Two recent experiences led to this post, which takes up one of the issues I raised in The New Reformation.
Two weeks ago I attended the TEAR Conference in Sydney. TEAR Australia is a movement of Christians responding to the needs of poor communities around the world. One of its major emphases is raising the status and treatment of impoverished and mistreated women and girls around the world.
Then just last night I was speaking to a vibrant young christian woman who is committed to social justice and peace. She was concerned about conservative christian teaching on male headship and the submission of women, and how it might either prevent her marrying or blight a future marriage.
I couldn’t help seeing the connection, and the irony.
Inequity for women around the world
The statistics are shocking.
- 70% of the poorest people on this planet are women.
- Every day women provide two-thirds of the world’s working hours, but due to injustice, discrimination and exploitation earn only 10% of the world’s income.
- Sex trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world. 80% of the victims are female.
- Worldwide, about 1 in 3 women were married before age 18. One in nine girls are married before they are 15, some as young as five years old.
- Rape is a primary weapon of war, especially in some African nations. For example, about 48 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo every hour.
It is no wonder that TEAR Australia, in seeking to improve the lives of the world’s poor and powerless, has an aim and a policy to improve gender equity and justice for women.
Physician heal yourself?
But if gender equity is important for the world’s poor, is it not also important in the west too?
Gender equality in the western world
I have seen enormous change in my lifetime. My mother ceased paid work when she married, as did most women of her time, and never went back into the paid workforce. By the time I started work in the early 1960s, there were more women in the workforce, but mostly in the lower status jobs (typist, secretary, etc).
I can well remember when women with university degrees began to take up professional scientific work, and government employees were required to use non-sexist language and employ people on the basis of merit without regard to gender (and other factors). One of my best friends was strong in her emphasis on women’s rights and equality.
But the next generation of women were different. I was responsible for interviewing and appointing a bunch of new environmental science graduates, and they weren’t nearly so concerned about women’s equality in the workforce – they simply expected to be treated on their merits. I’m sure it wasn’t the same everywhere, but the battle had been largely won.
Gender equity is the norm
And so my conversation last night reflected this background. The young woman I was speaking with had grown up in a world where gender equality was the norm. She has trouble imagining life any other way.
Except in the church.
Gender roles in christianity
And so the christian church in the west has faced a problem. For centuries, on the basis of clear Biblical teaching on male headship and female submission in family and church, women have been denied equality, denied opportunities to be leaders or to teach, and often treated patronisingly.
Our culture requires gender equality, girls growing up expect it, our overseas aid and mission organisations work for it, and yet many of our churches deny it.
Something’s got to give!
Churches and christians have responded in several ways:
Grit your teeth and hang on
Some conservative churches have held the line on the traditional teachings. Men still dominate women in areas of leadership and decision-making, and marriages are still less than equal. But these churches are generally not consistent, for they don’t follow literally every Biblical command. Worse, they are tending to lose the next generation (I’ll post on that soon), and seem destined to slowly die.
Lip service is good enough
Other slightly less conservative churches hold to the traditional doctrine in their public teaching and practice, but men don’t take a headship role in marriage. Couples are pragmatically equal, and women take on additional roles in the church provided the appearance of male headship is maintained. It sort of works, but probably it too will be slowly rejected by the next generation.
Quick, find a verse, somewhere!
Some continue to hold to Biblical authority, but seek to find or re-interpret passages to allow equality. The Bible can always be re-interpreted, even misinterpreted, so this creative theological reasoning can always achieve the desired result. But it is hardly honest (in my opinion), because the desired result determines the interpretation.
Just let it all go
More liberal or progressive christians have a much easier road – their less authoritarian and literal approach to the Bible allows them to simply say they believe a loving God would not approve of the subjugation of women. But this view comes at a cost, because in the end it permits almost anything we want – and in the past this has included slavery, apartheid, war, exclusion and so much more.
What is the Spirit saying to the churches?
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide us into truth. Instead of insisting on traditional interpretations, looking for Bible passages to justify our preconceived opinions, or just relegating the Bible to being a historical document barely relevant to today, I believe we should trust the Spirit more to guide us in interpreting the Bible and arriving at God’s truth for today.
How would it work?
The role of women today
The Bible doesn’t claim to be inerrant or to be taken as a once for all time repository of exact truth, and Jesus and the apostles didn’t treat their scriptures in that way. Rather, the Bible seems to be a divinely inspired record which the Holy Spirit uses to show us truth.
Most of its teachings were related to the situation of their day and there are many which changed over the years (compare the difference between Old and New Testament teachings on the Sabbath, sacrifice, giving, treatment of enemies, etc) and many that cannot be applied literally today (e.g. OT sacrificial laws cannot apply when there is no temple and most of us are not Jews; meat offered to idols is not an issue today).
It is easy to set up theological systems which tell us how to re-interpret and re-apply these ancient teachings into our twenty-first century world. But such systems were generally developed centuries ago, and are now out of date themselves, and have become also set in stone and becoming less relevant.
Use the Spirit, Luke!
Imagine if, instead of arguing about the role of women, we all prayed together for the Spirit’s guidance on how he wants us to apply the Bible and how he wants us to treat women.
The Spirit has spoken?
It seems to me that the Spirit has indeed spoken. First he spoke through the world, which now requires equality by law.
(This may seem shocking to some, as it was to Habukkuk two and a half thousand years ago, but God often uses the world to judge and change the church when we are unwilling to listen – e.g. the world often led the church in environmental care, non-violence, a retreat from materialism, and concern about sexism and racism.)
Then he spoke through the many churches that have already accepted women into equal roles. Now he is speaking through the increasing number of evangelicals who are promoting gender equity.
We no longer live in a patriarchal culture, and the church is slowly changing, adapting to the times.
I believe that is God’s preference for us today.
Nothing is won without sacrifice
Whichever choice we make, there will be a cost.
I believe the cost for the conservative church will be increasing irrelevance, loss of members and (for many) eventual demise.
But those who stand for gender equality will, I believe, be forced to re-examine the way they think about the Bible and its authority. I think that will be a good thing, but it will certainly deter some churches.
These are interesting times, and this is part of the new reformation.
- The Face of a Woman by TEAR Australia
- Information on people trafficking on this website.
- World Vision on People trafficking for sexual exploitation.
- Julie Ross compiled some statistics.
Christians moving towards equality
- The Black Swan Effect by Felicity Dale. Felicity’s Simply Church blog has some good posts on gender
- Rachel Held Evans on gender equality, and recommended posts on the subject.
- A strong call (which I don’t agree with) by progressive christian writer Tony Jones (who I do often agree with).
- Randall Rauser raises some practical problems for the traditional ‘complementarian’ view.
- Blogger Libby Anne on the historical basis for gender equality in US evangelicalism.
Photo Credit: Melissa-Brewer via Compfight cc
Jesus warned us to be aware of the times and the seasons…I see these things and do not think “oh this must be changed!”,I think “winter is coming and I need to prepare for it”. We cannot change a generation of people. The Bible warned that there will come a time when the Restrainer will be removed. We are seeing that season upon us. IF you are wise you will be preparing yourself in Christ to stand for Him, not for this group or that. I promise you this system is collapsing and there will be no stopping it.
There is a difference between subservient and submission.
Personally I feel fighting for gender equality is the incorrect term. Fighting for human rights should correct term for fighting the crimes against women. Although I know many women will not agree, but men and women were not created equal…we were created with a certain purpose. One example women can give birth men cannot…but men and women need to be together in order for children to be born, we each have a purpose and that is to work together with our different talents. If we were equal then men should be able to give birth also…just my humble opinion. But men and women are created in God’s imagine to glorify Him in our homes and especially in our churches – not ourselves. Truthfully I feel we should stop all this equality and the it is my right talk and submit ourselves to God and then each other then there would not be a problem. The new Reformation has been in the works for decades.
Hi Patty and Susan, thanks for sharing your views.
I don’t think gender equality means saying that the sexes are equal, certainly not the same. Rather I think it is saying women should have equal opportunity to work and earn a living, to be treated with justice (in some cultures, a woman’s word doesn’t count as much as a man’s), to be treated as an equal by her husband and not as an inferior, etc, and not to be exploited. In many countries, and sometimes in our own, women don’t get treated with respect like that.
Progress takes time. I really appreciate the work women have done so I have greater opportunities now. It was announced by the Church of England that female priests will be allowed to be bishops.
I am very glad for what you have written. I can wait a bit longer for my former church to let women do more than look after the wee ones in the children’s Sunday school classes. If it changes I will go back.
Hi Wendon, it sounds like you’ve had an unfortunate experience. I’m sorry about that and hope things change for you.
I think the problem won’t be solved just be ordaining women priests, but by doing away with the distinction between those who are allowed to do things and those who are limited. I hope what people can do is limited only by the gifts and abilities God has given each of us, not gender or official position.
Thanks for your comment.
Hi UnkleE, I’m not sure this is fair. It seems difficult to support these things by appealing to a loving God although that idea is subject to abuse, while of course inferring God’s will from historical developments in churches and society also has problems (Tillich did something like that, but so did Hirsch).
Hi IN, yes you are right. I didn’t really mean it quite the way I wrote it. I meant that interpreting the Bible the way we feel comfortable allows almost anything. Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily be because of God’s love in many of those cases, but more likely an appeal to God’s justice, or sense of order, or opposition to evil or something. Thanks for pointing that out. I think maybe I should amend it slightly, though I’m not sure if amending a post so long after is a good idea. Thanks.
Oh, then I suppose we are in agreement.
Though I have come across an Indian Catholic theologian who made the point that a loving God would always express Christianity to humanity in essentially divided peoples to justify the caste system, but that was very unconvincing. That does go a long way to the original point, but ultimately lacks persuasive power if you don’t already agree.
The problem with all forms of oppression is that it makes it harder to discuss the issue objectively.
Gender has been historically used to oppress women, by claiming they are “obviously” unfitted for important roles.
If you look at the church for example it’s interesting that the tasks each group holds most important (preaching, taking mass/communion, etc) are the ones for which women are most “obviously” unfit – in other words give the little dears the lessor jobs, while we men do the ones which really matter.
Or maybe we don’t allow women to teach nice civilised people like us, but they can go and teach men in “primitive” peoples in Africa and places like that (thus nicely combining sexism and racism in one easy bundle).
All that did happen, and sometimes still does, and one result is that it becomes politically dangerous to ask what things men or women actually do do differently. The entire subject becomes taboo.
Our church spent a long time looking at what Paul said, on the basis that you interpret what people mean by looking at what they actually do. We looked at Paul actually did with respect to women in authority, and decided that there were too many cases of women in clear leadership roles. It just did not fit the traditional interpretation of his words.
What Paul was getting at is open to discussion, but he can’t have meant no women in authority, or would not have behaved the way he did.
Hi cerddaf, I like the approach your church took. How did you change things after that?
We’re not all perfect.
We just said anything is up for male or female to do.
Some of the older women would not want to be elders, and frankly they do not have the life-experience to do it. Several do, and we have about equal numbers on the eldership.
Some women still feel they could not lead at Communion, but I think that is more a reluctance to speak in public.
One woman in the eldership commented she found it liberating – but she was a highly competant woman who had been denied any significabt role, and she had felt it badly .
Here’s what we said
Role of Women
After careful thought we decided that we could not accept the traditional view – that women “should be excluded from areas of leadership and teaching because of Paul’s teaching on this subject”. After looking at the records of Paul’s ministry we decided that we could not accept this interpretation of Paul’s words, because it does not seem to fit with his actions when working with or speaking of women leaders of the early church. We therefore see no grounds for denying either men or women any office or function within the fellowship.
I’ll try to dig out the original paper and post it here.
Hi, I checked out your website and it looks pretty cool. Thanks for sharing that here.