Five years ago, Pastor Mark Harris preached a sermon that said a woman’s “core calling” is to serve as “a supporter, a nurturer, a caregiver.” He lamented a culture that makes it “extremely difficult for any woman to live out and fulfill God’s design.” After all, he said, “only one title is given to a woman in all of scripture … [T]he title is ‘helper.’”
With all due respect, I have to wonder what Bible Pastor Harris is reading. After all, scripture applies a range of titles to women (and men) caught up in God’s story of redemption.
Take Phoebe, for instance. When Paul greets esteemed colleagues at the end of Romans, she’s atop his list, named as both a “deacon of the church at Cenchrae” and a “benefactor.” The mixed gender roll call goes on to entitle Prisca a “co-worker” and Junia an “apostle” (see Romans 16:1–7). Elsewhere, Paul mentions Euodia and Syntyche among his “co-workers” (see Philippians 4:2–3).
Or how about Anna? Luke’s Gospel calls her a “prophet” and credits her with sharing the news of Jesus’s birth far and wide (see Luke 2:36 –38). Later, Luke mentions three patrons — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna — who invest their assets in Jesus’s itinerant ministry (Luke 8:1–3).
Perhaps Pastor Harris has forgotten Luke’s story of Jesus at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary sits attentively “at [Jesus’s] feet” — a phrase that denotes her role as a disciple. When her sister, a sort of first-century Martha Stewart, complains that Mary’s neglecting her helper role, Jesus takes Mary’s side, praising her for choosing the “better part.” Did you catch that? Jesus votes for discipleship over domesticity. (See Luke 10:38–42.)
All of these women live out a “core calling” to be sure, but it has little to do with “how to prepare a meal, how to sew on a button, how to keep a home, [or] how to respond to a husband” — the “basic things” that women need to know, in Harris’s view. Rather, they share a “core calling” with their male counterparts — namely, to love God and neighbor in ways that promote the well-being of all people.
True enough, the New Testament does include several teachings that curtail women’s roles in church leadership and promote their subordination to loving husbands. Most scholars think these passages, written later than Paul’s authentic letters and the Gospels, reflect the early church’s capitulation to its host patriarchal culture. Did you catch that irony? Harris thinks contemporary culture’s egalitarian bent thwarts “God’s design,” while Jesus thinks “God’s design” dismantles culturally assigned gender roles so that everyone — everyone! — has a part to play in fostering human dignity and wholeness. (Paul agrees: see Galatians 3:28.)
It’s one thing for a pastor to interpret scripture, quite selectively, for a group of devoted followers. It’s quite another for that pastor to aspire to represent the constituents of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. A candidate who confines women’s “core calling” to the home isn’t just out of step with the 21st century; he’s out of step with the 1st-century version of “God’s design” proclaimed and lived out by Jesus.