Monday, June 11, 2007

Considering women as "disciple-makers" and "witnesses"

I am reading a number of books on the matters of femininity, women's roles, and women in ministry. One of them poses a question that I find worthy of further consideration. I do not have a thoughtful response to it right now, but I hope to come to some conclusion as I ponder the issue this week. Please do not take this question as an invitation to argument, for that is not my intention. It is simply something I have never seriously considered before. I hope it is "food for thought" to you as well.

There was a time before the modern missions movement (spear-headed by William Carey), when interpreters of the Bible believed that the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) was given only to the Apostles. That is to say, the directive to "make disciples of all nations" by "baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" and "teaching to obey all that Jesus commanded" was limited to the first followers of Jesus. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most eighteenth century churchmen in the West believed that the Great Commission did not apply to them, therefore converting the "heathen" was not their concern.

Today, of course, that position is almost universally rejected. It is acknowledged and trumpeted that the Great Commission is for all Christians. Yet, in practice, is the Great Commission really for all Christians? Or, are women left out--at least partially--in the way we have traditionally intepreted women's roles? It is true that women are strongly encouraged to "make disciples of all nations" (and it is well-known that they outnumber their male counterparts as missionaries), but can they oversee in the dual responsibility to "baptize" and "teach" the new disciples? In traditional churches, the answer is "no." In this sense, it seems that in practice, the Great Commission is viewed as not applying equally to women and men.

Moreover, the same line of reasoning could be extended to the restated Great Commission in Acts 1:8: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Here again, the implication is that all followers of Jesus will be empowered by the Holy Spirit and all will be his witnesses. But, is the truth of this verse applied equally to women and men? Again, it seems that women are encouraged to witness "to the ends of the earth," but the same welcome is not given for them to witness in "Jerusalem," "Judea," or "Samaria." It seems that the promise of Acts 1:8 is viewed as not applying equally to women and men.

Some may say that these verses are to be understood in conjunction with the limitations laid out in the rest of the New Testament. This is reasonable, for scripture must be read as a unity. Yet, it is a well-known principle of hermeneutics that the less clear passages of scripture should be interpreted with the aid of the more clear passages of scripture. (And surely you can't get much clearer than Matt. 28:18-20 or Acts 1:8!)

In the end, I wonder how much of the conclusions of egalitarians and complementarians, respectively, are the result of the disparate decisions of which passage will be used to interpret the others. Complementarians turn to 1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor. 14:34 (among others) as controlling passages for their understanding of women's roles. Egalitarians turn to Gal. 3:28 and 1 Cor. 12 (among others) as controlling passages for their understanding of women's roles.

So, I must ask, which passages should take priority in the understanding of women's roles in the New Testament? Are Matt. 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 meant to apply completely to women and men? Is the Great Commission meant to be carried out by all disciples of Jesus, regardless of gender? Or, do the later directions of Paul refine and define how these passages are applied to women and men, thereby limiting the fulfillment of the Great Commission in the lives of female disciples?

I look forward to your thoughtful and courteous responses to these questions. As I said, I have not formulated my thoughts yet, but hope to do so soon.

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