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Topics: 1 Timothy 2, Complementarianism, Women in Ministry

Engaging a Viral Interview with N. T. Wright about Women in Ministry

February 25, 2020

A video interview with N. T. Wright recently went viral on Facebook (watch it below). In it, Wright is asked about women in ministry. It is clear that the interviewer and the audience are eager to hear Wright plant an egalitarian flag in the ground. Wright says that he is asked about this almost everywhere he goes, but in Britain the question elicits a yawn. Wright says that they settled the question long ago across the pond, and he expresses amusement that Christians elsewhere can’t seem to catch up to the British embrace of egalitarianism.

Wright says that he has two “quite easy biblical answers” to the question of women in ministry — John 20 and Romans 16. I quote him at length so that you can get this in his own words:

[In] John chapter 20, Jesus is raised from the dead, and the first person he meets is Mary Magdalene. He does not say, “Mary, I’ve got some really important news — I want you to go get Peter because I need to tell him so that he can then go and tell everybody else.” He says (you see where this is going)… Jesus says, “Mary, go and tell my brothers — those men who are hiding at home because they’re scared — go and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father…” That is the foundation of all — this is a bishop speaking to you about Christian ministry for goodness sake — that is the foundation of all Christian ministry, is the news that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead and is now to be the Lord of the world. And it’s Mary who gets to do that first.

The other passage is Romans 16. When Paul gives the letter to the Romans — probably the most important letter ever written — who does he give it to to take it to take to Rome? A lady called Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea, which is the Eastern port of Corinth. She’s presumably an independent business woman. She’s on her way to Rome. “Phoebe, will you take this and deliver it to the different house churches around Rome?” And almost certainly in the ancient world, the person who delivers the letter is the person who will read it out — ’cause she will know, ’cause she was there when Paul was dictating it, etc. And also — this isn’t absolutely certain but it’s high probability — she is the first person to explain when people [asked], “What did Paul mean by that?” People get surprised when I tell them that [it’s] highly likely that the first ever exposition of Paul’s letter to the Romans was done by a Christian business woman from Eastern Corinth.

With those two in mind, whatever the other passages mean — and they’re difficult, they contain, like 1 Timothy 2, contain words that don’t occur elsewhere in the New Testament etc. — whatever those passages mean, that narrative is so clear. And to anyone in the first century… Again, read The New Testament in Its World. Think what those passages would mean. And, I think, game over. We are sharing ministry together.

Wright presents John 20 and Romans 16 as if they somehow close down all debate about women in ministry — as if Christians everywhere should just get in line with the British Anglicans and start ordaining women as pastors. (At this point, I’m tempted to ask him if Christians everywhere should get in line with the British Anglicans on gay marriage too, but I digress.) He claims that these two clear texts nullify the “unclear” prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12, where Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” According to Wright, there are some confusing words in that verse, and for that reason it can be safely set aside while we all follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and Phoebe.

Game over, right? Well actually, game not over. Not even close to it. In fact, game not even started. Wright has not even engaged the actual debate between egalitarians and complementarians. He evades the real issues in contention and tries to hang egalitarian revisions entirely on two texts that do not teach egalitarianism.

Concerning John 20, complementarians and egalitarians agree that both men and women should share the gospel with their neighbors and should do so without respect to gender. For example, in Jim Borland’s chapter in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, he makes this very clear:

Christ’s final teaching to a woman is contained in His post-resurrection words to Mary Magdalene concerning His ascension (John 20:17). Jesus asks Mary to convey His words to the others, which she does (20:18)…

These women not only were the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, but also stand perpetually as examples for all believers. These women led the way in proclaiming the gospel — that Christ died for our sins, was buried, but rose again for our justification the third day. The duty and high privilege of witnessing for Christ is still open to every believer, without distinction as to gender (pp. 118, 120).

For Wright to imply that Mary Magdalene’s witness is somehow contrary to complementarian teaching is just wrong. The dispute between egalitarians and complementarians is not and never has been about the propriety of women sharing the gospel with men. It’s about headship and teaching authority within the church — an issue Wright chooses to dodge rather than engage in this particular interview.

Yes, Jesus gives great dignity to women all throughout his ministry. Women served in crucial ministry capacities such as praying, providing financial assistance, ministering to physical needs, and witnessing to the resurrection. Complementarians have always recognized and celebrated these things (RBMW, 113). Nevertheless, it is also true that Jesus chose only men to serve as apostles with the primary tasks of preaching, teaching, and governing. Why can’t egalitarians recognize and celebrate that aspect of Jesus’ ministry as well? That would have been an interesting question for Wright to answer.

Concerning Romans 16, Wright correctly observes that Phoebe likely was the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Romans. But almost everything he says after that is pure conjecture. Was Phoebe serving in the office of deacon? Maybe or maybe not (I have argued elsewhere not). Was Phoebe an independent business woman? We don’t know. The text doesn’t say one way or the other. Was Phoebe there when Paul dictated the letter? There is nothing in the text suggesting that she was. Did Christians in Rome ask her to interpret the letter for them? Again, nothing in the text says that they did. Did Phoebe serve as the first expositor of the letter to the Romans? Again, nothing in the text of Romans nor of any other Pauline writing suggests that she did.

It is true that letter-carriers in the first century often did some of the things that Wright attributes to Phoebe. But that is hardly grounds for regarding Phoebe as an expository preacher at the church of Rome. Especially given the fact that Paul so clearly says elsewhere that such preaching is precisely what he does not permit in the churches (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34–36). But keep in mind that Wright has already set aside 1 Timothy 2:12, so that this allegedly unclear text need not keep us from seeing what is “clearly” going on with Phoebe.

The primary problem with Wright’s reading is that much of what he says about Phoebe is in fact conjecture. Nevertheless, the wording of 1 Timothy 2:12 is not conjecture. The basic gist of the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 was pretty well understood throughout the entire 2,000-year history of the church until western feminist influence began to assert itself over the last 50 or 60 years. That ought to raise red flags to anyone with an ounce of historical perspective. Tradition is an imperfect authority, but I’m going with the democracy of the dead on this one.

I really appreciate N. T. Wright in a lot of ways. He is a prolific scholar and a stimulating communicator. But I have long been dissatisfied with his arguments for egalitarianism. His handling of the text has been so unpersuasive on this particular issue. And I think he is again unpersuasive in this interview.

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