A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Jeremy Muncy
At the moment, the denomination in which I pastor is in a discussion regarding women’s roles in the local church. Consequently, I have been reading materials on both sides of the debate and a friend recommended Dorothy A. Lee’s The Ministry of Women in the New Testament. The book’s purpose is clear: Lee strives to make a biblical, theological, and historical case for women’s full participation in the ministry and leadership of the church. All-in-all the book is helpful albeit misleading. It is helpful in that it repeatedly shows the influential and instrumental ministry of women in the New Testament. It would be very hard to walk away from this work not appreciating God’s use of women in the context of the church. Nevertheless, the book errs in that it fails to accomplish its ultimate purpose. While Lee helps her readers to appreciate the ministry of women and better understand many of the issues surrounding the debate, her case against male-only headship in the home and the church is not convincing and requires adopting a dangerous hermeneutic.
Lee breaks the book into two main sections: part one examines women’s ministry in the New Testament and part two takes a look at women’s ministry in the tradition of the church. Before we look at these, however, it is helpful to understand her hermeneutical method. An awareness of this is essential in understanding her handling of Scripture.
As was stated before, Lee’s biblical argument hinges on her approach to interpretation. She recognizes this:
At its core the issue is one of interpretation: especially of the Bible, but also, to a lesser extent, of Christian tradition. The biblical basis some claim for disqualifying women is a handful of texts, and in asserting this claim, these interpreters blithely ignore the weight of New Testament theology and the basic principles of the gospel. They insist on one meaning to the Bible, crystal clear but allowing for no different or opposing view (xi).
Lee then clarifies her hermeneutic in the following statements:
Our own cultural framework can open new doors of meaning for us from these ancient texts. It is (part of) the meaning of Scripture as inspired by the Holy Spirit: the capacity to speak anew through the One who inspired and inspires (xi).
Women have the capacity to illuminate the text in ways unforeseen by past, male-centered generations, grasping that ‘surplus of meaning’ that, in theological terms, indicates the continuous, inspiring work of the Holy Spirit (9).
The text may also point in a fresh direction, creating a trajectory for future interpretations. The horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader need to meet for biblical meaning to emerge. For our purposes, this balanced view enables women, in particular, to read and reread the biblical texts from their own perspective (“horizon”) to discern meanings for today (9).
The language Lee is using here is very similar to the language used by those who endorse the redemptive-movement hermeneutic. At its heart, this approach is an attempt to find the redemptive-spirit that underlies the Biblical text. Supporters propose that the redemptive-spirit helps us to move beyond the historical meaning and application of a given passage toward a more desirable or final ethic. In other words, this approach strives to take into account the movement of the biblical text within the flow of redemptive history and teaches that the meaning (not just the application) of a particular passage can evolve throughout the ages. For them, a text has a “surplus of meaning” that extends beyond its original audience and speaks afresh to future generations.
Now, are there certain texts that have multiple (or historical and future) fulfilments? Absolutely. The Scriptures are unique in that God and the human writer are both active in their composition allowing the possibility that God’s intention in a particular text goes beyond what the human writer fully understands. Nevertheless, while certain passages may mean more than what the human writer intended to communicate, they cannot mean less, or worse than that, the opposite. The application of a passage may change (sometimes drastically), but the meaning of the text, rooted in the intention of the author, is unaffected by time, culture, or any other factor. This is the problem in Lee’s approach. By following what she would see as the trajectory of the New Testament’s ethic regarding women’s roles in the church, she interprets passages of Scripture in ways that contravene the original authors’ intent.
Part One: Women’s Ministry in the New Testament
The most helpful part of the book was Lee’s overview of women’s ministry in the New Testament. She combs through the Scriptures highlighting the important and influential role women played in Jesus’ ministry and in the earliest days of the church. This portion of Lee’s work gave me a greater appreciation for the role women played in building and strengthening the early church. Nevertheless, Lee reads too much into these accounts. While she makes a clear case that women had a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence in the church (prophesying, giving, serving, witnessing, and ministering in various ways), she does not show any evidence that they were performing these ministries with elder-type authority or that Scripture permits a woman to serve in the office of elder.
Further, her interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where Paul forbids women to teach or exercise authority over men, is dependent on her translation of the word “authority” (authentein). The authority and teaching that Paul is referring to here, Lee suggests, is by nature, domineering. If she is correct it would open up doors for women having authority over and teaching men in non-domineering ways. The problem with this interpretation is that it just does not fit the text and does not take into account Paul’s grounding of the issue in the created order. For an in-depth and very convincing argument against her interpretation see, Al Wolters, “The Meaning of αὐθεντεῖν,” in Women in the Church, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 65–116. While she does not reference Women in the Church, it would be well worth your time to read this milestone work regarding 1 Timothy 2:9-15.
Probably the most troubling portion in this section was the correlation Lee makes between the issue of male-leadership and slavery. She refers to them as “parallel-scenario[s]” (133). Lee argues that just as slavery was tolerated by God but not ideal, so too were gender-roles permitted but not ultimately desirable. Anyone who has read the Scriptures knows, however, that slavery (while tolerated) was not instituted by God. The exact opposite is true when it comes to gender-roles. They were instituted by God himself and it is to this created and instituted order that Paul points to in 1 Timothy 2:13 when he explains why women are not to be in authority over men. Slavery is man-made while gender roles in marriage and the church are from the Lord.
Part Two: Women’s Ministry in the Tradition of the Church
As stated earlier, Lee believes that the trajectory of Scripture points to the goal of male and female leadership in the church. A goal that was, according to her, somewhat realized in the early days of Christianity but has since been lost. Throughout this section of the book, she seeks to show this by pointing to influential women at the onset of church history. Once again, however, her argument is unconvincing. Furthermore, her lack of appreciation for the sufficiency of Scripture is apparent.
She opens the second portion of the book,
For some Christians, it is enough to explore the biblical witness to decide the issue of women’s ministry. It is a kind of sure bet on the question, and nothing more needs to be said once the exegetical work of forbidding women’s leadership is done (153).
What I am about to say will fall directly into the camp she is describing here, but that does not make it wrong. Is it helpful to examine the interpretation and application of Scripture throughout the history of the church? Of course! This helps us to rightly divide the truth by examining our forebearers’ interpretation of Scripture and holding it up to the witness of the Bible. Indeed, I have gained wonderful insights into the meaning of Scripture from those who have gone before. Nevertheless, examples in church history bear no true authority apart from their conformity with the intent of Scripture. If the biblical witness forbids women’s leadership over men in the church and does so based upon God’s created order, is this not enough?
Lee seems to be searching for examples to prove her point. The problem is, even the examples she finds (which are scant) are not authoritative. There are plenty of cases throughout history where Christians (even faithful ones) had practices that were unbiblical.
Overall, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament is helpful yet unconvincing. It increased my gratitude for the many women of the New Testament but failed to change my understanding of male and female roles in the church. The book would serve as a needed rebuke for those who unbiblically stifle women’s ministry, nevertheless, complementarians (and anyone unwilling to adopt her hermeneutic) will find her arguments less than convincing.
Jeremy N. Muncy is a pastor at Westwood Alliance Church in Mansfield, Ohio.