Sue Edwards and Kelley Mathews, 40 Questions Women in Ministry

Edwards, Sue, and Kelley Mathews, 40 Questions Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2022. Pb. 332 pp. $24.99.  Link to Kregel

Sue Edwards is associate professor of educational ministry and leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary and has extensive experience teaching, pastoring, and directing women’s ministries. Kelley Mathews is a freelance writer and editor and former women’s ministry leader. She has a blog at Patheos, although it has been dormant since June 2021.

40 Questions about Women in MinistryAs with other volumes in Kregel Academic’s 40 Question series, this book is a collection of short essays grouped into four categories. Like most of these kinds of books, Edwards and Mathews do not solve these difficult problems. In fact, that is not their goal. “Gifted and godly scholars disagree on whether women can lead the church (291). Since not everything is solved, they encourage the reader to keep on wrestling with these issues” (292).

Readers can often tell something about a book by the list of abbreviations. In this case, four books appear so often in the forty chapters than they merit inclusion on abbreviations page: Phillip Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Zondervan 2009), Discovering Biblical Equality (IVP Academic 2021), Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Crossway 2012) and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (ed. By Grudem and Piper, Crossway, 2021). These represent two important works on each side of the evangelical debate on women in ministry. And that is exactly what this collection of essays is, a thoroughly evangelical discussion of a raging debate over a woman’s role in ministry. However, the authors do not grind on either of the discussion. In the introduction, they are quite clear under the heading “our hesitation to align with warring factions.” Both sides of this debate have a high view of scripture and use the tools of scholarship in a way that respects the message of the Bible. For the authors of this collection, “women in ministry” is not an essential issue that merits the description “heretic” if you disagree with the other side (29).

The first two questions and answers deal with terminology. Edwards and Mathews reject the usual terminology of egalitarian and complementarian as “misleading and reductionistic.” These terms do not reflect their real distinct differences between the sides in this debate. Instead of complementarian, they prefer the term “hierarchy” because this position believes that the church functions better if men make the decisions. Men ought to lead in the home, so men should lead the church. This position believes this because that is the Bible’s teaching. Instead of egalitarian, they prefer the term “Heterarchy.” In this view, God has not ordained permanent roles. God gives gifts to both men and women and the Bible does not teach there is a divine order for men to lead the home. If a reader is familiar with common terminology in this debate, it will be important to read these first two chapters because they use the language of hierarchy and heterarchy throughout the book. (Mea culpa: I skipped ahead to the controversial chapters and did not know what they were talking about until I  returned to the introductory chapters!)

There are eight questions and answers dealing with Old Testament issues, including the image of God and the role of women in the genesis creation story. Perhaps the key here is understanding the Hebrew idea of a “helper” in the creation account. These chapters also deal with what we can learn from women leaders in the Old Testament and a discussion of the “Proverbs 31 woman.”

The next series of questions and answers concern the role of women in Jesus’s ministry, and in the Book of Acts. Important here is the role of Priscilla in correcting Apollos’s theology. Is Priscilla a coworker of her husband? Is she teaching in private? Or is she a co-teacher in a local church?

The most controversial texts on women in ministry come from the epistles, so this collection devotes ten chapters to Paul and one to Peter. One chapter discusses the women in Romans 16. The big debate in church history has always been whether Junia is a male or a female, and if she is a female, is she an apostle? They do an excellent job covering this issue, but I think the role of Phoebe’s as a patron and likely deliverer of the Book of Romans is just as key to this discussion.

The most controversial texts in Paul merit several chapters. There are two chapters on the meaning of head and what does it mean for a woman to “cover her head.” They debate three chapters to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, including one the troublesome question of what it means for a woman to be saved during childbearing. One chapter covers Paul’s command for women to submit to their husbands Ephesians 5: 21 and another on 1 Peter 3:7 which describes women as the “weaker vessel.”

The question on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in important, although frustratingly brief. Evangelical interprets share many of the same assumptions about the authority of Scripture and use virtually the same hermeneutics but have a wide range of opinions on the meaning of the Greek authentein, to exercise authority. The problem, of course, is that this word only appears in this one passage in the New Testament and there are entire books written on the meaning of this word. Edwards and Mathews provide an excellent summary of the two sides in this debate and provide a list of issues that need to be examined. Of primary importance is the importance of the background of 1 Timothy. Is Paul referring to a specific issue in emphasis at the time? Often, heterarchists (the position formerly known as egalitarians) will point to the activity of the cult of Artemis as an important factor in understanding Paul’s prohibition for women to exercise authority over men. Women coming to faith from the Artemis cult were exercising leadership before they were fully discipled in sound doctrine. Hierarchists (the position formerly known as complementarians) understand the background differently, pointing out that the leadership of the Artemis cult was male.

The final section of the book covers several practical issues: Should women serve as Deacons? Elders? Priests? Pastors? To a certain extent, the answer depends on the faith community. It is hard to imagine a traditional Roman Catholic asking if a woman can serve as a priest, but some evangelical denominations allow women to serve as deacons and elders. One of the last questions has been a discussion in my church. Should women working in church ministry be called “pastors” or “directors”? Finally, Misty Hendrick responds to the question, “What can be done to make church and other ministries is safer for women?”

Chapters are brief but well-documented. Footnotes provide resources for readers who want to go deeper than the format of the book permits (and point students writing papers on these topics to key scholarship). Each chapter ends with a few reflection questions. The book concludes with a select bibliography of key studies on women in ministry.

Conclusion. In 40 Questions about Women in Ministry, Edwards and Mathews attempt to open dialog between two very different approaches to these issues. The book does not claim to definitively answer these questions but points the way to what should be peaceful and profitable discussions of how women can serve in ministry in the local church. As they conclude, “for too long, many conservative churches have focused on what women can’t do in the church and home instead of considering what they can do. One consequence is that women, especially young women, are the largest demographic exiting churches today” (278).

Bonus: Church Answers podcast At The Table with Sue Edwards and Kelley Mathews

Reviews of other books in this series:

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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