Written by Nijay K. Gupta
InterVarsity Press (March 14, 2023)
Reviewed by Amy Rivers
Nijay K. Gupta’s Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church is a powerful examination of what has been written but often overlooked: that women have been integral to the development of Christianity.
To drive home the point that women have always been present and active in the Christian faith, Gupta focuses on named women in the Bible, specifically in Paul’s letters. He notes that the act of naming anyone in this type of work is significant and should not be ignored. He starts with the story of Deborah from Judges, noting the way in which Deborah was represented and celebrated as a beloved leader of Israel, ruling for more than 40 years.
“Deborah is not the only impressive woman of faith and courage in the Old Testament – Miriam, Ruth, and Esther come to mind as well – but I find Deborah the most remarkable” (Tell Her Story, ebook ed.)
What first struck me when reading Tell Her Story was the author’s willingness to call out his preconceptions in early life, most of which were formed in accordance with the normalization of patriarchal leadership in the Christian church. It was interesting to me, and telling, that Gupta’s views on women in roles of leadership within the church were passed down to him and that he hadn’t given it much (if any) thought until he went to seminary. Perhaps this is a reminder to us all that study and contemplation can bring a richer understanding of Scripture and the times within which it was written.
“When I was in the early years of my Christian faith, the idea of a woman leader among God’s people with any kind of executive power or high office was, frankly, unfathomable. I never felt that women were lesser people or bad leaders as a matter of fact. But it just seemed to add up that men were meant to lead, women to follow and support” (Tell Her Story, ebook ed.).
As a scholar, Gupta is careful to illustrate and explain his points, using Scripture and supporting texts. He speaks to the importance of the use of language in the Bible and the things we can learn by evaluating not only the words used but also the cultural and societal significance of those words. In an age where we casually throw words on a page, it is easy to forget that written communication at the time of the early Christian church was not casual. Not only were the messages carefully crafted but the means by which those messages were delivered were equally deliberate.
For example, Gupta examines many of Paul’s unusual word choices and the reasons those words may have been used when other, more common, verbiage was available. He also speaks to the importance of the messenger. For instance, Paul chose Phoebe as a letter carrier – a person who was not only entrusted with delivering the message but also with reading it aloud and providing clarification to those receiving the message. In Gupta’s view, this level of responsibility would not have been given lightly.
Gupta lays out his argument piece by piece, allowing the reader to consider both his insights and the wealth of evidence and documentation upon which those views are based. He does not ignore the elephant in the room: passages that have been used to justify male headship and female submission. Rather, he reserves the final section of the book for thoughtful discussion about the context of those passages, asserting that a wider look at Jesus’s teachings does not support this narrow view.
As Beth Allison Barr notes in her foreword, “Tell Her Story helps us see biblical women as they always have been – faithful leaders called by God and recognized by the early church.” Rooted in scholarship and written for a popular audience, Tell Her Story provides a jumping-off point for continued discussion around the acknowledgement and participation of women in the church based on the words of Jesus and his disciples.
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© 2023 by Christian Feminism Today.
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