I assumed that Eunjoo Mary Kim‘s Women Preaching: Theology and Practice Through the Ages was a history of women’s preaching, and the justifications for it. It’s more like a theology of preaching, as seen through the experiences of women in history.
The first few chapters don’t do much for the imagination or the intellect. Kim trots out the well-worn line that women should preach because they were far more active in the 1st century church than the patriarchal records of the New Testament indicate. I’ve never been convinced by this argument, partly because it relies on some pretty questionable source material but mainly because early church practice isn’t an indication of how things necessarily should be. The early churches were rebuked by the apostles for some of their practices and commended for others.
However, as she goes on, she makes a number of interesting distinctions in her definition of preaching. Rather than seeing preaching as an adaptation of the teaching time in the synagogue, she sees its roots in the proclamation of the resurrection, starting with the women who saw Jesus’ empty tomb. In her estimation, then, the first ‘preachers’ were women!
This does two things. Firstly, it takes the discussion of women preaching away from the pulpit. This means she avoids the hypocrisy of ‘women can preach, but only on the mission field’ or the confusion of ‘if women can’t preach to mixed congregations, can they lead mixed small groups?’. The second thing it does is to take preaching away from an ordained ministry. In her view, because preaching is a ministry that can be exercised by the laity, it belongs in a separate discussion from the ordination of women (though she is in favour of the latter.) Kim’s definition of preaching ends up incorporating women who wrote commentaries, prophetic letters and public poetry.
That said, her discussion of women preachers is pretty boring. Apart from the inspiring final chapter where she considers the role of women in colonial and post-colonial Korea, Kim unearths few women who haven’t already received considerable attention. What’s more interesting is where she deviates from history to pursue her interest in the nature of preaching.
The first discussion relates to early preaching as missionary proclamation. Kim questions its relevance in today’s post-colonial world where other religions are ‘equal partners’ to Christianity.
The second issue she tackles is about using feminine imagery for God. She argues quite sensibly that just as ‘Father’ does not encapsulate all of who God is, neither does ‘Mother’ but that these may be helpful images to help us understand a part of God’s character in terms that are understandable in our own culture.
Thirdly, she grapples with the question of authority in preaching. She sees the Reformers as paving the way for women preaching by their sola scriptura doctrine. While acknowledging that Calvin and Luther did not permit women to preach and remained committed to patriarchal structures, she also points to their assertion of the spiritual equality of women as laying the foundations for the divine calling and propulsion that many women felt to preach in 19th century Methodist, Unitarian and Congregationalist churches in the US.
Kim’s American-Korean perspective is an interesting one that is well-worth listening to. Some of her questions seemed to glance positively at liberalism and yet she maintained a firm commitment to the scriptures, the Spirit and to the uniqueness of Christ. The Korean church has long recognised women preachers and I wonder if this gives Kim room to consider women’s preaching with greater calm than is often present in an American context.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.