Summary: Many point to Paul's writings as defense for excluding women from church leadership. However, when we look at Paul's story, what we see is that he was a collaborative leader who relied heavily on the work of women for the sake of the Gospel of Christ!
Several years ago, there was a woman who won the jackpot in the Powerball lottery. Let’s just call her Phoebe. Phoebe was exactly the kind of person you’d hope would win the lottery. Raised in a modest family, she was widowed. Her husband died of lung cancer just a few months before their first child, Will, was born. And two years later, she learned that Will was deaf. Though she had to work full-time to support her son, Phoebe dedicated all her spare time to helping her son cope with life in a hearing world. They learned sign language and lip reading together. Phoebe looked everywhere for a preschool that would teach in sign language, but she didn’t have any luck, so Will spent his days at his grandmother’s house.
In her efforts to help Will grow and thrive, Phoebe did a Sunday School class for people with hearing impairments at a local church. She and Will began attending together and it became their lifeline. Before too long, Phoebe was sitting before the church board requesting more funding and resources so that this Sunday School class could do more to help deaf people and to reach even more people with hearing impairments. The board always kindly listened, then gently declined Phoebe’s requests. Phoebe didn’t give up, though; she continued to devote all her spare time to working with Will and the other members of their Sunday School class. They took field trips together and began meeting on Wednesday nights, too.
Then, when Phoebe won the lottery, she became a “patron,” it was a word she had learned in Sunday School. In early Christianity, patrons were folks with money who supported gospel-spreading work of the apostles. Not much changed in her own life; a modest new home, a swing set and a puppy for Will. But Phoebe now had considerable resources to provide for the needs of the deaf community. She purchased resources for the Sunday School class and a van for their field trips. She established a scholarship fund so their hearing-impaired Sunday School teacher could attend seminary. Then, when he graduated, she provided the funds for him to become a full-time member of the church staff. He began a worship service for the deaf and it grew by leaps and bounds. Phoebe even funded a new educational wing at the church, the “Deaf Education Wing.” The deaf ministry thrived under Phoebe’s patronage, and so did the church.
Phoebe was a hero even before she had money. But the money gave her clout. It made a difference. And she made a difference.
I think all of us are more than aware of the time and energy spent over the years debating the role of women in the church. For centuries, women were silenced altogether, their “voices” only heard if their husbands were willing to speak for them. In some church women were even forced to sit separately from their husbands in a space set apart for women. Obviously, such practices meant that women were not preachers, or Sunday School teachers, or committee members. They were present for worship and study, and that was all. And, of course, there was a theology to defend such exclusionary practices. As we so often do, some theologians down through history found some Bible texts that “put women in their place,” and raised them us as texts as sacred and important to the rule of life as Jesus’ words in the gospels.
This was the reality all the way through the early 20th century. Some churches made concessions for women to teach Sunday School to the children, but that was about it. It wasn’t until the women’s suffrage movement really got rolling that churches began to re-think their exclusion of women from leadership. In the Methodist Church, women were not ordained and granted full clergy rights until 1956. And as you all are more than aware, there are still many large Christian denominations, including Catholics and Southern Baptists, who do not have female clergy at all. When asked why these Christian bodies still do not include women among their clergy, they point to a few sentences in some of Paul’s letters, like 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, which says, in essence, women should be quiet and under control because it is disgraceful for a woman to talk in a meeting of God’s people.
Now, I say these things to you not because I have a chip on my shoulder and I feel like I need to defend my position here, but because we need to know that what history and tradition tell us about the role of women in the church is quite different from what the Bible tells us. There are two reasons for this. The first of those reasons deals with how the Bible as we know it today was originally written and compiled. And the second reason is culled from the lives of women like the three you heard named in this morning’s scripture readings: Prisca, Phoebe, and Junia.