This will be the first in a series of posts on women in ministry — as long as everyone behaves. Some of these will pertain to specific issues women face who are in ministries, some will be about biblical texts and themes, and yet others will be about theological issues. The number of issues we could converse about is so vast that I’m not sure how even to begin. What I chose to do was begin with someone who ministered: Mary, mother of Jesus.
Not just because I’ve spent a lot of time with her of late, but because in Mary we find someone who “ministered” and she’s not connected to some controversial “ordination” text. Sometimes we get lock into deductive logic: we look at a text — sometimes disputed — from the NT and then we infer the limits of practice; other times we need to look at practice itself as exhibited by women in pages of the NT and then see those texts in light of those practices. Well, enough of that.
What do you think we can learn from Mary about “women in ministry”?
First, Mary sang a song under the inspiration of the Spirit that shows profound awareness both of what God was about to do in this world and — this one startles the careful Bible reader — a profound grasp of the Old Testament scriptures. Sometime sit down with Luke 1:46-55, check out your marginal references, and observe how profound a grasp Mary had of the Old Testament. I infer from this that Mary was a “student” of the Old Testament — and this probably means a profound memory.
Second, Mary “taught” her children — both Jesus and James. In Jesus Creed, which I develop even further in The Real Mary, there are several themes in the Magnificat of Mary that show dramatic parallels in Jesus’ own teaching. “Holy is his name.” Critique of unjust leaders. Concern for the humble and poor. Critique of the rich. Read Luke 1:46-55 and then Luke 6:20-26.
A neglected influence can be found by comparing the Magnificat and the letter of James: the minimum one can say is that both James and Mary breathed the same Jewish, biblical theology; it is more likely that Mary had a direct influence on James’ concern for the poor and for his critique of the rich. But what about this: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to look after the orphans [this means “fatherlessness” more often than it means “parentlessness” in Judaism] and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). Mary was most likely a widow; her children therefore “orphans” in Judaism; Jesus was deeply concerned with widows. Not hard to put together.
Third, I suggest for your consideration this: without minimizing the influence of the apostolic oral testimony to the words and deeds of Jesus, we need also to consider that at the bottom of some — if not more than some – stories in the Gospels was the testimony of Mary herself. Luke tells us he investigated things from the very beginning — and we have to ask who was there at the beginning? Mary and Joseph.
Who but Mary knew about Gabriel’s words to Mary? who else heard Elizabeth’s words? who else knew what Joseph heard from the angel? who else spoke to Jesus in the temple when he was twelve? I’ll skip some here.
Who was given to John, the beloved disciple, at the cross and who therefore lived with John but Mary? and where was John during those early days except in the very middle of the Jerusalem church (see Acts 4-5 esp)? Whose name was mentioned at the heart of the Pentecost church? Mary. Acts 1:14.
I make this suggestion: when we speak of “ministry,” however you might define it, Mary seems to me to have had a significant hand in the shaping of significant portions of the Gospels we now have and I assign one of the early voices of our Gospels to Mary.
If we take Mary as an example of “ministry,” we would say women are:
1. Empowered by God to speak prophetically in the power of the Spirit,
2. Expected to teach their children the ways of God in this world as a result of their own grasp of Scripture, and they can
3. Establish direction in the Church by bearing witness to what God is doing through them.
I’d like to say more, but I don’t want to give away all my secrets.