Consistency and Balance
Two broad and basic issues of responsible biblical interpretation should concern us in this, indeed, in any issue—balance and consistency. In terms of balance, it is the total witness of Scripture that must inform our thought and action. In terms of consistency, it is crucial to approach our understanding of all biblical texts in the same way in order to offset as much as possible our blind spots and biases.
Opposition to women in ministry has often been mounted virtually on the basis of one Pauline text—1 Timothy 2:11–12. Whatever that difficult text and context means, it must be put in balance with all other biblical texts that bear on the same issue. This shows, in my judgment, that the 1 Timothy text does, in fact, speak to a limited situation.
Further, in regard to balance, one must struggle with starting points. For example, on the matter of “eternal security” of believers, does one read Hebrews 6:4–6 “through” Romans 8:28–39, or should the Romans text be read “through” the one from Hebrews? It has often been assumed without question that 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is the “control” (i.e., authoritative) text through which all other New Testament data on women in ministry must be challenged. It is more plausible, in my judgment, to approach 1 Timothy 2:8–15 through the accumulated witness of all the other Pauline passages on women in the church.
Consistency in interpretation is notoriously difficult. Yet, to push it here may help considerably in the attempt “to hear” the Scriptures. Why is it that so many persons insist that 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is a transcultural, absolutely normative text, but at the same time do not approach other texts in 1 Timothy with the same passion? Pressed in the same way, 1 Timothy 3:2 would rule out all single men from ministry, and 1 Timothy 5:3–16 would require churches to establish “orders of widows” for those sixty and older and would require that all widows fifty-nine and under remarry for the reasons of their sensual desires and idleness.
Most of us do not literally exchange the kiss of peace or holy kiss even though the New Testament commands it five times (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). Most of us do not consider foot washing a necessity even though Jesus explicitly commanded it (John 13:14–15). Obviously, our inherited tradition and/or our sense of the cultural contexts of certain texts strongly inform our interpretations.
Finally, consistency and balance mean that we cannot impose on texts understandings that are not there. We cannot devalue the authority Jesus gave to his followers or the authority of prophecy in the Corinthian church just because they do not have the same structural pattern as that of 1 Timothy. We cannot divide the injunction of 1 Timothy 2:11–12 into two levels of authority imposed from our context so that women can be included in some activities but excluded from the “highest” levels.
In conclusion, it is my deepest conviction that the full evidence of Scripture and an understanding of balance and consistency in interpretation mean that we must rethink some of our traditions and reaffirm with clarity and conviction the biblical basis for the full participation of women in the ministries of the church. The underlying biblical theology of a “new creation in Christ” in which there is “neither male and female” is a powerful affirmation of the commitment to equality in the gospel, the Church, and all of its ministries. Jesus’s inclusion of women among his disciples and witnesses, the coming of the Holy Spirit on both sons and daughters, and Paul’s inclusion of women in his circles of coworkers in the ministry all affirm the full and equal participation of both women and men in all the ministries of the gospel.