It is Pentecost and Mothers’ Day, a good time to remind ourselves we are in the middle of the biggest revolution of all time. It sometimes pits one half of the world’s population against the other. Thank God it is a bloodless. Of course, I am speaking of women’s liberation. It is only in the very recent past that women have voted, gone to college, and entered the work place. A woman is running for the presidency of our nation at the same time some women on the other side of the world live as men’s property. Some Christian churches are ordaining women and others are adamantly denying them the office.
Sometimes it gets downright silly. One of my friends, a Roman Catholic nun, attends mass every morning. She is usually the only person in the congregation. At one point, the priest turns and addresses the people: “Brothers in Christ”. She laughs promising one day she is going to stand up and announce, “Father, there are no brothers out here, only this one sister.”
On the other side, some of our fundamentalist churches make the subordination of women a litmus test for the faith. I always got a kick when I was asked to help in the marriage ceremony when one of my members married someone from those churches. Every time, every time, the host pastor asked me to read a passage about women obeying men and based his sermon on the text. In the most memorable the preacher told the groom, a farmer being lord of the woman did not mean he could abuse her. He was to treat her as he treated his cows. All the women from my church went around the reception going, “Moo, moo”.
It is Mother’s Day and Pentecost, a good time to access where the Holy Spirit is leading us in this movement. First we should acknowledge the Church has always depended on women. They have never needed ordination to lead us. A little reported modern example is the Church of the Grandmothers in Russia. Lutherans have been privileged in that nation since the 19th century. When Catherine the Great needed skilled artisans she promised German they could always practice their faith if they immigrated. That resulted in very vibrant congregations. The last thing we heard as the Iron Curtain went up was that every pastor had been executed. When that curtain was torn down in 1989, we did not expect to find any churches. Instead we found steadfast Lutherans even after 50 years without pastors. They remained because courageous Grandmothers defied the government and taught the children catechism year after year.
Recognizing women have always led with or without credentials we none- the- less want to examine of the scriptures really do deny them official office. We can begin by being honest about how inconsistent the New Testament is about this issue. There is no doubt Jesus liberated women. The initiation sacrament became baptism which is open to both genders rather than circumcision which is clearly restricted to males. The quorum for a worship service became two or three people rather than ten men. The first converts in many regions were women: Lydia in Europe, Dorcas in Asia, Danaris in Athens. Anyone writing biblical plays realizes there are far, far more women parts in the New Testament.
The Gospels picture a Syro- Phoenician woman teaching Jesus and a penitent woman anointing him Messiah. They claim women believe while men doubt at the birth, the cross, the burial, and the resurrection. Mary Magdalene receives the first resurrection appearance. John gives the first confession of Jesus as the Christ to Martha rather than Peter and declares the Samaritan Woman at the well the first missionary. Wealthy women, such as the wife of Herod’s steward, provide the support necessary for Jesus to continue his ministry.
But then after all that, Paul writes those three passages (I Corinthians 11: 4, I Corinthians 14: 34-36, I Timothy 2: 12) which deny women voice in the Church. He says it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. They should never teach or have authority over men. They should not even ask questions, but wait and ask their husbands when they get home.
The normally astute scholar supports these words with rather suspect theological arguments based on strange readings of the scripture: Women were created for the sake of men, because they were created after men. Women are inferior to men, because they sinned before men. Women should not teach God’s Word, because it originated with men. He also states bizarre interpretations such as “man is made in the image of God and women are reflections of man” and “Christ is the head of men and men the head of women”. We all know men had authority in the Old Testament, but I can not remember this kind of crude rationalization.
Many scholars ponder what Paul could have meant by these arguments. They point out they are not even consistent with his words at other places. In fact, right after he says woman should remain silent he Church, he commands that they wear head coverings when they lead prayers and prophesize. Obviously, they are speaking. And in other passages, such as Romans 16, he praises women for their leadership. He lists 25 leaders in that chapter and ten, almost half, are women.
In fact throughout his letters he speaks of women filling every office in the Church. He calls Junia an apostle, a fellow worker and leader, who risked her neck and was imprisoned for Jesus. He mentions Phoebe, Lydia, Chloe, and Appia as deacons; Lydia, Nymphia, Dorcas, and Danaris as leaders of house churches; Euoda, Syntyche, Prisca, Junia, and Nereus’ sister as missionaries; and Phillip’s four daughters as prophets. (Romans 16, Acts 9:36, Acts 16:14, I Corinthians 1: 11, I Corinthians 16:19, Philippians 4:2, Philemon 1:2, I Corinthians 9:5, II Timothy 4:19)
Obviously, these women led and were not subordinates to men. They certainly spoke in church. We also have a lot of extra- biblical evidence of this. Two of my favorites are the letter Emperor Trajan wrote to his governor Pliny on how to persecute Christians when he mentions he executed two slave girls who were deacons and the documents about Thecla who traveled with Paul himself and whom he called a great teacher.
Some think the only fair conclusion is to see Paul had different opinions at different times or perhaps when he wrote to different situations. In Galatians he writes his classic formula,” There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In other letters the formula does not include “male-female”. He seems to have changed his mind. Depending on how you date the letters, you have to believe he either dropped or added the gender bit. At any rate we are left to decide which Bible passage we shall use.
We Lutherans ordain women and champion equality of male and female. We believe the Holy Spirit has led us, as it led the early disciples, in such a way that we can not do otherwise. Celebrating Pentecost and Mother’s day on the same day gives us opportunity to celebrate women’s leadership in the church and to pray that God’s Holy Spirit will continue to lead us in proper directions.