One of the best arguments for knowing the common, widespread teachings of the second-century Christians is a legal term: “Course of Performance.”
LegalDictionary.com defines it this way:
Evidence of the conduct of parties concerning the execution of obligations under a contract requiring more than one performance that is used for the purpose of interpreting the contract’s provisions.
The first line in their article about “course of performance” is easier to understand:
Course of performance refers to the systematic and uniform conduct in which parties engage after they enter into a contract.
A warehouse stores and ships books for a publishing company. The two companies have a contract dating from 1954. The contract specifies that the publisher must pay rent to A for the space occupied by the books.
In 2013, the publisher adds more books, which are put on pallet racks above the shelving currently being used for the publisher’s other books. The warehouse increases the rent because the publisher is now using more cubic volume of space. The publisher objects, because the square footage being used has not increased.
The contract does not specify how the rent is to be determined.
If this dispute were taken to a court of law, the court would determine the meaning of the contract, cubic feet or square feet, based on the “course of performance,” if it could be determined. In other words, how have the companies determined the rent for the last 59 year? That will determine the meaning of the contract to the original parties.
This is very applicable to the apostles writings. It is not just two companies disputing the meaning of their writings. It is thousands of denominations.
Fortunately—though some whose traditions are dashed in the process don’t think so—the “course of performance” concerning the apostles writings can often be determined fairly confidently.
Which brings us to the point of this post …
Example: Women Pastors
J. Lee Grady, one of my favorite columnists, put up an article called, “Why I Defend Women Preachers. As usual, it is well-written, and it addresses the main issue in the argument concerning women in church leadership: 1 Tim 2:11-14 (and 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which he does not address) versus the commendations Paul gave to women who were apparently in leadership, such as Phoebe (Rom. 16:2), Junia (Rom. 16:7), Euodias, and Syntyche (Php. 4:2-3).
He suggests that Paul is only silencing heretical women in 1 Tim. 2.
That’s one solution. The problem is, it completely ignores the course of performance. For centuries, there is no indication the churches ever allowed a woman in any leadership position. Woman were servants (deaconnesses), but “deacon” (properly, “servant”) was not an ordained position in the early churches, as overseer (or bishop) and elder were. There is simply no record of a woman overseer or elder for centuries in the churches the apostles started.
Thus, Mr. Grady, with all due respect, is almost certainly wrong in his interpretation.
In fact, to the “course of performance,” I would add that Paul gives his reasons in 1 Tim. 2:11-15, and his reasons do not include “these women are heretics.”
Instead, based on the “course of performance,” it is much more likely than the women who are commended in the verses above were not ordained leaders. Instead, they were in whatever way helpers to Paul and other men. In fact, Phoebe is specifically said to be a servant, a “deaconness,” in Rom. 16:2, not an overseer or elder.
Caveat: This Is Not the First or Second Century
There are a lot of things that should keep us humble in applying what I’ve said to today’s practice in the churches.
- Churches today are in shambles. The role of pastor in today’s church is nothing like the role of pastor in the Scriptures. They are qualified differently, they serve differently, and they lead churches that are drastically different than the churches we find in the Scriptures and in early church history.
- We must never forget Deborah, who judged Israel, nor even Samson, who was probably the most unrighteous servant of God ever. God uses whom he must. If a man isn’t doing the job, may God be praised that he raised up a woman to do it.
- There may be a cultural element to Paul’s instructions.
Take your stand where you will, but I warn you to beware that you do not become a pharisee in your “correct” interpretations of Scripture. Jesus was not fond of them, and he gave more mercy to prostitutes and tax collectors than he did to self-confident interpreters of Scripture.
You search the Scriptures because you think that you will find life in them. The Scriptures testify of me! Yet you refuse to come to me so that you might have life. (Jn. 5:39-40)
I met a lady once who had started seven churches in the Dominican Republic. (Her name was Mercedes if anyone reading this knows of her.)
Her husband was German, so when she was in Germany with her husband back in 1986, I went to hear her at a Bible Study. The teaching was very in-depth. (I now believe it was probably too in-depth and inappropriate for that audience.)
Afterward, I went to Mercedes. I was quite young, and she was over 50, so I went very respectfully, as I recommend you do if you are ever in the same situation. I asked her, “What do you do with 1 Tim. 2? I don’t mean to be accusing or argumentative, but I’m just trying to figure out where I should stand or if there is something I’m missing.”
She got out a couple sentences, trying to explain how 1 Tim. 2 could allow for women teachers—or apostles for that matter, for she was a church planter over seven churches. Finally, she sputtered a bit and said, “I don’t know why Paul said that! I wish he hadn’t!”
I laughed. I still laugh when I tell the story.
I LOVE her answer.
Why would I love an answer like that? Because it was honest. What was she supposed to do? Go back to Santa Domingo and send everyone off to other churches?
These churches were no ordinary churches. They were real churches, where Christians got together for no other reason than that they were Christians. These churches understood what it meant to be the church. They were family, devoted to one another. Elders she appointed were appointed for the right reason: established character lived out among the congregation.
May there be more like her.