Biblical battles tend to reveal the importance of Scripture in church life. We may not like to admit it, but sometimes it is the Bible (and therefore the church) that loses in our biblical battles. The Bible and the church lose when we fail to read the whole Bible on debatable topics, when we fail to read the Bible as connected to a historical and cultural context, or when are simply too lazy or worn down by debates to spend the time necessary to truly think through a subject. Many of us tire of old debates, finding it easier simply to give in to the first person who comes along with a sense of conviction in what they believe. We’ve been there, done that, and we often feel as if we have nothing new to offer.
However, we must acknowledge the existence of these debates. We know that Galatians 3:28 tells us that we are all “one” in Christ and that there is “in Christ” neither male and/or female. In our honest moments, we know 1 Timothy 2:12 reads “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” No matter what we’d like the Bible to say, maintaining honesty leads us to at least some tension between these texts. It is because of texts like these, especially when laid side by side on the table of conversation, that there is debate today.
But I think there is firm ground on which we can stand, and it is ground we might too often abandon in order to carry on the debate surrounding controversial texts.
Women in Ministry vs. Women Ministering
Let me put it this way: there may be a debate about “women in ministry” but there isn’t a debate—or should not be—about “women ministering” in the Bible. The debate about women in ministry concerns ordination, public affirmation, credentials, preaching, and pastoring. Because it concerns these topics, debate often revolves around those texts in the Bible that “appear” to be about the “ordained ministry” of pastoring and preaching. Now I put quotations around “appear” because it is not at all clear just what “ordain” means in the New Testament, since that word is not used for either males or females in ministry. Still, there are some texts – like 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 – that seem to put some clamps down on women in ministry. We must all be committed to studying such biblical texts, but last fall, in preparation for a class called “Women, Mary, and Jesus,” I came to the conclusion that the more we focus on texts like these, the harder it is to see another collection of biblical texts that lead us to think texts like 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy might be far more conditional than what many think.
Paul may have told women to be silent (although the text in 1 Corinthians 14 may not have been in his original manuscript), and he did say something about a restriction of female teachers in Ephesus, but if we read each of these statements in the context of the entire Bible, then we may come to an altogether different conclusion.
Instead of focusing on these “women in ministry” texts, I suggest that we should look again at texts that show “women ministering.” Instead of asking “What should women do in ministry?” we might ask also “What did women do when ministering?”
In my own culture in the United States, different influences are constantly clashing. At the intersection in front of every church in the USA there are collisions. From the West comes “Tradition”, the view that women have almost never been involved in the pastoral ministry. From the South comes the classic view of the “women in ministry” texts, which many think restrict God’s calling for women in the church. From the East comes “Culture”, with its emphasis on rights and equality. But there is also a vehicle from the North, which is larger than most recognize. This vehicle runs quietly, but must be reckoned with, because it animates an effective Christian presence. This vehicle offers evidence of women ministering both in the pages of the Bible and in the history of the Church. The “Women Ministering” vehicle has three rows of seats – in the front seats are the Old Testament triumvirate; in the second row of seats the New Testament triumvirate, and in the third row of seats Mary, mother of Jesus, and Jesus, the “Boundary Breaker.”
These four vehicles often collide in front of the church, creating harmful impacts to the body of Christ.
I’d like to suggest we need some new traffic control. Each of the four vehicles needs to be able to arrive in the church’s parking lot, and each vehicle has members of the church that deserve to be worshiping together. However, I think it is very possible that the vehicle from the North might bring the word of peace we all need.
The Vehicle from the North
In the vehicle from the North are three groups of riders. In the front row, the Old Testament triumvirate, are Miriam, Deborah and Huldah, three great examples of women ministering. What we need to look at is what they did. And they clearly ministered to the nation of Israel. Miriam was a prophet who offered what has to be considered one of the most potent interpretations of what God did at the Exodus (Exodus 15:20-21). Deborah was judge of Israel (Judges 4-5). And Huldah also served as a prophet (2 Kings 22:14).
In the second row we find the New Testament triumvirate: Priscilla, Junia and Phoebe. Priscilla was a teacher of the gospel, a “co-worker” of Paul —this is a virtual title for a distinct group of apostolic ministers of the gospel —and a leader of the church (Acts 18:18-19, 26; Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). Junia, and this is now a consensus among scholars, was an “apostle” (Rom.16:7). We might try to minimize the word “apostle” to “missionary,” but we do so only out of prejudice. And Phoebe is called a “deacon” (not “deaconess”) and an epistatis, which might mean “benefactor” or “president” (Rom. 16:1-2).
In the third row sit Jesus and Mary. Jesus has an abundance of things to say about including women in his ministry, and we need look no further than Luke 8:1-3 to realize their significance for Jesus’ ministry. Because as Protestants we are often so biased against Mary, we have failed even to look at what Mary did to see that she exercised more than a little influence in the earliest Jerusalem church. (I have written about Mary’s life in The Real Mary.)
Are We Truly Biblical?
When we ask the question of women in ministry, the debate almost immediately gravitates to traditional “women in ministry” texts. But I’d like us to ask another question—one both more biblical and more answerable: Do women do in your church what Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Junia, and Phoebe did? Do they do what Mary did? Do they do what Jesus encouraged women to do?
These are the questions that we need to ask one more time.
Once we look at these texts, texts that are often neglected and which frame the teachings of the apostle Paul, and which in many ways show what can be said and what can’t be said about in the meaning of 1 Timothy 2, we will have a more complete view of what we need to consider when we think both about “women in ministry” as well as “women ministering.”