I spend a lot of time with women. On most days a parade of women’s faces and voices is moving through my mind—reminders and echoes from various conferences and Bible study groups. Having recently visited a number of women’s groups in England, I’m currently hearing echoes of strong words, articulated with that invigorating British combination of joviality and definiteness. It was a joy to be among various evangelical groups, and to witness both the hunger for God’s Word and also the training up of women to meet that hunger. They’re in a context where women’s issues are hotly debated, and where their complementarian position is generally scorned. They’re studying and teaching and sharing the Bible with all their hearts. They’re doing it with the encouragement of pastoral leadership committed to biblical instruction of all God’s people. I learned a great deal from my sisters in England.
It’s interesting to return from that context into our ongoing American conversation over gender roles. What strikes me is that we women (just like all human beings everywhere) do best when we focus on taking in and giving out the comprehensive revelation of God’s Word. If it’s really true that the Bible is made up of God’s breathed-out, living and active words, then there’s nothing more important, during this short span of time before we meet God face to face, than hearing and believing and sharing and delighting in his words of life to us.
Any time we pull out one strand of Scripture and concentrate on it, apart from God’s full revelation, we can so easily get into trouble. Women love to talk and think about women. And we should! We must! However, if we focus too exclusively on that theme, it tends to grow into the overarching one that interprets everything else we read and think. We might do better, all of us, to aim for a consistent focus on Scripture’s main theme. I don’t have that theme in a nutshell, but it might be something like: God redeeming a people for himself, through Jesus Christ his Son. However we summarize it, surely we Christians would put Jesus Christ and his redemption at the center of the Bible’s whole revelation. The question I must ask myself is whether that theme is at the center of my thinking.
Environmentalists . . . parents . . . artists . . . women . . . all of us, whatever our specific concerns, tend to look for the strand of the Scriptures that relates to us. The danger comes any time I go after making my own story (or women’s stories) central, as opposed to making sense of my story (or women’s stories) within the larger story of God’s redemption in Christ. Take the scriptural word submission, for example. If I focus on that word and that principle itself, I can get in all kinds of trouble. I can blow up the word into all sorts of rules and scenarios that Scripture itself never addresses. Or I can diminish the word into a shriveled-up relic, ignoring Scripture’s plain command. The word is given to us and explained to us in the context of Christ and his church. The principle is shown to shine throughout the Scriptures from the very first woman onward, as the story of the first man and woman keeps appearing, a reference point never left behind. I believe we women can learn about submission in the best way by studying the whole Scriptures, and by learning to love Christ as he is revealed to us and speaks to us through the inspired Word.
Spirit-Filled Power and Clarity
Christ’s love is revealed to us in a book. I don’t mean to trespass into the territory of bibliolatry, but I do mean to affirm the Spirit-filled power and clarity of the God-breathed Word. The principle of Scripture’s perspicuity (clarity, or understandability), for which the Reformers fought and died, is crucial. God’s Word is neither too vague nor too complicated to be understood clearly by God’s people. In Nehemiah 8, all the “men and women and all who could understand what they heard” stood for hours listening and learning from the Levites, who “helped the people to understand the Law” and “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The people went away rejoicing, “because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Neh. 8:1, 3, 7-8, 12).
I love it that the women are mentioned in that magnificent scene from Nehemiah, where the remnant of God’s people who’ve returned from exile to a broken-down city recommit themselves to being a people of God’s Word. They are holding on to God’s promises when all the visible signs of those promises have been cut away; they’re left with the promises themselves, the words. And so in that scene they listen really carefully, for hours. They study the words to understand what God is saying to them.
That’s what we need to do, isn’t it? Women, like all of God’s people, need to listen really carefully to all of God’s Word, book by book, from beginning to end. We need to learn how to read it, so that we can rightly evaluate the voices around us that would tell us what it says or doesn’t say. We need to seek and live under the leadership of godly preachers and teachers who love and reverence God’s Word—not just “out there” in cyberspace but in local, biblically committed congregations. Within the community of God’s people we need to study the Word book by book, learning how to grasp the main point of a book and how that main point shapes everything in that book from beginning to end. What’s the main point of the book of Titus, and how does each passage within that book fit into the whole? What is the book of Judges all about, and what do we learn from it about the Bible’s unfolding story of redemption? We need to read the stories of various women, like Sarah, or Ruth, or Jephtha’s daughter, in light of the whole books in which they are found and in light of the Bible’s overarching theme. We need to teach and model for the younger women around us how to read and study the Word. We need to share with other women not just a message of encouragement for women, but a message of redeemed life in Christ for every person who believes in him, according to his Word.
It’s all about the Word. It’s our God-given lamp to light our paths. I’m still hearing those English women’s sturdy voices in my mind, talking about studying the Bible. They reminded me again that, until we get to see Jesus face to face, we get to live on his Word.
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Register for The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference to study with Kathleen Nielson, who will teach a workshop on “Getting into Shape: What Difference Does the Shape of a Passage Make?“