Thursday, January 10, 2008

Women & Ministry in the New Testament

Book review
The Catholic University of America
March 16, 2002

One of the most pressing issues facing the Church today is that of women in ministry. We look to Scripture for normative statements in this area, yet the word of God revealed to us is conditioned by the history, culture, and theology of the writer. This makes our search for answers a complex journey.

Women And Ministry In The New Testament explores the role and ministry of women in Jesus’ time and in the primitive Church. This exploration takes place against the backdrop of the role of women in ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and late Judaism. Making use of the results of current biblical scholarship, Elisabeth M. Tetlon, professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Loyola University, New Orleans, examines biblical foundations of ministry, ministry during the lifetime of Jesus and in the early Church, and in particular, the ministry of women as it is described for us in the New Testament.

Starting from the time before Jesus, Elisabeth M. Tetlon explained that the position of women in the Mediterranean world of the first century differed from culture to culture. In general it is possible to say that women were nowhere totally free or equal. Yet Hellenistic, Roman and Egyptian women did enjoy some degree of freedom and exercised a real political, economic, and religious role in their society. First century Judaism lived in the Roman empire and in the cultural milieu of Hellenism. It was unable to ignore secular culture, but had to react to it positively or negatively. Christianity was born into this complex and syncretistic world.

According to Tetlon, in the Old Testament there were two major traditions of ministry, namely, priesthood and ministry of the word. Most of the official ministry in the New Testament era derives from or are similar to offices in the Old Testament tradition of the word: disciple, apostle, prophet, teacher, elder. Because of the bond of the Jewish culture, the role of woman in the Bible is not clearly stated. Sometimes it is reported that women have a significant role, but it is often that their role is somewhat insignificant. Synoptic gospels, for example, reported the insignificant ministry of the women, but the gospel of John gave a significant stress on this matter. Tetlon even argues that in the first Eucharist and in the giving of “power” (Jn 20:21-22), women could be there, because it is reported in the word “disciples,” it could be both men and women there.

In the early Church many kinds of women ministries existed, those were: women apostles, women prophets, women presiders at eucharistic worship, women fellow workers (of male ministers), women preachers and evangelists, women deacons, women as apostolic wives. These many kinds of ministries that the women did in the early Church wanted to say to us that Jesus called both men and women to service in his Church. Service is the primary model of ministry in the New Testament. The ministry of Jesus was characterized through the application of the image and theology of the suffering servant. The gospels portrayed Jesus as teaching his disciples that nature of their ministry was to be like his own, one of service. The Christian servant was to serve both God and the people through total self-offering even to death.

The New Testament gives an indication of many factors which were considered important conditions for Christian ministry, such as faith in the risen Jesus, commission by Jesus or by recognized ecclesiastical authorities, understanding of and ability to communicate the gospel message, and gifting by the Holy Spirit. But the sex of the minister was not relevant for ministerial office either in the teaching and practice of Jesus or in the earliest theology and exercise of ministry in the Church. Sex became a problem, beginning in the second half of the first century, when the Church began to come into conflict with its social milieu and began to adapt its own practice to the mores of that milieu.

Tetlon’s work is a complicated book to read. She explained her argument in a clear but soft and polite way, as a woman; it could become the weakness of her book. But her considerations in this book should be the consideration of the Church, as well, especially our beloved Catholic Church in rethinking the greater role in ministry of the women. The Church has been dominated for centuries by male theologians, but now it is the time for women to be a significant voice in the Church. Tetlon’s work is the one of the significant voice.

In 1976 the majority of the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in Rome voted to affirm that scripture does not give sufficient evidence to exclude the possibility of the ordination of women to ministerial office in the Church today. But the Vatican issued the same year “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” it was asked there whether the Church could depart from the attitude and practice of Jesus and the apostles as reported in scripture and considered normative in the Church. It is described to us that the Church still holds its interpretation of the “attitude and practice of Jesus.” The critical question here, however, is which attitude and practice of Jesus? A humble heart should be there, in the center of the Church; a heart that is listening and learning, even to the simplest voice. Didn’t Jesus say: “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (Lk 10:21).

We know that it is not easy to change the “tradition” that has been rooted for centuries. The only way for changing in the Church is “evolution,” and actually, by listening and learning from persons such as Tetlon, a gradual change could be done. May her work inspire us, and inspire the work in sexual ethics, to give a greater role to women in the Church’s ministry, equal as fellow human beings with men.

Benny Phang, O.Carm