Because the idea of Scripture as a constitution or code book persists among Bible-loving Christians, many of us see the authority of Scripture mediated to us as commands, examples, and necessary inferences. The usual drill is to look for commands, note the examples, and make our own inferences. Something like this is practiced widely within all evangelical churches. So if you find a clear statement or two that tells women to be quiet, they are to be quiet.
But this interpretive scheme that arose in the 19th-century back to the Bible movements flunked a big test almost immediately: the issue of slavery in the social order . How does the Church oppose slavery in 19th-century America if the only way she understands the voice of God speaking to her today is through Scripture’s commands, examples, and necessary inferences? After all, the New Covenant Scriptures clearly say, “Slaves, be obedient to your masters.” Since there are no examples otherwise, the necessary inference is that slavery is the will of God.
Earlier in England William Wilberforce had accessed God’s will mediated to us through scripture by asking who are slaves in the story the Bible tells? Are they divine image bearers in Genesis 1 and are they part of the Lord’s Spirit filled redeemed community in the New Covenant? The answers led to his unrelenting efforts to abolish the African slave trade in England.
Carroll Osburn, a prominent New Testament scholar and longtime professor at Abilene Christian University , noted that while all the evangelists and elders named in the New Testament are male, he refused to label these examples and commands as normative for today’s church. Instead he simply said: “This situation should not be viewed as a pattern mandatory for all times and places, but merely as reflecting the culture in which the New Testament events were played out. Scripture does not teach that women cannot preach or serve in a leadership capacity.” The scripture is authoritative for today’s church, but commands , examples and necessary inferences disconnected from the storyline of Scripture do not carry authority for today’s church.
So how do we move from the the ancient Scripture to the life of the church today? What is the Word of God within these texts for the church today? How do we get from then to now? Where is the energy to do something about it? Instead of imposing a foreign rationalistic grid on scripture we might seek a method of interpretation which comes from the New Covenant Scriptures. Then we might first ask who God is and what he has done and what he is reportedly doing in the world through his Spirit? What is it we are authorized to do in the church? What God has already done and is doing. This is why we are baptized – because Christ has already died and we emulate what God has done and disclose what he has done (Romans 6:1-3).
If we ask who God is and consider what he has done and what he is doing regarding women, we focus the questions in a different, yet biblical direction.
Given the finished reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ the Lord, the presence of the Spirit in all who call on the Lord, and the recovery of the Genesis 1 vision of two divine image-bearers called together to rule over creation, what textual basis remains to forbid women from serving in any work the Spirit gifts them to do? Since on occasion women such as Deborah, even in the Old Testament era, led the people of God as they were gifted by the Spirit , are we not now called to simply recognize what God is already doing in women and release them into this work? Certainly this discernment applies to men as well and results in the joyful mobilization of the entire church for the works God has prepared beforehand for us to do.