In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle writes, “The strategy and stance of Jesus was consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all categories upon which the world insisted . . . .” And referring to both the political Right and the Left, Father Boyle goes on to write this about Jesus, “Surely he was an equal opportunity ‘pisser offer-er’ in this regard.”
I often wonder what Jesus would say or do that would tick me off or rub me the wrong way. Which of his sayings, or words to me, would I consider a hard saying if he were standing right in front of me offering his divine wisdom on a particular topic? I can think of a hard saying from the Sermon on the Mount, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). I’ve been forced to do that with Christian brothers and sisters who’ve ambushed family members, friends, and me—doing us real harm in the last few years. I’ve had to grapple with figuring out what it means to bless them and not curse them while praying for them, forgiving them, and acting justly. It hasn’t been easy. So, I guess, Jesus has offended my sense of propriety and justice as of late by forbidding retaliation.
Not only do I wonder what Jesus would say to me, but I also wonder how the church might take offense at what he says. Right now, I am thinking particularly about the role of women.
Jesus offended the church of his day by allowing women to be his disciples, like Mary of Bethany, who sat at his feet to study under him along with other men and women. She was his apprentice. In his day, Jesus’s view and treatment of women was very controversial. He took a lot of flack for it. There were many religious leaders—Scribes and Pharisees—who didn’t like the freedom and the honor he afforded women. When it came to his view and treatment of women, Jesus broke the religious laws and customs of his day without so much as batting an eye.
When it comes to this matter then, what makes us think he wouldn’t be considered controversial by some today?
Growing up, I never heard sermons about gender roles while attending my little country church. It wasn’t until I attended a Christian college that I was taught that women couldn’t teach men or preach to both men and women. Once, I took a spiritual gifts inventory required for a class. My results were: Pastor/Shepherd, Administration, Prophecy, Teaching, and Mercy. At the time, my class was large with well over a hundred people in it. When the professor, who was also a pastor, asked for volunteers to share their results, hands shot up. I waited and waited. Then I waited some more. Not one female mentioned that her top result was Pastor/Shepherd. How could that be? I wondered. Then I raised my hand and mentioned my results. The professor proceeded to tell me that I could teach children’s Sunday School.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that except my gifts do not lie in that area. I do well one-on-one with children. But being a female Christian doesn’t automatically qualify me as the best choice for a children’s Sunday School teacher. I am not. In fact, for years, my husband, who is a philosophy professor, enjoyed helping his mother with children’s church and Sunday school. Hordes of children flock to him even now. He is gifted to teach children’s Sunday School; I am not. Since I can remember, I’ve taught men and women the way of Jesus in a number of different settings. My conversation partners are pastors, writers, theologians, philosophers, college students, and laypeople of both genders—mostly adults. The youngest are in high school.
Speaking of conversation partners, during the 2008 U.S. presidential election season, I had a conversation with a wonderful person who planned on voting for John McCain and Sarah Palin but was theologically ill-at-ease with the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming president were something to happen to John McCain. This was the dilemma: this person believed that if something happened to McCain it would be wrong for Sarah Palin to be president because then Palin wouldn’t be under the direct authority of a man. I asked this friend if women could be school principals or only vice-principals, school superintendents, college presidents, or CEOs of corporations. My friend, whom I respect, was uncomfortable with my question but acknowledged it was something to think about.
Then we started talking about pastors. I knew this person didn’t think women should be pastors. I ran this common scenario: “Suppose there were two candidates for pastor in a church, a male and a female. The woman has all the gifts necessary—she is a gifted leader, can preach, teach, and offer compassionate pastoral care. She knows the Scriptures inside and out. She has a sharp mind and she is orthodox. In fact, she is the superior candidate. Which would you choose?” The answer, of course, was “the man”.
Now, there are plenty of good, godly people that agree with my friend and who are dear friends of mine—some of my conversation partners. Yet, I happen to think those most gifted should be allowed to use their gifts in the church for the glory of God and his kingdom (and outside of it). Now whether or not they choose to use their gifts in such a way is up to them. Not all of those who have pastoral gifts hold the office of pastor. Some are Sunday School teachers and maintain other church leadership roles. However, it does bother me when women in the church who are ministering in the same way as their male counterparts are dubbed directors or coordinators instead of pastors of such-and-such like their male colleagues.
So what might Jesus say to me, other women like me, and the church today?
Given his treatment of women in the New Testament and the leadership roles afforded to Junia, Priscilla, and others, I’ve become persuaded that Jesus would offend some in the church today by allowing women to use their gifts in all church offices.
Yes, Jesus is an equal opportunity ticker offer-er. Maybe he wouldn’t offend me when it comes to this issue, but there are plenty of other ways in which I take offense at his teaching—plenty of other ways in which his teachings offend my initial sense and sensibility.
Jesus still has hard sayings, yet I must follow him.