Towards the end of last year, Joel Willitts published a few posts on the blog he co-authors with Mike Bird about his move to a mutuality/egalitarian viewpoint with respect to gender roles in the church. He noted, 'I’m finally willing to come out and nail my flag on the mast of the “Mutuality” (Egalitarian) position.’
Willitts unpacked the reasons why he made this shift in his thinking in the three posts, which, on the whole, make for interesting reading. What I found most interesting, however, was the conclusion at the end of his final post on the subject:
In the end, I could be wrong on my interpretation of the data of the texts. They are difficult. And I’m willing even still to leave the question open, although I’m quite confident there will remain a deadlocked until Jesus returns. I believe there is no high ground in this discussion when it comes to the evidence. So, in large measure I’ve decided that I just don’t want to be on the “limitation” side of this debate. When I stand before God, I would rather have committed the “sin” of wrongly interpreting very difficult passages and be for women in ministry, then to be for the limiting interpretation of the passages and commit the “sin” of restricting the role women can play in the church.
I don’t think I have ever heard an argument like this used in regards to matters of practice in the church, and I couldn't help but think that this sounds similar to that oft-quoted idea that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It would be interesting to know if Willitts would use the same reasoning to argue for any other issue. For instance, would this apply to the type of music we use in worship? What about lay presidency at the Eucharist, or paedocommunion?
Moving away from the particular issue he applies his argument to here, I do find myself somewhat sympathetic to Willitts’ line of thinking. I also recognise, however, that it could be terribly misapplied to a range of issues. Willitts is careful to say that he chooses to be for the ministry of women because he believes the relevant Scriptural texts are difficult; others could claim Scripture lacks perspicuity on matters where it is actually clear (the current debates on sexuality and marriage are a pertinent example). If this line of reasoning is going to be employed, then, it must be done so very carefully after thorough exegetical and theological work has brought the matter to the point where conclusions are a matter of conscience. However, that being said, we then come to passages like Romans 14-15, which seem to encourage restraint for the sake of conscience, and I wonder how Willitts would reconcile that with his wish to be on the side of not limiting the role of women in ministry. Perhaps he would suggest that an arrangement something like we have in the Church of England, which makes special provision for those who, based on their reading of Scripture, cannot accept the ministry of women, is the best way to deal with disagreements on these matters of practice.
In the end, this would be a very interesting conversation to have. I am not interested in addressing the specific issue of women in ministry, but Willitts' line of reasoning and whether or not it is legitimately employed in determining our practices in the church. If you have any thoughts on this, please do share them below.