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Theologian’s questions on women’s roles obscure rather than clarify

Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story in the Bible is written by John Mark Hicks, who has taught for nearly four decades at institutions associated with Churches of Christ and is currently a professor of theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

Readers will likely come to his book with questions about what women can do in church, and Hicks does not disappoint. He asks them by the dozens.

There are the weird questions, such as, “May a woman read a Bible text in a class from her seat?” And there are questions that many of us have, like questions about Paul’s prohibitions for women in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Dozens and dozens of questions.

Hicks presents two interpretive options for answering these questions: blueprint and theological. Blueprint hermeneutics seeks explicit commandments, approved (binding) examples and necessary inferences for things like how to conduct a worship assembly.

Theological hermeneutics — Hicks’ preference — seeks the “theological point” in the text and the point that fits the “story” of the Bible. Since commands or instructions are cultural and contain theological nuggets, find that nugget, and apply it to your cultural moment.

Parts 2, 3 and 4 of the book are an autobiographical account of his move from “no leadership” to “limited leadership” and then “full participation.” While updating an article he had written on 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Hicks’ view “shifted from the total exclusion of the voices of women and leadership to a limited inclusion,” which views man’s headship “in terms of responsibility rather than authority,” he writes.

Author’s response: See an extended exchange among John Mark Hicks, Renée Sproles and her colleagues at johnmarkhicks.com and Renew.org.

Full participation, Hicks’ position now, “opens all functions in the assembly to women according to their gifts.” Hicks moved to this viewpoint, in part, by the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost and by interpreting Paul’s “new creation” language in Galatians as a return to “the partnership of the original creation” described in Genesis.

In part 5, he then catalogs the scope of women serving God throughout the Old and New Testaments, including Miriam, Deborah, Levitical singers, disciples of Jesus, resurrection witnesses and more. He rejects the notion of man being the “head” of woman, instead interpreting Paul’s headship language for Jesus, men and women in 1 Corinthians 11 as meaning “source.”

In the final section, Hicks deals with 1 Timothy 2:8-15, concluding (italics his) “There is no text that delimits the gifts of women in the assembly of God” because “(the) problem with some women in Ephesus was … that they were promoting ungodliness.”

Many of Hicks’ misgivings and regrets about women’s exclusion from public prayer, testimony or Scripture reading in churches resonated with my own frustrating experiences in Churches of Christ. It is true that, whether you lean more toward “full participation” or “limited leadership,” to use Hicks’s phraseology, the New Testament challenges our preconceptions about men and women, calling us all to a way of doing church that honors God and embraces revealed freedoms.

I appreciated that perspective in the book, but in the end, I was dissatisfied.

All the questions, charts and explanations leave the average reader concluding, along with Hicks, that “there is significant uncertainty about the meaning and application” of texts about women serving in the church.

But are the answers really that difficult for Christians to find?

Unfortunately, I think most readers will conclude that they are.

For most churches around the world, though, interpreting 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 using Hicks’ “new creation hermeneutic” takes outside influence. How can Galatians 3:28 (“nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) be a seed text to overturn male-female distinctions in the worship since Paul, who proudly co-ministered with women, writes to Timothy in a later letter affirming gender distinctions, even grounding them in creation order?

These texts become “problematic, misunderstood, and misapplied,” as Hicks writes, when we misunderstand servant leadership or seek to erase the norm of godly male leadership which spans both testaments. Hicks’ conclusion makes sense only if you start from an equality-means-interchangeability viewpoint and then go looking for it in Scripture.

As I closed the last pages of the book, I was left with a couple of final questions of my own: What if this uncertainty about women serving in church is something that lies within each of us — whether due to the gender confusion of culture or patriarchal bias in our churches? And what would our churches look like if we submitted to God’s revealed Word, taking advantage of our freedoms, and submitting to its boundaries?

RENÉE SPROLES is the author of “On Gender: What the Bible Says About Men and Women and Why it Matters.” She is the director of cultural engagement for Renew.org, former director of the School of Christian Thought at North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and co-founder of Discipleship Tutorial, a homeschool tutorial in Murfreesboro.

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Filed under: death of John Lewis Renée Sproles Reviews Women Serving God women's roles

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