This is clearly not an easy passage to wrestle with. So the first question is: why choose it? Mostly because it’s personal. As a woman going into ministry, I want to know: what is my answer to people who will ask me: “How can you be a woman and still be a minister?” But I want to look at it collectively as well, because if we never address these texts from the pulpit, then we do not have a chance to grow together.
I also recognize that in choosing a passage like this, I am implicitly asking for your trust. I thank you for the permission to take risks.
I’m going to say something that sounds completely counterintuitive: this passage is actually not about gender. This passage, and much of the rest of Timothy, is really concerned with good citizenship, and that’s the angle I want to look at today.
To be clear: when I say “citizenship,” I don’t mean legal status. I don’t mean taking an interest in national affairs, or voting, or identifying with a particular country. I mean being a citizen of culture, being formed by an ethos, a way of looking at the world. And in this passage we see a conflict between the teachings of citizenship and the teachings of Jesus.
Now, to follow Christ is to live in tension. We are on a perpetual teeter-totter: on one end are the teachings of Christ and the Hebrew Scriptures; on the other end are the stories of the world. Our job is always to try and straddle the middle and keep both ends up. We’re never called just to sit at one end: we don’t land on the Christ end, ignoring or rejecting the world, but we don’t land on the world’s end, accepting its ideology without question. Both of them inform the other: we take Christ’s teachings to the world and challenge the dominant stories; and we take the beauty and heartbreak of the world to our faith, so that our practice and language and theology respond to our lived experience.
So we might look at the world and say, “The message of my teacher tells me that I need to be in the DTES feeding the hungry,” or “the message of my teacher tells me that I reject the idea that I will find happiness by buying more stuff.” And then we might listen to the world and say, “The hymns I sing in church need to reflect the pain of queer people who have kicked out of the church,” or “The language I use to pray needs to respond to the devastation of warming oceans and islands of plastic.” So lived reality and the teachings and practices of our faith are always in relationship.
But if we go back to our teeter-totter image, remember that balancing these two ends is never static. Gravity is always at work, and it takes constant focus and adjustment to balance the two, and sometimes one end is just going to drop. That’s what is happening in this passage: the writer has let the experience end drop and is sitting there comfortably, while the Christ end is up in the air.
Now, scholars argue, as they do, about when this letter was written and who wrote it. The sources with whom I agree theorize that this letter was written sometime around the turn of the second century CE: sometime between the years 80 and 120. And about a hundred years before that, Roman emperors began something of a family values campaign.
As Rome made the abrupt and violent transition from republic to empire, the various emperors had some power building to do. As a means of a distraction, they idealized an earlier Rome and played on nostalgia for a bygone Rome, a more virtuous Rome, when everyone knew their place.
They were pushing a particular social ideology, and that ideology taught that a properly religious and pious household was one where the male head kept his household in good order, including the people. Legally, the male head of a Roman household owned his wife, his daughters, his slaves, and any son who was not of age. So Roman propaganda is saying that a pious and devout male head of household will keep the subjects of his household in line, just as the pious and devout emperor is really a benevolent father figure to his subjects, keeping them in line. That’s the ideology that is creeping in here.
But does that mean that people really lived in this kind of pattern? Or is this how the empire wanted people to live? Is this like our popular images of how we should live: a good citizen of our culture is trim, lean, eats in accordance with [insert lifestyle of choice], has the work/life balance figured out, lives in perpetual family harmony, is endlessly productive, always organized, is in control of their money, and is never ever tired.
If I just described your life, please don’t tell me.
Is this ideal of the Roman household governed by the male head just as impossible an ideal as our culture’s myth of having it all?
And: is this popular ideal congruent with Jesus’ behaviour towards women?
Jesus never spoke directly to the role of women in church, but then, Jesus didn’t have a church. But Jesus spoke to women. He listened to them, he ate with them, he healed them, called them “daughter,” taught them and was taught by them. There was a place for women at the table of Jesus.
Now, it would be really easy to end here. And it would be really, really easy to point the finger at denominations who don’t admit women to the priesthood. And it’s really, really tempting to congratulate ourselves on doing so. But that misses the deeper message of this text.
It’s really obvious in this two thousand year old text how the teeter-totter of world and Christ is unbalanced. But the Christ sitting at one end of our teeter-totter is among us to both comfort and challenge, and the challenge of this text is to ask us to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask how we may be out of balance. When have we sat comfortably within the world, leaving Christ hanging in the air?
It’s hard to see, because we are shaped by our world. So I tried to think of an example from my own life, and here’s what I thought of: Oreos. Oreos, like many foods made for shelf life, contain palm oil. The harvesting of palm oil is largely environmentally devastating and employs workers in third world countries under poor conditions for not enough pay. I know all this, and I feel it’s pretty clear that the message of both Jesus and the Hebrew prophets calls me to pay attention, which probably means not buying them. But I live in a consumer culture, where I deserve to have whatever I want, because the economy depends on people buying what we want.
Do I need Oreos? Not at all. Do I want Oreos? Heck yes. Am I going to give them up? Um… maybe?
Now, this sounds trivial, but it’s a microscopic example of how following God’s call to seek justice and love kindness can put us at odds with our culture.
On a larger scale, British Christianity built a cultural myth that taught that English culture was synonymous with Christianity: that white people owned the Gospel of Christ and were in every way superior to the heathen and misguided savages, however noble they might be.
We know where that landed us.
That is the challenge of this passage: we cannot be complacent about what it means to follow Jesus.
I said earlier that Jesus came to both challenge and comfort. We have our challenge. What is our comfort?
The comfort of this passage is this: we can trust. We can trust that God’s radical, irrepressible, unstoppable, unstinting grace is going to catch us every time we land on the side of the world. This is where Micah’s words speak to us. In the midst of seeking justice and loving kindness, we are to walk humbly with our God. Our God is a relational, active God: not hovering above, not distant and objective, but right here, right now, right among us and in us. And that God is worthy of our trust.
Let’s be clear about grace: grace does not translate to “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You meant well, so it’s all good.” That is a cheap and sanitized grace.
Grace means that when we cause harm, when we conflate culture and Christ, we are challenged to see it, to acknowledge it, to repent of it – and then, when we feel most ashamed and least worthy, then God looks us in the eye and says: “I see you. I see your faults and the harm you caused; I see the lies you told and the times you looked the other way. And you are still my child. Come: leave your shame behind and walk in my ways, for my love is poured out for you.”
Can we accept both the challenge and the comfort that accompany this passage? Can we stand naked before God, and admit to where we have colluded with empire? Can we stand naked before God, and accept a grace so big, and so wide, that it defies logic and rationality?
It’s not easy. But my friends: what else are we going to live for?