I am wrapping up teaching a course on the theology of Paul. One of our last topics was Paul’s view of women in ministry. He says some tough things in the Pastorals, which usually leads to one of two responses from us. Either we deny women the upper roles of leadership in the church and thus pay some sort of lip service to Paul (hardly anyone really has women be silent in the church, how in the world could Sunday School exist if no women taught?). Or we ignore Paul.
In the course of the discussion I mentioned the great (not really, but it should be) Junia conspiracy from Rom. 16 (that’s a post for another day), where she gets a gender change by modern translators because Paul calls her an apostle (4 in 5 chance the closest Bible to you right now gets this wrong, except the old KJV, which has it right oddly enough) which led to one student asking me these questions (I don’t have anything else parenthetical to say in this run-on sentence, but 4 makes a personal record I think). “Can a woman be an apostle? Can a woman have authority in the church?” I thought my response came out well enough that you might want to read it too.
Well, the first thing I would say is that we need to completely recast how we think about authority in the church. The only one who gets to “have” authority (possess it) is the Holy Spirit. The rest of us just get to exercise it as the Spirit sees fit. If we walk outside of this, we are being disobedient (and yes I think disobedience is rampant in the church. Thankfully we serve a gracious God.)
The second thing I will say is that authority in the church should always look like the authority Jesus displayed – servant leadership. He made a big deal of this when He washed the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13) but most of our leaders pretend this never happened.
Given those two statements, I would say yes, women can and do exercise authority in the church. In fact, I think this happens a lot now, where the true ministry and kingdom growth is going on in children’s Sunday School, in food pantries, in so many ways that “fly under the radar” of the big powerful pastors and deacons who are busy wielding their power and building their little fiefdoms and not doing God’s work, not building Christ’s kingdom at all. And I am an elder so I am judging myself here as much as anyone. It breaks my heart all the time we waste playing power games in church.
Jesus came and turned all these power structures upside down. We work so hard to turn them back over and get back to comfortable. We need Jesus to stand us on our heads again. Always.
So here’s a prayer you could join me in: Jesus please break us of our power addiction. Make us uncomfortable. Make us feet washers. May our leaders be servants and our servants leaders. Fill us with the perspective of John the Baptizer: let us decrease so you can increase. Raise up the voices of the disenfranchised in Your church. Let Your women lead. Let people of all ethnicities have a place and a place of influence in our communities. Forgive those of us who have abused our privilege and not spoken up for those who aren’t heard. Forgive us for not calling to account those who misuse the Scriptures to oppress the very people you came to set free. Let your kingdom come and the social reversal it brings spread. Teach us to trust you and trust each other. Enable us to practice justice. Empower us to reject all worldly forms of dehumanizing power and live in unity and equality under Your loving rule. Amen.