The issue of women in the ministry divides evangelicals. On the one hand, some proclaim that women ministers represent the gospel’s liberation of women from oppressive cultural bondage to men. They celebrate the dramatic increase in female seminary enrollment as a parted Red Sea, offering entrance to a hitherto forbidden promised land. Like Moses and Miriam, they sing God’s praises for routing the Pharoah of sexism. The Christian pulpit is their Canaan, and some of them occupy that land each Sunday.
On the other hand, many staunchly oppose the idea. It reminds them of the tolerant compromise with the Canaanites which ensnared ancient Israel and cost her the promised land. With the fury of Amos, they claim that women clergy threaten the very vitality of the church. Their interpretation of the teachings of Paul arms them against what they believe are the subtle inroads of modernism.
Many evangelicals, however, stand somewhere between those extremes. Some affirm the ordination of women but limit them to non-preaching ministries. Others allow them to preach and to be ordained but deny them authority over men. To complicate matters, both men and women hold these views. Just as there is no one male position on the issue, so there is no one female one either.
This article, however, looks at the issue in light of the Garden of Eden. There God made man and woman, and pressed them into his service. In Eden we glimpse the larger purposes of God for humankind. These glimpses offer the framework within which the debate about the specific roles for men and women in the Christian ministry must take place.
Eden and the New Jerusalem
At first glance, an appeal to the situation in Eden sounds irrelevant. The reader may ask, “So what? Aren’t Christians to follow the teachings of Christ and the apostles? Why should Genesis contribute anything to the discussion?” The answer is that the Bible views the future destiny of Christians, in part, as a return to Eden. To be specific, the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 has several striking allusions to the Garden of Eden.
Like the Garden, the New Jerusalem is watered by a river (22:1 cf. Gen. 2:10-14) and has the tree of life within its walls (22:2; cf. Gen. 2:9). Also there is nothing cursed present (22:3) – the same situation in the Garden before sin spoiled things so radically (cf. Gen. 3:13, 17). Further, God will live peacefully amid his people as in the Garden before man’s expulsion (21:3; 22:3-4; cf. Gen. 3:8, 23). Finally, sin’s ugly side-effects – pain, sorrow, and death – are absent from the New Jerusalem as they were in the pre-fall Garden (Rev. 21:4).
The point is that the New Jerusalem is a return to the original Garden paradise. Thus, Christians are pilgrims headed back to the Garden where humanity began. That is why the Garden scene contributes to the discussion about women preachers: the destination toward which Christians are headed should influence the way they handle the walk there.
What does Eden tell men and women about themselves? First, it teaches that they share a common nature. Recall the scene in Genesis 2. God had planted a lush area in the east called Eden. It contained the world’s most beautiful trees. Imagine a garden with towering California redwood trees in one corner and gorgeous Colorado aspens in another. That was Eden. The garden also had the world’s best fruit trees. Again, feature whole orchards of trees all in one spot. Imagine their branches sagging with delicious fruit. That, too, was the Garden. What a great place to live! That is where God placed man and made women from man’s rib.
What is important, however, is man’s reaction to her: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” His exclamation resembles a common Old Testament expression used for relatives (Gen. 29:14; 2 Sam. 5:1). Paraphrased, man says, “This creature is not like the Garden’s animals. No, this is someone like me – my own flesh and blood, my kinfolk.” Man and woman share a common nature.
Genesis 1:27 makes the same point: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” According to that statement, the category “humankind” has two sub-varieties, male and female. They share a common nature – human nature in the image of God – although expressed in different forms.
This, of course, does not deny the differences which distinguish men from women. The point, however, is that men and women are basically alike – all are human beings. They all have the capacity to think (some, of course, better than others!) They all have that spiritual dimension which hungers and thirsts to know God. They all have a conscience which rebukes their sin. They all have deep feelings – love, hate, joy, grief. They all know that they are persons, not things. They all have the ability to choose between one act and another. Though different, men and women still share common humanity – a point often lost in contemporary debates over rights, wrongs, and roles. In contemporary idiom, “They are family.”
On the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska, a small statue guards the entrance to the famous orphanage, Boys’ Town. It consists of two rather shabbily-dressed boys, a teenager carrying a much younger one on his back. The monument commemorates the incident which inspired the founding of Boys’ Town. As the story goes, a young Catholic priest met this poor orphan pair aimlessly wandering the streets one cold winter night. The monument bears an inscription of the older boy’s reply when asked about the weight of his burden: “He ain’t heavy, mister, he’s m’brother.”
How simple is that child’s logic! Life has its heavy burdens, but the bearing of a brother (or sister) is not among them. Strangers may wear patience thin, but care of a beloved relative never burdens. The reason: there are strong family ties which bind. That same logic calls Christian men and women to treat each other as brothers and sisters, as members of the human family and of God’s redeemed family. After all, they share important things in common – basic human nature, faith in Christ, and a common eternal destination. Why, then, view each other as total strangers or weird aliens from outer space?
Christian men and women also share a common need. Genesis 2 points to a small, dark shadow hanging over the Garden. The LORD himself noticed it and commented (v. 18): “It is not good that man should be alone.” The shadow darkening the scene was loneliness. Man needed friendship.
God quickly moved to shoo the cloud away. First, he paraded the animals before man to see what he would call them. The Bible implies that God intently studied man’s reaction as each animal passed. But the animals were not like man; the loneliness remained. Next God made woman – and man reacted: “She’s like me – therefore, she’ll be called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of man” (vs. 23). Her very name (“woman”) links her closely to “man.” God gave man and woman to each other to rid the world of loneliness. They share a common need for friendship, companionship, camaraderie.
That friendship has a purpose. God intends for men and women to do each other good. He wants them to learn about each other from each other. He also wants them to learn other things from each other. This implies, therefore, that enroute back to Eden they should engage in lively talking and active listening.
For example, recall the case of the early Christian evangelist, Apollos. Though a gifted speaker, he had some incorrect ideas. It was the Jewish-Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who lovingly straightened him out (Acts 18:24-28). Suppose he had said, “I don’t need to be corrected by you two – and especially not by you, Priscilla, because you’re a woman!” His error would have persisted – to the detriment of his ministry.
“You Might as Well Know”
Lucy, in the Peanuts cartoon strip, offers an insight. One day as Charlie Brown practices his baseball swing, she asks him if he has his own room. When he says, “Yes,” she preaches at him: “I hope you realize that you won’t always have your own room…Some day you’ll get drafted or something, and you’ll have to leave your room forever!” Taken aback by her bluntness, Charlie brown asks her, “Why do you tell me things like that?” Pulling out a small piece of paper, Lucy replies, “It’s on a list I’ve made for you. I call it, ‘Things you might as well know.’”
There are, indeed, things which Christian men and women “might as well know” because they are true. In fact, there are things they ought to know. Men ought to know how male attitudes affect women. They should know how women feel about their current status in the church. They ought to known women’s vision for their own ministry – and women’ rightful claim to be called and gifted by God. They ought to listen respectfully to how women interpret the Bible – to the unique perspective they bring to the process. They ought to understand women on their own terms.
On the other hand, women ought to understand men on male terms. They should learn how their attitudes make men feel. They should inquire how men feel about learning to work with women in ministry. They should accept male interpretation of Scripture as a valid option and respectfully interact with it. In sum, what’s necessary is for men and women to spend more time listening to and less time talking at each other.
Finally, Christian men and women share a common purpose. Recall the purpose God gave man in Eden: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15). Man was in charge of the Garden’s upkeep and maintenance. Occasionally he might leisurely stroll through the Garden sniffing the blossoms and sampling the fruit. But his primary job was as chief gardener. He spent his days hacking the hardened soil with a hoe or pruning dead branches with a hook.
The problem, of course, was that he was overworked. Though he labored feverishly from sun-up to sundown, he could not stave off the disrepair beginning to overtake the Garden. Too many trees, too much ground needed attention. So God, like a kind, wise employer, expanded his garden staff by one. God made woman as man’s “helper” (vs. 18). Women, thus, was created to help man get the job done.
Note that she is his co-worker, not his slave. The text does not say that God gave her to relieve him of certain duties – the cooking of meals, the cleaning of quarters, and the fetching of water. On the contrary, she is a co-gardener. She carries a hoe and pruning hook of her own. She ends the day as sweat-drenched and dog-tired as he. She shares with him a common purpose for existence.
The preacher, Koheleth, author of Ecclesiastes, understood how wise was God’s act:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. For if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (4:9-10)
It could not be clearer: Two workers are better than one because they can get twice as much done in the same time span. Further, the one can help the other through difficulty. How wise, indeed, was God who gave men and women to each other. He knew that his work would be done better by two human beings than by one. That’s precisely why he made both men and women.
Similarly, the New Testament lays on Christians, both men and women, a common purpose, the awesome task of world evangelization. And there certainly is plenty of work for everyone! People everywhere need the Gospel. Spiritual disrepair threatens to overwhelm the world. Unless tended, its spiritual soil will harden and succumb to weeds of rebellion. And like fallen fruit, human beings may perish before workers reach them. Given that situation, it only makes good sense to use all the workers available. None – male or female – may be sidelined; none may receive restricted duties, extra days off, or lengthy vacations.
Precisely what roles may women play? That is the tough issue today. It must be settled by careful, prayerful study of the Scriptures. The Bible itself certainly offers a variety of models to be followed. Deborah – a woman filled with God’s spirit (Judges 4-5) – exemplifies a woman whom men themselves recognized as gifted by God for leadership. The prophetess Huldah models a woman whom male leaders consult concerning God’s will in crises (2 Kings 22:111-20). Miriam and Priscilla suggest the possibility of a team ministry involving men and women to build up the church (Mic. 6:4; Acts 18:24-28; Rom. 16:3-5). The initiative and cleverness of some modern Ruths and Naomis (Ruth 2-3) would certainly advance God’s work. The church also could use more Esthers, women who use their God-given positions of authority and influence to benefit his people (Est. 4:12-16).
Walking the Road
Christians are headed back to Eden. The destination is both goal and guide. No doubt many hills of disagreement remain to be climbed en route. Hot days of discussion and cool nights of misunderstanding lie ahead. On the other hand, God intends the walk to benefit the pilgrims. That’s why God made (and, in Christ saved) both men and women. En route, Eden reminds Christians of what they share in common. It calls them to listen and learn from each other as brothers and sisters in God’s family. Above all, it challenges them to join hands and get his work done.
One day the long walk will end at the gates of the New Jerusalem. The arms of the potter who shaped men and women long ago in the Garden will embrace them. Among the arrivals will be many touched by the Gospel through them along the way. With a parental smile of approval and pride, God will welcome them all home: “Well done, good and faithful servant!...Enter into the joy of your Lord!” (Mt. 25:21)