A Kingdom of Deacons

[This is post 11 in an ongoing series exploring ministry in the New Testament world.]

What comes to mind for you when you think of a deacon?

Acts 6 is often one of the first places we look. Here is the situation:

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” Acts 6:1-6

The reason this text is sometimes used is perhaps because of the Greek verb that’s behind the translation here ‘wait’ as in ‘wait on tables.’ Deakoneo.

The situation is that the apostles wanted to prioritize ‘the ministry of the word.’ Remember, there are no written Gospels and no New Testament. These folks who had been with Jesus and discipled by him were THE source of knowledge of Jesus’ life and teaching. They were the only New Testament that existed, so we can see particularly why that word based ministry was vital.

We should be careful, I think, about equating elders/overseers (as described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 etc) with the apostles. The apostles were in a unique situation that has not been the same since that day.

Also, note this: the ministry of the apostles here is also a deacon ministry. The ‘ministry’ in ‘ministry of the word’ is diakonia.

Our common understanding is typically that elders (at least one) teach and deacons serve. I will show clearly in this post that that understanding is too simplistic and doesn’t bear out in Scripture. And Scripture itself must be our guide, always looking back to it with fresh eyes to see what we might have overlooked or assumed.

In the following sections of the book of Acts, we will see some of the activity of two of these 7 ‘deacons’ chosen to ‘wait on tables.’

Stephen’s story continues right away:

“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” Acts 6:8-10

Stephen, one of those chosen to ‘wait on tables’ (the verb form of deacon) is right away a bold proclaimer / preacher. He has one of the longest sermons/speeches in the book of Acts (almost all of Chapter 7) and subsequently becomes the first Christian martyr! Not because he served tables but because of his public preaching.

Philip becomes known as Phillip the evangelist and understands how to connect the Old Testament to Christ when he proclaims the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch and baptizes him. The last time we hear about him is in Acts 21 when we learn that his daughters are prophets. Quite a robust proclamation ministry for this deacon and with his daughters as well!

The Greek word for deacon – diakonos – simply means servant. What’s interesting is that English bibles sometimes translate the same word servant and other times deacon. There is no distinction in the text itself.

So who is a deacon?

You might be surprised to know that Paul calls himself one on several occasions. Here are a couple:

“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.” Ephesians 3:7

“I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness” Colossians 1:25

Again, the word used here for servant is the very same word used elsewhere for deacon. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul even more often uses the word for slave service (doulos) for himself.

This, friends, is because the Kingdom of God is a completely upside down kingdom from anything else that exists in this world. Until we grasp this, any understanding we have of ‘leadership’ is going to be way off track. Leadership may well be a thing, but it is not a priority. Jesus tells us what is:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Again, the word Jesus uses that’s translated servant is diakonos (our word for deacon). Jesus – the Lord of the Universe – says with crystal clarity that in his kingdom the servant / slave is the greatest of all.

Is there any society or church who says that the role of servant or slave is reserved for men only? Yet Jesus authoritatively declares that this posture is the greatest. Nobody is above the deacon / servant / slave and the invitation is open to all.

It’s essential that we understand that any over/under positioning is antithetical to the kingdom of God and we cannot allow it in our churches. Yet we often think of elders as over deacons and pastors as over congregations and sometimes men over women.

Frankly, sometimes it seems like we have allowed the hierarchical structures of the fallen world to dominate rather than the in-breaking the kingdom of God.

As we read through the New Testament, it seems as though some who exemplified this way of kingdom service were particularly noted as deacons.

Pheobe, who carried and likely read aloud the letter of Romans, is a deacon.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” Romans 16:1

1 Timothy 3 is a place that gives some guidance about those who exemplify this Jesus soaked way of living as deacons:

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3:8-13

This guidance regarding deacon servants, not found in Titus 1, is really interesting and has caused a lot of questions over time.

Notice here in the NIV translation, unlike with the previous section on elders, they translate the characteristics with ‘they’ rather than ‘he’. Remember, neither of these (he or they) are in the Greek New Testament. The NIV translators likely do this because it’s more common for churches to hold that women can be deacons, sometimes called deaconesses (an odd word in my view). Again, the only thing possibly specific to men in this section of the text itself is ‘faithful to his wife’ (literally ‘one woman man’)

Interpreters haven’t quite known what to make of ‘the women’ in this section that’s clearly on the same subject. The same Greek word is used for women and wife in the New Testament. Is he talking about a separate group of female ministers? He is talking about male and female deacons? Is he talking about deacon’s wives? Perhaps it was more normal than we think to have strong ministry couples like Priscilla and Aquila and Andronicus and Junia. Truthfully, we really don’t know for sure.

I think at the end of the day, as we’ve explored the New Testament ministry world, we should synthesize by asking, what really mattered to Jesus and his apostles when it comes to ministry?

My reading of the Bible and through my study that I’ve invited you into in these posts suggests the following priorities…

Humble Christlike service comes first – flowing directly from Jesus’ clear teaching. Christians live under Jesus’ authority alone and wholly. He is the only head of the church, our master and he shows us that his way is walking the extra mile, washing feet and carrying one’s cross. Whoever does this is the greatest in his kingdom regardless of particular gifting or role. There is no one above the kingdom deacon.

Shared ministry and Spirit gifting is one of the baselines of New Testament ministry. We have seen that the Holy Spirit gifts each believer for ministry and that there are no gifts reserved for only men or women. Discerning and using your gifts for the building and strengthening of the church and mission in the world is of fundamental importance.

Knowing for and standing in the truth of the Gospel – a good grasp of the big picture of what God unfolding throughout the Scriptures – is extremely important. This is the goal for every believer and those who are responsible and accountable to oversee the church absolutely must be solid here.

The citizens of the kingdom of God are deacons. There is no greater position to be had, according to Jesus. We are those who serve in practical ways and get our hands dirty. We, like Stephen and Phillip, can move from bussing tables to proclaiming the big biblical story that leads to Jesus. We can baptize new believers. We are a kingdom of deacons.

Should Women Be Elders / Overseers? (Post 10)

As you can see by the note ‘Post 10’ in the title, we are drawing toward a conclusion in a series of discussions about the nature of ministry based on the practice amongst congregations in the first century. Because the previous posts lay a foundation for re-thinking the nature of ministry, the meaning of authority and what is going on in passages like 1 Timothy 2, please consider reading those posts before this one if you haven’t already done so.

While it is fine to look at issues conceptually, at some point in the practical life of local congregations, the question will need to be asked: Are there certain ministry roles or functions that, assuming solid life and doctrine as core qualifications, are open only to men on an ongoing basis regardless of culture?

Culture is a tricky thing isn’t it? It is possible to label something in the Bible as cultural to avoid or dismiss things we don’t like. But the Bible cannot be a ‘pick and choose’ based on our preferences. We must learn to read and study it as consistently as possible.

And yet, almost all Christians will acknowledge that there are some things in regular New Testament practice that are indeed connected to a particular culture and that we don’t need to practice today. For example, I’ve never been greeted with a ‘holy kiss.’ Even among conservative churches, very few require women to cover their heads. Nobody that I’m aware of would claim that the instruction ‘slaves obey your masters’ represents God’s ideal for all time.

How do we discern a consistent way to read the Bible (fancy word: hermeneutic) that’s not simply picking and choosing what we like and don’t like?

I believe we must seek to develop a big picture biblical theology that tracks through the biblical storyline of creation, sin, redemption and full restoration and that makes the best sense of the whole of Scripture in context including the major themes of kingdom and new creation. I’ve tried to do some of that work throughout these posts in relation to power dynamics and men and women.

As I’ve shared along the way, I believe that it’s clear in the Genesis accounts of creation and fall and in the teaching of Jesus and the actions of the Holy Spirit that God intends men and women to stand side by side and not in and over/under relationship of authority.

Jesus subverts power dynamics such that anyone – male or female – seeking ‘power over’ is missing the point of the nature of his kingdom.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that there is an indication in texts describing different gifts that the Holy Spirit gifts along gender lines.

I’m curious if you tend to read Ephesians 4 in a gendered way. And if so, does the text, like other lists of gifts, give any indication of male/female distinction?

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4:11-16

In previous posts we have seen that there is adequate reason to suspect that Junia was an apostle. We know for a fact that there were women prophets (Huldah in O.T., Anna, Philip’s daughters, the Acts 2 fulfillment of sons and daughters prophesying). Priscilla taught Apollos. The Samaritan woman at the well proclaimed Jesus to a whole town and women first declared (to the original Apostles) that Jesus had risen from the dead – the work of an evangelist.

Does it make sense to track through this passage and get to the calling of shepherd and say ‘nope, women can’t do that?’ If so, why?

Everything in this text and the community building mission in the New Testament is about discipling and equipping. ‘To equip his people for works of service so that the whole body might be built up…’

Let’s return to 1 Timothy 3. As I mentioned in the last post, the only thing in this list of qualifications specific to men rather than women is the qualification of ‘one women man.’ The ‘he’ language is supplied in order to make a coherent English translation and not present in the Greek New Testament.

Churches with consistently all male elders have wrestled with how to apply the ‘one woman men’ to different situations. Can a man who’s not married be an overseer? To say no would be consistent with a literal interpretation of this passage. But that means unmarried Paul isn’t qualified to be a church elder. Jesus couldn’t be a candidate. Does that make sense? Paul says at one point elsewhere that he thinks it would be better if more people would remain unmarried in order to focus on serving Christ.

I suspect many churches with all male elder teams would say, it’s not about being married so much as being faithful to your wife if you are married. But now we are saying that the only thing in this list consistency specific to men doesn’t mean only exactly what it says – it’s more of a principle.

If Paul did have men in mind in Ephesus in 1 Timothy 3, as seems to be the case, we might ask why that is the case? Is it a deeper theological paradigm? Or was it what was needed in that time and place for reasons why could consider but not be confident of, such as societal norms or false teaching?

This passage does not tell us whether it is intended to specifically exclude women and if so whether that is the case in all times and places. It tells Timothy and Titus what they were to do then and there. What is normative in all times and places and what is specific to a time and place?

And, importantly, how does all of this track with our big picture understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 through to Revelation 21 and 22? Will men be exclusively in certain roles on the new earth when God restores everything? This is something worth thinking about.

All of this is the context given to us to discern in our communities who God is raising up to serve functionally in the community as overseers and other areas of ministry.

I have been around both contexts – congregations that have elder teams made up of men and women and those that have only male elders. I’ve seen both work in healthy ways, so long as there is mature loving service not power or control, women’s voices are valued and included in other leadership roles (like deacon) and the elders understand that their responsibility isn’t to be the only voices in ministry and teaching but rather steward an environment where men and women can explore and develop their gifts in community.

Many of my friends think it’s clear that women should not be elders, and I respect them, so long as they have otherwise healthy views about the equality of women in the imagine of God and understand that the Spirit gifts and empowers women to minister. I will say once more though, that the people I respect the most on either side of this are the ones who appeal not only to one of two passages of Scripture but those that can interpret them in light of the whole of the biblical narrative.

My goal in this series has not been to convince you that my reading of Scripture is the correct one. Rather, I want you to think more deeply about these things. I want you to wrestle with some things you might have overlooked, to ask questions that might not have occurred to you. Perhaps you hold a different view than I do, but have re-thought a certain aspect of it.

I do hope that if you came to this series with the strong belief that women are excluded from certain ministry roles and functions that you will see a consistent biblical case can be made for a different perspective.

As for me, I believe that God is at work in Christ and through the Spirit to bring about the restoration of all that was broken – including the intended side by side ruling / stewarding of the earth by men and women. I believe we are to complement one another in our differences without hierarchy or power over one another.

Jesus announced that the the kingdom of God is at hand. Peter announced the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that in the last days men and women, young and old will speak God’s word. The Holy Spirit gifts men and women to serve another another in the body of Christ – with him alone as our head – until we all reach unity and maturity.

I believe that we must insist that those who oversee our collective ministry and shepherd us are people who are deeply shaped in the way of Christ – both in the way that they live and in their understanding of the good news – the story of King Jesus bringing the reign of God.

I don’t see anything to lose and much to gain by including both these kinds of men and women in those who are watching over the flock.

My desire is not to force you toward this conclusion yourself, but rather open up space to think again. Not to move beyond the Scriptures but deeper in – to the big story that God is telling.

Let’s continue to study and discern together.

Characteristics of Elders (Post 9)

In the last post, we looked at the essence of what Elders do: oversee the ministry of congregations, setting an example for all and ensuring that they hold to the truth of the gospel.

Because of those aspects, the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy and Titus will address character and ability to instruct others.

“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” 1 Timothy 3:1-7

This section starts with a statement: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Some translations of the Bible like the ESV will say ‘the office of overseer’, but a word for ‘office’ is not in the Greek New Testament. Rather it is the bias of the translators (right or wrong) that overseer is an ‘office’ or position primarily. I believe that this text in 1 Timothy shifts the emphasis away from office (a word added to these translations) and toward the function of oversight. Congregations would know who their elders were, but the essence is of a noble task not a noble position or title.

This section goes on to paint a picture of sorts of the kind of person the overseer is: worthy to be looked up to as a wise, faithful, mature follow of Christ who understands and walks in the truth.

‘Faithful to his wife’ – A more literal reading of this phrase is ‘one woman man.’ Scholars have explored several possibilities that Paul could have had in mind including only having one wife vs. two or more, not re-married after the death of a spouse or, most commonly, ‘faithful to his wife.’ While multiple marriage was not very common, sexual promiscuity for men particularly was prevalent in the Roman world.

Interestingly, this is the only aspect of this passage that actually specifies men. Throughout our English translations we see ‘he’ but this is not in the Greek, rather it’s implied (which makes decent sense), particularly in light of the ‘one woman man.’

Notice several of the other important but often overlooked qualifications given.

  • Temperate
  • Self controlled
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • not quarrelsome
  • not violent by gentle
  • not a lover of money
  • good reputation outside

While each of these could lead to lengthy biblical discussions, there is an overall picture presented of the kind of person – shaped by the way of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit.

I’d like to reflect on two additional aspects listed in this passage.

An overseer must manage their own household and children well.

Why? Because if someone isn’t effective at overseeing the people in their own household, how will they be able to oversee a greater number of people in a congregation? For someone to be entrusted with more, they must prove themselves to be trustworthy with what they already have responsibility in.

What does it mean to be ‘able to teach’ (verse 2)?

We sometimes assume that this means that one is a gifted teacher who is able to craft an impressive 3 point, 30 minute sermon or compelling small group study.

Given that our current expressions of ministry didn’t exist in the same way in the first century house churches, I think it’s much more likely that the idea here is that elder/overseers need to be able to explain the way of Jesus to those in the life of the church and correct those who have inadequate or faulty understanding.

Remember that passage from Hebrews?

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” Hebrews 5:12

Those who are overseers must not be those needing milk. They shouldn’t be new converts. They ought to be those who are mature enough in character and in the foundations of the faith to be able to teach it to others.

Elders need to be able to do with people something like what Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos:

“He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:25-26

The list of necessary elder/overseer qualities in Titus 1:6-9 is extremely similar to that in 1 Timothy 3. One aspect given more specific guidance comes at the end of that section and probably gives us a good idea of what Paul means by ‘able to teach’:

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Titus 1:9

Again, I believe we see a wonderful portrait of those who are responsible being on the team overseeing – shepherding – the church.

They exemplify Christlike character and the fruit of the Spirit (similar to those chosen in Acts 6:3). They are the kind of people new believers and young Christians can aspire to be like as they grow in their own understanding of the kingdom and discipleship to Jesus.

Overseers are people who can make sure that people are loving and serving one another in humble love in the life of the church. They can address the kinds of issues that Paul often did in his letters but right in the moment and from a context of regular relationship.

They can pull people aside as they are beginning to teach and share the gospel with others and help them understand more fully and faithfully the message.

Elders know the Lord and the Word and at times they will need to step in more boldly in response to false teaching, prideful arrogance or patterns of consistent sin in someone’s life.

As we start to wrap up this series, the next post will look at what questions we might ask as we discern whether only men should be included in this group of overseers/ elders or if it is appropriate to include mature, godly women as well. I will make the case that whichever of the two directions a church or denomination chooses, the functioning of the life of the church in practice should be similar, based on the picture we’ve seen of New Testament ministry.

What Do Elders Do? (Post 8)

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5

This statement of purpose in the Letter to Titus fascinates me. It reminds us that a few local leaders (elders/overseers) are important and yet clearly not the foundation of New Testament ministry. This must be the case because the churches are functioning as worshipping communities across the island of Crete without elders at this time.

When congregations consisted of primarily new believers, like many did in the early church, it had to take time to see who held strong in the faith in the midst of challenges and showed genuine maturity of character.

Not having people marked as responsible for oversight of the ministry and mission of the congregations was what was left ‘unfinished.’ It wasn’t the beginning or the foundation of ministry, but rather something needed to ensure faithfulness and longevity, especially when Paul or one of his ‘co-workers’ couldn’t be everywhere all the time.

It’s interesting to note that only one of Paul’s general letters to churches specifically addresses those serving as overseers.

“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Philippians 1:1

This kind of acknowledgement does not occur in Letters like Romans or 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians or Ephesians, etc. Even in Philippians it’s more of a general acknowledgement than a specific word to them. Philippians, like these other Letters, is written equally to everyone.

Peter mentions elders in more depth toward the end of his First Letter:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:1-3

We will take a look at this passage in a moment. But the point I am first making is that Peter and Paul write primarily to whole congregations rather than passing information down through the organizational structure. Their usual instruction is not like the corporate world or a military chain of command where things are passed down the line.

This is because the nature of congregational life is not based on one or a few leaders but on the whole of the Holy Spirit empowered community who are living in response to the call of the gospel.

As we saw in descriptions of the life of the church in 1 Corinthians and Colossians 3:16, gatherings were marked by mutual edification and the exercise of Spiritual gifts rather than everyone focused toward one person behind a pulpit.

As I have mentioned before, there is nothing implicit in the texts that speak about Spiritual gifts that would indicate that they are distributed along gender lines.

Rather, Paul writes to the Romans:

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6-8

So, what do elders/overseers do? One of the major things they do is oversee! They see to it that the congregation is gathering in good order (unlike some of the issues happening in Corinth) and growing toward Christlikeness together.

Let’s note a few things Peter mentions in the quote posted above. One is that the elders are among all the others. They are a regular part of the body with different gifts as listed in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Yet they knew that they had a responsibility. If Paul or Timothy or Titus came to town, they could ask these elders how things were going. If they caught wind of an issue, they knew who they could ask.

This responsibility also had a shepherding function. There was a pastoral task, though no indication of a title, to their responsibility. The congregation is under their (multiple, not one person) care.

Notice that: watchful care. Not power and control and authority over. Eager to serve. Peter now finally understood the way of Jesus: not ‘lording over’ like the gentiles but rather the posture of a servant to all.

Also note this from verse 3: ‘Being examples to the flock.’ The whole flock of men and women should be able to look to these elder / overseers as examples to be followed – maturing in Christ, holding to the truth and serving in Christlike humility. People who walked in wisdom.

Paul, likewise, frequently encouraged all believers to follow both his life and teaching.

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” Philippians 4:9

As Paul speaks to elders from Ephesus in Acts 20, he has a similar responsibility in mind that Peter does:

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Acts 20:28

Overseers should join Peter and Paul in encouraging wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus and in embrace of the gifts that the Spirit gives.

Whatever gift a man or woman has in the congregation, overseers should encourage them to use and develop maturity in their gift. They should help make sure that people are walking in Christlike humility (which is why they must exhibit it to be elders) and they must be able to stand in and communicate gospel truth in order to correct those who are off base.

Elder/Overseers are important to the life of the church! But they aren’t the heart of it.

The heart of the body of Christ is the whole people of God, growing together in the cross-shaped way of Jesus and serving one another with the gifts God gives in order to build the body to unity and maturity (Ephesians 4:13).

In the next two posts, we will look at the particular qualities that are listed for those who will serve as elders / overseers.

Note: There are two Greek words that are used in relevant passages: presbuteros (elders) and episkopos (overseers). While some take these two be two distinct roles or functions, they are used in the same passages of what seems to be the same people. See Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7. Because of this, my view is that these are different terms used for the same people.

Who Gets Authority? (Post 7)

[This is post 7 in a series on men and women in ministry among the earliest churches that are recorded on the pages of the New Testament. This is the forth post on 1 Timothy. Click through the blog to see the other posts, which build on one another]

“I do not permit a women to to teach or assume authority over a man” 1 Timothy 2:12

What is the nature of authority in the Kingdom of God?

As we have seen in previous posts, false teaching is a defining issue in the purpose for writing 1 Timothy. One of the problems with certain women in the city of Ephesus at that time is that they are seeking to ‘assume authority.’ Other translations of this Greek word include ‘usurp authority’ (KJV), exercise authority’ (NASB, ESV) or simply ‘have authority (CSB).

One challenge in this case, which is almost impossible for the English Bible reader to be aware of without additional study tools, is that the word used here is found nowhere else in the New Testament. We do see the word ‘authority’ used elsewhere in the New Testament, but it is a different Greek word than the one used here.

This word, authenteo, so far as we can tell in its use outside the Bible (remember it’s only used once in the Bible) has the idea of being forceful, domineering, even violent.

Here is an important question: what is the problem with these women and authority (authenteo)?

For some, the issue is that women are seeking authority when men are supposed to be the ones in authority. This, I believe, both ignores Paul’s word choice here and is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of authority as taught by Jesus and in the creation intent between men and women.

We spent some time in the last post talking about men and women in creation and the first sin in the world and we saw there that there is no hierarchy between men and women in creation – no separate roles due to ‘created order’ as some will say. Genesis 1 and 2 plainly does not teach that men are in charge over women.

What we do see in Genesis 3 is that as a result of sin in the world after the disobedience of both woman and man, there would now be a power struggle.

“Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

It is absolutely vital that we understand that this is a description of relationship in a fallen world and NOT prescriptive of God’s intent for flourishing relationship.

Again, no human was intended to ‘rule over’ another. Humans together were intended to rule over the rest of creation (see Genesis 1:26), but not to rule over one another.

Fortunately, in Christ and in his Kingdom, things will begin to be restored in relationship toward the way God intended in creation.

Unfortunately, some Christians have not understood this vital piece of biblical redemption and have instead called the consequence of the fall God’s ongoing intention for men and women in the church.

Jesus makes it clear that although the fallen world lives by ‘authority over’ and that his own disciples will be deeply tempted to live this way, he will have none of it.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

Jesus here teaches that no disciple of his, no citizen of his kingdom – man or woman – is to exercise authority over others.

Instead authority belongs to Christ and he uses his divine authority to wash feet, to serve and to give his life for others. This is the fundamental nature of the kingdom – never power over; always service.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:18-20

The authority of Jesus directs us to make disciples who take the posture of servants, which is what he both modeled and taught.

So, clearly, the problem in Ephesus is not that women were ‘exercising authority’ instead of men exercising authority. The problem, I suggest, was that these particular women had not only bad theology but the wrong attitude toward men and others.

They needed to be directed to stop teaching bad theology and instead become learners who could sometime later teach good theology and to stop trying to exercise authority over and instead learn to take on the posture of Jesus as a servant.

The good news is that Jesus has a totally different view of authority from almost everyone else in this world.

And Jesus is inviting men and women into a new creation that is restoring his original intent for men and women to serve side by side rather than in over under power dynamics. In fact, in Christ all of the brokenness between groups and individuals is being undone.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:27-29

Obviously, Paul does not envision that there is no difference between men and women at all. Jews and Gentiles continued to know their backgrounds. But the over under, ‘us not you’ dynamics are done with. We are being called into new creation.

In the next post(s), we will begin looking at the responsibility of ‘overseers’ in the early church and how they might relate to the big picture of ministry.

Back to the Garden – Men and Women in Creation and Sin (Post 6)

]We have been exploring the ministry world of the early church over several posts. This is the 6th post overall and the third relating to 1 Timothy.]

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” 1 Timothy 2:13-14

What is the point that Paul is making by including this example in the context of what’s happening in Ephesus at that time?

For some, the point is that men should have authority and a women’s role is under that authority. For at least some of these folks, the idea that men lead and women follow is part of the very ‘creation order.’ Or perhaps women are somehow always more easily deceived and that’s why they shouldn’t teach?

In this post, we will take a look at Genesis 1-3 and see if a reading this reading of the situation fits with what we learn there.

Let’s start with the creation of humans in Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:26-28

In this text, we are told that God creates male and female in his image and that they are together given the directive to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ Men and women have shared rule over every other living thing on the earth, and in chapter one there is no difference between the responsibility of man and women. In this text, their task is shared without distinction.

Chapter two spends more time on the description of the creation of man and woman. Let’s take a look:

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:16-17

1 Timothy states what Genesis 2 here communicates: that Adam was formed first. There is not – at least not yet – any particular significance attributed to his being created first (in Genesis 1 humans are created last and often throughout the Torah God chooses the younger sibling to lead – Joseph as one example.)

What is worth our attention here is the command of Genesis 2:16. Who was this command given to and who would it ultimately apply to? The command is given to the man alone before the woman is formed. Yet it applies to her as well and would have applied to their children if they hadn’t been exiled from the Garden.

How would she have been able to learn about God’s instruction? Since we are nowhere told that God gave her the same instruction directly, Adam would have to teach her. Her responsibility regarding God’s word at that time would be to take on the posture of a learner until she grasped God’s truth.

The next thing that happens in Genesis 2 is the creation of women from man.

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18

We tend to consistently view a ‘helper’ as a subordinate role. Usually the person ‘in charge’ receives assistance from helpers. So we might easily read this passage and think that men are the ones who lead and are in charge and women assist them as they lead. (and teach?)

The problem with that reading of this text is that the other instances of this word often translated ‘helper’ (ezer in Hebrew) make that interpretation almost impossible.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1–2)

We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.” (Psalm. 33:20)

Throughout the Old Testament, the overwhelming majority of the use of the word for helper (ezer) is used of God himself! If anything, I’d think that the choice of this word in Genesis 2 highlights the man’s need of women to come alongside him so that they can rule the rest of creation side by side, as Genesis 1 explicitly says.

“The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called woman,
for she was taken out of man.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:23-24

I believe that the stories of Genesis 1 and 2 fit together quite well. Men and women are intended to stand side by side and steward the earth. Being fruitful and multiplying and teaching their children to love and follow God.

But there is something that needs to happen after the woman is created: The command of God was given to the man before the woman was formed in Genesis 2. So Adam had the responsibility to share it with her accurately so that she would understand and follow it – and eventually they could teach it to others.

But things did not go well. Either he did not teach well and she she did not learn well – or both!

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’? The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Genesis 3:1-6

Some may say that women are more gullible or easily deceived than men. The question there is whether that comes from the text or, in my estimation, you may be bringing that prior assumption to your reading of this text. The reality is that the person who did receive the command directly from God – the man – was also right there ‘with her’ and he also ate the fruit, breaking the one prohibition that God gave him.

Let’s tie this back to the situation in 1 Timothy for a moment:

‘A woman should learn… For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived…’

Eve, like some of the women in Ephesus at that time, had not taken the time to learn well. Eve added to God’s command – ‘and you must not touch it.’ and was quickly talked out of obedience to God’s word. Not because she was a woman, but because she hadn’t learned well.

This, I believe, makes the best sense of Paul’s use of this example in 1 Timothy. Women in Ephesus are to posture themselves as learners rather than those who think they know when they don’t and fall into error and sin.

Next time, we will take a look at authority in 1 Timothy 2, in Genesis 3 and in Jesus’ teaching.

*Note: I have tried to make a case in these posts from the text of scripture itself rather than heavy reliance on cultural context and possibilities. We should keep in mind that this is a personal letter written from one person to another. Both Paul and Timothy knew what was going on in Ephesus and in that particular situation so they didn’t need to spell it out the way we might wish they would.

Given the known existence of the Artemis cult in Ephesus and the clues we have from 1:4 regarding ‘endless myths and genealogies’, scholars have suggested that it’s likely that there were alternate teachings about the creation of men and women, likely exalting women over men and removing women from culpability. If that’s the case, Paul is also correcting a false teaching that may have circulated amongst some of the women of Ephesus by reminding them of aspects of the Genesis story.

The reading I am suggesting does not depend on this possibility but if it is possible or even likely, as I believe is the case, it further supports it.

When Not To Teach… (Post 5)

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” 1 Timothy 2:11-14

In the last post we introduced the context of 1 Timothy as a letter. I would strongly suggest that you read that post before this one.

In my estimation, it is vital that we keep the stated context in view as we seek to faithfully interpret this portion of the letter.

“Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” 1 Timothy 1:6-7

Here’s a question: What should these people be doing instead?

They want to be teachers of the law but they…don’t know what they are talking about. They are ignorant to the truth.

What is the solution to ignorance? Learning. Anyone who will teach the truth must first learn the truth. There is no bypassing this reality.

One of the worst things – and we perhaps have experienced this in different settings – is a person who is both ignorant and over-confident. Authoritative ignorance.

Is this not what we see in the women mentioned here? *

The primary directive in this passage is that women should learn. We are reminded here of the posture that Mary takes at the feet of Jesus in Luke 10:38-42. This is the posture of a disciple of a rabbi and in that episode Jesus suggests that the posture of a disciple is a perfectly appropriate place for a women to be.

Jesus welcomed women as students and Paul encouraged Timothy in invite the women of Ephesus to the same posture. The potential difference between Mary and some of the women here is that she was hungry to learn truth and they thought they already had it, while actually being in ignorance and perhaps significant resistance to replacing old beliefs with Jesus-centered ones.

In perhaps another paradigm shift for us, I believe that we need to embrace the reality that in the kingdom, we are always learning in order to teach.

Our environments today are set up so that there is one teacher and many students. As I have already mentioned, we gather in large groups all listening to one teacher, whether it’s in a worship gathering or a classroom. In school, we often learn in order to pass tests. In church, we can think we learn only in order to feed our souls and navigate life as individuals.

But in the kingdom vision of Scripture, learning is always in order to teach others. Not necessarily in a classroom or behind a pulpit, but in the lives of those around us. This is discipleship. Consider this aspect of Jesus’ ‘great commission:

“…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:20

This principle is consistent with the Old Testament story and the way that the truth of God’s ways were passed on.

“Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deuteronomy 11:19

Knowing God’s word and way always entailed living God’s word and way and teaching God’s word and way. This is discipleship.

The admonishment given by the author of the Letter of the Hebrews is worth our consideration:

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” Hebrews 5:12

He is speaking here to the general audience of believers, lamenting immaturity in the truth. The implication of this text is that all those who are grounded in the truth should be teachers of that truth to others. But those who have not grasped foundational truth well should not be teachers.

Just like the women in Ephesus that are being addressed in 1 Timothy 2.

If we are not grounded in the truth, we should absolutely not be teaching others! Nor are we rejected. Rather, we are invited to become learners in order that we may be grounded in the foundational truth and then able to teach others.

Some use 1 Timothy 2 and the admonition ‘I do not permit a woman to teach….a man’ to draw the conclusion that this teachers that women are able to teach other women and children but not men.

I believe that there are fundamental problems with this view. The biggest problem is that it ignores the stated context of the Letter, namely the severity of the false teaching in Ephesus at that time.

Again, the Bible is not a collection of random truths thrown at us. This is a Letter from from one person to another person at a particular place and time and situation. Only by seeking to understand those dynamics can we learn how to apply Scriptures like this faithfully in our own contexts. This series of posts is my attempt to do just that.

If indeed, as I believe is the case, significant false teaching is in view here, what sense does it make to say that these particular women could potentially be okay to teach children and other women but not men? If children and women were perhaps often among the least already knowledgable and able to be established in certain beliefs, that would be an odd move.

It’s interesting that in the past, Priscilla and Aquila together taught Apollos in the same city of Ephesus. (Acts 18:18-28) They were not native to Ephesus nor did they stay there due to being among the traveling ministry ‘co-workers’

My thesis is this: Paul has no problem with anyone who knows and walks in the truth with Christ-like humility teaching anyone else.

Certain women in Ephesus at that time did not know nor walk in the truth adequately and given that situation at that time, they had no business teaching anybody.

We could also apply this situation to men in many contexts. Any man who does not know and walk in the truth should not be teaching anyone else false ideas.

Before we can fully make this claim about women and teaching in light of 1 Timothy 2, however, there are a couple more pieces that we need to explore: Adam and Eve and the nature of authority.

Stay with me!

*By the way, it’s possible that only one woman is in view here as the problem Paul is addressing but I think just as likely more given additional information we can learn about the dominance of the Artemis cult in Ephesus and women as the dominant leaders in that practice.

There is strong indication in the rest of this letter that women aren’t the only ones purveying and effected by false teaching, but some women certainly seem to be significantly caught in it.

When Things Go Wrong (Post 4)

[This is the fourth post in a series that started HERE.]

We have been exploring the ministry dynamics among the earliest churches in the New Testament era. Over the past three posts, we have begun to see a picture of ministry a bit different from what seems normal to many of us. It seems that local gatherings were not focused toward one person behind a pulpit but rather mutual ministry in the common room of a house rather than a special building. We see not highly structured denominations but rather a connected network of men and women as ministry ‘co-workers.’

The New Testament also includes examples of addressing when things go wrong. Today we will begin to look at one of those examples: the situation in Ephesus that we see addressed in the Letter 1 Timothy.

One core principle for good Bible study is to study Scripture in context. The Bible is not primarily a collection of various maxims of truth but rather a collection of books in different genres written at different times in the unfolding story of redemption by God-inspired authors. To read Scripture well, we have to discern as best we can what is going on in that place and time. This is known as context.

1 Timothy is notable for our discussion because of what it says about women: Chapter 2 includes instructions to ‘learn in silence and submission’ and includes an admonition against women teaching men.

Perhaps at this point in our ongoing study, these statements will feel a bit out of place. We have seen seen that both men and women would and did ‘prophesy’ (some form of God inspired instructive speech for the church). We have seen that a mature ministry couple (Priscilla and Aquila) together taught another disciple named Apollos, who would have a significant ministry of his own. We have seen that Paul entrusted a woman to be responsible to carry the Letter to the Romans.

Fortunately, 1 Timothy informs us of its context early:

“…stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.” 1 Timothy 1:3-4

Again, we see that Timothy is not ‘their pastor’ but one of Paul’s traveling ‘co-workers’ 1 Timothy is not first and foremost a manual for how to lead a healthy church. Rather, 1 Timothy is theological triage at the start. That’s the context.

Chapter 1 goes on to say a bit more about those who are teaching false doctrines:

“Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” 1 Timothy 1:6-7

There are several issues that come up here: These people have a longing to be teachers yet they are ignorant to the content of the truth. They are confident in their ignorance.

Let’s not lose this contextual information as we turn to chapter two. I will submit for your consideration that it’s clear enough that the big picture problem in Ephesus is not godly, humble people who know the truth well but just happen to be women. But there is significant study for us to do as we consider all that this text might have for us.

When we lose the context (general pastoral manual vs first addressing false teaching) and switch the setting (who gets to stand behind the pulpit that everyone is faced toward to hear a sermon vs. a ministering community), we can miss the point in our interpretation and application.

Here is the primary text that we are now considering:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” 1 Timothy 2:11-15

There is a lot going on in this text! Frankly, I am frustrated by the way it is often handled by people on both ‘sides’ of the discussion about how men and women serve in ministry. On the one hand, those who believe that women should not teach men in the church will sometimes simply state something like ‘the Bible says that women aren’t to teach men.’ This then becomes the key to interpreting the rest of the pattern in the New Testament. Yet, I feel that this view often fails to adequately take into account the stated context of the Letter and the challenges in this text itself. “Women will be saved through childbearing.” Is that a clear text with an obvious meaning?

On the other hand, those quick to affirm women in all areas of ministry often, in my view, too quickly dismiss this text as ‘cultural’ and cannot offer a compelling reading of the whole passage in a constructive sense. This is our Bible and we cannot skip over difficult texts.

Here is where we are going in the text couple posts: First we will explore the concepts of learning and teaching in the Bible and explore Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve. Then we will spend some time discussing the nature of ‘authority’ in the New Testament.

A couple questions to consider until then:

How have you read this passage in the past?

Are you open to thinking differently about it based on the teaching of Scripture itself?

Paul’s Ministry Team of Men and Women (Post 3)

[This is the 3rd post in a series on a vision for ministry from the New Testament. This post can be read on its own or ideally along with the others.]

There are three Letters in the New Testament (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) that are most frequently referred to as ‘Pastoral Epistles.’ We often hear introductions to these letters stating that they are written to young pastors to help them in their ministries.

Unfortunately, like most of the New Testament, we have a tendency to read them through the lens of our own ministry models rather than seeking to understand the New Testament on its own terms. Our primary understanding of church leadership is that of local church pastors and so we assume that’s what Timothy and Titus are. But we are at least partially mistaken in that view. These Letters themselves, as well as other writings of the New Testament make this clear enough when we take a fresh look.

“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer…” 1 Timothy 1:3

Clearly, Timothy wasn’t ‘called’ by that congregation to be their pastor, nor would he remain there any longer than was necessary. As we will show in more depth in a future post, local congregations in these churches did not have ‘a pastor’ the way that we think about that role today.

Rather Timothy was urged by Paul to stay in Ephesus because of the depth and degree of false teaching that needed to be dealt with. The assumption is that if there were not significant problems there, Paul would likely not have urged Timothy to stay there.

Why not?

Because Timothy was not a local church pastor. Rather, he was part of Paul’s trans-local or itinerant ministry team.

From what we can tell in the book of Acts as well as other Letters, as Paul traveled he connected with other disciples of Jesus and partnered with them in a web of ministry connections that he often referred to as ‘co-workers’

In Timothy’s case, Paul met him in the midst of his ministry travels and wanted to take him along on his journeys (Acts 16:1-5). As we have seen, he is in Ephesus for a time. He is also noted as traveling to Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:10). Another time he is in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Timothy has a significant ministry purpose when he is in these cities, but he is not a local church pastor the way that we think of one today. When he left, someone else did not come to replace him. Rather, local church oversight was developed from among each congregation or city. We will explore this more in a future post.

Paul’s ‘co-workers’ were numerous and they included both men and women. While some of the names of Paul’s ministry associates are perhaps familiar to us (Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Titus, Mark, and Luke) many of these names are easily overlooked in our devotional reading.

One husband and wife ministry couple we see active in different locations is Priscilla and Aquila. In the book of Acts, he first meets them in Corinth (Acts 18:1-3). He connected with them in both ministry and their shared occupation of tent making, something both husband and wife engaged in to meet their financial needs – perhaps ministering as they worked.

As with Timothy and others, Paul took Priscilla and Aquila along with him on his journeys at times (Acts 18:18).

Acts also notes that Priscilla and Aquila spent some time further discipling Apollos, a gifted man who needed some more teaching:

“He (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:26

Romans 16 is a text that is often overlooked in our studies of that Letter and yet is filled with lists of Paul’s ministry associates that were mutual acquaintances of both himself and the Christians at Rome. Having never been to Rome in person prior to writing the Letter, he is drawing on shared connections.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” Romans 16:1

We might easily overlook the meaning of this statement. Paul’s ‘commendation’ of Pheobe is because she is the one carrying the Letter to the Romans, which was both a substantial undertaking in the actual journey as well as the responsibility given. Phoebe is the person chosen from among others to deliver this Letter. Scholars have good reason to suggest that she may have been the one to read it aloud in each of the Roman house churches. If the Christians in Rome had questions abut the content of the Letter, she might have been equipped by Paul to answer some of them. This, however, is uncertain so while I think the suggestion has plausibility, we should not push these additional aspects related to her potential interpretation of the Letter too firmly.

Priscilla and Aquila also show up in Romans 16 – they are everywhere it seems! The fact that her name is often listed before his is interesting and may or may not have any significance and again, that point shouldn’t be pushed too hard.

Throughout this chapter, many men and women are mentioned. Names you’ve likely never heard of like Ampliatus, Appelles, Rufus, Hermes and Hermas.

Again, note more of the women mentioned in Romans 16:

“Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.” Romans 16:12

“Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.” Romans 16:6

One of the most interesting mentions in this chapter is another ministry couple: Andronicus and Junia.

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Romans 16:7

There has been a lot of discussion about Junia over the course of Christian history, including a translation question of whether she and Andronicus were themselves apostles or well known to the apostles. We should recall that there are people in the New Testament beyond the ‘Twelve’ who have apostolic gifting and are described as such, including Barnabas (Acts 14:14) and Jesus’ brother James (Galatians 1:19).

It is, I think, significant to note that ancient interpreters like John Chrysostom of Constantinople (c. AD 349 – 407) – who spoke Greek fluently, insinuated that this passage could only be translated one way:

“’Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . distinguished among the apostles.’ To be apostles is a great thing, but to be distinguished among them—consider what an extraordinary accolade that is! They were distinguished because of their works and because of their upright deeds. Indeed, how great was the wisdom of this woman that she was thought worthy of being called an apostle!”

In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about different people Jesus empowers to collectively equip his people to together grow to maturity.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-13

Much like with the lists of spiritual gifts we saw in 1 Corinthians and Romans, there is no contextual indication that only one gender in view here. We have already seen in Peter’s Pentecost speech quoting Joel that men and women would both be engaged in prophetic ministry. Acts 21:9 is a specific instance of several women (Phillip’s daughters) having the gift of prophecy. In Romans 16 we have seen a strong indication of a woman being an apostle.

In any case, it is clear that amongst Paul’s ‘co-workers’ – his ministry network, there are many men and women named.

We might wonder what specific ministries they – specifically the women – are engaged in?

But why ask that question at all? Why wouldn’t women be involved in any and every type of ministry?

1 Timothy 2 is probably among the biggest reasons we would ask such a question and to that text we will next turn our attention. In the next post, we will use Paul’s mention of Eve in that Letter as a starting point to dig into Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 and track the relationship between men and women in creation, fall and redemption in Christ.

I hope you will stay with me for the journey!

[For a more complete 4 page walk through Paul’s ‘co-workers, check this article.

The Basis of New Testament Local Church Ministry (Post 2)

[This post is part two in a series exploring a New Testament view of ministry, with an eye to how and where men and women relate to various contexts. If you haven’t already, read the first post HERE]

If you walk into a building set up for the church to gather in, it will probably follow a general pattern. There are rows of pews or chairs all facing in the same direction. The focal point of these seats, where the vast majority of those gathered will sit, is a place where one person or a small group of people will stand or sit. This area will often feature some furniture – perhaps a table (with no chairs around it) and often a pulpit or podium or at least a music stand.

One question we might ask is, who gets to stand in that spot toward which all eyes in the room are directed? Can just any Christian stand in that important spot? Can a woman stand in and speak from that place? What does it mean to stand there and speak?

The problem is that, as far as we can tell, gatherings of Jesus followers in the time that the New Testament was written didn’t meet in buildings set apart for special ‘church’ use. They met in homes and thus in smaller size groups than we are probably used to. There was likely no special furniture (can you imagine a big pulpit in your living room?) and no need for a raised platform because the gatherings were small enough that everyone could see one another.

Regardless of exactly what the rooms where like and how many people there were, the New Testament gives us a good indication on how these meetings went.

The few descriptions and instructions for these gatherings found in the New Testament Letters don’t give any indication of anyone being in a special location or position relative to others. Let’s take a quick look at a couple:

“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” 1 Corinthians 14:26

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16

Where is the person ‘up front’ in either of these instances? Who is responsible for ‘the pulpit’ in Corinth or Colossae?

It seems that these questions would be nonsensical to a member of the first century church. The strong indication that is that their gatherings were fully and equally participatory and Holy Spirit led.

One text that we will return to for more reflection in a future post is Titus 1.

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5

One question we might consider is, how did the churches function without established leaders to oversee it? The answer now presents itself: the leadership of the one or few are not the foundation of what congregations of Jesus’ people did when gathered. As we will later see and this text clearly indicates, there is a purpose for elders or overseers, but they are not the ‘main thing’ for New Testament ministry.

Okay then, what is the ‘main thing’ for first century gatherings of disciples?

The collective of those people, men and women, who have responded to the gospel in allegiance to King Jesus and empowered equally and fully by God the Holy Spirit with various gifts to build up the body.

Significantly, on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out in a fresh way, Peter understood that it was a fulfillment of the words spoken through the Prophet Joel in the Old Testament:

“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
” Acts 2:17-18

Notice the repetition here in this God inspired word (through both the prophet Joel and Peter) of the specific inclusion of both men and women / sons and daughters in this text. And what will they – men and women both – do? Prophesy. We could do a whole post exploring what the meaning of prophesy might have been, but it has to be some form of divinely inspired speech given to be audibly shared with others. God will inspire both men and women equally to speak words given by him.

Peter will go on in that same Pentecost speech to proclaim a gospel word:

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:36-39

The gift of the Holy Spirit is deeply significant in several ways. One of them is that we are all gifted to serve one another. There are several places in the New Testament that list gifts. Here are two short yet significant passages:

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6-8

“To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” 1 Corinthians 12:8-10

It should be pointed out here that there is no indication whatsoever in any of these scriptures that spiritual gifts are given along gender lines. This fits perfectly with the pattern that we have seen at both Pentecost in in the local settings in Corinth and Colossae.

As we wrap up this post, I would submit for your consideration the following that we have seen from Scripture.

  • Regular New Testament gatherings were fully participatory with each member being able and even expected to use their gifts to bless, encourage and challenge the whole group with no central pulpit or platform indicated. There was no one person consistently ‘up front’ as far as we can see.
  • The Holy Spirit is poured out on all (both men and women specifically mentioned) who respond in faith to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, the crucified and risen King to whom we give our total allegiance.
  • Both men and women will be given and share divinely inspired words (prophecy)
  • Spiritual gifts are given to all believers with no indication that there is any difference according to gender.

As we conclude this post (I know, you have questions about other scriptures we haven’t covered yet. Don’t worry, we will get to them), what are you thinking? What ideas or passages that I’ve shared might you be reflecting on in new ways? Have you tended (as many of us do) to read the New Testament with our current expressions of church in mind rather than exploring what first century church life was like?

[Side note: As we work through these scriptures, I am not suggesting that we need to do everything exactly the way that they did it in the first century. But we perhaps or even probably should ask ourselves questions like, what would be the best way to set up our spaces and gatherings to foster the Spirit driven ministry of the New Testament churches?]