Thursday, January 24, 2008

"God's people. Amen."

by Nathan Brown

Somehow we got to talking about famous and favourite opening lines to books. And as the conversation evolved, this was pared back to comparing the first three words of literary works.

Eventually we got to the Bible and, despite her lack of religious background, she was proud to tell me she knew the first three words of the Bible, “In the beginning . . .”

But then she asked, “So, what are the last three words?”

As I retrieved a New International Version from a nearby bookshelf, I had to admit I didn’t know. I flicked to the last page and unwittingly read: “God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:21).

“What?” she almost exploded, hearing four words in place of the three I had read.

It took me just a moment to figure out what she had heard.

“How can it say that?” she continued, her outrage belying her distinct lack of belief.

After a few moments, I was able to placate her indignation with assurances that what I had read and what she had heard were two separate things and that the Bible was not as misogynist as it appeared.

But as I did so, I was wondering how often we—either intentionally or unintentionally, individually and corporately—send the message that “God’s people are men.” Whenever women are under-represented in our church’s decision-making processes, whenever they are denied opportunities and recognition in ministry roles and whenever the language we use as a church fails to include both genders, that message is repeated.

And it is not that our church doesn’t have a tradition of women in leadership. In The Silent Church, Zdravko Plantak charts the decline of women’s involvement in leadership roles. The number of women in conference leadership positions reached a highpoint about 1915—notably the year of Ellen White’s death—then fell away to almost zero by 1950 with only slight recovery since that time. While we have never as a church had this issue settled—despite the prominent role of women among our church pioneers—it seems incongruous that we seem to doing worse in more recent times than we may have done in the past.

Unfortunately, the perception of the role of Women’s Ministries has not always been helpful in this regard. While a specialised ministry by women for women as a safe place for addressing specific issues of women’s experiences and faith is important, the continued marginalisation of women into such a specialised ministry can be a frustrating distraction and, at best, a temporary stop-gap measure. If women had more voices and greater leadership opportunities in the wider church, there would be less need to create these artificial distinctions.

The difficulty, of course, is that this is largely a cultural issue and that the relevant biblical references are open to such divergent readings. Various—generally male—voices rely on a superficial reading of texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:34 and Ephesians 5:21-33 to argue women should be kept “in their place.” But, urges writer Charlie Peacock,

“the fact that these verses and others from 1 Timothy have caused women, in particular, so much pain is a sad commentary on our failure to be the people of God. The whole assembly of followers has suffered as well, and God and his Word have been maligned” (New Way to be Human).

If we consider that Paul was urging Christians to conduct their public meetings and family relations in a manner appropriate to the culture in which they lived, these texts might be best read as endorsing equality of opportunity, voice and standing for women in churches in societies where this is culturally appropriate—and even culturally demanded. This makes even more sense when we consider other statements from Paul calling for a more egalitarian social organisation within the kingdom of God in light of the unifying reality of salvation:
“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians—you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NLT).

As we write new chapters of the story of our church, we need to focus on the unifying and inclusive reality of “God’s people” and stop misreading, mis-hearing and mis-stating the “Amen,” particularly in a church community in which women most often constitute the majority of active membership. The church as a whole, the experiences of many faithful women and our witness to the society in which we work will be stronger and healthier for it.


  1. Hi Nathan,

    Thank you for this great post!

    It is interesting that we have followed the path of fundamentalism in our reading of the scriptures. It is a far cry from where we began as a church.

    It makes you wonder what it will take for the collective whole to embrace the example of Jesus in his inclusion of women in his public ministry. Mary Magdalene was "the apostle to the apostles". Jesus chose to give the resurrection message to a woman.

    Paul's most powerful statement, as you point out, is that under the new covenant there is neither male nor female, but we are one in Christ. Its interesting that we choose to focus on the exclusive message in 1 Timothy, but ignore the inclusive statement in Galations. I hope we will start making different choices as a body of believers.

  2. LOL! "God's people are men." Thanks for this most insightful post, Nathan. I have to confess that as an SDA woman I often have been forced to wonder whether I belong to a church or an Old Boy's Club. I also long for a return to the early days, when Adventists were truly convicted, in practice as well as in preaching, that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on ALL flesh! I can't resist quoting a line from The Vicar of Dibley (British Comedy) here. Reflecting on how Dibley was the first parish to accept her, Geraldine, the lady vicar says:
    "The first parish wanted a man. The second parish wanted a man with a beard and a mustache just to be sure it was a man. The third parish wanted a man with a full physical just to make sure a woman with a fake beard and mustache didn't slip through. The fourth parish wanted a Rabbi, but I think that was just a mix-up with the paperwork" What a pity that too often this joke applies equally well to Adventists, ministry and message of EGW notwithstanding!

    I love your conclusion:
    "As we write new chapters of the story of our church, we need to focus on the unifying and inclusive reality of “God’s people” and stop misreading, mis-hearing and mis-stating the “Amen,”"

    Let ALL God's people say Amen!