The easy answers provided by selective proof-texting sound pious and “clear” but often don’t stand up to careful investigation. So the weight of evidence causes me to withhold judgment on women’s ordination in the Bible and similar issues. A proof-text reading of the Bible tends toward opposing women’s ordination because there is no explicit proof-text telling us to ordain women (or even giving us the concept of ordination, which was a later development). But there is a trend in the Bible toward justice, fairness and equality that leads me to believe God might have worked with the patriarchy of ancient times (God meets people where they are) without approving of it as the ideal. Today the world is trending toward justice and equality and that reality opens the way to see things in the Bible we hadn’t seen before.
Something similar happened in Acts 10-15. As a result of Peter’s experience with Cornelius, the whole church read the Old Testament differently (see Acts 15:13-18). Very few of those who oppose women’s ordination take a comprehensive view of the Bible. The few that do are forging a new path and I don’t find them very convincing at this point. While I don’t think the Bible settles the issue one way or the other, the trend of God’s working with humanity from Abraham to John the Revelator suggests that ordaining women will not bring about the end of civilization or the work of God on this earth. It actually might be just what the church needs in some places.
Human beings like quick fixes. The perfect proof text, the simple answer that settles everything. But I don’t think that approach does justice to the Word of God. When someone says “the Bible is clear” on a subject like women’s ordination, all I have learned from that is that the Bible is “clear” to that person. It is a fact of human nature that the less we know about any subject the more confident we tend to be in our opinions and conclusions. The confidence so many have in their conclusions on ordination is evidence to me that they haven’t looked seriously at the arguments against their point of view.
This scholarly tentativeness can be frustrating to people of faith, who are used to hearing quick and easy answers to difficult questions. But I think that frustration arises, in part, from a misunderstanding of what true scholarship really is. A true scholar is not someone who knows many things, rather, a true scholar is someone who knows how little he or she knows. It is just as important to know when you are ignorant as to know where you are an expert. Being a scholar is like a farmer standing at the edge of a field. As long as his or her knowledge is limited to the surface of the field, the farmer might seem to know everything there is to know about that field. But scholarship is like the same farmer digging a post-hole at the edge of a field (an analogy for the dissertation). The farmer now knows all (s)he needs to know about the contents of that post-hole. But digging the post-hole teaches the farmer something else. The farmer now knows how deep the entire field goes. By digging that post-hole the farmer’s awareness of ignorance has grown faster than his knowledge.
This is why biblical scholars rarely approach issues with the confidence and clarity that evangelists (like Bohr, Batchelor and Nelson) have. Evangelists have been able to narrow their biblical focus to the things that help them persuade people. This is a very important gift and a very important task. But the church would be unwise to draw its conclusions about the Bible from the limited perspective of the evangelist. While certainty is attractive, it can lead one to a false confidence. As the Apostle Paul said, “We know in part, we prophecy in part, . . . we see through a glass darkly.” Both methods of Bible study (see previous blog for details) are valuable. Both Bible scholars and evangelists have their place. A certain level of confidence is commendable. But the greatness of God suggests we submit our confidence to a reasonable humility.
Coming up: A concise and clear summary of where I stand on the question of women’s ordination and the Bible.