Ordinarily you and I would be deep in the pages of Isaiah’s oracles today.
But Julie Zine Coleman’s book, “On Purpose: Understanding God’s Freedom for Women Through Scripture,” has just been released, and I wanted to take a few minutes to let you know about it.
“You should go to seminary.” It was something I had heard any number of times, from my parents, from some of my high school teachers, from my high school advisor and mentor, and from many of my friends. I had not been raised in the more conservative Christian circles that permitted only men to lead. Nevertheless, it was the late 1970’s, and so far, all the pastors of all the churches I had ever been to were all men.
Both of my parents were singers, musicians, performers, and choir conductors, not to mention well-known and sought-after soloists. And in those days, a musician’s bread-and-butter were the church and synagogue jobs.
As kids in the 1960’s, we visited a wide variety of houses of worship as we grew up. The High Holy Days were as much a part of our lives as Thanksgiving and Easter, Chanukah as much as Christmas. When other people took the holidays off, our family was busier than ever, providing worship services throughout the weekends, and showtime entertainment in between.
All that is to say, I had a broad upbringing in terms of a religious education. But never once, in all those religious establishments, do I remember seeing a woman pastor or a woman rabbi.
And, by the time I was nearing my high school graduation, I had also been studying the Bible in earnest, attending a rather conservative youth group with a friend. Those teachers made it clear women were barred from leadership in a church setting.
“What would be the point?” I wondered to myself, as I heard everyone’s encouragement to pursue a cleric’s calling.
How could a seminary education benefit me or anyone else, in the end? I could never do anything with it, anything of substance, anyway. It seemed both ironic and—to be honest—unkind that God would work into me such a love for the scriptures, for teaching and pastoring, for leading and training, yet have ordained I be born female.
“Why did You do that?” I found myself asking God.
Why not instead work into me a love for the limited life women were allowed to lead? I had read over and over again the words of the Psalmist,
Take delight in the Lord, and [God] will give you the desires of your heart.Psalm 37:4 (NRSV)
I had been taught that if I delighted myself in God, opened my heart to the Lord, God would transform the desires of my heart into godly longings, a desire for what the Lord had in mind for me. I did everything I could to make myself as fully surrendered as possible, hoping and hoping God would change my heart and make me want to be the meek, quiet, and obedient servant as I understood Christian femininity ought to be.
Over the course of the next thirty years, as a lover of God, a follower of Jesus, and a reader of the Bible, I tried hard to shrink myself into the little size I understood women “should” be so that even the smallest man could be larger.
We understood this was the cross we were to pick up daily in order to follow Christ. We must so cover ourselves physically that the weakest man might not be tempted, and we must so cover ourselves metaphorically that no man would feel threatened or overshadowed. We really believed this was right before the Lord. It is what so many of us learned from our Bible studies, women’s retreat speakers, books written for women, and magazine articles.
Over the years I became a teacher in a Bible study, and my husband and I raised our children in one of the more conservative denominations in the U.S. Yet, by the time I had reached my early fifties, I was full of questions. The more I studied the Bible, the more it seemed God had actually—on purpose—raised up and empowered women to lead. Women like Miriam, and Deborah, and Huldah.
Why would God do that yet also forbid women to lead? It made no sense!
I reached out to a pastor I had remained friends with over the years, who had pastored the church my husband and I attended as young marrieds. (Just as an aside, this pastor was egalitarian in a denomination that had been traditionally egalitarian, but the general ambience of conservative Christianity in the eighties was not). He recommended I read a book he had read years before.
That first little book, “What Did Paul Really Say About Women,” began a deep dive into the passages that had come to make no sense to me. It would be a ten-year journey (or really, odyssey) that eventually brought both my husband and me to New Hope Chapel, where Julie Zine Coleman is one of the four-member pulpit teaching team.
In her book “On Purpose,” Julie spends time with each of seven passages that in the past have been taught from the cultural perspective that God reserved teaching and leadership roles in the church for men alone.
With gentle authority, solid scholarship, plenty of footnotes, and a gracious spirit, Julie gives each passage an expository study without that cultural assumption in place. Eminently readable, chapters include real-life stories as well as sturdy theology that reveal God’s purpose for women and men together in equal partnership as reflections of God’s image on earth.
On Purpose offers a comprehensive look at passages in Genesis 1-3, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and 1 Peter 3. I highly recommend adding this book to your reading list, especially if you have also starting asking questions, and wonder where there might be answers. But even for those who have been studying the Bible for a while, Julie’s book contains nuggets of wisdom and scholarship worth the read.
The first message I heard Julie deliver at New Hope Chapel ended up being the catalyst for change in my own life, now nearly forty years after that young eighteen-year old wondered what good could come from a seminary education. As you read these words, I will have just come home from graduating with a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies from Portland Seminary.
God did give me the desires of my heart, and the freedom to delight in the Lord as who I really am.