Before Church: Sunday October 27, 2019
by Elizabeth Stone
A sermon written for 6/22/2008 and edited for 9/22/2019. Longer than my usual, but in view of requests for the message, as well as the timeliness of the subject in the church, thought I would share.
And after that, I will pour out my Spirit on all people;
your sons and your daughters will prophecy,
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days. ~ Joel 2:28,29
Last week I promised to take on the elephant in the room, so today we are going to talk about women in ministry. Good, honest Christians come down on both sides of this debate. Is it Scriptural to ordain women, to let them teach, preach or hold office, or is it not? In the end analysis, that is the only question that matters. So today I would like to take you on a journey to help form your own theology of women in ministry.
Back in the seventies, an Episcopal bishop ordained three women to the priesthood against church law, and they were big news on TV. Arrogant and defiant, they flaunted church polity using ordination as a protest. Ministry was not about a call God placed on their hearts; they wanted a job that the church told them they could not have because of their gender. Their feminism pre-empted faith and their Christian witness. Had they in humility declared that God had put a Jeremiah-like fire in their hearts, and they had to preach or be consumed with it, I could have sympathized. Instead their attitude shamed me as a woman, and I was pretty well convinced that women shouldn’t be ministers. As the years rolled by, more and more denominations ordained women, and I hate to be hard on my own sex, but so many of them showed the same arrogance and defiance. Many women clergy just didn’t do the job well; it disheartened me that once having attained what they wanted, they didn’t go at it with all their heart and soul, and serve with excellence. Thus, when I went to college, in spite of all the best efforts of the Religious Studies department to woo me away from mathematics, I was convinced that I had no future in vocational ministry.
Exposure to some excellent women in ministry began to change my mind; women pastors and seminary professors doing their jobs well challenged me to think that women’s callings might include ministry. The Rev. Dr. Roberta Croker, the first woman ordained by the Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery in 1977, is the most astounding pastor I ever met: kind, compassionate, smart, and with a great work ethic. She mentored both Greg and me, and all of her advice was golden. Never have I seen anyone with a more passionate pastor’s heart, never have I been so loved and supported in ministry. She used to laugh so heartily as she said, “I can’t imagine anything better than getting paid for loving Christ, just for loving Christ!” When you realize that as she spent herself in service to others she was also battling cancer, her ministry is even more amazing.
As you can imagine, this towering example of God’s love in action brought me to a faith crisis. While more and more of my work in education faded, and ministry came to the forefront, I had to get into the Scriptures to see if women were allowed to do the job that more and more I felt called to do. And today I will tell you, that if I believed I was truly in violation of God’s Word, then I would resign at this moment and never do pastoral ministry again. So we have to ask: what does the Word of God say about women in ministry?
First question: where did the inequality of the sexes come from? From Genesis, of course. God created the man and woman as equal partners. Although Eve was created second, she was not subordinate. God’s parade of critters in Genesis 2 convinces Adam that he needs a human helpmeet, someone like him. The Hebrew word “ezer” meaning “help” is the same word used to describe God as our helper, and word for “meet” best translated as “equal” and “similar.” Therefore Adam’s helpmeet cannot be inferior to him. Adam and Eve are equal stewards, equal bearers of the God-image. Before the fall marriage was perfect. Human relationships were perfect. All equal. No tension. When did it all go off the rails? After the fall, when both Adam and Eve equally receive judgment. Genesis 3:16 tells us the relationship between them was ruptured; Eve will desire her husband, yet Adam shall rule over her. The Hebrew here could also be translated as Eve desiring her husband’s authority. The inequality of the sexes we see in history is a result of the fall.
As Christians we believe that everything is redeemed in Christ. All of our sins, all of our curses, everything was bought back by Jesus on the cross and confirmed in His resurrection. And although we live in the time of already and not yet (already saved, not yet glorified), we see the seeds of redemption sprinkled throughout the Bible, seeds that show us a glimmer of Heaven here on earth. Spiritual victories, God’s people coming into their own, and the constant evidence of Christ’s salvation coming and happening and continuing even up to today. This guarantee assures us that when Christ comes again, eternal perfection will set in, everything will be made right. So we have to ask: are there seeds of Biblical equality that we see in redemptive history? In the Old Testament? In the New? Who are the heroines of the Bible, the women who made an impact for God? What was their historical and cultural context? Well, strap on your seat belts, ‘cause here we go:
Let’s start with the Law; God’s temporary fix until the time of grace. And let’s not rip it out of its context and judge it by our modern standards. For its time in history, the Law of Moses was far and away the best religious and cultural environment for women, more than any other ancient nation. No other judicial system valued women and protected their rights the way the Hebrews did; for example, women could inherit property, and they could not be sold into slavery. They could be married off, but not enslaved (I know, some of you ladies think it’s the same thing – that’s the fall talking – marriage isn’t slavery).
There’s a long list of extraordinary women in the Old Testament: Miriam led worship in Exodus 15:20, affirmed in Micah 6:4 “I sent Moses to lead you, and also Aaron and Miriam.” When the Tent of Meeting was first set up by Moses, women ministered at the entrance. They even donated their bronze mirrors as an offering (awesome offering for any woman, to give up her mirror!). Rahab rescued the two male spies in Joshua 2. Hannah composed Scripture recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 as did the mother of King Lemuel in Proverbs 31; the midwives in Exodus and later Esther are women who all stopped the annihilation of the Jews. Ruth was more to Naomi than seven sons, becoming the wife of Obed and the ancestress of David and Jesus; Abigail saved David from slaughtering the household of her foolish husband, Nabal, in 1 Samuel; in 1 Chronicles 34:14-28 Huldah was a prophetess who gave King Josiah counsel. When the temple was rebuilt choirs included male and female singers. The Daughters of Zion figure largely in the Old Testament prophets, women called out to be a voice of joy and of promise. Psalm 68:11 contains a specifically feminine gender, plural in the original Hebrew, and the NASB and ESV translate accurately: “The LORD gave the command; the women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host.” The most influential woman in the Old Testament has to be Deborah in Judges 4 & 5; not only was she a judge who governed the whole nation of Israel, not only was she the general of the Israelite army, but she was a prophetess, the prophetess who was the spiritual leader of the people of God. If you want a one-word answer to whether or not women should lead, it has to be: Deborah.
Fast forward to the New Testament. Extraordinary in His time, the first thing a careful reader of the Gospels notices is that the Lord Jesus treated women well, as equals. Christ spoke with them, taught them, healed them, and partnered with them in ministry. He saw and understood the suffering of women in His culture and time better than anyone else. He loved His mother Mary and submitted to her authority (Luke 2:51). Jesus honors the widow who has only a meagre offering of a mite to give (Luke 21:1-4). In Nain He raises the widow’s only son who is not only her beloved child but her only financial security for the future (Luke 7:11-17), and He turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana at His mother’s request (John 2). More than that, he accepts material support from women who were, in effect, the breadwinners for his ministry (Luke 8:3). And in Luke 13 the Lord Jesus heals a woman crippled and bent over for 18 years, welcoming her into the “men’s only” section of the synagogue on the Sabbath day, proclaiming her freedom from the demon that bound her and then: touching her, completely against cultural practice and tradition. When she glorifies God for her healing, Jesus doesn’t silence her, but lets her proclaim the high praises of God in the congregation. His first missionary is the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. When she brings her whole town to hear Jesus, He doesn’t say, “You stupid woman; what do you mean by bringing all these people to hear the good news?!” No, He teaches them. And then He stays with them. Isn’t that our job, to bring others to Jesus?
In Christ’s passion and death, it was the women who were the most faithful. The Gospels are unanimous in praising the women who followed Jesus through the steps to Golgotha, stayed with Him through the bloody hours, and watched to see where He was laid. As if in answer to their faithful vigil, while many of the disciples cowered in a room or even denied Him, Jesus reveals Himself first to women after His resurrection. When they make their way to the tomb early on the first day after the Sabbath, it is the women who are greeted with the angelic manifestations announcing the resurrection of the Lord, “He has risen!” “He is risen indeed!” And it is Mary who has the first sight of the resurrected Jesus. In characteristic form, it is the women who are quick to believe the glorious news, while the disciples are eventually convinced through further testimony and their own encounters with the risen Lord. These women become the first evangelists, sent by Jesus Christ to tell others the good news of the full Gospel: “Go and tell My disciples.”. Go and tell.
Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit falls on the gathered disciples in Acts 2, the assembled group is 120 people, male and female, and the Bible says that they all were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other languages. When a crowd gathers, Peter uses today’s verses from the Old Testament to explain what is happening to these people. It is no accident that these Scriptures say, “I will pour out My Spirit on all people, and your sons and daughters will prophesy,” and “Even on My servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days”. Peter chooses this particular prophecy to describe what was going on. Everyone there, regardless of their sex, was telling the glories of God and communicating the Gospel. Joel foresaw a time when everyone would experience Spirit-enabled prophecy, and Peter declares “This is it!” This is the start of that epoch.
After Pentecost, a revolution of faith began sweeping the ancient world, and house churches sprang up all over the Mediterranean Basin, many of which were held in the homes of prominent women, notably Lydia (Acts 16:11ff), and Nympha (Colossians 4:15). Hosting a house church meant you were also a leader of the church. Paul identifies fellow workers such as Priscilla (Romans 16:3,4) Syntyche and Euodia (Philippians 4:3) all women who have labored with him in ministry. Priscilla was specifically involved with team teaching with her husband, and since Scripture names her first, it suggests that she was the lead teacher. Moreover, the only pupil mentioned by name in Scripture under Priscilla’s tutelage was a man. Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis are women mentioned in Romans 16. Prophetesses speak in the early church. Anna prophesied over Jesus when He was born (Luke 2:36-38), and there were four daughters of Phillip who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Just as in the Old Testament, the office of prophetess is affirmed in the New. Junia, a female, is named as an apostle in Romans 16:7, the highest office of the primitive church.
Conclusion: faith communities of ancient Israel and the early church not only included women, but allowed them prominent positions as prophetesses, leaders, financial supporters, missionaries, evangelists, teachers, and heralds of salvation. Example after example piles up in the Scriptures so that the evidence to support women’s full integration at all levels of ministry is overwhelming. These aren’t just seeds of equality in redemptive history, they are full grown redwoods. However, there are three passages in the Pauline letters, I Corinthians 11, I Corinthians 14, and I Timothy 2, that specifically address women’s role in public worship, and we cannot just set them aside. These are the Scriptures that are most often quoted by Christians who want to exclude women from pastoral ministry. And any woman who wants to do the job that I am doing must wrestle with these verses.
I Corinthians 11: 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head and every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.
I Corinthians 14:33-35 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
I Timothy 2:11-15 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission, I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man, she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women shall be kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.
So how do we reconcile this with the overwhelming evidence of women’s ministry in the Bible? We look at it in its context, the surrounding verses and what we know about the book. And we expand our search to look at other Scripture, because Scripture interprets Scripture. Where there’s confusion, we see what else in the Word applies. Mike announced in Sunday school that he has eleven pages, so if I miss anything, follow up with him.
In I Corinthians, Paul in chapter 11 tells women to pray and prophesy in public worship with their heads covered, but in chapter 14 tells them to be silent. Both are written by Paul, both are in the same letter. How can women be silent while praying or prophesying? And then, the real kicker, he throws in that we should be silent and in submission as the Law says. As the Law says? Excuse me? Paul is the one who teaches that the Law was abolished by grace! Romans 6:14 says “For you are not under the law but under grace.” And chapter 7:6 “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” Every letter that Paul writes affirms that the law is dead, and is a dead-end road for salvation. The only way we get to heaven is through the new order that Christ created, the grace available to us through the cross. Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse,” and verse 13 declares that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. . .” Chapter 5:4 says “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law.”. Putting women under the Law sends us right back into the “before Jesus” time, and makes us live under the curse of trying to fulfill the Law instead of enjoying God’s grace.
The Timothy passage is more complicated. Here a woman is not allowed to teach or have authority over a man. Why? Because Eve’s the one who was deceived and became a sinner. But again, this passage contradicts Paul’s writing in Romans 5 that identifies Adam as the sinner, over and over. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, . . . the transgression of Adam. . .” Remember Adam was present in Genesis 3 when Eve was having her fateful dialogue with the serpent. Why didn’t he speak? Why didn’t he challenge the serpent? And why would God curse Adam if Eve were the only one to have sinned? God made it clear that they were both guilty, and Paul, in his other writings, concurs. Also, in all three of these passages, the Greek word for “woman” can equally be translated “wife”; the word for “man” as “husband.” Reasonably, these passages could read that a wife not teach or have authority over her own husband in public worship. In the Timothy passage it makes sense because the preservation of the hierarchy within the family is what saves a woman through childbirth. Why would childbirth be mentioned in the context of the church? It wouldn’t. It would, however, make sense within the confines of family. Plus the Greek takes us from the singular “she” to the plural “they” in that verse: “But she shall be saved through childbirth if they continue in faith. . .” She, the wife, will be safe through childbirth, if they, husband and wife, continue in faith.
Silent. The word “sigao” that is translated as “silent” in I Corinthians can also be translated as “hold your peace.” That has a whole different connotation than mere silence; to hold our peace means that we keep quiet for a reason, we are trying to promote peace rather than conflict. The Timothy passage goes even further with the idea of peace because this word translated as “silent” is “hesychia,” one of the rarest words in Koine Greek. It is used perhaps twice in the whole New Testament, and outside the Bible only once. Other more common words that mean “silent” were not chosen. “Hesychia” means not just “to be at peace with others” but also means “ending warfare”, and the “cessation of hostilities”. The logical conclusion is that both in Corinth and in Timothy’s church there were women, hostile women, battling things out in public during worship. It’s like those people who fight with their spouses on Facebook; please, please, please, keep it off the internet. Public worship should not be a battleground between husbands and wives, between church members and leadership. Stop fighting; be at peace with others.
Are there any other groups that get so roundly rebuked in the New Testament? Sure are. False teachers. II Peter 2 is entirely devoted to condemning false prophets and teachers, the whole lot of them. And every noun and verb in the chapter is masculine: male false prophets, male false teachers. Paul kicks them up in Galatians and Philippians, too, the Judaizers who wanted every male Christian to be circumcised; he calls them “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh.” John calls false prophets the spirit of antichrist. Conclusion? Any group that is doing something that harms the church, they need to stop, male or female. Be nice. Get along. Be at peace. Teach the truth.
More generally, in Galatians Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all are one in Christ Jesus.” If this is true, then all of us are equal in faith and in practice. And I Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” There is no gender mentioned in these verses; the priesthood of all believers includes women.
Tractors, epidurals, and tambourines. The judgments of Genesis 3 restrict our sin and slow us
down, reminding us that we need God. From the time of the fall, the people of God have worked to undo the curses, but Christ’s grace is the final solution. Yet until He returns we have responsibility to redeem this creation, to share the freedom of the children of God with every person, to reverse the curse. So when a farmer is faced with cursed ground, what does he do? Does he dig in the soil with his fingernails? No, he uses his gifts and resources to buy and use a tractor. When a woman is in childbirth, does she endure the unnecessary pain? No, she uses the gifts and resources available to her in modern medicine to get an epidural. In exactly the same way, it is un-Scriptural to maintain the inequality of the sexes which threatens to squelch more than half of the church from using their gifts and sharing the good news. With Miriam we women take up our tambourines and lead worship, because women are still called to be prophetesses and apostles and teachers and the hosts of God’s people. If Christ’s cross truly brings us back to pre-fall conditions, then the inequality of the sexes has been handled by grace, and women are elevated once more to serve in all contexts of the church. Ladies, pick up your tambourines!
For further reading:
Beyond the Curse by Aida Besancon Spencer
Discovering Biblical Equality, Pierce and Grouothuis, editors
I am greatly indebted to my wonderful husband, Rev. Greg Stone, author of a masterful exegesis paper on I Timothy 2, with a word study on hesychia.