A post from the Jesus Collective Theology Circle

Contribution by Leanne Friesen (Ontario, Canada)

But the Bible clearly says for women to be silent in the church.”

If I had a nickel for every time some earnest Christian said those words at me, well…let’s just say I’d have a lot of nickels.

I work as a Lead Pastor in a baptist church, a role I have had for over seventeen years. I also happen to be a woman. This means that I’ve had to get used to occasional theological chastisement” from those who believe women should not serve as pastors or leaders in the church. It usually starts with some form of the opening statement, quoted from the book of 1 Corinthians. For good measure, there’s often a little 1 Timothy 2:12 thrown in, reminding me that women should not teach or have authority over a man.

Although these comments can sometimes be frustrating, and occasionally downright aggressive, I understand the intention behind them. After all, shouldn’t followers of Jesus take the Bible seriously? If the Bible says that women shouldn’t have certain leadership roles in the church, shouldn’t we honour that? Many who make these comments to me assume that I’m either unaware these passages exist or have simply chosen to ignore them (and therefore don’t take Scripture seriously). It would make sense to challenge me if either of these things were true. The issue is that neither of these assumptions are true. I am fully aware of these passages and I submit to Scripture as the Word of the Living God.

It is, in fact, because I take the Bible seriously that I do what I do. I follow Jesus. I make Him Lord of my life. For me, that included surrendering to the clear call God gave me to serve as a pastor. It also includes honouring Scripture, and because I take the Bible seriously, I do what Scripture has always done: I point to Jesus. I let the Jesus lens help me read all of the Bible, including the texts that may seem jarring and even out of place. 

When I read Scripture with a Jesus lens, I become fully persuaded of God’s desire for women’s full inclusion in all of church life.

So what did Jesus teach about women in the church? There is little that Jesus says directly that we have recorded in the Gospels. (Of course, Jesus never mentions the word pastor, elder, deacon, or leader” in the ways we use them in the Gospels either). But he does talk about disciples and following and serving. And he does create a picture of a world where the most surprising people are used by God for incredible things, including people that were typically kept outside of religious participation up until that point.

I could make some quick and easy statements that are often shared to show that Jesus was egalitarian. Women were the first at the resurrection! The first eye witnesses and testimony-bearers!” True. Excellent. Jesus loved women! Jesus included women! Jesus made space for women!” Also true. Also excellent. It would be hard to argue that Jesus did not love and value women. Of course, those who embrace a complementarian understanding of Scripture would rarely disagree. If we are to argue that Jesus’ love extended to the inclusion of women in all church offices, is there more we can say than these true, but sometimes overgeneralized, statements? I think there is. 

I would argue that women were more than loved and affirmed by Jesus, more than necessary helpmates, even more than first at the resurrection.” I think they were full and equal participants in the changing Kingdom narrative Jesus was sharing. They were models of faith. They were disciples. They were equals.

Although there are many ways I could make this point, I would like to turn to the book of Mark to help us see a picture of women’s full participation in Jesus’ ministry. Mark mentions women in a total of sixteen contexts in his book (not including the likely presence of women in crowd scenes) and talks about fourteen women specifically (including, for example, people like Herod’s wife and daughter). There are four women discussed in detail: The woman with the issue of bleeding (5:24 – 34), the Syro-Phoenician woman (7:24 – 30), the Widow at the treasury (12:41 – 44), and the Woman who anoints Jesus (14:3 – 9). For many, these are well known and cherished stories. In these accounts, we meet women who are suffering and desperate. We meet women who are brave and confident, women who take risks, and women who push back on how they were supposed” to behave. 

There is the woman who crawls through a crowd to find her way to Jesus, risking further condemnation in order to take one more chance at finding healing. There is a woman who debates with Jesus, not giving up until she convinces him that her cause is worthy of his attention. There are two women who are profoundly generous — one with her money and another with her perfume. For many women throughout church history, these biblical women have inspired and encouraged us. We see ourselves in them. We see our place in the Kingdom through their stories. We feel Jesus’ love for us through the love he showed for these female followers. These are great stories and great women. 

These stories, however, may have more to show us than individual examples of inspiring lives. There is a common theme in each of these narratives, one that has been noted by a number of excellent scholars and echoed in the lives of the many dauntless women who follow in these women’s footsteps. 

Each of these accounts show women as bold examples of faith.

Each of the women in these accounts take radical, risky steps to encounter Jesus, to serve God, or to express their devotion. Interestingly enough, these models of faith are often recorded in direct contrast to the named, male disciples around them. While Jesus is saying Get behind me Satan!” to Peter or shaking his head as the disciples misunderstand his teachings once again, he is praising these women of faith who have seen what others miss. Each of the women receive commendation from Jesus. To the woman with the bleeding: Your faith has saved you!” About the poor widow: This woman has given more than all the others!” To the anointing woman: She has done a beautiful thing for me — wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will be told…” These are not insignificant statements. These are declarations of faith and inclusion. These women show us how to follow! These women get it. Even though the names of these women are never mentioned, their faith is applauded and recorded. They have done something worthy of being remembered. 

But does this mean anything for women in the church? There are also examples of men who are praised for faith in each of the Gospels. Does this particular pattern say anything about women’s roles today? To answer that question, we must now turn to Mark 15:40 – 41, verses reporting what happened as Jesus was crucified:

There were women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary the Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses and Salmone, who when he was in Galilee followed him and served him, and many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.”

This is an interesting shift. After a Gospel where the names of important women are glaringly absent, suddenly the names and details of these women witnesses are recorded with careful attention. Why? Why the new mention of names for these women at this time? Why all the sudden detail? 

The simple answer is that Mark records these names because now the names matter.

These are the names of those who watched Jesus die, and we need witnesses to the crucifixion as much as we need witnesses to the resurrection. We need assurance that Jesus truly died in order to claim that a resurrection, and not just a resuscitation, has occurred. And the women are those witnesses. We need their names to prove it, the details to show it is true. As Mark seeks to convince the reader of a resurrected Messiah, he needs to name the witnesses of those who saw Him live again but also those who saw him die. Those people were women. This could have been tricky — women were not considered reliable witnesses at this time. Any good evangelist in this era would want to downplay the role of women as much as possible. After all, who would ever believe a story where women are the ones who tell it? This could have been a problem — but Mark has been clever. 

Mark has made us ready to believe these women. All throughout his book, he’s been setting us up for this point, showing us that women are reliable and trustworthy in the Kingdom. They are full followers. Their witness counts.They have been following all along. They have followed Jesus and served him since Galilee. Why haven’t they been mentioned much before? It’s a book written in a male centric time. Women are brought up as needed. Now their names are needed. By this point in the story, there’s no avoiding the role that women clearly hold. Mark has been getting us ready for this surprising turn all along as he tells the story of a woman begging for healing and a woman pouring out oil in worship. Look at how Jesus sees these women!” he shows us. Look at these examples of faith! Look at what they get that the men sometimes missed!” It’s like Mark is fully aware of the argument ready to come from a sneering naysayer: Wait! It was a bunch of women who saw him die? How can we take that seriously?” We can, Mark says. 

We can trust the women because of how Jesus treated the women. Jesus said they were models of faith — we can too.

For many scholars, this points not just to women being good examples of faith for Jesus but to the fact that women were fully disciples throughout Jesus’ ministry. Their names simply don’t come up until they are needed. But they’ve been there all along: serving, helping, following. 

I agree that Jesus included women fully in his discipleship circles. And the early church got it too. We get to Acts and we meet Lydia, Priscilla, and Junia — leading, serving, equals in God’s church, living in a community formed as Jesus modelled and intended: with full inclusion. They are church leaders, pastors, evangelists, and Apostles. They are faithful disciples, serving as Jesus calls them. And changing the world. 

If, then, Jesus fully accepted women as disciples, and all that came with that — why wouldn’t we? If women had full inclusion in the ministry of Jesus, and the many forms of service that that involved, why wouldn’t we follow that same model as those seeking to live as Jesus taught us? 

So what do we do with verses that seem to say that women’s roles in the church should not include leadership or pastoring? My time here doesn’t allow me to do an exegetical breakdown of what I think is happening in these texts, which I believe are responding to unique situations and not institutionalizing church-wide mandates. I think these verses are part of meaningful passages of Scripture that teach us about the importance of learning, of considerate worship practices, and being wise about having leaders learn before they teach. But I do not think that they undo what Jesus modeled: a church full of women disciples, using all their gifts in all the ways they could. I do not believe these verses should be read over the beautiful summary of the new covenantal mandate so well articulated in Galatians 3:23: There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…”

Our tendency so often is to start with the handful of verses that seem to discourage women’s leadership and try to make Jesus fit into them. Why would we do this? Why would we read Jesus through the lens of verses that seem to contradict so much of what Jesus taught us? Instead, why wouldn’t we start with Jesus and seek to understand these (important, though often misused) verses through His lens?

As a Jesus-centred practitioner, I want to start with Jesus in everything I do. I do this every day when I pastor. I do this when I preach. I do this when I write. And I do this when I ask where women belong in the church.

Jesus shows me that women’s place is exactly where he put them: serving as gifted, called, liberated followers of the Way. Jesus gave women a place of freedom unlike anything they experienced anywhere else in society at the time. My prayer for the church is that we would continue to live like Jesus in all things. For women, this would mean more freedom in the church than anywhere else in the world. More space to use their gifts. More permission to lead. More ways to serve.

And when we see women pastors and leaders chastised for doing exactly what God has called and allowed them to do, we can also choose the Jesus way. Jesus gave us an excellent example to follow when we see women writers harassed online, or female pastors pushed out of ministry circles, or women neglected from leadership roles to which they have been called. We can respond like Jesus did to the accusers of a woman who poured everything out to worship him: Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.” 

Women serving in the fullness of their gifts is a beautiful part of the kingdom of God. Why would we bother those whose only desire is to pour themselves out at Jesus’ feet? 

Leanne Author Photo

Leanne Friesen has served as the Lead Pastor of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church for 15 years. She speaks at conferences and special events and writes at lean​nefriesen​.com. She’s particularly passionate about helping and encouraging women preachers to find their preaching voice, and she loves to find creative ways of making sermons come to life in practical ways.

The Theology Circle is a group of Jesus Collective leaders joining together to provide theological direction and resources for our network, mentor theological leaders, and provide a peaceful voice for this growing Jesus-centred movement around the world. You can learn more and meet the Circle here.