Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 2 (Gupta)

Wow, there was so much feedback and interest on social media from my first post, I feel like I should do a quick second one while I have a bit of time (sitting at the beach, “working hard”).

Translation and Terms: The Devil is in the Details

I am being honest when I say, one of the most important things I did to help me understand the “women in ministry” issue was: learn Greek and Hebrew. (And I took advanced Greek, advanced Hebrew, Classic and Ecclesiastical Latin, Aramaic, and Akkadian for good measure.)


So many people over the years had said to me: just read your Bible and the answer is clear. By this, they mean that there are many “clear” passages that forbid women from being pastors or preachers. But here is the problem: “translators are liars” (so the famous proverb goes). That is not a cop-out. Bible translators have to simplify texts to communicate clearly, but all along the way they make lots of little choices, and they have to “take sides” on issues even if the answer isn’t fully clear. So, my house of cards began to collapse when I was confronted with many translation issues. For example

Was Phoebe (Rom 16:1; diakonos) a “servant” (KJV), “deacon” (NIV), or “deaconess” (RSV)? Keep in mind Paul used diakonos for himself (1 Cor 3:5) and Christ (Rom 15:8), and it can also be translated “minister.”

When Paul calls women to be “silent,” is the issue one of lack of words, or is it about respect, peace, and harmony in the church? The verb sigao refers to being quiet, but it can be used in reference to quiet or still waters (LXX Ps 107:29). In Exodus, Moses instructs the Israelites crossing the river that “The Lord will fight for you, and you will be quiet” (LXX Exodus 14:14 NETS). Is Moses concerned with silence? No, so most translations of the Hebrew and Septuagint text prefer the language of peace or stillness.

Then we have the issue of “ordination” and “pastors” and “preaching.” There is little in the New Testament that lays out the specifications of ordination (see 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). As for “pastors,” this does not appear to me to be a dominant “office” in the first century. In Acts, Paul tells the Ephesians “elders” that the Spirit had made them overseers of the church, to shepherd the people (20:28). Paul mentions pastors/shepherds briefly in Ephesians 4:11. Aside from that, we know very little about “pastors” and their responsibilities. To say a woman cannot be a “pastor” is to place some construct on the Bible that is not explicitly there. We know far more about what Paul thinks about bishops than about pastors. As for “preaching” (i.e., “women cannot preach”), the NT says virtually nothing about sermons and what we think of as preaching (i.e., Bible lessons for the church). The language of preaching (kerusso, kerygma) in the NT is almost always about the proclamation of the gospel. And if rocks are qualified to do this (Luke 19:40), I can’t imagine women wouldn’t be.

Now, I am fine with modern ordination, and pastors, and elders, and preaching, but we must be cognizant of the fact that we sometimes read our modern assumptions about church practices back into the Bible. That is dangerous!

So, a crucial part of my journey was knowing what is and is not actually in the Bible, and seeing the complex, but beautiful Greek text which begs careful study. We will try to do some of that careful study, but for now I want to just reinforce the notion that it is misleading to say: The answer is clear in MY Bible. That usually means: The answer is clear in MY FAVORITE ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Recently I heard Tish Harrison Warren say that whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, you can only be about 80% sure you are right. I think Warren is right. Scripture offers so many pieces of this puzzle to analyze, and it is really hard to put it all together. It is a beautiful mess, but it is anything but 100% clear to anyone.

In later posts, I will dig into particular texts, church roles, and questions about gender and leadership. I am not trying to throw everything out the window when I say that looking at the Greek makes things messy. I just want to emphasize that the first step in anyone’s journey on this issue must include intellectual humility and a sober recognition that the textual and hermeneutical issues are complex, especially when you look at the text in the original languages.


Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 1 (Gupta)

I (Nijay Gupta) have been an egalitarian for over 15 years. So, I am definitely long overdue for expressing my views in an extended, written format. There will be a large number of posts in this series, so stay tuned.

Starting from the beginning

Before getting into biblical and theological arguments and views, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about my story.

I became a believer as a teenager. In college (at a secular university), I was involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators. I went to a conservative evangelical (non-denominational) church. In those years, I started to read books by theologians and Christian leaders—C. S. Lewis, Max Lucado, Dallas Willard, Jerry Bridges, Ravi Zacharias and especially John Piper (this was the ‘90’s!). I did not have a very well thought out view of what women should or should not do in ministry. Either I had never seen or heard of a woman pastor, or I assumed anyone associated with such views just didn’t take the Bible very seriously.

I subscribed to what I call “package theology.” If I found a scholar convincing in one area of theology, then they must be “right” in all areas—hence, I bought their “package.” So with Piper, I liked his writings on glorifying God, I liked his work on missions, so I took his whole package, which includes a strict view that men alone ought to lead churches. (I was so enamored with Piper that I once drove 14 hours from southern Ohio to Dallas to hear Piper preach at Dallas Theological Seminary.)

And yet, even in my college days, there were a few things that contradicted or challenged some of my assumptions about women in leadership. First, there was an amazing staff leader with Campus Crusade named Jane Armstrong. Everyone who knew her respected her deeply; she was and is wise, godly, mature, caring, and competently led many men and women on missions trips (including myself). But, in Crusade’s leadership system, she could never be the campus director because she is a woman. She could be an associate campus director (which she was), but a man must be the director. (That is what I had heard.) But why?

A second thing during that time stuck with me. When I went home in the summers, I would help out with my home church, and I did an internship there as well. My church believed that women were not allowed to be “pastors.” But there was a female director of children’s ministry on staff. She was very wise, much beloved in the community, and she went on the “pastors’ retreat” every year (I know that because as an intern I went once as well). For all intents and purposes, she was indeed a “pastor.” But the church used a terminology loophole to maintain what they considered a biblical view.

It wasn’t until I attended seminary that I really took a hard look at the issue of women in ministry. I went to Gordon-Conwell where there were faculty on both sides of the debate. To be perfectly honest, I was still staunchly complementarian my first year of seminary. In fact, I wrote my first systematic theology paper on this (self-chosen topic): “Why Women Shouldn’t Be Pastors.” (I got an “A” on the paper, btw). But in my second year of seminary, I went through a long journey of thinking and study that led me to the opposite conclusion. So I wrote my final (3rd year) systematic theology paper on this subject: “Why Women Should Be Pastors” (I also got an “A” on that one!)

What changed my mind? It wasn’t one single thing. Rather, it was the erosion of the false confidence I had in my complementarian view. Almost all of the assumptions I had about the key biblical texts were not as secure as I had assumed, once I dug into the academic discussions. Furthermore, I continued to meet and become aware of respected evangelical scholars who supported women in ministry (people like Walter Kaiser, Gordon Fee, Howard Marshall, and F. F. Bruce). This started to disassemble that Piper “package” I had once bought into. Thirdly, I got to know some evangelical women scholars who supported women in ministry (esp. Catherine Kroeger, for whom I eventually served as a research assistant), and to my surprise, they were wonderful, conservative, Bible-loving, God-honoring scholars.

In my experience, people do not often change their mind just by reading biblical scholarship- although the exegesis matters greatly. Rather, for me, I was stuck on trying to ponder the rationale and logic of male-only pastors. We all know incredibly gifted women who are highly competent to serve as leaders (I’m married to one!). If anyone ever tells you, “do this, because the Bible says so,” but they can’t explain why, that is bad theology and ethics.

So that is the beginning of my story. More to come; next up…”Setting the Table: Terms and Translations.”

[Disclaimer: rude comments will be removed; constructive comments and questions will be permitted and I will try to interact with as many as I can.]