Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Honorable Mention. Enjoy!
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
While generally true, this aphorism did not hold true for me. Growing up I didn’t see any women pastors. Even though I heard the odd missionary who was a woman share her story, I never heard a woman deliver a sermon. And yet, by the grace of God, when I heard a still, small voice calling me to vocational ministry when I was about fourteen years old, I did not feel it unnatural or strange. “Here am I, Lord, send me,” is all I could think to respond.
Could Anyone See a Woman Pastor?
The pastor’s kid in the church of my youth once asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pastor like his dad. His eyes grew wide, and he replied, “But you can’t! You’re a girl.” In his eyes, I couldn’t be what he couldn’t see.
On an exchange program to Quebec, we were given a school assignment to interview someone in the field in which we were interested in working. Somehow, my host family (who was Catholic, as are many in Quebec) found a Protestant pastor who agreed to speak with me. He gently explained that while women couldn’t be pastors, they could perhaps be missionaries and serve God in other countries. In his eyes, I couldn’t be what he didn’t see.
I sat through a Sunday school class when I was in university where peers I liked and respected told me that women could never be in senior leadership in the church and that a woman always had to have a man in leadership over her as a “covering.” In their eyes, I couldn’t be what they didn’t see.
It is only, I think, through the grace of God that I remained undeterred. Even though my life did not look like I thought it would, I walked the long and winding road that led me to finally complete an MDiv. I found a church that was willing to take a chance on me and hire me as their part-time pastor. It was a journey that was, at times, discouraging. But God did not allow me to give up. Even though I couldn’t see what I was trying to be.
Learning to See the Women in Paul’s Ministry
I grew up in a small prairie town in Canada, so I can understand why it might have been difficult for me to see other women in pastoral ministry. What I have more trouble coming to terms with is why I could not see that there were many wonderful examples of faithful women active in a variety of roles in the Bible. As Kat Armas writes, “I wasn’t taught to let my gaze linger on the women included in most of Paul’s letter introductions—or to ask what it meant that they were there in the first place.”1 Neither was I.
Biblical scholar Michael Bird credits Romans 16:1–16 with triggering a reversal of his views on women in ministry. In his commentary on Romans, he writes that “it was a close reading of Romans 16:1–16 that led me to a complete turnaround on my view concerning the roles of women in the church.”2 However, when I was growing up, no one mentioned these women who were key to the ministry of the early church. I couldn’t see them, and so I was never able to consider them as examples of what I might possibly be.
There is no reason for them to remain unseen anymore.
We can change that, starting right now.
Let us cast our gaze on Phoebe, who heads the list of greetings in Romans 16, and who definitely delivered, and maybe even read and interpreted, Paul’s letter to the house churches in Rome. No one mentioned her, so I could not see that a woman could lead a church, take dangerous risks, or interpret Scripture.
Let us turn our eyes toward Priscilla, who taught the silver-tongued Apollos (Acts 18). And Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister—all of whom Paul greets in Romans 16. Paul describes these women as his co-workers, women who work very hard on behalf of others or in the Lord, women who played a mothering role that mattered to the faith. And at least one, Junia, is incredibly described as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7).
Let us change our view concerning Euodia and Syntyche, who were not simply quarreling women (as I was always taught)—but were leaders of the church in Philippi, important enough for Paul to mention (see Phil. 4:2–3). And we cannot forget Lois and Eunice, women whose strong faith shaped the faith of their son and grandson Timothy, who became a close friend and even the protegee of Paul (2 Tim. 1:5). And Lydia, who provided for Paul and his companions in the city of Philippi (Acts 16:11–15, 40).
Finally, we remember that Mary, Jesus’s own mother, was prominent among the early church followers (Acts 1:14). She was present in that community of both men and women who met and prayed and ultimately experienced the outpouring of God’s promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
The names of some of these women might seem obscure, and maybe they are. But they should not be! These women, scattered like gemstones throughout the biblical texts, are worthy of our notice, our curiosity, our wonder.
What, for instance, might it have been like for Priscilla and Aquila to share a business and ministry with Paul? How dedicated did brave Lydia have to be to accept Paul and his companions back into her household after they had been told that they’d best leave town if they wanted to keep out of prison? What did Junia do to be known as outstanding among the apostles? Could I be known as the same?
God, with characteristic mercy and graciousness, safeguarded my call to vocational ministry throughout the years. But if I had been able to see this great cloud of witnesses, women who had served God’s church through a variety of ministries—including leadership, financial support, teaching, prayer, hospitality, and countless other forms of service—my path to ministry might have been lit by their examples. Perhaps my journey might have felt a little bit less radical and lonely if I had known that I was, in fact, walking in the footsteps of these faithful women.
There is no excuse for the fact that I couldn’t see them when I was trying to become all that God had called me to be. So I hold them before you now, to light your way, as you become all that you have been called to be in the service of Jesus the Messiah.
Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash.
- Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021), 34.
- Michael Bird, Romans, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 526.