When it came time for third year Greek at Walla Walla College (now University), I had Dr. Sakae Kubo, who had just become dean of the School of Theology. Taking a Greek class with Dr. Kubo was an experience. I credit him with bringing my Greek to the level that allowed it to stick with me. He gave me a workout!
Recently he wrote two articles for Spectrum, the first Slavery, Circumcision, and the Subordinate Role of Women (Nov. 21, 2011) and second Jesus, Galileo, and the Interpretation of Scripture (Dec. 19, 2011). The Seventh-day Adventist Church is going through a great deal of controversy right now over the ordination of women. Right now they have women as “commissioned” ministers. In local churches in North America and Europe, these ministers perform the same function as ordained ministers, just under another name. One of the key questions of the moment is whether women can be conference presidents, which would place them in a position similar to that of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.
Kubo’s basic argument is that in the case of circumcision we see a change in right and wrong within scripture itself. At one time circumcision is commanded, and then at another that command is set aside and membership in God’s people is determined by a different means. He notes as well that the new means, faith in Christ, is no longer male-centered as was circumcision. In the case of slavery, we came to understand that slavery was wrong at a much later date, but nonetheless a change was made.
He extends this argument to dealing with the subordinate role of women, and thus to ordination and to eligibility for other offices in the church. (This is a very abbreviated form of the argument. You should read both articles linked before commenting on Kubo’s position.)
Now this is not a complete argument for the ordination of women. One could (and should) discuss some specific texts as well. But what Kubo has done is provide a framework for the egalitarian argument. This is not how it is often done, but I think it is a more robust approach. It is similar to arguments I made earlier regarding trajectories in Scripture.
That is why I used “then to then” in the title before “to now.” We often do biblical interpretation in a simple progression of discovering what the Bible writer was saying to people then, determining from that eternal principles, and then applying those principles to a modern situation. This is similar to the nutshell process illustrated given by Michael Patton on his blog.
That approach is generally quite useful, but we also need to recognize that there is more than one “then” involved generally before we get to a good general principle. And if we look at multiple points of “then,” such as statements regarding vengeance that I referenced in my trajectories post, then we may find that the eternal principles are somewhat different than what we would get if we took just one passage and went from the “then” statement through theology to the “now” statement.
Now many egalitarians make their argument almost exclusively with the very same exegetical methods as complementarians, which sometimes results in some odd readings of the various texts. I would argue that the key here is in the hermeneutics, and particularly in the way we get at the principles and apply them to modern times. It is much easier, though not necessarily simple, to discover what a passage meant to the original hearers/readers.
I believe that Kubo’s method allows one to both be very faithful to what the text said originally, while also being flexible enough to apply the principles to modern times in a valid way.
But why do we need flexibility? The accusation is generally that those who are more liberal in their interpretation are flexible in order to avoid the plain commands of Scripture. I would say instead that the flexibility is required so that we can be faithful to the broadest (and I think clearest) principles of Scripture. I see a very clear effort to move people from one set of practices to another in many areas. Galatians 3:28 provides a template for this, I believe.
But in addition, I think we often ignore the story (or stories) of Scripture, and the fact that what is practiced is not what we think the authors are preaching. I think the evidence of women in leadership in the early church needs to be laid alongside our understanding of specific commands. Which should have priority? Perhaps if we follow the trajectory, neither. Both can have their place.