Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part III: Thinking it Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives)
Chapter 14 – The Priority of Spirit Gifting for Church Ministry. Gordon D. Fee.
Dr. Fee writes:
What is at stake is not whether all people are equally gifted; they are not. What is at stake is whether God the Holy Spirit, in his gifting the people of God, ever makes gender a prior requirement for certain kinds of gifting. I will argue that on this point what biblical data we do have seems clear: the Spirit does not. (241)
So what I hope to do in this chapter is threefold: (1) to point out the ambiguity of the biblical texts with regard to church structures and ministries, and thus (2) to define a hermeneutical starting point from which our quest might legitimately be carried forward, and (3) to look at a variety of texts that state or imply that Spirit gifting precedes all questions of structures and gender. (241)
The Bible’s Ambiguity Regarding Church Structure and Ministries
Fee begins this section by writing:
One thing that should perhaps strike the serious reader of Scripture is the general lack of concern in the New Testament about the way the church ordered its corporate life, whether in structures (“offices,” etc.) or its gatherings for worship. (242)
Fee goes on to point out that while we do find very explicit, intentional instructions for how Israel should function and how the people should worship, such instruction is completely absent from the New Testament. The nearest thing we have is 1 Timothy 3:1-13, and Titus 1:5-9, but these are just qualifications for leaders. It doesn’t give a job description. The concept of “office” in terms a formal position that someone needed to fill, can only be crafted out of 1 Timothy 3:1 and that is a stretch. Some things we take as titles, like “prophet,” were likely not office titles but rather a mere description of someone who prophesies. Fee notes that “…what is totally lacking in our documents is any instruction intentionally stipulating who, what, how many and the duties of these various people." (243)
Fee points writes that it appears some New Testament churches functioned like synagogues with elders giving leadership, yet some leaders were episkopoi, which was a term from the Greco-Roman world simply meaning “overseers.” Fee mentions that we know that some churches were household churches. Other study I have done also suggests some churches (Thessalonica?) may have been organized as burial societies, which would have been a more convenient strategy for poorer congregations. The bottom line is, we just don’t have a blueprint for church structure and church life.
A Hermeneutical Starting Point
As a hermeneutical starting point, Fee suggests that we recognize that there are three kinds doctrinal statements we make in the Church.
- Christian theology (what Christians believe)
- Christian ethics (how Christians ought to live in relation to others)
- Christian praxis (what Christians do as “religious” people) (246)
He says that:
Moreover, within these three kinds of statements there are some that are primary and nonnegotiable (e.g. the diety of Christ), while others are secondary (e.g. the two natures and how they cohere.) … most of the differences between Christians lie in two places: (1) with the secondary-level statements in the first two categories (theology and ethics) and (2) with both levels of statements in the third category (praxis). (246)
Fee points out, Christians all practice communion but there is wide variance about how to observe it properly. Still, all the justifications, “… are predicated on different readings of texts that give no explicit instruction; everything is implied.” (246)
…our hermeneutical difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that our only experience of church, even for those who have broad intercommunion experience, is of a later development of church that looks almost nothing like the house church of the first-century Greco-Roman world. (247-248)
Consequently, there is no one-to-one correspondence between what the New Testament calls some function like “pastor” and what we call “pastor” today. Fee concludes:
…since the New Testament does not teach explicitly that only men may lead or serve in certain ways, and in fact seems to leave the door open on this matter (in the case of women as householders), the issue should more likely be giftedness, not gender. Indeed, I for one have as much resistance to the notion that women ought to be in leadership along with men as to the notion that only males are gifted to lead. (248-249)
Verbal Ministries in the New Testament
In this section Fee asks:
(1) What does “ministry” mean? Can one make a legitimate distinction between ministry as “office” in the church and ministry as serving the church in other capacities? (2) What is the evidence that women were involved in ministry that included teaching, especially instructing others in scripture. (249)
Fee builds a case that when Paul talks about praying and prophesying in such an offhanded way in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, he is using these terms as euphemisms for all verbal ministry in worship. Paul simply doesn’t make neat clean boundaries between various types of utterances. Fee also raises 1 Cor 14:31, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” He points out that the “all” refers to all worshipers (men and women). He notes that,
These latter two verbs are most often associated, first, with receiving instruction through teaching and, second, with proclamation – which suggest that Paul did not have neat categories for these various verbal expressions prompted by the Spirit.” (250)
Furthermore, Fee concludes that prophesy in passages like 1 Cor 14 is simply referring to people who occasionally prophesy not to an office of prophet.
Here is Fee’s summary of the biblical data:
First, one finds a general lack of precision in Paul when it comes to describing verbal ministries within the community of faith. (251)
Second, in no instance in Paul’s letters does he mention leader(s) who are to be in charge of what takes place; for him the Spirit is the obvious leader of the community in its worship.
Third, there is no distinction of any kind between men and women when it comes to the actual verbal activities involved; indeed, a straightforward reading of all the texts together seems to imply that “all” means both men and women. (251)
Fee points out that an important implication of thus analysis is that the New Testament just isn’t concerned about the specific structures and offices. He notes that Paul never addresses church leaders either to exhort them to take charge or praise them for work well done. He never speaks to leaders as though they are the ones to carry out his directives. “He does at times tell the community to “recognize” its leaders, but the language is in the form of verbs describing their activities rather than nouns that indicate their “offices” (see I Thess 5:12-13). (253)
Fee closes noting that such a view of ministry based on gifts makes ministry less authority driven. It eliminates the problem common in seminaries of many students assuming they meet the first requirement for ministry: being male. It also opens the doors to the possibility of everyone participating in all facets of ministry whether male or female.
Thus, my issue in the end is not a feminist agenda – an advocacy of women in ministry. Rather, it is a Spirit agenda, a plea for the releasing of the Spirit from our strictures and structures so that the church might minister to itself and to the world more effectively. (254)
Gordon D. Fee received his M.A. from Seattle Pacific University and Ph.D from the University of Southern California. He is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at Regent College as well as an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God. His publications include How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; How to Read the Bible Book by Book; New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook; God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul; Listening to the Spirit in the Text; and commentaries on 1 Corinthians and Philippians (NICNT) and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC). He and his wife, Maudline, have four married children and twelve grandchildren.
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