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Go and Say

The Silencing of Women's Witness
On February 19, 2012

Jesus said to her,
“Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father;  but go to My brethren and say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” John  20:17 (NASB)

On the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed." (Deu. 19:15)  So said the Mosaic Law, but in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth, Jewish tradition declared that women, along with slaves and minors, could not be called as legal witnesses. According to rabbinical consensus, the testimony of women was valueless.

God, no respecter of human traditions, obviously had another opinion. As Joseph and Mary, in accordance with the Law, presented their forty day old Son, Jesus, at the temple, the Holy Spirit had positioned two witnesses to testify to all Israel that their prophesied Messiah had come.  One of them, Anna, was a woman.

"And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage and then as a widow to the age of eighty four.  She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.  At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." (Luke 2:36-38)

She spoke of Him!  And then she continued to speak of Him!  Well, isn’t that what witnesses do:  give voice to that which they have seen and heard?  The Greek word here is ‘laleo’ which translates:  ‘to utter a voice, or emit a sound” and ‘to use the tongue or faculty of speech”.

Consider the witness of Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, as Mary approached carrying God’s Son in her womb:

"And she cried out with a loud voice and said 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!' " (Luke 1:42)

No quiet, gentle greeting, this.  The original Greek likens the sound of Elizabeth’s voice here to a clamour or an outcry.  Other instances where the same Greek word for loud, ‘megas’, is used are Jesus calling forth Lazarus (John 11:43), the crowd crying out for Jesus to be crucified (Luke 23:23) and Jesus crying out His final words from the Cross (Mark 15:34, 37).  We cannot help but be left with the image of a woman compelled to give very loud and forceful voice to what she is seeing and hearing, so that none standing near could ignore her words.

Consider also that by divine design women were present as witnesses at each crucial event in Christ’s life:   at His birth (Luke 2:7), His presentation at the temple (Luke 2:36-38), His first miracle (John 2:1-8), during His itinerant ministry (Luke 8:1-3), His death (Matt. 27:55, Luke 23:27) and His resurrection (Matthew 28:1-9).  Women disciples were also present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out and Peter declared to the amazed onlookers “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.” (Acts 1:14,15; 2:32).

Add to these facts the clarity of the instruction Jesus gave Mary of Magdala immediately after His resurrection to “Go” and “Say” (John 20:17).  To who was she to ‘go’ and what was she to ‘say’?  To His brethren she was to declare that Christ had risen and was ascending to the Father....arguably the very core of the gospel message.

Sadly, despite the testimony of scripture and the command of Christ Himself, church history is also the history of the silencing of women as Christ’s witnesses. In their eagerness to embrace an erroneous interpretation of Paul’s ‘women are to keep silent’ statement too many church leaders have disregarded the undeniable fact that the first person to verbally carry the gospel message was a woman.  The very direction of  Christ Himself that a woman should ‘go’ and ‘say’ has at worst been swept aside and at best been relegated to secondary importance.  Clearly, something has been amiss for a very long period of time.

Still, throughout church history the Holy Spirit has continued to raise up women as public witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.  From the women persecuted by Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:2) to Perpetua the third century noblewoman, tortured and torn by beasts in a Roman arena; from Blandina the slave girl of Lyons to the fourteenth century female Lollard preachers; from the sixteenth century Anne Askew, burnt at the stake, to the twenty first century female martyrs of our own time, countless women, unknown numbers with names unrecorded, continue to pay the ultimate price for the privilege of being Christ’s witnesses.

An important question therefore begs a just and adequate answer:  Why is the blood of women martyrs acceptable to large sections of the Christian church while the vocal witness of women is not?

Innumerable more women, serving faithfully within denominational limitations, have been denied their birthright to witness verbally, loudly and forcefully that Christ is risen and lives within them.  Misguided opposing forces have done their very best to ensure that the voices of women can no longer be heard ‘crying out with a loud voice’ as Elizabeth’s and Anna’s voices did at the dawn of Christianity.

Writing in 1859, the holiness preacher, Phoebe Palmer, stated: “We believe that hundreds of conscientious, sensitive Christian women have actually suffered more under the slowly crucifying process to which they have been subjected by men who bear the Christian name, than many a martyr has endured in passing through the flames.” (Phoebe Palmer, Selected Writings, Thomas C. Oden.ed.New York: Paulist Press, 1988, p. 42)

I would suggest a slight amendment to that brave statement in that the numbers would surely not be hundreds but thousands upon thousands.

Long ago in the Garden of Eden a heartbroken God prophesied “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel." (Gen. 3:15)

Then, at the appointed time, the voice of a woman was heard in Israel:

"My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name." (Luke 1:46-49)

The word’s of Mary of Nazareth echo down to us and cannot be silenced. To those who would teach that womankind is cursed, I say look again.  Woman is not cursed but blessed, for God has endowed her with an unique and vital role in His plan for humankind’s redemption.  In Genesis 3:15 the promised Seed was called by God “her Seed”.  Is it any wonder such words of praise and worship flowed forth from Mary’s voice that day?  In the revelation of such grace how could she possibly have kept silent?  Did she not represent all women, past and future,  when she sang from her heart “From this time on all generations will count me blessed”?

How is it then that some sections of the church continue to demand that believing women willingly do what even the apostles Peter and John said they could not and would not do?

"...for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20)

To the daughters of the Kingdom who still wrestle with the ‘women must be silent’ mindset, and to those who continue to struggle to be heard within the confines of patriarchal traditionalism, I would encourage you:  Find your voice and end the silence!  And when you find it ‘go and say”.  Do not stop speaking of what you have seen and heard. The brethren, the world and heaven itself strain to hear the sound of your testimony that Christ is risen and indeed we are His witnesses.

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