Paul, the Kingdom and the Radical Equality of Women (Part 1)*
*This is the first in a series of blog posts that discuss the issue of women in leadership. To understand specifically Paul’s outlook on women in leadership, I believe we need to understand three significant perspectives from which he wrote: God’s kingdom, cultural accommodation, and his understanding of the Spirit’s work. These posts are written from a perspective that embraces women in leadership roles of the church.
I was a young adult when my home church gathered to discuss the ordination of women to the office of Elder. The lead pastor was a strong advocate for this change, but an elder, whom I respected very much, read from 1 Timothy and said, “I think scripture is pretty clear, women are not to have authority over men.” Then, one of my female youth leaders stood and, instead of advocating for women elders, said, “I think this is simply Eve deceiving Adam all over again!”
At that time, I was not sure of the clarity of Scripture on this topic: some scriptures seemed to be in favor of women in leadership, but there were a number of scriptures that seemed to argue directly against it. I ended up voting to allow women elders that night, as did the majority of the congregation. But to the disappointment of me and many others, a number of families left the church in disagreement.
Through a long journey of reading, discussing and wrestling with this issue, I have come to embrace women’s ordination as elders, deacons and pastors. Not because of shifts within our culture, but because of Scripture. As I have reflected and prayed, the scriptural argument for the leadership and ordination of women has grown exponentially for me. Simultaneously, the scriptural arguments against it have diminished in significance.
My study of the Kingdom of God has convinced me that the radical liberation of women as true co-workers in the Kingdom is a vital part of the message of the gospel. There are many books and articles to consult about women in leadership, but my approach for this series of articles will be through Paul’s lenses of the Kingdom, the culture and the Spirit.
The Kingdom Theology of Paul
The Apostle Paul included what I call framework passages: core Bible texts that seem to transcend the particular issue Paul is addressing. They reveal a framework or window through which Paul sees the world. The following passage helps us understand Paul’s theology of God’s Kingdom.
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Romans 8:19-22
In this important passage, Paul articulates the past, present and future of God’s Kingdom work. It functions as a timeline, demonstrating both “how we got here” and “where we are going.” Imagine four sides of a window frame or think of it as four acts of a play – the story of God’s Kingdom: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.
One helpful way to understand biblical issues is to see where they fall within the story of God’s Kingdom. If a concept or event is part of Creation (marriage, love and fellowship with God, stewardship of Creation, etc.), then it is part of God’s heart and good intentions for us as His children. If it is part of the Fall (disease, divorce, violence, etc.), then it is part of our brokenness, something for which we should seek healing and restoration.
Key Kingdom Question
I recently met with a young couple who had attended our church for only a couple of months. They really liked us but had some practical questions they wanted to discuss as well as one theological matter – women in leadership. She began, “Pastor, growing up we were taught that women are not to teach or have authority over men. But we have noticed that as a church, you allow women to do both. Help us understand biblically how you got there.” Over coffee, we opened the word of God together. First, I shared the diagram of the movement of the Kingdom, explaining it in the same manner as above. I asked them this key question: Is the principle of man’s rule or dominion over woman part of Creation or part of the Fall?
They were unsure, so we looked at a passage from the Creation story.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:27-28
In the Genesis story, we see equality in our creation and in our divine mandate or call. Man is not called to rule the woman (or vice versa) but together we are called to “subdue” and “rule” over creation. Together. Significant!
The couple, however, was still unconvinced (well, specifically the husband) so we looked at a passage from the biblical account of the Fall. The serpent, the woman and the man all received particular consequences of their rebellion. These consequences were not part of Creation (God’s heart and intention) but part of the Fall. Notice especially the last part of the consequences for the woman:
"Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16
It would be hard to overstate the significance of this. This verse helps bring clarity to Genesis 1:27-28: to rule or have dominion was originally part of the shared call of men and women. In the Fall and its consequences, we see the ruling/domination of man over woman introduced. Paul understood the ministry of Jesus and the Church as undoing the works of the enemy and the Fall. Of course, then, addressing this broken aspect of humanity and undoing this part of the curse towards women are part of our Kingdom Call.
Paul’s Vision of the Kingdom Come
This reasoning convinced not only the wife in this couple, but also the husband! However, I wanted to complete the picture for them. In another framework passage (that which transcends a particular issue), Paul describes what the Kingdom has begun to be and what it will be fully when Christ returns and establishes the age to come.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29 (See also 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11)
How do we understand this incredibly radical statement by Paul? First, we should see it in the context of the book of Galatians. Paul argues that in terms of salvation, privilege and promise, the ground is level at the cross. The Gentiles do not need to be circumcised to receive salvation; baptism has become the sign. Heritage does not determine the true children of Abraham, faith does. Therefore, it is not just the Jewish males that receive the Father’s inheritance, but all who are clothed in Christ, whether male or female.
In Roman culture, the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood included laying aside the garments of a child and putting on a new toga of adulthood. Paul used this analogy to show that when we are clothed in Christ, we receive all the privileges, rights and responsibilities of living in the Kingdom of God. It does not matter if, in this age, we are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.
Another Key Question
Another key question is about restoration of the Kingdom. What will be like? So, we ask: In terms of female leadership, what does restoration look like?
Paul taught that Jesus Christ initiated the Kingdom at his first coming and that it would be fully consummated at his second coming. In the consummation of the Kingdom, all things that were lost or wrecked in the Fall will be restored. This includes the original divine mandate or call upon men and women to rule and steward the rest of creation. In the end the messiah doesn’t just rule and reign, but we reign with him.
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Romans 5:17
No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads... And they will reign for ever and ever. Revelation 22:3-5b
When Paul talks of reigning with Christ, do you think he meant only Jewish men that lived free in this life? I don’t see how that can be possible in light of Galatians 3:26-29. Restoration means a renewal of the original divine mandate of both men and women ruling with Christ.
Paul as an Advocate for Women
In numerous discussions over the years, I have often heard “Well, it is clear that Paul was no friend of women.” I used to agree with that assessment, but I have changed my thinking. I have come to see Paul as a consistent advocate for the radical equality of all God’s children; black or white, rich or poor, female or male. The change in my thinking has come first from understanding how significant the kingdom of God was to Paul’s thinking and belief. Also crucial to this new understanding was Paul’s sensitivity to each culture and context in which he was communicating the gospel and his understanding of the work of the Spirit of God in a New Testament context. In the next article I will discuss Paul and the cultural accommodations that many believe he was making in some of his most challenging passages regarding women in leadership. And finally, in the third article, we will cover the work of the Holy Spirit in every believer and how that weighs in on the discussion.
I hope you will join me for the remaining articles because of the importance of this topic. If Paul truly was an advocate for the radical liberation of women, it would seem imperative that we would be too. And if Paul truly saw this liberation as a vital part of the good news of the gospel, then it follows that his church should join him in this advocacy.