The patron saint of relational evangelists

Reblogged from last year.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Well, Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a few years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

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However, this is not an anonymous or pseudonymous blog. My real name and photograph appear on the top right hand corner, along with a real email address at which I can be contacted. I have therefore decided that what I offer myself, I am also going to require of those who comment here: openness about who we are. I have therefore decided that as of today,  I will no longer accept anonymous or pseudonymous comments on this blog. Please sign your comment with at least your first name. If you are commenting here for the first time I would also ask that you include your last name, so that we know who you are for future reference. Comments that do not include at least a first name will be deleted. Thank you for your understanding.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

(Reblogged from last year.)

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts this coming Sunday, December 2nd, and lasts until Christmas Eve.

Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.

The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.

Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.

I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on amazon.ca produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together. I know we should be praying together every day, but often in the busyness of our lives, we forget. Through Advent, though, we rarely miss; somehow the little ceremony with the Advent wreath just makes it easier for us to remember to worship together each day.

Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of several Edmonton outreach agencies. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)

Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:

‘Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and for ever, Amen’.

The Ministry of Women: a Biblical Affirmation

The recent failure of the General Synod of the Church of England to support the ordination of women as bishops by a wide enough margin to carry the motion[1] has had the effect of focusing attention again on this issue, even in churches like ours[2], where the ministry of women as priests and bishops has been accepted and affirmed for a long time. Arguments purporting to be a biblical justification for reserving ordination for men have been given a fresh airing; some have found them persuasive, and others have seen them as proof that biblical and evangelical Christianity is so out of touch with the modern world that it is not worth a second thought. It is sometimes necessary, in situations like this, to go over the ground once again, so that people can be clear that it is not only possible, but imperative, for Christians – even Christians who think of themselves (as I do) as biblical and evangelical – to accept and affirm the ordained ministries of women. Let me list the two arguments that seem pertinent to me.

First, we need to be clear that episcopacy, priesthood, and ordination, as we know them today, did not exist in New Testament times. This fact can be obscured for modern readers because some of the words are, in fact, used in the New Testament; they are not, however, used in the same sense as we use them.

The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Barnabas planted Christian congregations in Asia Minor, they ‘appointed elders for them in each church’ (Acts 14:23)[3]. Biblical scholars have long accepted that in doing so Paul and Barnabas were intentionally replicating the government of the Jewish synagogue. ‘Elders’, in the synagogue, were not the same as ‘rabbis’ today; they were teams of people who shared responsibility for the leadership of the synagogue. It was not, for instance, their responsibility to do all of the teaching themselves, although it was their responsibility to ensure that teaching took place. They were not full-time synagogue employees; they earned their living in the usual manner. In modern Anglican parlance, they were far more like a cross between lay-readers and vestry/church council members than they were like priests as we know them today. Let me state it again: the modern concept of a seminary-trained, full-time, professional priest, who by ordination has been set aside from worldly employment for a career of doing all of the preaching and sacramental ministry in a congregation, did not exist in New Testament times.

The Greek word for ‘elder’ is ‘presbyter’ – from which, we are often told, the English word ‘priest’ is descended – and yet this is confusing because there is another Greek word, ‘hierus’, used to describe a sacrificing priesthood in the Old Testament and Greek and Roman senses. This word is never used to describe Christian ministers, in an exclusive sense, in the New Testament. It is used of Jesus, our ‘Great High Priest’, and it is used of the whole church, which is described in 1 Peter as ‘a royal priesthood’ (see 1 Peter 2:8-10).

The word ‘presbyter’ is not the only one used to describe Christian ministers in the New Testament. Paul speaks in Ephesians 4:11 of ‘pastors and teachers’; the word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’ and is of course an illustration used by Jesus himself (John 10:1-18) to describe his care for the flock of God. Another word used for an elder in the New Testament is ‘overseer’ (eg. 1 Timothy 3:1), which is in Greek ‘episkopos’, from which we get our words ‘bishop’ and ‘episcopal’.

These words are used interchangeably, in New Testament times, for members of the leadership teams appointed in every congregation. Teams are of course necessary because many different spiritual gifts (teaching, preaching, administration, counseling, leadership, evangelism etc.) are required in a healthy congregation and no one person has been given all the gifts.

After the deaths of the last of the original apostles, the Church seems to have decided, almost universally, that in every local church one of the elders/pastors/bishops should take the leadership role, and gradually the custom arose to reserve the title ‘episkopos’ for this person. But let us be clear that we still do not have the modern situation of the bishop as having authority over a wide geographical area, with fifty or a hundred local churches under their care, along with a large synod office staff and huge amounts of money to administer. We have a local congregation with a leadership team of elders, one of whom takes overall responsibility as the overseer. Later on as churches grew and multiplied in a city, those overseers added more congregations to their charge, but it was many years before the office of a monarchical bishop, as we know it today, evolved in the church.

All this is by way of argument that our modern system of church government did not exist in the New Testament. And this has implications for what we argue about today. For example, for many years now it has been widely accepted in Anglican churches for people other than ordained clergy to preach regularly in congregations. Sometimes those individuals are trained lay readers, and this office has long been open to both men and women. It has also been customary, for a long time, for rectors of parishes to share leadership of those parishes with churchwardens and vestries, and to do so in a consultative manner. Almost the only role that continues to be reserved for ordained clergy alone, in our system, is presiding at the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and the effect of this has been that, for many Anglicans, sacramental ministry has been seen as the essence of ordained ministry. But it was not so for the elders in the New Testament.

Nowhere in the New Testament is the issue of who presides at Holy Communion even addressed, and in the texts which opponents of the ordination of women usually appeal to, it is not the issue at all: the issue is of women ‘teaching or having authority over a man’ (1 Timothy 2:12). But most Evangelicals appear to work happily in churches where women minister as lay-readers (and, in the Church of England, they are also required to accept the authority of a female ‘supreme governor’); for them to then turn around and appeal to these texts as somehow supporting the idea that Holy Communion services presided over by women are invalid seems like very dodgy exegesis to me, when the texts do not even address that issue.

So, having established the principle that our modern practices of episcopacy, priesthood, and ordination had not yet evolved when the New Testament documents were written (so that biblical texts cannot simply be lifted out of their context to support or disallow ‘the ordination of women’), we must go on to recognise that, when it comes to leadership ministries in general, the New Testament texts do not speak as clearly as is sometimes assumed by opponents of the ordination of women.

New Testament Christians, of course, fully accepted the authority of the Old Testament view of the creation of human beings. The Book of Genesis tells us that ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). There is no hint of hierarchy in this verse; male and female equally express the image of God, and are charged equally, in the succeeding verses, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

The next chapter contains another creation account, in which the man is created first, and then God looks for ‘a helper suitable for him’ (2:18) because ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’. But the word ‘helper’ should not be seen to imply subordination; indeed, the Hebrew word in question is regularly used in the Old Testament to describe God himself! The chapter goes on to speak of the man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife, so that they become ‘one flesh’ (2:24). Once again, there is no hint of subordination or hierarchy of any kind. In fact, it is not until the third chapter of Genesis, with the story of ‘the Fall’, that subordination enters into the picture (‘your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ – Genesis 3:16). Subordination is seen, then, not as a creation ordinance of God, but as one of the evil effects of sin.

But the New Testament argues that, in Christ, there is a new creation. Christ is the new Adam, the one who comes among us to heal us from the curse of sin and death and to restore us in the image of God. What, then, is Jesus’ attitude toward women? Unquestionably, he would have been seen by his contemporaries as radically egalitarian. He took no notice of social norms that forbade Jewish men from speaking to women other then their wives; he was glad to include women in his theological discussions and refused to send them off to the kitchen in conformity to conventional views of ‘women’s roles’ (see Luke 10:38-42). Women were present among the disciples of Jesus, in their own right, and supported him out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3).

It is often said that Jesus only appointed male apostles, and showed by this that he intended the Christian ministry to be restricted to men forever. It is true that none of the Twelve were women, but we need to remember that the word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’ – i.e. one who is sent as a representative of the sender, with a message to give to others. That being the case, surely it is instructive that the first person to be ‘sent’ (with a message to the male apostles, no less!) as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection is Mary Magdalene (see John 20:10-18). The gospels make it clear that the tomb was visited on Easter Sunday morning by male apostles too, and presumably Jesus could have chosen to appear to them first if he had wanted to, but he chose not to do so; instead, he chose to appear first to Mary Magdalene, and to ‘send’ her as a witness to ‘my brothers’ (John 20:18). The other gospels mention that Mary was not alone; other women were with her, including ‘Joanna’ and ‘Mary the mother of James’ (obviously names known by the people for whom Luke was writing in Luke 24:10); they told the apostles of his resurrection, but ‘they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11).

The Book of Acts makes it clear that women were among the company of believers who waited expectantly and prayerfully for the coming of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:12-14). The group of believers then numbered about one hundred and twenty, and presumably it is this same group that was present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came. On that day Peter, explaining to the crowd what had just happened to the early believers, appeals to Old Testament prophecy:

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, quoting Joel 2:28-29).

So women and men share equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit and are able to share equally in the ministry of prophecy – speaking God’s message in God’s name, saying (as the Old Testament prophets put it) ‘thus says the Lord’.

It is true that there are few stories in the New Testament about women fulfilling this ministry (although we do hear about the four unmarried daughters of Philip the Evangelist, all of whom had the gift of prophecy – see Acts 21:9). But we do see, for instance, the Jewish tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla (or Prisca), who worked together with the apostle Paul in Corinth (see Acts 18). This excellent couple obviously took a leadership role together in the Corinthian church and later accompanied Paul to Ephesus, where they both together exercised a teaching role with the young preacher Apollos, instructing him ‘more adequately’ in the way of Jesus (Acts 18:24-26). Paul describes Priscilla and Aquila in Romans 16:3-4 as ‘my co-workers in Christ Jesus’ and he also refers to ‘the church that meets at their house’ (v.5). We also meet Phoebe, ‘a deacon of the church in Cenchreae’ (Roans 16:1), and, interestingly, ‘Andronicus and Junia (a feminine name), my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was’ (Romans 16:7, emphasis mine). We also meet Euodia and Syntyche, Philippian women who seem to be having a quarrel. Paul asks a friend to ‘help these women since they have contended at my side for the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life’ (Philippians 4:2-3).

Some might object that the term ‘co-worker’ is a loose one and does not imply any sort of official ecclesiastical or apostolic office; that is, it is not a recognized title like ‘apostle’ or ‘pastor’ or ‘presbyter’ or ‘overseer’. To this I would respond that the term ‘co-worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s most common ways to describe and honour people who have worked with him in his ministry of spreading the gospel, both in travelling missionary work or in local situations. It appears at least nine times in his letters, and they are worth quoting in full: Romans 16:3-4 (‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.’), Romans 16:9 (‘Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys’), Romans 16:21 (‘Timothy, my co-worker, sends his greetings to you’), 2 Corinthians 8:23 (‘As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you’), Philippians 2:25 (‘But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker, and fellow-soldier’), Philippians 4:3 (‘Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side for the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life’), Colossians 4:11 (‘Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me.’), 1 Thessalonians 3:2 (‘We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith’), and Philemon 1 (‘To Philemon our dear friend and fellow–worker’).

It seems clear to me, from these references, that to be called Paul’s ‘co-worker’ was no small thing. It did not imply, for instance (to use a modern illustration), simply receiving his monthly prayer letter and making the coffee when he came to visit! Timothy and Titus had travelled with Paul and shared his evangelistic and missionary labours, and Epaphroditus may well have been the first person to take the Gospel to the Colossians. In being included on the list of Paul’s ‘co-workers’, surely women like Priscilla and Euodia and Syntyche were members of a distinguished and honoured company!

What is the overall picture, then? In Galatians Paul says, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:28). This verse has been overworked somewhat, and it needs to be used with caution, as it is not talking about ministry roles but about the fact that all alike can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, it does give a picture of a Christian community in which these distinctions are seen as part of the old creation, as something that is passing away now that Christ has come.

But surely, some will protest, that is not the whole picture? What about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church’)? And what about 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety’)?

Yes, it is true that these texts exist as part of the New Testament witness. And yet even these texts seem somewhat inconsistent with what we know of New Testament church life. Take Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14 that ‘women are not allowed to speak’. This refers to standing up and speaking to the congregation in the name of God, right? Well, apparently not, because in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 Paul says, ‘Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as having her head shaved’ (emphasis mine). Obviously Paul is referring to some social interpretation of a head covering which we no longer see as valid today, but be that as it may, it is quite clear that women prophesied (speaking to the congregation in the name of God) and prayed regularly in the Corinthian church, so that whatever ‘women are not allowed to speak’ meant, it obviously did not mean that![4]

To me, this says that the small minority of texts that appear to restrict the ministry of women need to be treated with caution. We obviously are not fully informed about the context in which they were written, and in the one case that we have examined carefully, it is clear that the text does not mean what we might naturally assume it to mean. That Jesus and his apostles carried out their ministry in a world formed by patriarchy, we cannot doubt. That the apostles were not always successful in shaking off that patriarchy, we ought not to be surprised. But that the New Testament ideal was that of the new creation, in which men and women shared equally in the image of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in which ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’, we can, it seems to me, be reasonably sure.

So what ought we to do? Obviously I write as a contented member of a church that accepts and affirms the ministries of women as deacons, priests, and bishops; in this, I believe, we are faithful to the overall New Testament witness. But there is no room for complacency here. Yes, we are being fairly successful in shaking off the chains of patriarchy and recovering a New Testament picture of partnership, where men and women are co-workers for the Gospel. But what about the rest of the picture? What about the picture of a church where the question of who presides at Holy Communion is not even an issue? What about a church where every congregation is led by a team of people (elders, presbyters, or whatever you want to call them) who share the work of leadership in the congregation? What about the fact that in the New Testament every Christian is seen as a member of the Body of Christ with gifts of ministry to share for the benefit of the whole body?

Do we encourage this view of the work of the Church when we exalt the ministries of pastors and bishops above all others, when we give them special robes that they alone are allowed to wear, and when we give them titles like ‘the Reverend’ and ‘the Right Reverend’ and ‘the Most Reverend’? Do we encourage New Testament ministry when we seat our bishops on thrones in cathedrals (the word ‘cathedra’ means ‘throne)? Do we encourage a New Testament view of ministry when we exalt the presidency of the Eucharist above all other functions of the ordained, even making it the be-all and end-all of their work?

I believe we do not. I believe it is time for us to ask serious questions about whether our received practice of the threefold ministries of bishops, priests, and deacons bears any resemblance to that of the early church at all. I believe it is time for us to reconsider our traditional practices around ceremonial, around clergy dress and nomenclature, and around ministry roles in general. It is not enough for us to open all ordained ministries to both men and women. We need to go further than that, to examine our whole understanding and practice of ministry and ordination, in order to recover the New Testament concept of the whole people of God as ‘a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9). Only then, it seems to me, will we experience the fullness of ministry that is Christ’s will for his Church.


[1] I use this language deliberately. The Church of England’s General Synod did not ‘vote against women bishops’. To carry the motion, a two-thirds majority was required in all three houses of Synod: bishops, clergy, and laity. The motion was supported by over 90% of the bishops and over 75% of the clergy, but fell 6 votes short of a two-thirds majority among the laity. This is hardly a decisive rejection: approximately three quarters of the Synod were in favour of the motion!

[2] I am a member of the Anglican Church of Canada.

[3] All biblical quotations are from the New International Version, 2011 edition.

[4] And I note in passing that the text says absolutely nothing about the question of whether or not a woman may preside at the celebration of Holy Communion; as I have already said, this issue is of no interest to the authors of the New Testament documents

Time for a Break

Hi all;

It’s time for me to take one of my periodic breaks from blogging. I’m not getting much enjoyment out of it right now, and that’s always a sign to me that I need to remove myself from the blogosphere, practice being quiet and keeping my opinions to myself for a while. Also that it’s time to do some more substantial reading, which can only happen, I’ve discovered, if I make room for it by drastically cutting down on my blog-reading time.

I’m not sure how long this break will be. I’ll probably turn the comments off after a couple of days.

“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1)