Often in brain-dead moments I will scan my Facebook or Twitter news feed. This morning I came across a post from Michael Frost which linked to the twitter hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, and intrigued, I clicked on the tag.
If you are not on social media you can look at this blog by Rachel Elizabeth Asproth where 55 of the top tweets are collated. It is an interesting list, mostly of direct quotes that women report being said to them in the context of church.
Apart from the odd one (and some were very odd), the overall sentiments could be summarized as:
- Women shouldn’t teach men (either because the Bible says so or because they are too emotional).
- Women shouldn’t be in leadership
- Women are responsible for the sexual behaviour of men
- A Women’s identity should be defined by marriage and children
There is something confronting about hearing these messages put into verbatim quotes by real people. While I understand the theological position that some of these views come from, as I hear the actual words I can only imagine how painful they would be to hear.
I work on a pastoral team with some remarkable women. One person in particular has been a mentor for me and has been a pioneer in the denomination I have been working with.
Wendy felt God calling her to pastoral ministry long before women could be pastors in my denomination, in fact its only been in the last decade where she has finally been recognized as a Pastor, and only a couple of years ago that she was officially ordained. Despite this Wendy has faithfully served the function of pastor both in local churches and also at the denominational bible school.
Wendy turns 60 this weekend and is getting ready to retire. She has spent her whole life in a system that didn’t have a way to officially recognise the obvious call of God on her life until her last few years of ministry. She doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it is obvious that it has not been a simple journey. In a culture where women were meant to be married with children, Wendy was single and exercising leadership in churches that didn’t know how to recognise what she was doing.
Wendy will tell you about the men along the way that encouraged her and made space for her, but she will also (if you ask enough of the right kinds of questions), give a little glimpse into the pain of trying to follow God’s call on her life in a world that didn’t really understand or appreciate what it meant for her.
At the most recent National conference (called the General Assembly), the denomination I work with was trying to work out whether they could permit women to be senior pastors. It was a painful process. What was clear was that both sides of the conversation felt like they were fighting for something precious.
For those people who were passionately opposed to women in leadership, the concern wasn’t actually women in leadership, but whether we were going to follow the bible. For them the whole basis of our faith was being threatened.
For those people who were trying to advocate for women, it was the names and faces of real people like Wendy, who have been so obviously called, and been so obviously unseen by a male dominated system. For them the question was about ending dehumanizing prejudice.
Like so often happens, the fight, from a distance, looks like it is the bible versus people, and in a fight like that, there is a lot of pain produced.
As a young man I thought that this issue was straightforward. I understood (as I still do) that the bible is the the word of God and I read in my bible what seemed to be very clear instruction:
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
1 Timothy 2:8-15
33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
1 Corinthians 14:33-35
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Gradually though I met women who were clearly gifted teachers and leaders and began to wonder why God would do that if he didn’t want them to teach or lead.
Then I discovered that it seemed as though there actually were women in leadership in the New Testament church:
- Priscilla (the wife of Aquilla) is listed as a co-worker with Paul (Romans 16:3), is often mentioned first, before her husband (Acts 18:18,19,26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19) and helps teach the preacher Apollos “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26).
- Phoebe is officially recognized as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (Romans 16:1-2)
- Junia is named as “outstanding among the apostles” in Acts 16:7
I then let myself hear Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25 about Husbands being willing to give up their lives for their wives, and realized that the heart of the Christian approach to relationship between the sexes is very clearly not one dominating the other, but rather about mutual submission.In fact Paul introduces his thinking about family dynamics in Ephesians 5:21 by saying plainly:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
I also started to realise that there are instructions in the New Testament that we have come to understand as cultural, for a particular people at a particular time. For instance Paul does not prohibit slavery, but instead instructs slave owners and slaves about how to relate to each other (Ephesians 6:5-9), a fact which was heavily used but proponents of slavery against people like Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce.
Paul also says that women who pray or prophesy must do so with their head covered in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6. It is interesting that Paul here is assuming that women will be praying and preaching in church and is more concerned with how they are dressed. While a few churches still encourage women to wear hats, most of us have realized that Paul was describing a cultural practise that is not so relevant to today.
When I was younger I thought understanding the bible was simple. The more I have grown to understand the deep truth it contains, the more I understand it can’t be reduced to a simple cliché or bumper sticker. It is important for us to make sure we are open to the whole counsel of the bible and not just the parts that agree with our existing positions.
We need to realise that the bible isn’t quite as clear on some issues as either side of any given argument might like it to be, but it is very clear on some things.
One of the things that is indisputable is that we in the church are to love one another, despite our differences, and that this love is actually to be the main argument for the truth of Jesus:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
At no point does Jesus indicate that loving each other will be easy. Just like we are currently having to face the fact that there has been racial bias in many parts of the church, we are also having to face the fact that there has been very real sexism.
There is no question that women have not been seen or valued by the church in the way that Jesus saw or valued them. We have a lot of work still to do to reflect the kind of culture he calls us to.
Lets not jump to slogans or clichés that dehumanize either side of an argument, but instead do the hard work of really being the body of Christ where every person is valued for who they have been created to be.