Women in the Bible

There has been a flurry of posts on women in the Bible in the wee bit of the evangelical blogosphere that I visit.

Scot McKnight’s ebook on Junia and the scandal of the attempted gender switch of this female apostle.

The Baptist theologian Steve Holmes’ 3 posts in positive response to McKnight – can’t say he’s sitting on the fence on this one.

(‘Balance? If we want real historical balance … we would be telling nothing but women’s stories for the next two millennia.’)

The always excellent Michael Bird stirring up the imagination about Phoebe’s ministry and responsibilities.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2 TNIV).

I love messing with my students. Yes, I know it catches them off guard, but exposing their assumptions and ignorance is both enjoyable and actually educational too. When I get to my Romans class, I ask the students four questions:

So who actually wrote Romans?

“Paul,” they immediately reply in chorus.

“No,” I retort, “Who physically sat down and penned the letter to Paul’s dictation?”

Blank faces, deep thoughts, then some bright spark will blurt out, “Oh, oh, that guy, what’s his name, um, Tertius.”

“Correct-a-mundo” comes the teacher’s approving reply who points students to Romans 16:22 which says, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22 TNIV).

Moving on…

So who delivered the letter to the Romans then? Who was Paul’s envoy?

Confused faces, odd looks: how can they be expected to know that?

“Turn with me to Romans 16 then” and together we read the text.

Then we have a cool discussion about the meaning of “deacon,” “benefactor,” and the role of letter carriers in antiquity. It gives a good starting point to talk about Christian ministry and patron-client relationships in the context of the Greco-Roman world.

“So then, if Phoebe is a deacon, Paul’s benefactor, and he trusted her to take this very important letter to the Romans, then Phoebe must have been a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind. Do you agree?”

Heads nod in agreement.

And if the Romans had any questions about the letter like ‘what is the righteousness of God?’ or ‘who is this wretched man about half-way through?’ who do you think would be the first person that they would ask?

Eyes wide opened, some mouths gaping, others looking a bit irritated.

Then I provocatively add: “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about or from Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?”

The end result is an “Aha” moment for some students, confusion and frustration for others.

Then comes the big question…

Think about it people. This is Romans—Paul’s letter to unify the Roman churches and to prevent a potentially fractious cluster of ethnically mixed house churches from ending up like Galatia where there were painful divisions over Law and Halakhah—the oral interpretation on how exactlyto obey the Law. This is Paul’s effort to return to Jerusalem with all of the Gentile churches behind him. This is Paul’s one chance to raise support from the Roman churches for a mission to Spain. This is Paul’s gambit to answer rumors about his ministry that he’s either anti-Law or anti-Israel. This is Romans, his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology. Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or any other dude? Why Phoebe?

Some students nod in agreement, others flick through to 1 Timothy 2:12, others sit back and just think.

I’m careful to make the point that this is not the be all and end all of debates about women in ministry. There are other texts, contexts, and interpretations that we have to deal with. This text won’t answer questions for us about who to ordain either, they have to be answered elsewhere. But I point out that taken at face value, Paul evidently had no problem with women having some kind of speaking and teaching role in the churches. I think Paul’s commendation of Phoebe and her role as letter-carrier to the Romans shows that much. What is more, we should also commend women like Phoebe today!



4 thoughts on “Women in the Bible

  1. Hmm. I like the pheobe comments. Its a great argument.
    I’m not convinced by the junias debate as its put forward here for the simple reason that having a female name does not always mean its owner is female. Granted it would seem that there has been definite bad editorialism going on in the translations of the word but a quick search on the internet shows why!! Epiphanes and Origen are two of the oldest extant commentators on this verse and both talked of Junias as a male. Also his/her apostleship is up for grabs. The verse can be translated to mean that the person was figured as great by the apostles. They can talk all they like of bad translating. Using this verse to bolster a egalitarian position is a poor argument in my mind.

    I’m still on the fence on the issue in general. I cannot deny the clear calling that many women have and the world around me is incredulous to the idea that women might have their life choices restricted based on their gender and i feel the same way. Yet i am not persuaded by how egalitarians handle the texts that seem complementarian.
    Good job I’m in a denomination where such tensions are not challenged!:)

  2. Richard I think you need to read Scot’s book – he blows those arguments out of the water.

    Ah if only your last line were true! How many women elders are there in most PCI churches? How many women ministers are there after (guessing here – 30 years?) since it was voted to have women ministers? How many women are encouraged to use their gifts for teaching and preaching and leading just as much as men are?

    I was challenged by this post by John Stackhouse – https://faithinireland.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/john-stackhouse-on-women-in-ministry/ where he says it is not enough to sit on the fence (my words) but men need to act and feel the issue not just as a abstract one but as a deeply important one that adversely affects women.

  3. Does scott’s book deal with the other verses as well?

    I understand very well the implications for the church if it turns out that it has been wrong about gender roles. It would mean a great deal of repenting for years and years to come. I’m thinking a zaccheaus type response might be necessary …

    I intend looking into this issue in some detail this year. That is i usually have an issue or two that i will study deeper that others when the occasion arises. Catholicism and Homosexuality have been hovering near the top for the last few years. I might give the gays a break this year and focus on the ladies. 🙂

    Not trying to start a debate here but for what its worth these are some of the questions i have about gender roles.
    1 12 apostles no women… what’s up with that?
    2 WHATEVER the timothy passage MIGHT be teaching at the very least it implies a differentiation in how we are to view the genders.
    3 I fear that appealing to the “culture of the times” approach to some of the texts is the thin edge of wedge to make texts that we don’t like say things that we do.
    4 (its a thin argument i know) but tim keller is complementarian… and i trust that man.
    5 my last poor argument but one i want to work through anyway is that this issue is at its highest position in the publics eye since probably ever? anyway that fact that it is so now when the impulse of society is to not impose any restrictions on oneself is to me a thing that needs thinking through, is this a genuine movement of the Spirit or an accommodation to spirit of the world

  4. Scot deals with other passages in The Blue Parakeet which I blogged through a while back – should summarise things. And there is a good discussion at the end of the need for wisdom and cultural adaptation as to how an egalitarian view is applied – say in a Muslim or in many African contexts.

    And of course there are forest loads of books and articles out there. I do think that the main contours of the arguments are pretty well established and haven’t shifted that much in recent years. I’m more persuaded by far by the mutuality argument (or egalitarian, tho that word has too much a sense of competing rights).

    I like Tim Keller too 😉

    Important to be self-critical – what seems ‘right’ and ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ may well be cultural norms of the times. But that argument can be stood on its head as well – what appeared obvious in terms of very traditional gender roles in the past had more to do with wider cultural assumptions than in-depth exegesis.

    12 Apostles – lots been said about this. Big assumption to begin to build a pattern of New Covenant ministry on an argument that is not only from silence, but can taken to mean all sorts of things to all sorts of churches – for the RCC it leads to male only priests representing Christ …

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