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Monday, March 27, 2023

Women Can Preach. Amen!

Christians don’t always agree on everything.  That's why we have so many different denominations.  We all read the same Bible, but we may interpret it slightly different.  Today, I want to address a difficult disagreement among various Christian traditions.  Can women preach and be the pastor of a church?  Can women have authority over men?  Methodists say yes and today I want to show why.

The Bible is the Word of God and contains everything necessary and sufficient for our salvation.  The Bible is the foundation of all Christian belief and practice.  So if we’re going to learn if women can preach, we have to start with the Bible.  Those denominations that do not allow women to preach and lead churches believe the Bible forbids it.  I respect them for their decision (even though I disagree), because I respect their commitment to follow Scripture, even when it goes against the grain of cultural pressure.  Churches do not take their cue from society; we follow Scripture.  However, I believe the Bible says women can teach, but you have to look deeper than just the surface.

The Bible is a complex and ancient document--not a modern textbook or instruction manual.  Some things are very easy to interpret while others take a lot of effort.  There are different genres of literature in the Bible and we have to read and analyze them to understand what God is saying to us today.

Paul’s letters in the New Testament are an excellent source of information for Christian living.  However, we always read them knowing they are letters and we’re only hearing half of the conversation.  Hearing only half the conversation can be very tricky!  Do you remember the State Farm commercial a few years ago, about Jake from State Farm?  A wife catches her husband talking on the phone at 3 AM and it sounds like he may be having an intimate conversation with another woman, but she's only hearing half of the conversation.  She askes who it is.  The husband says "It's Jake from State Farm."  The wife snatches the phone and ask, "Who is this!"  The guy on the other end says, "It's Jake, from State Farm."  We have to be careful the conclusions we draw when we are only hearing half of the conversation.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes his letters to specific communities, often to address specific problems.  We only hear what Paul is saying, not what the community is saying and we must use a little detective work to figure out what is going on in the church to get the full story about what Paul is teaching and why.

The Roman world of the first century was very different from our own.  The Romans conquered a wide swath of cities over a vast area.  All these different cities had their own cultures and traditions and religions, which made Christian preaching and teaching and living quite challenging. 

There’s an intriguing document called Ehpesiaca, written around 50 AD by a man named Xenophon of Ephesus.  It’s fascinating because it was written around the same time the Apostle Paul ministered to the Ephesians (as recorded in our Bibles).  In the ancient document, Xenophon describes the great Temple of Artemis of the Ephesians.  Artemis was a goddess to the Ephesians.  According to Acts 19:25, the Ephesians believed the statue of Artemis fell down from heaven.  Ephesus was a religious center for the worship of Artemis.  People came from all over the world to worship Artemis in the “Artemiseum” (which kept a lot of Ephesians in business—selling religious trinkets, jewelry, idols, etc.). 

Xenophon describes that the Temple of Artemis was different from most other male-dominated religions in the ancient world.  Artemis was a female goddess and her temple was staffed by female priestesses.  The priestesses were at the top of the social order of Ephesus.  They adorned themselves with elaborate and expensive clothing and jewelry that showcased their sexuality and femininity.  They wore their hair uncovered and in special braids that indicated their wealth and beauty and devotion to their god.  Contrary to the Biblical story of Genesis, the Artemisian religion taught that the goddess Artemis created humanity out of a woman.  Woman were created first and then the man came from woman.  It was exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches in Genesis.  (In Genesis, God created a man out of the dust of the earth.  Then when the man could not find a suitable mate from among the animals, God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep.  Then God took a rib from Adam's side and made a woman out of it so that she was bone of Adam's bone and flesh of Adam's flesh.) 

The Artemisian religion flipped the Christians creation story on it's head.  Rather than presenting men and women as equals (like Christianity) Artemis elevated women above men.  Furthermore, Artemis taught women they must worship and honor Artemis or they would die in childbirth.  Since childbirth was already one of the most dangerous experiences for women, this was quite a statement.  Ephesian women were afraid and wanted Artemis' protection.

Now this was a fanatical religion.  When Paul and some early Christian missionaries tried to preach about Jesus in Ephesus in Acts 19, some of the local businesses who made money off the Artemisian temple gathered a mob to start a riot opposing the Christians.  They took over the city and shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for 2 hours until authorities final got things back under control.  (This was sometime around 53-55 AD—around the same time Xenophon wrote Ehpesiaca about the Artimesian religious practices.)

Now, knowing that background, listen to part of a letter Paul wrote to Timothy who was leading a church in Ephesus at that time.

1 Timothy 2:9-10
And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. 10 For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.

Do you see now what Paul is saying?  He's instructing Timothy to discourage the women from his congregation from dressing like the Artemisian priestesses.

11 Women should learn quietly and submissively. 12 I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. 13 For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve.  14 And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. 
And here we see Paul is correcting the Artemisean false teaching about creation.
15 But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.

This passage is one of two main Scriptures some denominations use to bar women from ordination.  Methodists disagree.  We ordain women.  Here’s why.

Paul is writing to Timothy advising on the best way to pastor a church in Ephesus.  Ephesus, the home base of the Artemisean temple, where women dress in expensive, elaborate clothing, and lord their priestly position over men.  No doubt, many women of Ephesus were highly educated and wealthy, but their status and wealth and education was a direct contradiction of Biblical Christianity.  It was tempting for some of these women to come into the church and feel they could immediately step into positions of authority in the church.  I mean, some of them may have been former priestesses of Artimus (or had aspired to be Artemisean priestesses).  Paul didn't think it was a good idea for them to immediately assume leadership in the Ephesian church.  They weren’t ready.  They had to die to their former way of living and learn a new way of living as Christian women.

Knowing the context of the Ephesian women makes all the difference. Paul is not saying all women, everywhere shouldn’t wear jewelry or fix their hair or wear pretty clothes.  he is only talking to the women of the Ephesian church.  

The context of the 1 Timothy also helps verse 15 make perfect sense.  Verse 15 – “Women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.”  Artemis told women they would die in childbirth if they forsook her.  Paul says, “No you won't.  You will saved in childbirth if you follow Jesus.  Artemis cannot hurt you.”

Paul was writing to say the women of the Ephesian church should not be in charge at that time.  It wasn’t good idea at that moment.  However, Paul did not intend to make a general statement for the whole Church around the world for all times.  We know that because there are other places where Paul explicitly affirms women in church leadership.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul affirms that women can pray and prophesy in public at church.  Prophesy is considered one of the most important roles of church leaders.  In the Old Testament, a prophet was considered more important than the king.  Remember, it was the prophet Samuel God told to anoint Saul as the furst king of Israel.  And when Saul repeatedly disobeyed God, God sent the prophet Samuel to tear the kingdom away from Saul and annoint David in his place.  When David sinned with Bathsheba, the Prophet Nathan was the one who called him out on it.  And in 1 Corinthians, Paul says women can be prophets.  As the Apostle Peter preached in Acts 2:18 (quoting Joel 2:28-32), "In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants—men and women alike—and they will prophesy."

Furthermore, Paul affirms many women who led churches. There are numerous references to women leaders in the New Testament.  For the sake of time, I will only list three here.  First there is Romans 16:1, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea.”  Deacons are the counterparts to the preachers/pastors.  Steven, the first martyr of the Christian Church, was a deacon.  In the United Methodist tradition, deacons are ordained just as elders (pastors) are and consider at the same level.

Paul wrote in Romans 16:3, “Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus.”  Priscilla and Aquilla were pastors who led a church in their home.  They are also credited with pulling Apollos aside and correcting some of his theological misunderstandings about Christianity.  So Pricilla (a woman) corrected Appolos (a man).  The fact that Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquilla together shows that he considers them equal.  In a male dominated culture, Paul was under no obligation to name Priscilla.  Paul could have just said Aquilla, but Paul always makes a point to name Priscilla and he puts her name first (indicating she was the leader of the pair).

Romans 16:7 says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did.

Junia is a woman.  The name is the Latinized version of Joanna—possibly the same Joanna who saw Jesus rise in Luke 24.  

The early church (up to 1000 AD), accepted that Junia was a female apostle who had been with Jesus and the twelve Disciples.  (The early definition of an Apostle was one who had physically seen Jesus before the crucifixion.  

Now, all these references by themselves do not prove that women were allowed to pastor and lead churches in the New Testament.  They are clues, but not proof.  However, taken with the New Testament worldview (as well as Paul's), we can see that women did (and should be allowed today) to be ordained as pastors and lead churches.

Look at Galatians 3:28-29.  "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you."

According to Old Testament regulations of the Jewish religion, women cannot be heirs.  Women didn't inherit family property or money; only men could be heirs.  Yet in Galatians, Paul is saying gender no longer defines who is an heir.  Both men and women inherit the Kingdom of God.  So, if women are now equal inheritors, why shouldn't they also be equally called to preach and lead?

We also see that Jesus discarded the cultural separation of roles between men and women. Jesus accepted women as equals throughout his ministry.  In the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is teaching while Martha is serving food and doing what was traditionally considered "women's work".  Mary is sitting at Jesus feet learning.  Martha says to Jesus, "Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”  Now, notice Martha does say, "Why don't you tell Peter to come help me?"  Why?  Because fixing dinner was women's work and Bible study was what the men did.  But Jesus refuses to tell Mary to go help Martha with the women's work.  Jesus wants Mary to learn just like the men.  You see, Jesus is reforming the old ways of thinking and doing--even the roles of men and women.

God did not create men to rule the world and women to be subservient.  That was not God’s original plan.  It was a result of the fall because the first people sinned and the world became corrupt.  The world and the people in it are cursed by sin.  After sin, Genesis 3:16 says of women “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”  And ever since we have seen this curse in action.  Men throughout the ages have tried to subjugate women.  On the other hand, women have tried to break free, often going too far the opposite direction, saying men are less important than women.  Any time we hear it taught that men are better than women or women are better than men, we are seeing the results of the curse brought about by sin.  

Jesus came to break the curse.  What does that mean?  Well, it means a lot of things.  One important way we live out this new truth of equality is by recognizing women can have equal leadership responsibility in the church (and in the work place and in government).

In the Methodist church, women can be ordained as pastors of the church.  We believe this is based on the Word of God.  We aren’t led to this by the changing whims of culture.  Rather, we lead culture to this understanding because of the eternal Word of God and the new reality brought about by the ressurection of Jesus Christ.  The curse is broken and the realities of God's Kingdom are breaking in and taking over our world and ideas.

What Curse Needs To Be Broken In Your Life?  Come to Jesus.  He is the One who can set your free.  You don't have to keep living the broken ways you lived before.  Jesus has the power and the will to set you free. 

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