Women Matter Equally

A sermon based on Philippians 4:1-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 12, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A few years ago when I was a pastor in Florida a stranger called the church one day and proceeded to make a big fuss, telling me in no uncertain terms that my church and I needed to mend our ways and condemn Gays. I listened politely and really rather gently suggested to the woman on the phone that we saw things differently, had different theologies and were not going to come to an agreement as to how to understand the Bible, God or our LGBT brothers and sisters. This only seemed to make the caller madder and quote the Bible more, telling me I had to take it literally. When I was allowed to get a word in, I calmly indicated that while I did not agree with the text I was about to cite and that I found it abhorrent, I wanted to know why if she believed in Biblical literalism she was calling and fussing at me when 1st Timothy 2 in essence says women should be seen and not heard in church matters? As it turns out, like me, she didn’t want literalism applied to ancient unloving texts when they oppressed her – I’ve found that, not surprisingly, that nobody does!

That was not the only time I’ve cited 1st Timothy in response to bullies, male and female. It’s an awful text that literalists need to explain in the context of their wanting to enforce oppressive Bible verses against anyone, because it is one of a number of ancient scriptural rules for living that we ignore in our culture by and large.

I think it is a very, very good thing that we do not follow the edict that women should be seen and not heard in church. I have long fought against that text–and it is a text that contradicts the teachings of Jesus and the early church.

The text I am referring to is 1st Timothy 2:11-12:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11-12 NRS)

Pretty ugly stuff, right? In considering today’s text I want to point out that at the start of 1st Timothy the author wrote claiming to be (quote)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope . . . (1Ti 1:1 NRS)

So lots and lots of people blame Paul and make a fuss against him about the awful verse I read:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11-12 NRS)

But here is the thing, Paul DID NOT WRITE those verses, in fact serious Bible scholars have long thought that Paul the Apostle did not write any of 1st Timothy. Not a word. 1 The author of that book falsely claims his ugly misogynistic text was written by Paul.

Anyone wanting to refute the modern doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible just needs to go to 1st Timothy verse one and the claim that it is Paul’s letter, that claim is errant. You can also go to Paul’s other letters and Jesus teachings and practices to refute the terrible idea that woman are to be seen and not heard at church or anywhere else.

I am making a big fuss about this because a lot of us think Paul was anti-woman based on texts that many scholars think he did not pen. A study of Christianity actually reveals that the early church was quite egalitarian with respect to gender . . . and so was Paul. Honest!

See Jesus was egalitarian so it should not be surprising that Paul– who is writing much closer in time to Jesus than any other author in the New Testament– teaches more like Jesus and leads communities that act more like Jesus than the later pseudo-Pauline authors .

(Like whomever wrote that awful stuff in 1st Timothy that I tend to fuss about with literalists because many of them don’t apply anti-women verses for– like I indicated– the same reasons we don’t apply their anti-homosexual verses they are oppressive, unloving and un-Christ-like).

In today’s Lectionary reading – which scholars are as certain as can be was written by Paul– Paul IS making a fuss – a big fuss. It’s actually a fuss about a fuss. Two very important leaders in the church at Philippi are in some kind of disagreement and Paul is worried these important leaders will not reconcile and perhaps even pull the church apart into factions following one leader or the other. That is, Paul is worried Euodia and Syntyche’s dispute could split the church. 2 So important are these two leaders that Paul does not just name them and diplomatically suggest they resolve their differences, but he goes out of the way to show deep respect for them and link them to himself. He notes that they struggled together with him as teammates “in the ministry of the gospel.” He makes sure to point out Euodia (yoo-row-dia) and Syntyche (sin-tah-key) were such valuable coworkers with him in ministry that their names are in the scroll of life–the heavenly record of the righteous. It is very certain from the reading that Paul holds these two leaders in high esteem, they are his equals and valued and respected and he is trying to quell whatever storm has been building up between them because they matter not just to God and Paul, but to the survival of the church. That much seems clear from the reading.

What is often glossed over and sometimes not heard or understood or clear is that Eurodia  and Syntyche are powerful women, which means there were women leaders backed by Paul in what is Paul’s first established European church.
All of this illumination by Paul, and all of his gushing co-worker equal talk stuff is about two female leaders of one of the most important churches in the New Testament the church at Philippi. Acts 16:9-15 mentions what are believed to be some of the details of the founding of this important church. Listen to an excerpt of the story from Acts and note how important women are in the telling:

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” . . . [W]e immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail [for] . . . Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us . . . The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (Excerpt of Act 16:9-15 NRS).

Later in verse 40 Lydia’s home appears as the Philippians’ church house where local Christians gathered. This Lydia person, of course, was a woman.

Women, you see, were without doubt instrumental in the formation and founding of early churches. The text today also evidences women were important church leaders.

No matter what we were raised believing about Paul or even the early church’s relegation of women to second class status as Christians, the true story is women were considered equal in the early church and held leadership positions. They were NOT expected to be submissive, silent and without authority!

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one the most influential theologians of our time, noted in her masterpiece In Memory of Her that Paul’s references to women in his letters evidence that the early church knew women

as prominent leaders and missionaries who – in their own right– toiled for the gospel. These women were engaged in missionary and church leadership activity both before Paul and independently of Paul. Without question they were equal and sometimes even superior to Paul in their work for the gospel. 3

Prof. Fiorenza goes on to note that

The Pauline letters mention women as Paul’s coworkers, but these women were not “helpers of Paul or his “assistants.” . . .The genuine Pauline letters apply missionary titles and such characterizations as co-worker (Pricsca), brother/sister (Apphia), diankonos (Phoebe) and apostle (Junia) to women . . . 4 .

Dr. Fiorenza expressly points out that Phoebe’s role was as “a minister of the whole church.” 5. She notes that

Paul . . . affirms that women worked with him on an equal basis. Phil[ippians] 4:2-3 explicitly states that Euodia (yoo-row-dia) and Syhtyche (sin-tah-key) have “contended” side by side with him . . . Paul considers the authority of both women so great that he fears their dissension could do damage to the Christian mission. 6

See the real Paul did not hold women back as the author of 1st Timothy would have us believe.

In fact as we have heard over the past month following Christ is never about holding others down. It’s never about considering yourself better than others. In one of my favorite Pauline passages of all time, Galatians 3:27-28, Paul makes it abundantly clear that Christians are to look at each other as equals. He writes

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

No one is left out of that sweeping description by Paul. Everyone in the church is one in Christ and equal.
Baptism is the great equalizer of all Christians. This was true in the early church and to Paul and it still is – in the Bible.

The text I just read from Galatians is important says Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza because

the baptismal declaration . . . offered a new religious vision to women and slaves, it denied all male religious prerogatives in the Christian community based on gender roles . . . 7

The author of 1st Timothy in his ugly repressive text was trying to undo what the real Paul and the early church practiced. That non-Pauline letter was trying to silence women and put them back into the patriarchy’s confined place in the culture and the male dominated church leadership. 8 But, of course, the real Paul and the real early church are closer to what the original Jesus Followers were doing. They were taking their example from Jesus who had women disciples and leaders in his ranks. It is no accident that Mary Magdalene is remembered in gospel accounts as being the first to experience the risen Christ and is the first to bring that glorious message of Easter to others. It is no accident that other women are also recorded as having been among the first followers of Jesus to experience the resurrected Christ and understand his ministry was to continue on in a movement that became the church which is filled with not just men, but with women working side-by-side as equals just as Paul’s letter evidences. The New Testament remembers–despite the best efforts of some men – that women helped co-lead the church and were equals in it from day one. Today’s Lectionary lesson is one such recollection.

No matter what anyone told us growing up, or tells us now, women matter in the Jesus Movement before and after Easter and well into the development of what becomes known as the church. They are equals, they are leaders and they are followers of Jesus who established the Church – as did men.

The good news is that we have this very early egalitarian model for us as church. It’s one I am very happy to find thriving and being followed –and conserved– here at First Congregational Church. Here women matter, women are leaders, women can speak and be heard and women are equal not just before God, but before this congregation. That is as it should be. And it is Biblical! Here in this community “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” Thank you all . . . and God and Jesus and Paul for that.


1. Crossan, John Dominic & Reed, Jonathan, In Search of Paul, p xiii, 105-106; Krause, Deborah, 1 Timothy, p xiii, pps 1-8, Borg Marcus, Crossan Dominic, The First Paul, pps 14-15 , 54-58.
2. Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, In Memory of Her, p 169
3. Ibid. at 161
4. Ibid. at 169
5. Ibid at at 170
6. Ibid at 169
7. Ibid at 217
8. See, Borg & Crossan at 54-58