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Wrestling through Biblical Postures toward Women Leaders

Last week, I wrote an article about the Silence of Women in Conservative Christianity. The article received quite a bit of reaction on social media that continued to bring to mind things that I’ve been taught, believed, or need to consider with this topic.

I’d like to begin this follow up article by admitting that I don’t have a particular agenda here. I’m not on a crusade to prove that women should or should not be pastors. But I’m seeing some pretty significant differences between how Jesus, John, and sometimes Paul consider women’s roles, and how the Jews, the conservative church…and sometimes Paul view women in ministry. So rather than acting like I have it all clear, or waiting until I do, I’m going to lay a few things out there for your consideration about where I am in this thought process. Just a heads up, if you hold to a complimentarian, inerrant view of Scripture, some of these thoughts may make you feel uncomfortable. But it’s something I’m wrestling through, and would like to ask for your input on.

Concerning the Jews

You may have heard the term “Patriarchy?” Growing up, I always thought this was a positive term that reflected how God decided to work in the world for a significant portion of history. Whatever the case, Patriarchy was far from Christ-like. Without even getting into the really disturbing ways that women were to be treated by Israel as spoils of war that could be taken for sex (Duet. 20:14; 21:10-14), even the times of relative peace were characterized by women not being allowed to leave the home, were considered to be under the authority of men, were considered part of his property, not to be coveted of course along with his ox and donkey and slaves, were not allowed to read Scripture publicly, were not to bear witness in court, and were to be quiet in the synagogue.

Concerning Jesus

Jesus, however, completely rejected the Jewish view and treatment of women. He disobeyed the Jewish prohibition of talking with women in public (Luke 7:11-17). He disobeyed the Jewish prohibition of healing women on the Sabbath (Luke 13:12-16). He disobeyed the Jewish prohibition of letting a menstruating woman touch him (Mark 5:25-34). He constantly used them as positive examples in his parables. Not once does Jesus belittle or disgrace women in any way, but rather he liberated, affirmed, and utilized them in ministry (Matthew 12:46-50).

Consider the ultimate story of a woman outsider. This person was a woman, who was a Samaritan, who was a sexually promiscuous sinner. Yet, Jesus discussed theology with her, drank from her ritually unclean bucket, and then liberates and loves her in a way that leads her to be the primary spiritual leader of her community.

Concerning Paul

Paul, in all honesty, seems like a bit of a mixed bag to me. He’s constantly greeting influential women. In fact, he even greets one woman as “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). He often calls women “fellow workers.” And he acknowledges the positive role of women praying and even prophesying in church services (1 Corinthians 11:5).

But on the other hand, he also says they are to only pray publicly with their head covered (1 Cor. 11:5). And then he more specifically says that they are to be silent at church, are not allowed to speak, must be in submission “as the law says,” are to ask their husbands to teach them, are a disgrace when they speak publicly, are to follow strict dress and hair standards, and are to have babies since Eve was deceived and Adam wasn’t (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:9-15). He says, “Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:9).

He almost seems to have a bipolar relationship with women. Remember that Paul, while constantly fighting against people who would lay Jewish prohibitions on others, was actually trained as a Pharisee. So it just seems weird to me when his reasoning for restricting women from speaking is “as the law says.” It almost seems as if he’s conflicted between his growing awareness of freedom in the gospel and his training in the law and culture’s view of women. I don’t have a solution for this.

Concerning John

While Paul was never physically with Jesus during Jesus’ time on earth, John actually was. And it’s interesting to see how John consistently describes women as being leaders of the gospel, even in an apostolic sense. Take the ultimate supervillain, a sexually promiscuous Samaritan woman, for example. John adds an interesting commentary, “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman.” When Jesus tells the disciples to join the work that she initiated, he uses the apostolic word “apesteila.” He says that the Samaritans believed “because of her word,” in parallel to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden for those who would believe “through their word,” meaning his apostles. The entire narrative of the Samaritan woman is an interesting contrast with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. “He is a male teacher of Israel, she a woman of Samaria. He has a noble heritage, she a shameful past. He has seen signs and knows that Jesus is ‘from God,’ she meets Jesus as a ‘complete stranger'” (Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel). So while Nicodemus does not complete the cycle from unbeliever to disciple making disciple, the Samaritan woman does.

Growing up, I always considered this passage as an example of Jesus knowing your sin, and saving an individual. But there’s so much more going on here in and around these events that are breathing life into the way we view and commission women.

This brings me to one of Johns other letters, the book of 2 John. John continues this commissioning posture toward women by writing this letter to a female leader of a church.

2 John 1 says,

“To the lady chosen by God and to her children.”

The word for “lady” is “kyria,” which means, “lord” and “master.” It is used of someone who has a position of authority, and who is not under the guardianship of anyone else.

The word for “chosen” is “eklekte,” which simply means, “chosen.” When combined with “kyria,” it becomes pretty clear that this was a woman who was chosen by the apostle as an authority in this particular community.

So what is the nature of her authority?

  1. She was a spiritual mother (vs. 4).
  2. She was responsible for feeding the sheep with a message of love (vs. 4-6).
  3. She was responsible for protecting the sheep (vs. 7-11).

So here we have a woman given a name of authority, chosen by the apostles, for the purpose of feeding and protecting the flock. And she’s not the only woman in a position like this (vs. 13). That sure doesn’t sound like it’s following too closely with Paul’s idea that women are to be silent, under submission, and learning from their husbands. And it definitely doesn’t have the posture of the modern day Jews, much less the Jews in the Torah.

It actually sounds a lot more like the posture of Jesus, whom John was personally led by. Remember, John is referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

So where does all this leave us?

I’ve read some people saying that this woman in 2 John must have not really been a woman, but a metaphor for the church. But that just doesn’t seem natural at all based on the personal nature of the language and John’s desire to see her face to face.

To be quite honest, I’m having a hard time reconciling these differences within the framework of a complimentarian view of humanity and a completely non-contradictory, inerrant view of Scripture. There seems to be a progress of ideas, and an honest wrestling through how Christ and culture affect our view of women.

So I’m just putting this out there, and inviting your thoughts. How do you bridge the gap between a Torah that allows for women to be plundered for sex, and Jesus who liberates sexually promiscuous women as spiritual leaders? Why would Paul call a woman “prominent among the apostles” and celebrate women as “fellow ministers” on one hand, while keeping them silent on the other? Why would Paul command that women have no authority, while John refer to one as a “master” with the spiritual responsibilities of feeding and protecting the flock?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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