During many recent Easter sermons, some time was likely spent noting the significance of women being the first to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in Luke 24. The applications drawn out perhaps involved Jesus’ resetting of the gospel witness scales, inviting women into the work of proclaiming the good news of Jesus alongside men. But it’s possible that less attention was paid to the power dynamics involved, and how that turns this interaction, and others in the New Testament, into a warning to men in authority on the importance of heeding the words of women among whom they serve.
Many commentaries on Luke 24 will comment on the historical context of the women, that would likely have found them poorly educated, and their testimony in civil courts as inferior to men. But less commentary is usually offered on how Luke describes the men. The men to whom the women speak aren’t simply some of Jesus’ unnamed disciples. They are His apostles, commissioned by Him to be His disciple makers, to establishing and building of His church, and to documenting it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They are Jesus’ Top Men.
Because of this, Luke employs specific literary tactics to expose the significant inversion of authoritative revelation at work when the women come to them. In classic chiastic form, the women (lacking any authority and limited understanding) come bearing words of supreme, life-changing significance (Jesus is risen!). But the apostles (those with spiritual authority and understanding) toss their words aside (idle tales!). The women bear the words of disciple-makers, while the apostles are the ones whose testimony is unreliable. On its own, this verse serves as a warning to men who perceive their position of authority as a deflector shield against receiving any insight or exhortation from women. But the testimony of the women to the resurrection is the second time in a week the Scriptures records a male leader’s failure to heed the words of a woman, and the prior incident is even more damning than the latter.
Matthew 27 records the trial of Jesus by Pilate, prior to His crucifixion. Into the middle of the of the chief priests’ accusations and governor’s questions comes a word of warning from Pilate’s wife, while Pilate is sitting on his judgment seat, a symbol of his civic authority. It seems like a pretty audacious thing to do - like Jane Roberts sending a note to her husband John while he’s hearing arguments at the Supreme Court. But a hint to the reason for her urgency can be found in how the warning she wants to relay came to her. She’d had a bad dream. Matthew ‘s gospel has recorded previous incidents where God has given instructions about Jesus through dreams to people. This is just the first time He’s done so through a woman, and the first time His message isn’t heeded. Even though Pilate is inclined to agree with his wife, he capitulates to the angry mob under the guise of maintaining civil order. The irony of his declaration of innocence is thick – far from absolving himself, he indicts himself as an active participant in the grossest act of injustice the world has ever seen.
In both of these passages, the men to whom the women speak hold positions of significant authority, while the women hold none. But it’s clear in both cases where the moral authority lies, and more importantly, from Whom that moral authority is derived. The women in both scenarios seem to exemplify acting as a “necessary ally”, a term proposed by John McKinley at ETS as an alternate, more complete translation of “ezer kenegdo” than the common “suitable helper”. In his paper, McKinley grounds his arguments in God’s naming of Himself as “ezer” to Israel, in the context of militaristic language to do with fighting, and winning, great battles against enemies. God is not merely “helping” Israel – he brings weapons of war to her aid, without which she would go down in defeat. Pilate’s wife and the women testifying to the resurrection are, in essence, doing just that – bringing the words of God to bear on a moment of serious spiritual significance. When their words are disregarded, the men fall into error.
McKinley’s terminology came to mind as I followed last week’s Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference and the surrounding social media storm because of the participation of CJ Mahaney. A founding member of T4G, Mahaney’s ministry, and Mahaney himself, has been embroiled in a years-long and now fully public controversy regarding serious charges over his leadership of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), particularly in the wake of now multiple incidences of mishandled child sexual abuse cases within the church network he lead. I’ve walked alongside more than one woman whose heart has been badly damaged by heavy-handed church leaders who’ve dismissed or minimized their testimonies of sexual or domestic abuse. My own family tree has been scarred in the same way. When the controversy first broke open 3 years ago, I participated in several online interchanges with men about it, trying and failing to explain the betrayal women feel when men in leadership use their authority as a shield for themselves and one another, instead of for the vulnerable ones in their care. Hearing it happen again last week was even more painful than the first time, so I can imagine how it must have felt for others.
The Calvinist in me couldn’t help but ponder the two other incidents that bookended the conference. One was the announcement of yet another public leader of the Reformed Evangelical movement being removed from ministry for, among other sins, being domineering over those in his charge, and misusing his power and authority. The other event was a preconference hosted by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The theme of this conference-before-the- conference was “The Beauty of Complementarity”, and the topics covered comprised the themes for which the CBMW is becoming increasingly known – among them, that maleness is inherently expressed through leadership, femaleness expressed through submission, with both as absolutes in the contexts of church and family. It was suggested that the church is lacking in “sanctified testosterone”, and, even more provocatively, that the gospel itself has “ a complementarian structure”. (Aimee has already offered up
good and necessary objections to how our sanctification is worked out through our endocrine system; the latter comment deserves its own post.
What’s significant about the complementarian model CBMW is promoting, and groups like Together for the Gospel, Acts 29, SGM and others have been operating under, is that it emphasizes male leadership, but not male listening; womanly submission, but not womanly speaking. It has viewed women as helpers, but not as necessary allies. And in choosing to lead alone, leader after leader after leader has instead fallen in to sin, and ministries that have served so many so well are now left vulnerable.
I am certainly not arguing that simply incorporating more womanly counsel into a ministry will protect it or its leaders from sin or error. Nor am I suggesting that this is the only issue at play. But at this moment in history, when the church of Christ seems poised for some of the biggest battles against culture and secularism it has yet seen, she needs allies.
She has allies.
She needs to lean on them.