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Commentary Theology

How Paul Helped Elevate the Status of Women

Few people, outside of Jesus, are more celebrated, dissected, and scoffed at than the Apostle Paul. When it comes to gender roles in the church, this is especially true. Historian Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, notes many of her students often say, “I hate Paul!”[1] because of how Christians have understood his take on women. 

But what if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman? What if he didn’t seek to restrict women, but free them? What if he didn’t seek to silence them but to empower them to speak the wonders of the gospel? What if he partnered with them, as he did with men, to get to the gospel to the ends of the earth? 

This post begins a series of posts on Paul and specific texts he wrote that deal with women. In the first two posts, I’ll give an overview of how Paul viewed and interacted with women. This post will look at the environment Paul ministered in and how two elements of his theology elevated women. The next will highlight several of the women we meet in Paul’s ministry and letters.

The goal is to help us see that Paul was not universally restrictive of women, contrary to what most complementarian theologians teach. In certain places, it sure seems like Paul was quite hard on women! I will address those texts specifically. But when we look at the bigger picture of Paul’s theology and ministry we’ll see a different story.

What if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman?

Let’s start with a glance at Paul’s environment and its view of women. 

An Open Door for the Liberation of Women

Paul lived in the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century AD. Roman culture and its philosophy was “thoroughly grounded in the tradition of Greek philosophy.”[2] Aristotle (d. 322 BC) was one of the most influential philosophers. 

In Politics, he suggests a sociological structure for the state. And he has quite a bit to say about women. In one place, he writes, “[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” A bit later, “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

It’s impossible to know if Aristotle’s words were floating around in the minds of the average Roman citizen in the first century. But his influence goes without saying. It’s more than likely that these degrading ideas about women permeated Roman thought. 

As a friend of mine (a PhD in philosophy) commented recently, “Greek philosophy, in general, was in the drinking water of the [Roman] culture.”

Even with this Greek influence, a woman’s place in the Roman world was a mixed bag. Yes, they were often mistreated, abused, and given in marriage far too young (and without choice).[4] To the Romans, a woman’s role was to support her husband, birth babies, and manage the home.[5] 

But there were positive developments. Roman women had much more freedom than Greek women. They were not meant to be invisible and completely relegated to the domestic sphere (like in Greece).[6] They could own property or a business, inherit an estate, make a will, and even buy and sell slaves. 

By God’s sovereign design, this subtle, positive shift served as a launching pad for the church to give prominence and authority to women unlike anything before.

Two Key Values that Elevated Women 

The Roman context opened up the door for the church to elevate women. In this section, let’s focus on two key elements in Paul’s theology that set women free and give them equal status with men. To use a modern category, you can think of these elements as Paul’s ministry “values.”

In Christ: The Gospel Levels the Playing Field

I’ll call the first value “in Christ.” Anyone who has read Paul understands that this is one of his favorite phrases. The reality of being “in Christ” for Paul is foundational to everything else. Life, virtue, ministry, and anything good flows from being “in Christ.” 

What does it have to do with women in ministry?

One passage that egalitarians are quick to point to is Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Complementarians argue that the context is about salvation. I agree, and so do egalitarians. But does Galatians 3:28 have any sociological implications?[7]

There are two other passages that use the “in Christ” phrase that look and sound a lot like Galatians 3:28. 

  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).
  • “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11).

There’s also Ephesians 2:15, which is similar: 

  • “By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jew and Gentile], thus making peace…”

These three passages are representative of each other and probably interchangeable.[8] Paul is looking at areas of social inequality and showing how the gospel brings a new identity “in Christ” that levels the social playing field. In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens.[9]

If Christianity were to spread across the globe, the Jew-Gentile problem was especially important to address. Jews needed to embrace Gentiles and vice versa. Otherwise, the news of Jesus would not have left Jerusalem!

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

This is part of Paul’s genius. Yes, he was a deeply spiritual missionary. But he was also strategic. That’s why he tackled the ethnicity problem in almost all his letters. 

The church eventually “caught sight of the social ramifications of the Jew-Gentile equality”[10]. The proof is that Christianity spread across the entire Roman Empire. 

Later, Christians saw equality for slaves and worked out the implications over the course of church history. William Wilberforce in England is the most famous example of an abolitionist who believed slavery was at odds with the gospel.

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

To me, the issue here is urgency. In his short lifetime, what would Paul choose to focus on? He had a holy sense of urgency to get the Jew-Gentile problem corrected because of his desire to get to gospel to the entire known world. 

He chose not to press the women and slaves issue. Looking back on history, it’s easy to see how social/practical (not spiritual) liberation for these groups would have actually hurt the spread of the gospel. Society, as a whole, wasn’t ready for it yet, even if Christians were.[11]

But Paul still cared about women being elevated and valued in the church. His approach to this wasn’t as explicit as the gender issue. It was more subversive. His understanding and application of spiritual gifts help us see this.

Mutual Participation: Everyone Contributes in the Church

The second value is “mutual participation” in the church through spiritual gifts. Paul taught that everyone in the church has a part to play—even women. All who are “in Christ” share in the Spirit. This means everyone has spiritual gifts to contribute to the church’s well-being (see 1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16).[12]

The point here is that spiritual gifts are not “gendered.” Instead, the Spirit gives gifts to each person as he desires (1 Cor 12:11). And when everyone does their part, the body builds itself up in love (Eph 4:16). Everyone in the body is now an “ambassador,” speaking for Christ wherever they go (2 Cor. 5:20).[13] 

The unique thing about first-century churches is that they met in homes. Churches were more informal and participatory than our churches today. Gathering to hear one man speak for 45-50 minutes was unheard of.[14] 

Paul expected each person to show up to a church meeting with something to minister to others. People weren’t to only consume. They were to contribute. We get a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 when Paul says, “Each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

When Paul corrected the Corinthians in this same chapter about their worship gathering, he didn’t chide women for using a particular gift or even leading. We actually see women prophesying (a leadership activity) back in 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, he’s worried about the manner of how the gifts were being used.

The value of mutual participation is also seen in the “one another” references sprinkled throughout his letters. Love one another. Encourage one another. Forgive one another. Correct one another. And so on.

Paul expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

Consider Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (my emphasis).

This is about living in community together. But these things would happen within a worship service context. It begs the question. Why would Paul tell the whole church to “teach and admonish one another” if women could not teach men?

It seems obvious to me that he expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

One more thought. Paul says that the word of Christ will dwell in us when we teach and admonish through “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Paul knew then what science proved much later: music is a powerful medium for memory.[15]

My wife (the musician in our family) has said that most Christians learn more theology through songs than sermons. I agree.

If songs can teach in a way that helps the message of Jesus get into the hearts and minds of Christians, why would Paul encourage women to sing, if they were not allowed to teach? 

Consider the implications for us today. Taken to the extreme, the restriction “women cannot teach men” (from 1 Tim 2:12) would mean that a woman cannot lead musical worship. It would also imply that all women cannot sing out loud during a congregational meeting, since, in Paul’s mind, singing is a communal activity for mutual edification.[16] 

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender. It makes the most sense that Paul encouraged and expected women, like men, to use their spiritual gifts, including teaching, for the benefit of everyone in the early house churches.[17] 

Summing It Up

Paul lived during a major turning point in history. While still falling short of what we’d hope for today, female Roman citizens enjoyed more rights than previous cultures. This opened a unique opportunity for the Church to elevate women to an equal status with men. Paul’s teaching on being “in Christ” and the mutual participation of believers through spiritual gifts were foundational for the Church to treat everyone equally, including women.

The next post will show how Paul lived this out, as we do a brief fly over of his ministry relationships with women.

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender.


Notes

Feature photo: “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne (c. 1618-20).

[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 39.

[2] See “Roman Philosophy,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[4] Girls were often betrothed by age 10 and married in the late adolescent or early teen years, although some girls were married by 10 or 11. Mary Beard writes that Atticus sought out a potential husband for his daughter when she was only 6 years old. See Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright & Company, 2015), 311.

[5] Ibid., 304.

[6] Ibid., 307. 

[7] The general idea for this section comes from William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 85-87.  

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 48.

[10] Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 86.

[11] When I have more time, I’d like to research how the Roman Empire and the Jewish Diaspora paved the way for a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem. In AD 70, when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, it forced the entire population of that city to find new meaning and identity as a displaced people. But even earlier than that, in Acts 2, we saw that Jews were living all over the known world and would come back to Jerusalem for feasts. The Roman Empire was sympathetic to other religions—as long as they didn’t revolt. (That’s why Jerusalem was burned down!) The Roman road system also allowed for “interstate travel” (as we’d call it today). People were continually crossing paths with others who were different from them. In a nutshell, the Empire was a step toward a more global, multi-ethnic community. While advances were made for women, it was nothing in comparison to this. Women were still second-class citizens (with slaves beneath them).

[12] Spiritual gifts are ministries, activities, functions, etc. that edify and build up others people in the church. See 1 Cor 12:4-6.

[13] The word “ambassador” is connected to the idea of “image and likeness” from Genesis. An ambassador is someone who represents a greater authority, just like an “image” did in the ancient world. Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul wrote, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Paul’s building an argument to help the Corinthians see that the ministry of Spirit is to transform believers into the image of Jesus and, therefore, serve as his ambassadors. It is a “new creation refresh” on the original creation account. Women share in this equally with men.

[14] Even in the Jewish synagogue context, one man would not lecture for the entire meeting. Instead, synagogue meetings were much more interactive and discussion-oriented. Consider the scene in Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, read from Isaiah, made a very brief comment and sat down. Then the discussion continued (about him, of course!). The goal was communal learning and experience, not top-down communication. 

[15] On my blog and in sermons I’ve shared about the Psalms being what I call “felt theology.” In other words, the Psalms make the truth about God and life come alive in the emotions of the human heart. This is what Paul’s getting at in Colossians 3:16. 

[16] There are some traditions that do not permit women to lead musical worship. I hardly think any would forbid all women from singing out loud.

[17] Craig Blomberg (in a lecture I could not locate if I tried) talked about the importance of song for the oral transmission of the Gospels. Because singing helps humans memorize easily, Blomberg suggested that much of the oral tradition was passed down through song. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. Particularly because several scholars believe two of the most famous passages in the New Testament about Jesus (Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11) were actually hymns.

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Commentary Theology

The Difference of Pentecost

We come to Pentecost in Acts 2. It is, without a doubt, one of the most electrifying, motivating, and mystifying passages in the New Testament. 

It also helps us make sense of gender roles in the post-resurrection era of the Kingdom of God.

Think of this post as a sequel to the last two on Jesus and women. In those, we looked at how Jesus’ interactions with women changed the game on gender in the first century. Now, we’ll see how Jesus begins to carry on his work through his people, including women, by his Spirit.

What Happened at Pentecost?

Pentecost was a Jewish feast to celebrate the first-fruits of harvest. Because it was a religious observance, thousands of faithful Jews from other parts of the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God during the festival.

There were about 120 believers gathered together for prayer on the day of Pentecost. The group included both men and women (see Acts 1:14). Luke, the author, writes while they were praying a mighty wind rushed upon them. Something like “tongues of fire” came to rest above their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

The disciples began sharing “the wonders of God,” and everyone heard what they said in their native language. The crowd was quite confused. Some even said that they were drunk.[1]

Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender.

But Peter stood up to explain that they weren’t drunk. (It was only 9am!) This was the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel had written centuries before. His speech is found in Acts 2:14-36. His opening words in Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-30) are the most important for our discussion. Here it is in the NIV:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

In the Old Testament, God poured out his Spirit for certain occasions and on particular people. No longer. Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender (cf. Acts 2:39).

At Pentecost, that day had finally come. God now lives in and with his people–men and women–for good.

What Does Pentecost Mean?

Pentecost means a whole lot. As it relates to gender roles, I’ll mention three important take-aways:

1. Pentecost means God has come to dwell with both men and women, equally.  

This was the goal of creation all along. In the beginning, God dwelt with humanity in perfect fellowship. The story of the Old Testament is God’s pursuit of his people Israel to dwell with them in spite of their sin. Nothing is a permanent solution. 

Until Jesus. 

All who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.

Jesus is God’s sacred space—the “place” where God dwells. He calls himself the temple to prove the point (John 2:19-21). He is where heaven and earth meet. 

And through his life, death, and resurrection, he reconciles people back to God and gives them his Spirit. Now, all who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.[2] 

This is a major theme in the New Testament, and it was foundational for the early Church’s understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). 

This has nothing to do with worshiping in a building or particular liturgies or churches operating as organizations. It has everything to do with being a people-movement energized and empowered by God’s Spirit for a specific identify and function: being with God as his people and being his witnesses to the rest of the world.

2. Pentecost means men and women are both his authoritative witnesses to the world.

Because God now dwells in us, we represent him to the world. This was, again, God’s intention from the beginning. He created man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-28), meaning they represented God in their activity in the world.

Sin did not entirely remove God’s image from humanity. But it brought destructive effects so that we sought to rule ourselves, rather than joyfully represent God as we were created to. 

Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.

Pentecost reverses this curse. The indwelling Spirit brings redemption and restoration to whoever believes in Jesus. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 call the Church “a kingdom…and priests to our God,” echoing the language of image and likeness from Genesis.[3] Believers in Jesus can now fulfill humanity’s original intent.

Peter’s choice of the Joel passage especially highlights the mutuality between men and women in this new era of the Spirit. To prophesy in the context of Pentecost means to speak on God’s behalf with his authority. Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.[4]

There’s no hierarchy here. There’s no male-only leadership. The Kingdom of God, through the event of Pentecost, ushers in a new ministry paradigm in which men and women labor side-by-side in the work of the gospel.

3. Pentecost means the Church previews the world to come.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated the new creation. But it didn’t end with him. He is called the “firstborn” of a new creation (Col 1:15-20; cf. Rev 1:5). Now, whoever has the Spirit dwelling in them is “in Christ” and is, therefore, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).[5] This will take its full effect when we are with Christ and receive our resurrected bodies in the new creation. 

As “new creation” beings, we are a “sneak peak” of the “coming attraction.” We’re a preview of what it will be like when we will reign with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth.

We do this in many ways, don’t we? We fight sin, pursue Christ-centered community, give justice to the disadvantaged and oppressed, care for the environment, bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, food to the hungry, and so on.

All of these are a faint whisper of life without sin, brokenness, and death.

In other words, we fight the curse.

Why wouldn’t we do the same with gender hierarchy? 

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now? Shouldn’t our ministries reflect the equality and mutuality God gave men and women at creation and in redemption?[6]

For me, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now?

What’s Next?

Now, on to Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul included women in gospel ministry. We’ll also consider some of his general teaching that should help us set a “baseline” for how Paul would think about women in ministry.

After that, we’ll start to dive in to the specific, controversial texts by Paul on women’s roles in the Church.


Notes

[1] For our purposes, what this language phenomenon actually was isn’t important. I have my own take. But that’s for another post. 

[2] If the concept of “sacred space” is new to you, please read my previous posts on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 for context. 

[3] This is a major theme in 1 Peter. I’ll also show in the next post on Paul, that it’s a significant reason for his focus on the entire body of Christ contributing to its growth through spiritual gifts. Which, as we know, are not gendered.

[4] Of course, Peter, a man, takes the lead in his Pentecost speech. But as I’ve shown previously, we can’t overlook the fact that Jesus’ closest disciples were male for cultural reasons. Jesus accommodated himself to the culture he came to live in.

[5] A literal translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 goes something like this, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (2 For 5:17). There is no gendered pronoun in the verse. When a committee translates this passage as “he is a new creation,” we may know that Paul is talking about a generic person, but the gender bias damage has already been done. The focus of the verse is not “he” but “anyone” (Gk tis). Why is this text important for gender roles? Because it’s in a section where Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation. If anyone is in Christ and is therefore a new creation, Paul writes, they have the distinct role of being his ambassador—to preach the message of Christ to a lost world. This ministry is for men and women. The theology of Acts 2 is no doubt in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he writes these words to the Corinthians. We have to ask ourselves: why would any woman be able to have this high identity and calling of “ambassador of Christ” to the world and yet not be a local church elder/pastor?

[6] I have heard some complementarians argue that there will be gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, based on the fact that there was a hierarchy built into the original creation. I have not found an actual article or book that explains the idea of “gender roles” in the new creation, however. Still, I remain unconvinced by this argument based on my conviction that Genesis 1-2 does not teach men are inherently “over” women as leaders. If there was no hierarchy in the Garden, it doesn’t make sense to me that there would be in the new creation. See my posts on Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for more on this. Other complementarians may argue that if a gender hierarchy is the result of the fall, that’s “just the way world is” and we should live with it. I may write an interlude post soon responding to the issue of birth order and whether or not we should fight against the curse. 

Categories
Commentary Theology

Jesus and Women (Part 2)

In this second post on Jesus and women, I’ll focus on three specific interactions Jesus had with women: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and the women at the empty tomb. 

I’ll provide a brief commentary on each of these passages. My goal is to help us see the cultural implications these stories reveal.[1] Then, I’ll offer summary statements to help us consider how these interactions should influence gender roles today. 

Here’s what we’ll see:

Jesus violated the cultural expectation of how women were to be treated to pave the way for their full inclusion in the life and leadership of the church.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground. To keep this post at a reasonable length, my commentary will be selective. I assume you are familiar with these stories (at least at a basic level). If you aren’t, I encourage you to first read the passages in their entirety.

The Samaritan Woman

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 is one of the most well-known and beloved in Scripture. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well after a long journey. He initiates conversation by asking her for a drink. By the end of the story, the woman is the one who’s had a soul-quenching drink of living water. 

Jesus shatters all the norms in this passage. First, he talks to a woman. Recall from my last post that self-respecting rabbis did not talk to women in public. Not even to their wives! We see the disciples’ surprise in after they return from getting food. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ Or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (4:27, NIV, my emphasis).

The disciples don’t have the guts to say what they were thinking. But John, the author, was there and is likely recalling the group’s disposition.

The first question has the connotation of, “Would you like us to get rid of her for you?”[2] Disciples were like Secret Service detail for their rabbis. They’d defend him at any cost.

The second question exposes the disciples prejudice. Like us, they were products of their culture. Jesus conversing with a woman was not only a waste of time. It was wrong and scandalous.

That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. 

Second, Jesus asks a Samaritan for a drink. Jews did not interact with Samaritans because of “smoldering tensions” that began 500 years before due partly to race, religion, and politics.[3] To uphold the expected norm, both Jesus and the woman should not have acknowledged each other’s existence. The woman expresses her shock that Jesus asks her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink (v 9). 

John helps his readers understand the context with a parenthetical note, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (v 9b). The Greek word translated “do not associate” in NIV (or “no dealings,” ESV) is sygchraomai. It can also mean “to share a vessel in common”–like a cup or dish.

Late in the conversation, the woman recognizes Jesus is a prophet. She asks him a question about the true place of worship (vv 19-20). Jesus doesn’t debate. Instead, he completely rejects the notion of location-centric worship. True worship about who is worshiped and the manner of worship. (vv 23-24). He reveals himself to be the Messiah (v 26), placing himself at the center of true worship. 

As the disciples return to find them speaking, the woman abruptly leaves. Jesus’ word about his messianic identity struck a nerve in her. She runs to tell her whole village about Jesus. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v 30).

This Samaritan women is the first female Christian preacher in history.

Her testimony resonates with the villagers. The people begin to make their way to Jesus. This would have startled the original readers. That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in a first-century Jewish court.[4] Yet Jesus believes she is a trustworthy witness. 

We find out that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v 39). They urge Jesus to stay with them for two more days and, in that time, more Samaritans come to believe in Messiah. 

This Samaritan women–we don’t even know her name–is the first female Christian preacher in history.[5]

The Syrophoenician Woman

The second snapshot is Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. On the surface, the story seems to disprove everything I’m arguing for. Jesus comes across as misogynistic and ethnocentric. But when we understand the cultural context, we discover the complete opposite.

This time it’s a Gentile woman—a Syrophoenician, according to Mark—who violates social custom by initiating with Jesus. She calls him “Son of David” (v 22), showing she has familiarity with Jewish messianic expectations.[6] Her daughter is sick and she knows Jesus can help. Mark tells us she asks Jesus to drive out a demon (Mk 7:26). Matthew notes that she asks Jesus to have mercy on her (Matt 15:22). 

Jesus is ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.

Our western eyes focus on the woman as an individual with a need. But we must remember that Middle Eastern rabbinic contexts are communal. Jesus will deal with the woman. But he also interacts with his disciples, who are present (v 23).[7] He’s ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.[8] 

As a rabbi, Jesus knows he’s not supposed to respond to this woman’s plea in public. So he “did not answer a word” (v 23a). The disciples encourage Jesus to send her away (v 23b). This is reminiscent of their unspoken question in John 4 (see above). 

Jesus finally speaks, but only because the disciples are the ones who demand, “Send her away! She won’t leave us alone.” Jesus plays their game and pretends to send her away, pointing out he has only come for Israel (v 24). It doesn’t drive her out; it draws her in. She begs, “Lord, help me!” (v 25). 

Jesus could have given in to her request and helped. But remember the cultural context. He’s still dealing with his disciples. They believe this woman isn’t worth the time of day because of her ethnicity and gender. Jesus says what they are thinking: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v 26). 

That’s a horrific statement. Why did Jesus say this? Listen to Kenneth Bailey:

Jesus here gives concrete expression to the theology of his narrow-minded disciples who want the Canaanite woman dismissed. The verbalization is authentic to their attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughters. It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated.[9]

Jesus simultaneously tests the woman’s faith with an insult and exposes his disciples’ sin. She acknowledges the insult but has the courage to respond despite the mounting shame. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v 27). 

What an answer! She passes the test. She knows Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, but she also trusts his compassion is endless. He has come for all people. There is enough left over for her—a “little dog” in the eyes of Jews, even Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus acknowledged her great faith and granted her request. She goes on her way transformed. The disciples were rebuked and corrected. But their story is not over. “An enormous amount of sophisticated spiritual formation is taking place” in their hearts, too.[10] The story of the early church after Jesus’ ascension proves this.

The Women at the Empty Tomb

The final snapshot is from the first Easter morning. At the end of every Gospel, we see women, not men, who meet Jesus at the empty tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). The men, afraid because their leader was just executed publicly by Rome, are hiding. The women face the risk and go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. 

They don’t find Jesus’ corpse. They find the stone rolled away and an angel who’s as bright as lightning. After the initial shock and fear that followed, they meet the resurrected Jesus.[11] It changes everything. 

A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.

Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matt 28:10). John’s account spotlights Jesus’ interaction with Mary Magdalene. Jesus tells her, “Go…to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary obeys and has the privilege of being the first person to say, “I have seen the [risen] Lord!” (20:18).

But the men don’t believe the women (Lk 24:11). This isn’t surprising given their context. Remember that a woman’s testimony was not considered legitimate at that time. Knowing this, we would expect Jesus to appear to men so that they would be the first witnesses of the resurrection.

Not so. Jesus flips the world’s values upside down again. A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.

What Does All This Mean?

I’ve done my best to give you a brief synopsis of the cultural significance of these three interactions Jesus had with women. But what does it all mean for us today?

Three themes stand out to me. I alluded to them in my commentary, but here I’ll provide a summary statement with an explanation for each. 

1. Jesus breaks down the social barriers of gender and ethnicity. 

That Jesus crossed both gender and ethnic barriers at the same time is significant. It reveals how closely they are related in Jesus’ mind.

Jesus confronts the disciples’ prejudices in the first two interactions above. He isn’t harsh with them. He understands the water they swim in is dark. But he confronts them nonetheless. 

Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “Let’s end our patriarchy today” or “Women are equal footing in ministry with men”? That would have been more clear to us. Giving formal, propositional statements to make a point, however, is a very modern and westernized expectation. If we demand this of Jesus, we’d be asking him to be someone he wasn’t when he lived in this world. 

Jesus lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Instead, Jesus confronts them as a Jewish rabbi would–through modeling, interactive teaching, and communal learning. He overcomes the social barriers not by ameliorating institutional norms or statutes (which he did not have the opportunity to do anyway). Instead, he embodies a new kingdom norm in how he treats and talks to women and Gentiles.

Jesus also goes further than just breaking norms. He’s forming his disciples in a new, better way. A Kingdom of God way. He lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (see Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11).

Objection: Of course we should overcome misogyny and ethnocentrism to respect women and people who are different than us. But that doesn’t mean women should be leaders/pastors, etc. in the church.

My response: There are many complementarians who respect women, of course. But Jesus didn’t elevate women so they’d be “respected,” important as that is. To me, it seems he goes much further (as I argue in my last post). His is goal was to redeem and restore women to their original purpose: serving God as his representatives equally alongside men. The next theme reveals why I think this.

2. Jesus empowered women to be his authoritative witnesses.

No matter how we slice it, the Samaritan woman and the women at the empty tomb were preachers and missionaries. In fact, Mary Magdalene holds the prestigious status of being “apostle to the apostles,” as she’s known in some traditions.[12] 

In the world’s eyes, Jesus should have first appeared to men to give credibility to his fledgling movement. But reason he appeared to women was to bolster the reliability of the message. It’s astonishing that women would be given this honor in the context. The account is even more credible–no man would have written this unless it actually happened.

But there’s more. I also think it was a profound display of the reversal of the curse. Women are now on equal standing with men in the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not buy in the argument that women were unreliable witnesses. He rejected it in full. To Jesus, what qualified someone to speak and minister on his behalf was not gender, but their connection to him. The testimonies of the Samaritan woman and Mary prove this.

Objection: This has nothing to do with women being pastors in local churches

My response: That is true…to an extent. But Jesus did not come to start an organization with a hierarchical structure. (In his kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. Jesus’ elevation of women is one example of that value.) Instead, he came to inaugurate his Kingdom—a people-movement empowered by his Spirit to continue his work until he returns. If Jesus can launch his movement by sending a woman to preach to his male disciples, why can’t he send a woman to preach to men and women in churches today? I’m going to make the case in the coming posts that we cannot use 1 Timothy 2:12 as a reason.

3. Jesus ushers men and women into the presence of God.

This point may be one of the most important. It’s most obvious in the John 4 passage, but resurrection implies it, too.

On the surface, I assume most Christians would agree to this statement no matter their position on gender roles. But I want to go much deeper. So let me rephrase it: Jesus is God’s sacred space and, when people are connected to him, they become God’s sacred space. 

Deep breath. Hang with me. 

Think back to my posts on Genesis 1 and 2. I made the case that in the Garden, God set up his sacred space. In the ancient world, sacred space is the place where the divine dwells with his people who, as image bearers, represent him to the world.  

Sacred space is temple space. In the Garden, Adam and Even functioned as priests. In whatever they did, they mediated God’s presence to the world. 

Sin and the curse destroyed this. The rest of the Old Testament–from Abraham to tabernacle to temple–is the story of God pursuing a people for his own possession so that he might dwell with them. 

Then Jesus comes as God in the flesh. Quite literally, he is God’s sacred space, the place where God’s very presence and glory dwells (see John 1:1-14). He represents God, speaks for God, and acts on God’s behalf. He is the true image of God (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:1-3). Those who saw Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9). 

In the story of the women at the well, a fascinating development takes place. Jesus reveals to the woman that geography is irrelevant when it comes to worship. Worship isn’t based on a place but in the Person of Messiah. True worship happens when we are connected to Messiah.

Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.

When Mary meets Jesus after his resurrection, he has inaugurated the new creation in himself. He is the first of a new creation (see Col 1:18). Now, he’s about to continue his new creation project of radically restoring men and women to their original function as representatives in his world. Whoever is in Christ participates in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Mary encounters the risen Messiah; she is face-to-face with the new creation sacred space.

The New Testament will make it clear that God’s people are now the temple of God because God dwells in them by his Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). God’s people represent him on earth. Paul will use the word “ambassador” to communicate this (see 2 Cor 5:20, NIV). Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.

When we see Jesus’ words in John 4 to the Samaritan woman in light of this larger work he accomplished, the pieces fall into place. His interactions with women are a part of a bigger reclamation project. He undoes the effects of the curse and raises women up to their original status, function, and authority as God’s representatives.

Objection: This seems like quite the stretch. 

My response: You may not be wrong. Please read my next post when I unpack this by talking about how Pentecost changes everything for women (and men) in the church. 

After that, we’ll get to Paul (finally!). I know that’s what you’ve been waiting for. 


Notes

Feature photo: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1890).

[1] As I mentioned last time, Kenneth E. Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for 40 years has been extremely helpful to me as I’ve learned about Jesus’ cultural context. I highly recommend reading his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 208-209. 

[3] Gary M. Burge, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” John, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), on BibleGateway.com.

[4] The Old Testament says nothing about the qualifications of a witness. See “Witness” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008). However, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian born a few years after Jesus’ death, summarized the common belief of the day: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4:219.

[5] Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 212-213.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Ibid., 219.

[8] Ibid., 220-221.

[9] Ibid., 223.

[10] Ibid., 225.

[11] Before Mark’s “extended ending” in 16:9-10 (which is probably not original to the text), the story leaves us hanging with the women’s unresolved fear. This doesn’t need to be in contradiction to other Gospel accounts. Bailey notes that Mark begins his Gospel by telling his readers he’s writing “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” and Mark closes with “the end of the beginning.” The insightful reader knows that the women are not paralyzed by the initial shock. They overcome their fears. Matthew, Luke, and John reveal, tell the men about the resurrection at some point that day. See Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 197. I should also note that Mark’s Gospel was likely the earliest written and it leaves out details that the others, especially Matthew, include. I had a college professor who once quipped that Mark is the “Reader’s Digest” version of Matthew.

[12] It’s ironic that this title for Mary is most often used by the Roman Catholic Church since it does not allow the ordination of women as priests. 

Categories
Commentary Life Theology

Finally Seeing the Blind Spots

Anyone who has had conversation with me on a biblical text or a theological topic knows that I hate the answer, “Well, the Bible says so.” I want to get to the why behind the what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, of course. But often, “The Bible say so,” is a lazy answer.

When it came to the debate on women’s roles in gender, I often answered genuine questions with, “Well, the Bible says so.”

Far too often I resorted to that rigid, biblical literalism I mentioned in a previous post. And it kept me from seeing an obvious blind spot which produced all kinds of inconsistent–if not awkward–applications.

The glaring blind spot of complementarianism that I missed for so long is fairly easy to explain. Here it is:

Complementarianism holds that women are equal to men, but separate from–namely, underneath–them

Proponents say they value women because women are “created equal with men.” Functionally, however, complementarians devalue women because, in any family or ministry setting, women are separated from men since they are “called” to place themselves under the authority of men–even if the men are not as mature, wise, gifted, or experienced.

We’ve heard “separate but equal” before, haven’t we?

How did that work out for us?

Equal But Separate No Longer

The Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States fought against the idea and practice of “separate but equal.” We all know how this produced all kinds of evils against black people.

Women in the church have been fighting against this same kind of thing for a very long time. It’s just harder to notice.

I’m not just trying to shock you by making the link between the struggle of women in the church and racism. Preachers and theologians in the United States used Scripture to argue that slavery and racism was God’s design for black people. They also argued that patriarchy was God’s design.

Complementarianism is simply patriarchy in our modern world.[1]

At some point a shift happened. Any respectable preacher or theologian in America today would say the slavery texts are reflective of a sinful system within a particular culture and should not be repeated today.

Yet the same preachers and theologians will defend the subjugation of women.

Historian Beth Allison Barr makes this exact case in her wonderful new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

Barr’s point is clear:

When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better understand slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?[2]

Patriarchy is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

Now, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire post soon on how we can know whether a Bible passage is culture-bound or not. So, we’ll discuss the connection between slaves and women.

For now, the point I’m making is that slavery and segregation were designed to keep an entire group of people in submission. In the same way, patriarchy (aka complementarianism) is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

This does not reflect the spirit of Christ’s humility, love, and freedom.

We cannot keep saying women are “equal to men” and they must be “separate” from “a man’s work” in ministry. As someone has rightly said, “Separate but equal is not equal.”[3]

Now, please don’t hear something I’m definitely not saying. I am not saying that women and men are the same. Women and men are obviously different. 

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s exactly why men need women at the leadership table. If women were the same, we men wouldn’t need them, and vice versa.

But complementarians believe the difference between men and women goes beyond their biological and anatomical differences.

They argue that because of their gender, our roles and functions are different. Men lead and direct. Women follow and submit in the home and the church. In every culture. For all time.[4]

You already know this. That’s why you’re reading.

The reason I’ve gone to such great lengths to talk about my experiences in and observations of complementarianism is to show how these provided the right conditions for me to see how dangerous complementarianism really is.

A woman’s voice is essential for a ministry to function faithfully and fruitfully. Not a token voice, but one that holds the same weight as a man’s. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the first person to give voice to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

A woman’s testimony had no weight in a Jewish trial. Yet here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history. 

Here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.

How’s that for weighty? A woman. Authorized by Jesus. Teaching men about the One who is Truth.

But women today aren’t permitted to lead and shepherd and teach people–men–who want to follow Jesus?

There it is. The blind spot, finally, exposed.

Equal but separate no longer.

Inconsistent (and Awkward) Application

Seeing this canyon-sized blind spot opened up the door for my wife and me to ask more pointed questions about the way complementarianism is broadly applied in churches.

Here are many inconsistencies both of us wrestled with. We either noticed these in our own ministry contexts or others:

Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in church? 

  • Can a woman lead or co-lead a mixed gender small group that meets in a home? Can a woman teach other men anything about God, the Bible, doctrine, etc. in a small group setting?[5]
  • Assuming our worship songs teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman sing and lead musically in a church?
  • Assuming our prayers teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman pray in a church?
  • Does leadership really just boil down to being the one who initiates and makes the final decision? What is uniquely “male” about that?
  • What do women do with their gifts of teaching, prophecy, exhortation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment–gifts that are traditionally valued in (male) pastors/elders, leaders, and men in general?
  • What are women who are mature, humble, strong leaders actually allowed to do in a church if they aren’t allowed lead?
  • If a woman can give a short reflection on Scripture at a Good Friday service, why can’t she do the same for a bit longer–say “sermon length” longer–on Easter Sunday?
  • If women can’t teach men publicly because it is “having authority” over them and if “teaching” is a function of the elders, then should a non-elder man ever teach publicly? Wouldn’t he be assuming an authority over the elders that is not rightfully his?
  • Are men allowed to read a doctrinal book written by a woman?
  • Why can a woman teach a man in private conversation (see Acts 18:26), but not many men in a public church gathering? Is the difference that there is a formal service, in a building, with a pulpit?
  • If a woman shares her story in a church gathering and happens to explain a Bible verse or expounds a point of Christian doctrine, is she in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12?
  • Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in front of him and the whole congregation?
  • At what age does a boy become a man and is exempt from being taught by a woman? At 13? 16? 18? 21? 30?
  • Why can a woman teach a mixed group of college students in a parachurch setting on a weeknight but not on a Sunday morning in a local church setting? Or are women in parachurch settings not allowed to teach college-aged men?
  • Why can a woman preach, teach, evangelize, disciple, and even start churches overseas but not at home?
  • Why would a group of male-only elders ignore, at best, or reject, at worst, female input on major decisions when, as statistics show, more than half of Christian congregations are female?
  • Does a single female have to submit to any male? Or every male? Or just her pastor? Or just her father? Or her father and her pastor? What if she is 37 years old…or 65 years old?
  • Why would God tell women they can’t lead men simply because he made them female? 

These were inconsistencies I had shrugged off before because I was convinced there was no other way to interpret the most controversial passages on women in ministry. 

I didn’t want to just shrug these off anymore.

But What Does the Bible Say?

The past several posts, including this one, have been about my experiences and observations living within complementarianism. This is my reality.

But I’ll be the first to say that experience is not a valid reason to change your mind on a biblical teaching.

We need to let God’s word have the final say. 

Perhaps what I started to feel as a complementarian pastor was hogwash. Perhaps my inclination that we need women’s voices at the leadership table is just caving to modern culture. Perhaps my desire to honor and champion my wife and daughters–not to mention the many other many women I’ve worked alongside in ministry–is misguided. 

Perhaps I’m full of it.

Only a deep-dive into the entire story of Scripture–and the ancient world in which it was written–can help me find out.


Notes

[1] I’m not trying to be harsh by calling complementarianism “patriarchy.” I’m simply repeating what some of the most well-known complementarians have said. Owen Strachan, former president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism” (my emphasis). See “Of ‘Dad Moms’ and ‘Dad Fails’: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 17/1 (2012), 23-26.

Similarly, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (my emphasis). Generally, I’m a fan of what Moore says and writes, but not here. See “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Willing the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 49/3 (September 2006), 569–76. This article was written back in 2006. I agree with Barr when she says that she hopes Moore has changed his stance. I’m not aware that he has, however.

[2] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 34. See 32-35 for her entire discussion on the connection between the struggle of women in the church and racism. You really should just buy this book and read it. It’s truly spectacular.

[3] As far as I can tell, this quote is attributed to Paul Martin, the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.

[4] Even John Piper and Wayne Grudem, fathers of biblical manhood and womanhood movement, teach that women are not designed by God to lead in secular vocations.

[5] Since churches in the first century met in homes, this question is very relevant! As we’ll see in our exploration of 1 Corinthians 11, we absolutely know that there were women who “prayed and prophesied” in house church gatherings in Corinth. The concept of a sermon given by one person in a pulpit or behind a lectern is foreign to the biblical writers. Multiple communicators of biblical truth, not just one, was more typical of worship gatherings in the first century.

Categories
Commentary Life

How Being a Complementarian Pastor Changed Everything

Our experiences powerfully shape our understanding of the Scriptures. As I said in my first post, the truth of the Bible does not change, but our understanding and applications of it do depending on our culture, community, and circumstances.

How can we be sure this is true? Here are several obvious examples.

If you have never spent much time with the poor, much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching may not impact you all that much (it also may make little sense). But if you take a month, a week, or even a day to live among the poor, your eyes will probably be enlightened to what was already there, but you had missed. Jesus’ words will likely land on you with the force he originally intended.

Or say you have a strong conviction about what a worship service should look and sound like. But then you visit a worship gathering in another culture where people obviously love Jesus and want to honor the Scriptures. Hopefully, going forward, you will read those passages about corporate worship with a little more flexibility and less conviction about your own culture’s way of doing things.

Many of us (myself included), last summer, began to see the call for justice throughout the Scriptures quite differently in light of George Floyd’s death and the conversations on race and injustice that followed.[1]

If you see the Bible in accord with a particular denomination, chances are you grew up in that denomination or the people welcomed you and were nice to you at a critical juncture in your life. If not, you wouldn’t be a part of that church![2]

If nothing else, we can understand this simply because we mature both chronologically and spiritually. Parts of the Bible hit us differently at various stages of life. We hear it all the time: I’ve never noticed this before but since becoming a parent…a widow…a foreigner…etc.

The Scriptures never change. But we do.

The Scriptures never change. But we do. And that’s the point I’m making. Can we agree on that?

Not having certain experiences and therefore not seeing all Scripture “evenly” doesn’t make us rotten people who are actively rebelling against God. It’s just part of being human.

I believe that God is compassionate and the he accommodates us. We’ll talk about “accommodation” in a future post, but in a nutshell, it means God meets us where we’re at. Isn’t that the whole point of him becoming human? And he’s bringing us along on a journey. Isn’t that the whole point of spiritual growth?[3]

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible. Right or wrong. But that’s not the only lens we wear. Our experience and familiarity with the world of the biblical authors (or lack thereof) also helps (or hinders) us in understanding and applying the Bible.

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible.

In this post and the next one (or two), I want to share how God graciously provided me with experiences and observations to help me see the passages about women’s roles in a fresh way. My experiences weren’t the conclusive evidence. They just opened the door to a new possibility.

After these posts on my story, and before getting into specific Bible passages, I’ll talk about how knowing the world of the biblical authors can help us, particularly as it relates to women’s roles.

Forgive me in advance for the length. I want to share as much as possible as quickly as possible so we can get on to considering what the Bible has to say.


Complementarianism: Case Closed?

As a white, middle-class, Midwestern kid who grew up in North American megachurch culture, I didn’t give much thought to gender roles in ministry.

There was never a debate to be had.

The church I grew up in was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination. Our church only had male leaders (pastors/elders).[4]

Every Sunday, a male pastor preached from the Bible. Our church also only had male music leaders/directors.[5] Women did serve in a number other capacities, most notably women’s and children’s ministries. I assume this is similar, if not identical, to the experience of most people reading.[6]

Growing up, I simply assumed that men did the “big church leading” and that women taught other women and kids.

I lived in a male-dominated church world.

It didn’t feel wrong. It just was.

I assumed this was the correct stance not only because of our church’s practice, but also because of how I was taught to read the Bible: it is literal in what it says. I don’t mean that the Bible is literally true. That’s a different thing–which I believe. What I mean is that from home to church to private school, I was taught that we believe the words as they exist on the page.

Case closed.

I was in this church–and don’t get me wrong, it was a good church–until I went to college.

One memory from this church stands out that, perhaps, planted a seed of doubt that the issue was actually closed. It certainly added a level of complexity, if not inconsistency, to the male-only paradigm. Every year, our church had a missions conference. Missionaries came back home to share what God had been doing in the mission field. Every year an older, single woman came back to share about God’s work in the small West African country where she ministered. Her name was Mary.

I’m not sure what her ministry specifically involved, and I didn’t give it much thought then. But recently, I’ve wondered, as I’m sure some of you are wondering right now: Was Mary able to preach the gospel to a mixed group? Did she ever share Jesus with men? Did she ever teach new Christian men how to study the Bible and pray?

These women were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

I have to believe she did. At least once, right?

There are countless stories of faithful women who served as missionaries throughout church history, just like Mary. They were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

Mary wasn’t called “pastor” or “elder.” But she was (probably) doing the job of one.

The One Passage I Couldn’t Avoid

My first eighteen years of life in this church weren’t very formative theologically speaking. (I got bored with Jesus in middle school, but that’s another story entirely.) Instead, it was during college, then serving with a parachurch ministry in Nebraska and South Africa after graduation, and finally during seminary that I really started to establish myself theologically.

To make a long story short, I listened to and read just about every Reformed, complementarian pastor, author, and blogger there was. You name him, and I knew everything about him. Like so many other millennial Christian men, I wanted to be a strong, godly leader. So complementarianism was the obvious place to pitch my tent.

My position was simple. And it all hinged on one, precious verse. I once heard a well-known complementarian pastor and theologian quip: “If you can get the Bible to say, ‘I do permit’ when it says, ‘I do not permit,’ then you can get it to say whatever you want.”

He was talking about 1 Timothy 2:12, of course: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV).[8]

I identified with what he said, but not mainly because of the gender issue, as important as that was for me. I wanted to be a “strong, godly leader.” But even more, I wanted to take the Bible seriously. What I found in Reformed complementarianism was a group of (male) teachers who did that. So I grasped on to everything they taught–lock, stock, and barrel.

I had been converted to Jesus. Now, I was being converted to biblical literalism.[7] I became convinced that if someone doubted the straightforward, literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, they were on a slippery slope toward rejecting the authority of the Bible and, eventually, Jesus himself.

Granted, I didn’t personally know anyone who believed in female church leadership. But if I ever meet someone who does, how can I be sure they won’t twist other Scriptures if they can’t see what Paul is OBVIOUSLY saying in 1 Timothy 2:12?!

I knew there were other passages in the New Testament that seemed to suggest that local church leaders should be men. But, for me, everything hung on 1 Timothy 2:12.

To me, it seemed like a watertight argument.

Pastoring Among Female Spiritual Giants

Ironically, it was my experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, evangelical, complementarian church in Upstate New York, that paved the way for me to consider the egalitarian / co-laborer position.

Early in the interview process for the role of associate pastor, I was asked to articulate my position on women in ministry. I explained that I believed the office of elder/pastor was reserved for men, only men could preach during a formal worship gathering of the whole church, but that women could exercise their gifts in any other capacity.

Check. Passed with flying colors.

The church did not have an official position on women’s roles in ministry that I knew of. In tradition and practice, however, the church subscribed to complementarianism.

Here’s how it played out for this church:

  • Only men were permitted to serve as elders.
  • Only men were allowed to give the sermon on a Sunday morning.
  • Only men could formally teach the Bible/theology in an adult education class (i.e. Sunday school).
  • Women could lead worship, read Scripture, pray, give the call to worship, and even give biblical reflections during special services.

In terms of ministry activities, this looks a lot like “soft complementarianism.” The other side of the coin is the leadership’s attitude toward women. That is so much harder to quantify than what ministry activities women can do/lead! I’ll discuss the general dynamics of that in the next post.

Once I was immersed in the life of this church, I started to realize how fuzzy things really got when it came to gender roles.

When you minister to a church you’ve never been a part of before, it doesn’t take long to find out who the spiritual giants are–those people everyone else looks up to and wants to be like.

This church had a lot of these people.

And many, many, many of them were women.

These women had an insatiable hunger to know Jesus and his word. They explained Bible passages and Christian theology with passion and ease. They shared the gospel with non-Christians. They served the poor. They welcomed foreigners into their homes. They prayed–oh, did they pray! They were honest, gracious, compassionate, and patient.

So patient.

They were (and still are) women of whom the world was not worthy.

And there I was, 30-something, first-time, male pastor, leading among these female spiritual giants. I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

The women in our church never demanded a female elder. They never demanded that a woman preach a sermon. Their vision was simpler–and grander–than that. They wanted their voice, their gifts, their passions, their person, their womanhood to matter. They didn’t want to be ignored, silenced, or marginalized.

An older, retired pastor befriended and mentored me while we lived in New York. We spent Wednesday mornings at IHOP talking ministry and drinking bad coffee. He constantly nudged me toward including and empowering our women without ever trying to convince me of one theological position or the other.

His counsel, time after time, was to recognize and celebrate the spiritual gifts of women by actually letting them use their gifts, and, most importantly, ask for and listen to their insights, opinions, and preferences on church matters.

“If you want to see ‘church’ become a movement,” he’d always say, “you need women.”

Even as a complementarian, I recognized this and wanted it. I knew women were not second-class kingdom citizens and they had amazing things to offer.

The bigger question was, How does this fit in my theological framework?

That Time A Woman Preached

Over several months, I worked with many of these women on various things. Women even helped lead teams, and our elders had started a women’s advisory group that met with some of our elders to share their thoughts and concerns about the church.

We were making progress. But the progress was primarily behind the scenes. Women still did not have much of a voice when it came to big picture leadership or discipleship issues, including, of course, proclaiming God’s word to the whole congregation.

But I sensed a change on Good Friday 2015, during a Tenebrae service. In this type of worship gathering, various people prepare brief reflections on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. In a “hard complementarian” church, this would be reserved for men only. But we had a mixture of men and women give what truly was a “sermonette.”

One woman spoke on “I thirst” from John 19:28-29.

Angst shot out from her face while she whispered as if her lips were dry, cracked, and bleeding, “I’m thirsty!” Reciting the psalmist’s searching cry in Psalm 63, she showed that Jesus fulfilled that ancient song in his statement from the cross. Jesus didn’t simply need physical water, she pointed out. He wanted–needed–his Father. That’s who he was thirsty for. Jesus died of (spiritual) thirst.

It was the one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

Everyone in the room knew she was preaching. And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was preaching. Everyone in the room knew she was preaching.

And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

I can’t remember if I felt conflicted in the moment. (I hope I wasn’t debating the legitimacy of it–it was Good Friday!) Besides, everyone seemed edified because of what she said.

Whatever I thought about the role of women that night didn’t matter at all.

What mattered is that I wanted to know Jesus, love Jesus, and be like Jesus more because of what she said during that beautiful, dark, haunting Tenebrae service.

“What About Sunday School?”

Months later in late 2015, I had transitioned to interim pastor after our senior pastor had resigned. Discussions on the precise roles of women continued to increase. By spring 2016, our elder team had to deal with the most significant theological and practical question during my years as a pastor: can a woman teach and lead a Sunday school adult education class?

Prior to this, the church had an unwritten rule that only men could teach the Bible or theology proper.[9] But we had capable, knowledgeable, and willing women who wanted to teach on various topics, particularly books of the Bible, theology, or spiritual formation. They wanted to know if that was an acceptable way to use their gifts.

We (the elder team) had to answer in a way that 1) honored these women, and 2) upheld our complementarian framework. Our position was not up for debate–we weren’t all of a sudden going to have women elders or a woman preach to the whole church on a Sunday morning. But the application of our position wasn’t set in stone.

I spent weeks studying and praying about this issue. I read and re-read the Scriptures and consumed just about every article and opinion you could find online. I agonized over it.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Scripture that prevented a woman from teaching mixed groups in a “Sunday School-like” setting. I believed, as some complementarian churches do, if the person teaching and what is being taught are under elder oversight, it would be acceptable. I shared my view with the other elders and after many conversations, we agreed to start allowing women to teach adults the Bible and theology.[10]

Feeling the Foundation Crumble

What I’ve shared in this post is a tiny glimpse into the people and events God used opened my eyes to the value of women in the church, which then allowed me to see Scripture in a different light. Obviously, I don’t have the space to share every experience that deeply influenced me–private conversations, email exchanges, prayer times, planning sessions. I wish I did.

Ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor, my complementarian foundation began to crumble. By the time I stepped down as a pastor of the church my heart had ripened enough to at least be open to other options. After all, my wife and I were both transitioning to work with Cru as campus ministers together.

Carly, my wife, is tremendously gifted and, while I was a pastor, desired to use her gifts for the good of the church, too. But how could she use her gifts of teaching, wisdom, and discernment as the wife of a complementarian pastor in a complementarian church? How could we co-labor to serve both genders together? It seemed impossible.

In the next post, I’ll share more of our story, focusing on my wife’s influence on my journey and our experience together in the church as we started to notice the major blind spots of complementarianism.


Notes

[1] I’m not talking about the politics of race. I’m talking about Christian empathy, compassion, justice, and God’s heart for all people groups, especially marginalized ones, which, as we’ll see, relates to the issue of women in the church.

[2] I recognize that some people join a church or denomination based on doctrine or the “statement of faith” alone. But I’d be willing to bet my retirement account those people are by far the exception.

[3] In Christian theology, the term for this is “sanctification.” Sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus which means “to make holy, to set apart.”

[4] The CMA has a long history of empowering women in ministry. However, their current position is still that only men can serve as local church elders. Their website states: “Women may fulfill any function in the local church which the senior pastor and elders may choose to delegate to them…and may properly engage in any kind of ministry except that which involves elder authority.” However, just two weeks ago Christianity Today reported that the CMA is reconsidering their position. CMA President John Stumbo said, “It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers. This grieves me.”

[5] Different churches have different names for their leaders: elders or pastors are most common in North American churches. In some baptist churches, “deacon” is used for the men who lead the church. Biblically speaking, however, “deacon” can refer to someone who is a minister-at-large (see Rom 16:1-2) or someone in a specific local church who helps with more practical, material needs (see Acts 6).

[6] For my friends and family who grew up in Pentecostal traditions, they are much more likely to have experienced female leadership in some capacity. The official position of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, is that women are not restricted in any sense: “We conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.”

[7] “Biblical Literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally.” GotQuestions.org, “What is biblical literalism?”

[8] Essentially every major English Bible translation says the same thing for 1 Tim 2:12. See the comparisons.

[9] “Theology proper” in our church’s context would be something like the content of our statement of faith, which primarily covered the essential doctrines of Christianity (the Trinity, atonement, salvation by faith, etc.). A parenting class, for example, would deal with aspects of theology, but would not be “theology proper,” therefore a woman would be allowed to teach it.

[10] You might be asking, “What happened next?!” About 5-6 months later , we announced that we’d be joining staff with Cru. We left the following spring. So, I can’t add much because my part in this church’s story came to an end.