Monday, March 19, 2012

Women in the church: Part 1, 1 Peter 3:7

Other posts on women as elders ⇐click

Is it Scriptural for a woman to be an elder? The issue came up recently in the context of a church committee I'm involved with. To be clear, I was asking one of my sisters in Christ if she would be open to being nominated as an elder; she asked if the Bible said this was okay, versus just our church's culture saying it's okay.

This prompted me to find our copy of Sumner's Men and Women in the Church, a brilliant volume which impressed me again with its clarity and its zeal for the Church. I want to consider this question objectively (Jesus himself said, "If anyone wants to do God's will, he will know whether my teaching is from God or whether I'm just making this stuff up," so I want to do God's will, whatever it is) but I must confess here that as a member of an egalitarian church body, I wanted the answer to be "yes it's okay." My pastors all believe it is, as do my fellow elders (we have pastors and elders who are women).

The chain of reasoning is rather long, so I'll post it a little at a time. The first text we'll consider is 1 Peter 3:7, which reads, "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers." (NIV) On the basis of this passage, one might wonder whether it's okay for women to hold leadership positions.

Sumner wondered this herself as she prayed for clarity on the issue. If we look up "weaker" or "weak" -- well, here's what the free online dictionary has at

adj. weak·er, weak·est
  1. Lacking physical strength, energy, or vigor; feeble.
  2. Likely to fail under pressure, stress, or strain; lacking resistance: a weak link in a chain.
  3. Lacking firmness of character or strength of will.
  4. Lacking the proper strength or amount of ingredients: weak coffee.
  5. Lacking the ability to function normally or fully: a weak heart.
  6. Lacking aptitude or skill: a weak student; weak in math.
  7. Lacking or resulting from a lack of intelligence.
  8. Lacking persuasiveness; unconvincing: a weak argument.
  9. Lacking authority or the power to govern.
  10. Lacking potency or intensity: weak sunlight.
(remainder elided)
If women fit that description, then, well, maybe better not to lead, she thought.

But then she remembered her seminary training: it's a no-no to get detailed meanings from a dictionary; one may start there, but it's important to see how a word is used elsewhere in the New Testament or, if no other uses are found, extra-Biblical contemporary literature.

The word translated "weak" is asthenees, which is also translated (elsewhere) as "sick"; it appears also in 1 Corinthians 1:25: "...and the weakness of God is stronger than men" and 2 Corinthians 13:4 "he was crucified in weakness." Sumner notes that a better translation in these three passages is "vulnerability", but even if we leave "weaker" as it is, an important clue to its meaning in context is its position here in a command to husbands regarding wives—specifically, a sexual context. No mention is made of how daughters are weaker, or how women in general are weaker; this "weakness" or "vulnerability" thing is only talked about between husbands and wives.

Her point is that a woman is vulnerable to a man in a way that no man is vulnerable to a woman, viz., sexually. Also, the typical husband is physically stronger than his wife.

The conclusion here is: if you thought that 1 Peter 3:7 says women are weaker in the sense of lacking authority or potency, and hence shouldn't be elders or pastors, then, well, it doesn't say that.

What that verse does say is: because a wife is vulnerable to her husband in a way that he's not vulnerable to her, it's a really really bad idea for the husband to exploit the physical advantage he has over her, because

  1. she's also an heir with him of the grace of life; and
  2. if he does exploit her rather than treating her with respect, his prayers will be hindered.
I think Peter's pretty clear on that last part. Anybody want to sign up for having your prayers hindered?

So the "weakness" here means physical/sexual vulnerability and it's a warning issued to husbands: Don't use your relative physical/sexual invulnerability to disrespect your wife. This verse says nothing about women's intellect, leadership ability, wisdom, integrity, clarity of thought, rationality, etc. -- oh, except the part about "heirs with you," which makes it sound like women are equal.

More soon on another passage, maybe 1 Timothy 2:12 or Ephesians 5:21-33.

1 comment:

jfille said...

Thanks for this post! The issue has been on my mind recently because Redeemer is PCA, i.e. doesn't have any female elders (although there are female deacons, which confuses me).

You've got a reduplicated sentence in the 2nd (?) paragraph: "The chain of reasoning is rather long..."