A Balanced Perspective of Images for Ministry

A Balanced Perspective of Images for Ministry February 8, 2012

John Piper’s address about a masculine ministry and masculine Christianity was bold  but nowhere in the New Testament are ministers (used here generically) called to be “manly” or to be “masculine.” He equated in those comments “masculine” and “male,” and they are not the same. In fact, being “masculine” is not a term on the radar of any NT text about leaders in the church. Other terms shaped what ministry was. I prefer we use the biblical terms — and a nice summary would be “godly” or “Spirit-filled.” John Piper could have explored “fatherly” imagery in the New Testament, and there are some nice texts, like Philippians 2:22 where Paul sees himself as a father to Timothy, or to Onesimus in Philemon 10.

Which leads me to another dimension of ministry in the New Testament, taken no less than from the apostle Paul. We discover texts that speak of our mutual motherly ministry. In other words, another dimension of ministry compares pastors/teachers to mothers. [And this recently posted pdf by Brooten that sketches leadership of women in ancient Jewish synagogues is worth your read.]

There’s another reason for us to keep the motherly images in Paul in mind:

Making ministry so masculine may be insensitive to the ministries of women around the world, and Fawn Parish dropped this in the comment box:

Two Thirds of the pastors in the unregistered church in China are women. A majority of effective missions in North Africa is being conducted by single young women. Historically, single women missionaries have courageously braved death, spoken hard truths, been the recipient of hard criticisms, and have many sheathes of harvest to lay at the feet of Jesus.

I am reasonably satisfied that her comments are demonstrable in the sources she has sent me privately, though any numbers for both of these regions are difficult to establish with blazing accuracy. I don’t want to get hung up on that evidence, for it is well-known that many missionaries, church planters and pastors in China are women. The issue here is how to frame ministry: Is it masculine (whatever that means) or is it feminine (whatever that means), and I would argue both terms will get us into trouble, or does it transcend both (yes) and partake in the very nature of Christ (yes)?  

A few years back I was reading Beverly Gaventa’s very fine book Our Mother Saint Paul when I saw for the first time this set of texts as a singularly important dimension of how Paul saw his ministry through motherly categories. So, here are three points but I would urge you to read Bev’s book to learn from her mastery of these texts and the issues. [When I say “As mothers,” I mean all of us, women and men — mothers or not.]

Let me make something clear: I’m not arguing that ministry is feminine (another disputed term); I’m saying ministry is mother-like in important ways just as it is father-like in important ways.

1. As mothers, our mutual ministry means nursing.

1 Thess 2:7-8 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.

1 Cor 3:1-3: So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people?

2. As mothers, our mutual ministry means birthing.

Gal 4:17-20: They court you eagerly, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you would seek them eagerly. However, it is good to be sought eagerly for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. My children – I am again undergoing birth pains until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be with you now and change my tone of voice, because I am perplexed about you.

3. As mothers, our mutual ministry means participating in cosmic re-birth.

Romans 8:18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 8:19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope 8:21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 8:23Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 8:24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.

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