Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Woman, You are Set Free. Women and Leadership, Part Two

In the beginning of my grade seven school year, that same year of the debate about women in leadership, our homeroom teacher warned us to be on our best behaviour whenever he wore red to school. A red tie, red socks, a red shirt, or any other article of red clothing; it was a harbinger of things to come that day. It was his signal to us that he was feeling short-tempered, and that we had better tread lightly on the fragile web of teacher nerves. Of course, being precocious preteens, we saw red as an invitation for a plethora of shenanigans. Fortunately, Mr. G.’s penchant for choosing his attire based on his moods was outmatched by his good humour. In retrospect, perhaps wearing red was actually his method for ensuring an interesting day. 

Emotion may be a fine basis for wardrobe choice, but I knew enough even at that age that it isn’t sufficient for more weighty decisions. In my last post, I wrote that “I don’t regret my hesitance to hold firmly to one position [regarding the roles of women in Christianity] for as long as I did, because intuition and emotion alone are not enough.” So, how do we go about discerning the truth about such a contentious issue? There are seemingly convincing arguments on both sides, and respectable, smart people who hold to both ideologies. Where do we start?

In Finally Feminist, John G. Stackhouse Jr. writes:

"….Christians make decisions not only on the basis of Bible study, but also as we consult tradition, reason, and experience - the four elements of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral…And we properly consult these resources not on our own but in the company of the church - the church of the past and the church of the present - seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit through these resources." 

For myself, and I would venture to guess that for most Jesus followers, Bible study is the most influential corner of the quadrilateral, though the four are inextricably entwined, perhaps mores than we realize. Tradition influences our study of the Bible, though we are often chagrined to admit it. Our understanding of God and of our faith builds from one generation to the next, one scholar picking up where a mystic left off, one reformer questioning what the last generation practiced. How can the traditional view of women's roles in the church and in marriage inform our current discussion of the issue?

Complementarians point to the historical, mainstream belief of the Christian church that women should not be in positions of leadership to bolster their position. Mary Kassian, a prominent complementarian associated with The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, writes:

Since New Testament times, Christians believed that the Bible taught that God created male and female with complementary differences and roles. There was no word to describe this position, since no one had ever questioned it. But about 50 years ago, feminism changed all that. And by the mid-eighties, when Egalitarians and Evangelical Feminists eagerly jumped on the feminist ideological bandwagon, it was necessary to come up with a label to identify this traditional, orthodox, historic belief. That’s when we came up with the term “complementarian.” It simply means someone who believes that the Bible teaches that God created men and women with equal, yet distinct roles.  A complementarian is a person who believes that God created male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus. 
source

In considering whether the historical understanding of women in leadership can illuminate the complementarian / egalitarian debate, perhaps we need to first take a step back and evaluate the church’s historical overall view of women. What do the church fathers, the saints, the theologians, and reformers who have shaped the mainstream interpretation of scripture say about women? Brace yourself. Sadly, this is just a small sampling. 

“[Women's] very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.” 
~ Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) Pedagogues II

“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” 
~ Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354 – 430)

"The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes." 
~ Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546)


Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder
“Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . .  of what importance is your character to mankind, if you was buried just now Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God.” 
~ John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement (1703-1791), letter to his wife, July 15, 1774

"On this account, all women are born that they may acknowledge themselves as inferior in consequence to the superiority of the male sex." 
~ John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians

“[Women are] weake, fraile, impatient, feeble and foolish.” [Women are] “unconstant, variable, cruel and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment” and “woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.”  
~ John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

Shocking, isn't it? Inexcusable as their disdain for women may be, I have to remind myself not to discredit these men entirely rather than solely refuting their stance on women, and to remember the positive contributions they made to the world. John Wesley may have been a horrendous writer of love letters to his wife, but he did contribute greatly to the abolition movement, and was exceedingly charitable. I hope that he had a good sense of humour about irony, given that we are using his methodology of theological reflection, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, to make a case for the affirmation of women in leadership!

Though Jesus himself and the writings of the Bible, especially the New Testament, challenge and subvert the patriarchal system, the Christian church seems to have been largely complicit in maintaining gender hierarchy throughout history.  Thankfully, no complementarians with whom I have interacted espouse the same hateful attitudes as evidenced in the quotes above. Complementarianism does, however, unabashedly share a limited view of the roles of women. While we cannot simply dismiss the complementarian viewpoint based on the continuity of limitations in roles with the misogynist attitudes of prominent Christian thinkers over the past two thousand years, we must be prudent in recognizing the possibility and evaluating the likelihood that the church’s mainstream historical understanding of women in leadership is coloured by its historical misogyny, and not by interpretation of scripture itself. Also, there is a dizzying circularity in relying on the records of interpretation in this matter left to us from the historical church, many prominent leaders of which who were openly disdainful of women, to inform us if male-only leadership is good and right. How could they interpret it any other way and still hold to their low view of women?

Hope is stubborn. Peppered throughout the Bible, we find glimmers of hope as women find their voices, find their names, and take their place as equals in the kingdom of God. We see women serving alongside men, like Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia. And while the church, sadly, aligned itself for the most part with patriarchalism throughout history rather than championing and continuing the freedom work of Jesus, that stubborn ember of hope has never been extinguished. Contrary to what Kassian writes when she asserts that There was no word to describe this position [complementarianism], since no one had ever questioned it, the voices of courageous men and women have been speaking and continue to speak to us from the margins of our faith narrative long before the 1980s, urging us to set women free. I wonder how many records have been lost or omitted from our church history narrative, in addition to the existing records, because of their celebration of women in a patriarchal world. One existing example I came across recently was that of Margaret Fell Fox, the “mother of Quakerism.” About three hundred and fifty years ago, long before Ms. magazine and “feminism,” Margaret Fell Fox wrote “Women’s Speaking Justified,” a stirring, scripture-based call for women’s equality in ministry.

Hope has been rising since “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” The time has come and is coming when Jesus raises us up to our fully equal dignity as brothers and sisters.

"On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God."
Luke 13:10-17



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