This morning, I begin a 2 part series on women in leadership within the church. Last week, David introduced the series as ‘Woman, know thy place!’, or something along those lines. Do women need to know their place … in church?
Some people think so. Last week, Tracy preached here at Holy Trinity – to men and women (to all of us). There are those who believe that she shouldn’t have. I know of churches where people would have walked out had Tracy got up to preach (no matter how good her sermon … and it was good)?
Rev Dr Keith Mascord
Since lecturing at Moore Theological College in philosophy & theology, Keith has worked as a parish priest in the South of Sydney.
Keith is also well known for his prophetic ‘Open Letter’ to the Sydney Anglican church
There are some (more than in the first group actually) who believe that a woman shouldn’t be a rector or a senior minister in a church – that when David eventually leaves (or retires of old age here) you couldn’t possibly replace him with a woman! Women simply shouldn’t be rectors, or bishops, or archbishops.
This is a controversial subject here in Sydney. People have different views on this. My wife, Jude, and I aren’t entirely on the same page on this one. We see things slightly differently. Within this church there are likely to be differences – held in good conscience, held after careful research.
It does no good on either side of this issue to belittle those who think differently.
I know from talking to Danielle, that this is a hot issue on university campuses, here in Sydney, but also around the country – as a fairly hard-line approach is now being quite strongly pushed.
What makes this such a challenge for young people (for people of any age) is that those who take a strong line on this – do so in obedience, they believe, to God – to the Word of God, the Bible. It is not popular in today’s world – at all – to say that woman can’t preach to men, that women can’t become rectors and bishops and archbishops. It goes right against the grain of our contemporary attitudes – and so to hold this view is, in some ways, courageous and counter-cultural. That in itself is something to be admired.
Next week, I want to get to a passage that, for many, is decisive in this area. The wording of it seems so clear, the implications so obvious (at least when you first read it). Let me read it to you. It is from I Timothy, chapter 2, verse 8 and following:
The apostle Paul is credited with these words:
‘I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 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 childbirth – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’
On first reading (and even on second and third and fourth reading), that seems to be a pretty straightforward ban on women preaching to men and having authority over men.
What are we to do with this passage – in a world where women certainly do teach men – in universities and colleges and every other adult educational setting (and do it brilliantly – as well as, often better than men) – in a world where women now comfortably (and with just the same success and failure as men) exercise authority with the gender of those they are having authority over being irrelevant.
One thing we could do is to simply dismiss this passage and conclude that the writer, it is was Paul, was a first century misogynist, and what he says here is of no 21st century relevance. That would be one thing we could do.
But what if we didn’t want to be so dismissive of what is a passage from the Bible, from our Scriptures? What if we want to take with great seriousness what this is saying, and let God speak to us through it?
Well, I think there are two approaches we could take, the first of which I want to explore this morning, the second next week.
The first is to try to set this verse into a larger context, a Biblically larger context, and to see that maybe there is some movement possible; that we should perhaps see this verse as set within a trajectory within and beyond Scripture that will help us to make sense of it, and appropriate it in sensible and respectful ways.
The other approach, which we will look at next week, is to unpack the meaning of individual passages like this (taking account of the broader context), but finding possibilities in that process of carefully unpacking what is said.
But first of all, context, big context:
One of the things you find when you start reading the Bible is that there is movement within it. There is an Old Testament and a New Testament (for us Christians).
There is what theologians describe as ‘progressive revelation;’ new insights, new ways of seeing things emerge over the 1 and a half million words of the Bible, throughout its 1,000 or so years of composition.
There is movement, there is development, there is a dynamism within the Bible that can get lost if you bore in at any one point.
When we think about the treatment of women and attitudes to women, there is change and development. What you also notice is that Biblical attitudes reflect attitudes current at the time the Bible was written.
For example, women were considered the property of men in Old Testament times – reflecting contemporary practice. A man could sell his daughter into slavery, for example, or to become a concubine of some other man.
If a man wanted to marry a woman, he had to pay a bride price to that woman’s father. Thereafter, the wife would become the husband’s property, and she would be expected to refer to him as her ‘master’ or ‘lord’, in much the same way as a slave would address his master or lord.
This idea of women being the possession of men was enshrined in Old Testament law. For example, if a virgin was raped, the rapist was required to pay a fine not to her, but to her father whose possession she was.
There are all sorts of anomalies in the relative treatment of men and women. Women needed to prove their virginity before marriage.# Men didn’t. If a woman was found to be a non-virgin upon marriage, she was to be stoned to death,# but no such penalty applied to a man. If a wife was suspected of adultery, she had to go through an elaborate ritual to prove her innocence,# but men had no such test. A man could divorce his wife, relatively easily.# No such right existed for the wife.
It was a man’s world, very much a man’s world.
Now when we, as 21st century people, go back and read these laws, our first reaction is to say,‘That’s unfair! That’s not right.’ And there is truth in that – especially when you see how the Bible develops. As I said before, there is movement within the Bible.
These early laws are not the last word. If they were, I’d have to start thinking of Judy as my property. I could even, in a perverse moment, think about taking another wife – or having a concubine! Maybe a bit cheaper – not sure! Not a good idea!!
As 21st century people, we have trouble reading this stuff in the Old Testament, but it is worth realizing that these laws (reflective of a world where men had concubines and polygamy was common) were, even in that day, counter-cultural. They were quite extraordinarily progressive and humane by the standards of that day.
Men in surrounding cultures were given almost unrestricted power over their wives, to physically punish them (even to the point of death), to divorce them at whim. In Assyrian law, the wife of a husband found guilty of adultery was taken out and sexually ravaged, even though she was the innocent one. It was a way of hurting him.
Consistently, what we find is that Old Testament laws soften and make more fair practices and laws that existed in surrounding nations.
And a big part of the reason for this is that the Israelites had a much higher view of women than did their neighbours.
Greeks, for example, had a very low view of women. One of their great poets, Hesiod, who lived in about the 8th century BC (which is within the time that the Old Testament was being written), composed the myth of Pandora.
According to this myth, Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek pantheon, has one of his fellow deities, an artisan, make an irresistibly beautiful, but lazy and parasitic creature to sit in the house of man and eat all his food that he had worked hard to produce.
Pandora (with her jar filled with evil) is created as a punishment for man. She is considered seductive and dangerous – always needing to be kept under control. Zeus dresses her, because of the danger of her chaotic sexuality.
How different is that story to the stories we find at the beginning of the Jewish Torah, in Genesis 1, 2 and 3. In these stories, the woman takes her place alongside the man as a creature made in the image of God (not a punishment, but a blessing).
In the second of the creation myths, Adam feels his aloneness. He isn’t able to find a companion that corresponds to him, someone who can work with him as a co-worker, until God takes a rib from his chest and creates Eve, to Adam’s great delight – a naked Eve, with whom he finds completeness in becoming one flesh.
It is an extraordinarily high view of womankind. It is this view that is likely to have been instrumental in softening Israel’s laws, and making them as progressive as they were, though from our point of view, we would have liked to see them go further.
In fact, Israel does go further (much further) in the person of Jesus. Jesus comes on the scene like a breath of completely fresh air. He walks into a world that had become even more male dominated (if that was possible).
Women weren’t even supposed to be talked to in public. Jesus talked to women in public.
Women weren’t considered teachable. Jesus taught women. He included them among his disciples. The word disciple means learner.
Women weren’t considered reliable. A woman’s testimony was considered worthless. The very first people to be witnesses of the resurrection were women. Jesus appeared first to women, then to men.
Jesus launched what was a radical attack upon male privilege, and upon the accumulated customs and laws that had marginalized women.
Jewish men of his day were quick to divorce their wives. The popular view (based loosely on Old Testament law) was that if your wife didn’t please you (for whatever reason) you could get rid of her, though she had no such right.
Jesus not only opened up the possibility that a wife might divorce her husband, he also came down hard on divorce (not, I think, ruling it out altogether), but calling people back to those early three chapters of Genesis, with their high view of marriage and their high view of women.
What Jesus was doing was cutting his way back through the accumulated undergrowth of Israelite legislation and custom to this founding vision of what a woman was in relation to a man; a person of great dignity and worth – someone to be loved and treasured – a valued co-worker in the task of subduing the earth.
What are the implications of all this, as we think of the place of women in a 21st century church (as we wrestle with some of the questions I raised at the beginning of this sermon)?
One implication, I think, is that we need to locate what is said about women in the Bible along a trajectory – to locate what is said within what, in fact, is a movement.
Now one could take the view that the movement within the Bible STOPS with Jesus, or with Jesus and the apostles, so that what you get in the New Testament that’s the final word.
That’s a common position and a reasonable one, but there are some good reasons for thinking that the movement we find in the Bible doesn’t necessarily stop once the New Testament ends, isn’t meant to stop once the New Testament ends.
The first is that coming of Jesus unleashed ideas that have taken time to work through. It took time for the church to work through the implications of Jesus’ words and teaching for the institution of slavery. It took thousands of years, in fact, before Christians came to the right conclusion that slavery violates principles that lie at the very heart of the gospel.
Jesus never attacked slavery as an institution, just as he never attacked the idea of husbands and fathers owning their womenfolk – but his teachings, his ideas, his treatment of all people as equally valuable before God inevitably ended up undermining slavery as well as the idea of male ownership of women.
Jesus and the New Testament ought to be our inspiration and guide in thinking through the implications of the coming of Jesus for all things … including women’s ministry.
A second reason for thinking that the movement we see in the Bible doesn’t necessarily stop within the Bible is that contemporary understandings do make a difference in the way that we understand and appropriate Scriptural teaching.
Patriarchy, which is the custom of making men the boss and women subservient, was universally assumed to be the right way to do things throughout the Biblical period. And, in many ways, it made sense and was right for the times.
Men had superior physical strength (as they still do), and they often had to use that physical strength to defend their women folk, and to labour in the fields to provide for them.
Women, just naturally, took the subservient role … with their big task being to produce, nurture and bring up children. They didn’t have time or the wherewithal to become educated or to compete with men in any significant way.
It was a man’s world understandably.
But we now live in a very different world. According to Roy Morgan (and these statistics are from a few years ago), women make up 56% of the workforce. They account for 34% of management positions and more than half the number of undergraduates. Women are more independent than they have ever been. The average age at which women marry has risen from 22 to 27 in the last 20 years.
Now we might think that, maybe, even though all this is true, there still are some good reasons for discouraging women from preaching to men, for preventing women from becoming rectors, bishops and archbishops. There might be and we still haven’t got to that tricky passage from 1 Timothy, but, to jump ahead a little, I am convinced that even that passage (the only one in the New Testament that makes such a prohibition) doesn’t sustain the view that women cannot take the role of preacher and leader within congregations. But that is for next week!
May God encourage us and unify us as we diligently and respectfully explore the Scriptures together. Amen.
Delivered at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2008