“In the last days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”
-Acts 2:17-18 (NIV)
I’m looking forward, in just a couple of weeks, to attending the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Before you say that a bunch of people talking about the Bible for 4 ½ days doesn’t sound like much fun, keep in mind that Pepperdine University is located in Malibu, CA, just across Pacific Coast Highway from the Pacific Ocean. The scenery’s beautiful, the weather’s nice, and the food at a little shack called Malibu Seafood tastes like it jumped right out of the ocean and onto your plate.
Oh, and the speakers and classes should be pretty good, too.
Actually, it’s one of the speakers particularly that I’m looking forward to. Her name is Sara Barton, and I was in college with her. After graduation, Sara and her husband John were part of a mission team to Uganda. After that, they both came to Rochester College, near Detroit, as part of the faculty. Now they’re at Pepperdine, where John teaches in the Religion department and Sara is University Chaplain.
At the Lectures this year, Sara will become the first woman to deliver one of the keynote addresses.
I know that, in 2015, “first woman to…” do pretty much anything sounds a little strange, at best. But the Churches of Christ, with which Pepperdine is associated, like many churches, has historically struggled with the public role that women are encouraged to take on in the church. A lot of this difficulty, in our case, is due to biblical texts like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14, which seem to limit women to roles in which they are not called upon to teach men. Some of it is likely due to traditional understandings of gender roles that have perhaps been allowed for too long to influence the discussion. A small percentage, very small, is probably due to lingering misogyny.
Few of our churches, including the one I serve, give women the opportunity to preach. A few more, but still not many, give women the opportunity to lead classes that include men. Some give women the opportunity to address classes on a case-by-case basis, and to address the church gathered for worship to ask for prayers or otherwise share what’s happening in their own lives. (My congregation more or less falls in here.) Some give women the opportunity to lead in other areas of worship, but not in preaching or teaching.
Most every congregation, though, gives women the freedom to speak in discussion-based Bible classes, which suggests perhaps that we know that when Paul says women are to be “silent,” he didn’t necessarily mean all the time, in every situation. In fact, in the same letter in which he says that women should “remain silent in the churches,” he also envisions situations in which women will be praying and giving prophecy.
A woman is called a “diakanon” in Romans 16, the same word that we translate “deacon” in other texts and apply to a position of church leadership. A few verses later, a woman might be mentioned as an “apostle.” There are women who give prophecy and teach in the book of Acts. And Acts begins, on the day Peter first proclaimed Jesus to a throng of people in Jerusalem, with the ringing claim that in Christ the day the prophet Joel promised had finally come: that the Spirit of God was being poured out on everyone, young and old, men and women alike.
So the biblical witness itself sometimes seems divided. On the one hand, it can’t possibly be denied that, in Jesus, God has announced a new day, the coming of a new kingdom where old hierarchies and power structures are wiped away. The story of Jesus is the good news that the social distinctions that mean so much to us, including those between men and women, and the inequalities that are a part of those distinctions, are overturned. Honestly, there is no reason theologically for us to believe that there should be anything but equality of opportunity for women in the church to serve and minister in every way men do.
Except that, in other places, the Bible seems to place those limits on them. And we don’t want to risk being wrong, even with the best of intentions. And so sometimes, in the name of biblical fidelity, we end up perpetuating stereotypes and inequalities that we’ve inherited from those who have come before us. So, in many churches, the work of the gospel to wipe away through the Holy Spirit the distinctions that human beings make between ourselves seems very much a work in progress — if it’s in progress at all.
Yet, now and then someone says, “Hey, maybe the Holy Spirit is leading us toward something here. Let’s follow along and see what it is.” I’m thankful that there are folks like Mike Cope, the director of the Bible Lectures, among the little group of believers I love so much. I’m thankful that Sara is willing to place herself a little bit in the firing line, too. And I think it’s the least I can do, in the small way that I can, to affirm this effort to think in biblical, gospel ways and move all of us to consider the kind of church that we think the good news of Jesus creates.
I don’t know all the answers. I do know, however, that there are women like Sara among us, called and gifted by God for ministry in ways that have traditionally been closed to women. I know that there are girls growing up among us who one day soon will wonder where they can put their God-given talents and gifts to work in the Kingdom. And I know that, as the church, we need to have a word of blessing, wisdom, and love for them.
I’ll say this: our children won’t put up with slipshod theology here. They won’t put up with rehashed interpretations of the text. If we ask them to resist the pressures of our world toward inclusivity in this area, we’d better have very good reasons for asking them to — reasons that we’ve studied and prayed about for ourselves, as communities of faith. If we don’t, they’re going to find it difficult to believe that the gospel we proclaim is authentic at all.
May we be found faithful.