No Little Women: Choosing the Better Part
Women are not second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God ruled over by Jesus Christ. There are two errors which we can fall into when we consider the role of women’s ministries in the church. We can either ride roughshod over the limits which God in Scripture places on the role of women in the official offices of the church. Women are not permitted to serve as ministers, elders, or deacons. The Apostle Paul puts this clearly in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 where we are told that Paul does not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man. Additionally, Paul sets forth the standards for leadership in the church in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. I was raised and served in a church setting where these passages were dismissed, ignored, or treated like the literary equivalent of salt water taffy.
But conservative Bible-believing Reformed churches can overreact to this very considerable problem in the church and the culture at large by either not allowing women to learn or overlooking their need to be instructed in the Bible and sound theology. In some churches, women suffer from the benign neglect of the session or elder board. The failure of the church to integrate women’s ministries into the mainstream of the ordinary means of grace is a shame. Women are disciples too. Notice that while Paul restricts women from church office, he does not forbid them to learn as did his fellow rabbis. Rabbis, the heirs of the Pharisees, often considered the teaching of the Torah to women to be a waste of time at best or positively wicked. In 1 Timothy 2:11 Paul says that a woman should be allowed to learn quietly with all submissiveness. Even though the learning is qualified by quietude and submission it is still learning. Christian women are not called to check their brains at the door any more than men.
Consider the case of Mary and her sister Martha. In Luke 10:38-42 we read the familiar account of the distracted Martha complaining to Jesus that Mary has left off assisting her with meal preparation to sit at Jesus’ feet soaking up his teaching. Martha actually forgets whom she is addressing when the suggests that perhaps Jesus is responsible for Mary’s irresponsibility. Jesus will not have it. While being ever so gentle with Martha and sympathizing with her great care to provide for her Lord a memorable meal, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things…” Jesus was the master of the gentle corrective. He was able to confront without belittling. He goes on by noting that “only one thing is needful.” This is not likely a reference to a simpler meal fare, but is a reference to the importance of taking time to learn from the words of Jesus. For us today this means that the Scriptures, God’s written Word, is something we cannot afford to ignore. Whether we be men or women, boys or girls, we will flourish only when we take time to satiate our appetites on the feast of God’s Word.
Jesus does not chide Mary for sitting at his feet and learning from him. That is, after all, what it means to be a disciple. A disciple is, among other things, a student and a follower. He or she is one who is taught of Jesus Christ from the Word of God. Jesus tells Martha that her sister Mary has chosen the good portion or the better part. Jesus is not likely providing the foundation for the medieval preference for the contemplative over the active life. Rather, Jesus is reminding us that whether we are engaged in active service or quieter academic pursuits, his Word is paramount. Mary had chosen the better part and that would and could not be taken from her. Later Scripture reveals to us that Mary and Martha learned that lesson well (see John 11 and 12) in that Mary anointed Jesus for burial before his crucifixion and Martha confessed a profound confession of Jesus as God’s Son come in the flesh.
While women are not allowed to serve in church office, they are not second-class citizens in Christ’s kingdom, the church. We do dishonor to King Jesus and to women when we rob them of the privilege of learning the Bible and theology either purposefully or by not so benign neglect. Sister, have you chosen the better part?
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.