They are the verses of Scripture used most frequently to silence women in the church: 1 Timothy 2:11-12. I remember reading them as a 26-year-old when first contemplating my call to ministry. God’s voice had been clear, but those three short sentences were not; “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit her to teach or have authority over a man. She. Must. Be. Silent.”
I’d sat there reading the passage over and over; trying to find something I hadn’t seen before. The black and white lettering seemed so stark, so clear; so… black and white. Why would Paul say such a thing? In my church, Paul’s instructions were taken literally. Women weren’t permitted to speak whenever men were present. They couldn’t lead, teach or even pray. Growing up, those words hadn’t particularly bothered me, but now they smarted like lemon juice in an open cut. No matter how I read them, the conclusion was still the same – I couldn’t follow God’s call.
An Invitation to Learn
As a pastor today, it’s obvious that my understanding of those few verses have long since changed. Though I didn’t know it back then, I’d been reading Paul’s instructions as a 21stC woman influenced by modern ideals. When Paul first wrote those words to Timothy, his audience would have heard them very differently. While I was reeling from Paul’s admonition to be silent, they would have been reeling from Paul’s admonition to learn.
In the past 20 years, I’ve had all sorts of responses to people when I’ve told them what I do for a living:
“What? You’re a pastor?”
“What do you mean – like in a church?”
“Do you think God called you because there was no man available?”
“Are you in rebellion?”
The next question (if there is one – sometimes people just change the subject or walk away) is usually: So how does it feel to be a woman in ministry? Even though the denomination I’m ordained in (the Australian Christian Churches) has always held an egalitarian position towards women in ministry, I’m still a bit of an anomaly – both in the church world and more so, in wider society.
After sharing my journey into ministry on the podcast last year (How Does it Feel to be a Woman in Ministry Part 1), in this episode, I talk a bit about the responses of others to a woman pastor – the good, the bad and the ugly(!) – and how I believe God is working in the midst of them. My purpose is not to self-indulge, but to offer some understanding on the challenges we face in the church and how we can work towards the vision God gave us in creation where men and women are pictured working in harmony to steward the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). It’s a podcast about being a woman in church leadership, but it’s not just for women – for whatever happens in the lives of women, radically affects the lives of men!
Back in the first century it wasn’t normal for men and women to be friends. They didn’t meet for coffee in morning tea breaks or discuss current affairs over the water-cooler. They didn’t sit next to each other in the synagogues and swap ideas about their theology. They certainly didn’t discuss their spiritual lives by the village well.
That’s why the actions and behaviours of Jesus with the Samaritan woman were so radical. Even his disciples couldn’t fathom his socialising with a woman, let alone one with such a scandalous reputation (John 4:27). Somehow Jesus managed to interact with the opposite sex in a healthy way, even being alone with them in a public setting.
Jesus shows us that it is possible to engage meaningfully with our male counterparts. In the radically new equality of the kingdom he inaugurated, it’s not surprising. It’s when men and women relate together that they are seen to fully represent the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). So the question is how.
Kissing Your Brother
Here, I believe, the writings of Paul are helpful. At one point Paul is advising his young mentoree Timothy how to pastor a mixed congregation; “Treat younger men as brothers,” he writes; “Older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:1a,2). Paul of course was writing from a man’s perspective, but we can easily switch it around to apply to us. If Timothy was to treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters, then we should treat older men as fathers and younger men as brothers. We should ask; how do we act towards our brothers? and then interact with men who are not our husbands or boyfriends in the same way.
Some of the best friendships of my life have been with men.
I think of Paul who invited me to share his church offices when I first set out to plant my church. We met as students in one of our Masters classes. He was the short geeky one; funny, well-loved and smart. Half a decade older, he was also more skilled in ministry than I, having planted his own church and flexed his pastoral muscles for years. During the week we would discuss theological points in our sermons and on Monday mornings, we would debrief our services over smiley cupcakes from the local bakery. Paul was there to reassure me when the numbers were down and provide advice about the drunk who gate-crashed my service. He was first on my church board and led my commissioning when I left.
I think of Aaron, an ex-navy guy, who when he first entered my church was aghast to see a “chick up the front”, but managed to stay on in spite of it. He was the one of the first to get on board with the vision, to offer his home for fellowship and share the preaching roster on Sundays. At Christmas time, he demonstrated his true loyalty when he rocked a Santa suit at our community outreach just because I asked him.
Should a woman ask a man out on a date? I asked this question once to a class full of young and hip ministry students. The overwhelming majority objected without a hiccup. “No. Never!” one guy declared with rock-solid conviction. “That’s such a turnoff!” said another crossing his arms.
“What about Ruth?” I quizzed.
The book of Ruth has one of only two courtship stories in the Bible, with the shocking twist of the main character Ruth proposing to love interest Boaz. There’s not even any subtlety here. After a pep-talk by her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth puts on her finery, spruces herself with perfume and heads out to Boaz’s place to pop the question. She didn’t even ask him for a date first.
Sometimes people try to dummy down Ruth’s actions. Well, she didn’t actually ask him, she just said to; ‘spread the corner of his robe over her’ (a metaphor for asking him); Well it was only after he left her some grain on the corner of his field (the law required him to do so). But Ruth’s actions and intent are clear. She did the asking.
Unsurprisingly the men in my class were unable to give a Scriptural answer for their objections. The idea of the man asking the woman out (and not the other way around) is not a biblical mandate. This modern courtship dance does not come out of our Bibles or out of divine revelation. It comes out of our traditional gender roles.