be a common tendency of those with a complementarian view, it is important to recognize that by embracing a present judgment of particular actions one is also embracing apast judgment of the same group of people who have embodied those actions in the past.

[1] John Piper,In “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 46.

[2] Piper, Vision of Biblical Complementarity, 53.

[3] William Weinrich, “Women in the History of the Church: Learned and Holy, But Not Pastors,” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 263-279.

[4] Ibid., 267.

[5] Ibid., 271. He mistakenly claims abbesses were chosen due to royalty lineage. Rather, abbesses were ordained throughout Europe by bishops with elaborate ceremonies. See The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination (Gary Macy) and The Lady was a Bishop (Joan Morris).

[6] Ibid., 273.