Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church by Nijay Gupta

Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church cover imageSummary: A biblical exploration of women’s role in scripture. 

Again, as I have said before, I am approaching Tell Her Story as an egalitarian that supports women’s ordination. I do not need to be convinced of the biblical record supporting women’s ministry roles. But I picked up Tell Her Story for two reasons. One, I watched an interview on the Holy Post with Nijay Gupta, and I have wanted to read one of his books for a while (my father recommended a commentary he wrote, and I just have not gotten around to reading it yet.) Second, I want to understand what was different about this book so I can rightly recommend the right books to the right people. I am strongly oriented toward personalized book recommendations.

So I am writing here primarily about the purpose of Tell Her Story in the context of the other books I have read on overlapping themes. Tell Her Story is more focused on the broad biblical record of women. I had a class on women in the Bible a few years ago, and while the focus was different, there was not much new to me here. But I do think that many have not understood either the actual role of Deborah (where the book opens) or how many female names are part of Paul’s letters or the broader New Testament.

I (I think like many evangelicals of my age) was largely taught formally and informally that Deborah held a place as the judge of Israel (ruler before kings were instituted) because men of Israel were in sin. Deborah was placed as a judge to shame men who were in sin for not leading. That is a common but harmful reading of the relevant passages. I do not remember ever hearing that Deborah was called the Mother of Israel before the class I took. The church I grew up in (where my father was a pastor) was egalitarian. Still, the youth group I attended with a friend and my college and general Christian media were dominated by complementarian views. So even as someone who grew up egalitarian and for women’s ordination, I absorbed bad biblical teaching that undercut women in ministry.

Nijay Gupta (professor at Northern Seminary) opens the book with Deborah even though the book primarily focuses on the New Testament because she is an excellent example that while the cultures of the ancient near east where the Bible was set were predominately patriarchal, Deborah was a documented exception to that general trend.

If I summarize the broad argument of the book, it is that a reading of scripture that requires a universal ban on women in any formal ministerial roles has to ignore the women that scripture itself documents in formal ministry roles. Largely the women mentioned in scripture doing ministry work are not taught, and sometimes the literal gender of their names are hidden, as was familiar with Junia.

Gupta gives context to the New Testament culture, Jesus’ connection to women, and what we know about women in the early church. But then, the last few chapters concentrate on telling the stories of women that are often ignored or forgotten in the biblical record.

One of the critical sections of Tell Her Story is about Romans 16. Romans 16 is unusual because there are so many names of people doing ministry that Paul is greeting or commending. Roughly 1/3 of the names mentioned are women. Not all of those have formal ministry roles, but some do. Junia appears to be an apostle. Phoebe was the one that was tasked with delivering the letter of Romans, which would have included reading and teaching the letter and answering questions about it to the church in Rome. And she was likely a church leader herself.

There are other examples, but I will not give away the whole book. The main point is that in context, reading 2 Tim 2 as a universal ban on all women in any ministry role has to ignore the rest of the Bible. If we assume that the Bible does not explicitly contradict itself, then we need to read the Bible in a way that makes sense of differences.

The main text of the book is about 150 pages. It is pitched to people familiar with the Bible but not an academic book. It grapples with the text well, and while giving lots of context for the culture to give insight into the text, it is focused on the actual text of the Bible as its primary focus.

Two stand-alone essays as appendixes directly handle 2 Tim 2 and the Household Codes, the two most common methods of calling for women not to have any formal ministry role within the church. I understand why he does this, but because these are framed as stand-alone essays, there is a fair amount of repetition between the two essays and between the essays and the book’s main text. It is a relatively minor complaint, but there is repetition there.

There are no other books I am familiar with that do what Gupta is doing here. Scot McKnight in Blue Parakeet teaches about hermeneutics and uses women in ministry as an example. In his book Surprised by Scripture, NT Wright has a chapter on women in ministry that is more pragmatic but has some overlapping themes. Intersectional Theology and Womanist Midrash both talk about how the questions we ask of theology and the biblical text matter to the answers we receive. Jesus Feminist again has some overlapping ideas, but it is more memoir oriented and more focused on Jesus’ interactions with women. The late Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood attempts to take literal Biblical commands about being a woman.

The previous paragraph of books are mostly Biblical arguments. The next set of books are mostly theology, history, or memoir-leaning pragmatic arguments. In Making Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr is primarily making a historical argument that the modern complementarian perspective is historically new by looking at earlier women in ministry (overlapping theme), and changes in Biblical translation changed how we understand women in ministry. How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals is the story of about 25 evangelical leaders who changed their minds about women in leadership. Still, those are primarily pragmatic and memoirs and only occasionally explicitly about the biblical text. (And frankly, several of those chapters are by now disgraced leaders.) Who’s Tampering With the Trinity is a theology book about how the complementarian movement has been playing with trinitarian theology to justify gender hierarchy. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuality is a proposal for how we handle cultural shifts and progressive revelation to sometimes change theology and sometimes reject the change of theology. Webb is a soft complementarian who rejects full orientation in the book but also rejects stricter complementarian positions. Is the Bible Good for Women is a more conservative and complementarian-oriented book than I am but attempts to grapple with how the Bible has been mishandled to be bad for women. Jesus and John Wayne is a modern history of evangelicalism and gender, well worth reading, but almost no overlap between Tell Her Story and it.

Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church by Nijay Gupta Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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