Mother’s Day is a special day.
It is a day we set aside to honor the contributions of our mothers and what they have done for us. Many of us will do something special today for our wives and mothers, whether it is buying her flowers and a card, taking her out to eat, or, as I plan to do this afternoon, give our mom a call. Sadly, some of us today will remember a mother’s memory.
Our mothers are special. They worked hard to care for us and made sure we had something to eat. Our mothers insisted we finish our home work and clean our rooms. They taught us grace and compassion for others. Our mothers have given us so much that it is only right that we give them something back today and everyday.
Today, I want to reflect on something that has been on my mind. Do we limit women to only this one role for their life? In other words, do we tell women, whether directly or indirectly, that to be a good woman you must be a mother?
Hear what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting that being a mother is not important. To the contrary, I believe being a mother is very important. I know many women desire to be mothers and those who are consider it their greatest joy. Yet, I am cautious as a child of God, a pastor, a theologian, and, dare I say, a husband to define women into one specific role as ideal for their life. I am not qualified to speak on what is or is not a true woman, but I do not believe we should limit women to one specific role. In the same way, I do not believe we should limit men to one specific role either.
But, is this view biblically sound? The question for us this morning is this: What does Scripture tell us about the role women are to play in our lives, in the church, and in society? What does God desire for women in the kingdom of God? These questions, I hope, will serve as our guide for our time together.
First, we need to examine some background information that will assist our discussion. Scripture is the Word of God, but it was written by men who lived in a specific culture and circumstances. As Ben Witherington notes, the Bible was written in an age that was predominantly patriarchal. In those days, being male was seen as a blessing and everything was inherited through the male side of the family. Women had few, if any, rights and because of that their primary role was to be a mother and to take care of the home.
In order to understand God’s intent for women, Witherington says we have to look at the progression of change in their treatment throughout Scripture. This allows us to see God’s movement in working with various cultures and situations. God’s grace is constantly at work in redeeming people and communities. This is the case, as well, with God’s desires for women. God is constantly at work showing us his desires and hopes for both men and women.
We need go back to the beginning of our story. We cannot enter a theological discussion without first encountering God’s original intent for humanity and creation. Creation and humanity was once perfect. It was as God had created it. Part of that creation is found in Genesis 1:27. Here we learn that both male and female were created in the image of God. This means both males and females are to be representatives of God’s very nature, God’s holiness and love, in their lives. We were made to reflect God’s character. One gender was not given more of the image than the other. Both male and female were made equal in God’s eyes.
This desired equality was tarnished when sin, our act of disobedience, entered creation. Sin diminished what God perfectly created. As a result, we get separateness out of equality. This birthed a culture where males were seen as dominant. Women were seen as inferior. Is this what God desires? I think we can honestly say it is not.
Once sin entered creation, God began a journey of restoration. Restoration is not limited to the redemption of our souls and bringing us back into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. It also includes the restoration of humanity and creation back into what God desired from the very beginning of creation.
Scripture tells us of how God has worked and continues to work to redeem humanity and creation. This includes redeeming how we view women. Two passages highlight and those were the passages we read this morning. The first comes from Judges 4:1-10, which is the story of Deborah and Barak. It is the story of Deborah’s judgeship. But, what exactly was a judge? Judges led Israel during the intermediary period between the end of Moses’ leadership and the period of kings. They were seen as deliverers and influential leaders.
Deborah is seen as that and more. She is also considered a prophet who speaks with authority that comes from God. In our passage, the people of Israel had been sold into slavery because of their continued disobedience. This is a common theme throughout Judges: Israel sins and is placed into bondage. Israel cries for help and God hears them, which is also a continuing theme. In this instance, God calls Deborah. God uses Deborah as the conduit for redemption. She is the person who calls Barak to fight the battle against Sisera. She is the voice that brings redemption to the people.
Notice how Barak response to Deborah’s call. He says he will not go without Deborah. This is not an act of cowardice, but an act of acknowledging Deborah’s worth and calling. Barak saw Deborah as many saw the Ark of the Covenant. She was embodiment of the very presence of God and to have her at the battle would ensure their victory.
In a society dominated by men, God chose a woman to bring redemption. He called Deborah to be a representative of God’s presence, to adjudicate cases, and to lead her people. She wasn’t the only woman called by God in the Old Testament. For example, Esther played a key role in preventing the people of Israel from being destroyed. Deborah’s contribution is one that would seemingly open up all kinds of opportunities and potentials for women.
What about in the New Testament? How are women treated here? In our Gospel passage today, Luke tells of an interaction between Jesus and two women. It is indicative of his ministry with women. In this story, Mary and Martha are hosting Jesus. They are providing hospitality and welcome Jesus into their community. However, Martha is doing all the work and Mary is sitting by Jesus’ feet. So, Martha complains and wants Jesus to tell Mary to help her.
Jesus doesn’t respond in the way Martha desired. Instead, he tells her it is OK for Mary to be at his feet. Jesus allows Mary to stay in his presence. In that time, to sit at the feet of a teacher would symbolic of receive religious training. Women were not allowed to be disciples and receive religious training. By allowing Mary to stay, Jesus is saying it is OK for her, and for women, to be taught, to learn, and to be disciples. We know women were among those who traveled with Jesus and were among the community of followers. Jesus welcomed women not just into a relationship, but into the counter-cultural reality of education and growth in their understanding of God.
This wasn’t the only time Jesus redeemed cultural norms regarding women. Jesus routinely takes the culture’s ideas for women and shows God’s desires through his words and actions. He brings women into relationship, such the woman at the well. He calls women to missions of proclamation, such as he does with Mary in the garden following his resurrection. Jesus routinely welcomes women, invites them to fellowship with him, and shows God’s desire of women having a place and a purpose in the kingdom.
This message is continued in Acts and in Paul’s writings. In Acts, some women take a lead role in teaching and spreading the Gospel message. Most notably was Priscilla who in Acts 18 joins her husband, Aquila, in bringing Apollos to a deeper understanding of faith. In Philippians 4, Euodia and Syntyche were listed as partners with Paul. This meant that they were seen as apostles. To be an apostle meant you had seen the Risen Lord and were given a calling as a result. Women were seen as partners in the New Testament and played a key role in the church’s development and growth.
Of course, any discussion of the role of women must work with 1 Timothy 2:11-12. It is the passage that has been used to prevent women from taking leadership roles in society and in the church. What are we to make of Paul’s comments here? How do we relate his words here to his previous words, such as Galatians 3:28 where he argues there are no gender definitions in the kingdom of God?
In interpreting this passage, we need to understand that Paul is trying to correct a specific problem that existed in Ephesus. The community was having a problem with wrong teaching. It likely came as a result of old Roman pagan practices, which allowed the most educated individuals, male or female, to take leadership roles. This was continued in Ephesus even if people were unprepared. Specifically in Ephesus, high-class women assumed that because of their status and their education that they could simply take on leadership roles. They weren’t ready and had wrong ideas about God. This led to people not receiving the truth about the Gospel.
Paul wanted this stopped and says these women should not teach until they have learned what the Gospel means. It is not a ban that carries for all time. Paul is addressing a specific situation by offering a call of caution. Before someone can teach others they must first understand what it is that they are teaching. It is a caution we should all take seriously, male or female.
How do we bring all of this together? What does this say for us about women today?
I believe women should have confidence knowing God has equipped them for many different roles and functions. Women are not defined by or limited to one role, but can play a vast number of roles in society and in the life of the church. Whatever role women find themselves in, they are equally called as males to be proclaimers of the kingdom of God through their words, actions, and deeds. We all have a part in that. Males and females are equal in God’s eyes.
Today, let us honor the role women play as mothers. We give thanks to the many ways our mothers have blessed us. Women make an important contribution to the church and society through this role. But, let us not limit women to this one role. Women can be doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, and even preachers. They are equipped and called by God to do so many things and serve in so many ways, who are we to stand in the way of women serving the Lord in the ways God has called them to do?