“How can you teach and promote a book with texts in it that have been used for centuries to suppress and silence women?”
The question posed to me at the end of a recent informal talk captured a sentiment I rarely hear voiced in Christian circles, and yet which doesn’t fall too far from a feeling often repressed by devoted Christian women. We wouldn’t necessarily phrase it in such strong terms, largely because we cherish the Bible and the Lord who gave it to us. We want more than anything else to honor Him with our lives and to submit to His reign, no matter how counter-cultural or personally costly that may be.
And yet the way we are taught to interpret certain New Testament texts, namely 1Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, can leave faithful women feeling sidelined, if not confused. Is it true that the same Lord who protected, honored, and stood up for women would then turn around and tell us to be silent in church and to take only a submissive learner’s role in relationship to men? If that is what He is saying to us then we are willing to obey. But somehow these two isolated texts seem to go against the flow of the significance and freedom that belonging to Christ gives us.
So, as I have heard even the most educated and gifted of women admit, many of us quietly submit to a universally restrictive interpretation of these verses, preferring to be safe than sorry. After all, we reason, if we don’t have verses that specifically state otherwise, then the weight of evidence points to the conclusion that God doesn’t want women to be speaking or taking leadership over men in the church. (And even if we aren’t personally convinced this is the case, we don’t want to be seen as promoting ourselves or as undermining the authority and tradition of our churches.)
But playing it safe, as Jesus kept trying to convince the Pharisees, rarely leads us to accurate conclusions about what pleases God. In our well-intentioned attempt to stay within the parameters set out by Scripture, we have ignored the vast weight of evidence that Scripture itself gives us. Whether it comes from our tendency to ignore the Old Testament as less relevant to the Church or our preferential treatment of propositional over narrative texts, we fail to take into account the Bible’s many examples of godly women speaking to men on behalf of God.
Miriam gets a pass, because even though she is identified as a prophet, the people she led in assembled worship were women.
Deborah, also identified as a prophet and repeatedly used by God to speak to and lead His holy nation, gets explained away as an anomaly, the sad result of what happens when men fail to step and lead.
Abigail makes us squirm a bit, but we wiggle out of it by emphasizing what a fool her husband was and by picturing David as a renegade warrior, not the anointed king-to-be.
He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found…. Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.
2 Kings 22:12-14
But Huldah stops us in our tracks. Her story doesn’t make any sense in a paradigm that says God wants men, not women, to speak on His behalf to the church, particularly in the areas of interpreting and applying His Word. There was certainly no lack of qualified, committed male leadership in her time. King Josiah, surrounded by a band of strong, godly men, was leading the nation in a gutsy purge of its idolatrous practices and apathetic worship. Under the capable leadership of the high priest Hilkiah, the priesthood was well-established and organized. And even the prophet Jeremiah was on hand, faithfully speaking the words of God to the people.
So why would all these powerful men go to a woman to find out what God meant by what He had written in His Word? And why was a woman, married to a capable man from a well-known household, so seemingly comfortable with this role of prophet, interpreter of Scripture, and counsellor of the priests and the king?
She said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. …
Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. …’ ” So they took her answer back to the king.
Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the LORD with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest.
2 Kings 22:15-23:2
Huldah’s voice rings loud and clear through the pages of the Bible, her Spirit-filled words recorded for leaders both then and now to listen to and learn from. Nothing in the way she spoke or in the way her story is told connotes that something is amiss with Israel’s leadership, other than the way the teachings of Yahweh had been ignored. Her prophetic role in this rare “how things are actually supposed to happen” story stands as a striking example of holy women speaking on behalf of God to both encourage and exhort His people, including their leaders.
In fact, this story as a whole stands out as one of the most ideal leadership scenarios in the Old Testament. Here prophet, priest, and king each take up their appropriate leadership roles, submitting to and cooperating with each other to guide the whole nation back into right relationship with God. God used the humility, strength, and voice of each of these leaders, both male and female, to call His people back and to present them to Himself, pure and holy in His sight.
And while this still does not directly address what God meant by the words He would later give us in the books of 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, the Biblical examples of Huldah and her fellow prophetesses must form the backdrop for how we read these texts.
Holy women spoke from God of old. Should they not still today?