Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, and I would like to take this time to celebrate women in the Church!
I realise that throughout Church history, we have had leaders who have said:
“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… ”
– Saint Augustine of Hippo, Church Father, Bishop of Hippo Regius, 354 – 430
Or even Luther who stated:
“No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise.”
Throughout the history of the Church, we have found philosophers, scholars and debates about the role of women in society & the Church. The very idea that women might participate actively in the Church received support in the early years of the Church, but over time, this fell out of favor. We find the following decision issued by the Synod of Carthage (398 AD).
“A woman, however learned and holy, may not take upon herself to teach in an assembly of men.”
These types of attitudes lead Elizabeth Cady Stanton to comment:
“The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.”
Shirley Williams said:
But then there are also celebrations of women in the Church also.
“These people do not know that while Barak trembled, Deborah saved Israel, that Esther delivered from supreme peril the children of God … Is it not to women that our Lord appeared after His Resurrection? Yes, and the men could then blush for not having sought what the women had found.”
–Saint Jerome, (the 2nd most prolific writer after Augustine in ancient Latin Cristianity) after criticism for dedicating his books to women
Most recently, Pope Francis said
“We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of women within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”
We know that some of Jesus’ earliest followers were women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, & Susanna. We find women at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and women were the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.
“When [the women] came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven… But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
We find the importance of women in Paul’s ministry: women were important members of the early christian church movement. Homes of believers were where groups of Christians met and held meetings. Those who could offer their homes for meetings were obviously considered to be important in this setting, and often went hand in hand with leadership roles. We find Lydia of Philippi (a wealthy dealer in purpose cloth). Acts mentions that “she and her household” were baptised. (Acts 16: 11-15).
Although we may consider that the 1st century woman’s role was in the home, turning her home into a public religious setting opened up for these women opportunities for religious leadership. These women were given leadership roles, dignity and status in return for their patronage, receiving a renewed dignity within Paul’s movement.
Even in Titus 2 we find:
3 Similarly, teach the older women to live in a way that honors God. They must not be malicious gossips… spending their time tearing others apart… Instead, they should teach others what is good.
The role of women was that of active teachers… But striving for unity, not division. There was no room in the early church for women who caused division.
Given that Paul is supposed to have said in 1st Corinthians things like:
- Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is the same as having her head shaved
- Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
- Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says.
But, funnily enough, he then finishes this paragraph with
- So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues.
So… women were to be eager to prophesy, but were not supposed to speak?
Of course, the most quoted scripture regarding the role of women in the Church is probably 2 Timothy 2: 12:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”
And yet this appears to conflict directly with so many of Paul’s letters and greetings, and the women that he mentions in his Epistles. I’m just going to list for you the women that Paul sends his special greetings to, and some of the circumstances in which he greets them:
- Prisca (or Priscilla) and her husband Aquila, mentioned six times in the Bible, as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul (and in the craft of tent-making). The author of Acts states that they were refugees who came first to Corinth when the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. I’ve always noticed that when Paul referred to this couple, he always mentioned her first – so that some scholars suggest that she was the head of the family unit.
- Mary and “the beloved Persis” are commended for their hard work.
- There is then the greeting for Julia, who worked and travelled as a missionary with her husband. He also sends greetings to Tryphena, Tryphosa and to Rufs’ mother, who “labour for the Lord’s work”.
- Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth is commended for her hospitality. Paul attaches to her three titles: diakonos meaning a deacon (lit. “servant”), sister, and prostatis meaning “a woman in a supportive role, patron, benefactor”.There is no difference when the title of deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy. Diakonos (Gk.) is grammatically a masculine word, the same word that Paul uses in regards to his own ministry. Phoebe is the only woman to be named “deacon”. In Romans Phoebe is seen as acting as Paul’s envoy. Phoebe is named as a Patron of Paul, meaning that she would have been financially contributing to Paul’s mission. Phoebe was especially influential in the early Church seen in Jerusalem from the 4th century inscription: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in Christ.”
Paul in his letter to Timothy discusses the criteria for Deacons in the early Church which is explicitly directed to both male and females. Women flourished in the deaconate between the 2nd and 6th centuries. The position required pastoral care to women, instructing female candidates and anoint them at Baptism. They were also required to be present whenever a female would address a bishop.
- And in Romans 16: 7 we find “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did.” Junia was in prison with Paul – and possibly the only female apostle we will find mentioned in the New Testament. Junia may have been an evangelist and church-planter, just like Paul. Some translations made her name into “Junias” – i.e. a man. But it appears that this has since been corrected into the feminine version. I can only ask, How inspiring and wise must this woman have been to have been deemed by Paul worthy of the title “apostle”?
We also find
- Chloe, a prominent woman of Corinth.
- Euodia & Syntyche, Paul’s fellow workers in the gospel (mentioned in Philippians).
I find it difficult to relate these instances of respect and high esteem to the concept of a Paul that hated women and put them down. These messages of thanks were to women (and men) who had played a vital role in Paul’s ministry.
But what do we do if two thoughts or passages seem to conflict? This is where the heart of the gender debate begins… On one hand, we have those who say, “well if the Bible says to do it, then we ought to do it.”
Well, Leviticus 19 says that “You shall not put on a garment made of two kinds of materials.” If you’re wearing a cotton polyester blend or any other blend for that matter, you’re disobeying Biblical command this morning. Well, you may be saying that’s an obscure Old Testament command. And you’d be right.
But five times, Paul and Peter tell Christians to “Greet one another with holy kisses.” Done any kissing in church lately?
Oh! That verse is historical & cultural…
So what if in Timothy Paul wasn’t talking about women generally, but some particular & specific women that Timothy was having problems with? We may never fully know or understand the circumstances of this particular verse in Timothy.
I think it’s a fair conclusion that the testimony found in the bulk of Scripture, including the Pauline texts, speak plainly for women to be able to fulfill any ministry or position that the Spirit of God places upon them, whether it be teacher, prophet, pastor, evangelists or apostle.
When we look at the church, more times than not, there will be more women than men in church. Often times this is seen as a failure on the part of the church. In reality it may be the success of women being in MORE tuned with the Spirit of God. If there is to be a great awakening in the church, it will take place because we, the women in the church will see begin to see ourselves as God sees us. Women may hold the key to unleashing the power available in the church.
As we read in this morning’s Epistle, God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. We may not fully understand the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, but we should whole-heartedly believe and cling to it.
Let us pray:
We give you thanks for the ministries that you have given to each one of us. We give you thanks not only for those women who have served you over the centuries, but also for those who serve you in whatever capacity today.
Today we specifically ask for your protection and peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over six million people have died in the conflict so far. We pray for the 40,000 women & children each day that are raped and tortured… asking for your healing hand over their lives. We pray for justice for them – that even thought their country may not have anything of economic interest to the West, that you enlighten our leaders to see the needs of these people and intervene.
Today we ask that the lines of gender, race, wealth, and status completely disappear as we are transformed by your Spirit to be the “new creatures” in Christ we are called to be. May your church truly become the place where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” for we are indeed all one in the grace and mercy of Christ Jesus our Lord.