of Ben Makuh


Book Reviews


Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church [a review]

There are plenty of books that examine the lives of historical women in Scripture as a whole, and there are also plenty of books interacting with Scripture on a theological level with regard to the question of women in the Church. The downside of the former approach is that it's literally thousands of years of historical/cultural ground to cover. The downside of the latter approach is that if one is not careful, it can come across as if the issue of women in the Church is merely a theoretical issue, one solved like a game of theological chess. What struck me about Nijay Gupta's new book, Tell Her Story, is how specific it is. As a writer or teacher it is tempting to say everything that could possibly be said about any angle of a subject, but Gupta exercises admirable constraint so that he can tell the historical tale of women in the New Testament well. And it is primarily historical rather than theological: although he treats Genesis 1-3 early on, and passages such as 1 Timothy 2 in his appendix, this book is almost entirely about the lives of those women of the New Testament that tend to be overlooked.

With that said, his first couple of chapters are about Deborah and Genesis 1-3 so that he can establish a brief portrait of the Judaic context which the New Testament purports to fulfill. If, for example, one reads Genesis 1-3 as establishing a divinely ordained subordination of women to men, then one will necessarily read stories of female leaders in the early Church as somehow at odds with God's will. Women such as Junia get transformed into men (Junius) by translators because of the theological conviction that a woman simply could not have been "among the apostles." Yet if Genesis 1-3 instead portrays female subordination as a result of the fall rather than of creation, it becomes an entirely different situation; the mutuality of men and women serving in the early Church is a symptom of humanity's redemption rather than its corruption.

From there Gupta gives a glimpse of the Greco-Roman world of the NT and then goes through the women we meet in the Gospels and Acts. What I personally found most interesting, though, was his attention to the smallest details in Paul's letters. He spends the most amount of time on Romans 16, considering the ratio and ordering of men and women in the chapter as well as what implications can be deduced. A good example of this attention to detail is this:

The most common commendation Paul gives is for their "hard work" on behalf of the the [sic] Lord. Paul doesn't make explicit what this work is. But it is unlikely that he had in mind household work. Why? You have to ask yourself, How does Paul know these ten women? Keep in mind, he says to the Romans that he had not visited them before, so Paul did not meet the people he greeted in Rome. So where did he meet them? How exactly does he know so much about them? He could have met them anywhere they traveled for ministry, as he did with his friends Priscilla and Aquila, but travel many of them did and that tells us something about their independence and mobility.

Much of the book is like this: taking a fine-toothed comb to those passages and meditating on them long enough that they begin to reveal more. It's worth noticing that Gupta's conclusion in that paragraph is that these women must have been active in ministry because Paul knew them, and that this is technically speculation. Yet it's also a good question: Why did Paul know these women so well that he could call them his "coworkers" or "those women who work hard in the Lord"? I do not tend to be a detail-oriented person, and yet it's exactly this kind of focus on the details that really matters in biblical study.

Though it's tacked on as an appendix, I also found his treatment of 1 Timothy 2 very much worth reading. He brought up a point that I had never considered before:

First, we can say that if women not teaching men is a universal apostolic mandate, then why does Paul present it to his close friend and longtime ministry associate Timothy as if it is new information? Paul would merely need to say, "Timothy, you know what we teach about women; enforce that here as well."

Whatever you think of that argument, I love that it treats Paul and Timothy not as theology robots who only ever speak in divine propositions, but as human beings who knew one another, who had shared life and context and understanding, who cared about one another. Paul was writing to Timothy out of a sincere desire to help him put out the pastoral fires he was fighting; the letter isn't just some kind of random theological pronouncement about matters unrelated to Timothy's churchly situation. And if all that is the case, then we must read it as such.

Tell Her Story is, in many ways, an extended meditation on Romans 16 with some extra frills. There were times when I found myself wishing to hear more exposition on other passages relevant to women in ministry, but at the end of the day it's good to focus in on one passage like this and give it its due. I would recommend the book to those who feel sympathetic to women in ministry and yet feel some degree of hesitation. It's a good thing to be willing to submit to Scripture even if it teaches something you don't like, but it's a joyful thing to discover that Scripture itself presents the stories of many competent, godly women leading and ministering and working in the Church.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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