Exploring the role of women in missional churches of the western world...


I’ve spent the last week reflecting on the subject of women and church, it seems every where I turn recently I have come across something or someone that makes me stop and think a little bit more about the subject. Whether it was in some of the brilliant conversations that arose after my post on where have all the good men gone? or in conversations such as here, here, or even here.

It is clear from reading these comments that this is an emotive subject: women telling of their different reactions to them leading and teaching; in some cases the struggle with the call to lead and reconciling that with the teaching they have grown with that they are not too; the frustrations, the pain, and indeed the hope and postive experiences as well… Men'd reaction feeling similar to the womens's i.e. confused, worried, wondering what is permissable to be culturally relevant but still biblical.

A generously inclusive but diverse conversation? I would like us all to contribute to this conversation and I have some overall questions to consider before we go diving in... Can we explore this subject together in a loving, caring, respectful, safe and generous way? Can we look at the context and culture of the western world, at least, and explore together a missional biblical based narrative view of the role of men and women in the (emerging) church? And even after seeking together what if we decide to disagree, can we do so in a loving, positive way that builds each other up rather than tearing each other down? I ask these questions as I need to base my thinking on more than an emotional gut feeling, on more than trying to avoid confusing emotional charges of cultural accommodation, or more than teachings that I learnt as a boy. But I acknowledge I also need help in my thinking, that I don’t have many of the answers and I welcome the opportunity to learn together from our diverse perspectives.

Jesus: the example of how women should be treated I think one helpful aspect of the conversations on the subject of the role of women in church has been the way it has taken me back to reading the bible and looking at how radically Jesus treated women compared to what was typical of the culture of his day. I have not come

across any examples of him demeaning a woman, of treating her as if she had less intelligence or was inferior in any way becasue of her gender. Nor do I see Jesus going out of his way to avoid women, of ignoring them, keeping them at arms length or not listening to them.

It is fascinating to remember that Jesus was a Rabbi, a teacher, at a time where the bulk of his contemporaries taught that women were not equal to men, instead that they were inferior. Most considered that teaching women the Torah was a sin and certainly everyone agreed that they should not be educated, which was an exclusive male domain. Women were praised by Rabbi's for their domestic responsibilities, for being good mothers and wives although often Rabbi's balanced this praise out by condemned woman for being female, more likely to bring lust out in men, turn to witchcraft and unlike the NT which attributes sin to Adam, Rabbi’s attributed sin to Eve and that women were more likely to bring sin into a community.

Now with that context I am struck by how radically different Jesus was in his treatment of women, for example, with Mary in this story which Luke records. Mary was listening to Jesus, the rabbi, teach Torah, not only listening but sat at his feet like the other disciples (again something many contemporary rabbi's regarded as a sin). When Martha came and complained that she was being left to sort out the domestic chores herself Jesus acknowledged her concern but rather than sending Mary off to help, he radically told Martha that Mary had made the better choice, deliberately undermining all the teaching of his day. We loose the shock value of this as, largely, in our culture when we come to this issue no one has a problem with a woman listening to a teacher, especially since its Jesus, of course that was more important than dinner being late.

But what about the more problematic subject of women doing more than listening, what about women teaching and leading men? In forming these thoughts I have found the book “who is my enemy” by Rich Nathan to be very helpful both on this subject and feminism more generally.

A clear bible teaching on women not teaching and leading men?

One of the most significant passages too look at in an attempt to try and form a missional view of the role of women is in this instruction given by Paul in his letter to Timothy .

The first question that I have to ask is how plain is the meaning of Paul’s statement “I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.” The question is sadly not that easy too answer and there are a number of fundament angles to be considered in terms of what Paul meant in that context about Timothy’s church and indeed how the text should then be applied today.

1. What is the plain meaning? The first challenge is whether we are clear of exactly what this passage is saying as the translation of many words in the passage is hotly debated subject. For example the phrase “have authority over” is one possible translation of the Greek word authentein. Unfortunately this words is not used anywhere else in the NT and scholars have variously translated to mean ‘any exercise of authority’ whilst others argue it should be translated as a prohibition of a ‘domineering form’of authority. We don’t have enough information due to the lack of usage of the word in the NT to state what Paul conclusively meant when he used it.

You won’t be surprised to find that there is disagreement over the translation of the word “quietly” as well – some people translate it as complete silence, others as degrees of quiet and some think it’s a bad translation of the Greek hesychia and instead it means learning with a quiet spirit or in a respectful manner.

And finally no one agrees on what verse 15 means about woman being saved via childbirth, with interpretations that refer to Christ being born of a woman, or a belief at the time that women were more susceptible to demonic attack during childbirth so this was a word of comfort or that women should fulfil a role of being a mother.

2. Is this a universal application or a cultural one? The second challenge is whether this text is a universal prohibition on women teaching and leading men or is it specific advice that Paul is giving in a particular time to address a particular context? This passage in Timothy is the only teaching that explicitly restricts women from leading and teaching men in the church. Although unsurprisingly given the culture of the day there are few examples of women leading and teaching, however it is not just Jesus in the gospel who is radical in his treatment of women, the rest of the New Testament follows this enabling theme as well, for example:

 Women equally have the gift of the Holy Spirit and are called to prophesy  Women work alongside Paul: e.g. Priscilla (who’s name comes first in a break of the convention of the time of having the husband’s names first and therefore was more likely to be the more significant of the two) teaches men in Acts 18 and is called a "fellow worker" by Paul  Junia is classed as an apostle and indeed in Romans 16 women are commended nearly twice as much as men; and  Euodia and Syntyche were apparently labourers with Paul for the gospel  Women exercised leadership in some of Paul’s churches e.g hosting a church or being deaconesses  It is hard to support a universal ban on women teaching and leading when considered with other Pauline enabling texts such as Galatians 3:28

As was the case with Jesus, such treatment and praise of women by Paul is nothing short of revolutionary for the context of the first century, what ever conclusions about the role of women we choose to draw from these texts.

We as Christians do interpret the bible with our culture in mind, for example, I have never been kissed by another man in church despite it being commanded 5 times in the new testament. Why not? am I that unattractive? have terrible morning breath? too much stubble? Or is it because it is not considered appropriate in English culture for men to greet like that? Or another example Paul commands women to have their heads covered and not to have short hair, now some churches still insist on this but there are not many, although it is clear to Paul that it was a non-negotiable in all his churches. Why do most churches think it is now acceptable for women to have their hair uncovered – because this command relates to specific cultural circumstances, today those circumstances are different so that few people in our western culture feel offended if a woman’s hair is on display or if she wears it short.

We of course have the advantage of having the New Testament collated in one place, it is therefore easier to highlight other examples of where woman exercised leadership or teaching and contrast that with texts where this is limited or prohibited. We have to be more aware of context as christians in the NT did not have such a cannon of scripture to refer to, they had letters written to them to address particular church issues in a particular time and context which they all understood. Some of these letters contain principles which apply across all time and some of which were made for that particular place and time. Even when we have a principle that we think is applicable to culture today we need to think about the application of that and whether the spirit of it can be applied - e.g, a friendly warm greeting amongst believers rather than the particular practice of a kiss amongst men.

Drawing some conclusions On balance, given the lack of clarity in the exact meaning of the translation of the text and the enabling tone of the NT of what women can do, I think Paul was making a local prohibition on women teaching and leading men. This might well have been to encourage women to learn first before they were in a position to teach - in other words a permissive text for them to be taught (cf Jesus encouraging Mary as an equal to his male disciples). Or in keeping with Paul's overall thrust of 1 and 2 Timothy to combat false teaching which was being spread, particularly, amongst the women who knew less then the men and were therefore more vulnerable.

I therefore read it that women can teach and lead men; it was not a moral command that Paul was making but a culturally based one. If it was a moral one i.e. sinful then God who is sinless would never contradict himself by appointing women like Deborah to be a judge and senior leader of the nation or Huldah, a prophetess who provided leadership during the divided monarchy.

These are my conclusions, but what do you think? Please push back at me if you think I am missing something or have something that you feel really strikes you?

A growing maturity: putting the gospel ahead of my rights? For Paul the promotion of the gospel seems to me to be paramount, i.e. nothing should cause offense to the listener except for the hearing of the gospel itself. In other words Paul was happy to ask women in particular circumstances (such as in his letter to Timothy) to restrict their freedom to exercise their rights because they loved Jesus more then they loved exercising their rights. This is a principle that Paul applied to other people as well as himself, for example, in asking slaves to respect their masters, in not eating of meat from idols, not suing other Christians, Paul not taking money that was due to him etc. Paul therefore seems to be making a statement that, especially as we grow in maturity, we will deliberately restrict our own rights out of love, respect and service of others, following the example of Jesus who does the same for us.

Applying this overarching Pauline principle of no offense to the hearing of the gospel but the gospel to a missional narrative understanding of the bible, certainly in the west, would mean that women should be actively seen to be leading and teaching in church, as any other sort of attitude would be seen to be offensive. In other words having determined it is not a sin for women to teach and lead the church needs to make sure that for a hearing of the gospel we sacrifice some of our cultural church conditioning and that women are treated equal to men, even if it means men deliberately choosing to surrender their rights such as traditional positions of power etc.

Of course it can work the other way as well, in following this principle it might be highly appropriate, for example, for a woman acting as a missionary in an Islamic country to dress differently, to surrender her right to wear western dress for the sake of the gospel.

A response: how should we be actively encouraging women to teach and lead?

Having reached a conclusion that in my reading of the bible that there is no prohibition on women teaching and leading men in our western culture, and indeed it would be a hinderance to the gospel if they didn't, I think that I as a man should be actively looking to encourage and promote women who have the God given gift and call on their lives to teach, lead or both. I think I should be proactive, open, deliberate, non-aplogetic, loving, gracious and servant hearted in doing so.

Again what do you think? Are you doing this? What forums and opportunities are there for women in the emerging church context?

And finally... I've enjoyed my stint as a guest author, thank you Jase for having me and thank you everyone for all the great interaction and conversations. Paul Mayers Guest blogger