Today the Blog Tour for Daniel Kirk’s new book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? pulls in at Chapter Six: “Women in the Story of God”. In addition to my contribution here, there will be a piece by Julie Clawson, which I am willing to bet will be nothing like as overwrought and self-serving as what follows here.
I want to start by getting my main problem with Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? out of the way. The book argues—rightly, in my view—for narrative continuity between Jesus and Paul, and in this regard it runs much in the same vein as Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, though it is Tom Wright and Richard Hays who mostly provide the scholarly backup. Kirk then addresses a standard set of contentious ethical issues—gender equality, social justice, sexuality and homosexuality—asking whether the same continuity can be discerned at this level. His overall argument is that Paul does not represent in any way a significant departure from or distortion of the original vision and practice of Jesus.
Freshly squeezed narrative without the apocalyptic bits
The problem I have (yes, predictably) is that Kirk’s account makes virtually no reference to the apocalyptic continuation of the story that is found both in the Gospels and in Paul. I noted one brief reference to a “two age” apocalyptic framework that is introduced with Jesus, but there is more to apocalyptic as a Jewish literary genre than a rather static “two age” arrangement and some end-of-the-world fireworks. Apocalyptic is projected narrative, and in the New Testament it always brings with it an urgent sense of events that will unfold in a foreseeable and historically relevant future.
So why in a book that makes so much of the narrative structure of our belief system is there no reference to the apocalyptic extension of the story into the future of the people of God? Why is nothing said about the Jewish War or the clash with pagan empire? Kirk makes the point in Chapter Two that a gospel presentation that disregards Jesus’ life is inadequate. But what about Jesus’ future—the “coming” to deliver his persecuted followers from their enemies, to judge Israel and the nations (Jim West observes that Kirk plays down the judgment theme in the Gospels), and to be confessed as Lord by the nations? It seems to me that a narrative that jumps from Easter to the final renewal of creation is not much of a narrative any more.
Now you might ask, “What does all this, even supposing that it is valid, have to do with gender equality, justice, or sexuality?” Perhaps this is mere carping on my part—it wouldn’t be the first time. But I think it raises an important question about the adequacy of the model as it is being developed here. Are there not risks involved in constructing a narrative ethic based on only half the story? Can we in principle assume that an apocalyptic ethic will look the same as a post-apocalyptic ethic?
Now let’s be clear. I’m not saying that the book does not have an “eschatology”. Kirk makes much of the fact that the future impinges on the present—he speaks aptly of the “backward-moving force of the future”—and puts the argument to good effect in his discussion of the place of women in the story of God, as we shall see. But this argument is put forward at the expense of the political story, couched in an apocalyptic idiom, that the early church was telling about its future. That seems unnecessary to me.
Anyway, enough of my problems. Let’s get to the matter in hand…
Women in the story of God
The place of women in the story of God is problematic, Kirk argues, both because of scripture and because of the church, but this chapter is mainly about scripture, which in his view is inescapably ambiguous:
it not only sows seeds of equality whose flowers never fully bloom on its pages; it also continues to reflect and, at times, affirm the inequalities endemic to its ancient cultural context.
The “equality” of male and female is grounded in Christ. I’m not sure that Galatians 3:28 is quite the “Magna Carta of Humanity” that Paul Jewett and presumably also Kirk, who quotes him, take it to be—the argument In Galatians is a rather specific one about the qualifications for sonship and reception of the Spirit. But the general case that Kirk presents for the egalitarian position I find persuasive.
The point was made powerfully in Chapter Two (“New Creation and the Kingdom of God”) that the purpose of the church is actively to realize its future “new creation” identity in the here and now. Kirk writes: “I believe that the calling before us is to prayerfully discern what it might mean to grasp the future that God has in store for creation and draw it into the present”. So i) if patriarchy is essentially a consequence of the Fall (“he shall rule over you”: Gen. 3:16) and ii) if we are called practically to anticipate the renewal of creation in Christ and iii) if there is no good cultural reason to impose restrictions on the activities of women (there may well be in some contexts), then we are duty-bound to promote the equality of men and women in the ministry of the church. I found myself wondering, as I read this chapter, whether we should not simply call Christian patriarchy—the prolongation of the rule of the man over the woman—a sin, a dark shadow cast on the bright image of humanity made new. This is excellent stuff, and to my mind demonstrates the force of the narrative approach to New Testament theology.
The argument is supported positively with some good discussion of the contribution of women in the Gospels and the Pauline mission. Much of this will be familiar to those who have followed the debate, but one point in particular stood out. Kirk nicely suggests that the anonymity and modesty of the “commendable women” in the Gospels in many ways illustrate more effectively than the obtuseness and self-importance of the male disciples the extraordinary inversion of the leadership paradigm that we find in Jesus’ practice and teaching. It is part of the ambiguity of the matter in scripture that the “full potential latent in these early inclusions of women in the Jesus story is not fully realized in the ministry of Jesus”, but they function “as cracks in the glass ceiling” of the social hierarchies that make women subordinate to and dependent upon men.
A similar case is made with regard to Paul’s co-workers. Kirk highlights the number of women who feature in Romans 16 and defends the view that the woman Junia was not merely “well known to the apostles” (ESV) but was, in the words of John Chrysostom, “counted worthy of the name of apostle”. He argues for mutuality in the marriage relationship on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:1-4; and he notes that Paul expected women to pray and prophesy in church. So he concludes:
When looking through the evidence in favor of full inclusion of women in the life and ministry of the early church, we find several indications that they were involved in every facet of the church’s life, and that they were disciples in ways that crossed the boundaries of societal expectation in the first century. We do not find, and we would be wrong to look for, a Jesus or a Paul who fit the expectations of modern-day egalitarians. But neither do we find blind affirmation of male superiority or of male leadership.
But then, of course, there are the problem passages. Here Kirk’s basic strategy is to affirm the equality of male and female in Christ and then to show how this ideal must inevitably give ground to the realities of Paul’s apostolic ministry in a deeply patriarchal social context.
He argues in the case of 1 Corinthians 11:2-11 that “Paul’s narrative theology modulates the biblical story”. The argument for hierarchy in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is based on creation, but this is trumped by the argument for mutual dependence, which “derives more directly from the gospel story in which all are one because they are united to Christ”. There are social dynamics at play—sexuality on the one hand, shame and honour on the other—that limit the extent to which the principle of equality can be applied in practice. In the so-called “household codes” in Ephesians and Colossians Paul affirms the subordination of the wife to her husband in recognition of the importance of the stability of the household as a “microcosm of society” in the ancient world. But at the same time, he radically redefines the role of the “superior” partner in the relationship. Finally, Kirk draws attention to the inconsistency of churches that forbid women to teach or exercise authority over men on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:12 but then mostly disregard Paul’s preceding injunction that women should not decorate their hair or wear expensive jewellery (1 Tim. 2:9) and certainly do not preach that women will be “saved through child-bearing” (1 Tim. 2:15).
In the last section of the chapter Kirk sets out to explore “what it might mean to integrate women into the cruciform narrative of our Christian communities”. The big picture of the Christian story—it doesn’t hurt to keep restating this—is that “God has bound himself to humanity, through the nation of Israel, for the purpose of bringing the world from the failure of old creation into the glory of new creation”. Where this narrative diverges from Judaism is in the fact that “the means God chooses is a crucified Messiah whose kingdom-inaugurating activity was one of upending the economy of the world”. A.K.M. Adam has noted a certain tension between the emphasis on the cruciform shape of the kingdom story and the “imperishable vindication” of resurrection and new creation. There is something to this, but I think Kirk would respond that the way of renewal always takes us through the cross and the radical overturning of all that is worldly—including hierarchy.
So if the “economy of the kingdom of God is the inverse of the economy of the world”, what are we doing bringing “socially constructed hierarchies” with us into the church? Whatever compromises Paul may have had to make, the evidence for the full participation of women in ministry that Kirk believes we find in the New Testament surely compels us to “make good” on its latent egalitarianism.
It is not a vision that is worked out consistently in the first-century culture in which the New Testament writings grew up, but it is one that fits within the plot of a story that turns all social hierarchies on their head as God comes to rule the world through a crucified Messiah.
This is really a very bold argument, and I suspect that it would founder without the strong commitment to a new creation eschatology. There is a limit to what can be achieved in a single chapter. A number of important exegetical issues are not touched on—I would highlight the metaphor of “headship”, which I don’t think denotes one who has authority over another in Hellenistic Greek, and the curious verb authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12, which certainly does not mean “to have authority over”; and there is no discussion of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. So the reader should not expect an exhaustive treatment of this difficult subject.
But that is not the purpose of the book. What Kirk sets out to do is to show that a “storied theology” of the New Testament is both coherent and practical—that the shift away from the traditional categories of Protestant theology does not leave us stranded up a narrative creek without an ethical paddle. This is where the real strength of the book is to be found.