Pay Attention to Strengths

29 Jul

Every Sunday night I lead a Bible study at church.  This is one of the highlights of my week.  Not only do I get to do one of my favorite things (study and teach Scripture), but I get to dive into God’s story with a really cool group of people.  Our little group is made up of about ten, and it’s seldom that everyone is in attendance on the same week.  There’s an openness amongst the group which is remarkable. People are kind, vulnerable, quick to share and quicker to listen. Plus, we laugh together- a lot.  Some of my favorite NC memories have come from this gathering, and I am often overwhelmed by the wisdom that gathers in that room (very little of which comes from me). 

Today, we worked through Ephesians 5.  Keep in mind, RC and I were the only people in the room under sixty, and NC is a pretty traditional church.  I wasn’t sure where this conversation was going to go.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of freedom amongst this group for disagreement.  There have been many times when we’ve come to different conclusions about particular passages, but we love each other all the same (I was even able to come clean about not believing in the rapture!).  However, challenging the traditional family structure was a whole different ball of wax, so I was a little nervous.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to be.  After I gave my spiel about Ephesians 5:21 and mutual submission, a man named Doug piped up. He said, “I know the Bible’s talking about the man leading, but anyone who has any sense will pay attention to strengths.  If one person’s strong in one area, they take the lead there and you may take the lead somewhere else.”  He followed this by saying his wife takes the lead everywhere except with the remote control, because such are her strengths.   He’s so right!  More importantly, this came from a man who has probably never paid much attention to the complementarian/egalitarian debate (although he did accept a woman pastor).  He’s simply a man who loves the Lord, loves his wife, and enjoys a happy marriage.  After five decades together, they learned how to make their marriage function in a way that brought both of them fulfillment, and they did it through mutuality.

In the near future (after I finish painting my living room) I’ll write an exegetical post of Ephesians 5.  Until then, may we all benefit from the wisdom that comes to us from a couple who have been married forty-nine years.  Pay attention to strengths. Let each other lead. 

The Woman of Proverbs 31 and Why You Are Not Called to Be Her

9 Jul

 I may not qualify for the “blogger” status yet (as inconsistent as my posts can be), but I am definitely a blogging enthusiast.  I follow a lot of blogs and I read many more than I follow.  Given my passion for the large and controversial subject that is Biblical womanhood, I especially enjoy reading blogs about women, marriage, leadership, etc.  A couple days ago, two of my facebook friends shared a link to one such blog.  It was written by a lovely Christian woman who was sharing some wisdom on being a godly wife.  By the second paragraph I could tell I disagreed with her on some pretty important issues.  She’s clearly coming from a complementarian position, but I kept reading because she’s my sister in Christ and she shared a lot of wisdom which transcends the gender role debate.  And then she brought up Proverbs 31.  I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but seeing yet another admonishment to be like that iconic woman gave me the motivation I needed to get this post going.

 

The second half of Proverbs 31 is a passage that all women within the church are familiar with.  At least, we all are now that a purse manufacturer launched with that name.  This passage is one I’ve read a dozen times, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how flawed my understanding of it has been.  In the past I’d looked to it as a “to do” list of sorts.  My inner dialogue went something like this:

Me:  I want to be a godly woman.  [opens up Bible to Proverbs 31]

Prov. 31:10-12: “A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.   Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.  She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.”

Me:  That sounds pretty good.  Be valuable, worthy of my husband’s confidence, and spend my life doing good towards my partner.  That’s a noble goal to strive towards and seems consistent with a life of holiness.  Keep Reading….

Proverbs 31:13-28  I see this woman is very industrious.  She works with eager hands, brings food from afar, gets up so early in the morning it’s still dark, manages real estate and farms.  She works so hard that her arms are strong, and she’s up until very late in the night.  Considering she does all this and sews clothing for her family (and for sale to merchants), it’s a wonder she has time to sleep at all.  Despite all the work she’s doing, the Proverbs 31 woman is immensely generous and sees to the needs of the poor.  This woman is honorable.  In fact, she is valorous!  She’s so awesome she even makes her husband look good at the city gates. 

 Me:  Wow.  She’s totally out of my league.  I’m not industrious.  My food comes from a farmers’ market at best (and Kroger more often than not).  I consider myself accomplished to sew a straight line and by bedroom usually houses 3-7 piles of laundry.   I don’t come close to working the hours she did (and get grumpy when I try).  On top of all this, my arms are way more jiggly than I’d like to admit.   

 

Conclusion?  I am so far from this woman it’s not even funny.

 

The only thing this Proverb has ever done is make me feel woefully inadequate.   Is that the purpose of this proverb?  Was it written just so women like myself, 3000 years in the author’s future, can develop inferiority complexes about not being industrious, domestic, or sturdy, in addition to being noble and generous (which I believe are Christian virtues all believers should strive to cultivate)? 

I don’t think so. 

 

With all the hype and guilt-mongering that’s come from this passage, the most meaningful aspect of the proverb has been overlooked.  We’ve forgotten (or perhaps ignored) the fact that this passage was written about an actual woman by a proud husband or son.  Check out verse 29. “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”  Everywhere else in this passage, the Proverbs 31 woman is spoken of in the third person, but here the author uses the first person.  These 21 verses are about a real woman- a woman of great honor and valor.

 

It isn’t until the final verse of the Proverb that we’re given a direct command or admonishment.  The author says, “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”  This proverb was never meant to be a directive or “to-do” list.  It’s a tribute to an amazing woman.  If anything, the lasting principle of this passage is for husbands and sons to honor the women in their lives who display honorable qualities, such as those exhibited by the Proverbs 31 woman.  Believe it or not, that’s exactly how Orthodox Jews treat this passage.  Husbands will recite these words over their wives when they’ve displayed valorous qualities.  For them, it is always a commendation and never a reproach. 

 

Here’s the thing, God has fearfully and wonderfully made each and every one of us.  We are unique, quirky, and interesting in our own ways.  Paul is very clear that the Holy Spirit has distributed gifts according to his own good judgment.  We don’t all have the same gifts.  Not every woman is an astute business person or a domestic goddess.  More importantly, not every woman is necessarily called to be.  If my house looked perfect every day, then  I probably wouldn’t be fulfilling the call to ministry God has given me.  I work for the good of my family, and bring in an income (as did the P31 woman!), but it doesn’t happen through industry, agriculture or manufacturing.  And that’s okay!

 

So instead of looking at the P31 woman as the standard for godly womanhood, maybe we should honor the command in verse 31.  Look for women who exhibit the valor in their lives, and praise them, the way the author of Proverbs praised this iconic woman.  And when it comes to figuring out what kind of woman (or man) we’re supposed to be, maybe we should reach for the standard Jesus sets in Matthew 5, 6 and 7.

 

What’s your experience with Proverbs 31?  How is your calling different (or similar) to hers?

 

By the way, if you’re looking for another egalitarian blog, check out the work of Rachel Held Evans.  She’s basically amazing and posts nearly every day.

http://www.rachelheldevans.com

 

A Controversial Word: “Head”

19 Jun

 “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands”. ~Ephesians 5:21-24

Before we start evaluating the vying types of submission, let’s first examine what it means for the man to be the “head.”  The Greek word for head is κεφαλή or kephale. Complementarians translate this word into “authority.”  I’m going to say, upfront, that too much is read into this one word because, in reality, it has a variety of uses and meanings.  Typically, it means a physical head (you know, that thing that houses your brain).  However, it can also refer to being first, being preeminent, or the origin/source of something else.  We should look for all the ways it’s used, but we should especially watch the way Paul uses it in other letters.  Interestingly, Paul  typically uses kephale to mean “source” or “origin” rather than “authority.”

In 1 Cor. 11:2-16, kephale is used as a literal head and as source (which 11:8-9 makes clear).

In Col. 1:18, kephale, is being used in reference to the beginning, and thus can clearly be understood as origin or source.

In Col 2:10, kephale is clearly being used as source/origin because if it meant “authority” then Paul would be repeating himself.  It’s saying Christ is the source of all authority.

Eph. 1:22 is the only place where kephale can be taken as “authority” without any ambiguity.  However, just three chapters later, in Eph. 4: 15-16 Christ is identified as the “head” in that he is a unifying source of the whole body.[1]

In light of this evidence, I am more likely to believe kephale is being used as origin or source- which would be consistent with the Genesis account as well as other Pauline arguments.  Just look at this passage from 1 Cor. 11 which deals with head coverings.  “Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God,” (1 Cor. 11:8-12).  Women come from men, but all things come from God.  Man is the source of women, but Christ is the source of the church.  This interpretation is just as biblically sound (if not more so) as the complementarian argument which insists kephale means authority.

In light of the varying ways the word kephale is used by Paul alone, can we really say, with %100 certainty, that “head” only means authority in Ephesians 5?  I don’t think so.  Am I willing to be a martyr over whether or not it means “source” over and against “authority.”  Probably not.  But the evidence sure does make one think…


[1] Alan Padgett. As Christ Submits to the Church.  66-67

Why Paul Was Radically Progressive

18 Jun

Okay, so I know that most of modern folks look at Paul’s writings about women and think, “What a Pig! What’s his problem with women?”  I know I’ve felt that way myself.  I never realized that for Paul’s time and culture, he was something of a radical.  Allow me to explain.

In the ancient Jewish and Roman cultures, men dominated.  It wasn’t even questioned.  Women were considered physically, spiritually and intellectually inferior.  Because of this, Romans held to a strict set of family codes that kept the patriarch (from the Latin for father) in control of his wife, children and slaves. 

Paul was a practical fellow.  He knew that Christianity was considered a subversive religion, and Paul would not have wanted to create any additional (and unnecessary) opposition to the Gospel, so he chose not to contradict the family structure of the Roman world.  He used the same three-part household construction Aristotle put forward.  However, Paul made some pretty drastic changes. 

He advocated wifely submission, but defined it as respect rather than obedience.  In the same way, Paul also called for husbands to submit to their wives.  In Ephesians 5:21, all Christians are commanded to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Husbands were called to submit their lives in place of their wives’ and both women and men are instructed not to withhold physical intimacy from their spouse (an instruction which was not typically given to men).  If Paul had broken entirely from the traditional family structure of his day, then he would have opened the Christian faith up for even more attack.  Furthermore, he would have alienated thousands of potential converts by making Christianity look even more subversive or undignified.  Not to mention the fact that no societies were really embracing the notion of egalitarianism 2,000 years ago.

Despite Paul’s involvement with the patriarchal structure of the ancient world, he was far from the chauvinist some have made him out to be.  It’s clear that even within the accepted system of patriarchy, Paul advocated for an ethic of mutual submission and self-giving love- which was a radical thing in his time.  Let’s give him credit where credit is due.  This man was progressive.  He pulled his readers towards the image of Christ, and an ethic of mutual submission which is more radical, and more beautiful, than any family system yet seen.[1]


[1] Craig Keener.  Paul, Women and Wives. 133-156

A Series on Christian Marriage

18 Jun

When I was eighteen years old, I had the following conversation with a guy who led one of the Bible studies I attended.

Me:  “I’m getting a little frustrated with this relationship.  I know it’s important for him (my boyfriend at the time who shall remain nameless) to be the leader in this relationship, but he’s not doing that at all.  I’m pretty sure I’m more spiritually mature – not to mention more emotionally mature- than he is anyway.”

Mentor J:  “Kate, if you want him to be the spiritual leader of this relationship, then you need to wear the skirt.”

I cringe even writing out this excerpt from my complementarian days.  I had been taught that men were the leaders in society, in church, and especially in the home.  My future husband was to be my spiritual “head” and I was to be his docile and submissive “helper”.  Since that was the kind of husband I needed, it was important that the guys I dated fit the bill.  I had a checklist.  1) He had to be Christian (which I still think is essential). 2) He had to pursue me. 3) He had to be a spiritual “leader.” To be honest, this list contained over sixty expectations (with varying importance), most of which I could care less about now.  Even as I evolved into the Christian egalitarian I am now, I assumed my husband would function as the spiritual leader of our home.  Mutuality wasn’t even on my radar until seminary.  Even then, I figured my future husband would want to “lead” in some fashion, even if we didn’t practice hard patriarchy.  I just assumed all men needed to feel like they were in charge in order to be satisfied in the relationship.

Then I met RC.  He’d dealt with the womanhood issue when he was in college, and came to an egalitarian position.  I knew how he felt about women in ministry early on (that was a litmus test for second dates), but it wasn’t until we got engaged that we started talking about roles within the family we were on the verge of creating.  I still remember driving on Highway 64 West, along the Ohio River in Louisville, and saying, “So you really don’t see yourself as the spiritual leader of our family?”  His response was thoughtful and considerate- classic RC.  He told me that he was a leader to our future children, just as I will be, but when it comes to our marriage, we’re on equal footing. 

That statement, while certainly not meant to be offensive, is sure to rub somebody the wrong way.  Living in a region that is almost 50% Baptist means that this kind of thinking is ingrained in the evangelical culture here.  One could respond, “But wifely submission is biblical!” Believe it or not, I agree with you.  Wives are to submit to their husbands, but the Christian ethic of submission is much larger than wives and husbands.  After all, Ephesians 5:21 states, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  So do I submit to my husband?  Yes.  Does he also submit to me?  Yes.  The ethic of submission is the foundation of our marriage (which by the way is pretty awesome), but the submission is mutual and not patriarchal. 

In this series on Biblical Womanhood, I will be exploring the world of Christian marriage.  We will cover Ephesians 5, Proverbs 31, The Song of Solomon and much more.  For this section, I’m drawing from a few sources more than others.  The first is a book by Alan G. Padgett called As Christ Submits to the Church.  The Second is Paul, Women and Wives by Craig Keener.  The third is A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans.  Finally, I’ll be drawing from Liberating Tradition, by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson.  The Evans source is less scholarly, but still a thought-provoking read. 

I’d like to close by saying that I don’t think marriage –even Christian marriage- can be prescribed down to a “T.”  I know godly men and women who uphold complementary roles and still love and respect each other very much.  At the same time, I know couples who are hard-core Jesus feminists, reverse every role, and maintain a passionate devotion to the Lord and one another.  If God is the center of a marriage, and each partner seeks to love and honor the other, I am convinced that the couple will find a natural rhythm of leading and being lead.  That rhythm won’t be the same for everyone.  Thus, if your marriage doesn’t function the same way mine does, that’s okay.  I’m not interested in critiquing individual marriages.  I do, however, want to present an ethic of mutual submission which evangelicalism has wrongly shunned out of fear.  You may evaluate the evidence I present, and decide you disagree.  That’s fine.  You may see things for the first time and experience the same freedom I did.  That’s good too.  All I ask is that we really wrestle with this issue, let the Holy Spirit lead, and, when we disagree, do so with grace.

 

Bombs & Bombers

20 Apr

The last six days have been a whirlwind for most Americans, but especially for Bostonians.  The regrettable decision of two young men has forever changed the lives of so many.  I am truly grieved for those whose bodies have been broken and mutilated; for the husbands and wives who must now be spouse and nurse; for the brave individuals who ran towards the explosions and witnessed a horror which will be seared into their minds forever; and –most especially- for the families who are now mourning the loss of their beloveds.  It is truly a tragedy.

In the aftermath, the entire nation mourned with Boston, and rightly so.  Scripture calls us to mourn with those who mourn.  As of yesterday, though, the mourning ceased and the calls for justice began.  Justice is a good thing.  I am thankful to live in a country where people are held accountable for their actions.  Justice is also a biblical concept.  God administers judgment, and God does that perfectly.  I am afraid, however, that many people don’t simply want justice.  They want retribution.  That is not biblical.  Romans 12:19 says, “Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord,” (NLT).

 These brothers did something terrible.  One has already seen to his own demise by initiating a shooting match and putting explosives on his own body.  The second is now in the custody of law enforcement.  He is responsible for the pain and suffering of hundreds of people.  There will be consequences.  It is right and just.  Yet, I still hold out hope for this man’s soul.  Since Monday my prayer has been for God’s justice and God’s mercy to envelop this horrible situation.  I am thankful he has been caught, but I continue to pray for his repentance and salvation.  This nineteen year old boy, however corrupt he may be, is loved and wanted by God.

There has been a lot of talk on social media about the shear evil of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  I cannot disagree with this assessment.  His actions certainly were evil, but I wonder if it’s healthy or accurate to speak of this boy and his brother as if they’re in some kind of sub-human category.  It’s as if they’ve been moved out of the “person” box and moved into the “scum of the earth” classification right next to Hitler.  However tempting it is to separate men like Tsarnaev from the rest of us “good” people, the reality of the situation –biologically and theologically- is that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a standard homo sapien- a human being.

And humanity is capable of great evil. 

Each and every one of us is guilty of some evil.  The hatred we spew against a person or people; the resentment and unforgiveness we store in our hearts; the material wealth we hoard out of selfishness; the hurtful words we use to slander those around us is all evil.  You and I are not as innocent as we like to think.  When compared to the rest of humanity, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not that much guiltier- only less restrained. 

Humans have a great capacity for evil, but that’s because we also have a great capacity for love.  If we are to be free to choose the way of love, then we must also be free to choose the way of destruction in equal measure.  Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not the first person to commit his life to perpetrating evil acts, nor will he be the last.  In light of this, perhaps our response to this tragedy should be less consumed with making Tsarnaev pay for what he did, and more concerned with fighting the evil in our midst by living a life of great good. 

“Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

Reflections on the Marriage Equality Debate

4 Apr

Image

Image

The debate about marriage equality has been heated in the USA for some time now, and it has naturally worked its way into the church.  Lines have been drawn in the sand.  The denominations which affirm the LGBT lifestyle are insisting they’re the only ones who love people (and are therefore in the right), while the other denominations are shouting back that they’re the biblical ones (and are therefore in the right).  Although I applaud the bravery of people who are willing to put their opinions into the mainstream- even unpopular opinions- it seems to me that the majority of Christians who have entered this debate have started from the wrong place.  The result has been a culture war in which everyone is a loser.

I would like to humbly suggest that we- as a church- consider two things before we make any statements about the rightness or wrongness of marriage equality.

First, I think we should ask ourselves:  Are my words being motivated by love for a person?  I don’t think it’s enough to say, “I am motivated by my love for the Bible”, or “I love the institution of church”(while it’s certainly good to love them both).  Jesus has called us to love God above all else, but also to imitate his actions and love other humans the way Jesus has loved us.  Almost everyone I know would respond, “Yes, of course I love people who are gay and lesbian.”  In fact, I don’t personally associate with anyone who would say otherwise (at least not openly), but the recent events on social media have led me to believe that many of my brothers and sister in Christ do not love individuals who are LGBT.  I don’t say that because some disagree with the lifestyle- that’s a valid position.  I say that because we seem to have forgotten a very important truth.  “That homosexual” is more than his sexual orientation.  His name is Ted.  He has two parents who he loves beyond words, a little brother who adores him, a degree in accounting, and a good job.  Ted really likes jazz music and his favorite book is O Cry the Beloved Country.  In his spare time, Ted grows tomatoes in his backyard and goes fishing with his favorite uncle.  Ted is a person.  What’s more, Ted is a human being who has been made in the image of God and is the beloved of God Almighty.  The minute we separate a human being from the image and love of God, we are in error and sin.

Perhaps it would be helpful, for those of us who wish to enter into this debate, to first know a person who identifies as LGBT.  I can tell you, I am writing this post with fear and trepidation because of the four gay people in my life who I love deeply.  I don’t love them because they’re gay- as if I’m trying to fill a quota- and I don’t love them in spite of being gay.  I love them because they are human beings, made in the image of God, and they happen to be really cool, funny, smart and brave individuals.  My love for them has shaped the way I approach this subject.  It has forced me to consider every single word and evaluate whether or not I am motivated by a holy love for people.

This same reproach can go the other directions.  Many of my brothers and sisters have come out as adamant supporters of marriage equality.  Their love for LGBT folks is evident, but their love for the community of faith is not.  Before we rail against someone else’s theological position, we must also stop and consider whether or not we are motivated by love for Christ and his bride.  The messages we have to share- whatever they may be- will never be heard until the message is seasoned with love.

Secondly, I think there is a passage of Scripture we- as the church- should revisit. 

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—  not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.  But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.  What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside. “’Expel the wicked person from among you.’”

– 1 Cor. 5:9-13 (bold mine)

Paul is a huge advocate for accountability and church discipline.  This passage is written in the context where Paul addresses some sexual immorality within the church.  Very often, my friends on the LGBT side will throw out the “judge not” texts.  Those texts hold true, but do not negate the role of accountability amongst believers.  We are called to both grow in holiness and assist our brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same.  Therefore, it is biblical and good for those within the church to hold other believers accountable, provided we are equal opportunity critiquers when it comes to sin.  A pastor I met recently named Kevin had some good words on this topic.  He shared with me that everyone comes into the faith at different places in their spiritual walks.  That’s a given.  Some people will progress faster than others.  He told me he is less concerned with where they are in the journey of sanctification than the direction they are facing.  If we are walking with the Lord and facing Christ, then the Holy Spirit will do the Holy Spirit’s job of sanctifying.  Our role in this process is to gently correct and encourage each other to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Here is a link to a video by Dr. Ben Witherington III on this question for the believers.  I agree with his conclusions for the church.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMHXH_xERL8

However, Paul makes it clear in this passage that he is not in the business of “judging” or holding those outside the church accountable.  God will handle that according to his perfect judgment and unfailing love.  It is not my job to be the morality police.  The whole premise that those who are outside the faith can/should be expected to live up to Christian standards of holiness is flawed to begin with because no one is capable of doing that. It is only through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that we are made righteous.   Some people will point to John the Baptist’s rebuke of King Herod as justification for “calling out” the sin in government.  However, Herod was a Jewish King who was supposed to be leading God’s people according to God’s standard (Torah).   John was rebuking another member of the covenant community not an outsider.  I’m afraid I must hold to the same conclusion as Paul.  “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church…? God will judge those outside.” God is perfectly capable of handling the eternal implications of every choice humans make- and I’d prefer to leave that job in God’s capable hands.

I know I will have upset some people with this post.  Some will think I crossed a line and others will think I haven’t gone far enough.  Honestly, my intention is not to upset anyone.  I desire unity within the body of Christ, but I am also deeply saddened by the fact that the gay couple at Panera chose to move their table when they realized I was reading the Bible.  Something is terribly amiss when Christians are known for their hatred of a sin rather than their love for human beings made in God’s image.  It’s breaking my heart- and I can’t help but think it breaks God’s too.

Jesus & Women

22 Mar

Hello Friends!

Today I’m writing on an aspect of biblical womanhood which is often overlooked- Jesus’ own interactions with women.  If you’re reading my blog you probably agree with my starting premise:  Jesus, as incarnate God, is the best gauge of what God actually thinks about womenfolk.  Because the Bible was written by men who were raised in a patriarchal culture (and therefore probably didn’t give much thought to including a “woman’s perspective” on Jesus’ ministry), we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.  For this blog, I am referencing a recorded lecture in which Dr. Ben Witherington III taught on the subject.  He also has some published works on women of the Bible.  I haven’t read them, but can attest to his excellence in the field of biblical scholarship.

Background

It can be helpful to understand the world in which Jesus lived.  In the first century, Israel was not autonomous.  It was part of the Roman Empire and was engaged in a desperate struggle to maintain their cultural and religious identity amidst the pluralism of Rome.  Some women in the Roman Empire enjoyed considerable freedoms, such as owning their own businesses, having individual bank accounts, initiating divorce and even being elected to lower-level government leadership.  In addition to the civic role of women, pagan religions provided opportunities for women to serve as priestesses (especially of female gods).  Israel, on the other hand, had none of this.  There, a woman could neither inherit property nor sue for divorce.  Even widows were not entitled to inherit their husband’s property, which meant their survival depended on a hasty remarriage or the financial support of other male relatives.  Women were extremely limited in regard to economic opportunity and were almost entirely dependent on men for their subsistence.  Women were equally limited when it came to the practice of Judaism.  Because women were considered “unclean” during a menstrual period, they could not lead, nor be counted as part of a quorum for a synagogue to form.  There were female prophets (such as Anna), but they were few and far between.  On top of this, it was men- and not women- who received the mark of the covenant (circumcision).

The family was the center of Jewish life and community.  Jewish girls were married between the ages of eleven and thirteen (put’s the role of Mother Mary into perspective a little!), but these marriages were not for love.  They were a financial transaction.  IN the Greco-Roman world, women were considered “movable property” along with slaves and minors.  A woman had two obligations:  1) Get married and 2) have children.  Marriage was the only honorable profession available to Jewish women.  This is the world Jesus came into.

ImageMotherhood

Before we go any further with the ways Jesus challenged the culture of first century Israel, I’d like to say a word Jesus’ first human relationship- his mother.  The incarnation did not begin on a starry night in Bethlehem.  God became Emmanuel (God With Us) the moment Mary’s womb was filled.  God chose to spend his first nine months swimming inside a woman’s body.  And his first years were spent drinking from her breast and depending on her willingness to care for a helpless child.  Jesus forever sanctified the role of mother.  Those people who wish to diminish the holy task of motherhood obviously don’t know Jesus well.

Jesus Challenges Culture

Mark 3:31-35

 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

In this passage, Jesus’ biological family has come to take him home, but Jesus says something pretty radical.  He makes the claim that the family of faith now supersedes the biological family.  The central family unit is no longer determined by heredity, but by faith.  The family of faith holds the trump card.  This is Jesus’ way of saying the physical family will not hold the same prominent position that it held in Judaism.  He intended to create a new, universal family- which you can bet rattled the sensibilities of patriarchal Israel.

Mark 7:17-23

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.  He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile,  since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The connection from this passage to the issue of women may not be readily apparent, but it’s actually very important.  In these few verses, Jesus has declared Levitical law to be unnecessary.  He is doing away with the concept of things and people being “clean” and “unclean.”  Being unclean for one week of every month is what barred women from religious service, but that barrier no longer stood.  Even the sign of the covenant, male circumcision, was soon to be replaced by baptism, which is administered to both sexes.

Luke 8:1-3

 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him,  as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

In this passage, we see Jesus deconstructing social norms within his own following.  He’s challenging the accepted view of womanhood in multiple ways.  1) Women were not entitled to learn Torah, and here they are serving as disciples. 2) Women were leaving the responsibilities of their homes in order to follow this rabbi around. 3) They were providing financially for Jesus and the male disciples, which means they had somehow accumulated finances.  As Ben Witherington says, they were not the “hospitality brigade.” These women were traveling with and providing for Jesus’ ministry.  We also see Jesus consorting with women of various status.  Mary had been possessed by demons, and Joanna was married to Herod’s steward.  You may recall that Herod hated Jesus.

Luke 10:38-42            Image                     

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha has taken up the traditional role as hostess.  She then confronts Jesus, suggesting that Mary should be in the kitchen too.  Jesus responds in an unexpected way.  He defends Mary’s right so sit at his feet- the traditional role of a disciple- and he even says she has chosen the better part.  In Greek, Jesus says she’s chosen the better “dish”- a play on words.  Jesus is teaching, with his actions, that the priority for men and for women is to be a disciple of Jesus.  He offers women a religious education and inclusion they would not receive anywhere else. 

Matthew 19:3-12

 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”  He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’  and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”  He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”  But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Two things are going on here.  First, Jesus is extending the protection for women who are married.  In ancient Israel, only men could initiate divorce, and this could be done for a variety of reasons.  Some rabbis were conservative and believed divorce was only for infidelity (though one should keep in mind a woman could be executed for the same crime), but there were other rabbis who said a woman could be divorced for burning the toast.  Since women were economically dependent on their husbands (and a divorced woman was “damaged goods) divorce often resulted in the ruin of Jewish women.  By restricting divorce Jesus was actually extending protection for women.

The second- and perhaps more significant- change in this passage deals with the second half of the text.  Jesus declares singleness to be a viable option.  Jews took the command to “be fruitful and multiply” very seriously.  In their mind, every able-bodied person should be married and procreating.  Jesus, however, makes singleness for the Kingdom a legitimate option for men and for women.  This means that women can pursue religious service instead of having a family.  That’s big.  Motherhood is not only contribution women make in the Kingdom Jesus has inaugurated.

ImageThe Passion and Resurrection Narratives

According to Mark 14, it was only the female disciples who remained with Jesus until his death (John says one male disciple was there).  The men all fled, which means the women were the only faithful disciples at the close of Jesus life.  It was the women who tended to his burial needs and it was the women who first encountered the risen Christ.  Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist.  The text says, “and she went proclaiming.”  Tell me, how is that not a call for women to preach?

Jesus and His Twelve Male Disciples

I’ll go ahead and address this, because it comes up so often.  Many people respond to the above information by noting that Jesus’ twelve disciples were all men.  That’s only natural.  Jesus chose them as emissaries to the traditional culture ancient Israel/Palestine.  They are sent out to seek the lost sheep of Israel, which means they couldn’t be so radical no one would listen to them.  Trust me; women would not have been able to evangelize as easily as the men could in that culture.  In addition to that, they are meant to mirror the twelve patriarchs of Israel.

I’m not trying to insinuate that Jesus puts down male leadership.  Rather, I’m trying to show all the ways Jesus actively trained up women in addition to men for ministry.

 

God Gets His Hands Dirty

7 Mar

I’m going to break from my typical posts on biblical womanhood.  Instead, I’d like to make some reflections from the sermon I gave last week.  Our text was Mark 7:31-37.  I also need to credit the president of Asbury Theological Seminary.  He preached a sermon on this text, which significantly shaped my understanding of it.  To be honest, if it were ethical to plagiarize all of Dr. T’s sermons I would do it.  You can find his messages on iTunes through Asbury Theological Seminary’s chapel uploads.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

This text depicts Jesus healing in a way that is a tad unusual.  In other texts Jesus is shown healing with a simple touch or even a word.  Yet in this passage, Jesus sticks his fingers in a man’s ears, and puts his spit on the man’s tongue.  I’m not going to lie- that’s a little gross.  Why did Jesus do that?  Why did Jesus choose to heal in such a way?  As Dr. Tennent says, this little question begs a larger one.  Why did Jesus come at all?  Why did the Lord of heaven leave his throne to be rejected and despised on earth?  Why did the uncreated, creator of everything we see, choose to take the form of a helpless infant, who spent his first hours in a feeding troth?  Why did the Holy God of Israel, choose to walk amongst the broken, the sick, the ignorant, and the depraved?  We can respond by simply saying, “God loves us.”  That is true, but Emmanuel did not come because of some sentimental, happy feeling or attachment.  Jesus came because his desire to love, to redeem, and to heal, is such that he was willing to get his hands dirty in the process.

Healing is a dirty business.  When we care for people, we see things we’d rather not see.  We smell odors we’d prefer to cover up with candles or air fresheners.  Sometimes we touch people who are contagious.  Every good parent gives their sick child a hug- knowing full well Mommy or Daddy will likely be sick next.  Mental and emotional illness presents its own kind of mess.  Consider the counselor who walks through all the muck and mire of memories and circumstance with their patients.  And then there is the minister; who attempts to share God’s healing love and truth amidst the brokenness of this fallen world.  Again, healing is a dirty business.

Yet we see Jesus reaching out to people and reaching into lives over and over again.  This is apparent in practically every healing narrative of the Gospels, but I especially love the passages where Jesus interacts with lepers.  Instead of shunning the “unclean” (and contagious) person, Jesus takes their hands.  He looks over the dead white skin and ignores the putrid smell of rotting flesh.  He offers them healing to be sure, but Jesus also offers the gift of touch.  He proves to them-and to us- that the Living God is willing to get his hands dirty in order to heal us. No illness is too dirty.  No lifestyle is too sordid.  No human being is too far gone to save.

Last week, my preaching professor reminded me that the church fathers interpreted the Parable of the Good Samaritan differently than we do now.  We tend to look at that text and wonder whether we would be like the Samaritan (who loved his neighbor) or like the Levites (who ignored a man in great need).  The church fathers, however, placed themselves in the shoes of the man who was robbed and beaten.  It was Jesus who was the Good Samaritan.

Imagine, if you will, that you were the one lying on the side of the road after being beaten, stripped and robbed of everything you had.   It is Jesus then, who checks your broken body for signs of life.  It is Jesus who chases away the hovering buzzards- impatient for their supper.  It is Jesus who lifts your filthy body, busted and bloody, onto his own animal.  It is Jesus who pays the price for your healing.  The priests and the Levites may have walked by your needy frame- assuming you were nothing but a corpse, but Jesus did no such thing.   He sullied himself with your mess in order to save and to heal.

Our God is willing to get his hands dirty so that we can be healed.

When I ended my sermon, I asked my congregation to consider their own need for healing, because we serve a God who is able and willing to heal in a myriad of ways.  Today I am asking two different questions:

Where does our world need healing? 

Am I willing to partner with God and get my own hands dirty?

Though I consistently fall short, I want to be like Jesus.  I want to be willing to get my hands dirty so that I can be an instrument of God in the healing of this broken world.  That means I cannot shy away from people because their lives are messy.  I can’t turn away from those who seem too broken or too sinful.  I cannot deny the gift of touch to those whom our society has deemed untouchable.  There’s a song which says, “no one too lost for me to love and no one too low for me to serve.”  That’s my heart’s cry this morning, and I pray it will be the heart’s cry of the church.

Passages that Seem to Limit Women: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

4 Feb

Okay Ladies and Gents, the day has come.  Today we’re going to tackle 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  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 will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I know what you’re thinking:  “This looks pretty straightforward.  Paul is clearly banning all women from leadership for all time.”  I thought that for a long time too.  If you still think that at the end of today’s blog- it’s okay.  I respect anyone who holds a position because he/she feels it’s more biblical.  But I’m asking you to go with me, and ponder a notion that may be unfamiliar- even threatening- for just the length of this post.  Don’t get defensive.  Don’t feel attacked, because that’s not my intention here.  Aristotle said that it’s the “mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  So, whether you are a complementarian, egalitarian or undecided, let’s entertain some thoughts…

In biblical studies classes, one of the first things we learn is to honor the context.  The context takes everything into account from the genre of the book, to the literary, historical and cultural settings of the author and audience.  The bible cannot mean something to us today that it never meant to the original audience.  Context is always important.  It is necessary for sound interpretation.  So let’s take a look at the context of 1 Timothy.

  1. Author:  Paul the Apostle
  2. Audience:  Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus and student/co-worker of Paul
  3. Genre:  Epistle, or letter.
  4. Date:  mid 60s CE
  5. Major Themes of the letter:  correcting false doctrine and removing/limiting  those who are propagating the false doctrine

There are several implications just from these five pieces of information.  First, since we hold to Pauline authorship (and I do), that means that all of Paul’s writings are relevant when discussing this particular prohibition on women.  Second, we recognize that 1 Timothy is a letter.  We know from the beginning that we’re missing half of the conversation.  Furthermore, it’s a letter to a particular person, in a particular situation, in a particular location.  We cannot get away from Timothy’s context because his context (a church in Ephesus that is combating false doctrine) is the purpose for the entire letter!  Finally, we must consider the way the broad theme of the letter may influence the particular statements found therein.

Reading Paul in light of the whole NTImage

Since Paul is the author of this book, it’s only right for me to consider ALL of Paul’s teachings on women in conjunction with this passage,which is the only explicit limitation on women teaching men in the entire Bible.  This means that I read 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in light of Galatians 3:36-39, Romans 16 (see blogs on Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia), and 1 Corinthians 12 (which lists spiritual gifts without reference to gender). In these three passages, not to mention the biblical accounts of female prophets and leaders and the example of Jesus (blog to come), we see Paul affirming women leaders!  He calls women his co-workers, and he praises them as teachers, leaders, patrons, and even an apostle.  It would seem that the bible in general- and Paul is particular- is sending mixed messages; which leaves us with two possible options.  1) Paul was unstable and double-minded or 2) some things that Paul wrote in letters were meant to address specific situations and were not intended to be normative.[1]

I don’t know about you, but option number two seems much more likely (not to mention less problematic).  And it makes perfect sense given the context. Almost the entire letter of 1 Timothy addresses false doctrine.  A group of people were spreading heresy and Paul was giving Timothy some suggestions to shut it down.  One of those suggestions was to stop the women in Timothy’s congregation from teaching.  Honestly, it isn’t all that surprising those women were part of the problem.  They had very little education, if any at all.  Women were often quite young and were typically married by fourteen (give or take two years), which made them more susceptible to bad doctrine.  If the woman was a widow or wealthy wife, she had some spare time and could easily go from house to house, teaching others the heresy she’d learned.  Paul was completely right to shut this kind of behavior down!  It’s worth mentioning that Paul also cracked down on the men who were leading in Ephesus.  The problem was not that women were teaching, but that women who were unlearned and susceptible to false doctrine were spreading heresy.

A close examination of the specific text

Most translations begin this passage by saying, “I do not permit.”  However, many Greek scholars will point out that Paul is actually speaking in the present tense, as if to say, “I am not permitting.”  This suggests that Paul was speaking with regard to the particular situation in Timothy’s church, rather than all churches.

Secondly, very few people point out how radical it was that Paul said women should learn.  Everyone harps on the quietness and submission part, but that was completely in line with Paul’s culture.  It was not normal, however, for women to be given a significant religious education.  In that respect, Paul is being quite progressive. Giving women a proper theological education would also serve as a corrective to false doctrine and enable women to teach at a later date when they were qualified.

Thirdly, there is a great deal of debate, amongst biblical scholars, regarding the use of “authority” in this passage.  There are some who believe it is best understood as an authority that domineers, rather than leads.  Here are two articles that address that interpretation more fully.  The second link is a little more detailed.

http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/1-timothy-211-15

http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/can-women-teach-part-ii/

Paul then points to Adam and Eve as a reason for the restriction on women.  In this instance, I disagree with the article from CBE (the first of the above links).  I don’t think Paul is saying anything about the inherent equality of women and men.  Rather, I think Paul is actually going back to the issue of false teaching. If  you refer to the creation narrative, you’ll notice that God instructed Adam not to eat fruit from the tree at the center of the garden.  Yet when Eve conversed with the serpent, she was under the impression that the fruit could not be eaten or touched. Somewhere along the way, Eve was misinformed and was deceived because of it.  I don’t think Paul is using creation order as a reason for male headship (read my blog on Genesis and womanhood where creation order is dealt with in great detail).  I also don’t think Paul is putting all the blame for the fall on Eve.  There are other places (like Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15) when the blame is put squarely on Adam.  It seems to me that Paul is harkening back to a familiar story where poor instruction left a woman vulnerable to deception and took humanity down a bad path.  The same was clearly happening in Ephesus.

Others believe Paul was actually “correcting” previous teachings that ignored Eve’s part in the fall (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).  Thus, it would function as a good reminder that neither men nor women were morally superior.  That’s legitimate, but I find it less persuasive.

As for the section on childbirth… I have no idea what Paul meant there.  There’s actually no consensus amongst New Testament scholars on that one, so I won’t presume to offer an interpretation.  The CBE article I linked to mentions Artemis worship.  Others have suggested it referred to protection during childbirth.  Frankly, there isn’t enough evidence, in my opinion, to do anything but speculate here.

In summary, the context of false doctrine in the epistle to Timothy, combined with a close study of the specific verses, all of which are read in light of Paul and Jesus’ affirmations of women, point to an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that was specific to the situation of Timothy’s first century church in Ephesus, and is not prescriptive for all women, for all time.


[1] Normative means something is applicable for all people, in all culture, for all of time.