Henry, the then sixty-year-old friend of my dad, stopped me with his gaze. Even after twenty-seven years, I still remember the intensity in his eyes. With deep emotion, he blurted out:

Phil, we have scales on our eyes. We're like the apostle Paul right before he was baptized: we can't see! We all need to go read and BELIEVE what Jesus said to Mary!

Henry was referring to Jesus' visit to the house of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). He was frustrated that the church couldn't see the significance of what Jesus was doing with Mary. But more than frustrated, Henry carried a deep sadness in his soul. However, he refused to give up on his church, his group of friends who didn't seem to get it, or his hope that things could be different.

Henry's emotional message was his response to a story I had told him. A bright ministry student, a young woman that he knew, delivered one of the best sermons I'd ever heard. I told him that she blew me away with her passion and her dexterity with words. Her visual imagery held our attention all the way to her application and surprise ending. I told him that I didn't know how to encourage her. Her gift was obvious. The problem that I foresaw was a place for her to use her gifts to bless the church.

When we finished our conversation, I read the passage about Mary as soon as I was alone. At that time, however, I was too young and too insecure to ask him what he saw in this simple story. However, his statement and Mary's story were a splinter in my heart. That splinter worked itself deeper and deeper each time I went back to look at that passage. I kept asking the Holy Spirit for help to see what the Lord wanted me to see.

One day as I was reading this story in Greek, the Spirit sent an insight that swept over me like a tidal wave. To this day, Jesus' final words to Mary reverberate with melancholy echoes in my heart:

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:42).

Tears began to flow. I caught myself unintentionally repeating these words to myself:

But, we have... But we have. But we have — and I have — taken it away from her and all those who are gifted like her.

This realization left me in anguish, yet also wrestling with a nagging question: What am I supposed to do with the two "limiting passages" (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-15 — We sometimes call them Paul's "silence passages."). Even so, I knew that I would have to approach those passages differently because of Jesus' words to Mary.

How do the "limiting passages" mesh with Jesus' words: "...and it will not be taken away from her."

How do I understand these two "limiting passages" in light of what Jesus promised to Mary?

How do these passages square with the value I see Jesus gave women in his ministry?

How do these passages match what women actually did in the early church?

How do these "limiting passages" fit the declaration of our new existence in Christ?

How are these "limiting passages" impacted by our call to bring the kingdom of God in our churches as Jesus' disciples?

I knew I could no longer try to squeeze everything related to a woman's role in the church under the umbrella of the two "limiting passages." Instead, I must understand the limiting passages based upon Jesus' promise to Mary, what I knew women actually did for Jesus, and how gifted women blessed the early disciples with their love, faithfulness, service, financial support, teaching, and leadership. The following are some of the roles women played in the ministry of Jesus and the early church:

  • Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), Mary (Luke 1:46-55), and Anna (Luke 2:36-38) played important roles in proclaiming Jesus' as the Messiah, in prophesying his purpose, and in announcing his arrival.
  • The sinful woman of the city (Luke 7:36-50), the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), the woman with a flow of blood who touched his garment (Mark 5:24-34), and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-9, 27-38) all remind us that Jesus welcomed, valued, taught, and protected women with his ministry, even though what he did was considered inappropriate culturally, religiously, and politically.
  • The Samaritan woman at the well proclaimed Jesus as Savior (John 4:28-30, 39-41) along with Mary Magdalene and other women who proclaimed his resurrection to his disciples (Luke 24:1-10; John 20:11-18).
  • Jesus included Mary Magdalene and other women (Matthew 27:56-57; Luke 8:1-3) in his traveling entourage of disciples, even depending upon them for financial support.
  • A group called "the women" were the only disciples who faithfully followed, demonstrated their love, and supported Jesus through his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and resurrection with their presence — see The Women for the scriptures and explanation of their faithfulness.
  • Jesus' mother, Mary, and other women participated with the apostles by praying for the coming of the Spirit before Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
  • When Peter and the apostles explained the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, they twice emphasized that women were prophesying in this coming new time of fulfillment and the Spirit promised by Joel (Acts 2:17-18).
  • Women prayed and prophesied in the assemblies in the Corinthian churches (1 Corinthians 11:4-5) and the daughters of Philip prophesied in the presence of Paul and his church entourage on their way to Jerusalem (Acts 21:8-9).
  • A woman was rebuked as a false teacher, not because she prophesied as a woman but because her teaching was false — indicating that first-century churches recognized women as prophets and teachers or one would have never had an opportunity to lead people astray as a leading teacher and prophet (Revelation 2:20).
  • Euodia and Syntyche were evangelists with Paul in Philippi. Their disagreement threatened to split the church, so Paul called them out in the assembly and urged a fellow servant leader to help them reconcile (Philippians 4:2-3).
  • Phoebe ministered as a servant leader (a "deacon" — diakonos) in Cenchrea, so Paul then asked for the congregations in Rome to welcome and help support her work among them (Romans 16:1-3).
  • In case we missed the "servant leader" (diakonon) role of Phoebe, Paul also describes her with a word for a leader who comes alongside a person to help (paristeami), a role similar to what he mentions elsewhere (proisteami Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:17).
  • Paul gave qualifying character qualities for women servant leaders along with similar qualities for Elders and Deacons among the men (1 Timothy 3:11).
  • Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, led a ministry (Acts 9:36-42) that paralleled the ministry to widows similar to the seven servants (sometimes called "deacons") in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-7).
  • Priscilla (Prisca) took a prominent role, along with her husband, in teaching the true doctrine about the work of the Holy Spirit to one of the early church's greatest preachers, Apollos (Acts 18:24-28).
  • Women were servant leaders, heroes, an apostle, house church sponsors, and role models in Philippi and Rome (Acts 16:13-15, 40; Romans 16:1-15 — the description of Junia in Romans 16:7 suggests that she is "notable in the apostles" [ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις], probably designating her as a well regarded missionary leader).
  • Lois and Eunice were students of the Scriptures and used them to form the character of Timothy for his life of ministry and leadership (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14-15).
  • Paul made clear to Titus that older women were to be used to "teach what is good" in addition to "train" younger women as wives (Titus 2:3-5).
  • (Please prayerfully read the scriptures given here. These references are what this series[NOTE1] has challenged us to see about all that women did in Jesus' ministry and the early church.)

    How do all these women with their important roles, along with what Jesus promised to Mary, fit the "limiting passages"?

    For me, the "limiting passages" are either blanket statements, truths for all times and all places,[NOTE2] or they were written to address specific problems in Corinth and Ephesus. In cornbread English, these "limiting passages" were either blankets that covered all church situations for all times or they were pillowcases, designed for a specific use to address specific problems in first century Corinth and Ephesus. I couldn't make those "limiting passages" fit with what actually happened in the early church. I couldn't square them with what Jesus said to Mary or with how important women were in the ministry of Jesus. For me, they are clearly pillowcases and not blankets!

    I believe this is shown to be true by another principle at work in Paul's approach to this issue: Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God alive in our world through his church. Notice the prayer Jesus called on us to pray that immediately followed his promise to Mary:

    One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples."

    He said to them, "When you pray, say:

    hallowed be your name,
    your kingdom come.
    Give us each day our daily bread.
    Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
    And lead us not into temptation.

    For those of us who have committed our lives to follow Jesus, that means we must look at people differently; we must look at them through the eyes of Jesus!

    So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

    Look at the phrase in bold again. We see people with new eyes, God's eyes. But, what does that mean?

    Paul explains, I believe, in his letter to Galatian believers:

    So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

    In the kingdom of God, we commit to view, value, and affirm the value of people as our Father in heaven does. Because God gives either speaking or serving gifts to each of us regardless of gender, we must recognize these gifts (1 Peter 4:10-11). Jesus affirmed the importance of women both in receiving ministry and sharing it. The early church did the same thing. And of course, the Lord affirmed Mary's gift as one of his rabbis in training whose gift wouldn't be taken from her. Dare we take away a similar gift that others, like Mary, have today because of the two "limiting passages"? I can't. They don't mesh with what Jesus did, said, and the early church practiced.

    While it has taken me nearly thirty years to fully appreciate what Henry had tried to get me to discover, I am thankful the scales have to fall from my eyes. I'm hoping you will keep investigating and being open to the Lord on this issue. Most of all, I hope you will prayerfully consider whether the "limiting passages" should be pillowcases and not blankets. I believe appropriate exegetical work and examination of cultural issues show that they are indeed pillowcases.[NOTE4]

    A disciple's passion is to become like his or her teacher (Luke 6:40). For us as Jesus' disciples, that means we must yearn for the kingdom to come alive in us, now. We want to begin living out our future life with God, in our time... in our families of faith... in our churches without barriers for all who truly follow Christ Jesus as Lord. We must tear down racial barriers, gender barriers, and barriers based on social position. These must not interfere with the gifted using their gifts to honor their Lord and to bless his people!

    By grace, God has blessed us with his plan to heal the world through Jesus. We are his new creations to bring this new world to life (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus paid a huge price for us to become the righteous examples of how this world is to work (2 Corinthians 5:21). And, because we are in Christ, we see people in a whole new way, the Jesus way (2 Corinthians 5:16).

    After all, "...the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'"

    O Lord, we want to honor you and want to affirm the gifts that you have given to each of your faithful disciples. If we are blind to your will in this, or in any other issue that limits the work of your kingdom, please, have Jesus heal our sight. Through the intercession of the Holy Spirit and in the powerful name of Jesus, we ask this so that we might bring you glory and share your grace. Amen.

    [NOTE1] This post is the final part of a multi-week series on the value of women in the eyes of God as revealed in the Scriptures and the ministries of Jesus and the early church.

    'Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'

    1. Of Sacred Value
    2. Made to Be Complements
    3. Restoring the Creator's Intent
    4. Our New Trajectory in Pentecost
    5. Important Women, Important Roles
    6. Co-Heirs with Christ

    7. Too Familiar to Feel the Bite
    8. Unconventional Grace and the Song of Jesus
    9. The Women
    10. The Macedonian Connection
    11. Treasures Old and New

    12. The Most Excellent Way
    13. A Story That Must Be Told!
    14. Scales from Our Eyes

    [NOTE2] An interpretation has to be made by the translator on where to put the phrase, " as in all the meetings of God's holy people" (1 Corinthians 14:33 NLT which is the most literal translation of the Greek phrase, ως ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῶν ἁγίων). Notice the difference between the placement of this phrase in 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 in both The New Living Translation and The English Standard Version, with the key phrase in bold:

    For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

    As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says (ESV).

    For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the meetings of God's holy people.

    Women should be silent during church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says (NLT).

    The ESV makes the issue of women being silent a blanket statement. The NLT makes the issue of peace, not disorder, the blanket principle. Not only does the NLT (and NIV) placement of this key phrase fit the context better, but Paul used this same type of phrase earlier as the closing phrase of his summary statement, Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17 NLT). This suggests that Paul is using it as a closing summary phrase also in 1 Corinthians 14:33 as well. For a more detailed explanation of both "limiting passages," see [NOTE4].

    [NOTE3] For more on Jesus affirming Mary as one of his rabbi students in training, see this previous post: Too Familiar to Feel the Bite.

    [NOTE4] See Reimagining a Woman's Role in the Church, a downloadable pdf for your further study. In my reading and study of this issue over the last forty years, I have not found a better summary of this issue by a biblically conservative student of the New Testament. Please read this explanation. I believe Viola outlines the issues in the two "limiting passages" (or "silence passages"). I am convinced that the issues in 1 Timothy 2 are directly connected to the dominance of women in the Artemis cult that was pervasive in Ephesus. Paul seems to be speaking directly to the false teaching associated with that cult in what he says about childbearing, jewelry, makeup, Satan deceiving Eve, and God creating Adam first — each of these is a direct attack on a specific false teaching in the Artemis cult. Viola's explanation of the issues in 1 Corinthians is spot on and extremely helpful. This document is a must as is the book in which it was originally included, Reimagining the Church. Now, this is a standalone open letter that is extraordinarily helpful to understand the issues. My only regret is that I only discovered his work at the end of my series and not sooner!

    Special thanks for the use of the Jesus images in Phil's blog, "The Jesus Window," to Free Bible Images and the The Lumo Project.