"Womyn" In the Bible
In several previous blog posts we ruminated upon the idea of diversity from a biblical perspective. The focus of those past posts was cultural diversity. In the next two weeks we’ll be continuing our thoughts on biblical diversity, but this time we’ll turn to the important concept of gender.
“WOMYN” HOLD UP HALF THE SKY
In addition to our cultural heritage, our gender also uniquely factors into the unique reflection of God’s image within each of us. Genesis 1: 27 (NLT) states:
So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Men and women are equal in the eyes of God, because men and women uniquely reflect the image of God. As a famous Chinese proverb states: “Women hold up half the sky.” God made men and women to show the world different aspects of who He is. Men are intended to uniquely reflect God's image in certain ways, and so are women. Neither sex has a monopoly on God or His image. Men and women need each other so that they can teach other more about who God is. Without women, men will always be limited in their view and perspective of God, and vice-versa.
This is not to say, however, that men and women do not reflect the image of God in common, similar ways as well. In fact, men and women probably reflect the image of God in more common than distinct ways. This truth—that men and women uniquely reflect the image of God—has been historically twisted and abused to exclude women from positions of leadership and many professions. The argument of religious sexists was (and sadly, sometimes still is) that women can’t take positions of political authority such as president, senator, state legislator, mayor, etc. because they have been created by God to live in quiet subservience, and service to, men. In fact, I’ve even heard it said by a major Christian leader, that the reason why so few women serve in United States Senate is because they are not hard-wired for strong, tough leadership positions! (Not being able to vote on a national level until 1920 and exclusion from elected office for hundreds of years of course had nothing to do with it!).
Tragically, a similar line of reasoning has been made by some Christians over the years to limit female professional choices to the domestic sphere. The argument was basically the same: women were made by God with certain gifts and talents and abilities which confined them to domestic roles. As a result, women should be limited to a few career choices—secretary, teacher, and nurse to name a few and they should definitely not be allowed to take a man’s place in higher education. In the 1950’s and 60’s for example (often cited by some evangelicals as “golden years” in this country), many law schools had official policies which excluded women. Erwin Griswold, of Harvard Law School, for example, stated in 1964: “[T]here could never be a great influx of women into the school…because the policy was never to give any man’s place to a woman.”
I don’t say this to in any way disparage female participation in the professions of teaching or nursing. These are great professions for those who feel a calling to be a part of them. But, it was wrong to exclude women from other professions based upon skewed theology. By the way, I think that the personal decision to be a stay at home mom in order to focus upon the raising of one’s family is an amazing calling to have as well! In fact, it’s probably the toughest job in the world.
And, just in case you're wondering, this is coming from a guy who changes diapers, does the dishes (most nights), and cleans the showers.
Let me say for the record: I stand totally opposed to the types of historical abuses previously discussed, and I believe that women possess a God-given equal capacity for leadership and participation in any profession they might choose to pursue. In fact, I am here to say that the Bible offers many examples of strong, powerful women leaders. Deborah and Jael offer compelling examples of female leaders in the Bible. In the Book of Judges we are told that Deborah was the President, Supreme Court, and Five-Star General of Israel all rolled up into one! :
4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
Deborah was in fact so powerful and well-respected as a godly leader of Israel that the powerful military leader Barak (a variation of a popular, or sometimes unpopular, name these days) refused to go into battle without her! “8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
This story in Judges gets even better because of another feisty woman named Jael. Let me bring you up to speed. Barak ends up obeying the orders of Deborah and his army destroys the opposing army. One glitch, though. Sisera, the general of the enemy’s army escapes capture and sneaks away into Jael’s tent because of a special alliance that existed between him and Jael’s family. Then the story starts to get really good. Jael gives Sisera some milk and a blanket. He falls asleep. Then, we are told:
But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.
Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead.
What! Did you catch that. She drove a tent peg into his temple and won the entire war! Talk about a strong woman who knows how to handle herself! And so in one single chapter in the book of Judges, these examples of Deborah and Jael totally dispel the myth--and bad theology-- that women cannot be political leaders (even presidents), judges, prophets, and warriors. I wonder what Deborah and Jael would have thought about U.S. military policy towards women in combat?
Romans chapter 16 is another overlooked chapter of the Bible that puts a silence to historic Christian biases against women leaders in the church. In verses one and two, Paul (the former persecutor of the Christian movement turned early church leader) states:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
These verses establish that women are biblically entitled to serve in the leadership role of “deacon” in the church. Some scholars also prefer to translate the Greek word used in this passage as “minister.” This ruffles a lot of feathers because it directly implies that women should be allowed to serve as ministers in the church. But the controversy goes even deeper…
In verse 7 Paul tells us:
7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
This verse makes even more people uncomfortable because it is quite likely that the name translated as “Junia” or “Junias” (in other translations) refers to a woman. And if Junia was a woman, and she was excellent “among the apostles,” then she was an “apostle”! Such apostles held one of the highest leadership positions in the early church.
Among those who oppose women holding high ecclesiastical office, there are those who say that the name Junias actually referred to a man, or that “outstanding among the apostles” is better translated as “well known to the apostles.” Based upon this perspective, it is said that: 1. Junias was a man who was an apostle; 2. Junias was a man who was well known to apostles of the 1st century; or, 3. Junia was a woman who was well known to the male apostles of the time.
Christians who love Jesus make both arguments about who Junia was and whether or not she/he was an apostle. Strong evidence exists to support the argument that Junia was a woman and that she was an “apostle.” I’m not a professionally trained theologian so take my argument as you choose, but I can read Bible commentaries as well as many and I know that a good argument can be made for this position. First, there is almost universal agreement among the church fathers that Junia was a woman. Also, most commentaries share the perspective that Junia was an apostle.
Another biblical basis for female leadership in the church is based upon the doctrine of spiritual gifts (see Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-28; Ephesians 4:8, 11-16; Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 4:10, 11). The Bible teaches that God gives spiritual gifts to believers in Christ without respect to gender (or race and class for that matter). These gifts include those of teacher, pastor, and prophet. And so, a very strong biblical case can be made for female leadership in the church.
It’s not simply an issue of “liberal” vs. “biblical” as some people like to make it out to be. Quite frankly, it frustrates me to no end when people mischaracterize the issue in this way. There are thousands of Jesus-centered churches which enthusiastically embrace the role of women in leadership and pastoral positions. As followers of Jesus we can respectfully disagree with one another about this issue, but it is not right for anyone to slander another person’s biblically-grounded viewpoint on the matter.
As someone who was ordained by a legendary female African American inner city pastor, I admit I’m biased. Before her recent passing, God used Pastor Faye Newman in incredible and amazing ways to share His love and teaching with thousands of people. You may never have heard of Pastor Faye Newman, but she was a legend of inner city ministry in South Los Angeles. As Henri Nouwen wrote, the greater part of God’s work in this world often goes unnoticed. That’s definitely true of Pastor Faye. She may not have been famous in the world’s eyes, but she was used by God to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals in South Central Los Angeles and beyond. Pastor Faye was also a spiritual mother and mentor to me, and I am so proud to say that she was the person that God chose to ordain me to Christian ministry.
Together with Bishop B.J. Luckett, Pastor Faye established a food ministry in South Los Angeles called the Neighborhood Outreach Council. In fulfillment of Matthew 25, the Neighborhood Outreach Council partnered with Here’s Life Inner City and 158 churches in South L.A. to feed hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, at its height, the Neighborhood Outreach Council fed 400,000 people per month! As a natural outflow of this profound demonstration of love, hundreds, if not thousands of people came to know Jesus as their personal and loving Savior.
Pastor Faye also had a big heart for African American and Latino youth of South L.A. As a native of South Central and graduate of Jordan High, she lived in South L.A. from 1955 until her passing on June 12, 2012. She lived through the Watts and Rodney King Rebellions, and even heard Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach in her community. She had the highest street “creds.” Drawing from her long-standing ties to the community and huge personality, Pastor Faye formed the National Low Riders Association in an effort to bring together the warring factions of Los Angeles gangs and to reach out to the youth of South L.A.
Through their cars, Pastor Faye brought together bloods and crips and other rival gangs, and organized them to feed the homeless and serve the poor! In 2008, she became the “1st lady” (and first female member) of the Individuals Car Club. Pastor Faye also drove and owned two amazing low riders which depicted scenes from the Bible!
I saw God powerfully at work through Pastor Faye as a minister of His gospel. She was a living, breathing example of Deborah, Jael, Phoebe, and Junia all rolled into one! And, I’ll admit this biases me towards an interpretation of Romans and other scriptural passages which favors the ordination of women in the church. If I’m wrong, God please show me.
I’d like to close with an inspirational quote from Pastor Faye which I think we can all learn from and live by:
“As I continue to serve God, I continue to pray to the Lord, that He would make me one of His bond slaves, for He has set my feet upon a rock and He planted me there and I thank Him for my salvation, for He has sealed me with His Holy Spirit.” Ephesians 1: 13, 14.
Grateful for Womyn,
Robert Chao Romero