This is the second of two essays on women’s ministry in the New Testament. In the previous essay, I addressed the question (1) “Did women exercise ministerial office in the New Testament period?” In this essay, I address the two additional questions: (2) How does the New Testament address the question of female bishops or presbyters? (3) What are the contemporary hermeneutical implications of what the New Testament says about women in office?
As noted in previous essays, the New Testament says very little about the actual practices associated with the more permanent ministries which I have called “office.” For example, the New Testament nowhere describes the ritual celebration of the Eucharist or indicates who presided at its celebration; nor does the New Testament ever use the word “priest” to refer to those who exercise office, both key concerns in Catholic discussions of ordained ministry. Although the New Testament nowhere identifies by name a woman who exercised the role of presbyter or bishop, it does not mention by name any man with these titles either.
2 Timothy 1:1-14
This morning’s lectionary readings contain two of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture. How does the preacher respond to a passage in which the final verse reads “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock”? (Ps. 137: 9). Certainly the preacher cannot suggest that this is an example to be emulated? “As we go forth this morning, let us remember these words from our Psalm: ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and . . .’ Uh, Never mind. Let us stand and say the words of the Nicene Creed.” Turning to the Lamentations passage does not make things any easier. Lamentations is probably the most depressing book in the entire Bible. At least the book of Job has a happy ending! There are lots of thoughtful commentaries and theological reflections on the Book of Job. Not so much on Lamentations. Can you imagine someone saying to a seminary student on the day of graduation “Congratulations! I’d like you to give you this commentary on the book of Lamentations to help you with your ministry”?
When we come across passages like this in Scripture, I think it helps to remember that the Bible is not a book, but a collection of books. The Bible does not speak with a single voice, but with many voices. I think it also helps to remember that these are voices in a dialogue. Voices in Scripture ask questions to which sometimes we have to turn to other passages in Scripture to hear the answers. I think that reading the Bible in this way is preferable to the kind of static view that imagines Scripture as a kind of database of theological propositions all of which are speaking with a single voice and saying the same thing. I think it is also preferable to the opposite view that says that the Bible is full of contradictions and so we can pick and choose what we like. Neither approach gives us a clue as to how the church might derive theological or spiritual insight from passages like this morning’s readings.
So I would ask my listeners this morning to hear the morning’s lectionary readings as voices in a dialogue. I am going to focus on three readings: the Psalm, the Lamentations reading, and the epistle reading from 2 Timothy. I would suggest that it is helpful to read each of these passages as asking the single question “Where is God?”