11 December 2023

‘Formidable manifesto’ for full inclusion of women

The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership by Dorothy A. Lee (Baker Academic, 2021)

By Michael Bird

8 August 2021

The Revd Professor Dorothy A. Lee, Stewart Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity College, has written an outstanding introduction to the ministry of women in the New Testament, describing the various roles they had among Jesus’ followers and in the earliest churches, and showcasing the significance of their service.

Lee takes readers on a survey of women in the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Catholic epistles, with further reflections on the ministry of women in tradition and in theological discourse. Memorable highlights are her cogent interpretation of the Syro-Phoenician/Canaanite woman (Mark 7/Matthew 15) and her sensible exposition of the many women listed at the end of Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Romans 16). From the Gospels, Lee points out how they “reflect the ministry of Jesus and his extraordinary openness to women as disciples” (page 35). The fact that Luke describes the prophetic Spirit falling upon men and women proves for Lee that “Pentecost may lie behind us in today’s church, but its full and radical implications for women’s ministry still lie in the future” (p63). Her sublime narration of women in John’s Gospels demonstrates how female disciples are “outstanding exemplars of faith, courage, and resilience” (p190). I learned something new when reading about the ministry of Irene of Macedonia who, according to tradition, was baptised by Timothy, became an apostle, performed miracles, as well as teaching and baptising (p162).

In the theology section, Lee covers disputed topics such as the maleness of the apostolic college, the scandal of particularity with God incarnated as a man rather than as a woman, women and the image of God, the status of Mary as the mother of God, and gender and the Trinity. She elegantly discusses the significance of female martyrs as icons of Christ who share in his cosmic, redemptive suffering. She describes their significance this way: “In theological terms, if women can act as icons of Christ and represent him vividly in their martyrdom, they can also represent him at the altar and in the pulpit, at the front and by the graveside. Women’s ministry as pastors and priests confirms all women in their capacity to represent Christ in the form of discipleship to which each is called, lay and ordained alike” (p184).

Ultimately, for Lee, “Women’s sense of calling in the contemporary church is not primarily a product of Western feminism – though it has played its part – but largely a re-calling of the church to its evangelical roots, not only in the New Testament, but also in the early centuries of the church’s life” (p183). She waxes eloquently in her conclusion, aptly summing up the significance and service of women in the New Testament:

“Women in the New Testament are witnesses to Jesus’s birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, and they proclaim the good news of salvation and God’s triumph over death in Christ with joy and faith. Mary Magdalene in her encounter with the Risen Lord proclaims not only his resurrection but also the inestimable privilege of preaching and teaching Christ, a privilege according to women who have followed her: ‘I have seen the Lord?’ Along with Mary the God-bearer, who bears in her own body the life of God incarnate; Mary the ‘Fortress’ and proclaimer of the risen Christ; Prisca the theologian; Junia the apostle; Phoebe the deacon; Lydia; Tabitha; Mary and Martha of Bethany; Joanna; Susanna; Salome; and Mary the wife/mother of Clopas, we are called to testify to the life-giving presence of God among us in Jesus Christ through the enlivening power and presence of the Spirit (p191).”

In sum, a very helpful survey of women’s discipleship and ministry in the life of Jesus and among the earliest churches, as well as a formidable manifesto for the full inclusion of women in all level of church leadership. As an evangelical reader of Scripture, I found a few exegetical decisions I might demur from, and a few footnotes I disagreed with, but on the whole, Lee exudes a high regard for biblical authority, out of which she makes a compelling case for the inclusion women in the church’s ministries of word and sacrament. Readers of this book may also like a similar book by another Melbourne Anglican author, Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2018).

The Revd Dr Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Parkville.

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