About: this paper was submitted to Dr. David Nystrom at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on Women, the Bible, and the Church.
Linda L. Belleville’s book, Women Leaders and the Church: three crucial questions, addresses the issue of women in church leadership through the importance of history and literary analysis. In her book, Belleville asks three questions. First, she asks, “In which ministries can women be involved?” Second, she asks, “What roles can women play in society?” Finally, she asks, “Can women hold positions of authority?” Belleville does well hermeneutically within her three crucial questions by taking into consideration the cultural influences of the biblical texts, the contextual understandings of the interpretations and translations of biblical texts, all of the relevant controversial biblical passages, and the biblical understanding of church leaders. After having gained a brief summary of the three crucial questions, we can look at how the four considerations affect Belleville’s book in a positive way.
One of the main questions raised in the issue of women leadership regards the ministries that women can be involved in. Belleville seeks first to tackle this question. She explores the history of the religious roles of women in Judaism, in Greek and Roman societies, and in the early church. Within these sections, we find that women were active as religious leaders throughout all of the aforementioned categories. At a minimum, we can say and accept that women did have a leadership role in the religious activities of the Jews and the early church.
Another main question that is raised deals with what roles women can play in society. Belleville tackles this question second, focusing on marriage, family and society at large. She explores the roles of women during the times of the New Testament, which does not exclude women outside of the early church, but rather, includes a study of women in Jewish, Greek and Roman societies as well. Belleville seeks to find a biblical perspective on the societal roles of women and focuses on several key biblical texts, including all of the following categories: Genesis 1-2; Genesis 3; Jesus’ teachings; apostolic teachings; and submission and headship in the New Testament. Belleville gives a fair treatment of these texts through historical and literary analysis, which makes this study both valuable and meaningful for answering the question, “What roles can women play in society?” As a result of her exegesis, we see through careful and responsible analysis that these texts, at the very least, reveal women to be equal to men.
One final question that arises in the issue of women in ministry addresses whether or not women can hold authoritative positions. Belleville saves this question for last. Of the three questions mentioned in the book, this last one has the most importance with the church, because it deals with how the church ought to function. In answering this question, Belleville begins by questioning our understanding of the word authority and our leadership structures for the church. She continues by looking at the language of women and leadership in the biblical texts followed by a detailed analysis of biblical passages that suggest some limits for women. Belleville truly gave a thorough and fair treatment in answering the question, “Can women hold authoritative positions?” Because of this treatment, we can not only walk away from the book and the relevant biblical passages with a good understanding of the exegesis of the passages, but we can also see that at a minimum women are just as able and just as permitted to lead the church as men.
Having had a good yet brief summary of the book, we can now critique Belleville’s Women Leaders and the Church: three crucial questions. When one allows the book to stand by itself and to read and critique it on its own merit, it is hard to find something negative about this book. In fact, the only constructive-critical remark that seems apparent is a few unsupported remarks. For example, on page 117, Belleville makes a remark about what Ephesians 6:4 means in regards to the father’s treatment of his child or children. She writes, “What he targets is the father’s apparent tendency to be too heavy-handed in the area of discipline” (2000). This remark is not expounded upon. Because it is not explained, we are left without any support for that remark. How did she arrive to this conclusion regarding the heavy-handedness in the discipline on the part of the father? Why did she come to this conclusion and not something else? Although this is a problem, it should be noted that it is a minor one that is not problematic to her argument. Such remarks are few throughout her book and therefore do not warrant a large caution against her writing or her methodology. In truth, Belleville’s book was put together so well that it can mostly only be praised. In fact, there are four very important features of her book that are to be applauded.
First, Women Leaders and the Church takes into consideration the cultural influences of the biblical texts. It is absolutely essential that we look at biblical texts alongside of their cultural settings. Culture influences people; people wrote the biblical texts; therefore, in order to best understand the biblical texts, even if not fully, we must take into consideration the cultural influences from their time. Belleville’s book addresses the culture from the time of Jesus and Paul, as well as before and after the times of the New Testament, and then it looks at Scripture in light of that information. We see this practice throughout the book, but we see it the most in the answer to the first question, “In which ministries can women be involved?” In her analysis of Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures, we find that women were in fact involved in various religions as leaders, and, when she addresses the leadership roles of women in the early church, she compares and contrasts them to those of the Jewish, Greek and Roman ones. However, past culture is not all that ought to be involved in hermeneutics, but also modern culture, which influences how we understand things today, including biblical texts.
Second, Belleville’s book takes into consideration the contextual understandings of modern interpretations and translations of biblical texts. In order to best understand the biblical texts, we must be responsible exegetes and do our best to keep our own understandings, views and theological lenses from reading something into the text. Although we cannot entirely keep our own cultural presuppositions from influencing how we interpret the biblical texts, we need to at least make an effort to protect the texts from our cultural understandings. Belleville does a great job of this very thing in her treatment of headship in the New Testament, which she treats very well in answering the question, “What roles can women play in society?” Belleville was as careful as she could possibly be to keep our modern cultural understandings of the definition and concept of headship from influencing how we understand the New Testament concept of headship. As a result, we learn that our understanding of headship differs greatly from what the New Testament portrays. Not only is it important that we take our own cultural influences into account in addition to the cultural influences of the biblical times, but it is equally important to compare Scripture with Scripture and to address not one passage but all the passages that pertain to the relevant issue.
Third, this book takes into consideration all of the relevant controversial passages and allows them to speak for themselves to the best of Belleville’s abilities. She does not focus on one biblical passage that goes against egalitarianism, explain it away and then end her argument there. Rather, she looks at the totality of the biblical corpus as best as she can in just three chapters and examines all the relevant and controversial biblical passages that are commonly and widely used in having men lead. She allows the texts to speak for themselves while looking at them in depth. The two most controversial passages, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, were given the most treatment, as should be expected, since they are widely used to deny and keep women from taking leadership positions. We can leave Belleville’s book with a good defense of the equality of women, because she presented a broad biblical treatment that deals with texts that are both supportive and seemingly non-supportive at first glance, leaving no room for accusations that her book ignores the totality of Scripture. Understanding the cultural influences and looking at the whole of the biblical texts is necessary, but Belleville does not stop there, for she also re-examines the biblical understanding of church leadership, which is absolutely necessary when talking about how church leadership ought to work.
Finally, Belleville takes into consideration the biblical understanding of church leaders through strong word analysis. In order to even talk about the structures of church leadership, we have to define our terms. Belleville does well to not only look at the leadership language of the New Testament—in Greek—but also how those words were used outside of the New Testament. Through her study, we find that leadership as understood in the New Testament is not how we traditionally think of leadership. Additionally, we find that the way we have our church structured is not how it is supposed to be. Church leaders are to be co-sufferers who serve alongside the rest of the church. We also find that the church leaders do not have official authority, but rather it is Jesus and the church that have authority and not the leaders of the church. Therefore, we leave the book with the knowledge that the hierarchical system that we have traditionally utilized for church leadership is vastly different from the vision of Jesus and Paul.
Belleville’s book, Women Leaders and the Church: three crucial questions, is quite valuable to the issue concerning women in leadership of the church. It is to be commended for defining leadership, addressing all the most relevant biblical texts and not ignoring the difficult ones, protecting against modern cultural influences and incorporating the cultural influences from around the times of the biblical texts within the three crucial questions regarding women and ministry, societal roles, and authority. Belleville demonstrates herself to be a responsible scholar in this book and enables us to talk intelligently about women in leadership in light of Scripture and history.
Belleville, Linda L. 2000. Women Leaders and the Church: three crucial questions. Grand
Rapids: Baker Books.