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.