I have been waiting for the “right time” to post this.
To be honest, I’m not sure I knew what indicators I was looking for that would mark that moment, but after reading Desiring God‘s hatchet job of a review of Rachel Held Evans’ new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I thought now was as good as time as any.
In the review. Rachel’s critic attempts to make the case that Rachel’s literalist approach to the Bible wasn’t being faithful to what scripture “actually” says.
While that in and of itself is an incredibly ironic criticism, what I find particularly ironic about this reviewer’s critique, along the position held by so many that women should, effectively, be “silent in the church,” is the fact that if they had their way there would be no Christian faith to begin with.
To put it another way, if today’s so-called “complimentarian” churches had been around that first Easter morning, there would be no Church today.
How well do you remember the Easter story?
Or perhaps I should say, Easter stories, because if you look carefully there are differences in each gospel writer’s account, specifically in the number of people that came to check on the tomb that morning. But there is one fact that all the gospel writers agree on.
Women were there while the men cowered in fear behind locked doors.
There’s also another fact the gospel writers all agree on – when the women at the tomb realized Jesus had risen he gave them clear instructions to “go and tell.”
If you ask me, that sounds a whole lot Jesus’ other famous “great commission.” Except, when Jesus told the other disciples to “go” into all the world, they didn’t yet have the full gospel to preach.
It’s not until after the resurrection that the “good news” is ready to be proclaimed to the world and the first people commissioned by Jesus himself to go and preach this greatest of news were not men.
They were women.
If that’s not a ordination service happening that first Easter morning, then I don’t know what it is.
Now, I’m sure there are many of you who may be wanting to cry foul because this bestowal of authority doesn’t look exactly like the ordination service you’ve seen or, like me, the services you’ve been a part of.
Let me assure you that that’s ok because those services don’t look exactly like what Jesus did either. But that too is ok, because the fundamental issue at hand is still the same. Both for Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples and our ordination services today, ordination is fundamentally about the bestowal of authority.
This sort of bestowal is exactly what we witness at the empty tomb. If the resurrected Jesus thought only men should have this authority, then he just as easily could bypassed the women altogether, appeared first at the home where the disciples were hiding, then waited for the women to arrive panic stricken from finding an empty tomb, and then commissioned the men to explain what happened.
But Jesus intentionally met the women at the tomb and intentionally bestowed authority upon them to preach the gospel.
Now, let me pause to address two issues that some may see in my argument.
The first is in regards to the administration of the sacraments, namely baptism and the eucharist. This administrative authority is part and parcel to any modern ordination service, the idea being that we are echoing Jesus’ command, or bestowal of authority, to his disciples to perform these rituals. However, the formality we attend to such bestowal of authority is not found in the gospels. Jesus simply tells his followers to “go” and do likewise, much the same as he told the women at the tomb to “go” and tell.
If we are going to connect the administration of the sacraments to the authority to preach based on Jesus’ command to “go” and do, then there is nothing precluding us from extending that same connection to women whom he also explicitly called to “go” and do. Perhaps ironically, the justification for doing so is found is the second issue I anticipate being raised against my argument for the ordination of women: Jesus’ 12 disicples were all men.
It’s true that the 12 disciples specifically listed in the gospels were all men, but me must keep in mind that the gospels also 1) record Jesus sending out 70 apostles whose gender isn’t mentioned, 2) make it clear that Jesus also had female disciples, i.e. Mary and Martha, and 3) were written and edited by men with a profoundly patriarchal view of the world.
But none of those things captures what should be for us today the real issue at hand – after the resurrection everything changed because the world was being made new.
We live post-resurrection and therefore must take into account what Jesus said and did after he walked out of the tomb. In that post-resurrection world we see a Jesus who boldly ordains women to preach the good news to the very men he previously ordained, but who were now hiding in fear because they didn’t really understand what that good news was all about.
In other words, men dropped the ball, so Jesus handed it off to women.
The key point here is that merely relying on the pre-resurrection narrative as a justification for not ordaining women is to render both the event itself as well as the transforming power of the resurrection totally and completely irrelevant.
But there’s more.
Both Peter and Paul, yes even Paul, clearly supported this post-resurrection way of looking at the world.
Peter, for instance, had his famous vision in Acts wherein a sheet descended from heaven full of unclean food he was told to eat. When he refused, God reminded him that a new day had dawned and new rules were being put into place.
Later on, in his first epistle, after the ramifications of this new day had had more time to sink in, Peter reminds the church that through Jesus we are all members of a new, royal priesthood. Did you catch that? He said all. No gender usage there. He could have said all men, but he didn’t. That should tell us something.
Even Paul, the apparent champion of “complimentarianism,” actually had pretty radical views about post-resurrection identity and equality. As he puts it so beautifully in his epistle to the church in Galatia,
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Not exactly the words of a man convinced women had less standing in the church than men.
Now, yes, there are passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy wherein Paul talks about women not speaking or teaching in the church, but I have serious doubts about the all encompassing nature of these apparent commands to the church.
First, they appear to be very situationally specific, particularly in the case of the church in Corinth where female prophets were known to disrupt what were at that point in the church’s history essentially just small group gatherings in people’s homes and thus easily prone to disruption. Secondly, while the case could be made from the Timothy passage that the command is more broad based, it simply doesn’t jive with everything else Paul has to say about women in the church.
Paul is clear from both the Galatians passages as well as numerous other passages, that coming to Christ results in a fundamentally new identity which transcends all previous identity markers. Likewise, in every single one of his letters Paul is careful to thank specific women for their leadership in their local church. If Paul truly had no place for women in church leadership, then it would make no sense for him to go out of his way to thank them for taking on that very role of church leadership he supposedly prohibited. Which makes me come to the conclusion that either a) his words were intended for a specific situation or b) his words were not his own, but commands redacted later by followers uncomfortable with the thought of being led by a woman, or as Jesus would might say, they were uncomfortable with the last being first and the first being last.
Ultimately, though, there is a choice to be made between Paul and Jesus, between a literalist interpreation that seeks to limit the meaning of scripture to the letters on the page and a spiritual reading that the church has preferred for 2,000 which frees the Spirit to grant the people of God access into the deeper mysteries of God’s truth. This doesn’t mean we wholesale abandon everything in the Bible in favor of the “red letters of Jesus.” Far from it.
What it means is that we follow the ancient tradition of the church, admit that there are difficult and sometimes seemingly contradictory passages in scripture, and learn to recognize that, in the words of the great church father Origen, the difficulties that arise in the literal sense of the text have been placed there by the Holy Spirit to challenge us to dig deeper into the Spirit of the word, so that we can might in Wisdom, and so become the people God created us to be.
I know that there are many who will not agree with what my reading of scripture, but if the great reformers of the church were right, that there are moments in the life of the church when we much pause and ask ourselves whether or not what we are doing truly lines up with the teachings of Jesus or is simply our own cultural tradition, if that reflective work should be the ongoing responsibility of the church, then I believe the time has come for some serious and honest reflection about how the Body of Christ views and treats half of her members.
With that in mind I want to close with this though.
I am acutely aware that what I am saying flies in the face of what is for many nearly 2,000 years of church tradition.
But, if ordaining women to preach the gospel is wrong, then Jesus himself stands condemned.
Grace and peace,