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The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership

by Jeff Miller | October 31, 2021
Cover of The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership

Dorothy Lee’s work on ministering women displays exemplary research and is especially well written. It has affirmed and expanded many of my views; it has also challenged me and sparked my thinking. I will return to her work repeatedly. I have, in fact, already added this book to the required reading for an upcoming seminary course.

Lee is a NT professor and Anglican priest in Melbourne, Australia; it is therefore not surprising that her book features both Bible interpretation and concern for congregational ministry. She states her thesis clearly: “This study argues from a New Testament perspective that women should have full access to the church’s ministry” (11).

After a preface and introduction, the book is organized in two parts. The first, and longer, section treats essentially all NT women and texts about women. It gives twice as much attention to the Gospels and Acts (80 pgs. in 4 chs.) than to Paul’s letters (40 pgs. in 2 chs.). Though this inverts the more common ratio,1 it is neither imbalanced, since the Gospels and Acts are more than twice as long as Paul’s thirteen letters, nor surprising, since Lee’s published scholarship has largely been about the Gospels.2

Lee works through the several NT texts in an integrative way—constantly tending to literary contexts, for example—and thus avoids falling prey to a criticism she makes in the book’s preface: “The biblical basis some claim for disqualifying women is a handful of texts, and in asserting this claim, these interpreters blithely ignore the weight of New Testament theology and the basic principles of the gospel” (xi). Lee also safeguards against her own critique by including the book’s second section, which brings history and theology to bear on her interpretation and application.

The Gospels and Acts

Chapter 1 addresses Matthew and Mark together, both because of their similarities and because Lee accepts the dominant theory that Mark is Matthew’s primary source. Though the similarities are extensive, Lee also gives helpful commentary on the differences, especially Matthew’s genealogy and Mark’s abrupt ending. In this chapter we encounter the expected women—Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter’s mother-in-law, Jairus’s daughter, etc. We also read about “antiheroes” and their narrative function, most notably Herodias and her daughter: “These figures contrast with the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman, who displays a deep protective care of her daughter, as does Jairus with his daughter” (25). The chapter conclusion first reflects the book title (The Ministry of Women in the New Testament): “When we take Mark and Matthew together, we are left with a profound impression of the strength and resilience of women’s discipleship” (34). The conclusion then shifts and echoes the subtitle (Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership): “the women disciples . . . gained for other women a ministry that the church is still struggling to embrace” (35).

For at least three reasons, Lee treats the Gospel of Luke separately from Matthew and Mark. First, Luke includes considerably more material about women than the other Synoptics. In addition, it is best to consider Luke and Acts in tandem. And finally, scholarship is not unanimous about whether Luke’s writings, especially Acts, lift up or hold down women.

The discussion of Luke includes sections on women as prophets, suppliants, disciples, and models. Luke’s famous pairings are noted—such as the prophetic words of Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus in ch. 1, and the suppliant centurion and the widow of Nain in ch. 7. Lee gives rather full treatment to the woman who wet Jesus’s feet with tears and perfume/ointment (ch. 7), whom she considers distinct from the woman who anointed his head (Matt 26, Mark 14). Other women who receive significant attention are Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna (8:1–3); the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus’s daughter (8:40–56); Mary and Martha (10:38–42, in my opinion the chapter’s high point); and the women at the cross and tomb. Women who receive minimal attention include the widow who gave two small coins (21:1–4) and the woman who found her lost coin (15:8–10; Lee addresses this parable in the middle of her longer treatment of the anointing woman of ch. 7, thus creating her own intercalation).

Lee is to be commended for taking seriously the question of whether Acts is progressive or traditional in its presentation of women, rather than (as is all too common) simply assuming the truth of one assertion or the other. After surveying Acts, using categories much like those established earlier (prophets, suppliants, antiheroes, etc.), she concludes that Luke’s second volume continues, rather than reverses, his positive emphasis on women. She sees Luke and Acts recording a progressive trajectory that the church has not always, even in its early days, followed.

The chapter on John begins, “The Gospel of John is perhaps the most woman friendly of all the New Testament texts, and its female characters are among the most powerful and encouraging in the New Testament” (95). Lee’s investigation of the women in John serves also as an insightful overview of the book as a whole, for women are often key characters in this tightly woven Gospel. She chooses not to include the accused woman of 7:53–8:11 in her study (a footnote indicates this story is “not part of the Johannine text” [92]). Though this decision would meet with disagreement from some scholars,3 it demonstrates both her attentiveness to textual criticism (cf. pp. 46, 52, 109, 138) and her commitment to investigating each Gospel as a literary whole. Lee concludes with a section on John’s ubiquitous Father/Son language (93–95).

Paul's Letters

Lee treats Paul’s letters in two chapters: “Historical and Thematic Issues” and “Key Texts.” After a fair summary of arguments for and against pseudonymity, she establishes a foundation for understanding the controversial texts. She begins with the ten women of Rom 16, together with others in Paul’s circle (Chloe, Euodia, Syntyche, Nympha, Apphia, Claudia, Lois, Eunice; see the chart on p. 106) and then strengthens this foundation by unveiling both masculine language and female imagery.

Shifting to the key Pauline texts, Lee begins with Gal 3:26–29, which promotes “a fundamental solidarity between all who are in Christ” (115). She then addresses the several challenges of 1 Cor 11:2–16 (though without tackling the elusive “because of the angels” in 11:10b). Concerning “head” (kephalē), she does not consider the meanings “source” and “authority” mutually exclusive. Lee’s conclusion on this text includes affirming that, “Paul in the end is confirming a new order, which is already operative in the authority women have to pray and prophesy in the assembly” (118).

Moving forward in 1 Corinthians, Lee considers 14:34–36 to be from Paul, as opposed to a post-Pauline insertion or a quotation of someone else. Taking cues from the immediate context, she states, “it is not prophetic or prayerful talk that is discouraged . . . but rather conversation or questioning that disrupts the good order of the Spirit’s utterances” (121).

For 1 Tim 2:11–12, Lee examines the key questions and offers this translation: “Let a woman learn in quietness with all submission. But I do not permit a woman to teach with the intention of dominating a man, but she is to go about in quietness” (125). Her conclusions regarding 2:15 again result in a proposed translation: “For Adam first was formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, came into transgression. But she [Eve] will be saved through the Child-bearing, if they [Christian women] abide in faith and love and holiness with wisdom” (128, brackets are original to Lee, as is the capital “C” on “Child-bearing,” referring to the Christ child). She understands “one-woman man/men” in 1 Tim 3:2 and 3:12 as references to marital fidelity expressed in androcentric terms.

Lee ends this chapter on key Pauline texts with a broad-strokes assessment of the household codes in Colossians and Ephesians. She emphasizes that these codes are intended, not to obliterate the household, but to refocus it on Christ and the church. She states, “The submission of wives to husbands is one aspect of the submission enjoined on all Christians to one another (Eph. 5:21)” (131).

The General Letters and Revelation

Chapter 7 tends briefly to certain texts in several of the remaining NT documents. In Hebrews, Lee discusses Sarah, Rahab, and the unnamed women of ch. 11. She considers Priscilla “a serious contender for the role of author” (140). In James, she argues for adelphoi in 3:1 to be translated “brothers and sisters,” not merely “brothers”—hence, “Not many should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.” She establishes a guiding context for 1 Peter’s abbreviated household code: “First Peter is about the church living with a profoundly world-changing identity as a priestly people, while also respecting the current social mores in order to survive oppression and more effectively proclaim the gospel” (143).

Lee considers the “elect lady” of 2 John 1 (see also vv. 5, 13) to be metaphorical, rather than an actual woman. She goes on to discuss the masculine language of the Johannine letters, arguing again for adelphoi to be translated, “brothers and sisters.” She also highlights the feminine imagery in 1 John 3:9: “Everyone born of God [maternal] does not continue in sin, because God’s seed [paternal] abides in them, and they are unable to sin because they are born of God [maternal]” (145, brackets original).

In Revelation, Lee discusses the “whore” of Babylon, the bride of the Lamb, Jezebel of Thyatira, the cosmic woman of ch. 12, and the 144,000 who have “not polluted themselves with women” (14:3–4). Her interpretation and application of these texts is guided by genre, context, and theology—as has been the case throughout.

History and Theology

Two chapters comprise the second, shorter section. The first expands the book’s historical perspective, uncovering early Christian women who have been marginalized—such as Thecla, Irene of Macedonia, Theodora, Perpetua of Carthage, Egeria, Empress Eudocia, Macrina the Younger, and various unnamed women in texts and in art.

The final chapter overtly brings in theology. Lee critiques the notions that an all-male apostleship restricts women from leadership and that Jesus’s own maleness makes women unable to represent him. She then expresses theologies of the virgin birth and of the Trinity.

The book ends with a conclusion and bibliography (which is extensive and worth browsing).

Notes

1. For example, two books influential among complementarians and egalitarians, respectively, each devote 1 ch. to the Gospels and 5 chs. to Paul: John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Crossway, 1991, 2006, 2021); Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (InterVarsity, 2004, 2005; the 3rd ed., edited by Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland, forthcoming in Nov 2021, has 6 chs. on Pauline passages).
2. The bibliography lists 18 of Lee’s publications; most address Gospel themes or texts and none are about Paul.
3. Jaime Clark-Soles, for example, devotes 7 pgs. to this story in Women in the Bible (Westminster John Knox, 2020) 201–7.

Book info
Author:
Publisher:
Baker Academic
Year:
2021
ISBN:
978-1540963086