Plotting Women into the Gospel Story

My recent posts on women in the church have dealt with gender in Bible translation and the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 (a classic text for male hierarchy in the church). Today I want to post a snippet of theological reflection that helps situate these “tip of the iceberg” concerns upon a larger gospel-narrative glacier.

The big picture of the Christian story is that God has bound himself to humanity, through the nation of Israel, for the purpose of bringing the world from the failure of old creation into the glory of new creation. This, of course, is the story that Christianity shares in common with Judaism. What makes the story of Jesus uniquely Christian is that the means God chooses is a crucified Messiah whose kingdom-inaugurating activity was one of upending the economy of the world.

The implications of this surprisingly cruciform kingdom are consistently worked out in the words of Jesus and of Paul: to follow a crucified messiah is to commit oneself to self-giving love as the way of life. Moreover, both Jesus and Paul extend the application to the power-dynamics and social hierarchies of the world.

To follow a crucified messiah is to confess that those who are mighty by the standards of the world are not the ultimate insiders, but likely to be the consummate outsiders in the kingdom of God.

Conversely, to be enfolded into the kingdom of the crucified messiah is to be given the status of consummate insider, even if one was previously at the margins of society. “Consider your own calling, my brothers and sisters: that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many of noble birth. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world in order to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world in order to shame the strong, and God has chosen the ill-born things of the world and the despised—the things that are not in order to nullify the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

The way in which God shows that the world’s wisdom is foolish is by demonstrating that the economy of God’s kingdom is the inverse of the economy of the world. It is not what one brings from the world to the church that gives one value in the church, but that God has made one who had nothing to bring a member of this body of Christ. God has performed such an inversion so that no one may boast before him (1 Corinthians 1:29).

But here’s the point we too often skip past even when we affirm this much: if the “getting into” the Kingdom of God is not based on socially constructed hierarchies, then bringing such hierarchies into the church is a denial of the gospel itself. Much of the Corinthian correspondence is spent advancing just this argument about life in Christian community. The means by which we enter (God’s grace in uniting us by the Spirit to the body of the crucified Christ) is the sole grounds by which we differentiate amongst ourselves in the body (by the Spirit pouring out the gifts of God and thereby differentiating among the equal members of Christ’s crucified body).

This is the gospel story that, I believe, calls us to make good on what we catch glimpses of in the New Testament. When we read of women as co-workers, as a deacon, as an apostle; when we read of women speaking and praying in public worship; when we read of women transcending social mores in order to follow Jesus in his itinerant ministry or sit at his feet like a disciple; when we read of women being entrusted with the task of bearing witness to the resurrection—in each of these moments we are catching glimpses of a new creation in which there is no hierarchical distinction between male and female.

It is not a vision that is worked out consistently in the first century culture in which the New Testament writings grew up, but it is one that fits within the plot of a story that turns all social hierarchies on their head as God comes to rule the world through a crucified messiah.

This is the first reason why I believe that the inclusive, more egalitarian voice of the New Testament demands our allegiance in our contemporary settings: it does better justice to the gospel story. In particular, the more inclusive elements of the New Testament do better justice to the holistic vision of new creation that makes God’s blessings known “far as the curse is found.”

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