Thursday, March 08, 2018

Annual Women in Ministry Post (2018)

Roughly once a year I make an annual post celebrating women in ministry. Since today is "International Women's Day," how about today?

1. I must say I'm glad women in ministry and leadership are supported in Scripture. I'm glad because the other position makes no sense at all. It makes Christians look stupid at best and morally perverse at worst.

Anyone who says, "Men are the only ones with senior leadership skills," obviously doesn't know many women. And to say, "Men are the only ones who have spiritual discernment," is not only absurd but goes directly against Scripture. Then there's the back up defense of last resort of the person who just can't handle the obvious conclusion: "That's just how God wants it."

Tell that to Deborah or Priscilla.

I'm glad the Bible doesn't say anything of the sort because, well, I'm not smart enough to defend these positions. I have to imagine such thinking hinders the gospel in the world because it seems either evil or stupid. I have to think it has caused faith crises for no reason. What does Matthew 18 say about stumbling blocks? What does Ezekiel 3 say about requiring the blood of others at the hand of the failed evangelist?

If my plane is crashing, I don't ask, "Who is here with the appropriate genitalia to fly this plane?" I just want someone who can fly the plane. In the same way, I'm glad Scripture supports the call of women to leadership and ministry, because the other position is part of why the next generation increasingly thinks of Christians as a force for evil in the world.

That's right. We have convinced the world that love is the core value defining good and evil. And they have turned the standard on us and concluded we are evil. We think we are saving the world when parts of the world are more converted than we are.

2. There are obviously women leaders throughout the Bible. Deborah was the head leader of Israel in Judges 4-5, a higher authority than even Barak. Barak went to her for help. And she had a husband.

Huldah was the highest spiritual authority in Israel in 2 Kings 22:14. The high priest goes to her to validate the Law. And she had a husband.

These two women show that women can be both the superior political and spiritual leaders over all the men in the land.

3. What about the New Testament? Does it change all this?

Not at all. In fact, Acts 2:17 normalizes it. As we would expect, in an age when the Spirit is given to all equally, both sons and daughters will prophesy. What was occasional in the Old Testament should now be the norm in the age of the Spirit. In Christ "there is not male and female" because all have the same access to the Spirit (Gal. 3:28, notice that the wording echoes Gen. 1:27). All thus potentially have the same spiritual discernment. Women are not more gullible or deceivable than men.

4. And we see them prophesying. In 1 Corinthians 11, we see Paul instructing women to cover their heads in worship so they can be in proper relationship to their husbands when they are praying or prophesying in worship. It is important not to lose sight of the underlying assumption here. Paul is assuming without argument that the wives of the congregation will pray and prophesy in worship.

So the instruction about the veil is to create stability in what was surely a very sexually tense new experience. Women in close quarters in a house church around men who weren't their husbands! Put a veil on it so that no one is tempted. Show that you have your wedding ring on... or in this case your veil!

1 Corinthians 11 immediately puts into perspective 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which tells wives to be silent in the churches. As a New Testament scholar, I personally think this is a textual variant, but let's assume it is original. In the light of 1 Corinthians 11, these verses can only be talking about disruptive speech.

In other words, it is not a blanket prohibition of women speaking in worship. It is part of a chapter whose purpose is to bring order out of a chaotic worship time. If the wives have questions about things being prophesied, let them ask their own husbands later instead of creating more chaos (and sexual tension) by interrupting the service, asking men who aren't their husbands.

5. So we are not surprised to find women playing leadership and ministry roles in the New Testament. In John 20, Mary Magdalene, not Peter, is the first person to whom the risen Jesus chose to appear. She is one of several women followers Jesus had during his earthly ministry (Luke 8:1-2; 24:10). They were also disciples of Christ. These women are the first ones to preach the resurrection and thus can be called the first apostles.

In Acts and Paul's writings, Priscilla is mentioned several times before her husband as part of a ministry team (cf. Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3). One of these mentions is when she and her husband discipled Apollos to teach him the way of Christ more perfectly. In other words, a woman seems to have taken the lead in teaching one of the key apostles of the early church.

Phoebe was a deacon of the church of Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). It does not say "deaconess." The word is the same as deacon anywhere else in the New Testament. This fact highlights the tendency of some translations made by those who resist this light. There is a tendency to downplay the most obvious reading of these texts, which show women in engaged in ministry just like men (cf. Euodia and Syntyche in Phil. 4:2).

Probably the most noticeable instance of this translation bias is in the ESV's rendering of Romans 16:7. The Greek says that Andronicus and Junia were "well known among the apostles." Many have chaffed under the possibility that this woman Junia was an apostle. Some manuscripts added an "s" to her name so it would be a man's name. The ESV, as we mentioned, deliberately eliminates this interpretation by translating it, "well known to the apostles."

But 1 Corinthians 15:6 mentions the resurrected Jesus appearing to five hundred people at once, and 15:7 mentions an unmentioned number of apostles. Since this couple clearly were Jesus followers from the earliest days, even before Paul, it is quite possible that this woman was a witness to the resurrection and sent into the world to be an apostle along with her husband.

6. So why is this even a discussion? Because of one passage, one excuse for those who just don't like the idea that God calls and uses women on all levels of ministry and leadership. 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

You should never base your theology on one passage, on one proof-text, so our discussion is ended. Meanwhile, the husband-headship passages are irrelevant to this discussion. We have already seen that Deborah and Huldah could be ultimate political and spiritual leaders and be married.

If God wants a woman to lead, then a husband must obey God, because God is his head. If he resists his wife's call, it is not she who is out of relationship with him, but he who is out of relationship with God. She must obey God rather than man. In reality, almost all husbands of women who are called to ministry enthusiastically support her call.

Stop making excuses! I have thoughts on God's perfect will in relation to headship too, but I'll leave that aside today.

7. The rhetoric on this topic has got us so focused on these verses that we can't see straight. These are unclear verses! In fact, these are bizarre verses. What, for example, does it mean to say that wives will be saved through childbearing? I thought we were all saved through the blood of Jesus Christ? Christ died for the sins of Eve as well as the sins of Adam, so the transgressions of the fall cannot prevail in the redeemed Church!

The relationship of these verses is arguably the wife-husband relationship. After all, Adam and Eve were husband and wife, and they are the basis for the train of thought. Married women give birth to children. So at most this passage turns out to be another headship passage, and the question of women in ministry, again, is no longer in view.

No more passages are left to make excuses out of.

I will say that these verses--indeed all of 1 Timothy on related matters--are so uncharacteristic of Paul that we must surely imagine a vastly different situation than Paul's focal letters. Many point to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus as a reason for Paul to come down hard on those who would turn gender domination in the opposite direction of the prevailing culture. As the argument goes, women were autocratic leaders in the Temple of Artemis.

Of course, as one evangelical scholar once put it, Paul doesn't say for the husband to act like an autocrat in relation to the wife either, even while telling her not to be a dictator over him (authenteo).

8. Come, let us reason together.
  • Women are just as gifted leaders as men.
  • Women have just as much spiritual discernment as men.
  • Women are redeemed from the sin and curse of Eve.
  • There was nothing distinctively Christian about exclusively male leadership in the worlds of the Bible. The empowerment of wives and women was what was distinctively Christian.
  • To ban women from leadership and ministry is to put an unnecessary stumbling block in front of the gospel in our culture.
  • Many who oppose women in ministry may do so for hidden, quite unspiritual reasons--insecurity, pride, a spirit of oppression and domination, fear.
Therefore, women should follow whatever call God gives them, unhindered. Who are you to stand in the way of God? And the best leader should be appointed regardless of gender.


Martin LaBar said...

Don't forget Mrs. Manoah.

Ken Schenck said...