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Reading Paul Might Cause “Meltdown”—An Excerpt from Michael Bird's “Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts”
Reading Paul carefully may cause a “meltdown”? This is especially true of long-held assumptions about women and ministry, so says Michael Bird in his book Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts.
Such a potential meltdown begins by asking “What did Paul really say about women?”
“To study this question,” Bird says, “takes a great deal of discipline and requires listening to the text of Scripture even when we feel uncomfortable about what it says.” (18)
As I outlined in my Tuesday column Bird draws his students' attention to Romans 16 and asks them to honestly listen to what it might suggest about women and church ministry. We’ve provided this excerpt below to help you listen, too.
While we all come to this issue from different perspectives, Bird believes answering the question “who first taught Romans” provides a surprising case for gender equality in ministry we should consider.
Even if we feel uncomfortable about what it says.
-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)
Evangelicals participating in this debate always appeal to the apostle Paul to substantiate their position. But therein lies the problem, since Paul cannot simultaneously be both an advocate and an opponent of women preachers and female ordination. We need to ask in all honesty and with integrity, “What did Paul really say about women?” To study this question takes a great deal of discipline and requires listening to the text of Scripture even when we feel uncomfortable about what it says. We also need to engage graciously a variety of believers’ opinions; acknowledge our own biases, both cultural and denominational; and seek to understand the context of Paul’s world. What I want to do… is provide some insight into the historical and cultural status of women in the ancient world, survey the pertinent texts of Paul’s letters, and, finally, provide a recipe for working and worshiping with believers who take a different stance on this issue. But before we go down that path, I want to make you think a bit first!
Allow me to show you how a close reading of the biblical text can cause a meltdown in long-held assumptions about women and ministry.
I love messing with my students. It can be done a number of ways. Taking some of their most basic and unguarded assumptions and exploding them is nearly as fun as putting a bottle rocket under Grandpa’s rocking chair when he’s napping. Leading them down obscure exegetical caves and trekking through hidden historical ravines is equally rewarding, as I get to see students experience the awe and thrill of new discoveries. Theological education should be about testing long-held assumptions and discovering new possibilities in theology and practice. One place I routinely do that with students is the topic of Paul and women. Let me give you an example.
During my Romans class, at some point in the term, I ask the students four questions about Paul’s letter to the Roman churches:
1. So who actually wrote Romans?
“Paul,” they immediately reply in chorus.
“No,” I retort, “Who physically sat down and penned the letter to Paul’s dictation?”
Blank faces, deep thoughts, then some bright spark will blurt out, “Oh, oh, that guy, what’s his name, um, Tertius.”
“Correct-a-mundo” comes the teacher’s approving reply, pointing to Romans 16:22, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
Moving on, we come to the next big question!
2. So who delivered the letter to the Romans? Who was Paul’s envoy?
Confused faces, odd looks. How can they be expected to know that?
“Turn with me to Romans 16,” I say, and together we read the following: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom. 16:1–2, emphasis added). Then we have a cool discussion about the meaning of “deacon” and “benefactor” and the role of letter carriers in antiquity.
It gives a good starting point to talk about Christian ministry and patron-client relationships in the context of the Greco- Roman world.
“So then, if Phoebe is a deacon, Paul’s benefactor, and if he trusted her to take this important letter to the Romans, then Phoebe must have been a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind. Do you agree?” Heads nod in agreement.
3. Okay, and if the Romans had any questions about the letter, such as: like “What is the righteousness of God?” or “Who is this wretched man that Paul refers to about halfway through?”then who do you think would be the first person that they would ask?
Eyes wide opened, some mouths gaping, others looking a bit irritated.
Then I provocatively add: “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?” The end result is an “Aha” moment for some students, and a mix of confusion and frustration for others.
4. (Then comes the big question.) Think about it, people. This is Romans—Paul’s attempt to prevent a potentially fractious cluster of house churches in Rome from dividing over debates about the Jewish law. This is Paul’s effort to return to Jerusalem with all of the Gentile churches behind him. This is Paul’s one chance to garner support from the Roman churches for a mission to Spain. This is Romans, his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology. Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or any other dude? Why Phoebe?
Some students nod in agreement, others flick over to 1 Timothy 2:12, others sit back and just think about it.
I’m careful to stress that this observation from Romans is not the be-all and end-all of debates about women in ministry. There are other texts, contexts, and interpretations that we must deal with. But I point out that, taken at face value, Paul seemed to have no problem with women having some kind of speaking role in the churches. If he did have qualms, then sending Phoebe to Rome was a really, really odd thing to do. My conclusion is that Paul’s commendation of Deacon Phoebe, her position as his benefactor, and her role as both a letter carrier and his representative to the Roman churches indicates that women were part of the didactic life of the church, and Paul specifically encouraged it.
Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts
By Michael Bird
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