an outlet of encouragement, explanation, and exhortation

Category: Women in Ministry (Page 1 of 2)

Needing Christ

One thing I knew by this time: I needed Christ and not merely His religion… The Bible says that God does not wait for me to merit His love but heaps it upon me without my deserving it. It says also that there is neither male nor female in Christ… How good, how indescribably good! What good news for me a woman, a woman born in India among Brahmans who hold out no hope for me and the like of me! The Bible declares that Christ did not reserve this great salvation for a particular caste or sex.

Pandita Ramabai, An Honourable Heritage: The Pandita Ramabai Story in her Own Words (eBook: Community Christian Ministries, 2019), pp. 27, 28, 30-31.

On Women in the Church and in Marriage

In the past I wrote a series of posts considering biblical teaching on women in the church and in marriage. Several people have asked me about this recently so I thought I’d make the posts easy to find by adding a page that serves as a table of contents for these posts, and linking to it. And now, in 2023, the “Hot Topics” message Church teaching about Women refers to these articles yet again, so I am republishing.

In a nutshell, I argue that God created humans, male and female, to stand as peers in carrying his image. God often calls women into leadership and teaching ministry. It is God’s call that makes a leader or teacher or preacher in His church – nothing less will do. And no human organization can rightly oppose what God does. Regarding marriage, I argue that the best plan for marriage is a partnership of mutual submission under the headship of Christ.

I mention the Bible Project as a valuable resource on the creation narratives in Genesis, both podcasts and videos. One particular video on human identity may be helpful. There is another, older video by Tim Mackie video that you may find helpful. The Bible Project is a tremendous resource!

Last Sunday I mentioned trends in American higher education in which more women were attending college than in the past. Here are some statistics over the last 50 years.

A recently published, excellent new book, Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church, by scholar Nijay Gupta, lives up to the description in its title. This is a very helpful book – highly recommended!

Some Articles I (may or may not) refer to in my “Hot Topics – Abortion” Message

Here are links to some of the articles I mention in my “Hot Topics” message on abortion (also available as the LBFC Weekly Sermons podcast). Or perhaps these are things I should have mentioned, depending on which version you hear/watch.

One helpful article was David Novak’s What Does the Bible Say about Abortion. Novak is speaking about Jewish scripture with the word “Bible” in his title. Novak explains how a number of passages from Jewish scripture are mis-used and clarifies good interpretations.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is interviewed on All Things Considered regarding how abortion became a mobilizing issue for the religious right. She discusses the polarization and politicization of the abortion issue. For a longer read with much more detailed scholarship, try her book Jesus and John Wayne. I’ve written a bit more on Kristen Kobes Du Mez here. In a similar vein, Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth might be helpful.

Sarah Williams wrote a remarkable book about deciding to carry her daughter Cerian to term, shocking medical staff and professional colleagues. The recently rewritten edition is entitled Perfectly Human – Nine Months with Cerian. I first read this book and handed many copies out to others some years ago when it was first published as The Shaming of the Strong: The Challenge of an Unborn Life. It is a powerful book that you may find difficult to put down once you begin reading. While this book is easy to read for a general audience, Sarah Williams is a first-rate scholar that I first encountered through classes she taught at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. Her classes Marriage, Sex, and Family in Historical Perspective and another with the boring-sounding title Church and State in the Modern World are remarkably insightful; I learned a lot! Anything Sarah Williams does is bound to be top-notch and worth your attention.

Also, I wrote a series of short articles on women in the church and marriage on this blog some years ago that you can access here.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez

Jesus and John Wayne is the eye-catching title of a book by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. The subtitle is even more provocative: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. It’s a fine historical account written for a general audience detailing exactly what the subtitle says, with extensive documentation of sources. I lived through much of it what she is writing about. It is troubling, indeed, and helpfully contextualizes much that is troubling in the church today.

To learn more about the author, one can find a set of four interviews Skye Jethani did with Kristen Kobes Du Mez on The Holy Post podcast. These interviews summarize some of the points covered in the book:

  1. Cold Warriors: The 50s and 60s
  2. Culture Warriors: The 70s and 80s
  3. Tender Warriors: The 90s and 00s
  4. Fallen Warriors: The 10s and Today

Lastly, Jim Lyon did a really fine, more personal, interview with the author on the All That to Say podcast. He interviews Kristen Kobes Du Mez about her background and faith in a very wholesome and helpful manner. I found this interview quite helpful.

This is a book that many are talking about, and rightfully so. Kristen Kobes Du Mez will take some heat for this work – just like her Lord did, when He told the truth.

Women’s History Month articles at Barclay College

Barclay College has put out several short blog articles for Women’s History Month. Check them out!

The first one is a brief comment on women in pastoral and other forms of leadership in the church and in society. It opens with an introductory defense of women in leadership and closes with a call for the church to do better at supporting God’s call to women in leadership positions. It is confounding that there are a few churches today claiming to be Friends who do not allow women as elders or in senior pastoral positions, in spite of our Faith and Practice! What?

The second is a short article on Margaret Fell, one of the first Quakers and a great early leader whose writings on women preaching remain relevant today. She’s not called the “mother of Quakerism” for nothing!

And lastly, there is a very short article on Mary Fisher, a pioneering Quaker missionary who undertook a dangerous mission to travel overland to meet with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to tell him about Jesus. Even some of her supposed “helpers” tried to undermine her efforts! But she was faithful to her calling, met with the Sultan, and afterwards refused his offer of protection: she was already was under God’s protection!

12. Constructively Moving Forward

Some paint the issues surrounding the place of women in the family and the church as an issue of autonomy; that is, Man seeks to decide for himself and not let God be God. The issues are bundled with other contemporary issues of sex, life choices, materialistic goals, and so on. However, what I argue is not for an expansion of human autonomy, even though some see it that way. It is no argument for allowing Christians to move into what the Bible defines as sinful behavior. Rather, it is standing against human systems of oppression that oppose God and His purposes. My goal is not to free humans to choose their own way. My goal is to remove human oppression that stands against what God has created and that attempts to thwart what God is doing in the lives of women. It is to open the way for women and men to be who God created them to be, exercising the gifts he gives them as he calls without interference from other humans who hold up old traditions or ways as being God’s ways when in reality they were ways born in the curse.

No one should seek place or prominence in the body of Christ. We should all follow the example of Christ, humbling ourselves to serve in whatever manner He determines. If God lifts one into leadership or a place to exercise a spiritual gift, who should oppose Him? No one. But if God does not lift one to such a place, who should presume to take it on their own ambition or will? No one. The way I am advocating is to avoid ruling out a particular direction that God might lead. It is undeniable that God has used women in positions of leadership among his people in scripture. Some claim this was because the men were falling down on the job. Some say this is because God does not intend for women to be restricted to certain roles. Either way, if one opposes what God does for whatever reason he does it, one is opposing God. I caution Christians about proclaiming what God cannot or will not do with women, or standing legalistically on what we will allow God to do with or through women. We are not talking about a license to sin; we are talking about not standing against God when he leads or teaches through a woman when that is what he chooses to do. I believe God creates women and gives them gifts of teaching and leadership to be exercised at his calling for the benefit of the body of Christ as a standard part of life in his kingdom. However, even if you disagree that this is a normal path for women in the body of Christ, it is very dangerous to argue that we should stand against what God has demonstrated he may do when he sees fit – even if you think he only leads through women to shame sinful, distracted men!

For the women, though, there is a caution here. It is never safe to take on service in the kingdom of God just to prove that you can do it. The church is not the place to prove women are capable for the sake of human pride. God calls his people and arranges the members of the body as he sees fit. The essence of sin is to ignore God and seize autonomy to do what we determine in our own hearts and minds is “best”. Eve demonstrated the folly of that approach. Paul’s words in Philippians 2 apply to women, too. The church is not first a battleground for women’s liberation; it is the kingdom coming among us.

Every local church has to make a decision about how it will approach this issue. Either there will be limitations placed on women in the church or there will not. Either women will have the opportunity to lead and teach and preach, or they will not. There will be women as elders and pastors or there will not. God can organize us as he chooses. God can move us to change as he chooses. There is a practical issue of how each local church will approach this issue. Let us make our best attempt at faithfulness and move forward to do the work of the church without apology and also without antagonism toward brothers and sisters who choose a different approach. As much as it is in our power, we should be at peace with others who decide differently than we decide on this matter. And yet we must speak the truth in love when God says to speak.

We should want nothing more and nothing less than to allow Christ to lead us according to his priorities for his kingdom in a particular time and a particular place. What is helpful to communicate the gospel? What is helpful to advance the kingdom of God? What blesses the church? I believe that God will move his people to release women from the bondage resulting from the Fall that is reflected in human societies and cultures around the world. The timing is in God’s hands. Truth spoken in love, as God leads, is in our hands. God will move his people to change human society in the direction of his will. God’s enemies will oppose this movement.

I earnestly sought for God to guide me in this issue. In His time, He spoke, and said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The other gods are falling. Traditions of men and false spiritual powers are being disarmed. His kingdom is advancing. Good news is preached. Prisoners are freed. The blind recover sight. The oppressed are released. It is the year of the Lord’s favor.

“to the pure, all things are pure”

– Titus 1:15, NIV

Next… 13. Further Reading – Links and References

11. Practice and Experience

Theoretically, allowing God to call people into the ministry He chooses without seeking to promote one’s own place or position will lead to the same results, whether one is a complementarian or an egalitarian or something in between. However, in practice, expectations matter. Examples matter. It is all too easy to conform to externalities, regardless of whether these externalities limit the possibilities for women’s ministry or encourage stretching the boundaries of tradition.

No one can deny that women have been vitally involved in leadership among God’s people and in the church over the years, beginning with Miriam and Deborah in scripture and continuing with others.

In the history of the church, one simply cannot deny that women have carried the lion’s share of the ministry and leadership on many mission fields, producing healthy national, regional, and local churches. This ministry on the mission field often required women missionaries to teach and disciple national leaders who were men.

Some complementarians explain these awkward facts by claiming the sometimes God will use women in leadership in situations where the church is weak, but that his ideal is that leadership should be carried by men. Therefore, they argue for maintaining limitations on the leadership of women in the church in spite of the numerous examples of God using women in ways that obviously exceed these limitations.

Let us assume for sake of argument here that these complementarians are correct, and that God has only used women in leadership and teaching positions under in circumstances where the church is not healthy or weak. If this is so, then would it not be improper to institute church regulations that prevented God from calling women to lead a weak or unhealthy church?

My own experience, however, stands against this claim. I’ve had the blessed experience of knowing some excellent leaders, both men and women. My own assessment of the various leaders I have served with at the denominational level, for example, is that the best board chairman that I served with was a woman. She did an excellent job of leading the board to listen to the Spirit of God and obey. It was a privilege to learn from her and see God glorified through her leadership. There was no shortage of gifted male leaders available on this board; and there were still other gifted men who could have served on this board. And yet God called this woman to lead. I could not say otherwise without denying God the glory He deserves from what He accomplished through this woman’s leadership.

And that’s just the point. When the church is operating as it should, God raises up leaders who are not self-serving but rather God-serving. They are not advancing a feminist or patriarchal agenda. They are faithfully serving as empowered by His Spirit, and it brings glory to God in magnificent ways that are a blessing to all involved. How can it be justified to set up barriers to what God has chosen to do, both in the history preserved for us in scripture and in the history of the church since? How could it be right to set up structures that would exclude the possibility of what God has already done?

Lastly, the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that there is an overall serious shortage of leadership in the church. Leadership can be lacking because the wrong people are placed in positions of responsibility to which they are not called by God. However, when God calls, I’m delighted to serve alongside his chosen leaders no matter their gender. We need more leaders, and I’d guess that about half of them will be women!

My own wife, Susan, for example, is a gifted and excellent leader. She has been a leader all her life, in all sorts of situations, with all sorts of people. My profile is similar. For my whole life, I’ve naturally migrated into leadership in groups that I work with. I don’t think it has simply been a prideful thing of wanting to be the leader for either of us, generally speaking. (I should confess that I am sure, for my part, that it has sometimes been a matter of human striving or pride, more so when I was younger and (hopefully) less so as I have grown in Christ’s likeness. I don’t know any people with leadership gifts for whom this has never been an issue.)

Yet while both of us are accustomed to leadership, we are quite different in our natural and spiritual gifts for leadership. I am a starter and problem-solver who thinks strategically and likes to develop other leaders. Got a crisis? Call me; I thrive on them. I grow bored when leadership becomes more administrative, managing the details of a large organization. Susan is one who values having a plan and making it work, and is very gifted at making sure that all the details are planned and organized just as they should be. Which of us should be in charge of the checkbook in our home? Which of us would make the best COO? We’re both quite capable of doing a fine job, but it would be a fool who chose me over her for that sort of responsibility.

God handed out the gifts, and it is up to us to use them appropriately. It’s not a matter of me being a man and her being a woman! In fact, if I am to be a good leader, it is incumbent upon me to recognize her gifts and make space for them to flourish. God will be glorified in that. God would not be glorified by me insisting that I take roles in our relationship for which God did not suit me and for which he has created in her amazing gifts and talents.

(I do not mean to imply that God never chooses to stretch people by calling them into particular responsibilities of leadership for which others might seem more qualified. He seems to do this regularly. And then there is the small detail that God sees things that we don’t see; and Goliath falls to David, the son of Jesse that Samuel least expected to anoint as king. And even that is to say nothing of the times that God seems to choose leaders so as to leave no possibility of anyone mistaking that success came from anyone other than God; Jacob or Gideon come to mind. Dwight Moody positively reveled in the fact that people saw him and the ministry God was doing around him in this way.)

Another matter of practical experience is that there is a need for female leadership in every church, even those who sincerely believe that the place of women in leadership should be very limited. The practical issue is that we can expect roughly fifty percent of the church’s members to be women. These women need leadership and teaching and shepherding that is not best done by men. How will that be facilitated in the church if there are no women acting as elders?

There will be women with leadership abilities and gifts in the church. There should be a legitimate way for these gifts to be employed in service to God and his church. The alternative is that women with leadership gifts will grow frustrated with the lack of outlet for the gifts God has given them. The “natural” result of this is that there grows to be informal, unofficial, and sometimes unhealthy mechanisms for leadership and influence to be exercised by women. When these mechanisms are forced “underground”, everything about developing these gifts and talents is vastly complicated and subject to distortion and abuse. That seems a poor way to organize!

Next… 12. Constructively Moving Forward

10. Blessing the Church

What motivates a Christian leader? Obedience to God and service to the church. We are not (or should not be) driven by personal ambition or social agendas. It’s that simple… at least in theory. We obey God and bless the church.

The gifts of the Spirit are to bless the church and build it up. We belong to one another for the common good. We exercise our gifts in order and not chaos. (Consider Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth is 1 Corinthians 12-14.)

There is no justification for a Christian to seize leadership or dominate people. We serve in leadership; we lead to serve – not for self-aggrandizement. As Christians, we have no right to anything other than to imitate Christ. Christ’s attitude is the Philippians 2 attitude. He serves as our example.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death-
even death on a cross!

– Philippians 2:3-8, NIV

Speaking to the whole church, Peter writes:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.

– 1 Peter 5:5, NIV

The temptation we face is the desire to escape suffering and receive what we believe is due us. The enemy uses these desires to tempt us away from humility and suffering. In a way that must seem foolish to many in the world, Peter encourages the believers to allow God to take us through times of suffering in order to grow to be strong and steadfast.

Of course, Peter was talking to Christians who were persecuted by pagan or Jewish authorities. What about those who are persecuted by those who present themselves as the church? This is often a more difficult kind of injustice to accept. We expect those without Jesus to act like they are not in him. But we expect those who are God’s people to act in love with justice and truth. However, while we are always called to speak the truth in love, persecution in the church is not fundamentally different from persecution by those outside in terms of how God’s persecuted people undergo it… except perhaps that we may be called to an even higher standard of love in order to clearly testify to our identity as God’s people.

There is much scriptural precedent and teaching about suffering under injustice and little for aggressively or coercively forcing others to change to what we believe is right and true. It is not so much that we are to silently bear or tolerate injustice. It is that we are to speak the truth in love from a posture of humility rather than a posture of condemnation. We love in the same manner that God loves; we speak as God guides us to speak with an attitude that honors the example of Christ. Thus, as followers of Jesus we disavow the use of violence, force, manipulation, humiliation, and coercion. The improper use of power and influence makes winners and losers rather than building the body of Christ into unity.

17 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you, although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.

-1 Corinthians 7:17-24, NIV

It is not necessary for Christians living in societies and cultures in which women are not treated as equals or allowed ministry opportunities to change those cultures and societies overnight. This is particularly true when we are coming as an outsider to a foreign culture. Our priority is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we must allow other cultures and societies to work out Jesus’ teaching in their own ways and time as they respond to Christ, generally speaking. However, we must also be willing to be prophetic voices for truth and justice as God leads us to speak. If we speak when it is not God telling us to speak – ahead of his time – we are being idolatrous, allowing something other than God to rule in our hearts. And yet there is no room for complacency in bringing justice. There is no call to legalism of any type. God will lead us to speak the truth in love.

Above all, the self-serving pursuit of power, position, or authority is always sin whether it is in a man or a woman. The self-serving pursuit of power and authority has occurred in the name of male authority in the church; and the self-serving pursuit of power and authority has been done in the name of feminism and egalitarianism. Neither is acceptable among God’s people. Instead, we lay down our lives for the sake of our brothers and sisters, and allow God to call into leadership whom He would, when He would.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.

-1 John 3:16

Love for others argues that we want them to exercise their gifts and callings under the Lordship of Christ. Gender is not the point. Calling, love, and obedience is the point. When God gives gifts and callings, he intends them to be used to bless the church.

Next… 11. Practice and Experience

9. Leadership and Spiritual Authority

In Christ, as taught through the Bible, there is a strong personal/spiritual dimension to leadership and relationships of authority. That is, leadership is exercised from a foundation of spiritual authority. This is the type of authority that Christ teaches to His disciples.

Loosely adopting Robert Clinton’s typology of authority, one can identify a number of types of authority. There is authority that is coercive, wherein one essentially forces another against their will. There is “induced” authority, which is based upon external reward, payment, or even bribery. There is positional authority, in which one has authority by virtue of having a particular position in society or a family or an organization. None of these three types of authority require a personal relationship; the parties involved need not know one another well or at all.

Other forms of authority involve a deeper relationship between the parties involved. For example, a fourth type of authority is competent authority. One gains this type of authority by virtue of being recognized as having special expertise or competence. Those who recognize this type of authority must have enough of a relationship to be aware of the particular expertise or competence. Sometimes, an educational degree or certification substitutes for the relational knowledge of competence. A fifth type of authority is personal authority. This type of authority comes from personal charisma or personal connections. This type of authority is very dependent upon a relationship through which the authority is gained.

Similarly, a last type of authority, spiritual authority, also depends upon the existence of a relationship through which the authority is gained. Spiritual authority is gained by virtue of a follower’s perception of spirituality or spiritual maturity in a leader. For example, it is gained as others see a leader living in a Christ-like manner, being guided and used by God to bless and lead others in truth and love, and displaying the fruit of the Spirit. This spiritual authority is what makes for recognition of a leader among God’s people. This is the type of authority that Christ was teaching His followers to depend on in John 13:12-17:

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Other, lesser forms of authority cannot substitute for the spiritual authority upon which legitimate leadership in the church depends. In fact, some forms of authority are generally illegitimate in the context of the church, such as coercive or induced authority. In addition, some forms of authority are inferior to the spiritual authority that Jesus exemplified and taught: positional authority, competent authority, and personal authority fit this category. They are not in essence evil or illegitimate, and may even be extremely helpful God-given gifts for use in ministry, but they do not form the foundation for church leadership.

There is nothing about spiritual authority that is limited by gender. It is not gained by virtue of being one gender or another; neither is it thereby lost. In fact, spiritual authority may be earned and exercised completely outside formal structures and without formal recognition. Therefore, it is available to women on the same terms as it is available to men, though improper formal structures can inhibit the exercise of spiritual authority.

One might argue that if spiritual authority is not dependent upon the formal structure of the church or positional authority granted or recognized by the church that the issue of women being in formal positions of leadership is therefore moot. However, it seems more likely that a healthy church should seek to align its formal structures of leadership to be commensurate with the spiritual authority that those among God’s people have earned and demonstrated. This seems only wise. One certainly could not argue that positional authority can be assigned in ways that demonstrate disrespect of God-given spiritual authority! The teaching of scripture on how to choose elders and other leaders dwells much on matters of spiritual authority.

Secondly, formal authority structures, when not aligned with spiritual authority, can be a hindrance to its exercise. Those in positions of authority may come into conflict with those having spiritual authority; there are many tragic instances of this in the history of the church! There really is nothing we could hope for in our church structure that is better than aligning formal structures of authority with the spiritual authority that come from God.

Spiritual authority cannot be rightly denied or ignored; the nature of spiritual authority makes it impossible to ignore with wisdom, love, or truth.

Next… 10. Blessing the Church

8. Jesus’ Teaching or Dysfunctional Situations?

I believe the most important teaching for family and church relationships comes from Jesus. I believe that my way of relating as a man to women and as a husband to my wife should meet the standards Jesus taught for all relationships. I expect to treat women the way I would want to be treated if I were in their place. These attitudes must take precedence over less Christ-honoring ways. I love God first, and then I love my neighbor – including those who are women – as myself. I treat women the way I would want to be treated. I should see women as sons of God with full rights of inheritance. At least I should do all of these things; though undoubtedly I fail much.

Here are some of the scripture passages that inform my understanding.

Matthew 22:34-39

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it:’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 7:12

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Galatians 3:26-29

26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

When it came to how Jesus himself related to women, it is clear that he did not respect all the boundaries of his Jewish culture. For example, in his culture the students of a rabbi were all male. Women were not expected to sit at the feet of a rabbi; that was a man’s place. So what is Jesus teaching by his example in the following passage?

Luke 10:38-42

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus did not send Mary to the kitchen (or wherever women were expected to be by Martha and her society). Ignoring the conventions of his day, He allowed her to remain as a student at his feet. This was not an isolated incident. Jesus interacted with people in a Galatians 3 way. He stretched or ignored the conventions of his day with regard to Jew and Greek and Samaritan, slave and free, pure and impure, or male and female when it suited his purposes. In addition to Mary and Martha, I immediately think of the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene, particularly Mary Magdalene being the first to see him alive after his resurrection. There are others.

Rikk Watts comments on this aspect of Jesus’ character in Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community:

When the occasion arises where he must choose between personhood and traditional behaviour, he always chooses personhood by affirming the faith, love, understanding, and wit of various women, showing compassion and even on occasion rebuking them just as he would a misunderstanding male. In the meantime, his interest in teaching woman cannot help but eventually precipitate change. In Acts, along the same lines and generally in keeping with cultural mores but with an ultimately liberating although not deliberately polemically or confrontational cast, the Spirit uses both men and women to continue the proclamation of the gospel.

In other words, Jesus’ agenda is not gender driven. It reflects instead the earliest words of Genesis: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27, NIVI). Women are not objects, nor are men the enemy: both are made in God’s image and as such the reconstitution of humanity by the Son of Man begins with their mutual restoration and continues with the mutual co-operation in the announcement and extension of that reign.

But what are we to do with the passages in Paul and Peter that seem to confirm patriarchy and a limited role for women in marriage and the church? There are numerous books and articles that explain these passages from various perspectives. I have found some to be very helpful – particularly more modern treatments that consider the historical context. While there are many other books and articles (more than I can recall), here is a list of resources that I have found most helpful on these subjects:

  1. Listening to the Spirit of the Text, chapter six.
  2. Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community
  3. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament) by Gordon Fee. The commentary on First Corinthians is very thorough and fairly academic. No other commentary on First Corinthians has been so helpful to me.
  4. After Paul left Corinth by Bruce Winter. This is an excellent resource for understanding the historical context of Roman Corinth in the time of Paul.
  5. Women’s Service in the Church, a conference paper by N. T. Wright.
  6. The Hard Sayings of Paul by Manfred Brauch, which is also included in the larger work Hard Sayings of the Bible.
  7. Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation by Willard Swartley. This resource is fairly dense. Be prepared. It gives a very interesting and thorough historical discussion of biblical interpretation of four topics, including views of women.
  8. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce Winter is another book on the historical context of Paul’s letters as it relates to women in ministry in Paul’s time.

The overall approach I take to these passages is to consider carefully the historical context and (as best as we can discern it) the reason for writing. We must be careful about generalizing for today from corrective passages written to dysfunctional groups of people in the first century. When Paul taught slaves how to be Christ-honoring slaves, he didn’t mean to endorse slavery as a Christian imperative. When Paul taught men and women how to be Christ-honoring husbands and wives in marriage as it was practiced at the time in Asia Minor, he didn’t mean to endorse a form of marriage in which women were considered hardly more than property as a Christian imperative. Jesus’ (and Paul’s) teaching on human relationships and the nature of life in Christ argues strongly for reworking our lives and cultures into forms that honor God’s intentions in Christ. As Jesus preached:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

-Luke 4:18-21, NIV

Paul worked within the structures of the day without endorsing them as normative for all Christians for all time. Gordon Fee summarizes the approach I believe we must take in Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community:

The net result of all this seems clear enough: that Paul does not tear down existing structures, but neither does he sanctify them. Everything for him begins with Christ, his death and resurrection, whereby he established the new order, the new creation. In the new creation, two things happen: the relationship between man and woman in the first creation is restored, but that relationship must be lived out under the paradigm of the cross. In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, not meaning that differentiation has ceased, but that both alike enter the new creation on the same footing, and thus serve one another and the rest of the church in the same way their Lord did — by giving themselves to the other(s) out of love. Ministry is thus the result of God’s gifting and has nothing to do with being male or female, any more than it has to do with being Jew or Gentile, or slave or free.

In love, I desire the best for others. I hope that they will be free to fulfill the purpose for which God created them – exercising the gifts that God has given. That means I desire women to be free to exercise their gifts and callings as God gives and calls.

I believe God has been stretching the church beyond patriarchy, but not stretching in a way that “breaks” us. His goal in this time is not to set all things right immediately, but to restore human beings into a relationship with him out of which the kingdom of heaven grows in and around and through us, His body. Our role is to be Christ’s ambassadors to those who need him, laying aside our cultural habits and preferences for the sake of reaching others in whatever manner will speak to them – at least as it is consistent with forsaking sin and maintaining clear conscience. The priority is the good news of the kingdom of heaven breaking into our lives here and now. It is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and hope for the hopeless.

Christ’s impact on society is revolutionary more than scandalous or chaotic: we are called to rework society under the guidance of the Spirit but also to live within cultural forms to promote the gospel. How one knows whether to revolutionize or to submit to a culture’s forms is not simple! The only reliable answer is to follow the leading of the Spirit of God; he sets our agenda. Timing for cultural change rests with him. It is beyond question that the kingdom of heaven will bring cultural change and justice. And yet it will not destroy culture or erase all cultural differences.

If patriarchy is not God’s plan… if, in fact, it is a sinful denial of the image of God in women that stands in the way of bringing glory to God and having the abundant life God desires us all to have, do we need to fight it and speak out against it wherever it may be found? I believe the experience of Christians in cross-cultural mission and the testimony of scripture indicates that we are not necessarily called to take this approach. And yet we are not called to complacency either; we are to prophetically speak the truth in love.

In scripture, we see examples of patriarchal societies being reached by God’s people. God’s people did not make patriarchy the number one issue to speak against. In scripture concessions are made to patriarchal social patterns a number of times. While the direction of change among people who come to God has consistently been to improve the lot of women from what it was before they became God’s people, it is clear that the abolition of all patriarchal patterns in a particular society has not been the only or even the leading priority. And yet those living in these societies were called to justice and the way of love, particularly those who had power. God’s messengers have not necessarily been called to scandalize societies or force into positions of responsibility women who are not called and qualified for the sake of “equality”, but rather to promote the good news of the kingdom of heaven. This good news leads to Jesus being in charge. He will lead his people into healthy change that brings peace and joy and justice to both men and women without complacency. A bruised reed he will not break.

At the same time, God’s messengers to a society have often confronted evil so great that it could not wait another day to be addressed. The Christian missionaries who campaigned to abolish wife burning and enslavement of women in the sex trade are good examples of this. Those of us who go as God’s ambassadors must seek His guidance and embody His character. He is in charge; we are not. John Stackhouse’s book Finally Feminist is a helpful consideration of the idea that God’s agenda is not gender-driven.

Have God’s people been more a force to conserve evil or unjust social patterns or more a force for change leading to justice? We can say this: God’s people have not been ideal stewards of the kingdom of heaven, but God has accomplished through his people dramatic change for the betterment of society and justice for the powerless, including women. To the extent that we are faithful, God will lead us to be agents of change in the right places at the right times and in the right ways to bring about change that pleases God without bringing chaos to the societies in which we live. The coming of the good news of Jesus has consistently been good news for both women and men and leads any society that takes it seriously into great change.

Next… 9. Leadership and Spiritual Authority.

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