[I wrote this for the sake of a discussion with friends. It got longer than I expected.]
Every command in Scripture is either a direct explication of natural law, including the general moral principles embedded in the way God has made humanity and the world and related them to each other and Himself, or positive law, a particular decree given in a particular context to bind the reader to act in a particular way, usually for a purpose which flows in some way or another from natural law.
Natural law is unchanging, whereas positive law can and does change. Positive laws, for example, include the command to circumcise sons, to observe the Passover, to flee Egypt, to abstain from certain foods, to offer animal sacrifices, to worship at the Tabernacle, to destroy the Canaanites, to bar eunuchs from worship, etc. Usually in Scripture, positive laws especially pertain to the life and order of God’s people in their visible assembly, whether in the days of Old Covenant Israel or the New Covenant Church. Positive laws do not necessarily have to be the way they are; they are specified as the best normative way for particular circumstances in order to realize goals that are usually grounded in the unchanging realities of natural law. In some cases, positive laws can be permanent inasmuch as the situation which grounds them never changes in history (e.g. the command to take Communion seems to extend until Christ returns).
So, every positive law has two dimensions: the binding of the letter, which is changeable and passable based on the circumstances for which the letter was made, and the value rationale behind it, which is based on universal natural law.
A second distinction we will need to make is between essential and normative. When it comes to many things, particularly when it comes to positive law and rites, there are three kinds of aspects to how they are followed: the essential, the normative, and the indifferent. The essential includes the basic elements without which something is simply not real or valid at all. For example, that which is essential to preaching the Gospel is that without which there simply is no possibility of a Gospel at all (e.g. God exists, Jesus is Lord, etc.). Likewise, being begotten of my father is essential to our father-son relationship: without that begetting he would not literally be my father. And if nothing is eaten or drunk, there is no Communion, therefore eating and drinking are essential to Communion.
The normative, on the contrary, is that which is proper to something as its most correct, appropriate, or even obligatory way or form, but without which it can still be itself. In marriage, for example, monogamy is normative but not essential, that is, a man should only marry one wife, but it is also possible for him to be truly married to more than one. Similarly, the use of wine is normative in Communion but not essential: wine is what we should use, but if someone uses grape juice, it is still the sacrament of Communion.
Finally, the indifferent is, well, indifferent. It does not in principle affect the genuineness, legitimacy, or appropriateness of a thing. Whether baptism is performed in chlorinated water or spring water makes no difference. A wedding is a lawful wedding whether or not they include the words “with my body, I thee worship.” And a pastor is neither a more or less genuine pastor, nor a better or worse pastor, based on whether he parts his hair or has no hair.
Next, we must distinguish (as always) between the two kingdoms. The spiritual kingdom pertains to the realm of God’s invisible and immediate sight and knowledge of our hearts and our relation to Him by conscience. The temporal kingdom pertains to everything else, everything visible and tangible and temporal. The Church exists in both kingdoms, as God’s genuine believers trust in Him and are justified in the spiritual kingdom, and come together for worship and service in the temporal kingdom. That this gathering act of the Church takes place in the temporal kingdom means that the visible Church is made up of earthly associations. Every local church is a human organization in a similar sense that of a business, a family, a club, or a political society. As such, it can be and must be governed and run in basically the same way as human communities generally are, only paying special attention to obedience to Christ. But its makeup is not particularly special, and its forms and offices and polity are in principle mutable to some degree or another according to circumstance.
With these conceptual distinctions in place, we can move on to what Scripture actually tells us about the place of women in the Church, especially in relation to preaching and/or the pastoral office. All such instructions, we can see before we read their content, pertain to the temporal kingdom and involve positive law. This means that, at least in principle, there is the possibility that they might change according to circumstance to some degree or another.
Let us, then, take 1 Timothy 2:12 as a paradigmatic example of a text that excludes women from offices of teaching and authority. In it, Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” The language itself, along with similar texts elsewhere in Paul, is pretty clear. Paul, by the infallible wisdom of the Spirit, gives a rule barring women from any such preaching, teaching, or authoritative office over men.
Now, this is certainly a matter of positive law, i.e. it is not itself a direct part of universal moral truth that females preaching to or leading males in the gathering of God’s people is inherently sinful. We can easily imagine God giving a different rule or handling it in a different way or providing for an exception. It does not violate any of the 10 Commandments which sum up natural law. It is a rule of order and polity for God’s people, a category of law which, as we have seen, can change and has often done so in biblical history. Israel’s firstborn were to be devoted to Yahweh’s service until the Levites took their place. We were to worship in a Tabernacle, but later in a Temple, and now in the Spirit as ourselves the Temple. What was once called unclean to eat, God has now blessed to be received with thanksgiving. Eunuchs were cut off from the sanctuary; now they feast at the Lord’s table. Israel was first ruled by elders, then judges, and then a king. So, in principle, the rule forbidding women from authority in the Church might be changeable. To determine whether it actually is, we have to examine its context and purpose. Positive law is never suspended in mid-air; it is designed to fulfill some good of moral or natural law in peculiar circumstances.
So, why does Paul forbid women from church authority? Citing the passage as a whole (1 Tim. 2) will be helpful here:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Paul’s first mentioned concern is a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified. Such a life pleases God because He desires all people to be saved, and such a life helps maintain the attraction and reputation of Christianity and its Christ. Paul’s concern for the evangelical use of a sound and respectable witness can be seen throughout his letters. He expects the Church to maintain a good reputation with outsiders inasmuch as it is possible without compromising the Gospel, so that people outside will not be put off by disorder, insanity, etc. He wants to avoid the situation where “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of you.”
In this case, Paul applies his desire to both men and women. Men are expected to be peaceable, to raise their hands in worship rather than their fists in quarrels. This corresponds to the peculiar nature of men: as creatures of strength and vigor, they must learn to channel this in gentleness to worship and edification rather than destruction. Women have their own, related charge. They are to dress respectably and modestly, not ostentatiously or expensively, competing for show. Instead of fashion contests, they are called to good works, quiet learning, and child-bearing. This again corresponds to the peculiar nature of women: as creatures of beauty and social sense, they must learn to channel this in humble generosity, hospitality, and nurture rather than a struggle for attention and status.
It is in this context that Paul forbids women to teach and assume authority over men. Why? The overall appeal, like the other things mentioned here, goes back to nature, though also partially mediated by social expectations. Women were already given an unprecedented level of access and participation in Christian worship; in the Temple and synagogues they had no real place. Many of them were undoubtedly inclined to take this, especially inasmuch as it included their equal access to gifts of tongues and prophecy (see 1 Corinthians), as an eschatological sign that they were entirely free of a gendered order. Equal worship surely meant equal right to teach and lead and do the like, right?
It is precisely this that Paul wished to cut off, which is why he insisted elsewhere on head coverings. He appeals both here and in 1 Corinthians to an order in nature: men are naturally associated with leadership, running first into the world in creation, with women following. God intentionally made man at the head and then gifted woman at his right hand. The natural order has not simply been overturned. Paul wishes to make this clear now, lest by rampant egalitarian practice the Church fall into ill repute as full of radical (and, possibly implied in public perception, seemingly promiscuous) women. (On this it should be noted that many ancient writers, and even Christians well into the modern era, considered female leadership an obvious disgrace. To risk having a shameful reputation without it being necessary clearly weighed on Paul’s mind.) Even Gentiles see the natural order and know that female leadership is at least something of an aberration. So Paul instead encourages them to hold to more edifying and important tasks like good works and child-bearing.
So we have two elements to consider. There is a positive law prohibition: no women in church authority. There is also a two-part rationale: (1) female leadership will hurt the Church’s reputation, because even pagans understand that (2) female leadership is basically unnatural, and the creation order favors male leadership.
I think this is enough to conclude that male leadership in church is normative, i.e. it is what should be done, at least at the level of general principle. However, it remains to ask whether male leadership is also essential, and whether the normativity should be understood as too strong to permit exceptions or contextual changes. Being essential, I think, is out of the question. Why? Because of the Reformed insight that all of the legitimate ministry of church leadership is essentially the ministry of the Word. The Word is what counts, enacted by the Spirit in the life of the Church through the work of the ministers. As such, the sex of the minister is not immediately and essentially relevant: the power of the Word lies in the God who speaks it, not the human voice and whether it runs through an Adam’s apple. The minister’s job is simply to present Christ, to stand in for Christ by speaking Christ’s Word on His behalf. This Word itself is what counts when all else is stripped away. Wherever the Word is preached and enacted in the sacraments, there is an essentially real ministry, no matter the sex of the minister. So it is at least possible for a female to actually fulfill this kind of ministerial role.
On the other hand, the same topic of the Word also strengthens the normativity of male leadership. The job of the minister is the be the mouthpiece of Christ, a male. The Word the minster proclaims is the Son, and he is charged to do so by the Father. The symbolism of the ministerial role is bound up with the concept of God as Father, and to a lesser degree as Son. The minister stands in for God, and the God-humanity relation is much more like the father-son relation than the mother-son or mother-daughter one. The relationship between Christ and the Church is like that of husband and wife. So both with respect to nature and to grace, the ministerial role is particularly associated with masculinity.
Taking everything together, then, we find that Paul’s positive law prohibition is actually very deeply rooted in natural law and broad principles pertaining to creation and redemption, even if in its exact particularity as such, it is potentially mutable and given to exception. It is not strictly essential, inasmuch as the ministry of the Word can be performed by a woman. The identity of the minister in all respects is secondary to the Word being preached and enacted in sacrament. Since the purpose of the ministry of the Word is the edification of the Church, building it up in faith by the voice of God, this even means that, when necessary, a woman’s ministry may even be a justifiable and legitimate exception, lest some difficult circumstances cause the ministry to be deeply compromised or neglected altogether.
Nonetheless, the normative force of male leadership is very strong. It is not defensible to claim its absolute normativity, in the sense that all deviations from the norm are necessarily sinful, but it is at least significant enough that it must not be lightly thrown aside even for seemingly important concerns. It must certainly not be set aside or excepted for no reason at all, or simply for the desire of inclusion. Both special and general revelation, both our vertical and our horizontal relationships, both nature and grace, consistently favor male leadership and discourage female leadership. One of the two aspects to the rationale for Paul’s prohibition—this consistent teaching—is still very much the case, which greatly strengthens the case for its continued force.
However, there is one factor we have not considered for contemporary application, namely Paul’s other concern behind his prohibition: the reputation of the Church. In Paul’s own day, rejecting the teaching of nature on gender in leadership would have brought unnecessary disgrace upon the Church. Pagans would have seen it as shameful and unnatural, and thus it would be an easily avoidable roadblock to the Church’s witness. Today is more complex. Modern societies generally do not hear and in fact reject the voice of nature. They often consider adherence to male-only leadership a blight on the churches which practice it, or even a vile evil and injustice. Though they may be wrong, this does raise the question of whether it would constitute a sufficient basis for an exception to the norm expressed in Paul’s prohibition against female leadership. Might not the public witness of the Church be enhanced and improved by dropping a controversial policy which is not properly essential to the ministry of the Word?
Though I think the question is worth raising, I also think the answer is basically “No.” There are many appropriate ways for the Church to adapt and contextualize and even loosen policies that raise eyebrows from time to time, but in today’s climate, the gender issues lie close to the heart of the error of the age and the abolition of man. Society is working towards atomized, degendered, interchangeable, androgynous people stripped of any connections to nature and free to reinvent themselves. It seeks a crushing and flattening kind of equality and the deconstruction of any hierarchies and orders except meritocracy. In such a context, making a concession on gendered leadership would be exactly the wrong kind of concession. The territory involved is too close to the capital city. The reality and legitimacy of nature, the order of which the true God Himself is the sovereign Creator, is the hill on which the Church of today must die. And only if she loses her life can she save it.