Thursday, October 21, 2010

Women as Pastors

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on Women as Pastors:

Q: Why is it that some churches have women as pastors and others do not? What reasons do they give for their position?

The ordination of women to the office of pastor is a topic that has been the center of a great deal of controversy in many denominations for several decades now. The Bible certainly honors the important roles which women have played in Church during its time and throughout History. In the earliest years of the Church, the Bible frequently mentioned women who were church leaders either as deaconesses or as the hosts and financial sponsors of the congregations which worshipped in their homes, but without reference to them as an elder, bishop, or pastor.

During the Middle Ages, the church became heavily dominated by male leadership and the only role which remained for women was as a nun. Even after the Reformation, women’s role in the churches advanced little, if at all, because the society of the time gave a very low place to women. From the time of the Enlightenment forward, women’s role in the Church began to grow along with their position in society, until the idea of women as pastors was first proposed around 150 years ago, and began to become commonplace among mainline denominations around 50 years ago. However, it is an unfortunate fact of history that the many beneficial contributions of women to church life were often suppressed in the church. Even in the present day, I have visited congregations which do not allow women to serve the church in any position other than teaching young children.

However, this is not to say that the reasons of churches which do not ordain women as pastors are merely cultural. For example, in the years when the Apostle Paul was writing the New Testament Epistles, which contain the several Biblical commands that pastors be men, the presence of female clergy in the various non-Christian religions of that region was extremely common, meaning that Paul’s instructions were actually in opposition to the culture of his time rather than influenced by it.

Today’s churches which permit only male pastors cite several verses from the New Testament as the basis of their position. These include the end of 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2-3, and Titus 1. When referring to pastoral qualifications in two of these passages, Paul specifically uses the Greek word “andra” which can only refer to a male, rather than choosing the Greek word “anthropos” which could be translated either as “man” or as “person.”

In another, it says that women may not “speak in the church.” In the original language of the Bible, there are three possible words to refer to speaking. One refers to all speaking, and another refers specifically to the act of preaching. The third, which is the one Paul uses, refers to public speaking, such as what is done while preaching, leading worship, and administering Sacraments. Additionally, “in the Church” an important phrase, because it refers specifically to the worship gathering, and does not include the organizational leadership of the congregation, or even the teaching of theology as an academic subject. Another verse prohibits women from occupying church leadership positions which place them in spiritual authority over men.

With the exception of churches within the Pentecostal/Charismatic segment of Christianity, whether a church has female clergy largely depends on how they view the Bible, specifically the verses mentioned above. Denominations which ordain only men as pastors typically view the Bible as being completely and literally given by God through the pen of human authors, and therefore correct in all it says. Denominations which do ordain women as pastors typically view the Bible as having been writing by humans, about God, possibly under divine guidance, but with the result that the Bible contains God’s Word rather than being God’s Word.

As a result, denominations with this view of Scripture have a practice, in this and other areas, which more closely reflects the values of their culture, because their method of interpretation allows the option to conclude that certain portions of the Bible are the opinion of their author rather than the command of God. Others may reason that it was God’s command then, but that His position has since changed. Still others may even propose that the specific books of the Bible which contain these verses may have been forged or corrupted over time rather than being authentic.

Ultimately, the question of “may women be pastors?” is inseparably tied with the question, “Did God really say…?”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Unforgivable Sin

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Unforgivable Sin:

Q:  What is the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” found in Matthew 12:31-32, that God will not forgive?

In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus says, ”Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.  And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (ESV)

These words of Jesus have been the source of a great deal of speculation on the part of Bible teachers as well as a source of fear and guilt for many Christians over the years since they were spoken.  Many people fear that they may have committed this “unforgivable sin,” and therefore are eternally lost.  Other people live their lives in fear of committing this sin, and Bible teachers throughout the ages have either tried to explain it away or magnify its importance.  However, a closer look at these words of Jesus, as well as the context in which they were spoken reveals the true nature of Jesus’ warning. 

In the Bible, the words “blaspheme” and “blasphemy” are a reference to the act of speaking evil about God.  This occurs elsewhere in Scripture when people portray God falsely, either by their words or their actions.  In the context of these verses, Jesus is responding to an accusation from the Pharisees that when He casts out demons, He is not casting them out by the power of the Holy Spirit, but instead by satanic power. 

It does seem unusual that Jesus does not address their accusations against Him, but instead responds by criticizing their treatment of the Holy Spirit.  In the Scriptures, though, the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit always go together.  When Jesus was Baptized by John, the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and remained there (Matthew 3).  All of the work that Jesus did in the Gospels was done along with the Holy Spirit.  Likewise, Jesus instructs His disciples (John 14-16) that after He ascends into heaven, the Holy Spirit’s work will focus on reminding people of Jesus’ words and actions during His earthly life. 

Since the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are so closely tied together, to blaspheme one is to blaspheme the other.  Especially in this case, when they accuse Jesus of working miracles by powers that are spiritually evil, to speak evil about Jesus is also a direct accusation against the Holy Spirit who works with Him. 

While in Matthew, we see the chain of events during which Jesus said these words, Luke includes these words in a list of other sayings of Jesus rather than within the story during which they were originally spoken.  The preceding sayings in Luke 12 deal with unbelief and rejecting Jesus, giving us a clue that this saying is likely to be dealing with the same theme. 

The rest of the Bible continually speaks of the fact that every sin can be forgiven by those who trust in Jesus.  In fact, the only sin that the remainder of the New Testament ever mentions as the cause of a person being condemned to eternal punishment is that of rejecting Jesus death as the payment for sin. 

When we take all of this evidence into account, it appears that the sin against the Holy Spirit that is unforgivable is that of being confronted with the truth about Jesus and rejecting Him in spite of the evidence.  This unforgivable sin is not simple unbelief by one who is uninformed or unfamiliar with the truth about Jesus.  Instead, it is the willful rejection of Jesus when one has been confronted with the truth of who He is and what He claims about Himself. 

In commenting on these verses, Martin Luther summarizes their meaning by saying, “This is the great and unforgivable sin, when someone resists God’s Word and work.  Other sins are easily recognized and have a form, but this one, with which one dashes against God, is not recognized and is therefore unforgivable.”  “There is no grater sin than not to believe this article of ‘the forgiveness of sins’ which we pray daily in the Creed.  And this sin is called the sin against the Holy Spirit.  It strengthens all other sins and makes them forever unforgivable.” 

The consistent testimony of the Bible is that for those who trust in Jesus all sins are forgiven, but for those who reject Him, no sin is forgiven.