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Teach us, Mary

The Authority of Women Teachers in the Church in Light of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55)1

Several years ago, when my family had moved to a new city, we contacted a nearby church that had been recommended to us and we inquired about their stance on women in leadership. The pastor wrote this in reply:

As far as our position on women is concerned we take the view of Genesis 2 that man and woman are equal in status but different in role. Our own position is that it is inappropriate for women to preach to a mixed congregation since in 1 Timothy 2 Paul expressly forbids that. That having been said we have a very high view of women’s ministry, so women are involved in a whole range of different ministry opportunities including teaching children, teaching in the youth group ministries, helping in student ministries, and helping in many other ways. We have a number of women on the staff team who are engaged in these various ministries, though none of them are asked to preach, since we feel it is biblically inappropriate for a woman to address and teach adult men.

This is a relatively standard stance among many hierarchical churches and it is clear that congregations such as these promote women in leadership, but stop short when it comes to the area of preaching and authoritative teaching over adult men. The pastor above noted 1 Tim 2, and it merits citing the relevant paragraph here: “A women should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim 2:11–15 NIV).

To many Christians, the implications of this text seem self-evident, as they apparently were to this pastor.2 Most hierarchicalists point to the importance of an argument from creation, especially the priority of Adam, but few are willing to go as far as to say that women are, according to nature, more deceivable or gullible than men.3 Rather, many scholars note that the problem is one of neglecting the home and duties regarding the care of children.4 Thus, the majority of hierarchicalists make their case, not primarily on the basis of capability (is a woman capable of teaching men?), but on the basis of so called God-given roles and the natural man-woman relationship of male headship and female submission.5

Nevertheless, it is difficult for hierarchicalists to avoid making gender-difference generalizations, though many are appropriately sensitive to the problem of misogyny. Daniel Doriani urges that men and women have different “interests.”6 Thomas Schreiner speaks of “inclinations,” including the possibility that “Women are less likely to perceive the need to take a stand on doctrinal non-negotiables since they prize harmonious relationships more than men do.”7 More idiosyncratic is the view of John Piper that women can write biblical scholarship for men to read but cannot preach in the church, because the former is indirect and impersonal.8 When a man sees a woman face-to-face, he might become distracted by her femininity, so Piper argues.9 Perhaps his most important argument is that a woman can teach a man, but she ought not to be in a position of authority over him to teach in the areas of doctrine and faith.

A main tenet, then, of how hierarchicalists think about women teachers is that women must not serve as an authoritative theological teaching voice over men in the church. In this article, I wish to challenge this perspective, but not by re-hashing the possible interpretations of 1 Tim 2:11–15. There are already a number of exegetical interpretations of this passage that do not lead to the barring of authoritative women teachers in the church.10 Rather, I wish to explore a different approach: what do we do with the instructional teaching voices of women in scripture, but also specifically as scripture?11 I am not here interested, for example, in looking at someone like Priscilla as a teacher of a man. Rather, I am concerned here with the very fact that female words are inscripturated and, thus, become authoritative teaching voices by virtue of the canon itself. The test-case I want to consider is Mary’s famous Magnificat in Luke 1:46b–55 (NRSV):

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Let us begin with the premise that scripture is the ultimate authority for the people of God.12 Would it not be true that the female Mary becomes an authoritative teacher by virtue of her testimony being canonized, proclaimed as inspired truth in the Third Gospel? Would not this phenomenon, all by itself, justify female preaching in the church? No doubt detractors would have immediate objections, a few of which we will now consider.

Objection #1: Luke is the canonical author, not Mary, so the “voice” is Luke’s.

One objection to my appeal to Mary is that the Magnificat is part of Luke’s gospel and, thus, it is the voice of Luke, not Mary, which is authoritative. This matter can become complicated, especially when it comes to tracing the nature of the authority of a narrative,13 but certainly in the case of the gospels particular characters themselves are especially important. In the case of Mary, Luke famously highlights the faithfulness of Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna the Prophetess in his opening chapters; these characters are treated as noble figures for his narrative concerns.14

The implications of Mary’s role in the gospel of Luke are striking when this narrative is carefully considered. Note the interpretation of F. Scott Spencer:

From her own experience and reflection, Mary reaches a stunning theological conclusion: through the “Son of the Most High” she will bear, the Savior God will “lift up,” not merely “look upon,” all who are lowly like her and, indeed, topple the whole high/low hierarchy. The new era of God’s “uplifting” reign is dawning with Mary arising as its first exemplar, prophet, and theologian. In full voice, there is no keeping Mary down; the lowly slave girl has busted through the ceiling and opened the way for other lowly ones, female and male, to rise with her to positions of robust health and honor in God’s just and merciful realm. Of course, all these lifted ones will continue to serve as God’s subjects, but they will do so in freedom and gratitude as servant partners of the “Most High” deity and not as slaves to any earthly masters.15

Spencer makes a number of bold, though I think appropriate, claims about how Mary functions in this gospel: “Mary’s Magnificat functions as a paradigmatic agenda of Jesus’ messianic ministry throughout Luke’s Gospel. As such, this young virgin and village girl of twelve, let us say, demonstrates remarkable vision, insight, boldness—and yes, agency—to proclaim the reordering of society under God’s rule.”16

Furthermore, undoubtedly in the early church, discussions of particular texts in the gospels tended to treat the words of characters as the words of the actual historical figures, and it was never explicitly stated in patristic material that the Magnificat is prosopopoeia17 (speech in character), or something to that effect. Rather, Ephrem the Syrian, Origen, Bede, Cyril of Alexandria, and others presume that Mary was responsible for this hymn of praise.18 Furthermore, even if this were an example of prosopopoeia, we would still have to reckon with the fact that the gospel writer, and the early church, put such important words into the mouth of a woman for all to hear and learn. For all intents and purposes, the tradition of the Church has held that the Magnificat is the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Objection #2: The Magnificat is a testimony or hymn; it does not teach doctrine.

The Bible does not sharply define preaching or teaching, so there is some artificiality to the limits of our modern definitions. Secondly and more importantly, given how Luke shapes his narrative, many Lukan scholars agree that this happens to be one of the most important passages in the Third Gospel since it prefigures what the good news will do in the world through the ministry of Jesus, the work of the apostles (in Acts), and beyond. Mary serves, in this first chapter, as a “narrator unaware” as she foreshadows events that will unfold in the gospel, interpreting the work of God through Jesus for readers with ears to hear (while so many other characters in the story are left in the dark). John Carroll captures the nature and significance of Mary’s Song:

In a song of praise that begins with Mary’s personal circumstance and then broadens to encompass the whole people, she gives voice to the hopes of Israel. Soon Zechariah and a devout man named Simeon will join the chorus (1:68–79; 2:29–32). Drawing language from Jewish Scripture, Mary celebrates the power and faithfulness of God, who has brought help to Israel, fulfilling ancient promises. With her own experience as inspiration, and employing bold images reminiscent of Hannah’s prayer at the presentation of Samuel (1 Sam 2:1–10), Mary pictures divine deliverance as a dramatic reversal of power and fortune. It is a hymn of praise to God, whose ways challenge and subvert the way things are in the world. It is about God, who keeps promises and cares for the lowly and powerless. Singing her faith in God, Mary models authentic response to divine initiative: joyful praise and bold proclamation.19

The objection could be raised that Mary teaches nothing unique or special, and thus there is little at stake if she, as a woman, is in error. Such an objection, though, would underestimate the significance of what Mary says in this speech. Mary neither gives mere personal testimony (about what God has done for her), nor does she simply state obvious facts. She serves in the role of joyful and masterful interpreter of God’s actions past, present, and future. Notice, she does not say “I think” or “I believe.” While she is obviously not standing in front of a congregation with a lectern, she is certainly making bold claims about what is true about God and how God interacts with the world.20

Objection #3: This is an incidental and occasional example and has no bearing on the women teaching-in-leadership issue; women (like Mary) can sing for the edification of the body, but that is different from authoritative teaching.

In the well-known volume entitled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem address the question regarding the allowance of women to write hymns. In accordance with Eph 5:18–19, Piper and Grudem state that women ought to build up, encourage, and even instruct other members of the community, including men, through testimony and song. Their wider concern is about permanency and authority: “The issue for us is whether she should function as part of the primary teaching leadership (=eldership) in a fellowship of women and men.”21 They also allow for “occasional” and “periodic” lectures from women (which would be distinct from official, ecclesial teaching of scripture).22 The importance for them is that the teaching is ad hoc and non-authoritative; it is not the teaching of a shepherd, but more of the counsel of a consultant, though this too may come from the workings of God in their view.23

It is true that Mary was not one of the Twelve, but my concern is the canonization of her words, and what that means for the permanency and authority of her canonical voice.24 One way we can reflect on the canonical meaningfulness of the Magnificat is to consider what happens when Luke 1:46b–55 is used in the advent readings of the lectionary (e.g., Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Fourth Sunday of Advent). In a hierarchical church where no women preachers are allowed, what happens on such a Sunday? How is it possible that the male pastor who says, God has simply not seen fit to allow women to exercise teaching authority over men in the church, must sit down in his pastoral study on this particular week and spend hours upon hours poring over the words of young Mary that also happen to be the life-changing, world-shattering, church-guiding Word of God? What happens when, at that same church, the people of God stand to hear the reading of scripture, to hear the Spirit of God move among the people as Mary’s soul, once again, magnifies the Lord with an echo that rings through millions of chapels and sanctuaries each year? How could the supposed non-authoritative female-genderization of this text not be deconstructed as the Word of Christ dwells richly among the people of God? One wonders if anyone has ever walked out on the reading of scripture on the Fourth Sunday of Advent!

Conclusion

In the study of female authority and church leadership in scripture, much attention has been paid to the arguments in scripture, but much less has been made of the voices in scripture. Though women are rarely noted as narrators, letter-authors, or speaking characters in scripture, the very fact of such a singular, pronounced, profound text like the Magnificat stirs the imagination to consider how she speaks eternally “the Word of God for the people of God.” Luke 1:46b–55 cannot either be “occasional” or “periodic,” to borrow language from Piper and Grudem, for those who love and meditate on God’s Holy Word. So I, as one who is committed to recognize the ultimate authority of scripture, am faithful enough to say “Teach us, Mary,” we are listening.

Notes

  1. This essay is dedicated to the memory of CBE founder Catherine Clark Kroeger who passed away on Feb 14, 2011. I had the honor of serving as her research assistant at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and I am appreciative of how she modeled love for the triune God, love for neighbor, and commitment to scripture.
  2. E.g., The Köstenbergers note how this passage is clear, but has become controversial largely because of shifts in culture; “Let’s remember that a study on a topic such as ours can hardly be neutral. It takes place in a cultural environment that has a profound impact on discussions in the church. This may explain why a passage that seems fairly innocuous at the outset has become the bone of considerable contention in recent years.” Andreas Köstenberger and Margaret Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 196.
  3. Consider the comment of Mark Driscoll: “Without blushing, Paul is simply stating that when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men.” On Church Leadership (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 43.
  4. Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin are quite clear, for example, that women should not teach men, but they are adamant that this has nothing to do with incompetence; see T. D. Lea and H. P. Griffin Jr., 1–2 Timothy, Titus (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 100. Dorothy Patterson offers her personal interpretation of how a woman should view her circles of responsibilities: “The first priority for me, beyond consistently nurturing my personal relationship with Christ, is the responsibility to help my husband, followed closely by the task of nurturing my children (and now enriching the lives of my grandchildren), then my personal ministries to our extended family, and finally, beyond my home, the challenging ministry to other women that come to me in the course of ministry with my husband on the seminary campus. Along the way, I have had some ‘Priscilla’ ministries even to godly men, who on a personal level have sought my counsel. I am humbly grateful if in those cases the Lord can speak through me. However, whether I have five women or fifty women or a thousand women who want to sit under my teaching, the point is that the biblical mandate is for woman-to-woman teaching.” Dorothy K. Patterson, “What Should a Woman Do in the Church? One Woman’s Personal Reflections,” in Women in the Church (ed. A. Köstenberger, T. R. Schreiner, and H. S. Baldwin; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 155.
  5. Again, note Patterson’s frequent appeal to language related to “boundaries” and “roles”; see “What Should a Woman Do in the Church?” 149–74, passim.
  6. Daniel Doriani, Women and Ministry: What the Bible Teaches (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 173; also, “perhaps God has etched traces of his plan of male leadership into human nature so that men tend to seek leadership in the home and the church and women look for godly male leaders. God’s decrees rest upon his will, not male superiority. Nonetheless, he can press reflections of his will into the fabric of human nature” (173).
  7. Thomas Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church (ed. A. Köstenberger, T. R. Schreiner, and H. S. Baldwin; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995): 145–46. It bears noting that this section was apparently eliminated in the newer edition of this book. I found this citation (in reference to the 1995 version) in Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 71–72.
  8. This information is found in a podcast where Piper responds to the question, “Do You Use Bible Commentaries Written by Women?” (cited March 12, 2015). Online: http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-writ....
  9. See the critical comments of Rachel Pietka, “Hey John Piper, Is My Femininity Showing?” Christianity Today (April 26, 2013) (cited March 12, 2015). Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/april/hey-john-piper-is-my-f....
  10. See the important discussion by Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 175–76; also Aída Besançon Spencer, 1 Timothy (NCCS; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 61–67. Henry Scott Baldwin makes the case for a “positive” meaning of authenteō in 1 Tim 2:12, thus meaning that women ought not to have authority over a man, but Philip B. Payne has written extensively on flaws in the semantico-lexical study of this word by Baldwin and others. Baldwin, “An Important Word: Authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church (ed. A. Köstenberger, T. R. Schreiner, and H. S. Baldwin; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 39–52; Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 361–98.
  11. The approach I am taking here presumes that the words of scripture themselves are important, even inspired. Stanley Grenz offers a careful explanation of how one can claim “verbal inspiration” of scripture without it seeming mechanical: “Rather than asserting that God dictated every word, we ought to understand verbal inspiration as only claiming that the Spirit superintended the process of word selection and word order to the extent that they are capable of communicating the intended meaning of the text. Insofar as words and syntax are the primary carriers of meaning, the concept of verbal inspiration emphasizes divine involvement in the writing of scripture so that the words employed in the documents convey God’s intended message”; see Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1994), 398; cf. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
  12. Again, see Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 397–404.
  13. See Gordon Wenham’s important work on narrative ethics: Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically (London: T & T Clark, 2000).
  14. “While many have debated whether such a young girl, who, unlike her male counterparts, would not have received the benefits of education in the Torah, was capable of such an exquisitely composed hymn, Luke’s Gospel unashamedly attributes it to her”; Derek Tidball and Dianne Tidball, The Message of Women (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012), 154. As far as Luke’s influences in his writing of this passage, Phyllis Trible notes the remarkable similarities between Mary’s Song and Miriam’s Song; see Trible et al., “Eve and Miriam,” in Feminist Approaches to the Bible (Washington D. C.: Biblical Archaeological Society, 1995), 22–23.
  15. F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 79–80.
  16. Spencer, Salty Wives, 80. Kenneth Bailey comes to a similar conclusion, remarking that Mary must be viewed as a teacher par excellence of the readers of Luke’s Gospel; see Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Anvil 11 (1994): 9.
  17. Prosopopoeia is a literary device where an author provides the words of a speech and places them on the lips of a character. On the subject of prosopopoeia in ancient literature see Hans-Josef Klauck, Ancient Letters and the New Testament (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006), 178.
  18. See Arthur A. Just Jr., Luke (ACCS 3; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 23–27.
  19. John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (NLT; Louisville: 2012), 47; cf. J. B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 97–102; R. C. Tannehill: “The Magnificat is a remarkable theological statement…. It has a key role in the narrative because it is the initial characterization of that hidden character [God] who is most powerfully shaping the whole series of events. The Lukan audience is to understand these events as the work of this kind of God, one who is mighty, but who uses that might in mercy toward the weak, one who is revolutionary in upsetting human ranks but conservative in keeping ancient promises. This God is not the placid ruler who maintains social order but the overruler of human power and plans. This understanding of God will have a deep effect on the Lukan interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf., e.g., Acts 2:23–24, 36)” (Luke [ANTC; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 57). Cf. also John V. Grier Koontz, “Mary’s Magnificat,” BSac 116, no. 464 (1959): 339.
  20. In the words of Derek and Dianne Tidball: “The song is . . . noteworthy for its radical teaching . . . [It] . . . has radical intensity about it which is shocking, but totally consistent with the portrait of the God of righteousness who was at the heart of the covenant with Israel. The song has a spiritual intensity about it which is awesome, but one whose social and political implications cannot be sidestepped. This vulnerable girl shows a depth of understanding about God and of faith in him that is astonishing”; The Message of Women, 154.
  21. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 77.
  22. They give the example of permitting women to teach at Urbana Missions Conferences; Manhood and Womanhood, 77.
  23. In respect to the power of singing and hymnody in the first century, though, note Clinton Arnold’s comment in the ESV Study Bible notes on Col 3:16, “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is one means of teaching and admonishing. Corporate worship has a teaching function through the lyrics of its song. This was particularly important in the oral culture of Paul’s day” (2299).
  24. Interestingly, though, on the subject of the reception of Luke-Acts and the role of Mary, art historians and biblical scholars have noted the attention artists throughout time have given to placing Mary, not only at Pentecost, but even at the center of the events. So, “El Greco correctly interpreted the mind of Luke, his fellow artist, when he painted Mary in the center of his Pentecost canvas. Mary is at the head of that band of female and male believers (Acts 1:14), who wait for the promised Holy Spirit”; Paul Achtemeier et al., Invitation to the Gospels (Mahweh: Paulist, 2002), 225–26; see also H. J. Hornik and M. C. Parsons, “Philological and Performative Perspectives on Pentecost,” in Reading Acts Today (ed. Steve Walton et al.; London: T & T Clark, 2011), 137–53.

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