My recent blog post, “On Lutheran Women and the Writing of Books” found a considerably larger audience than usual. One of the things I appreciate most when that happens is that such posts also generate more pushback. I usually get a number of counter-arguments that were either overlooked or inadequately addressed in the original piece and then have a chance to strengthen my arguments by responding to them.
Sadly, that didn’t really happen this time.
But while that was ad hominem rather than a genuine counter-argument, it is a common one. The accusation is raised pretty much anytime a Christian takes God’s Word more seriously that the world likes. It’s therefore a favorite insult among those who avoid taking Scripture seriously. It not only gives them license to continue whatever Scripture speaks against, it even lets them pretend to be morally superior in their sin. But if you actually look up the many and various places in the Gospels where Jesus argues with the Pharisees over Scripture, Jesus never once condemns the Pharisees for taking the Bible too seriously. Rather, Jesus consistently points out that the Pharisees aren’t taking Scripture seriously enough.
This pattern extends to the Pharisees’ treatment of God’s Law. Many falsely conclude that Jesus opposed them because they held to a strict moral code rooted in Scripture whereas our Lord rejected the Law in favor of the Gospel. (The fact that Jesus explicitly said he didn’t come to abolish the Law doesn’t seem to phase these antinomians.) But if you look at Jesus’ actual words to the Pharisees, you’ll see that their problem with respect to God’s Law was always undermining it with their own ethical code.
So let’s take a look at a few of Jesus’ condemnations of the Pharisees and consider exactly which side of the “women teaching in the church” debate they condemn.
“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
This is, perhaps, the most obvious one. The traditions of the Pharisees might have been intended to guide people in following God’s Word, but at the time of Christ they had supplanted Scripture instead. Whether it was using “corban” as an excuse to disregard the 4th Commandment, their misreading of Deuteronomy 24 as an excuse to divorce for any reason, or another of the “many such things you do” that Jesus asserts, the Pharisees were rigorous with respect to their own traditions but lax on the things God had actually commanded.
This pattern is certainly present in the current controversy, but not on the side my critics think. After all, what they view as a mere tradition is actually a command of God: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
At the same time, the pushback against that command proceeds entirely from a tradition of men: feminism. In the long history of the Christian Church, this controversy only sprang up after egalitarianism started to become normalized in the modern West. Our culture insists that women be made as equal with men as possible, and worldly Christians have rushed to accommodate that impulse. God, however, has never given us any imperative to include women in leadership, to make sure “highly qualified” women are teaching men in the church, to train them to be teachers of men, or to make sure the Church’s theology includes women’s voices. No such ambition proceeds from God’s instructions. Nevertheless, many Christians seek to leave the commandments of God because they get in the way of the feminist traditions of Western men upon which such ambitions rest.
So it is in this controversy.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.'”
When Jesus pronounced this judgment on the scribes and Pharisees, he was condemning their penchant for escaping the moral law through ethical technicalities. In essence, they thought they could escape their oaths if they worded them carefully–swearing by the temple instead of the gold or by the altar instead of the gift upon it–and it therefore wouldn’t “count.” As Jesus said in Mark 7, they had many such legalisms by which they could relieve themselves of having to actually obey God’s plain instructions.
Once again, we find the same pattern in this discussion about women teaching in the Church. Once again, it is the proponents of women teaching who engage in the kinds of meaningless legal technicalities condemned by Christ. It’s hard to even keep track of all of them: Teaching by means of the publishing arm of our church body isn’t technically teaching the church. If a woman teaches men in Bible study after the Benediction, it’s not technically teaching men in the church because the divine service is over. If a women delivers a “message” to the congregation rather than a “sermon,” it’s not technically preaching. If a woman preaches and administers the sacraments as a deaconess rather than a pastor, she’s not technically usurping the pastoral office.
As I wrote in the original piece, the entire endeavor is an attempt to circumscribe the pastoral office with dubious technicalities so that it will not get in the way of what women feel like doing. That is quite in keeping with the legalisms of the Pharisees.
“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”
Here, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their lack of proportion. They would take tithing to ridiculous precision–including even their spices–but deliberately ignored “the weightier matters of the law.” In essence, they prioritized the minutia of the ceremonial law (given only to Israel to set her apart) over the universal moral law (rooted in God’s eternal character and expressed in creation itself.) And it is specifically the priority he condemned here rather than extreme diligence in observing the ceremonies, for Jesus said “this you should have done without neglecting the other.” But they should have been able to keep the two in perspective because God had said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
The proponents of women teachers are certain they have us on this one. After all, what difference does it even make if a women rather than man teaches? Why should someone’s genitals be a qualification for the pastoral office? I even had one critic go so far as to suggest this prohibition is merely a ceremonial law akin to the Sabbath.
But once again, the shoe is on the other foot. The reason they see God’s prohibition on women teaching and exercising authority as a gnat rather than a camel is because egalitarianism has rendered them incapable of understanding it. The world teaches them that except for reproductive organs, men and women are essentially the same, and they are eager to adhere to its prince’s standard.
Consider how God, in contrast to the world, explains Himself. In 1 Timothy, He says “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” God ties His prohibition directly to both Creation and Fall–two fundamental aspects of human nature which we are unable to alter. This is explicitly a universal command, not a ceremonial one. 1 Corinthians also highlights the importance of this, for when Paul says it’s shameful for a woman to speak in church, he goes on to add, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”
This is in keeping with how Paul talks about the sexes elsewhere. In Ephesians, men and women are described as living images of Christ and his Church respectively. Earlier In 1 Corinthians, he talks about how nature itself proclaims that long hair is shameful for a man but a glory to a woman and about how man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. These are grand and sweeping distinctions. The simple fact is that God made men and women to be ontologically different–and part of that difference is women being fundamentally unqualified to teach and exercise authority over men. Anyone trying to minimize that difference to “just this” or “merely that” is opening wide to stuff that camel in.
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
Here, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for burdening their people with rules and traditions that went far beyond God’s commands. Those who would forbid women from writing teachings for men in the church are clearly the ones doing the same, right? That’s what one LCMS pastor contended when weighing in on this controversy. He termed it the “4th use of the Law” and wrote:
Don’t fornicate – so don’t dance.
Don’t gamble – so don’t use face cards.
Don’t violate the Sabbath – so don’t go over X steps.
Don’t misuse the name of the LORD – so don’t even speak Jehovah.
So on and so forth the pattern goes. And the arguments are always wonderfully appealing – there is a danger, and clear and present danger – and we can’t give in an inch to them, so to make sure they stay far, far away, we are going to… add things. Expand the meaning. Give our holiness a little lebensraum so that it is not defiled.
And these always go poorly. Wickedly. The gateway to tyrannical legalism because is it as much and as wicked a sin to add to God’s Law as it is to take away from it.
Surely, if men were to forbid women from anything other than the pastoral office–which this man has repeatedly circumscribed to a mere hour on Sunday mornings–they are sowing the seeds of this creeping legalism. How dare you go beyond the explicit text of Scripture like a Pharisee!
But who exactly is adding numerous rules and regulations to the text of Scripture here? This precise and narrow definition of the pastoral office as only existing during the divine service is not to be found in Scripture. The texts in question speak more broadly–teach or exercise authority over a man–and include alternatives like bearing children that extend beyond Sunday morning. Likewise, his rule that Christians must not rebuke a woman for teaching or exercising authority over a man unless she does it during that one hour on Sunday is not a Scriptural one; he added it. But the worst man-made rule from him that I’ve seen is his contention that it’s actually dangerous to be concerned with fidelity to Scripture. Where does God say that?
The Bible is not a flowchart by which every choice in our lives is automatically made. God expects and instructs us to use godly wisdom to apply Scripture’s teachings to life. “Don’t fornicate, so don’t dance” was chosen as an example because it’s quaint, but one could just as easily use “Don’t fornicate, so don’t hire a beautiful & libertine secretary and then share a hotel room when you take her on business trips” or “Don’t fornicate, so don’t seclude yourself with your girlfriend and explore your mutual romantic feelings.” The Bible doesn’t say that, so how dare you add to God’s word! But what does the Bible say? It says “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you” and “Flee from sexual immorality.” In other words, what he calls “4th use” and condemns as wickedness is explicitly commanded multiple times in Scripture.
Whether on fornication or some other issue, we all must use godly wisdom to practice what God’s Word’s preaches. When one denies this, he inevitably uses ungodly wisdom to undermine God’s Word with his many and various rules. That is what the Pharisees’ rules did. That is what I observe from the proponents of women teachers, not their detractors.
So who are the Pharisees in this matter? I leave that for you to judge, dear reader. But do not judge by the wisdom of the world and claim that the Pharisees are those who take God’s Word too seriously and try too hard to abide by it. Instead, judge by Christ’s words and consider which side is undermining Holy Scripture with a multitude of man-made traditions, legalisms, and a disregard for the importance of God’s commands.