“Women in the Ministry” is the Wrong Question

Derek Ouellette —  December 6, 2010

I always hear people say that N.T. Wright is an egalitarian. But is that true? I am not convinced and I think that this whole debate (complimentarian/egalitarian) of “Women in the Ministry” is framed wrong from the get-go. I think the wrong question is being asked and I know no one who would deny (completely) “women in the ministry”.

People don’t talk about these things with enough precision. The issue is not “Women in the Ministry”. When some reject “Women in the Ministry” they obligate others to affirm “Women in the Ministry”, as Wright does above. But this whole way of talking about the subject is off base I believe. Because the issue is not “Women in the Ministry” since, to use Wright’s cynical example above, even making the tea after the worship service is “a ministry”. If a woman does it, she is “in the ministry” – and everyone, even a chauvinist, would agree to that.

The real issue needs greater precision: are there certain minstry rolls reserved for only men, and if so, why? Even Wright above says (affirmingly) that “Paul does not believe in a unisex ministry”. That is a very “complimentarian” thing to say! :-)

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Kevin Larkin

    Thanks for posting this little talk with N.T. Wright. I think he has done a pretty good job explaining womens role in ministry.

    I wish he would have elaborated whether or not he agrees with with Women preaching/having authority over a man in a Church enviroment and how he truly reconciles 1 Tim 2 if he doesn’t.

    It is a shame that the world has flooded in to the four walls of most churches today, to the point that a godly man or woman who believes that men and women are equal, however function in order differently, are frowned upon and are made out to be chauvinist or for a women old fasion/ancient and weak.

    For me, according to the way I see the scriptures, if a women exerts authority over a man in the role of a pastor/shepherd ruling over their sheep, it would be comparable to the body instructing and leading and telling Christ, The Head, what to do. I believe that Christ and God the Father are one and equal in essence and nature, however had different roles to the point that Christ submitted everything to the Father while He was on earth as the “God Man”.

    Thanks again.

  • http://www.TheJesusAgenda.net Dave Leigh

    His remarks in this video seem to be clearly egalitarian. But Wright is usually more interested in answering the questions addressed by the text than those raised by the modern reader.

    Even so, he was quoted recently in The Church of Ireland Gazzette as saying, “my own position is quite clear on this, that I have supported women Bishops in print and in person. I’ve spoken in Synod in favour of going that route, but I don’t think it’s something that ought to be done at the cost of a major division in the Church.” See: http://www.gazette.ireland.anglican.org/2010/051110/bishopwrightintereview051110.html

    Some are charging that his pragmatism seems to trump his egalitarianism. But I for one take his commitment to unity as admirable, even though I myself am an eqalitarian (mutualist). It saddens me that the egal-comp question can be so divisive and I have often regretted my own part in fueling divisiveness on the topic. (Yet I have never regretted being passionately committed to it, since I hold mutualism to be the correct and biblical position.)

    As for Wright’s view of 1 Tim 2, you might read: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm
    (If you haven’t already.)

    Thanks for raising this question. Very cool to see it being discussed. May it lead to a greater unity than Wright seeks here to preserve (and which all of us ‘rightly’ ought to desire), namely a growing unity of mind and spirit!

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Dave. I’ve read Wright’s interview in the Gazette when it first came out and distinctly remember the part you have quoted. I’ve also perused For Everyone the Pastoral Epistles where he essentially expounds on the link above. The point I was trying to make is that we need to discuss these things with greater precision. For example, define “egalitarian”. I understand egalitarian (i.e. Evangelical Feminist) is one who rejects unique rolls for men and women, rejects complementarian roll of human sexes, and believes that all things must be equal in every respect.

    So most Evangelical’s will say that Jesus was an egalitarian (but few will acknowledge that to say this is anachronistic). If that were the case then one has to wonder why Jesus chose twelve disciples who are all males, rather then six men and six women. Now I know that there are answers offered to this dilemma, and I am not trying to advocate a complementarian view over an egalitarian one. All I want to suggest is that most “egalitarians” I’ve spoken too are – when pushed – complimentarian in at least some respects, and most “complimentarians” I’ve spoken too are – when pushed – egalitarian in many respects. The sides usually speak passed each other and become more polarized in the debate.

    I want to defend the dignity of women as much as the next egalitarian. But if the scriptures teach that men and women were created to compliment one another – which they seem to teach in my reading of it – I do not see this as removing the dignity of women any more then it could be said to remove the dignity of men.

  • Aaron

    Some would argue that to say that men and woman are equal but then tell women that they can’t hold certain positions is dishonest. Since even though there is a claim that roles are complementary – the reality is that men can have ANY position they want(or feel called to) – while some positions are off limits to women. Under these circumstances some would say that the word equal becomes meaningless.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    True that all things can be abused. But nature tells us that there cannot be any such thing as a “consistent egalitarian” (though I’m sure some radical feminist scientist is working hard to fix the dilemma). I am referring to the fact that men don’t give birth. If “equality” is unqualified then God designed things as “unequal” – and radical feminists might work diligently to fix God’s mistake. Besides, people who hold to the Complementarian position (such as Margaret Kostenberger)do not believe that “men can have ANY position they want”. That is a caricature – birthed out of fear – created by egalitarians. In my opinion it is an over-reaction, a tossing out of the baby with the bathwater.

  • http://www.TheJesusAgenda.net Dave Leigh

    Derek, Good thoughts. Thanks.

    As a mutualist/egalitarian, I personally I do not find it disturbing that Jesus chose male apostles any more than that he chose Jewish apostles and not gentiles. It is easier to overturn an order of things using those who are respected in that order than by using those who are oppressed with that order. For example, which would have more effect, for the Pope to declare that Papal Inerrancy is a misguided doctrine, or for disenfranchised Catholics to make that statement? And so when Rabbi Saul of Tarsus declares that baptism eradicates distinctions like who is Jewish and who is Greek, that has a punch to it! When males, who were respected as the leaders in most fallen cultures, including first-century Jewish and Roman cultures, are appointed as apostles and yet teach that we are not to exercise authority over each other (Mt 20:25-26), or that the husband does not have authority over his own body but the wife does (1Co 7:4-5), then again there is a punch that would be missed those who were seen as under authority and as properly subject to men came claiming to be spokespersons, since they are the underlings of society by that society’s standards.

    (Yet Christ sent women to the apostles to inform them of resurrection, making them “apostles to the apostles.”)

    I agree that we all have our inconsistencies, especially when it comes to application and practice. And I agree that the egalitarian position calls us to something unnatural–something that could only be accomplished by the new creation in Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit. Egalitarian practice belongs to the new and spiritual nature, rather than to the old and sinful nature. This does not bother me. And it does not surprise me when Christians yield to the flesh and fall short of it, even when they are passionate about their egalitarianism.

    I note that you associate egalitarianism with feminism. While the connotations may set off alarms for many cultural conservatives, I would plead that the secular feminist movement has distorted and misapplied principles derived from its roots. The original suffrage movement was rooted in the same cradle as the abolitionist movement. Feminism comes from Christian origins; it’s not the other way around. Secular feminism hearkens back to Bible believing Christians and their teachings, but since it is secular, it distorts and misapplies the intentions of its biblical origins.

    Both feminism and abolitionism…

  • http://www.TheJesusAgenda.net Dave Leigh


    Both feminism and abolitionism became distorted in their secular forms. The abolitionist movement became distorted when its secularized version sought war instead of advancement by conversion. The suffrage/feminist movement became distorted when its secularist version came to advocate a hatred of things male while yet implicitly making cultural disfunctionality associated with males a standard for women to aspire to.

    What alarms me most about the so-called complementarian movement is not the fact that the term is misleading–since complementarity implies symmetry, which complementarians have no real hint of. (Rather their idea of complementarity is dominate/submit, rule/submit, lead/obey.) What really bothers me is that in order to achieve their social agenda, complementarians since the late 1970s have begun to redefine the Trinity drawing upon subordinationist tendencies reflected in some theologians of the church’s past, even though creeds, councils, and confessions have rejected subordination within the Trinity as a false, if not heretical, doctrine.

    The immorality of hierarchalism and patriarchalism is another topic tha could fill volumes. The resemblance of egalitarianism to Jesus’ teaching and practice is, as you point out, quite obvious. And so I wonder: what exactly would cause anyone who professes Christ to think that patriarchal interpreters bear any resemblance to biblical faith?

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Hi Dave, I appreciate the feed back. I should note up front that I am very teachable in this area and as far as women “in authority/ministry” or as women “teachers”… I am quite the agnostic (lots to work out). I like how you use the term “mutalist” to define yourself because I would use the same term: Mutualism: “the relation between two different species of organisms that are interdependent”. They wouldn’t be interdependent if they were in every way identical. They only become interdependent if each compliments the other. :-)

    I also like how you were draw upon the New Creation. You are absolutely right that the abuses over the years (both in slavery and in chauvinism) are a result of the fallen nature. But the fallen nature distorts the true nature, it does not create something altogether different. The relationship between men and women has been abused by the fallen nature precisely because men and women were made different in the garden. Men and women are equal (YES! – Gen 1:26) but not the same (Gen 2:18). They have a mutual or symbiotic relationship (YES!). My point is that God did not create man and woman as a-sexual (or non-sexual) beings. That men – after the fall – abused their leadership is a sad reality of the fall. But in the new creation – which we are called to live in now – the new creation is about restoring God’s original design. This is why – by my reading – when Paul talks about husbands and wives, he points to the garden as a way of saying, “Look! That is what God originally intended. Now as a new creation this is the beauty of things”.

    Imagine I began to treat by wife like an a-sexual being, or worse (for the sake of “equality”), like “one of the guys” rather then like a lady… I’d spend my marriage in the dog house!

    One last note. I gathered my history of the Feminist movement in three forms: Radical Feminists; Moderate Feminists and Egalitarians (Evangelical Feminists); from Margaret Kostenberger’s book, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is. I don’t have it on hand, but in short, the Christian feminist position is quite new by comparison to the Radicals and Moderates who predate them.

    I suggest that if “so-called complimentarianism” has been abused through the centuries as it distorts Gods beautiful creation, we should – as creatures in God’s new creation – make every effort to restore the beauty of things, not abandon the mutual symbiosis of God’s intent for men and women.

  • Aaron


    I am in total agreement with you about Gender differences and the way they complement each other. Men and women relate differently to each other – they are very different. I’m just not sure that that means women can’t assume certain leadership positions in the church.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Aaron, then we see eye to eye (except, perhaps that we lean a little in the opposite direction). As I said to Dave, I’m an agnostic when it comes to women “roles” in the church. :-)

  • http://www.TheJesusAgenda.net Dave Leigh

    Thanks Derek!

    The Kostenbergers are correct that the key to all this is who do we say Jesus is. But they lean in a direction on that score that raises serious questions regarding orthodoxy. I have far more faith in Millard Erickson’s perspective on this than theirs or CBMW’s. (See his Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, for a very fair and insightful overview of that debate.) Likewise I think Margaret would benefit by reviewing the abolitionist authors.

    Derek, of course “equal” does not always mean “same.” But the idea of “roles” being something prescribed by gender is culturally based and foreign to the Bible. Certainly there are issues of biology that have affected cultural norms relative to how various societies and subcultures handle their pragmatic divisions of labor. But when it comes to the gifts and callings of God, there is no indication that the Holy Spirit limits himself to the parameters of culture, race, sex, or social class. Sensitivities to culture may be found in Scripture, just as Jesus found Moses making allowances for the hardness of human hearts. But when we examine the burgeoning progress of revelation, we find that seeds sown by Jesus and the apostles provide a sound and urgent basis for social revolutions regarding leadership, governance, slavery, war, marriage and ministry. Complementarians often find themselves pushing back in each of these areas and resisting that burgeoning progress in order to preserve an unbiblical perspective of authority and to press a hierarchal social agenda that is squarely unlike the teachings and example set by Jesus and the apostles on church, family, and community. By restricting those who are gifted and called by God to teach and preach the gospel, they even find themselves unwittingly opposing its propagation.

    The idea that complementarianism better agrees with the created order is very questionable in my opinion. I see no hint of it in Scripture. But it is also clear that Jesus and Paul envisioned a community beyond resuscitation of the original created natural. They envisioned resurrection that entailed transformation beyond anything known or experienced in the past. Paul even says we no longer regard anyone according to the flesh, even though we once knew Christ in this way. What matters is not the created order, nor the fallen nature, but the new creation. The gospel is not about restoring what was lost in the past but about transforming the future beyond what anyone has yet…

  • http://www.TheJesusAgenda.net Dave Leigh

    (continued) …

    The gospel is not about restoring what was lost in the past but about transforming the future beyond what anyone has yet experienced or imagined. (If it is about restoring anything, it is restoring the future that was lost at the fall, not the past that led up to it.)

    Okay, it’s late and I’m rambling. Thank you for the tactful and open way you’ve handled this. Yahweh’s blessings on you!