On Women and Slaves (Red Letter Year: 11/21)

John 11.32-44

45 Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus when they saw this happen. 46 But some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”

49 Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! 50 You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”

51 He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation. 52 And not only for that nation, but to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world.

53 So from that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death. 54 As a result, Jesus stopped his public ministry among the people and left Jerusalem. He went to a place near the wilderness, to the village of Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples.

55 It was now almost time for the Jewish Passover celebration, and many people from all over the country arrived in Jerusalem several days early so they could go through the purification ceremony before Passover began. 56 They kept looking for Jesus, but as they stood around in the Temple, they said to each other, “What do you think? He won’t come for Passover, will he?” 57 Meanwhile, the leading priests and Pharisees had publicly ordered that anyone seeing Jesus must report it immediately so they could arrest him.

Comments

The raising of Lazarus added quite a few followers to Jesus’ tribe, which had taken some hits in the previous chapters. But there is almost immediate backlash from the religious leaders who see the raising of Lazarus, not as something to be celebrated, but as a threat. They claim to be looking out for the good of the people, but they employ specious logic in v.48. It does not logically follow that a mass conversion to Jesus would bring on the wrath of the Romans. At no point had Jesus challenged Rome or acted in any way like the numerous political instigators that plagued Judea during this period.

This is a classic non sequitur, where any change from the status quo is seen by the protectors of said status quo as the harbinger of whatever their worst fears are, whether any causal relationship exists or not. The religious leaders’ worst fear was a Roman crackdown and the loss “our” Temple and “our” nation (see those possessives in v.48?). Like all guardians of status quos, what they really feared most was losing their place of influence and control. Leaving Jesus unchecked would have caused that, so in order to remove him, they projected a worst case scenario to rationalize their violence.

And so they begin to plot the death of the man who just raised another man from the dead. The irony seems lost on them. It was not lost on John’s first readers though, for whom the destruction of the Temple was a recent event, fresh in their minds. By not leaving Jesus alone they accomplished what Caiaphas accidentally prophesied in v.50 and they in no way stayed the destruction of what they presumed to own.

So the real story is Jesus threatened their power and position, so Jesus had to go. But they cloaked their motives under guise of care for Temple and nation. Or as Richard III put it: “But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture, / Tell them that God bids us do good for evil; / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” This is just the sort of move we have seen time and again in church history, where protecters of status quos far removed from the kingdom Jesus established misuse Scripture to sanctify the very evil actions Jesus died to bring an end to. Church leaders take their ethic from Caiaphas as often as from Jesus.

In addition to the clear villains willing to sacrifice others to maintain their power (does it get more ironic than crucifying in the name of Jesus?), there are also a lot of well-meaning, sincere people who fall for the pious language and self-referential, self-serving logic. For example: “no household is perfect under the gospel which does not contain all the grades of authority and obedience, from that of husband and wife, down through that of father and son, to that of master and servant.” This is from an 1861 sermon extolling the “biblical” view of slavery (click here to read the whole thing, you may find the arguments all too familiar). I suspect in this case the pastor himself was less a villain and more a well-meaning man caught up in the logic that slavery was God’s will, because look it says so right there in the Bible.

The hermeneutic (method of interpretation) Rev. Wilson used to sanctify slavery in 1861 is exactly the same that is used now to make suppressing and subjugating women in the church seem holy too. You can see it in that same quote. Husbands are to wives as masters are to slaves. Same logic. Same way of reading the Bible. We even have an intellectual, religious, and sanctified sounding word for it: complementarianism. Woo. Word that big has to mean something true and important, doesn’t it? It stands in for the idea that God created men and women with different natural roles that complement each other. Many who hold this view go so far as to argue that such difference and role assignment also exists in the Trinity, of which ours is a reflection since we are made in the divine image. And according to God’s own nature and design for humanity, men are made to lead (mirroring God the Father who is charge of the Trinity), and women are made to follow (mirroring the Son and/or Holy Spirit, both of whom are subordinate to the Father).

This logic dictates two things that sometimes (not always) go unspoken: that men and women are not complete outside a marriage relationship (we need each other’s complementation to reflect the divine image), and that ‘different but equal’ marks the nature of men and women and also of the members of the Trinity. But the logic here is as specious and status-quo-protecting as what the Pharisees were using. It fails in a couple key theological areas:

  1. The ideas of difference and/or subordination within the Trinity have always been regarded as heresy. We are working in a highly theoretical area here (trying to talk about the inner life of God no less, which by the way, is a dicey place to build a moral position), but both of these ideas have been rejected since the doctrine of the Trinity first emerged. To the best of our finite understanding, the members of the Trinity are separate, equal, interpenetrating, and at all points co-workers in whatever God does. There are no roles in the Godhead and there is no existential or functional subordination. They mutually submit to and glorify each other, existing in a perpetual, infinite dance of love.
  2. The idea that any single human person is not fully created in the image of God, that a marriage relationship is required to reflect the divine image is also heresy. Why? Because Jesus. Jesus is both the full revelation of God to humans and also the full revelation of human to humans. In Jesus we see what God is like and we see what we’re supposed to be (can be!) like. And no, Jesus was not married. He was fully God and fully human from the moment of his incarnation (Christmas is coming!) and was at no point lacking in being fully human. To suggest otherwise is to move immediately into the most serious and oldest heresies the church has ever dealt with.

The whole complementarian idea can only be defended as “biblical” if we only take seriously a few statements by Paul and completely ignore everything Jesus said and did, what we find in Acts, and even what we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. As we have seen this year, you will not find Jesus supporting a complementarian view. Quite the opposite. When we come across places where Scripture seems at odds with itself, we have to interpret Scripture in light of itself. And we have to understand that as a record of the experiences of Israel and the early church with God, not all parts of Scripture carry equal weight. The Gospels take preeminence. Always.

Jesus is the fullest expression of what God is like and what we’re supposed to be like. We start there and work our way out. If we find things in Paul or in the Hebrew Scriptures that don’t readily square with what Jesus did and taught, then we don’t just drop Jesus and robotically follow what Paul said. No, we try our best to see how Paul can be brought into agreement with Jesus. So with slavery: Jesus declares he has come to set the captives free (echoing the Exodus, the most powerful part of Israel’s story). Then Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, but that doesn’t mean slavery is God’s will because Paul gave advice on it. Paul’s advice is practical wisdom for making do. Israel was in Egypt for 400 years before Moses came along. Paul’s advice would have been good to follow then. But not when Moses told them to go. Then following Paul’s advice would have been the opposite of God’s will. The direct opposite.

Same with women leading in the church. If you’re in an oppressive culture, do the best you can. If you need to cover your head to prophesy, then do that. But working within given cultural confines has nothing to do with the express will of God (equating them is the same non sequitur as above). The express will of God is always the kingdom Jesus declared and started. In the kingdom, we do things as much like Jesus as we possibly can. We push the culture around us as far toward Jesus’ way as we can get away with (and even beyond if we’re not afraid of persecution). While we’re on culture, let me say this: complementarians will tell you that if you support having women at all levels of church leadership then you are caving to cultural pressures. They claim the moral/biblical high ground from which they look down on those slipping down the cultural mud slide. But what cultural pressures are they talking about? We live in an entrenched paternalistic, misogynist culture. That is the status quo. The church belongs on the horizon of justice, pulling society toward freedom, equality, and unity. The church cannot be the protector of the restrictive, unequal, and segregated status quo without losing qualities essential to being the body of Christ.

Jesus was clear on slavery: freedom to the captives is the goal. Jesus was clear on women leading too: they are welcome, their voices are privileged. They get to be the first to believe, the first to preach, the first to see the resurrected Jesus, and are right there with the men receiving the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. No separation. No subordination. No confined roles. None of that is biblical. We must learn to differentiate the ideal the Bible holds up from the accommodations the Bible will allow for under adverse conditions.

We can’t call something “biblical” that falls short of the highest goal the Bible sets for us. Slavery is not biblical. Restrictions from church leadership based on gender aren’t biblical either. This isn’t a place where we get to “agree to disagree.” Those who have been following all year know that Jesus is pretty fierce at times. Following him is always an all or nothing proposition. Soon we will read where he tells Peter to accept a foot washing or get out. Following Jesus means something really specific and part of it necessarily means not treating women the way complementarianism does. That practice and the logic behind it are not compatible with what Jesus did and taught his followers to do. You can’t follow Jesus and tell women they can’t pastor.

Wow, this post started as one thing and then became something else. If you’re here for the daily RLY (and are still reading), sorry for going so long, I won’t do this tomorrow (probably). But let me end by looping back to today’s reading. Caiaphas was proposing an evil thing. In his conscious mind, he was plotting to murder a man just so he could keep feeling comfortable in his leadership role. There are some (by no means all) who hold the complementarian view under the same condition. They know it’s bad interpretation. They know it contradicts the Gospel and the overall tenor of Scripture. They consciously and deliberately mislead and confuse people from the same motivation Caiaphas had. The only response I can think of to such people is not to let them have the label “biblical.” They don’t get to own that. They don’t get to sit on their high religious perch and look down on the actual followers of Jesus trying to undo the damage their violence does. Not without push back.

But I think most people have just been taken in by the clever, false teaching. It sounds so smart, religious, righteous, and biblical. If that’s you, I hope you will see the logic is deeply flawed. It is mired in heresy. It is far short of God’s best will for us, far short of the kingdom Jesus came preaching, far short of what we have been called to, far short of what the Bible teaches. Though he didn’t mean to, Caiaphas did prophesy. He said Jesus was going to, “unite all the children of God scattered around the world.” There can be no unity without equality and freedom. Jesus has come to set us free, make us equal, and make us one. We should never settle for anything less. And if by chance you are a woman who has felt a call to pastor and suppressed it after listening to a Caiaphas, I hope you will hear again your call. I hope you will be stirred again to do what the Spirit laid on your heart. Preach the Gospel to us. Lead us. Lead us into the kingdom.

I would love to get your reaction to all this. There is a comment button, but it’s all the way back at the top. Please chime in and share your thoughts.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.