Our family spent summers going to Gilbert Lake, a small lake about 15 minutes from our house. Though there were several lifeguard stations, only one had a certain whistle. That whistle was blown to alert everyone that someone had gone under the water and not come back up. When we heard that whistle, everyone present lined up along the shore, linked arms and started dredging the lake. The hope was that one of us would bump into the person who had gone under in time to save his or her life.
Can you imagine the person under water looking at the line and saying something like, “Man, I can’t have that black guy save me!” or “I can’t have a woman save me!”?
Absurd, right? And can you imagine if someone on the shore refused to link arms with people because they weren’t the right age, color, shape, religious belief or gender? Again, absurd. Because then there’d be a gap in the line, and that gap may very well be where the person lay under water—dying.
Figuratively speaking, a whole lot of people have sunk under the water, dying little deaths and big deaths all over the place. There are people outside and inside our churches drowning. Those people can’t afford for us Christians to stand on the shore fighting or dredging the lake with gaps in the line because we’re too busy arguing over who gets to do what.
As Dorothy Sayers wrote, when it comes to doing life- and soul-saving work in the Kingdom of God: “As we cannot afford to squander our natural resources of minerals, food and beauty, so we cannot afford to discard any human resources of brains, skills and initiative, even though it is women who possess them.”
And yet, as I followed my calling to teach the Word of God to those who desperately needed to hear it—to be saved by it—I realized just how many of my fellow believers didn’t mind these “gaps in the line” of Kingdom work and who were willing to let people “drown” rather than hear the Gospel from the wrong kind of preacher—a preacher like me.
The Church is crippled by the male-female divide. Commentator Carolyn Custis James says, “When men are called to full-fledged Kingdom living but the other half of the Church is asked to sit on the sidelines, there is no Blessed Alliance, the Bride of Christ limps, and we misinterpret God’s oneness.”
Maybe it’s time for a fundamental rethink how we interpret what the Bible says regarding women leading and participating fully in Jesus’ Kingdom. And we can start by looking at common ways we misinterpret the Bible in this are:
Thinking Women Are Secondary to Male Leaders
Man and woman were created by God to be in community and to image the Godhead.
In Genesis 1:26–27, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule … So God created humankind in His own image … male and female He created them.” Genesis 3:22 states, “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us.’”
God is a plural, dynamic reality, not a singular, static one. Within God’s self, there is giving and receiving, affecting and being affected—mutuality. The creation of man and woman reflects the community of our Triune God.
In Genesis 2:18 God called woman a suitable helper, ezer kenego. Dr. Bernd Wannenwetsch of Oxford University states, “‘kenego’ incorporates the idea of face-to-face opposition.” Woman is more like man than any other creation (Genesis 2:22-24), yet different enough to bring him out of self and into community. In community, they will represent God, govern for God and relate to the world in redemptive ways.
Woman was created to be man’s warrior partner against evil. Pointing again to Genesis 2:18, our Creator said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a suitable helper (ezer kenego).”
The common, patriarchal, interpretation is that man leads and woman supports his leadership in an assistant role. A more complex story emerges, however, when we consider, rather than the modern interpretation of “helper,” the word ezer as it is used in the Old Testament. Ezer is used 20 times in the Old Testament, most often to reference God, and frequently to reference warriors and battle. Some prime examples of this can be found in:
Deuteronomy 33:29 (shield, helper, glorious sword)
Psalm 70:5 (provider, deliverer)
Psalm 89:19 (strength of a warrior)
Psalm 121:1 (protection)
These images challenge the common caricature of the ideal biblical woman as sweet, pure and receptive. For, words such as protect, provide, warrior, and strength are military terms. Carolyn Custis James explains the necessity of military language: “Despite the sermons we’ve heard, Eden was not a safe place. There are ‘dangerous trees’ [and]… hidden in the shadows, like Typhon of Greek mythology is the reptilian ‘father of all monsters.’”
Evil is ready and waiting to break this dynamic duo in Paradise, and Satan sees his opportunity to destroy right there in the original union: to break God’s governing principles, he would have to create adversaries out of allies. And, I propose, this is his continued plan of attack throughout history.
Overlooking How Jesus Called Women
In a culture where women were forbidden to study the Torah, Jesus invited them to “sit at His feet.” (Luke 10:38-42). In a culture where women’s work was entirely confined to the home, Jesus invited women to travel as ministers (Luke 8:1-3). In a culture where women were considered unreliable, Jesus invited them to witness (to men) the epic event of the resurrection.
Theologians. Ministers. Preachers. Culture might limit women leaders, but Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world—in Jesus’ world, women lead. Jesus’ very purpose was to redeem, restore and renew what was lost in the fall.
Taking Verses About Women in Church Out of Context
Paul’s apparently restrictive passages regarding women must be considered within the meta-narrative of the Garden and Gospel narratives highlighted above, as well as Paul’s own life example.
Paul frequently worked alongside women serving in leadership roles. There were Euodia and Syntyche, Lydia, Phoebe (who likely was the courier of the Roman epistle and the first to interpret it to her listeners), Priscilla, Chloe and Junia, to mention a few. These women were leaders, preachers, apostles and deacons.
So why the current focus on a few restrictive texts, namely 1 Timothy 2:12, which says, “Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them” and 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says, “Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak.”
In the words of Sesame Street, “one of these things just doesn’t belong” with the others. In light of the example he lived, I think we should view Paul’s prohibitive texts as contextual, rather than continual, a chapter in the book, not the whole story.
The Kingdom of God has begun but it is not fully realized—yet. It will be (Revelation 19, 21 and 22), but for now, we struggle toward that glorious future. The Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ have left us signposts pointing the way. The journey has been—and will continue to be—complicated and messy.
But make no mistake about it, there’s a movement of the Spirit. When God moves, the impossible becomes possible (Luke 18:27). God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion” (Genesis 1:26). Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.