Episode 37: “Learning about Leadership from Women in the Bible” featuring Carla Works

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 37: "Learning about Leadership from Women in the Bible" featuring Carla Works

What can we learn from the example of women leaders in the Bible? In this episode we speak with Carla Works, associate professor in New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, about leadership lessons from biblical women.

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What can we learn from the example of women leaders in the Bible? In this episode we speak with Carla Works, associate professor in New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, about leadership lessons from biblical women.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel host of this Leading Ideas Talks Podcast. And I’m really delighted to be talking today with Dr. Carla Works who’s an associate professor in New Testament here at Wesley Theological Seminary. And her area of interest is Paul’s letters. And she has a new book on Paul coming out. It’s entitled The Least of These: Paul and the Marginalized. I’m really pleased that Carla has agreed to chat with me today on the subject of women leaders in the Bible. So welcome Carla.

Carla Works: Thank you so much for having me.

Ann: Here at the Lewis Center we pay pretty close attention to the literature of church leadership. And it occurred to us recently that we have seen all kinds of books and article on leadership lessons from Moses, and David, and Nehemiah, and Paul, and Jesus. But it’s pretty rare to find people writing on the issue of leadership looking to women figures in the Bible for leadership lessons. So, I wanted to ask you, in your opinion, Is that oversight? Is that bias? Or is there really nothing that we can learn from women in the Bible?

Carla: If anything, it is oversight that is an ancient one considering that the Bible is formed and preserved in cultures that are patriarchal. And so, we do have actually a lot to learn in the Biblical texts about women and women in leadership. But we know very little about them. And so, we have to learn something about the culture in which these texts are written and preserved. We have to understand something about how women functioned in the early church before we can harvest those leadership insights. And that requires a lot of work on our part. And so, it may be easier to gravitate toward Jesus or Paul because we have so much information in the Biblical text about them.

Ann: Right. So, if you were thinking of the women characters in the Bible, is there one particular woman that you look to as an example of biblical leadership?

Carla: It’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say that there is one that I look to so much for leadership. But there are a few that if I could go back and have a conversation with these women … The first one would actually be Phoebe. I’m a Paul scholar. And Phoebe — whom my students sometimes have heard of, and for the most part, haven’t — she is mentioned in Romans 16. And Paul gives her the letter that we call Romans. And she delivers that letter to all the churches in Rome. And as the deliverer of that letter she would have been the reader of the letter and the first interpreter of that letter. So, when you think about how important Romans is in many of our churches and especially our Protestant doctrine — oh, I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to talk to Phoebe and say, “What is it that Paul asked you to emphasize when you are reading this letter?” — which is quite a lengthy letter by first century standards.

And then another woman, whom we do not even know her name, but in Mark 14, there is a woman who anoints Jesus’s body — anoints his head in the Gospel of Mark. And in Mark 14, when the disciples get all upset because this pure nard could have been sold and used for the poor, Jesus silences the disciples. So, I kind of like that. Jesus telling the men to shut up. He silences the disciples and commends her actions as an anointing of his body for burial. But what the text says there, is that what she has done — this anointing for burial — every time the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. Every time you proclaim the Gospel, you are remembering this nameless woman. And I don’t think that many of our churches who fail to see what value women have in leadership realize that every time they are proclaiming the Gospel, they are actually remembering this woman’s story. And she is nameless. So, I find that very powerful and inspiring. As women, we are all trying to navigate modern ministry scenarios. And very often you can feel like you’ve been given all the other jobs that no one else wanted or that what you are doing may not be so significant. But in reality, what this woman in Mark 14 did was to give sacrificially. And I find her story inspiring. And she didn’t even demand to have her name put on a pew.

Ann: Right! And the fact that so many significant women figure in the Bible are nameless probably does make it harder for people to grab hold of their stories and write books about them. I think about the woman I call “The Woman at the Well” — people have other names for her — and too, how she became an evangelist to her own community …

Carla: In essence, she is a theologian in that text.

Ann: So, you’ve already alluded to the fact that we have to work around the fact that women had a different standing in the culture in biblical times. And so, the way they are recorded is different. And they ways, too, they were required to act were different. How do we think about that when we try to make sense of their example? How does it change their behavior? And does it change the way that we think about them?

Carla. That’s a good question. Especially since so much of our discussion about women in ministry tries to take the biblical text and apply it to the 21st century world. And in reality, anytime you do that, you are doing violence to the text. Because the 21st century world is quite different than the first century world. Women in the first century world were not seen as equals. And our whole concept of equality — or at least our striving for equality — we can say we are there, but we haven’t quite made it in our 21st century world. But that is not a value that is part of their culture. There is no bra burning going on for these first century women. They did have a place within society. And not all women were even considered equal. So even being a female meant that you were somehow lesser than your male counterparts, anyway, but not all females were equal, either. And so, trying to understand women’s roles in the first century world is far more complex than we often give credit.

But what I find fascinating is that when we are reading the biblical text, whatever role in which these women find themselves, they are using every resource at their disposal for this gospel movement. One thing we take for granted is that we typically have churches with buildings. And we can meet publicly, especially in our US context. In the first century world, under the Roman Empire, the early believers did not have the legal right of public assembly. So, they met in homes, house churches. But when we stop and think about that, the house was the woman’s domain. It was the one place in all of society where she was considered sort of the head of the household. The husband ran all of the household’s affairs that connected them to other households in public spaces. But this was the woman’s domain. So now, this early church movement has invaded a woman’s domain. And it’s interesting that we have women named in our New Testament as house church leaders like Nympha at Colossae. But we don’t know very much about her.

Ann: That’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about that before. So, that actually leads me to the next question I wanted to ask. And that has to do with the question of leadership style. One of the things I’ve become aware of in leadership studies in general, when people are looking at leadership, particularly the issue of women’s leadership, I think there is ingrained in our culture this notion that there is a certain style of leadership that is associated with women. And a lot of people kind of take that as a given, even today. That women are going to lead in a different way than men. And oftentimes women are thought to be more relational, more collaborative, sort of kinder and gentler. And men are thought to be more directive and more authoritative. You read that all the time, even today. And so, I wanted to ask whether you think in the Bible there is an idea of a style of behavior or leadership associated with, that’s normative for, women than is different than what is expected of men.

Carla: Well, I don’t think we have a lot of good Biblical texts to serve as an example for your question. The first example that comes to mind is Mary and Martha, where Martha is doing what is expected of a female in her time period. She is the hostess and she is acting like a hostess. And yet Mary who is just sitting there at Jesus’s feet and listening is the one who gets praised. So that’s the immediate example that comes to mind. But as a Bible professor, I am always cautious when my students want to land on particular example in the biblical text. I think we need to think more broadly. Especially when we are thinking of a whole gender and what that means in leadership. Because we don’t have a lot to go on in that story either. The other mentions of women in the Biblical texts, we get a name, and we get something associated with them, but we don’t often get a leadership style to go with that.

But you are absolutely right. I’m a female professor. And I’m constantly amazed when my students think that I should be more nurturing to them than my male colleagues. Or if I say something on an assignment that they are upset about a grade or a comment — if my male colleagues makes the same comments on papers — and we’ve actually had some of these conversations across disciplines and classes — then I am perceived as coming across as very harsh and the male colleague, there is no damage to his reputation whatsoever.

But I will say, part of the problem is I think that as the church, we have not done a very good job of upholding the women that we do know about in the biblical text who are serving in roles that later church tradition limited to men. So, for instance, the perfect example is Romans 16 verse 7. There is a woman named there, named Junia. But most of our English translations of Romans 16:7 for generations translated her name as Junius, a masculine name. And the reason for that is not because the Greek dictates. It is clearly a female name — Junia. But the translators thought, “This person Junia is named as an Apostle. And we cannot possibly have a female apostle. Because God’s not going to do that. So we’re are going to change this name to Junius. So, in the church, we have allowed our own decisions about whom God calls and which gender God works with to dictate even our translations of the biblical text. But in reality, women are serving as apostles, they are serving prophets, they are leading in worship. And all of this is happening in the biblical text, but we have silenced them and those traditions.

Ann: I have always been particularly interested in women characters in the Bible. And I think it’s true of a lot of other women I know, as well. And yet I have also found that it is unhelpful and in a way insidious when we assume that women Christians need to look only to women figures in the Bible for their example and men need to look only to the men. I was taking a class once at another seminary where many of my classmates happen to be from more conservative traditions. And in fact, I was the only women in the class, which was strange to me. And the instructor as an icebreaker had us all go around the room and name who our biblical hero was. And so, when it got to my turn, I said “Paul.” Who else would I say? You would have thought I stood in front of the room and took my clothes off, the instructor was so shocked. I mean, I think I was supposed to say Esther or Ruth or something like that. To the man’s credit, after he put his jaw back up into his face, he thought about it, and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s okay. It’s okay to have a cross-gender hero.”

Carla: Oh, he actually said that?

Ann: He did say it. But the fact that he said it made me realize that I had totally, totally shocked him by naming a man as my Biblical hero. And so, that experience really made me think about the fact that we do really assume that women can’t learn from the example of men’s leadership in the Bible. And we think that men can’t learn from the example of women’s leadership in the Bibles. So, I wanted to put that to you as a question, and think about how can women learn from the example of men’s leadership? But maybe also, how can men learn from the example women’s leadership in the Bible?

Carla: I think, being a female myself, and as my students all know, a female who loves Paul, I applaud your answer. To me it’s sort of natural and easier to learn from men and the leadership of men in the Bible because there is just so much more information about them. But I understand your question and where that whole expectation comes from even. Part of it comes from highlighting particularly 1 Timothy in the Biblical text, that women should train other women and we younger women are supposed to look to older women in the church. But that transfers in church history, to encouraging us to seek women as leadership and role models for us, and discouragement from women actually taking leadership roles in the church, as well. But I think men have a lot to learn from women — women who have gone nameless in the biblical text that we have already talked about like the Women at the Well, the Woman Who Anoints Jesus. But also figures that are named in the Biblical text.

I grew up Southern Baptist. And Southern Baptists love to talk about Tabitha, or Dorcas because she clearly served others, to the degree that when she passes away all the widows in town are just heartbroken. And they bring before Peter all these wonderful things that she has made for them. Clearly this person has used her life to impact others. So much so that when she dies the town is in uproar. They just can’t take it. The grief is overwhelming. Wow! Wouldn’t that be spectacular? I wish that our seminary produced people of such character and such service that if they were to die, that all of the town would be upset because of all of the wonderful things that person has done. I think we can all learn from someone like that.

Ann: I think what is going through my head as you tell that is, well, why was it that that example was constantly brought up to you in your growing up? Well, here is a woman doing something that traditionally you expect women to do — make clothing, help others in that way. And yet that type of Christian service is the kind of leadership that we are expected to emulate. And I think we often don’t give it it’s credit because we associate it with women.

Carla. Yes, right. And those church traditions linger. Even in denominations like the United Methodist Church, where I have a lot of female students, and a lot of them going out into parish ministry, and they are still being faced with those kinds of expectations, that they are fighting in numerous ways every day. So how do you break through that? And find some comfort in the Biblical text? Find some guidance in the Biblical text? How do you find some inspiration? But I think there is plenty of inspiration there if we have eyes to see it.

Ann: Since we are talking about the biblical witness today, what I wanted to ask you is … I think this is going to change. I think it has to change. I mean, if I really believe that God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh, and I really believe that, I believe this is really going to change. But as we’ve seen other changes in the church happening in our lifetime, how much do you think is going to hinge on the Biblical interpretation?

Carla: I think most people don’t change based on arguments about exegesis. You know, we can throw the Bible at each other on both sides. And it really doesn’t matter what the topic is. We have used the Bible as a weapon. And so, I’ve never won an argument based on some amazing interpretation of the biblical text. I think the biblical text and interpretations of it, especially reading those texts in their context — the church hasn’t done a good job of doing that, of recognizing the context, the first century context when we are talking about the early church. We need to do that more so that people can also think about the biblical text.

But in my experience, most people change because they’ve encountered someone. And encountering someone in whom you feel the Spirit at work, there is really nothing like that. And so often, having been raised as a Southern Baptist, the people who became open to women in any form of leadership role, they changed because they encountered someone who was brave enough to live into her calling despite the obstacles placed in front of her. And maybe she didn’t set out to become a role model but was a role model none-the-less because of the work of the Spirit.

Ann: I appreciate the fact that you said that these arguments probably aren’t likely to be won based on our biblical debating. But I hear from the young clergywomen that I work with that they still get challenged, all the time. And the basis of that challenge is, “Well, you know that the Bible says that women shouldn’t speak in church,” or whatever. So, I wanted to ask you, if you were in the grocery store or you were having a chat over the back fence with your neighbor, and your neighbor said to you, “How can you go to a church where they allow women to be pastors when the Bible says women shouldn’t lead in church.” How would you have that conversation in an everyday setting with a person who is challenging you in that way?

Carla: First of all, that has been the story of my life. Those conversations have been part of my journey. And without those conversations, I would never have pursued this calling, ironically. I think this is easier perhaps if it has been part of your journey. But the first thing is to see that person as somebody who is loved by God. It always helps me if I think of them as one of my family members. Because I have plenty of family members who feel that way. And I am not interested in having a rift in that relationship. So somehow seeing that person as — they have actually entrusted you with some information. They trust you enough to start some sort of dialogue with you about a topic that they think they may have closed their minds to, but it’s clearly something that they have thought about and something that they may be open to some further reflections. Is this the time for you to wow them with the strength of an argument? No. This is a time for you to somehow meet them where they are and perhaps ask them to say more about their concerns to see where this Is stemming from. Is it stemming from the interpretations of the biblical texts that they have received? And if so, they are often really surprised to find there are other biblical texts where women are serving, and called apostles, or Phoebe who is a benefactor of this early church movement and the first interpreter of Romans.

Typically, what they have inherited is one side of a conversation. And so, when I do encounter these kinds of questions, my first response is usually to try to encourage that person to think of the Spirit of God working among all of us. And typically, if that person can remove it from a general statement of women broadly, you know, “God can’t call women to that task.” I will ask if they have ever encountered a woman who somehow has ever impacted their faith. If it becomes something about Sister Ruth, or someone that they value, then they can start to see God working among women as well.

But most of the time now, the questions I get, because I am a Bible Professor, relates to how can we support this based on the biblical text. And in that case, those questions, we have to think about the texts that have been raised in redistricting women, particularly the 1 Timothy 2 passage where “women can’t teach or have authority over men.” Or 1 Corinthians 14, “let women be silent in the churches and if they have questions, ask their husbands at home.” Part of the problem is that we have lifted, stripped those verses out of their context and made them a mandate for all churches across time. And in doing so, we had to cut out the witness of a lot of women in the biblical text. So, when people become more aware of how many women there really are in this early church movement, and reading 1 Corinthians 14 that silences women in church alongside 1 Corinthians 11 where women are praying and prophesying in front of the assembly. Typically, if you can have a conversation, if you can ever get somebody beyond the “How could you go to this church?” sort of thing, then they are usually surprised by the witness, the scriptural witness. But in reality, if you are combative in that moment, or if you somehow do not see them as a fellow sister or brother in Christ, you’ve already lost the argument.

Ann: I very much appreciate that perspective. I wanted to close with this question. Is there something you think we need to be doing differently as a church in order to be more open to the voices of women in scripture and the voices of women today, as well.

Carla: As a seminary professor, I hope that my seminarians will do a much better job of teaching the church how to read the Bible, of helping our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ learn something about the world of the Bible. In reality, the Bible comes to life in a new and meaningful way when we do the hard work of learning something about the first century world, of trying to understand the struggles the New Testament Church is really going through. Instead, we have produced, again and again, leaders who don’t want to do that kind of hard work. And when you don’t want to do that hard work, you produce churches that are talking about the “plain sense of the text.” Well, this is an ancient document. And it is a faith document that has preserved the church. But it makes some assumptions about your own knowledge about what is going on in the culture in which it is written. First and foremost, we need to do a better job in the church of teaching our church members in our very forms of discipleship how to read the biblical text and to see it holistically.

It’s interesting, when you step back from the biblical witness, whether you are dealing in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, the love of God and the love of neighbor draws that canon together. And if somehow you are coming up with an interpretation of any Biblical text where you exclude others from the love of God, or the Spirit of God doesn’t extend to all, or the blessings of God are not somehow for every facet of God’s creation, you need to rethink your interpretation of that particular pericope in the biblical text. And we’ve not really done a good job of giving the church some theological lenses from which to do that.

Ann: Well, I think that’s a really excellent word and probably a good place for us to end this. Carla, I want to thank you are sharing your thoughts on this and the great work you are doing in helping future church leaders be more nimble in how they approach their task as biblical leaders, but also for your real thoughtfulness in approaching this conversation today and helping me understand it.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Emily Peck-McClain, Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, about young adult ministry. 

Emily Peck McClain: But, any church who is trying to reach young adults has to be clear about why that is what they’re called to do. Because targeting is part of the problem. So if young adults feel like they are targets, they’re not interested. What churches need to do is get to know the young adults who are around them, whether they’re a new church or an existing church, listen deeply to the young adults who are in the location, in the community, what are their needs, what are their gifts, what are they interested in? What are their big questions? What are their hopes, what are their dreams, what are their fears? And it’s from those stories, which are not just stories, but a representation of their life. What is it that the church can partner with them in doing in ministry?

Announcer: Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas

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About Author

Carla Works

Carla Works is Associate Professor in New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary. Her research interests include Pauline studies, the New Testament’s use of Israel’s scriptures, biblical ethics, and theological interpretation.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.