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Changing the World Through Gentleness and Scholarship

An Interview with Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a prolific author and speaker on the New Testament and is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University (Chicago, Illinois). He is the author of an award-winning blog, Jesus Creed (blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed), and is a highly respected figure in both academic and pastoral circles. He is also a quiet and consistent advocate for biblical mutuality, which he defines as giving women “the freedom to discern what God has called them to do — whatever it might be, including preaching, teaching, and leading in the church” (The Blue Parakeet, p. 161).

I recently sat down with McKnight to discuss his new book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, and to discover how he came to understand biblical mutuality. McKnight was relaxed, patiently answering my questions even though he was about to teach a sold-out, day-long seminar on his book when we finished.

McKnight shared with me that he wrote The Blue Parakeet because he wanted to outline a “third approach to the doctrine of Scripture,” which he defines in the book as a way of reading the Bible “with tradition” — applying God’s Word in our day by going back to the Bible and moving forward through the church (p. 34). McKnight contrasts this approach to other commonly-used methods of Bible interpretation: 1) applying all first-century biblical ideas and practices directly to our lives today, and 2) translating our Christian beliefs into unchangeable traditions which govern our behavior. In the book, McKnight especially highlights the “blue parakeets” (named after the parakeet that he discovered flying freely with wild birds outside) — those biblical passages that challenge our thinking and make us ask how to live out the Bible today. Women in ministry, McKnight said, was the extended example he chose to explain his approach, challenging his readers to set the “blue parakeets” free.

A Gradual and Humble Transition

McKnight’s discussion of women in ministry becomes personal as he recounts his own journey to biblical mutuality in The Blue Parakeet. McKnight is transparent as he describes his regret over not entering into the public debate on women in ministry when he, while employed at an evangelical seminary, was gradually moving from a “traditionalist” position to believing in mutuality between men and women in the church. McKnight credits this realization to discovering that the New Testament “emerged from and therefore was shaped by first century Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, including what it said about women” (p. 149), though he also acknowledges the influence of female biblical scholars like Morna Hooker as well as his own gifted female students.

The power of confession is strong, and, in The Blue Parakeet, McKnight not only confesses that he (and other faculty members at his former seminary) failed their female students by not engaging this issue, but he also confesses to his former female students that he (and they) were wrong to limit women in exercising their gifts in ministry. He then asks for their forgiveness. This aspect of McKnight’s book astonished me, and I thanked him for his humility in openly acknowledging his mistake. With typical modesty, McKnight had no response to my comments about his confession, but did reiterate his belief that “God in Christ has raised women to the level of men — to work together, respecting each other’s distinctives and differences, seeking for harmony and unity.” In other words, McKnight is calling men and women to reconcile with one another.

God’s Story

At its core, The Blue Parakeet is a book about biblical interpretation. McKnight upholds the authority of Scripture, seeing the Bible as God’s story — a story which God tells us so “we can enter into a relationship with him, listen to him, and live out his Word in our day and in our ways” (p. 103). He reminds us that the Bible is a relational story from: 

God’s Trinitarian oneness, to
The Adam, who was one and alone, to
Adam and Eve, who were one and together, to
Adam and Eve and others, who through sin become others, to
Jesus Christ, who was the one God incarnate, to
Becoming one (as in Eden) all over again in Christ, to
The consummation, when we will be one with God and others (p. 160).

It is in knowing this story, listening to God, and being open to the Spirit, that we discern how to live out the gospel and speak that gospel into each cultural setting. We do this by being mastered by the story — by “reading the Bible so deeply that its story becomes our story” (p. 211). “Together as God’s people,” McKnight writes, “we are to so inhabit the Story that we can discern how to live in this world" (p. 212). 

Restoring Creation Conditions

In the book, McKnight discusses the views of hard and soft patriarchy — positions which he believes read the Bible through tradition (rather than with it), and, to one degree or another, are rooted in the fall. With even stronger words, he says, “The church has perpetuated the fall as a permanent condition…by failing to restore creation conditions when it comes to male and female relationships” (p. 165). The church may restore healthy, mutual relationships between women and men, McKnight shared with me, “by serving one another, loving and bringing out the best in each other, [and] denying ourselves for the best of others.” This can occur by “allowing women to preach in public, by males intentionally including women in the significant functions of the church, and by holding up biblical examples of strong females like Huldah, Priscilla, and Junia.” Churches, McKnight concluded, “need to have a series of sermons on great women of the Bible and ask, for example, ‘What kind of image is cast by the book of Esther, which features a woman of significant power’?” 

McKnight also stresses that we should be asking WDWD (What Did Women Do?) in the Bible and allow that they be able to do at least as much today. This would include leading, prophesying, teaching, being apostles, and being mentors of local churches (p. 164). He gives many examples of women leading in the Old Testament, but my favorite example is Deborah, whom McKnight called, “the president, the pope, and Rambo all bundled up in one female body!” In other words, he sees Deborah in Judges 4–5 leading the nation of Israel “spiritually, musically, legally, politically, and militarily…a woman leader of the entire people of God” (p. 168–9). 

McKnight and I also discussed Phoebe, one of the New Testament examples he highlights in The Blue Parakeet, as a minister and the first commentator on the letter to Romans (p. 184). McKnight said it is important for us to understand today that first century women “became the executive leaders of the churches that met in their homes — and there were no signs they asked their husbands for the power to do this.” He believes this evidence is in 1 Peter; that even if their husbands did not believe, “the women opened their homes to become churches [and] converted a normal space into a sacred space; they took what they had and redeemed it for the sake of the gospel.”

Concerning women serving in church ministries today, McKnight believes that we can support whatever God’s Spirit grants women the gifts to do. Through his gentle demeanor and impeccable scholarship, I believe God is using Scot McKnight as a change agent to set women and men free to serve Jesus together in the kingdom of God.

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