Women in Ministry: Response to John Hobbins

Posted By on February 27, 2011

Well, I’ve finally carved out some time to respond to John Hobbins’ post entitled “What the New Testament Has to Say About Women in Ministry.” Below I have included each of John’s points (JH) along with my replies (MSH).

JH: (Point 1) It is a plausible but not incontrovertible assumption that “Junia” in Romans 16:7 is a woman. If so, nonetheless, she was almost certainly an apostle in the sense of a missionary, and part of a husband-and-wife team. . . .

MSH: no disagreement here.

JH: …. To suggest that she ran around and got up and preached in synagogues like Paul did, either on her own or side by side with her husband, seems unlikely. On the other hand, there is no reason to think she could not have spoken in exclusively Christian gatherings….

MSH: agreed as well (see my subsequent post to the one that kicked this off, about how I view “non-original 12 disciple apostleship” as basically missionaries.

JH: …. According to Paul, women were to be allowed to exhort and admonish with divine sanctions – a good working definition of prophecy – so long as it was done in good order by someone whose gifts were subject to testing (1 Cor 11-14, to be read as a unit).

MSH: also no disagreement here. I don’t see a necessary connection between propheticity and any sort of local church authority. For sure there was overlap, but no 1:1 equation in the NT as far as I can tell.

JH: (Point 2) Kephale (head) in Paul’s letters is a metaphor which has to do with hierarchy (though it has other resonances as well, particularly in Ephesians 5). See the comments of Max Turner. Hierarchy, however, is understood in the Israeli military sense in the Bible. That is, if you have a position of greater authority, it’s up to you to be more exposed, more vulnerable. You don’t retire to a safe place behind the front lines, rather, you lead your subordinates, with the greater likelihood that you will suffer the consequences. If you are beneath someone’s authority, you can expect to be covered and protected by that someone, who will suffer on your behalf….

MSH: an odd title for the analogy (it feels anachronistic), but I don’t disagree.

JH: … Paul saw it as part of nature for men to protect women in this way, with angels, apparently, protecting both (Paul is hard to follow here), just as he saw long hair to be by nature a feminine thing, and short hair a masculine thing. If we choose to make a clearer distinction between nature and culture than Paul needed to in his situation, that would be because our cultural context is different than his own.  However, all of this has exactly nothing to do with the question of women in ministry. Christ stands in a hierarchical relationship to all believers, indeed, to the world as a whole; he proved that on the cross.

MSH: This doesn’t make much sense to me. Why is the church (local assemblies of believers) specifically excluded here? Does everyone within the local body share *equal* responsibility (vulnerability)? If we say “no,” distinguishing the laity from leadership, where leadership would have greater responsibility / vulnerability than the laity, then are we to conclude that all *leaders* have precisely the same responsibility / vulnerability? That might make for nice theory, but I think, given human nature, it would actually work that way in reality. I need some exegetical basis for this parsing.

JH: ….Yet he sent out his followers to do the same things he did, without exception. It is even said that they would accomplish greater things than he did, and fill up what was missing in the vicarious suffering he accomplished. None of this is parceled out from the get-go into complementary realizations according to gender …

MSH: Now here is an important point. John appears to acknowledge that there is going to be hierarchy, but that said hierarchy is not delineated on the basis of gender. This might provide a point of focus: on what basis does Paul’s language in 1 Cor 11:3 not apply to “believer relationships” within the local church when it apparently (for John) applies outside the church? If John wants to apply it only within a family unit (he didn’t say that – this is just for illustration), then how are we to conclude Paul wrote 1 Cor 11 only with respect to families. Indeed, how are we to parcel out *which relationships* 1 Cor 11 applies to and which it does not?

JH: … though of course realization according to gender was and still is culturally constrained based on time, place, and other specifics of context. All cultures are complementarian to various degrees; all cultures are egalitarian to various degrees. The gospel, against both complementarians and egalitarians, is not about making culture more equal or more complementarian.  It’s about taking given cultural forms and making them into channels of faith, hope, and love.

JH: (Point 3) I concur with Mike that the fact, for example, that Miriam was a prophetess in that she sang to the Lord in public; that Deborah was a prophetess, too, in that she sang the tribes of Israel into battle, is not much of an argument in favor of women admonishing and exhorting with divine sanctions in public. Nor is it ever suggested that women could be priests in the Old Testament. But it is clear that Moses longed for the day in which all the Lord’s people would be prophets (Numb 11:29); that Joel predicted that both men and women would be given the spiritual gifts necessary to act as prophets (2:28-29 = 3:1-2); that Peter expected that prophecy to be fulfilled with the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18); and that we then hear of prophetesses in the New Testament (Acts 21:9; I Cor 11)….

MSH: I would only ask here on what basis John wants us to equate propheticity with local church leadership. Again, I wouldn’t say they are mutually exclusive or never overlap. I just don’t see a 1:1 relationship. I also don’t see why I should presume propheticity is to be identified with leadership (I speak here of administration or “authority”). I think the NT material could certainly be understood as people with prophetic gifts exercising those gifts apart from any sort of leadership in the local church. For John’s point to have real weight, these things need to be evident (for me anyway).

JH: … The evidence is strong, and not just from the New Testament, that God raises up women to admonish and exhort, perhaps especially for “such a time as this,” in the last days. One might expect such women to be unencumbered by the traditional chores reserved for women, such as managing a household and raising children, so it is not surprising that the prophets of Acts 21:9, Philip’s daughters, were in fact unmarried. In a sense, the whole idea that women in antiquity, given domestic organization at the time, could do things that required them to be out of the house on a continual basis, is a contradiction in terms….

MSH: Ditto what I noted in the last reply.

JH: … On the other hand, serving with prophetic gifts in worship, admonishing and exhorting in that context…

MSH: This appears to assume the sort of 1:1 identifications that I’m asking about above.

JH: … was compatible with being a materfamilias; much easier of course if one were unmarried or widowed. The offices of elder and bishop, on the contrary, given the 24/7 on-call dimension of the roles, were unsuited to women with heavy domestic responsibilities.

MSH: I wouldn’t disagree with that in principle, but John is assuming the domestic duties was the only or primary reason the offices of elder or bishop seem to be held by men (or described in masculine terms). I don’t know of any exegetical basis for that assumption. It would have been nice for Paul or someone else to tell us that (but that could be said about many things!). For my part, before I bring my assumption to this issue, I’d like something in the text to hang my hat on. A reasonable assumption does not an exegetical point make.  I have lots of what I’d think reasonable assumptions about points of biblical theology (and some strong suspicions!), but in a journal article or paper or dissertation, that doesn’t cut it. And I hope some complementarians reading this exchange start looking in the mirror at this point as well.

JH: … This remains the case today in many cultures, in all cultures to some degree. But, at a certain point in the reorganization of the domestic and professional spheres with which we are familiar in the West, notwithstanding the new problems such reorganization creates, a tipping point is reached, and a long series of professions once reserved for men, in practice if not de jure, become callings married women with children take on. Even cultural conservatives seem to have no problem with a mother with children like Sarah Palin becoming president of the United States and commander-in-chief. If that is the case, the argument against women being elders or bishops is not based on practicalities, but on the notion that being a pastor in the new covenant is equivalent to being a priest in the old covenant, which office was “arbitrarily” limited not only to males, but to males of a particular bloodline. But that is a problematic line of argument. In the new covenant, the priesthood of all believers is emphasized; furthermore, the threefold office, prophet, priest, and king, is likewise attributed to all believers.

MSH: For the point of the “priesthood of all believers” to have any impact on me, John needs to establish that this phrase refers to authority or administration or hierarchy (so as to level the “old hierarchy”). I take it as referring to *unmediated access* to God. With the theocracy kaput, each believer had direct access to God. The idea says nothing about hierarchy (as in, eliminating hierarchy). Now, John could ask me “well, Mike, can you *restrict* the priesthood of the believer idea in such a way as to exclude my use of it to leveling hierarchy?” I would reply that I can’t be sure the priesthood of the believer doesn’t mean what John wants it to mean as well. My lack of omniscience comes into play there. But I’m not convinced at all that it must or does mean what John sees in it. That’s John’s job in this exchange! I think I could argue that the references most often used to express the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:5-9) seem to fit my take on them better, as the language of sacrifice is part of the context, and sacrifice is quite linkable to access to God. The reference in 1 Pet 2:9 seems to cast believers (and the priesthood) as mediators of the knowledge of the divine, mediating the knowledge of God to others (“proclaim the excellencies”). What I’m saying here is that the phrase *does* democratize things like access to God and mediating the knowledge of God to others among all believers. But I don’t see how that eliminates hierarchy or the need for hierarchy. Come to think of it, exactly what ruling authority did OT priests have?  They were not rulers in Israel in most matters, and even within their own ranks had hierarchy (and it wasn’t just the high priest and everyone else, so the Jesus:everyone else proportion isn’t a correct analogy).

JH: … My advice to traditionalists: keep the tried and true ways if you are so convinced. Beyond that, perhaps Gamaliel’s advice is fitting: if the permission granted to women in circles beyond your own to become elders and bishops is of human origin, it will fail; if it is of God, and you fight it, you will be fighting against God.

MSH: Well, that can of course be reversed to egalitarians: “if the restriction of church leadership withheld from women in circles beyond your own is of human origin, it will fail; if it is of God, and you fight it, you will be fighting against God.” I’m actually a bit more apathetic here. If I wanted to grind a complementarian axe, I’d say, “For me, if God cared so much about having women in church leadership, He would have given greater detail – i.e, I wouldn’t have to be asking the questions I’m asking (and I’d have greater clarity on the items I sketched out in my second post).” But since I don’t have this axe to grind, I’m inclined to just say that if God really wanted us to fight for one position or the other like it was an item of great doctrinal importance, he would have made it more clear.

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18 Responses to “Women in Ministry: Response to John Hobbins”

  1. Sue says:

    I am concerned about the discussion of kephale in 1 Cor. 11:3,

    “Hierarchy, however, is understood in the Israeli military sense in the Bible. That is, if you have a position of greater authority, it’s up to you to be more exposed, more vulnerable. You don’t retire to a safe place behind the front lines, rather, you lead your subordinates, with the greater likelihood that you will suffer the consequences. If you are beneath someone’s authority, you can expect to be covered and protected by that someone, who will suffer on your behalf….”

    Unfortunately, we now have to deal with this verse,

    “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God.”

    Is there some suggestion that God exposed himself to danger and protected Christ from death. In fact, it seems that God subjected a subordinate Christ to suffering and death. If there is some suggestion that the subordination of Christ is a model for the subordination of woman to man, we are idolizing the violence that many women actually have suffered at the hands of man.

    One of the reasons that a lack of women in leadership is such a negative thing is that theological statements are sometimes made without any reference to the perspective of women. This interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:3, that woman is subordinate to man, in the same way that Christ is subordinate to God, is not reassuring to women, and does not offer women either protection or safety. It nails woman to the cross.

    I suggest instead that kephale refers to the relationship of unity of nature between two entities. Christ is of the same nature as God, he is divine. Woman is of the same nature as man, she is human. Man is of the same nature as Christ, he became a human to share in the nature of mortal man.

    • MSH says:

      I didn’t bring up the verse, so I’ll let John respond. Leadership is not inherently negative. God used it in the human world all the time. it is humans that corrupt it, not God, so God cannot be blamed if he chooses to make it part of human relationships. I don’t think egalitarians make this distinction, which to me is pretty obvious. All humans are of the same nature, and yet our status as social beings (like God no less) runs well when hierarchicalized. Examples are all around us. And yet since we are imperfect (an understatement) we can corrupt this. But the fact that we can corrupt something pretty skillfully does not make the thing corrupted corrupt in its nature. Nature and use/appliation are two different things. Sure there is such a thing as pornography, but is that the camera’s fault?

      • Sue says:


        1. I won’t ask you further about 1 Cor. 11:3 except to say that if headship is interpreted as hierarchy in this verse, if woman is sent by man, as Christ was sent by God, and for the same end, that is vicious. I don’t have anything further to say about that.

        2. On hierarchy, – men have organized government as an accountable and answerable bureau. Men chose to live in a democracy. I do not think that any man who lives in a democracy has the right to tell a woman that it is not so bad to live in a non-democracy. There is a simple lack of credibility. Women recognize that this is not a credible argument.

        3. You seem to suggest that most exegetical arguments on women in ministry are a stalemate. Therefore, complementarianism is not a necessity, but it is a belief that some people chose of their own free will. Why would anyone do that? Why chose a belief which entails not treating women as the neighbour of man?

        • MSH says:

          well, 1 Cor 11:3 never says woman is “sent” by man, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about there. I think you may be reading some complementarian’s comments into that verse. I can’t say I’ve ever heard that language before, but maybe it’s just the word choice that strikes me as odd. Your comments on hierarchy are more reflective of your own terrible experience than the reality known by millions. On the third comment, I’m saying that I need positive evidence for egalitarianism that complementarianism cannot overturn. That’s all. Since my hermeneutic does not filter all this through abuse as in your case (and that is not a swipe by any means), your statements just don’t work for me. I don’t parse hierarchy negatively because I know that hierarchy is not of necessity evil. The issue is the hearts of men, not structure. SOMEONE has to lead. We aren’t the Borg. God made us social beings and gifted certain people to lead. It’s just part of humanity and isn’t evil. I think women do, should, and ought to lead, and many are gifted for it. I don’t know why leadership in the church must be defined as one office. Why? I would agree with you that a man in a church as pastor who refuses to allow women in leadership positions is wrong to do so, but since the NT model *appears* to be that some sort of “highest accountability” within local bodies is filled by men, I need a positive proof that all changed in the NT for me to be a full-blown egalitarian. I’m very sympathetic to egalitarian concerns, but I feel like I need my theology to be exegetically-based. To sum up: I want to believe the egalitarian view, but it hasn’t given me a really good reason to do so. My conscience is bound by the text, but knowing I could be wrong, I leave it as an issue of conscience. It would be wrong to impose my conscience on others, so I don’t feel led to oppose women who feel called to ministry. Without a positive exegetical argument to put me over the edge, your questions and promptings only amount to you asking me to violate my conscience.

          • Sue says:


            I think you will find that a classic interpretation of the subordination of Christ, based on the phrase “the head of Christ is God” is that Christ was SENT by God. If you read Bruce Ware, you will find that the only foundation in early church theology, which suggests that Christ might be in some way subordinate to God, is found in the statement by Augustine that Christ was SENT by God. That is the only foundational statement regarding the subordination of Christ.

            This is the foundation of the teaching of the subordination of Christ. If you do not believe in this, that Christ is subordinate to God, then you don’t believe that kephale means authority over a subordinate being in 1 Cor. 11:3. If you believe kephale means authority and submission, then you believe in the submission of the one who is sent to suffer on the cross. There is no other way of Christ being subordinate.

            I am only asking you and John to present a cogent theology. So far you have not presented coherent thoughts on kephale and subordination, but you seem convinced nonetheless that woman is subordinate. I don’t understand your exegetical basis. You have not convinced me that you have one,

            You write that you need more exegetical proof for egalitarianism, but you have not engaged with me on any further points than Junia as a woman apostle. If we were to proceed, I would point out that the text does not differentiate between apostle and pastor, but puts apostle above a pastor in Eph. 4:11 and in 1 Cor.

            If we take kephale, then we must either say that as Christ is to God, so is woman to man, and if that is the nature of the subordination of Christ, it is then the death of woman. I believe we have to cut short that analogy and start over. The kephale analogy cannot be completely as subordination.

            I do not know of one text which absolutely requires the subordination of woman. Every text has more than one way of being exegeted. It appears that you have made a choice for the option of subordination. That is fine, but you must present this as the thing which you have chosen. You must accept that you have chosen subordination for woman and defend this position.

            I ask you, why have you chosen the subordination of woman?

            I have chosen to believe in equality for women, and I have both a basis in the text, in the wider themes in the scripture, in the narrative, in history, in the witness of nature, and in the spirit. I KNOW why I believe that woman is equal in function to man.

            So I am curious – why have you chosen the subordination of woman?

            • MSH says:

              this is a bit of a deficient view of subordination. In my dissertation, I argued that there was a godhead in Israelite religion. The Old testament is the place from which the later (orthodox until the second century AD) Jewish doctrine of two powers in heaven springs. The binitarian godhead figure in the Old Testament was clearly subordinate to the invisible Yahweh (the “Father” in NT parlance). I don’t expect you to follow this; it is merely to say that I think of the whole godhead issue in a way different from any standard articulatuon. I think of it in Old Testament terms. As a result, I do think the Son was subordinate, because the second power motifs of the Old Testament are deliberately applied to him.

              • Sue says:


                I have read Philo, Plato, Wisdom and the Sefer Yetsirah all in the original languages and I am quite familiar with the writings of Daniel Boyarin on this topic. So please tell me why you would not expect me to follow this conversation.

                I puzzled for many years with trying to find some equation between 1 Cor. 11:3 and the binitarian view of the godhead. I have thought about whether it is possible to make the comparison,

                As the Logos is to God
                so is woman to man

                As you know, the Logos is son, king, priest, and among other things. Logos as the word is masculine, and as Wisdom is feminine, but to say that as the Logos is to God, so is woman to man – that is a leap which I have not yet read about. If you wish to put forward this analogy, I am all ears!

                I put down all polemics, such as have been created by others and not me, and await your elaboration on how Boyarin’s schema can be related to kephale.

                • MSH says:

                  it’s not Boyarin’s scheme; it’s going beyond Boyarin into Israelite religion.

                  • Sue says:

                    Are you saying that I am not able to follow the connection between 1 Cor. 11:3 and the binitariani godhead, or are you saying that there is no connection betweeen 1 Cor. 11:3 and the binintarian godhead?

                  • MSH says:

                    neither; I’m saying my arguments provide the backdrop for binitarianism (where it comes from and why it is what it is from Israelite religion) and that is new information.

  2. Matthew says:


    I the last article’s comment section you said:
    “Apparently that video is history. I’m told that it isn’t available. I think they were describing “days” in normal terms, but it actually means nothing since so much content in Genesis 1-2 (and elsewhere) is pre-scientific.”

    Now, I really enjoyed your use of the example which was about the 8-year old girl and the scientist. But, the girl in the example was right about God making her baby brother, but only in a certain, specific (more abstract) sense. This is basically the conclusion you ended up drawing (i.e. the girl & the scientist were both right and both wrong). Also, the first chapter of Genesis is obvious pre-scientific, but God really did create all those things he listed. So, in a sense, those passages are totally true. I just have a hard time with the idea that “days” mean nothing in normal terms. That doesn’t flow well from the example of the girl or the other portions of Genesis 1. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking on this debate without having some kind of explanation for the days.



    • MSH says:

      right – it’s true that God created everything. It’s also true that the writer uses the normal words for time-keeping (like days). But in view of other items in Genesis and elsewhere (like the “firmament” / “expanse? being a solid round dome over the earth), the disorder of things like sunlight and plant life (the latter needs the former), the very deliberate literary arrangement of items in days 1-3 and 4-6 (aligning for conceptual reasons, not scientific ones), I see no reason to conclude we ought to worry about the days at all. In other words, let’s say, okay, it’s six 24 hour days — now what? What does that prove? Those who desperately want this want it because of science (we know scientifically how long days are). Great. How does that explain all the other pre-scientific material? It doesn’t, so why should we care to make the 24-hour day argument? I don’t see any exegetical or theological pay-off.

      • Matthew says:


        Does the ANE community also apply this standard to the majority of Genesis 2 (i.e. everything after verse 3)? It seems like Paul was under the impression that Adam and Eve were real people (1 Ti 2:13). And, it seems that Paul believes that Eve was actually out of man (1 Cor 11:8). If the ANE community believes that these verses are not historical, scientific, how would that impact the historical parallel that is the life of Christ?



        • MSH says:

          I’m not sure what you’re asking here. In general, ANE cultures were all very patriarchal. Some religious systems did have priestesses, but it’s hard to equate that with our conception of ministry. Women priestesses had the primary duty of sacred marriage (sex) with the king in a ceremonial sense; they did not have authority over male priests. There is a lot of debate whether they were cultic prostitutes or not (probably depends on the culture and one’s interpretation of prostitution).

          • Gary Simmons says:

            Michael: In what sense were women priestesses in ANE cultures? I speak as a student with only the most basic of introductions to that field of study, but I must ask what your definition for priest(ess) is.

            Did these women perform human/animal sacrifice? Or does the fact that they shed the blood of life preclude them from shedding the blood of death, as cultural anthropologist Alice Linsley argues?

            Or, is “priestess” a feminine form of a masculine word in which the feminine form does not mean “feminine counterpart of [masculine form]“, such as with “master” and “mistress”?

            • MSH says:

              which culture?

              I’m not aware of women priests offering sacrifice in the ANE, but I’ve not looked deeply. The fact that in all that I have read it was not mentioned suggests to me it is either very rare or does not occur. They would have other duties. There are no female priests in the Hebrew Bible, so the terminological question is moot. In other ANE languages, there would be feminine forms.

  3. Sue says:

    Your dissertation is not free, so I will have to endure the unhappy thought that I will never know the relevance of your comments. ;-)

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