The Bible and Women in Church Leadership: A Young Actress’s Perspective, Part 3

Part 3: Christianity’s Radically Counter-Cultural View of Gentiles, Slaves, and Women (Read Part 1 here.)

Could the logic of Paul’s argument eventually lead to a day when women with ministry gifts can finally take their Spirit-intended place of leadership in the body of Christ?

By Esther Junia [1]

One of the “signs” of the radical transformation of the age of the Spirit is the inclusion of women in anointed leadership. (‘Pentecost,’ Jean Restout)

Just because there are weaknesses in the case against women in ministry doesn’t automatically imply that every church in the world should suddenly promote women into teaching and leadership roles. However, it does point to at least the possibility of an alternative biblical perspective. Here is my rather feeble attempt to articulate one.

Rather than starting with Paul’s rules for two specific (and problematic) settings, perhaps it is more helpful to start with some of the more universal principles expressed throughout Scripture, including Paul’s own writings.

First, despite the male dominated leadership structures in the ancient world, the Old Testament prophets foretold the dawning of a day marked by a radically counter-cultural view of women in ministry. In Joel 2:298-29, the prophet predicts that the new age of the Holy Spirit would be bring anointing to all God’s people (not just a few prophets, kings, and judges). One of the “signs” of the radical transformation of the age of the Spirit is that anointed leadership will extend not only to men, but to women as well. In fact, Joel mentions women twice!

Second, Peter chooses this particular prophecy as the text for the first sermon ever preached in the newborn church (Acts 2:16-17).  His primary reasoning for choosing this particular Old Testament reference is certainly that Joel’s prophecy explains the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yet he could have chosen a number of other verses to make that point. What he needed was a verse that explained an element of Pentecost that was truly remarkable from a cultural perspective: women were part of the post-resurrection community upon whom the Holy Spirit had been poured out (Acts 1:14).

Third, this radically countercultural view of women was inaugurated by Jesus himself.  Our savior brought a dignity to every woman he encountered that was virtually unheard of in the ancient world. Whether or not all Pharisees regularly prayed, ““I thank Thee, God, that I am a Jew, not a Gentile; a man, not a woman; and a freeman, and not a slave” is a matter of scholarly debate, but it certainly fits Jewish men’s general attitude toward women in the first-century. And Roman men were much worse. With the exception of (rich) noble women, wives were little more than property: valued only for their ability to bear children. Unmarried women were worse off than slaves and valued primarily for sex. The suicide rate of Roman women was astronomical.[2]

Jesus brought an unprecedented dignity to every woman he met.  (‘Christ appears to Mary Magdalen,’ Giulio Romano.)

Jesus and the writers of the gospels turn this cruelty inside out. Matthew opens the New Testament with an account of the lineage of the Messiah that includes two gentile women and a female adulterer (Matthew 1:1-16). Luke celebrates Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna as the first hero’s of faith. The Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:25-30), the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), the woman with an issue of blood (Matthew 9:20-22), the Samaritan woman (John 4), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-10) each receive honor and comfort unknown in the ancient world. Susanna, Joanna, and a number of other women are invited to be Jesus’ traveling companions and become his primary benefactors (Luke 8:3).  Women who follow Jesus are commended for their faith more often than his twelve ‘disciples’. Mary (sister of Lazarus), and Mary Magdalene enjoy personal relationships with Jesus that surpass any of the twelve disciples, except perhaps Peter and John.

Fourth, Paul himself takes this radically counter-cultural view of women, and connects it to the other universally accepted “equalities” of redeemed humanity. In Galatians Paul declares: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).  In Colossians Paul connects this universal “leveling” principle to God’s plan to restore redeemed humanity into the full image of God in Christ.  This is “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:9-10).  This seems to be a universal principle intended for all times and cultures and not a “rule” designed to solve a particular problem in a local congregation.

A Tentative Conclusion

I have come to believe that it is against this dynamically counter-cultural view of women that all true Christian understandings of ministry leadership must be judged.  If the cross obliterated all cultural (and even OT) divisions between Jews and Greeks, the racial divisions of Barbarians and Scythians, as well as the cultural distinctions and practice of slavery, then why do women with ministry gifts still have to sit at the back of the bus? While the realities of the profoundly male-dominated and hierarchical ancient cultures prevented full-scale implementation of an early church where women could fully express their ministry gifts, that does not mean that scripture does not point us in this direction.

Christianity exalted Gentiles to their rightful place of equality in value, status, and, yes, leadership in the body of Christ within the church’s first century. In same way, Christianity’s fairness and even kindness towards slaves eventually led to the church leading the charge for the abolition of slavery, despite tremendous cultural forces preventing it (including interpretations of New Testament passages that seem to condone it.) Isn’t it just as likely that the logic of Paul’s argument coupled with the incredible value Christianity places on women will eventually lead to a day when women with ministry gifts can finally take their Spirit-intended place of leadership in the body of Christ?  

In fact, I believe that unshackling the full potential of over half of the members of the body of Christ worldwide might overcome one of the last great obstacles to the gospel being preached in every nation and the church becoming the unified bride of Christ that causes the world to know that Jesus is our savior (John 17). [There I go being dramatic again.]

A Costly Journey

For such a time as this. (‘Esther Goes before Xerxes Unbidden,’ Paolo Veronese.)

No one is saying this journey will be easy. Exalting Gentiles to equal standing with Jews in the first century came at the cost of tremendous cultural conflict and demanded remarkable  courage and conviction from Jewish Christian leaders (Acts 15) . The abolition of slavery in the 19th-century required no less cost against no less cultural pressure. While I harbor no animosity toward men, women and churches who feel constrained by their interpretation of Paul’s two problematic statements, my conscience is captive to what I believe to be the word of God.

Is that being too dramatic? I don’t think so.  I want to stand on the side of history I believe Jesus (and Paul) inaugurated and join a church that fully supports the gifted women of my generation in their quest to fulfill the call of God upon their lives. I want to emulate Esther’s courage by asking the men in charge of the kingdom to protect our sisters from the Haman’s who would seek to prevent them from fulfilling their God-given callings. I believe my generation was born for such a time as this and is willing to pay the price to help our gifted sisters in Christ bless the church with all that He has entrusted to them.

And if we perish, we perish.

 


[1] Due to the complexities of a Hollywood career, “Esther” decided to write under an alias.

[2] S. Ruden, Paul Among the People, 11-20, 72-96.

 

5 Replies to “The Bible and Women in Church Leadership: A Young Actress’s Perspective, Part 3”

    1. Yes! Esther gives me great hope for the future of thoughtful faith among Christian professionals!

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