Friday, April 5, 2013

God's Will for Women: Deborah and Phebe (and Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Hooten, Mary Fisher, etc.)

Some days, it seems to me that the Kingdom of God is among us.  When I see wheelchair access to sidewalks, for instance, I remember the teaching in the Jewish laws and prophets to remove barriers from before the blind and lame.  When I remember that I am a mandatory reporter for abuse, I recognize the implicit Gospel, the good news that God cares for the child, the weak. When I hear about mediation training and teaching conflict resolution in schools, I hear behind that the Sermon on the Mount and how deadly anger can be.  When I stand up to share what God has given me, I recognize that God’s Holy Spirit comes to sons and daughters and enables them to worship in spirit and in truth. 

And then some days, I hear of Christians who have a real concern that the evils of our society are permeating the community of believers in Jesus, and they/we want to be counter-cultural.  And suddenly, some of the very ways the Kingdom has changed our world for the better come under condemnation as anti-Biblical.  And then it feels like we have to start over. 

Since the mid-1600s when the Quaker movement began, the principle that God calls and gifts humans and humans in response recognize and record God’s gifts has made it possible for the callings and giftings of women to be used, recognized, and affirmed by recording them.  When early Quakers took this stand, they were astonishingly counter-cultural.  George Fox’s Journal records his response to someone who asked if women even had souls.  He prooftexted Mary’s song, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and said obviously they do have souls. The fact this was being debated helps us understand the culture of the time. The second evangelist in the Quaker movement was Elizabeth Hooten.  She became an itinerant preacher and suffered persecution in both England and the Colonies for it. Along with ten other women, she was one of the group of evangelists called the Valiant Sixty.  Mary Fisher traveled to Turkey to preach to the Sultan.  She was imprisoned and flogged for her ministry by the Christians in England, but was received respectfully by the Sultan of Turkey.  Margaret Fell, also jailed, wrote a pamphlet on “Women’s Speaking Justified,” basing the legitimacy of women preaching on the Biblical witness. She spoke before King Charles II on behalf of freedom of conscience in religious matters. One of the martyrs for freedom of religion in the colonies was Mary Dyer, who persisted in witnessing to the Massachusetts Bay Colony despite being banned.  She was hanged on Boston Commons. 

Margaret Fell’s pamphlet contrasts the stories of how God used women with pronouncements often cited to exclude women from certain activities and functions in the church.  She uses the creation of humans in God’s image as male and female to conclude that God puts no distinction between them.  She includes the fact that the church is referred to as feminine in relation to Christ, and the church is also charged with spreading the good news of Christ.  She tells the stories of Jesus sharing the good news of the Kingdom with women and never despising them.  She remembers the loyalty of women to Jesus as followers even to his death.  And she honors the women who visited the grave as the first bearers of the news of the resurrection.  “Go tell,” said Jesus.  She points to the reiterated message that God uses the weak to meet the objection that women are weak. She cites the willingness of Apollos to learn from Priscilla as well as Aquila.  She notes that Paul referred to women praying and prophesying, that he advises women to set aside preoccupation with appearance and learn without disputation. 

She attributes the prohibitions from Paul against women speaking out in the services to their unlearned and unruly manner of doing so, just as Paul asked all to have orderly worship and not speak all at once.

To paraphrase a small part of her pamphlet: “And what about those who have had the power and Spirit of the Lord Jesus poured out on them and the message of the Lord Jesus given to them?  Must they keep silent because of these irreverent and indecent women of the past?  Must words spoken to tattlers and busybodies be taken as silencing all women for all time? What has blinded men to take these scriptures and stop the message and the word of the Lord in women? Can’t they see that Paul talked of women who labored with him in the Gospel?  Can’t they see that the apostles joined with women and others in prayer, and that the unity of the early church included women?

“In the Old Testament, God gave the Spirit to whomever God pleased, including Deborah, Huldah, Sarah, and to Anna who witnessed to the Messiah in Jesus when he was just a baby.  The Lord Jesus showed himself and his power to men and to women without respect of persons; He poured his infinite power and spirit on all flesh. Women and men led by the Spirit are not under the Law. Christ in the male and the female is the same Christ; his wife is the church, where God said that the daughters would prophesy as well as the sons.  And where God pours out the Spirit, those men or women must prophesy.”

Thank you, Mistress Fell.  Yet today in 2013, this must be addressed again and not to people of evil intent, but to people endeavoring to read the Bible carefully and keep its teachings faithfully.  What can be said to help them see that the Bible itself contains the seeds of the destruction of gender-restricted roles in the church, seeds of hope that all are called into freedom to love and obey God’s call without barrier?

We can start with the Old Testament to see these seeds of destruction and hope. When Moses was overworked with hearing and mediating disputes and judging between Israelite and Israelite, his father-in-law suggested the following:

Exodus 18:21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: and let them judge the people (KJV).  The Hebrew word translated here as “men” is usually masculine, though sometimes it is translated as persons; the word for rulers is masculine. 

It seems probable that there were no women chosen to be part of this group of early judges.  In fact, any subsequent group that read this literally would never put a woman in as a ruler in this system. 

It is not that different a statement from the one in 1 Timothy 3: If a man desire the office of bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, able to teach, not a drunk, not abusive, not money-hungry, not a brawler, not a coveter. He should be patient, rule his own house well and soberly, and have obedient children.  And the same is true for deacons—they must be serious, straightforward, honest, not drunks, not greedy, respectful of the mystery of the faith with clear consciences, with wives of sober, faithful character, not slanderers. Deacons also should have one wife, and their households and children should be above reproach (mostly KJV; worth noting is that “if a man” really means “whoever” as in “If a man has ears, let him hear.”)

It certainly appears from this that the activities and position of bishop (sometimes called elder) and deacon (also called minister) must be filled by men.  And good Christians trying to obey God read the Bible and believe this.

But look at the history of how God behaves, even in a world where these are the norms.  In Judges 4, God chooses and gifts a woman to fill the role set up by Moses for men, namely Deborah. 

The world the Israelites lived in was decentralized into tribal lands.  All the people who had witnessed the miracles God did for them in their journey to Canaan died off.  The Israelites began worshiping Canaanite gods, and God was angry and allowed them to be raided and oppressed.  Periodically, God raised up a hero who delivered them.  One of those heroes was Deborah.  She was a prophetess, married to Lapidoth, and she was Israel’s judge.  People came to her from all over for judgment. 

The word for judge here is shaphat. It means to judge, govern, vindicate, punish; to act as law-giver or judge or governor; to rule, govern, judge; to decide controversy; to execute judgment ( It is an action performed by God, by Moses, by David, and by the coming Messiah  (Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:4, Micah 4:3). (May the Lord judge between us; the judge of all the earth; God judge betwixt us; the Lord judge you.) Judges are included in lists with priests, Levites, elders, heads, officers. The children of Israel came up to Deborah for judgment (mishpat), a word used of actions of David, of kings, of God, of Moses. 

The point here is that God chose, God raised up, God gifted, and Deborah cooperated.  She was recognized by her people as possessing the Spirit and gifts of God that suited her for this authoritative role representing God to her people.

Therefore, it seems wise to allow God the last word in the church as well.  Rather than take a socially normative statement as a commandment for us to follow, let us likewise recognize that God has chosen, raised up, and gifted women in our congregations to act on God’s behalf and to pray, prophesy, sing, and teach in obedience to God. This is still counter-cultural. Our culture is not friendly to the witness that Jesus is present through the resurrection to teach us in our own hearts and through each other, and we are responsible to obey, to be deacons in the household of God.

Recall with me that Paul himself speaks lovingly and approvingly of Phebe, a diakonos, a deacon, a minister, a servant of the church at Cenchrea.  Paul tells the Romans to receive Phebe in the Lord, to assist her however she needs because she has been a woman set over many to care for them, a guardian.  The word for “succor” (KJV) is prostatis. It comes from proistemi, which means to be over, to superintend, to preside over, to protect, to guard, to care for, to attend to.  In the root of that second word is the idea of establish, keep intact, sustain, stand firm. 

What we can learn from Phebe is two-fold.  First, diakonos is translated three ways (KJV): minister (20 times), servant, (8) and deacon (3). We can find that Jesus advised his followers, “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Jesus promised that his servants would be with him where he was going.  Servanthood, doing what another tells you to do, is at the heart of diakonos

We can also learn that Phebe got the very least powerful translation of the term, despite evidence in the next verse of her authority in the church at Cenchrea.  This helps us remember that translations do not take place in a social vacuum, that the King James Version, for example, comes from the same century that saw the rise of Quakers and the imprisonment, beating, and hanging of women who witnessed publicly to the presence and power of the resurrected Jesus and their own sense of obligation to do what Jesus laid on them to do.   

The witness to equality in ministry is not “Women’s Lib”; the witness to equality makes space for women to be equally obedient to God as men can be.  If anything, the increasing freedoms given to women in England and the Colonies derives from the Gospel and is a sign that the Kingdom of God is here. (The fact that women are no more perfect than men in their exercise of freedom is another sign of equality.)  Let us once again return to acknowledging that God has the right to call, gift, empower and inspirit anyone God chooses and that we humbly listen to God’s word through God’s messenger, put our faith in the God who inhabits each of us, and do what God tells us to do.


Melanie Springer Mock said...

Did you preach this somewhere, Becky? It's very powerful. Thank you for providing some historical and biblical context, and for providing affirmation that God calls both women and men to speak God's word.

Bob Henry said...

This is so well written. I couldn't stop saying AMEN! I am proud to serve with you in the NWYM.

Nancy Thomas said...

Thank you, Becky. Well documented and well said.

Paul Almquist said...

Super essay! I think I need to have you come and lecture in the Friends Pastoral Ministry class this fall!

Steve Fawver said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes... This is so good and I am grateful for your willingness to write this. Thank you for following the Spirit in your call, ministry, and leadership among us all!

Kathy said...

These words resonate powerfully with me: "Let us once again return to acknowledging that God has the right to call, gift, empower and inspirit anyone God chooses and that we humbly listen to God’s word through God’s messenger, put our faith in the God who inhabits each of us, and do what God tells us to do."