A Woman Who Serves

If there is one scripture most overlooked in the debate on women serving in the church it is this one: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Timothy 3:11, NASB). It is found in a list of qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3. Verse eleven, right between the requirement that deacons be beyond reproach and just before the stipulation that they be “husband of one wife.”

Like other passages that suggest women were among those serving as leaders in the first century church, this one has conflicting translations in various versions of the Bible. King James Version (KJV), English Standard Version (ESV), and even the modern New English Translation (NET) translate the word “women” as “their (deacon’s) wives.” Translation of the Greek word γυναῖκας can be complex since it can refer either to women or to wives. The grammatical distinction is made based on information within the word itself. When referring to wives, the word is typically in the genitive case, indicating possession. At other times the word is translated as wives due to context, such as a passage covering marriage. This translation is made deliberately, based on a theological perspective that women cannot serve in these roles, rather than based on context or grammar.

On the other side from forbidding women serving in the church (and hiding their requirements for service) there are interpretations that go all the way to creating a whole new category for women serving: Deaconesses. This has been done in the name of recognizing that women could serve in the church, but also to separate them as a distinct class or order. Some traditions recognize that women served, but would not elevate them to full participation in leadership, so they create a different category of limited service. While many women are mentioned and identified as deacons in the New Testament, there seems to be no biblical evidence for women serving in ways that differ from the men also called deacons.

The very position of their requirements for service within the general requirements of deacons indicates that women were not a distinct class, but were being specifically mentioned with the intention of inclusion. Translations such as the Common English Bible present the verse this way, “In the same way, women who are servants in the church should be dignified and not gossip. They should be sober and faithful in everything they do.” The translation adds English words for clarification, but opens the door for women to serve, not within their own distinct category but broadly and alongside their male counterparts.

When examined closely, it appears that women serving do not have different requirements from men also serving. Here are the lists side by side:

Requirements for Women Who Serve

While the listed requirements for women who serve is shorter, the terms are more comprehensive and include the general requirements in their scope. Both sets name dignity as important. The general list forbids being double-tongued, the woman-specific list forbids gossip. Both call for sobriety or temperance. While the general list specifies not seeking dishonest gain, it could hardly be argued that faithfulness in all things does not include this prohibition as well.

Much has been made of the phrase in verse twelve “husband of one wife” but recent scholarship notes that this phrase is not gender exclusive, rather a character quality of fidelity in marriage. The same phrase is used in 1 Timothy 5:9 to refer to widows who never remarried. It is clear that this idiom is not meant to call only men to faithfulness in marriage, but both men and women who are serving in the church.

The rest of the requirements of deacons apply to both men and women who are serving in this role and cover fidelity in marriage, managing households and children well. The passage is capped off with a blessing that those who do well in this capacity will gain good standing and boldness in their faith. A promise for both men and women who serve.

Taking another look at women who serve,
ReFreshing

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Bread from the Earth

“…And looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.”
Mark 6:41b

Blessed are You, LORD our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Holidays surround us, and not just in the winter months! Summer brings Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, and vacations that might as well be official holidays. As a good American, I typically plan to eat an enormous meal with gathered family members for which I will be truly thankful. Thinking about all the upcoming gluttony, I was pondering a food related topic that fits well with a theme of gratitude.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jesus is always blessing bread and breaking it. In the gospels, it seems like every time I turn the page there is a similar phrase about the bread. Jesus says he is the bread of life. At the last supper the bread he is breaking is his body. Jesus is recognized by the Emmaus two when he blesses the bread and breaks it. Since Jesus is said to give thanks for all of this bread, I went in search of information about the prayers he might have prayed. I am vaguely familiar with Jewish prayers and blessings, so I did a little digging. The blessing for the bread is the one I was looking for, and with it I found a whole treasure of bonus information.

Before I share further, I need to insert a disclaimer of sorts. Reading back into history a discussion from modern scholars isn’t always the way to go. Rabbis rarely agree unanimously on anything whether modern or ancient, although some common themes arise. The following information comes mainly from Chabad.org and myjewishlearning.org.

Offering up a blessing for the bread is obviously a long-standing tradition, but who really knows how long the Hebrew prayer giving thanks to God for bringing bread from the earth has been said at the family table.

Blessed are You, LORD our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You may notice that the bread is not what is being blessed in this prayer. Read it again. God is the one receiving the blessing. It is a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God for providing bread for us to eat. On special occasions, this prayer is very solemn and can be preceded by a moment of silence.

According to some rabbinic thought, when blessing the bread no one is actually referring to the bread in their hands. This intrigued me. Why bless the bread if you aren’t actually blessing the bread? For some, the bread referred to is the manna God provided in the wilderness. For others it is a reference to bread that God provided in the Edenic past and will provide again in the Messianic future. My head was spinning at these revelations and I had to sit with them for a while.

Blessed are You, LORD our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

If Jesus was blessing God for providing bread in the past, whether the manna or bread that sprang effortlessly from the ground in paradise, and if there was any thought of looking forward to the messianic future when bread would once again be provided without the toil of human beings, then it puts a whole new spin on the feeding of the 5,000. I had to ask, could Jesus have been proclaiming himself Messiah to those gathered on that hillside by first giving thanks for the bread and then multiplying it to meet their needs?

After this initial thought about this miracle I recalled all the different and various ways that Jesus literally and figuratively claimed to be ushering in the reign of God on earth. I’ve studied these declarations, written papers and sermons about them. I never imagined that Jesus could also have been proclaiming himself Messiah in this small way, at every meal, at each Passover, and on the night when he shared a final meal with his disciples.

Blessed are You, LORD our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

As we prepare in the coming weeks to eat our feasts, gathered around a table or by a grill, could we conceive of a way to usher in the Messiah’s kingdom in radical and mundane ways? By breaking bread, and blessing God? By daily committing to follow this Jewish Messiah while continuing to look forward to a day when we will break bread at a feast none of us toiled for? A banquet of grace, mercy and love? A table open and welcoming to all of God’s children?

Thank you, God, for grace we do not earn, for provision in the distant past, and for the confidence that you will yet provide justice in the age to come.

Blessed are You, LORD our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

ReFreshing

*This post originally appeared in the November 19th edition of The Banquet, a subscription service hosted through www.Kerryconnelly.com