("By Request" series of sermons requested by the congregation)
How many grew up in a church that had clear limits on a woman’s role in the church? (Perhaps women were not deacons or ushers or didn’t pray in church.)
How many grew up in a church where women were not allowed to teach men in Sunday School?
How many of you grew up in a church with a female pastor - at least one ordained woman on the ministerial staff?
Well, I’m just asking. Just curious. Both society and the church have changed over the years, but change can come hard. And the Church has 2000 years of tradition behind it. But tradition can become traditionalism – holding onto tradition just for the sake of tradition.
One of the very interesting topics suggested by members for this series of messages was “Feminism and the Bible.” Of course, like many of these suggestions, it is a pretty broad topic. But as a way of getting at it, it seems like maybe we need to talk first about what feminism is before we talk about what the Bible has to say about it, and then perhaps what it all means for us and for the church.
So: what is feminism, anyway? Marie Shear famously said that feminism is “the radical notion that women are people.” I have to say that I love that definition. A basic understanding of feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
Shouldn’t everybody have equal opportunity and be treated equally? Why wouldn’t everybody be in favor of that? Well as it turns out, there are those who want to paint feminism in dark and diabolical tones. Rev. Pat Robertson, for example, has argued that feminism leads to the destruction of the family and indeed the destruction of our entire society. He said, “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” That’s Pat Robertson for you, but there are plenty of people who oppose feminism in more subtle ways. Hence, the need for us to consider this question today.
Let’s just think of feminism as the idea that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. What does the Bible have to say about that? And how are women viewed in the Bible?
The answer, as usual, is that it depends on where you look. To begin with, the cultural setting of the Bible, which was written over hundreds of years and reported on a span of over 1000 years, is thoroughly patriarchal, whatever time and culture a particular book of the Bible might have been written in.
Legally, women were essentially property, controlled by the male head of household. Women generally could not own property, testify in court, or make legal decisions. A daughter belonged to the father and was then given to her husband. There were all kinds of rules regarding ritual purity, and many of these rules focused specifically on women.
Polygamy was common in the Old Testament and some of the patriarchs had multiple wives. Jacob, for example, married the sisters Leah and Rachel and also took Rachel’s servant Bilhah and Leah’s servant Zilpah as concubines. The extreme, of course, was King Solomon, with 700 wives and 300 concubines. A lot of people talk about Biblical marriage, but it is hard to think of a marriage in the Bible that anybody would actually want to emulate.
There are, however, other voices and other stories in the Hebrew scriptures. Among these are Jochebed and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses, who work against the power empire to preserve Moses’ life. Later Miriam leads the Israelites in worship after they have escaped from Egypt. There is the story of Naomi and Ruth, a mother and daughter-in-law who face long odds but work together and overcome the customs of the time to secure a future. In the Book of Judges there are strong and independent women including Deborah, who is the Judge and ruler of Israel. There is the woman of Proverbs 31 who not only takes care of the home but invests in real estate. There is the prophecy of Joel, who proclaimed that through the power of the Spirit both sons and daughters would prophesy.
By the time of the New Testament, these examples of women as leaders, as taking on roles that were far beyond what was common in the culture, are found quite frequently. There are Philip’s daughters, who all prophesied – in other words, they were preachers. Several weeks ago we looked at the church in Antioch, as reported in Acts. Paul and Barnabas started this church, and it was there that followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Lydia, a merchant in purple dyes, was the key person in the church. After Paula and Baranabas moved on, she is in charge of the church, which meets in her home.
In Romans chapter 16, Paul mentions leaders in the church, beginning with Phoebe, a deacon or minister, and including Junia, who is called an apostle. There are a number of other women listed here who are significant leaders in the church.
In a more philosophical and theological framework, in the very beginning of creation, In Genesis chapter 1, both male and female are created in God’s image. There is equality and partnership. And through the scriptures, there are both masculine and feminine images of God. As we know, there are a preponderance of male images, perhaps in part as a contrast to the gods of Israel’s neighbors, which were often related to fertility and were generally feminine. But to call God Father, for example, is metaphorical language. God is not a gendered being. God is not a boy. The Holy Spirit in particular is sometimes represented as feminine, as in the hymn we sang a moment ago, and the Hebrew word ruach, or spirit, is grammatically feminine.
In the New Testament, one of the great texts regarding the role of men and women is Galatians 3:28 – “there is no male and female, for you are all one on Christ Jesus.”
The role of women in the early church was radical by standards of the day. Particularly in the life of Jesus – he counted women among his good friends and followers and there was a group of women mentioned in Luke who provided for Jesus’ ministry out of their resources. Women were funding the whole operation. Jesus’ public conversations with women, which would have been considered completely inappropriate, and the way that he listened to them and took them seriously was nothing short of radical, and at its best, this openness extended to the early church.
What is interesting is that those texts that speak of women keeping quiet in church and not exercising authority over men come in Paul’s later letters. The same Paul who commends women as deacons and apostles later says women should keep silent in the assembly. It seems that the leadership exercised by women in the early church caused a huge stir – I mean, nobody had seen this before. In the wider society, the church was accused of antinomianism – of lawlessness – and of trying to ruin society, which to be honest sounds somewhat familiar (if you still have that Pat Robertson quote in your head).
There is this balance between freedom and order, and at times Paul comes down on the side of order. He encouraged churches to tone it down and for women to adhere more closely to cultural norms. Which was easy for him to say, of course.
So, we have various models and various teachings in scripture regarding the role and place of women in church and society, often in response to very specific local situations. But for me, what is most important is Jesus.
Dorothy Sayers was writer known for her detective stories. She was also a lay theologian and Christian apologist and a contemporary and friend of C.S. Lewis. She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, but she didn’t really talk a lot about feminism. She was more interested in just being human and pursued her goals whether or not they were considered feminine. To give you an idea of her point of view, she wrote,
I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of magazines to say something about the writing of detective fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands, one can only say, “Go away and don’t be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle."Sayers wrote a wonderful little book called Are Women Human? And she talks about Jesus and women. She said,
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.
There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.Jesus encouraged the full humanity and full possibility of every person, man or woman. He taught that we were to love God and love our neighbor. He encourages us to serve others, to act in love, to make a difference, to share the Good News. To put up roadblocks to keep a person from serving in a particular role or vocation because of their gender was not Jesus’ style at all.
Our text says, “There is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” God does not call us as groups or classes of people; God calls us as individuals. The question is not whether a woman can be a doctor or lawyer or engineer or pastor or stay at home mom; the question is whether that calling and that choice is right for any individual.
The world of the Bible is vastly different to our culture. But scripture gives us examples of leading the culture, stepping beyond the culture, transforming the culture, as well as conforming to the culture.
American Baptists are not generally thought of as wild-eyed radicals, but at our best we have been a part of leading the culture. The first woman ordained in America by any denomination was Clarissa Danforth, ordained in 1815 by Freewill Baptists in New England, a group that is today part of the American Baptist Churches. You probably wouldn’t have guessed that Baptists were the first to ordain a woman. In 1921, Helen Barrett Montgomery was elected president of the Northern Baptist Convention, the first woman to so lead a denomination in the U.S. An educator and social reformer, in 1924 she was the first woman to translate the New Testament from the Greek, and I read from her translation this morning.
In our own church, we established the office of deaconess in 1936, which in time merged with the board of deacons. We happen to have a male worship leader and male preacher today, but women serve in all areas of church life. A year ago, our region called Jackie Saxon as the first woman to serve as Executive Minister for Mid-American Baptist Churches.
Now as I said, this is a broad topic, and we can’t address everything in one sermon. But let me say just a quick word about language. When it comes to feminist concerns – and we might just call that concerns for equity and fairness and wholeness – language is a huge issue. Anna Sarkeesian, a media analyst and critic, said that when she was 10 years old she had to campaign for months to convince her parents that the “Game Boy” was not in fact just for boys. Words matter.
In many cases, English translators of the Bible have used the word “men” when the original Hebrew or Greek in fact has the meaning of “humanity.” In other words, some of the male language in the Bible is there because male translators put it there.
Our hymns can be particularly difficult in regards to inclusive language. Newer hymnals are better at this, but I often find myself substituting words as I sing older hymns. We sang “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” a couple of weeks ago. A beautiful hymn, a wonderful hymn, but if you had never heard it before, walking in off the street and singing “Brother love binds man to man” just doesn’t sound right. We can talk more about language another time but it is an important concern.
One other thing: feminism is not just a thing for women. Men also benefit from a world in which all people are free to use their gifts and in which all people are valued equally. And as a parent, I certainly want a world in which our daughters are valued, just as our sons are valued.
I began by asking a few questions about the church you grew up in. I am one of those people who grew up in a church in which women’s roles were limited. In fact, women’s roles are more limited in that church today than was the case when I was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
But it is interesting. Many years ago now, that church’s minister had left for another position and so the church elected a pulpit committee. According to the by-laws, a woman could not be a deacon and by tradition only men were ushers. But pulpit committees did not come along that often and they had no set rules about it. And so my mom was chosen to be chair of the pulpit committee. At that point, this was the most important office in the church. Even when the tradition may limit who can serve in what way, I think we implicitly know that God is more interested in all of us employing the gifts we have been given than in limiting our opportunities because of our gender or age or background or anything else.
This reminds me of one of my favorite church stories. Many of you know Molly Marshall. Molly has preached here and is president at Central Seminary in Kansas City. While she was a seminary student in Kentucky she was pastor at a little rural church, Jordan Baptist Church. The kids in the nursery liked to play church – one would be the preacher, one would be the song leader, and so forth. One Sunday they were playing church in the nursery and a little boy wanted to be the preacher. The girls, who had only known Molly as their minister, knew better than that. You can’t be the preacher,” they said. “Only girls can be preachers.”
I think that is all I need to say today. Amen.
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