Recently I shared my conviction that evangelicals need to develop a deeper theology of women; one that accurately reflects the fact that women and men were created in the image of God and given a mutual mandate to nurture and rule, without restrictions based on gender. There are some promising signs that the conservative church is moving in this direction.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
In addition to anecdotal stories about people and churches leaving complementarian theology behind (Pastor Luke Geraty and Grace Church in Indiana are two current examples), it is encouraging to see more women being appointed to senior leadership in church, college, and seminary settings. The recent appointments of Carla Sunberg as president of Nazarene Theological Seminary and Deana Porterfield, as president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary come to mind. Another sign of positive change is the vast amount of research and writing that women academics are producing. While some of this writing comes out of more liberal camps, there is plenty of scholarship being produced by conservative evangelicals. As I think about how we might advance a deeper theology of women, one obvious answer is to take advantage of this treasure trove of new knowledge.
SHORTCOMINGS OF TRADITIONAL TEACHING
Traditionally, few scholars (male or female) have concerned themselves with how the biblical narrative relates specifically to women, or with the details of the lives of the women whose stories are found with its pages. As a result, I think Christian teaching has suffered in these ways:
- Women are rarely featured as primary subjects in sermons
- Commentaries and other resources often marginalize the importance of women in the biblical story
- Negative traits are often emphasized in teaching about women (Rahab, Mary Magdalene) but minimized in teaching about men (Abraham, David)
- Women are often presented as one-dimensional characters (the virgin Mary, Sarah who laughed at God, Rebecca the deceiver)
(Sometimes a picture really is worth 1000 words, as this index from a Bible dictionary being prepared for print demonstrates. Photo credit: Kimberly Majeski.)
In the introduction to his controversial 1998 book The Word According to Eve, Cullen Murphy wrote:
“The Bible is famous for being the world’s most overstudied book- overstudied by male scholars and commentators, that is to say. It has not, however, been overstudied by women. Indeed, until recently, it was studied by female scholars hardly at all, let alone by female scholars who were interested specifically in what the Bible had to say about women. This has changed, to put it mildly, owing in large measure to the influx of women into fields of study from which they once were virtually absent and effectively barred. Today the Bible is being confronted not only by women who are theologians, who bring to the task an overtly religious perspective, but also, and more pertinently from the point of view of this book, by women who are biblical scholars, linguists, historians, archaeologist, and literary critics”.
I think these words are even truer today, because scholarship by women and about women has continued to flourish in the 21st century. Women scholars are studying the Bible with greater sensitivity to women’s experiences and to God’s intentions for them.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF WOMEN SCHOLARS
Here are four ways women scholars contribute towards a deeper theology of women in our time (and some current titles to explore):
1. New insights about the cultural and social contexts of the Bible
Understanding of the contexts in which women in the Bible lived out their faith gives us new insight into their actions and behavior. For example, knowing that some ancient marriage contracts stipulated that should a bride be barren for a specific number of years, she would be expected to give her husband her slave as a surrogate, helps us to understand Sarah’s actions in sending Hagar in to Abraham (Frymer-Kensky). And knowing that married women had a surprising amount of authority and autonomy in their own homes in New Testament times gives insight into the role of women in the early church (Osiek & MacDonald).
- Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories by Tikva Frymer-Kenski
- A Women’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity by Margaret MacDonald and Carolyn Osiek
2. New insights about many lesser-known women in the Bible
Until recently, little attention had been given to more obscure or unnamed women like the Widow of Zaraphath (1 Kings 17), the five daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27), or the apostle Junia (Romans 16:7). When scripture references to women are brief, new scholarship fills in the gaps so that the value of these stories can be gleaned. New ways of framing such stories are being suggested, for example, teaching on “Women in the Time of the Judges” or “The Women of the Exodus”.
- Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels by Frances Taylor Gench
- Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women by Robin Gallaher Branch
- The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth about Junia by Rena Pederson
3. New knowledge about many well-known women in the Bible
Traditionally, teaching on the more prominent women in the Bible has often been one-dimensional. There is a tendency to focus on a weakness (Sarah laughed at God, Rebecca deceived her husband) or a snapshot in time (the Virgin Mary) and ignore the depth and breadth of their stories. Additionally, misinformation that paints women in the biblical narrative in a negative light is now being corrected. Case in point – there is nothing in the text to indicate that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. New scholarship helps us avoid such shallow caricatures.
- Stories of Biblical Mothers: Maternal Power in the Hebrew Bible by Leila Leah Bronner
- Commentary on Esther by Karen Jobe
- JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky
4. New paradigms for understanding God’s intentions for women
Helen Lee’s “missional mom”. The “blessed alliance” envisioned by Carolyn Custis James. The model of “complementarity without hierarchy” presented by Rebecca Groothius and others. Kate Cooper’s “band of angels” in the early church. These are just a few examples of how women scholars are helping the church re-envision what life for women in the New Community could or should look like. In addition to helping the church remove obstacles that limit women’s service, these new paradigms also offer ways to bridge the growing divide between the Church and the more egalitarian values of Western culture.
- The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home and in the World by Helen Lee
- Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James
- Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women by Kate Cooper
- Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy edited by Pierce and Groothius
These contributions provide much needed balance to interpretations that have often left women of the Bible in the shadows and have given the world a skewed perspective on the value of women in communities of faith. I find it interesting that even prominent complementarians like John Piper agree that we can learn from women scholars, though he justifies this in a very convoluted way in a 2013 interview: “She’s not looking at me, and directing me…as a woman. There is this interposition of this phenomenon called ‘book’ that puts her out of my sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood, whereas if she were standing right in front of me and teaching me as my shepherd…I couldn’t make that separation”. (See this post by Rachel Held Evans for a link to the interview and an analysis of just how illogical this reasoning is.)
So if you want to develop a more robust theology of women, I suggest selecting one or two titles to read this summer.
While you may not agree with all of an author’s conclusions, I guarantee that your understanding of how God views women will be enriched. And if you like what you read, take it a step further and share what you learn with your pastor and others who teach in your church.
YOUR TURN: What authors and/or books have helped you develop your theology of women? What titles would you add to the examples given here?