Comments on Bishop Wright’s article: “Women’s Service in the Church”

Several years ago now NT Wright spoke at a gathering of Christians for Biblical Equality, a group of evangelical, mainly American, Christians who want to promote “equality” among males and females in the context of the church.

After taking the group to task for its blindness to its construal of the issues, as well as for mistranslating (and therefore misunderstanding) Gal 3:28’s “male and female” as opposed to the reader’s expected “male or female,” Wright offers his own thoughts about this issue, limiting his comments to Paul’s theology as rooted in the creation narrative of Gen 1.

1. Wright points out that maleness and femaleness is not “a vital part of what it means to be created in God’s image.” He bases this statement on the fact that, even on Gen 1’s own terms, maleness and femaleness is not limited to man / humanity (what, in an effort to stick to the biblical language will call “Adam” and “the woman”), but rather also characterizes animals and plants.

Now, as grateful as I am that he pointed this out (this modest but provocative point has never occurred to me, and I have never seen any other commentator on the creation stories point it out), it seems to me that his conclusion does not follow.

That humans share gender with animals and plants does not imply that gender is not vitally included in what it means to be in God’s image, but rather develops the biblical understanding of the connection and relationship with humanity has to the rest of the created order (with the possible exception of angels). Wright himself stresses in various places (including his treatment of Romans 8 in his commentary on that letter) that man stands somehow at the pinnacle of creation in such a way that when humanity renews covenant with God the whole creation is renewed. Alexander Schmemann, in his For the Life of the World, has similar resonances.

2. The verse Pauline text Wright addresses in Gal 3:28, the implied context of which, he argues, is the synagogue prayer in which “the man who prays thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” Wright continues, “Paul is deliberately marking out the family of Abraham reformed in the Messiah as a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family these distinctions are now irrelevant.”

I fully embrace this interpretation, and agree that it fits nicely within the larger picture of what is going on in Galatians.

Wright continues at this point to say argue that the “presenting issue” is one of circumcision, and that Paul, especially in light of places like Rom 9 and Gal 4 where he is being especially attentive “to women in the story,” is implicitly arguing that, just as the Gospel obliterates the Jew / Gentile distinction as a boundary marker for the covenant community of God, so also, and to the same extent, for the “male / female” distinction.

Wright then goes on to point out what Paul does not do: he does not obliterate the difference, built into (the) creation (account), between male and female. In fact elsewhere in his letters Paul presupposes this difference, and so pastoral practice must take it seriously.

3. Gospels and Acts.

– It is significant that Jesus chose twelve male apostles, but also of “incalculable significance” is the role the women play in the resurrection stories of Jesus, when (in contrast to all twelve of the men) they are the first to come to the tomb, and the first to be entrusted with the news that he has risen from the dead. “Mary Magdalene and the others are the apostles to the apostles.” (Also, “We should not be surprised that Paul calls a woman named Junia an apostle in Rom 6:17.”)

The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in the Gospel stories is performing a priestly action. In Luke 10 what would have been obvious and unsettling to first century readers is that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women.

At this point NTW’s prose is so compelling to me that I must quote it directly:

This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at having to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had clean cut across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to bedtime, I were to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is “sitting at his feet,” a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the NT (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that world you would not do this just for the sake of informing your mind and your heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself.

– Turning to Acts, Wright cites one Ken Bailey for his “long experience of working in the middle east, ” where at the height of the troubles in Lebanon, all the men were either hiding or going about very cautiously, whereas the women were free to come and go freely, to do the shopping, to take children out, and so on. This resonates strongly with what we see in the crucifixion stories: in contrast to all the men disciples of Jesus, the women are unthreatened and able to come and go and see what was happening without fear from the authorities.

We find a striking contrast, then, we in the book of Acts, and the persecution against the church including the Stephen story, the women are being persecuted and targeted equally alongside of the men.

4. I Corinthians.

– On I Cor 14 Wright (admittedly, by him and by me) speculates that what is going on here is that women sat on different side of the room than men, and also were unschooled in the formal Arabic language in which the service would be conducted. Wright cites Ken Bailey on this. What happened is that during the service women would get bored and begin to chatter among themselves, and so Paul was encouraging them to be quiet and wait to get home to ask their husbands questions.

– On I Cor 11:2-11. This passage obviously presupposes that women are actively and vocally participating in the worship service, but Paul is encouraging women and men not to blur the lines in which that particular culture (ie, headcoverings for women) displayed the creational differences between men and women.

What I like about this interpretation is that Wright, in suggesting that the Corinthians themselves were likely taking one of Paul’s emphases (namely, the “equality” between men and women) and “running with it on steroids,” grounds this particular issue in a way which is consistent with the larger picture going on in I Corinthians. In that letter, it does seem that the community has an overly realized eschatology, in which, for example, marital relations (and the sexual rules that accompany them) dissolve away. Paul says again and again in this letter, “Hey, slow down, the fullness of the Kingdom has not come yet.”

-Wright also interprets Paul’s use of “head” in this passage as meaning “source,” rooted as it is in the creation story, where the woman proceeds from Adam’s side. Wright does not view this as inconsistent with Paul’s use of head to mean something else in, for example, Eph 5. (I am pretty sure that Wright holds to Pauline authorship of Ephesians.)

5. I Timothy 2. Stay tuned….

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