Where Seminaries Need to Step Up Their Game: Science and Faith Education

It should come as no surprise to anyone not living under a rock that “scientific
evidence” is the most frequently cited reason for denying the rationality of the Christian faith. Scientism has basically become the surrogate religion of secular humanism; advocates make grand philosophical pronouncements against Christianity religion-science-perspectivesin the guise of “incontrovertible scientific conclusions” about reality.  Several of the “New Atheists,” those writing the screechy New York Times bestsellers intended to persuade the masses, have degrees in the hard sciences, which gives many the [egregiously mistaken] impression that religious belief must be inversely proportional to scientific literacy.  As Christians, we are called to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Yet, only a tiny minority of believers know how to respond to these kinds of arguments.

I think the root of the problem has many threads, but a major one is related to the usual scope of seminary education. In my own online canvassing of the degree programs offered by the better-known seminaries in the United States, I’ve noticed that there are insufficient opportunities for aspiring church and ministry leaders to become well-equipped to 1) interact with the scientific community and 2) guide congregants toward an adequate understanding of science and faith issues. Both of these are important for fostering confident faith and for demonstrating the intellectual rigor of Christianity.

Typically, systematic theology courses touch on scientific issues related to creation or maybe anthropology. Students in some theology or divinity programs may be required to read a book or two on the different interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. This really isn’t enough, in my view. In recent decades there has developed a widespread attitude, within the evangelical Christian community, of fear and/or deep distrust of various scientific disciplines, which has led to a withdrawal from a major (and highly revered) portion of the public sphere. This has reinforced the stereotype of the “anti-science Christian Right.” Ultimately, the project of evangelism has been handicapped, as many believers are unable to make a basic case for the compatibility of science and faith when they encounter a skeptic who has bought into the fallacious rhetoric of “science, therefore no God.”

I find this state-of-affairs frustrating for obvious reasons. I can’t figure out why many of our seminaries aren’t more concerned with turning out graduates prepared to confidently and competently take on one of the leading challenges leveled at Christianity today.

What could seminaries be doing to rectify the situation? I have two suggestions:

  1. A required course in Science and Faith. The course would include examination of the philosophy, science, and theology involved in the contemporary conversation. Students would engage with the various science-based objections to essential doctrine and learn how physics, cosmology, and biology are powerful footnotes to Romans 1:20. I’ve seen a couple of seminary programs that offer an elective course along these lines (hooray!), but it appears that the importance is emphasized only when students are taking a particular concentration in apologetics.
  2. A continuing education certificate in Science and Faith. This would be an outstanding option for anyone (not just seminarians) seeking to understand science and faith issues and become better-equipped for church ministry and evangelism.  It would provide an opportunity for seminary graduates to further their formal education in this area, at a credible institution (important for the CV), without enrolling in another degree program. I’ve only seen one seminary offering this kind of certificate,  although I’ve seen a couple of general apologetics certificate programs that include an element of science. Christian educators and ministry workers of all kinds could take advantage of a certificate program, regardless of their own educational background.

Option 2 stands out to me as possibly having the highest impact potential. I earned my master’s in the discipline of Science and Religion, and it encouraged me to find that many of my fellow students were seminary-trained pastors and other ministry leaders who had recognized the great need for the additional knowledge. However, I think men and women working in full-time ministry, especially those who are also raising families, often lack the time and/or financial resources to do another full-blown academic degree. That’s why I think a continuing education certificate program in science and faith would be an attractive and viable solution that every seminary could execute.

Just my two cents.

Women Cannot Teach Men…Well, Except When They Can

Apostles: Junia (right) with Andronicus (left)

In this series on gender roles in the church, we’ve finally come to what has been called
“the 1 Timothy 2 proof-text bomb.” There is so much to be said about these few verses! They’ve been used as primary justification for the gender-based restraints many churches have placed upon female teachers and for the limitations upon the kinds of leadership roles women may hold. This is serious business; if gifted, anointed, and equipped women are being incorrectly restricted in how they minister, that’s a grave problem, just as women going outside of God’s design for female ministry would be. There are faithful, God-fearing, Bible-believing, eminent theologians on both sides of this debate, so we need to approach our question with the utmost humility and willingness to grow in understanding.
That is my prayer for myself, especially. I have skin in the game, obviously, but I have long and fervently prayed for Holy Spirit guidance on this, and I shall continue. 

1 Timothy is a letter from Paul to his protégé, Timothy, who is ministering in Ephesus. Paul is, first and foremost, concerned with some false doctrine that is circulating among the believers and threatening the area churches. Having dealt with that, he begins chapter 2 by offering instructions to the Christian community for godly conduct. He speaks about the discipline of prayer before turning to a few gender-related instructions. 

Before I go any further, let’s take a look at the passage:

So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute. Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.

“See!” many argue, “The plain, natural reading of I Timothy 2 is unmistakably clear: women are to never teach men or have any position of authority over men!”

While it is true that the “plain, natural reading” of Scripture is our default approach, there are times when it leads to an incorrect understanding. It can be too simplistic, causing us to overlook key linguistic, literary, and/or cultural complexities that could be involved. (Think about all the ridiculous trouble a “plain, natural reading” of passages such as Psalm 104:5 caused for Galileo, who argued that the earth actually moves.)

Now, our burning question about 1 Timothy 2 is whether Paul’s instructions are somehow specific to the Ephesian Christian community during the time of Timothy’s ministry, or if Christians of all subsequent times and in all places are supposed to view these instructions as normative for Christian living. In other words, were there unique conditions in Timothy’s community that made Paul’s prohibitions necessary for its health and growth, or are these prohibitions on women in the Christian community always and everywhere binding

As I’ve been writing this series on gender roles in the church, I’ve thought more and
more about the importance of understanding the full logical outworking of the different views. 
I have observed pervasive inconsistency among those holding the view that these verses should be taken at pure face value and applied to all women in the Christian community forevermore and everywhere.

Case in point: starting with verse 9, we see that Christian women are commanded to not braid their hair, wear expensive clothes, or wear gold or pearl jewelry. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen plenty of nice clothing, gold and pearl jewelry, and many a braided head of hair in churches that prohibit women from teaching men. The fact of the matter is that there’s no ground for saying that verse 9 is metaphorical, or only applicable to a specific culture and time, but that verses 11 and 12 are for all Christian women everywhere forever. We must apply our hermeneutic evenly. Remember how I pointed out this same issue with the head coverings and hair lengths mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 at the end of my previous post? Funny how we don’t hear sermons about head scarves and hairstyles, don’t you think? (By the way, did you know that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 are major reasons Amish women don’t cut their hair, cover their heads with caps, and don’t wear jewelry–not even wedding rings?)

And for that matter, why don’t we see raging debates about whether or not men should
be raising their hands in the air every time they pray in every place? The “plain, natural reading” of Paul’s words say they should be doing so.

Moreover, if we’re going to say that the teaching prohibitions in verses 11 and 12 apply to all Christian women today, we can’t simply pick and choose the situations where they are relevant. Paul never explicitly says that he is talking about what goes on during a formal corporate worship gathering. If the verses are taken “plainly and naturally,” he seems to be merely referring to living within the Christian community. Carson and Moo explain that these verses are about “the way women should dress and live” (see p. 571 of their reference book, An Introduction to the New Testament); they do not say anything indicating that Paul is instructing women on how to behave in a worship service or other kinds of regular church gatherings. (We might pause to ask here how we are to define “the church,” or “worship service.”) 

So, if all Christian women in all times and places are never to teach men, then that would rule out female Bible professors at Christian universities or seminaries, female Bible teachers at Christian high schools teaching teenage males, women leading a Bible study to a mixed group in their dorm room or home, women teaching Christian doctrine to mixed audiences in the mission field (domestic or foreign), women speaking at Christian conferences where men are present, or females serving as youth leaders. It would also rule out mothers instructing their sons in the faith after the sons reach a certain age. It could arguably mean that women shouldn’t write theological books or articles if men will read and learn from them, and that women shouldn’t record their teaching, because men might listen to the recording. 

John Piper has cited 1 Timothy 2 when arguing that “a woman teaching men with authority, week in and week out or every other week or regularly in an adult Sunday school class or whatever…is not under the authority of the New Testament.” Knowing this, I was a bit awestruck by an article a friend sent to me recently. It was a piece written a little over a year ago, and in it Piper quotes this passage from his private journal: 

This morning, as I jogged and listened to a message by Elisabeth Elliot which she had given in Kansas City, I was deeply moved concerning my own inability to suffer magnanimously and without pouting. She was vintage Elliot and the message was the same as ever: Don’t get in touch with your feelings, submit radically to God, and do what is right no matter what. Put your love life on the altar and keep it there until God takes it off. Suffering is normal. Have you no scars, no wounds, with Jesus on the Calvary road?

What? I thought to myself. He listened to a message by a woman, was “deeply moved” by it, and seems to have learned something of spiritual value from it? Does the fact that it was pre-recorded somehow exempt it from Paul’s command (as Piper understands it)? What if Piper listened to the same message as it was delivered live in a church classroom or <gasp!> from a pulpit? What is the fundamental difference other than time and space? Is it an issue of frequency? Is there a certain amount of female teaching that is acceptable for a man to hear in a given time period, and if so, what is the limit? I truly see an inconsistency here. From what I’ve read of Piper’s view, I think he would say that it’s within the framework of the weekly gathering of believers that Paul’s restriction holds, but as I noted above, Paul doesn’t say anything about his instructions being for the weekly Sunday gatherings. In fact, if you back up to verse 8, where he exhorts the men to pray while lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument, he uses the phrase “in every place” not “in the church gathering.” It really seems to me Paul is talking about any and all activity going on in the Christian community. That would include being taught through a woman’s sermon on your iPod…wouldn’t it?

Here’s an interesting note. We know from Acts 16:1 that Timothy had a Christian mother, but a Greek unbeliever for a father. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul says to Timothy, “I recall your sincere faith that was alive first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am sure is in you.” This tells us that Timothy was discipled in the faith by his Christian mother and grandmother. Timothy’s preparatory ministry training came from women. 

The bottom line here is that individuals who take the 1 Timothy 2 passage in its “plain, natural reading” are not consistent in what parts of it they apply to today’s women (and men) and in their views about what contexts require the teaching restrictions. That should tell us that something is amiss. Should we all strive to GET consistent, on the clothing, jewelry, haircuts, head coverings, and hand-raising, as well as in applying the teaching restrictions as broadly as possible? Or, should we view that virtually impossible task as an indicator that something quite different may be going on with the text rather than what the “plain, natural reading” suggests?

A point I made in my last post is also pertinent here. If we take Paul’s words about women being quiet at face value, they contradict his affirmation that women can prophesy and pray out loud in the church setting. This disharmony must be rectified.

In my next installment in this series, I’ll be presenting the alternative interpretations of 1Timothy 2. I plan to unashamedly cheat on that one, using excerpts from the work of widely respected New Testament scholars including Dr. Craig Keener, author of Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul.  Stay tuned. 

On Women Keeping Silent and Not Speaking: Gender Roles in the Church Part 4

Thus far in this series on gender roles in the church, we have examined the biblical evidence for women in ministry and formal discipleship during Jesus’ earthly tenure and for female apostles and deacons during Paul’s post-conversion work. In these next two installments, I will deal with what are, to be sure, the most often cited and (I believe) the most misused passages concerning the Lord’s intention for women in ministry: the prohibitions Paul gives in I Corinthians and I Timothy.

*Remember our goals here: to take cultural context into account and to harmonize all of the New Testament passages related to our topic. A TEXT WITHOUT A CONTEXT IS JUST A PRETEXT FOR WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO MEAN (a pithy little adage that I first heard from Dr. Ben Witherington III).

I Corinthians is a letter of instruction Paul addressed to the first century church at Corinth. In 11:4-15, he writes:  

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head. For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head.For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.11 In any case, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.

 The main thing I want to point out about this passage is that Paul overtly recognizes that women prophesy in church. This is a big deal. Prophesying involved receiving a direct word from the Holy Spirit and speaking/teaching it to the other people present at the church gathering. Paul instructs the women to have their heads properly covered during this practice and during their public prayers. His concern is that the women have an outward signification of being under an authority when they prophesy and pray in the church. 

If you proceed to chapter 12, Paul has more to say about the gifts of the Spirit:

 1With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led. So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.

Take note that Paul is addressing “brothers and sisters” (NET is the version I am using here; some versions use the term “brethren,” which is understood to refer to all believers).*** He makes no gender distinction when it comes to the various gifts that a Christian can receive from the Holy Spirit. The gifts are produced “in everyone.” AND Paul says that “to each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.” He does not say that women are gifted only for the benefit of other women!

In this same chapter, beginning with verse 27, Paul has this to say about the hierarchy of spiritual gifts:

27 Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. 29 Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? 30 Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? 31 But you should be eager for the greater gifts.

Notice that the gift of prophecy is second only to the gift of apostleship, and is above the gift of teaching. He had already recognized that women prophesy in church, and now he’s indicating that this is an even greater responsibility than teaching. He addresses the entire church, men and women, as “Christ’s body” and says that they should be “eager for the greater gifts.”

Now move forward to chapter 14, beginning with verse 1:

1Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened. Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

 Again, Paul is highlighting the great gift and responsibility of prophesying, and says that “one who prophesies speaks to people.” He does not make any gender distinctions here, and says that “one who prophesies builds up the church.” Verse 6 is very informative in this regard as well. Paul addresses “brothers and sisters,” reminding us that his instruction is for all members of the body, not just the men.

 In verse 26, Paul says:

 26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church.

Again addressing “brothers and sisters,” Paul says that “each one” has a lesson, revelation, tongue, and interpretation that are given for the edification of the church as a whole. He is concerned that the worship service be kept orderly, rather than everyone trying to speak at once. He says:

31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged

All can prophesy and all can learn and be encouraged by the prophesying, regardless of the gender of the one prophesying. This must happen by taking proper turns rather than everyone speaking at once.

But then we come to that hard passage that is so often cherry-picked for its seeming prohibition of women holding any sort of verbal instructional role in the church. Beginning in the middle of verse 33, Paul says:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.

 After reading the earlier parts of Paul’s letter, these verses are very jarring. What in the world? Is Paul contradicting everything he said before? We can’t simply take these few verses at literal, plain face value without causing major friction with Paul’s earlier instructions and exhortations. A responsible, rigorous hermeneutic harmonizes and reconciles. So how are we to understand these verses?

Often when we’re dealing with texts that seem, at least on a superficial level, to conflict with one another, knowledge about the cultural context is an enormous help. I believe that to be the case here, and since I am not an expert on culture in first century Corinth, I must lean heavily upon the scholarship of some who are.

Dr. Ben Witherington wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Durham on the topic of women in early Christianity. I learned much from his book, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, and a lecture he gave on this topic at Baylor University. (I highly recommend listening to that lecture!) Dr. Witherington says that Paul is dealing with a specific problem in the Corinthian worship service that needs correction, and that understanding the nature of the problem will shed light on the scope of the given prohibition.

In Greco-Roman pagan religion, which the Corinthians were familiar with, there were figures called Oracles who functioned like a prophet or a medium. One would approach the Oracle and ask questions, seeking wise counsel or information about the future. In verse 35, Paul seems to indicate that the improper speech going on was a disorderly habit of questioning during the prophesying of others in the congregation. This understanding harmonizes very well with the earlier verses about keeping the worship service orderly, with members speaking in turn. Apparently, the women of Corinth were causing disruption with questioning, and Paul admonishes them to keep silent and ask their husbands questions at home. The worship service was not to be a Q&A session. Says Witherington:

Paul is not ruling out the use of proper speech in worship but he is ruling out a form of insubordinate speech. The silence has to do not with all speech but with a specific kind indicated by the context…Paul corrects the abuse not by banning women from ever speaking in worship, but by silencing their particular abuse of speech and redirecting their questions to another time and place…This passage in no way contradicts 1 Corinthians 11:5, nor any other passage which suggests that women taught, preached, prayed, or prophesied in the churches. (pp. 177-178)

N.T. Wright has also offered a viable explanation for how to understand the silence verses in their proper context (he credits Ken Bailey). In the Middle East, women and men sat separately in church and the services would be conducted in classical Arabic, a language the men would have understood, but not the women (who would have only spoken the local language). Wright says:

As a result, the women, not understanding what was going on, would begin to get bored and talk among themselves…the level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, “Will the women please be quiet!” whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet, and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home…[Paul’s] central concern in 1 Corinthians 14 is for order and decency in the church’s worship. What the passage cannot possibly mean is that women had no part in leading public worship, speaking out loud of course as they did so. This is the positive point that is proved at once by the other relevant Corinthian passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2–11, since there Paul gives instructions for how women are to be dressed while engaging in such activities, instructions which obviously wouldn’t be necessary if they had been silent in church all the time. (Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 4, 2006, p. 7) Emphasis, mine.

I believe Witherington and Wright have both offered reasonable avenues for using cultural context to harmonize all of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. Though the explanations differ, the bottom line is the same: Paul is correcting misconduct in the order of worship, and that misconduct could be resolved if the disruptive women would keep silent and ask their questions at home.

Paul’s overall intent is for all the churches to conduct worship services that are structured and well-ordered, not chaotic. He did not mean to rule out the orderly and proper speech of women in the church; he openly recognized that they would speak aloud when exercising their spiritual gifts in the presence of the entire body of believers.  

As a final note, I find it interesting that those who take passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 as applying to all women, in all churches, at all times, in all places almost unanimously treat the verses about headcoverings and gender hair length as only applicable to the first century church in Corinth. Isn’t that completely inconsistent? 

In my next installment, I will discuss the relevant passages from 1 Timothy. 

***For a full discussion of why “brothers and sisters” or a gender-neutral understanding of “brethren” is most appropriate in these passages, see Mark Strauss’ book, Distorting Scripture: The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy, chapter 6. 

One of the Few by Jason B. Ladd—An Excellent Father’s Day Gift Idea!

A couple of years ago, a new acquaintance on social media posted a request for early readers for a book manuscript he was working on. I was on break from teaching and my own studies, and so I offered to read a few chapters and give him feedback. I was pleasantly surprised by both the content and the quality of writing. The approach was fresh and fascinating: a combination of a spiritual journey memoir and an evaluation of the Christian worldview from the unique perspective of a Marine fighter-pilot. Ladd’s writing style drew me in immediately. When I was finished reading those few chapters, I knew the finished product would be a book I could recommend, particularly for guys out there who might not read much non-fiction material, but are intrigued by the military (or in military service themselves).

In One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot’s Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview, Ladd’s descriptions of his fighter-pilot missions, training exercises, and world travels are interesting (actually, quite riveting at many points) and still relevant to the overarching goal of his book, which is to explain how he came to embrace Christian truth claims. Even when he’s recounting more mundane parts of his personal story, the prose is never dry.  The core doctrine and apologetics content is solid, and Ladd provides end-note citations for each chapter.

I highly recommend One of the Few. I think it would make an excellent Father’s Day (or graduation) gift! (But you should get a copy for yourself, too.)

Amazon link—>

Women Deacons and Apostles in the Letters of Paul: Gender Roles in the Church Part 3

In my first post in this series, I highlighted what I believe are some of the central issues to be considered when exploring the role of women in the church, and in the second post I examined the place of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. In this third installment, we’ll take a look at notable women mentioned by Paul, and my upcoming final installment will analyze Paul’s instructions about women (1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy) in light of all the evidence previously examined. The argument I’m attempting to develop in this series is that taking Paul’s statements about restrictions on women in isolation from other Scripture and then applying them to all people, in all churches, in all times, and in all places is a misunderstanding of Paul’s intention.

(And just to reiterate before I proceed: this topic is not my personal soapbox; I am simply doing my best to publicly and clearly articulate my position out of a sense of responsibility as a woman in ministry. I hope doing so will be a help to those who wrestle with the issue. Please see my comments on this in Part 1.)

Recall what I pointed out in Part I concerning the tension that is apparent between the various passages on women in the church. I believe resolution of this tension is key to a correct understanding of what Paul’s view actually is. First, let’s look at the kinds of roles held by two of the women who are specifically named and esteemed by Paul. 

Phoebe the Deacon and Junia the Apostle

In Romans 16:1, Paul says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.

The Greek term that is translated here as “servant” is diakonos, which occurs 29 times in the New Testament, sometimes translated as “minister” and sometimes “deacon.” It’s the same term that Paul uses to describe himself in Ephesians 3:7-10:

of which I was made a minister [diakonos], according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. (Emphasis, mine.)

One might even argue that Paul’s description of his duties (preaching and teaching) are at least partly characteristic of the responsibilities of a diakonos. Does this mean that his words in Ephesians 3 could reasonably be considered indicative of some of Phoebe’s duties? I don’t think that’s a stretch, given that the same term is used in both places. Now, I am not a Greek scholar. I acknowledge that there may by linguistic reasons why diakonos is translated as “servant” in some places and “minister” or “deacon” in others.

In I Timothy 3:8-13, Paul says this about the specific office of Deacons: 

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.



I find it remarkable that women are included as the recipients of these instructions on the office of deacon. Some commentators have tried to make a distinction within this passage and say that Paul is talking about “deacons” and “women” completely separately; but that strikes me as a very strange handling of the passage. If Paul intended such a distinction, it seems completely illogical to plop the statement about women right in the middle of his short discourse on deacons. Rather than making a distinction, it seems to me that Paul is being pointedly inclusive of women in his words about the diaconate.

Go back and look again at the above-mentioned passage from Romans, and pay careful attention to what Paul says to the Roman church concerning Phoebe. He exhorts them to “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you.” She is to be received with honor and respect, and they (not just the women!) are to help her with whatever she needs in her ministry. Obviously, Phoebe is a servant leader in the church. 

Perhaps it could be argued that even if Phoebe is a deacon proper, her duties as a female deacon would have been different from those of a male deacon. That seems speculative; as Dr. Ben Witherington, in his work, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, says: 

Phoebe is not only a Christian sister, she is also a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, one of the ports of Corinth. The form ousan diakonon suggests that she had an ongoing ministry. She seems to be the first mentioned deacon in Christian history. She should not be called a deaconess because the masculine form of the word is used here and because the specific order of women church workers called deaconesses did not exist for another three hundred years. (p. 382)

In Romans 16:7, Paul very briefly mentions a woman by the name of Junia, who he says is “outstanding among the apostles” (NASB). Some Bible translations phrase the passage to read “well known to the apostles,” which communicates something a bit different. Which rendering is correct? N.T. Wright argues that recent scholarship has shown that the passage cannot mean “to the apostles.” Moreover, there is solid evidence that the very early church understood the passage to mean that Junia, like Andronicus (possibly her husband), was a well-known apostle. For example, an early Church Father, John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 AD), wrote, “Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be counted worthy even to be called an apostle.” (It is also worth noting that, as Bishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom put a female deacon, Olympias, in charge of all the deacons serving at the great basilica of Hagia Sophia.) 

I have to (briefly) mention the fact that some translators have used “Junias,” a male name, in this passage. However, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this name; it never occurs in any ancient literature or inscriptions, while the name Junia occurs hundreds of times. 

These are not the only two women that Paul mentions in his epistolary greetings and exhortations, but they are the two that play most strongly into the question of women’s roles in the church.

Stay tuned for Part 4, where I’ll compare/contrast this data with the prohibitions in I Corinthians 11 and I Timothy 2, and hash out what the cultural context of these letters means for a correct understanding of how they apply to churches in other places and times.


The Life of the Mind: Commanded and Commissioned (Audio Recording)

On Mother’s Day Sunday, I gave a sermon entitled, “The Life of the Mind: Commanded and Commissioned.” It is an exhortation to all Christ-followers along with an explanation of how a strong life of the mind is important to the vocation of motherhood.  You can go HERE to listen on my church’s website, or you can go to our iTunes page HERE and download it for free. Just for fun, here’s a photo from that day.  :-)


Photo Credit: Tom Liskey

Women in the Ministry of Jesus: Gender Roles in the Church Part 2

In my previous post, I shared a bit about my experience with the gender roles controversy and emphasized the need for careful resolution of the tension we find among the biblical texts that relate to women in the church. I now wish to examine some of the Scriptural evidence pertaining to the status and responsibilities of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. (In part 3, I’ll deal with Paul’s epistles.)

 We certainly shouldn’t minimize the fact that The Twelve—the dozen men Jesus hand-picked to be his principal learners and leaders—were all men; that is significant. But, we also cannot ignore the fact that there were others, including women, who learned and ministered under the direction of Jesus. They were part of his travelling entourage (Luke 8:1-3), carried out duties that would eventually be done by deacons and deaconesses, and, as we will see later, some were collectively referred to as disciples, as well. This was extremely counter-cultural! As Dr. Ben Witherington puts it: “For a Jewish woman, the possibility of being a disciple of a great teacher, of being a travelling follower of Jesus, of remaining single ‘for the sake of the Kingdom,’ or even of being a teacher of the faith to persons other than children, were all opportunities that did not exist prior to her entrance into the community of Jesus.”

christ-samaritan-woman-at-well-living-water-simon-dewey-3Jesus turned both the religious and social norms upside down, and where women were concerned, His actions were undeniably equalizing. Recall the account of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). As far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were unclean half-breeds, and moreover, Jewish men were not supposed to speak to strange women in public. What does our Lord Jesus do? He sits down with a promiscuous Samaritan woman out in broad daylight at the town’s common water well and has one of the most important theological discussions recorded in John’s Gospel. He explicitly identifies Himself to her as the Messiah! She abandons her water jar and runs into the town to tell everyone who will listen—and many believed based upon her testimony (4:39). A woman was the first evangelist to Sychar in Samaria.

I wish I knew her name.

Throughout my latest study of women in the Gospel narratives, what has surprised me is realizing how often I’ve made a mistaken generalization instead of carefully identifying who the Gospel writers meant to include when they used the word “disciples” in any particular passage. When I’m reading along and come to the phrase “the disciples” or “His disciples,” my mind automatically registers that as “The Twelve.” I know there were more disciples than The Twelve; I’m just saying that when I’m reading the Gospels, my brain defaults to the exclusive circle all too often as I’m trying to rush forward to the main point of the passage (shame on me).

There’s one particular cross reference that I really like. The synoptic Gospels record Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection. For example, in Matthew 16:21 we read, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Compare this to Mark 8:27-34, where a distinction is made between what Jesus says to the disciples (including the death/resurrection prediction) before he calls the general crowd to him. My point is, the Scripture tells us that the disciples were the ones that he spoke his prediction to (he voiced this prediction several times, and it should be noted that at least once it was to The Twelve, exclusively). But then notice what happens immediately after his resurrection, when the prophecy has come true.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women (“the women who had come with Him from Galilee”—Luke 23:55) set off to embalm Jesus’ body:

 Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Emphasis, mine.)

Take note: the angels tell the women to recall what Jesus told them would happen. This indicates that when Jesus foretold to “his disciples” his betrayal, death, and resurrection, the women were included in that group. The women ran back to tell The Eleven (Judas is gone) about what the angels had told them at the open, empty tomb. Women were the first to discover and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord risen.  

Women, whose testimony wasn’t of much worth in that culture, were entrusted by God with the most important message in all of human history, and they delivered it to the men who had been closest to Jesus.

And the men thought they had made it all up.

I wonder if there was ever an “I told you so.”  ;-)