Review of Howe’s Women in Church Leadership

by John M. Frame


Margaret Howe, Women in Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982)


The author’s credentials are very respectable, and the book contains some interesting and helpful ideas. I would agree with her, for instance, that there is a strong argument for women deacons (pp. 29ff) and that women may teach in church under someconditions (58ff). I’m also pleased to see her work out an idea which I have always suspected to be true, namely that the NT terms for office are flexible and that church government varied considerably from place to place (67ff). I also agree that the concepts of the church leader as priest and as celibate have done a great deal of harm in the church and indeed have degraded the status of women in the church (83ff, 105ff). I also like Howe’s emphasis on servant leadership (Matt. 20:25-28) which she stresses at various points throughout the book. In all of these areas, I think that reformed people have much to learn from her. (I had some very bad experiences in an OPC in Phila. which was very badly split because of disputes about the powers and responsibilities of the eldership.)

Chapters 7-11 contain some interesting information about present attitudes in the churches over “women’s issues.” That data is good to have, though I don’t agree with all the author’s criteria for evaluating it.

Which brings me to my areas of reservation. My main problem is that the book is weak in its argument for women’s ordination to the eldership. In general, my own position is that of James Hurley, Man and Woman in the Bible, who argues that women may serve as deacons and may teach under the supervision of the eldership, but that they may not themselves be elders: i.e. the church, like the home, is to be ruled by men under God. That book, I think, is superior to Howe’s in the fullness of its exegetical work and its biblical theology.

The first chapter, “Inconsistencies,” is thought-provoking. I would agree that there is no detailed description of church office in the NT and that the statements of the NT must be understood in their cultural context. I would agree that Jesus’ relationships with women were very unusual for their time (18f) and that the head covering was part of the cultural pattern of the time, not necessarily binding on us today (20f). If, then, the restriction of the pastorate to males is based only on cultural tradition, I would agree that that tradition could be changed as customs change (24ff). Of course, even in that case, I think Paul’s teaching suggests that the church should be somewhat conservative in the spectrum of social tradition and change. He did, after all, recommend that the women observe the custom of head-covering even though some were abandoning it. But my major problem here is that I don’t think that the male eldership is like the head covering. I don’t believe that the male eldership is merely a cultural tradition. Therefore, I don’t think the author’s arguments here apply to the matter of eldership.

Therefore, I don’t find as many “inconsistencies” as Howe finds in the present-day church. I do believe that women may sing in church (26) and serve as missionaries (26f), without their being qualified to serve as elders. I don’t believe that position is at all inconsistent. Women may do anything that non-elder men may do.

In chapter 2, I think she makes a strong case for the ordination of women to the diaconate; it isn’t air-tight, but I think that on balance it is pretty good. I would agree with her exegesis of Rom. 16:1, I Tim. 3:11, Rom. 16:7. The historical arguments at the end of the chapter are interesting, but of course they don’t prove anything. Our standard of truth is Scripture, not church history.

Chapter 3 is the main exegetical section of the book, and here it is that I have the most severe problems. Indeed, I disagree not only with Howe’s exegesis here, but also with the view of biblical authority that seems to underlie it, if I rightly understand her. She begins with the common liberal assumption that there are two different creation accounts which contradict one another (45f). She doesn’t even argue the matter. (For a contrary view, see E. J. Young, In the Beginning.)

Then she proceeds, as I see it, not to exegete I Tim. 2:11-13, but to argue against what the passage says. She says that Paul (or whoever she regards as the author of I Tim.) misunderstood Genesis 1-3: He contradicts Genesis 1 in favor of Genesis 2 (46f), he is wrong about the significance of Adam being created first (47), he is wrong about the woman being deceived (47).

Now I agree that I Tim. 2:11-13 is a difficult passage. But if we accept the Bible as the word of God, we must read it obediently, not finding fault with it as Howe does. If we read obediently, I don’t see how we can escape the conclusion that there is a subordination of woman to man which derives from creation, not merely from culture, and which ought to be reflected in the life of the church. Hurley, in the book I mentioned earlier, does as good a job with this as I have seen. Howe, in my opinion, doesn’t even begin to deal with these issues.

On 49ff, she asks whether there is any “submission” implied in Gen. 1-3. I would agree that the term “helper” does not necessarily denote inequality or subordination. On p. 50, I would disagree with Howe as to the meaning of the woman’s “desire” for her husband (52). Susan Foh’s book Women and the Word of God (Baker, 1981) argues that the woman’s “desire” is not sexual desire (as Howe points out, that wouldn’t make much sense in the context), but rather the desire to dominate the man (cf. Gen. 4:7, where God tells Cain that sin “desires to have him”). Therefore I believe that Gen. 1-3 does describe a pattern of authority and subordination, contrary to Howe’s conclusion. That certainly is Paul’s conclusion in I Tim. 2, but Howe, like most feminists, simply brushes that passage aside, as we’ve seen.

I agree that Genesis 3 describes the woman as “aggressive” and the man as “passive” (53). And I would say that those attitudes had something to do with leading them into sin! If the Bible as a whole teaches that man is the head of the woman (and it does!), then certainly the behavior of Adam and Eve in Gen. 3 fall below the biblical norm for marriage.

Her discussion of Eph. 5:21-23, also, is quite inadequate (54ff). She point out rightly that there is mutual submission in marriage, even as Christ humbled himself to serve his people. That note needs to be sounded more often. However, that is not the only teaching of Eph. 5:21-23. After all, even though there is “mutual submission” between Christ and the church, the two are clearly not on the same level. Christ is Lord. Though Jesus rules gently, for the good of his people, by his suffering love, he also demands obedience: John 12:48, 14:21, 15:10, etc., etc. Clearly, Paul is drawing a parallel here to the marriage situation. Husband and wife are to “mutually” submit, to be sure, but there is also an authority structure here. Paul does say that wives should be subject to theirhusbands, not the other way around.

Same for I Pet. 3 (55f). Clearly, the title “Lord” here is not just a general title of respect. Peter clearly uses it to indicate that the woman should be “subject” to her husband. This is not only the “mutual” submission mentioned earlier; it is unilateral, clearly, in this context. This does not, of course, exclude the wife from all decision making, suggestion-making, etc. (56) And there are indications in Genesis of Sarah’s submissiveness- going along with Abraham’s deceptions, etc.

The first part of the discussion of I Cor. 11 is  pretty good (58ff). I agree in general with the point about the clothing, though I think Hurley’s treatment is more thorough and more accurate on a number of points. I do disagree with her understanding of the “apparent hierarchy” (God-Christ-Man-Woman) on p. 60. She says it indicates not “rule,” but “source.” But headship elsewhere in the Pauline epistles clearly indicates rule. And, indeed, through the Scriptures there is a parallel between “source” and “rule.” God is in authority because all things come from him. (A student of mine did a very elaborate paper tying these ideas together.)

As for I Cor. 14- again, I think Hurley does a much better job. Howe just raises problems and then evades them by saying that he must be referring to a purely local problem (62f). But she doesn’t even deal with Paul’s statement in I Cor. 14:33 (cf. verse 36) which suggests that the issue was not merely local, that Paul gave the same rule to all the churches.

Again, I think there is much good in the book, but also a lot of bad exegesis, and some views that are simply incompatible with the infallible authority of Scripture. I have read a number of “evangelical feminist” books, and I have yet to see one that treats all thebiblical data as truly authoritative, with the seriousness which Scripture deserves.


Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail