Why the women in ministry issue MUST still matter

Well I was going to go to the Born Again Church Tour here in Denver. It’s happening right now but jet lag and a tenacious virus have conspired against me. It’s frustrating because just the idea of being around others who long for the church to come back to herself is a boon to my faith.

I had been invited to be part of a panel that would address “faith in a skirt”. It is refreshing that it would not be about recounting the horror stories of sexist church practices but instead, focus on what the future might and can look like. It’s not that I don’t have plenty of stories of that kind to share. I was in seminary back in the “why would you ever need to study the languages, dear?” days. My seminary offered a “PhT” degree (“Putting him Through”) to the wives of male graduates. (Come to think of it, the husbands of the few female graduates didn’t get nothin’. Hmmm.) I didn’t choose to attend that ceremony and my husband certainly understood although to this day I contend that he did snicker at the thought of me doing it. But I am not sure that I was truly welcome there. The fact that I loved theology seemed to be threatening to the other women who believed (and I swear I am not making this up) that to complain about one’s husband golfing all day Saturday after she worked full time all week while carrying all responsibility for bills, children, house cleaning, laundry, cooking and all other chores required a special dispensation of forgiveness for her bad attitude.

So it’s about looking ahead and I do believe that it is absolutely essential that we get the women’s issue “right”. But I still hear the voices that argue against women in ministry hissing in my ears. I come from a tradition that holds the historical-literal-rhetorical interpretation of the text to be paramount. Therefore, I have done the hard exegetical and critical work in the biblical text in order to quiet the hissing. And I love the scriptures. As a result of my study, I come out confidently as an Egalitarian. I find it frustrating that so many of my tradition can feel so strongly about the way to approach the scripture and yet still ignore the fact that the word authentein in 1 Timothy 2 is NOT the same word “authority” that is used and translated as such elsewhere throughout the rest of the New Testament. Not to mention there was a ginormous fertility cult in the city of Ephesus from which came all kinds of false teaching that Timothy had to contend with. But I digress. My point is, the textual work has been done and by scholars much more skilled than myself. And even though there are plenty of denominations that are egalitarian and ordain women, that is still not the larger point. There is so much more to do. It is not about roles. The problem is our hearts.

If it had worked out, there are three things I would have shared today:

1. Embracing true equality of power in leadership and genuine mutuality in relationships by including women in all aspects of church leadership and life will help to change the self-understanding of the church. The church must change. We all agree on that. In many ways the church has become an administrative organization of hierarchy and power structures. The metaphor of the tower of Babel comes to mind. Produce, get bigger, master the divine. The releasing and embracing of the feminine psyche and soul adds a deeper communal perspective in which power plays much less of a role than relationship. She brings being and the power of relationship for transformation. The inclusion of the “other” always changes us. It teaches us about love.

As it was in the beginning, we are created as complements (why do the Complementarians get the good word?) to rule and subdue, fill and multiply. There is not any indication that these duties were assigned to one gender or another. More importantly, these early stories make the essential need for the “other” for both doing and being very apparent. We were created in the Image of unity and diversity – the strange and mysterious Godhead. None of the members of the Godhead act alone or over against each other. Likewise, to overemphasize one gender at the expense of the other must produce a distortion of what God had in mind. Jesus prayed for us to reflect this Trinitarian type of relationship and oneness (John 17:22-23). To recover the mutuality of relationship between man and woman (and then all who are “other”) will not only make for healthier churches, but it will also be a loud declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In addition, it has been shown through studies of poor nations that having a woman in a position of leadership brings about a healthier nation because of her tendency to focus on education, health, and families, and because of her keen ear for the voices of the weakest members of society, particularly the poor who are overwhelmingly women and their children. James 1:27 describes caring for widows and orphans as true religion. The word “and” preceding the last phrase of the verse (…And to keep oneself from being polluted by the world) is not actually there. Perhaps the caring for the weak and needy is the way to keep oneself unstained by the world that is governed by power and greed. Just a thought. I don’t believe that Jesus teaches us merely to provide handouts, but also to also offer the voice and empowerment needed to bring full inclusion of the least of these into the larger community. All that is to say that a woman’s voice in leadership makes a powerful difference in these things.

2. The church must lead with passion in the fight to obliterate gender-based injustices. In short, there are 200 million women missing from the world’s population because of violence, forced marriage and its consequences, lack of nutrition and health care, sexual abuse and slavery, wife burnings, wife killings and the general lack of respect and legal rights. For the church to not adopt a posture of respect and celebration of woman fully released to be all she is created and called to be is to agree with the “world” that the other, specifically woman, can be treated as mute and less than. It also declares that God is unjust. Our example is Jesus, who approached women with a posture and attitude that was profoundly different from that of the surrounding culture, specifically the misogynistic Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of His day. Jesus took an axe to the roots of social and religious structures that excluded and diminished and neglected anyone who was “other”. 

During my visit to Africa last week, our team offered a woman’s conference. The simple message of Jesus and women was profound for them. The women told me that they had been taught to believe they were created as secondary to serve man. One woman (known as a prayer warrior in her village) prayed over the group with wails and sobs as if her heart were pouring out on the floor, and all of the others murmured, moaned and swayed in response. We kept our heads bowed – this was their private moment of crying out to God over the sufferings of African women (or the “mules of the world” as author Alice Walker says). For us to have given them the message that their callings, gifts and voice are less than that of a man would have been, frankly, abusive and anti-Christ.

You should have seen them dance at the end of the conference. 

3. The church needs more than mere moralism to address the over-sexualized “porn” culture of the United States. There is still strong dualistic thinking in relation to how woman is viewed both within the church and in the surrounding culture. She is (still!) to be an angel in the home by acquiescing to whatever others need, but she should be a tiger in bed. She is now accepted in the Board Room (though she still earns less than a man for doing the same work) but she is still evaluated on her physical attractiveness. Sarah Palin is a case in point. She may be a Vice-Presidential candidate but the media and the blogosphere have made it clear that she is also hot. I do wonder if this had much to do with the initial fascination with her. She’s smart and accomplished but would she have drawn as much attention if she were fat and ugly? I know that’s harsh and the question bugs me too. However, in this beautiful-celebrity worshipping, plastic surgery obsessed nation it’s a valid one. Woman may have more freedoms now than ever but she is still blatantly objectified in everything from advertising to industry. The message that woman constantly receive in this culture is that a woman must change herself according to what others need, but especially in order to fit the male fantasy of woman. A woman can do the job as long as she still provides entertainment and eye-candy. Otherwise, her “otherness” is too much to contend with. The church must address its own dualistic thinking and practices in order to have an effective voice for this issue.

Reflecting the empire-rocking heart of Jesus for women (and men) must be part of the unique light of the church amidst a dark and corrupt culture. Fostering a strong, bonded, transparent, respectful, mutual, non-hierarchical co-leadership of men and women in the church can and will begin to take an axe to the roots of this dualism through which woman is viewed. Again, the church should be leading the way on this. The “woman issue” is not merely about who gets to do what. It is about the message that we give to everyone about the very heart of God for people. Perhaps the passion and confidence I feel about “the woman issue” is from my encounter not only with the biblical text, but with the Word himself. This is his heart. It is all about his gospel. 


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Showing 10 comments
  • Michelle

    1. Other women feeling threatened: Yup, I’ve lived that, too. I think the little Navy wifeys thought I was some sort of predator out to devour their husbands. As IF. Most of them were icky boys.

    2. Egalitarian: I worship in a Methodist church. As far as I have seen, the treatment of women is completely equal to the treatment of men. That could, of course, be *my* congregation, or it could be that I simply miss any obnoxiousness that might be happening.

    3. Caring for widows and orphans: My godfather, who was an Episcopal priest formerly and is now a Catholic priest, told me that he says in his homilies that he believes that single mothers are the “new” widows and orphans.

    4. The persistent Madonna/Eve dichotomy: I do not allow my children to watch commercial television for that, among other, reasons. I find the ‘average’ portrayal of any character to be demeaning and simplifying (and often stultifying!) and I don’t want them absorbing those ideas as if they were ok. I wouldn’t let them drink filthy water, and I don’t want them consuming soiled ideas and stereotypes.

    5. There is no 5.


  • ellenharoutunian

    Hi Michelle!
    Yes most of the mainline denominations have women in equal roles which is wonderful. I have several friends who are (female) Methodist ministers and they are simply awesome. But as you have pointed out, the work isn’t done just because they are allowed to do what men have always done. Obnoxiousness is a good word, LOL.
    Kudos to you protecting your kids from such mind-numbing and heart-searing stereotypes! But then I think you’re a fantastic mom.
    Hugs back at cha!

  • Reply

    Actually, the precise meaning of the “PHT” degree is “Putting HUBBY Through” – which is much more sophisticated and academically recognized than the gender-bland “Putting HIM through”. But I digress . . . . I think the thing that most strikes me on my own journey in this issue is how the nature of leadership itself (and thus the community it impacts) will change when there is full representation. Given the misogyny that is seen and experienced all over the world, the Church is missing out on the most incredible opportunity to lead the way in sharing truly GOOD news about the heart of God for his daughters AND sons. And that is truly heartbreaking.

  • mary

    Hi Ellen,
    I have been on this journey from complementarian to egalitarian myself, for the last few years.In fact, I was immersed in a church culture that would be more accurately described as patriarchal and is really quite disturbing…and becoming more so all the time. I have many friends that are still in that culture and it is so hard to get them to see anything else as truth. Have you written any articles yourself or do you have any recommendations? I am no bible scholar myself and sometimes am hardpressed to defend my own thoughts on the spot. I’ve read Stackhouse- Finally Feminist…any other recommendations?

  • kathyescobar

    oh ellen, this was SO GOOD! when i post about faith in a dress (there was audio) i will include this link because it really continues to flesh out the thoughts shared there. so well said! my favorite part of this post:

    “Reflecting the empire-rocking heart of Jesus for women (and men) must be part of the unique light of the church amidst a dark and corrupt culture. Fostering a strong, bonded, transparent, respectful, mutual, non-hierarchical co-leadership of men and women in the church can and will begin to take an axe to the roots of this dualism through which woman is viewed. Again, the church should be leading the way on this. The “woman issue” is not merely about who gets to do what. It is about the message that we give to everyone about the very heart of God for people.”

    yep. keep writing, my friend.

  • ellenharoutunian

    Hi Mary, Good to “see” you!
    Here are a few of my favorite books (there’s tons!) Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis (from Denver Seminary) co-edited Discovering Biblical Equality. A good book that compares egalitarianism and complementarianism is Two Views on Women in Ministry by Beck and Blomberg (co-Eds), also check out Why Not Women (Cunningham and Hamilton), What Paul Really Said About Women (Bristow), Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (Webb) and The Blue Parakeet (McKnight) which I have not read yet but I like Scot McKnight’s work. It is not about women in particular but does include a chapter on women in ministry, I believe. Also check out these two web sites:
    http://christianfeminism.wordpress.com/ (Don’t be afraid of the word feminism – it’s not the old power grabbing/struggle ideas on this site at all).
    There are lots of good resources. William Barclay’s commentaries have also been helpful. But all of the people here see the issues as much bigger than rights or roles – they are all about following Jesus. ☺Hey, if you’d ever like to do coffee, give me a call!

  • ellenharoutunian

    Thanks for the encouraging words, Kathy. Looking forward to more conversation!
    AND Voca Femina!

  • Nick Carter

    I definitely agree that there have been injustices throughout history committed “in the name of Christ.” However, does that negate all Biblical teaching? I always get very frustrated at the “cultural” biased arguments… that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture and therefore we can dismiss certain commands as only being relevant to that culture, or worse, as haveing been fundamentaly flawed by that culture in the original text. 1 Peter 3:5 tells us that 1st century Greeks were to follow the model of Sara set 2000 years prior in another time and culture. Why is it so hard to believe we should do the same?

  • ellenharoutunian

    This is not a cultural argument alone. I do not disagree with models – but with the interpretation of them. The interpretation of the model of Sara as well as other passages of scripture has been far too narrow, and the act of interpreting the privilege of too few. The consequences of that, obviously, have been devastating. That is reason enough to reconsider that we have much more to learn and that our hermeneutic must be challenged.

  • Skip Newby

    Ellen!! I can NOT believe how thankless you are! If your husband wasn’t kind enough to let you have a computer, you couldn’t even have posted this blog. Is your blood pressure up yet? Just trying to get it moving to purge that virus you mentioned.

    You are correct my sister, the issue isn’t equality. Any man who has half a brain, not to mention a heart, would have to confess to the fact that sisters have excelled in compassion and servanthood that puts most of us to shame, literally.

    You made the point well that the issue of the church being Christ to the world, requires expression of both aspects of man-(kind)to be true to Jesus’ revelation of our Father.

    BTW, do you know any sisters looking for an old has been guy to be compassionate to that meet the criteria stated above, “She is (still!) to be an angel in the home by acquiescing to whatever others need, but she should be a Tiger in bed!” 😉

    Joy, Unity ~ Skip.

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