I have a friend who is working on a research project on women leading in ministry, and for those who aren’t in ministry or aren’t aware, this is one of the more divisive topics of the day, particularly in some denominations. The idea is that the apostle Paul writes to the churches he ministers to saying women shouldn’t be allowed to teach men or hold positions of leadership over them. And because of that, nearly two thousand years later, there are many who maintain this was both the contextual meaning then, and should be the applied meaning now.
As the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting comes up in the next couple of weeks—a denomination notorious for it’s standing that women should not lead or teach—this is a topic that has been sprouting up in online conversations a lot more lately. (If anyone needed conformation that Twitter can be an absolute dumpster fire, just follow threads about this very idea.)
But the more attention I pay to it all, online and off, the more it seems the theology is the least of our problems. That we could spend years—and we have spent years—looking at the original language and context and examining the spirit Paul wrote in, and the issue isn’t that we can’t agree on the command. Or at least it’s not only that.
The issue, it seems to me, is the underlying message associated with far too many, who hold that women have no place leading in a ministry context. It isn’t the case for everyone, but for many the theology is secondary. It’s the underlying view of women that is the real problem. The idea that, not only can women not teach, but that, in general, they are inferior to men. Though not always explicitly stated, it is communicated in treatment of and conversation about women that is the real problem—particularly in, embarrassingly in, the Church.
You should see some of the responses my friend who is doing this project has gotten from women when asked what the most hurtful thing said to them in their ministry every was. It would make your stomach hurt. Or at least it should. There are scores of women having experiences where their dignity is robbed, their worth is questioned, their intentions undermined and their giftings dismissed…all in the name of “right” theology.
And I have to wonder, how did we get here? Because it is such a far cry from one of my favorite encounters of Scripture—the account of when Mary Magdalene gets up before the break of dawn to head to the tomb where just two days before, Jesus had been laid to rest. She’s frantic when she gets to the tomb, because the stone has been moved and the body is gone, and as if the last 48 hours weren’t awful enough, now she has to deal with a missing body and in the midst of her grief it’s too much. It’s all just too much.
So of course when she sees a man walking nearby, assuming he is the gardener, she approaches him, desperate to see if he might have insight into what has happened and where Jesus’s body might be. But instead of answering her question, he looks at her, and says her name. That’s it. Just her name.
And in what’s spoken aloud, and what’s left unspoken, Mary sees the gardener isn’t the gardener at all. It’s Jesus. The one she had been looking for. He’s back. And it doesn’t make any sense, and she can’t quite understand how it all happened, but she doesn’t have to. Because he says her name, and in that one word, she is known and valued and seen and accepted.
When I think of Jesus, when I think of Mary, when I think of their meeting at the tomb and the tenderness with which he must have spoken her name, I think, something’s changed. She went back to the tomb because there was something Jesus did for her that no one else had. But when I think of the experience of many women in ministry today, though Jesus may have given them a sense of dignity, the systems they work under, the environments they work in, have taken it from them.
I can see how this is a divisive issue. I can understand that if you think what Paul said was meant for his time and place and this time and place, it feels wrong and disobedient and theologically unsound to do otherwise. I don’t agree with it, but I get it.
What I don’t get is when we allow our theological opinion to dictate the way we see and treat those our theology directly impacts. What I don’t understand is when we permit cutting and harsh and demeaning language in the name of “right” theology, but at the expense of right behavior. If we mistreat in the in the name of Jesus, than Jesus has nothing to do with what we claim he endorses.
If we can’t agree on a theology, than we need to be operating out of what we know to be true. And what we know is that Jesus cared 1,000 times more about our treatment of people than anything else. We know Jesus said loving others was paramount, not church methodology. And so if our theology is leading to the dismissal of any one type of voice, due to gender, age, sexuality, or race, than we may be leaning to hard on a theology Jesus would have no part in.
What we can be sure of, is there should be no system, no structure, no power arrangement that warrants the flippant dismissal of anyone—man, woman or child—in any scenario. That no one’s voice deserves to be muzzled. That love never silences. And love always assigns more dignity to others rather than less.
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There’s this idea in the Jewish religion that when it comes to Scripture, there is the meaning in the actual letters and the words of the text—the black space—but also the meaning in the gaps and breaks between the letters and words—the white space. It’s the idea that what isn’t explicitly said has just as much value as what it is. If only we would listen hard enough, look deep enough it’s possible we would find more than the black space alone will say.
I think the white space in the garden when Jesus speaks Mary’s name tells us far more than we give it credit for. I think the white space in every encounter Jesus had with a woman tells us a lot. I think the white space speaks of Jesus bestowing dignity and honor and respect. I think it tells us of value and acceptance and the elevation of position and worth. I think Jesus used black and white space to tell women they were deeply esteemed, revered, and maybe most of all, seen.
I think the white space is talking to us in Scripture. And I think the white space in the current lack of women’s voices in the Church is speaking to us now. But I think its message is far different than the white space in Jesus’s conversation with women in the gospels.
The white space now tells me there are women who are have come to believe they are both too much and not enough due to the systems they operate in. The white space now tells me there are women living stifled and undermined and belittled and don’t even feel it anymore because they have gotten so used to it it’s become normal. The white space now tells me that while we can hold differing theological views, we cannot differ on what equal valuing of genders looks like and expect the Church to flourish in our current time and place.
The white and black space in the story of Jesus and Mary on that first day of resurrection tells me Jesus can make all things new. That what we see as dead ends in our lives and the systems we are part of, do not have the final say in our story.
Jesus spoke Mary’s name in a garden 2,000 years ago. And it was a day that changed the course of history. But it did more than that for Mary. Mary didn’t just see a resurrected Savior. She saw a man who loved her for who she was and how she was made and made her story part of the larger story of a God who became flesh.
Imagine if every person thought that? Imagine if those were the stories women told of their experience in Church? That they were seen? That even if the theology their superiors held limited them in some capacities, they never felt more appreciated than within the walls of a church?
I think we would have more Mary’s. Stories who make up the backbone of the church and speak to the character of Jesus more than any theology does. And I think we could use more of those.