Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)
Chapter 7 – Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels. By Aida Besancon Spencer.
Dr. Spencer opens this essay observing that both hierarchicalists and egalitarians agree that Jesus did much to affirm women and elevate their status. She identifies four ways she believes Jesus accomplished this transformation and the catalogs instances that illustrate this:
- First, Jesus’ conversations with women indicate his esteem for them. (128)
- Second, Jesus’ teachings are favorable to women. (128)
- Third, women form an important part of Jesus’ ministry, helping usher in the time of God’s rule. (128)
- Fourth, Jesus’ teachings and comments often take into consideration a woman’s perspective. (129)
All sides seem to agree on these assessments but Dr. Spencer believes that hierarchicalists have not taken into account the context of Jesus actions and worked through the implications. For instance, Spencer shows how Jewish rabbis taught that women should spend there time in the home occupied with economic matters of the household. Time spent in study of the law by women would detract from their household care. But as Dr. Spencer points out:
However, this emphasis on women’s remaining in the household as much as economically possible does not flow from any clear teaching in the Old Testament. (According to Deuteronomy 31:22 and Joshua 8:35 all people – Hebrew men, women, children and foreigners – were exhorted to attend regularly the reading of the Law.) Rather it reflects an inculturation [sic] from the larger pagan society that goes far back in time. (131)
Jesus does not treat women purely as homemakers. A woman declares to Jesus “Blessed is the woman who gave you birth and nursed you!” but Jesus retorts, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:27-28) It is Jesus who values Mary setting at his feet with other listeners over Martha’s insistence that Mary help here with the household chores typically expected of women. Jesus directly challenged the position assigned women in society.
Dr. Spencer then turns her attention to the claim that because Jesus twelve disciples were men that there can be only men in leadership. From Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, written in the fourth century, Spencer gives us this quote:
We do not permit our “women to teach in the Church,” but only to pray and hear those that teach; for out Master and Lord, Jesus Himself, when He sent us the twelve to make disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women to preach, although he did not want such. (133)
As Spencer points out, this argument is problematic at several levels. “First, it assumes that gender is the abiding precedent but does not extend this precedent to race or political state…” (133) If only men are allowed, then why not only Jewish men? After all Jesus could have selected Gentile men just as easily as he could have selected women. “Second, it assumes that what the biblical model does not establish it thereby prohibits. Yet although the biblical model establishes that men can be apostles, it does not establish that women cannot be. … In effect, if the text does not specifically say you may do something, then you may not.” (133) She goes on to note that, “Nowhere does Jesus say – or even imply in anything he says – that only men can be leaders in the church. Similarly, neither of the two ecumenical councils at Nicea and Chalcedon (A.D. 325 and 451) limits church leadership to men.” (134) “He [Jesus] does not teach that we will advance God’s reign by maintaining male-female distinctions in leadership.” (134)
Spencer presents us with the symbolic nature of the twelve apostles and their connection with Old Testament covenant. Spencer writes.
The twelve, who represent the twelve tribes, do so because they also represent the twelve patriarchs. Thus the Twelve could not have been other than Jewish free males. If there had been Gentiles or women or slaves among them, the deliberate reconstruction of Israel in Jesus himself, signaled by the father at his baptism (Mt 3:13-17), simply would not have worked. As an integral part of the ministry of Jesus, the Twelve represented not only the twelve patriarchs/tribes of Israel but also the newly constituted Israel under the new covenant in Christ. Consequently, the twelve cannot serve as precedents for Gentile leadership, which is what prevails in the church today. (136)
Spencer elaborates more in a lengthy discussion in a footnote 33 that shines even more light.
I am indebted to Gordon Fee for some of these observations. Fee further notes that during the whole of his ministry Jesus himself symbolically steps into the role of Israel, from his baptism (= Red Sea) and forty days in the desert to be tested (he overcame precisely where Israel failed), to his assuming the role both of Israel’s King-Messiah (Son of God; Ps 2:7) and of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, articulated for him in the voice from heaven at his baptism. And at the end he symbolically “cleanses” the temple and offers his own resurrection as the new locus of God’s presence among his people (Jn 2:22). With the twelve about him at the final meal, he reconstitutes the bread and wine of Passover to become a meal in which they will recall his death as effecting the new covenant. At the same time, the one certain “instruction” he gave to the Twelve is about their eschatological role in “judging” Israel (Lk 22:13-30). (136, fn 33)
Next, Dr. Spencer turns her attention to what distinguished someone as an apostle in the New Testament, including but not limited to the original twelve.
- "First, and apostle by definition is messenger, someone “sent off” with orders." (137)
- "Second, the first apostles had to have been “with” Jesus." (137)
- "Third, an apostle is an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ." (137)
- "Fourth, an apostle is commissioned to preach God’s reign: “As you go, proclaim this message: 'The kingdom heave has come near' (Mt 10:7; Mk 3:14; Lk 9:2). Preaching (kerysso) is never action prohibited to women." (137)
Spencer notes that, “After Jesus' death and resurrection, apostle was broadened to refer to other disciples who had been with Jesus and now were sent off as witnesses to the resurrection. And in the new covenant era the apostolic witness includes both women and men.” (137)
So how did people like James (Jesus’ brother), Barnabas, Andronicus and Junia become apostles? They were most likely among the 500 witnesses Christ appeared to and commissioned after the resurrection as mentioned 1 Cor 15:3-8 and in Acts 1. As we saw with women like Mary and Martha, there were women who sat under Jesus’ teaching, were witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, and were among those commissioned to take the good news to the whole world. In fact, one of the most astonishing aspects of the gospel story is thata culture where a woman’s testimony was not valid in a court of law, God sent women messengers from the tomb to announce the good news of the most momentous event in human history.
Dr. Spencer writes:
When scholars disqualify women from church leadership by using the twelve male apostles as precedents, they ignore the significance both of their number (twelve) and their Jewishness, and they dismiss the importance of women’s functioning as “apostles” and of Junia’s being titled an “apostle.” Why choose the Twelve and not, for example, the loyal Galilean women as paradigmatic of all leadership, since after Pentecost the rest of the Twelve (after Judas) are not replaced after their deaths in Acts (e.g. Acts 12:2)? If their particular ministry was not perpetuated, how can the Twelve serve as a precedent for church leadership today? (140)
I very much appreciate Dr. Spencer's insights in this essay. It is so easy to get lost all the details of a given passage but if hierarchical status of men and women was so critical the functioning of the Kingdom why was Jesus compeletly silent about it? Furthermore, why did he engage in practices that directly undermined it? I also appreciate the analysis she gave of the purpose for selecting the twelve Jewish men.
(For further reading on women in the New Testament I would suggest Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View by Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. (Acrobat .pdf))
Aida Bescancon Spencer received her M.Div. and Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conewll Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. She also serves as pastor of organization with Pilgrim Church, Beverly, Massachusetts. Her publications include Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry and Paul’s Literary Style. With her husband, William David Spencer, she has also written The Global God, Joy Through the Night and the Prayer Life of Jesus. Aida and William have one grown son.
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