May 11, 2014

Wonderful Women

If I were to take a poll regarding which painted a better picture of women and their role in society which do you think would win: Hollywood or the Bible?  Now, I know we’re in church and so the right answer is “the Bible,” but stop thinking like a church person for a minute and be honest.  You might still say, “the Bible,” but I’d wager if you took that poll out onto the street the results would swing wide in the other direction.  The standard refrain you’d probably hear would go something like, “Hollywood is much more comfortable with a strong female lead who is confident in herself and willing to do what it takes to advance her place in the world.  The Bible, on the other hand, just wants women barefoot, in the kitchen, and quietly submissive to their husbands.  Come on!  That’s a recipe for abuse.  Hollywood clearly thinks that women are just as good as men.”

But think for a minute now.  Does it really?  While it may hit on some truth every now and then, think about the last few big budget action movies you’ve seen, or at least came out on the big screen if you aren’t a frequent moviegoer.  What do we learn about women from them?  How about the latest James Bond movie (or any Bond movie for that matter).  Well, we learn there that while women may be able to throw a punch or shoot straight, they are really only there for Bond’s pleasure whenever it should happen to arise.  How about the Transformer movies.  Okay, so there we learn that women are either half-brained dimwits who exist primarily to make themselves available to men or else to stand in the background (or foreground) wearing as little as logic allows, or overbearing jerks who are content to pretty much trample on the people around them and well deserve a rather crude title often reserved for unpopular women.  Fine, well what about a movie with a strong lead female like Sex in the City?  Well, that’s pretty good as long as you are interested in women behaving basically like the stereotypical college guy who moves from one partner to the next without any real thought or exploration of the possible consequences of that.  While I’ve never watched it, a more modern example of this would be the popular HBO series, Girls, which is basically Sex in the City but more explicit.  With a few exceptions, this is the portrait of women we get from Hollywood.  And don’t even get me started on the popular magazines out there both for girls and for guys.  No, no, no, what we get from our culture is that women are either objects to be enjoyed by another, amoral, self-absorbed nitwits, or else they need to be more like men in one way or another in order to be acceptable.  Yet whatever happened to simply being a strong woman who is fully feminine without having to resort to using her body as the primary demonstration of this fact?

In the Bible, on the other hand, we see women who are influential in their households; women who are national leaders who need neither the shadow of a man over them to be really successful nor any sort of a value compromise to maintain their position; women who are spiritual leaders in their cultures; women who are brave and self-sacrificing; women who are committed to doing what is right even if their pasts suggests they shouldn’t be able to consistently make such a commitment; women who are passionate about their families while still externally successful; women who are wealthy absent the support of a husband; women in valuable teaching and leading positions in the church; women who are referred to as deaconess; women who are eager disciples of Jesus regardless of the cultural expectations regarding who can hold that position; the list here goes on and on.  Women in the Bible are neither objectified nor told their real value lies in either their bodies or their ability to be somehow more masculine.  On the whole, this seems like a much more positive portrayal, doesn’t it?  So why, then, does the Bible get such a bad rap when it comes to women?  Well, the problem lies in a relatively few passages that are written out of a culture very different from ours, but in language so deeply dissonant with the modern cultural mindset that many people throw the baby out with the bath water.

Today, in case you hadn’t already figured it out, is Mother’s Day.  In light of this I thought, why not take a look at a passage that is often viewed as paradigmatic of the Bible’s terrible view of women?  If I can show you today how this passage not only doesn’t demean women but in fact exalts their value to its properly high place, that will allow us to both celebrate women in general and moms in particular and also put a nail in the coffin of the lie that the Bible is anti-woman in any sense.

If you have a Bible nearby turn or thumb your way to 1 Timothy 2.  Let me read a few verses here for you and then we’ll talk about them.  Start with me at v. 8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.  Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

Now, if you had never picked up a Bible before and came across this passage, what would you be thinking?  You’d probably be ready to gag, throw the book across the room, and write off Christianity as hopelessly anti-woman.  You might take up with a church more committed to cultural relevance than Biblical faithfulness who has some clever argument why we can and should ignore what Paul wrote here, but you would definitely not be much interested in standard expressions of Christianity.  I mean, it sounds like Paul is way more concerned that women be told how to dress and what ornaments not to wear than he is about their having a real role in the church.  In fact, it seems an awful lot like he’s saying women should be quiet, in the back, and primarily focused on making babies.  Wasn’t the whole point of the women’s liberation movement to break us out of that restrictive and often abusive cultural mold?

And let me say, I’m with you.  If Paul was really saying all that, I’d say we should write off at least his thoughts on women and probably his thoughts on a whole lot more than that.  There’s just one problem.  Paul wasn’t saying that.  Now, before you accuse me of trying to find a creative way to show why this isn’t saying what it seems to be obviously saying (the very error I accused others of making a second ago), let me explain.  There are two approaches to literature of all kinds today.  One believes that the worldview of the original author and audience should have a huge impact on how we interpret a text.  The other believes this either doesn’t really matter or else isn’t knowable in which case we are free to interpret through our own cultural lens.  The problem with this is that through the lens of our culture, the stuff people wrote a long time ago comes of sounding pretty significantly different from what they actually meant.  In other words, the first approach is the better approach.

With this in mind, what do we know about Paul and Timothy from the time Paul wrote this.  Well, we know that Paul was writing while fresh out of prison fairly near the end of his life.  We know that Paul had previously affirmed women as leaders in the church in a number of different capacities.  We know that Timothy was a young pastor receiving some invaluable wisdom and advice from Paul.  We know that Timothy was the pastor of the church in Ephesus.  That’s important.   Paul, who once wrote that he sought to be all things to all people in order that by all means he might save some of them, doesn’t seem very likely to have given Timothy pastoral advice that was culturally tone deaf.  So then, what was the culture of Ephesus like?  What were the chief shaping influences?  While there may be a number of minor influences, there was one big one: the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  What kind of an influence would this have had on Ephesus?  Well, Artemis was the eternally virgin goddess of the hunt.  She was the goddess who was all about, basically, girl power.  The cult of Artemis then, at least in Ephesus, functioned as an early version of the women’s liberation movement.  It was a girls only club where the women ruled the show and the men were kept firmly in their place—second to women.  Furthermore, when it came to things commonly associated with women, like, say, having babies, Artemis was the goddess who took away labor pains but this didn’t mean she was pro-family.  There are two ways to get rid of labor pains: have the baby or become not pregnant by other means.  If you had the baby then not only were you no longer a virgin, but you also had a family which meant you needed to seek out another deity.  We wish you the best but you’re out of the club.  The other option was to kill the baby somehow so you weren’t any longer burdened by her and could stay on the girl power train.  Think about this now.   If Timothy was pastoring in this kind of an environment guess what the power structures in his church were going to default to looking like.  Having women in positions of leadership wasn’t a problem, but having men treated poorly because they weren’t women was.

As a result, what Paul was doing here was calling for an equality among the sexes that didn’t exist in that culture.  On the one hand most of the ancient world viewed women much worse than Hollywood teaches us to do today: as objects to be used and worse, as property to be owned.  They were not educated.  They were generally not given any kind of a place in society except as it related to whatever man to whom they were connected.  On the other hand, Ephesus was dominated by a culture in which men were seen as a pariah.  Women had a broader place in the world here, but it was at the expense of men, not together with men.  Paul here was setting forth a radically different vision; one in which men and women could be co-learners together at the feet of Christ.  It was one in which neither men nor women fell prey to the stereotypical visions of their culture—whether of the culture at larger or the more immediate culture of Ephesus—but who were valued based on their identity as unique creatures bearing the image of their Creator.  It was one in which kingdom virtues—the virtues that bring real freedom to all who find them—were the standard for everyone.  It was one in which mutual submission was the norm and no one looked to be in a place of dominance over any other.

With all of this in mind, listen to these verses again.  But this time, I want to read a translation done by a guy named Tom Wright who is one of the most respected New Testament scholars in the world.  Listen to how he takes all these different cultural elements into account in his translation: “So this is what I want: the men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing.  In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly.  They should not go in for elaborate hairstyles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes.  Instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works.  They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God.  I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.  Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass.  She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence.”

Sounds a bit more palatable, doesn’t it.  We still have to do just a bit of cultural translation to hear exactly what Paul is saying, but not as much as before.  Paul is not calling woman to be silent and focus on having babies.  Rather, he is calling men and women to recognize that women are more than their bodies.  They are co-learners together and equal partakers of the life of the kingdom.  And as for that last bit on childbirth, Paul’s not saying that women somehow receive salvation by having kids.  Rather, he’s making the point that being a woman, including having kids, is a good thing.  Remember how Artemis dealt with childbirth?  It’s not like that with God.  He doesn’t simply want to take the hard parts of childbirth away by throwing you a bone and kicking you out of the club or making you pretend it never happened.  Rather, Paul writes, you’ll be kept safe through the process.  See the difference?

 

In the final analysis then, here’s what all this means: It’s okay to be a woman just as God made you.  Paul’s saying you don’t have to try to fit anybody else’s mold for what makes you valuable and beautiful.  God’s opinion is the only one that counts and He’s already sold on your value because He created you.  In other words, God thinks and therefore Paul thinks and therefore we should think that women are wonderful.  Women are wonderful because God created them that way.  Moms are fantastic.  Grandmothers are invaluable.  Sisters are a blessing.  Aunts are worthy of a celebration.  Women are wonderful because God created them that way.  Speaking as man, we need you.  You were created as the perfect, equal companion for us.  We need you to be fully who God designed you to be, and that’s something wonderful.  We need you to be who God created you to be or else we can’t be.  Women are wonderful because God created them that way.  There are two things that need to happen in light of all this.  First, guys, if you have or are thinking about or treating women in a way that diverges from who their Father made them to be, you and I need to repent and seek reconciliation.  Women are wonderful because God created them that way and we’d better treat them accordingly.  Second, to the ladies, God made you wonderful.  There are a lot of voices in our culture calling you to find value in something other than your heavenly Father.  The list is long.  Some say you need to use your bodies to find value.  Some say you need to be more like men to find value.  Some say you need to shut out everything that makes you a woman to find value.  Some simply say you don’t have as much value as other things.  Don’t listen to them.  Shut them out.  Plug your ears.  You are wonderful because God created you that way.  Paul recognized that a long time ago.  We celebrate it this morning.  You’re worth it.