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Women in the New Testament

A History of and Reflection on My Course of 34 Years

I could not have realized in 1972 that my ecclesiastical and professional commitment to women in ministry, already established, would lead to one of the most important and consuming professional and personal aspects of my life as a New Testament professor, churchman, and advocate for a position I came to see as part of my commitment to the gospel.

History

I introduced my then new course, “Women and Ministry in the New Testament,” at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1972. Although I cannot document this, I think it was the first such course offered in any seminary in the USA. I taught the course four more times at Gordon-Conwell: 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1981. Since there were few women in seminary in 1972, the course began with mostly men enrolled; over the years at Gordon-Conwell the registration grew and increasingly included more women in the course. 

In 1981, I went to Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. During my seven years there I taught my course twice: 1982 and 1988 (I was Dean of the Seminary, so my teaching was limited at that time). 

It was during my time at Northern Baptist that I began to teach my course as a visiting professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this capacity I offered my course at Fuller five times: 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991 (in the Northern California extension), and 1992.

In 1988, I went to North Park Theological Seminary and North Park College (a joint appointment). It was at North Park that I changed the name of the course to “Women, the Bible, and the Church,” in order to emphasize that this New Testament course had a focus on its implications for the contemporary church. In my six years at North Park, I taught my course six times; twice in the College (1989 and 1992), three times in the Seminary (1989, 1990, and 1993 – all three times team-taught with my wife, Jeannette F. Scholer), and one time as a joint College and Seminary course (1994).

During my time at North Park, I also taught the course once at Whitley College, the Baptist Seminary of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia.

In 1994, I came to Fuller Theological Seminary. By the end of 2006 I will have taught my course ten times since 1994: 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 (in the Northern California extension), 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, and twice in 2006.

Reflections

One of the most obvious changes over the years is the increase in the number of women taking this course (as the number of women in seminaries has risen). But, in the last decade or more, when the number of women at Fuller has leveled off (it varies among the three schools), 80% of the students taking my course are women. The 20% who are men seem to appreciate the course deeply (and are appreciated by the women in the class), but to date we have not been able to get the male enrollment higher than 20%.

Another set of significant changes has to do with the social contexts of our culture. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the tensions in the evangelical community over the place of women in the church’s ministry were very high and often strongly contentious. That climate meant that the course was sometimes a “battleground” between and among different factions of students. Although there is still very strong resistance to the full participation of women in ministry in many quarters, the “divide” between the positions has settled into a type of “peaceful coexistence.” Further, students who reject my approach to the topic are less likely these days to take my course. As a result, most students (although not all) in my course enter with a basic agreement or tendency to agree with my position, but in most cases have never thought deeply about the biblical and theological support for their positions or how to “defend” their positions among their friends, families, and church environments.

I have also become increasingly convinced over the years that the social context of the oppression of and violence against women has deeply affected, often indirectly, the discussion of the biblical texts about men and women. Thus, I now have written on sexual abuse and the Bible and bring this data into the classroom for lecture and discussion. It is very significant, especially since many of my women students have been victims of sexual abuse within families and within the church. It is a considerable part of my course now (but was not in the early years) to talk about this and the whole range of discriminations against women in our culture (and other cultures; here at Fuller I have women in class from many countries of the world) and how these factors influence the way that we read and interpret the biblical texts about women. This is a point that makes Traditionalists and Complementarians “worry” about the biblical faithfulness of Egalitarians, but this is a misunderstanding of how our social locations affect the ways in which we read and interpret the Bible.

Further, I have in my course substantially increased attention to the roles that women have played in the church throughout history. Although this does not determine the exegetical meaning of texts, it does open our eyes to the way texts have been interpreted and gives us insights on how we might and should read texts. Also, I have increasingly emphasized the number of writings, by men and especially by women, before 1900 that have defended the full participation of women in ministry. By showing how deeply the roots of the Egalitarian position are embedded in biblical and church history, this “answers,” to a genuine degree, the oft-repeated charge that Egalitarians today are simply an aspect of the modern feminist movement.

I have also increased the emphasis in my course on hermeneutics. In general, I have argued that nothing in the New Testament itself tells us which is the most important or “controlling” text on women in ministry. Rather, this decision becomes a hermeneutical one, attempting to assess the context of each passage and its role in biblical teaching and seeking a balance of all (not simply a selective group of) texts. Further, one needs hermeneutical skills to assess the cultural contexts of passages written in first-century culture, in which, generally speaking, women were considered inferior, subordinate, not worthy of education, and suited only to domestic responsibilities. I have developed and published over the years guidelines for assessing cultural relativity in New Testament texts (on all issues, not just women in ministry). I have received much criticism here from those opposed to full participation for women. They often grant that some texts are culturally relative, but rarely define which ones and why. Without clear guidelines, one is controlled by larger theological conclusions, than by the evidences of texts in their first-century settings.

I have also changed the organization of the New Testament texts since I first taught the course. Initially, “controlled” by the debate at the time (when all seemed to rest on 1 Timothy 2), I began my course there. After treating 1 Timothy 2, I then divided texts into what I called the “negative” and “positive” texts, putting 1 Corinthians 11 in the negative category. As time went by, and I reflected more deeply on what I was doing, it came to me very strongly that there was no good reason to start with 1 Timothy 2; that this was an agenda set by the Traditionalists, not by the New Testament. In time, I have come to organize the course with attention to Jesus and women first, then women in Acts, and then Paul’s affirmation of women in Galatians 3, 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 11 (realizing that verses 5, 10 and 11-12 made this a “positive” text), and Paul’s women coworkers. Then I deal with only two texts which appear to limit women’s ministry—1 Corinthians 14, which must be reconciled with 1 Corinthians 11, and then 1 Timothy 2, which is really a very problematic text (I have written extensively on this as have many other Egalitarian scholars). I should say that at the beginning of the course, I also deal extensively with Genesis 1-3, which is foundational, and give a very brief review of women in Israel’s history.

I also now spend considerable time in my course on women in both Second Temple Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. We go through about fifty primary texts in class, which gives students a reasonable grounding in the cultural realities for women of the first century of the Common Era and how most men perceived them. This is an essential component of exegetical and hermeneutical work on the New Testament. I also have students read the primary text collections of early Christian literature and the comments of the Church Fathers on women as collected by E. A. Clark and P. C. Miller.

One particular issue to which I have given increasing attention is the oft-repeated Jewish charge that Christian feminism is a new form of anti-Semitism, by making Jesus the Christian hero who liberates women from oppressive Judaism. I have, thus, given attention to the accomplishments and positive roles of women in Second Temple Judaism before I cover the negative views of men toward women. Further, I have argued (in print) that Jesus is a hero to both Jews and Christians.  I have received kind words for the positions I have taken here.

It always sounds self-serving for the teacher of such a course to talk about its influence, but it is probably appropriate to say that students report regularly that the course has had an extensive, wide-ranging, and life-changing influence on more persons beyond what I might have anticipated. Every week of my life I hear from students and former students whose lives were helped and changed by this course. I am humbled, but deeply pleased. I do feel that this is a calling I have received from God, to which I have sought to be faithful in every way possible. Part of that history is the long-term encouragement I have received within and from Christians for Biblical Equality, with whom I have been associated virtually from the beginning.

It is my hope and prayer that I will be able to teach my course a few more times in my life and that its influence will continue to bear fruit.

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