One of the things that I learned a few years ago that revolutionized how I read the letters of John are that when he writes to “the elect lady and her children”, many scholars believe that the “lady” in question is a woman who pastors a church that meets in her home. This interpretation fits so perfectly the instructions John gives to her of caring for various members of her church as if they are her children and she their mother, of guarding against those who would come into the community trying to take advantage of members, and of ensuring true teaching in her home.
It also fits the testimony of Scripture. The book of Romans describes women in roles of leadership. One woman, Junia, is described as an apostle who like Paul preaches, teaches, and shares the Gospel in areas that had not yet heard of Jesus in order to establish new churches. Other women are described as fellow ministers alongside Paul. Both Paul’s letters and the acts of the Apostles describe Priscila as a minister who teaches the Gospel even in ways that correct the theology of men like Apollos. Whether this elect lady is a pastor, some other leader, or a metaphor for the church it is clear that women are key leaders in the earliest church.
This text is one light shining in the New Testament, reminding us that the few texts which get quoted to describe a second place status for women in church, society, and family do not tell the whole story. Rather from the beginning God has called, gifted, and sent out women as equal to men in the work of the Gospel. Remember Jesus taught women like Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Lazarus, Martha, and others as disciples alongside the twelve. And it was women who found Jesus risen from the dead and became both the first Christians and ministers of the Gospel.
Throughout his ministry Jesus honored women, treating them with dignity and value. The examples of women being prized, honored, and given equal responsibility are far more numerous in the New Testament than texts used by some to place women in second-class roles of subservience in the church, the community, and at home. The prevalence of these liberating texts about the role of women suggest that when other texts are quoted in ways that suggest women are somehow less than equal to men in the eyes of God, they are being quoted out of context.
Let’s join John in valuing women as leaders. Let’s join Jesus in valuing women’s gifts and values. Let’s also end the mis-use of Scripture to justify silencing, using, or abusing women. Instead let’s hear the clear clarion call saying the Spirit has fallen on all, man and woman, Jew and Greek, of all races, backgrounds, classes, and sexualities. Let us realize embracing each person as they are is learning to embrace the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts which come in every packaging imaginable.