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If one were seeking nominations for a leadership position, Mary of Bethany, as judged by human criteria for leadership, would not likely be a person to get the nod. Faced with the death of her brother in John 11, she appears to be overcome by nearly catatonic sorrow. Upon approaching Jesus, she falls at his feet and mouths words identical to those with which her sister had greeted him moments before: “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). Her more vocal sister is the one who takes command of the situation; Martha anticipates Jesus’ entry into the village and approaches him without waiting to be called. In the face of tragedy, she maintains the necessary composure to engage in a theological discussion that eventually results in Jesus’ “I am” statement. Martha’s confession is held up as the equivalent of Peter’s confession in the Synoptics and John’s purpose statement in 20:31. Likewise, in Luke 10:38–42, according to the traditional interpretation, no words come from Mary, apparently setting a positive example by her actions alone. Martha aggressively pursues Jesus for a solution to her sister’s absence and asks Jesus to intervene. Readers of both gospels may conflate the characterization of the sisters as they are portrayed in each book. If Martha is the outgoing and vocal sister in Luke, then that is the expected personality in John, and because Mary is visualized as silent in Luke, sitting passively at Jesus’ feet, she is characterized as the more devout of the two in John.1 If a reader is looking for a leader by drawing upon both Luke and John, again one can safely assume it would be Martha. Yet, Jesus twice commends Mary’s behavior (Luke 10:42; John 12:7). Consistently over many centuries of Christian interpretation, Mary is repeatedly held up as the sister to be emulated. What kind of example is Jesus extolling for women? Could it be possible that “silent leadership”—by actions only, but otherwise without voice or opinion—is the illustration of leadership that Jesus recommends for women and the best use of their gifts? After reading many commentaries, devotions, and sermons on Luke 10:38–42, I am particularly discomforted by conclusions that set the sisters against each other with the eventual “good and bad” result. The lesson taught is invariably, “Be more like Mary and less like Martha.” One woman is raised up at the expense of the other. These results are then inevitably carried over into the sisters’ appearance in John 11, but are rarely examined in the haste to get to the miraculous sign: the raising of Lazarus. The story seems to be about the male characters, with the sisters’ roles barely noticed, unless it is to point out again, “Mary got it right.” Many such dissonances launched a journey that resulted in my writing on the identity of Mary of Bethany. I started my research with particular interest in uncovering any additional information about who she was and her behavior that Jesus actually commended. This topic was narrowed down to study specifically her narrative function through the lens of narrative criticism. My journey to uncover the mystery of Mary led to the discovery of two leaders, both approved and promoted by Jesus. Can leadership be found in surprising places, in unlikely humans (female), hidden in the shadow of a more momentous event? I will pursue the premise that Jesus commissioned both sisters to demonstrate equally valid and essential leadership to make the result of his final sign most effective. The sisters together are ministering to different “flocks,” demonstrating “good and good.” Together, they make access to Jesus’ greatest statements of his identity available to the maximum possible number of followers. To begin, if we strip away the “sister versus sister” preconception brought by earlier interpreters to the study of both Luke and John, whole new lessons begin to emerge. There are several subtle hints in John’s text of more taking place in their individual interactions with Jesus than was immediately apparent. The main tool I am applying to the text is narrative criticism, also known as literary criticism, which focuses on a close reading of the surface structure of a text. R. Alan Culpepper notes that narrative criticism is an inductive method where the interpreter works from observation of the text being studied.2 This criticism was adapted to the study of biblical texts from the secular study of literature. Narrative criticism addresses the literary devices used by the author to create the desired effect on the reader.3 The critic looks at the unified text in its final form and reads holistically.4 Of particular interest in this narrative are plot, timing, movement, theme, motifs, repetition, and development of characters.   Read more
People sometimes write us to ask where they can find evidence that actual women held official positions of church officership. Professor Greg Horsley of Macquarie University, Australia, has kindly supplied us with the following partial list of references to  women in church leadership. Although we do not usually follow this practice, in this instance we are supplying the bibliographic citations so that our readers may check the material for themselves if they so desire. Read more
There are many great blacks who have influenced our spiritual heritage. We find them both in and out of the Bible. We should like to tell you the story of the priest’s family who took in Moses in his hour of desperation. We know that there are some problems, some different names given in the texts, but our purpose is to nourish our souls rather than to look for difficulties. Let us rather see the story with the eyes of faith. First Corinthians 10:1-11 tells us that the adventures of the children of Israel in the wilderness happened as spiritual examples for us. Certainly the family about which we are talking had much for all of us to emulate. Read more
No synoptic gospel mentions more about females than Luke. Alfred Plummer referred to Luke’s gospel as the “Gospel of Women.”1 Half of Luke’s gospel is found nowhere in Matthew and Mark, and this includes some accounts and insight about Jesus’s interactions with women. Read more
The woman taught once, and ruined all. – John Chrysostom1 First Timothy 2:9–15 is a difficult passage to interpret, and there are many opinions about appropriate meanings and applications. In the middle of the passage, however, is one verse that has been referenced throughout the history of the church as a clear mandate to restrict women from teaching, leading, or even speaking during worship gatherings: Read more
A basic tenet in the hermeneutics of theology is to build a doctrine upon the clearer, or less disputed, passages and then interpret the more difficult passages in light of the clearer passages.1 However, in gender studies, the ground is often first broken in the rough terrain of 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, or with the household codes of Ephesians 5–6, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 2–3. This study will examine three passages involving women in Mark’s gospel—in Mark 3, 5, and 14—all of which are undisputed in terms of significant lexicography, grammar, or relevant gender theology. As clearer passages, they form part of a greater foundation to the theology of gender studies. Read more
A popular question has been posed for a while now in contemporary American society: “What would Jesus do?” The theology behind the question suggests that, perhaps, in the absence of explicit teaching, or as further explanation thereof, if one were to discern how Jesus reacts or handles a situation, because of the utter consistency of Jesus’s character and mission, one might find instruction for how to do likewise in one’s own life. It is based on the simple call and invitation that Jesus gives to his disciples: “Follow me” (e.g., Matt 4:19; Mark 2:14; Luke 9:59; John 1:43). Jesus proclaims good news: the kingdom of God is at hand. And, with that, a new world order is established. Those who follow him are called to demonstrate and embody the values, tenets, and principles of the kingdom. His followers often represent those who, transformed by the healing and restorative ministry of Jesus, then choose to commit their own lives to faithful service of Jesus Christ. These followers are also known as disciples. They not only learn the teachings of Jesus, but also fully embrace his teachings by applying them in their daily walk. Read more
The unilateral authority of males is evident in shaping nearly every culture throughout history. Further, when patriarchy is framed as a biblical ideal, it is not only at odds with the teachings of Scripture and the purposes of God’s covenant people, it also becomes a deadly spiritual disease that chokes life all around it. As Jesus said, if the fruit is bad, the tree also is bad (Matt 7:17–20). This is not to say that gifted men should not exercise authority, but, at the same time, they should affirm the gifts and authority that God grants women as well, working mutually to lead and serve the church and the world. As a balance, it was thrilling to see three women receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for their courageous activism in advancing democracy and justice for women. Three days later, a blog appeared by CBE member Jenny Rae Armstrong, who wrote: I haven’t stopped grinning since I heard the news about the Nobel Peace Prize recipients. You see, it was in Liberia that I first witnessed the true ugliness of gender injustice, first understood that a tiny seed of pride and superiority dropped into the heart of a man would blossom not into a sheltering tree but into an ugly, invasive weed that choked...life...around it. Read more
Quick Bible quiz: Name one African person in the Bible. Did you mention Hagar, Simon of Cyrene or Apollos of Alexandria? What about the Ethiopian eunuch, or Queen Candace? If none of these characters came to mind, perhaps it’s due to a lack of understanding of the cultural and ethnic forces at work in the Bible. Understanding these forces can bring new light to familiar passages. For example, even though the word “Africa” is not mentioned in the Bible, the word “Cush” is, which scholars think refers to Ethiopia or to Africa as a whole. Countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya are also mentioned. While they might not correspond exactly to the countries on a 21st century map, they do refer to places in Africa. Read more
I heard a preacher recently declare, “Don’t let the facts blind you to the truth.” Can facts overshadow truth? Consider the Cross. Imagine how the disciples must have felt as they watched Jesus die on that hill. Though the Romans nailed Jesus to the tree, though his corpse was bound and sealed in a cave, within a few days these facts were swallowed by the truth — that Jesus, the Lord of the universe was alive, as he had promised. Read more

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