Gender Justice

Addressing FAQ's and FRO's about Gender Equality in the Church, Part 1

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In this ongoing series of posts I want to begin to address some of the FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions) and FRO's (Frequently Raised Objections) to the full participation of women in the life of the church. I want to accomplish this by creating an initial guide for conversation. It will function something like this:

    (1) The Frequently Asked Question or Frequently Raised Objection
    (2) A brief, initial answer that provides a "trajectory for dialogue" of 150 words or less.
    (3) When helpful, some questions designed to provide pushback or nuance to the FAQ or FRO. 

    This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive, detailed, or academic response to these issues that are commonly raised in these conversations. It is meant primarily as a place for common language and direction to emerge. This conversation is complex and explosive enough that perhaps such a resource will allow for concentrated and mutually enriching conversations to emerge. If you want an extensive list of materials (including articles, books, and multimedia) check out my Gender Equality Resources Page or other resources for this conversation in Churches of Christ like and 1Voice4Change.

    So, in no particular order, we begin some of the FAQ's and FRO's regarding the full participation of our sisters in the life and practice of the church.

    Frequently Raised Objection:

    Why are we even having this discussion? The Churches of Christ have never allowed women to teach or serve in positions of leadership.

    That the Churches of Christ have "always" thought this way is a myth.

    We have forgotten about many of the great women in our tradition who both advocated and modeled great leadership as they sought to be obedient to their calling. Included in these are women like Jane Campbell McKeever (sister of Alexander Campbell) who was the President of Pleasant Hill Seminary for 25 years and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Nancy Towle who had a 14 year ministry including addressing the general assembly of The Christian Connexion, one of the largest organizations in the early days of our movement. We would also look to Silena Moore Holman and her engagement on these issues with David Lipscomb in the pages of the Gospel Advocate. Or there is Sarah "Sadie" McCoy Crank who "organized or reorganized 50 Christian churches, led in the building of 18 houses of worship, baptized approximately 7,000 persons, and conducted 1000 funerals." (Christian Standard 84 [Nov 6, 1948], p. 734).

    Frequently Raised Objection:

    If we allow women to lead in the church there won't be a place for the men. If women lead, men will leave.

    This objection relies on a number of unsubstantiated assumptions. (1) That the full participation of women somehow "excludes" men. (2) That the spiritual ability and maturity of men to lead in the life of the church is dependant upon the silence and lack of participation by equally gifted and mature women. (3) That there is no possibility that men and women can serve alongside one another in the church without one gender (either men or women) being excluded.

    Such an objection would not be reasonably made in other aspects of life. "If we have women serving in government or business or medicine or academia it will discourage men from..." This objection collapses under the weight of its own ideas.

    Frequently Raised Objection:

    There are no examples in the New Testament of women serving in capacities of leadership.

    As an initial response to this questions let's use Ephesians 4:11-13 as our guide: "So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ." (NIV)

    In the New Testament women explicitly serve in the following capacities:

         Apostle - Junia (Romans 16:7)

         Prophet - Phillip's Daughters (Acts 21:9), Anna (Luke 2:36-37)

         Evangelist - The Women at the Empty Tomb (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18)

         Pastor/Teacher - Priscilla (Acts 18:24-28)

         Deacon - Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2)

    Any of the "restrictive passages" in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) must be read in light of the explicit mention of women serving in these capacities in the New Testament, not the other way around.

    1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: The Problem of Flat Bibles

    Don't miss the previous posts that led to this installment...
    An Open Confession to the Churches of Christ...
    1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Introduction
    1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Considerations

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    One of the primary challenges to a thoughtful, nuanced perspective on this text is what I call "flat hermeneutics". This is where the Bible is taken at "face value" meaning that simplicity is a sign of accuracy and that the text as it stands, in English (in a particular translation), without regard for historical, cultural, or textual context can be easily and rightly interpreted. It sounds something like this:

    This kind of interpretive framework typically likes to be self-described as taking the Bible "literally." This rhetoric is used to imply that those who have a different interpretation have failed to take the Bible seriously, on its own terms, and to understand and appreciate that it is inspired.

    This is particularly important when we come to a text like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

    Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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. (NIV)

    The simple fact is that (almost) no one takes this text literally, and certainly no one within evangelicalism and Churches of Christ. Here's why:

    • Taken literally this text forbids all speech by women. They cannot speak publicly, whisper a question to their husbands, or speak publicly.
    • Contrary to what some might say, this text does not offer "room for interpretation" where we can interpret this passage to read: "Women should be silent in the churches except for congregational singing, saying amen, speaking to the children, and whispering quietly to people next to them." It just isn't there.
    • No one (including Paul) would call such things disgraceful.

    But this is exactly what a "flat" Bible does. Flat Bibles prevent interpreters (which is everyone who reads Scripture) from understanding and appreciating what is actually happening in the text. Is Paul dealing with a specific problem or with a universal problem? Is Paul giving them a solution for their problem or for all cultures and all times? Does the issue and answer that Paul provides here seem in tension with other texts from the same letter or author? (For a great introduction to this idea I would recommend Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.)

    Flat readings of Scripture either short-circuit such questions or fail to ask them all together (in my experience it is the latter). Typically this is done in one of two ways:

    • Certain texts are taken as normative and therefore determine how other "out of place" or "secondary" texts must be interpreted. ("So we know women didn't prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11 because they are forbidden to speak in 1 Corinthians 14. Or 1 Corinthians 11 must be private and 1 Corinthians 14 must be public." These are just some of the "flat" interpretations.) Ultimately, it seems to be the interpreter that gets to choose which texts trump the others. This is never a good way to read Scripture.
    • Others will suggest that it frankly doesn't matter what is said in other texts once the "trump texts" have been identified. 1 Timothy 2:8-15, some suggest, rules out the possibility that Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1-2). Since Jesus chose twelve male apostles there must be distinction between men and women's roles. (Did we forget they were all Jewish too?) So yes, those texts that "don't fit" are in Scripture but they must not merely be interpreted to "fit" with the "big" texts.

    This is important as we engage this text and the larger issues of gender equality in Churches of Christ. It is important that we allow Scripture to speak for itself. It is important that we admit that Scripture is as complex as our ordinary lives, which if we are willing to admit it, are anything but flat.

    This doesn't diminish the value or authority of Scriptures, it admits it and honors it with the effort needed to rightly interpret in within a world that is very different than the world in which our Scriptures were born.

    1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Introduction

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    As many of you know, who follow me and this blog, I have publicly expressed my support for the movement within Churches of Christ which advocates for the full inclusion of women in all areas of the life of the church. For many in my tradition, this is a place in which we disagree. (Although a shift is happening in our movement that, to me, is very promising.) But one of the fundamental things that my brothers and sisters in Churches of Christ and I completely agree upon is that the faith and practice of the church should be rooted deeply in Scripture. 

    So one of the questions (or confrontations) that I regularly experience goes something like this:

    "If what you're saying is true then the Bible doesn't matter or you have to ignore passages like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2!"

    This series is my attempt to begin to demonstrate that I personally, and many who share my convictions within our tribe have come to our conclusions because of our engagement with Scripture not our disregard for it! I believe that these texts are a part of the God-inspired Scriptures and are formative for the life of the church. Where I disagree with some is in the ways that we understand the background, history, interpretation, and implications of this text (and others).

    This conversation is often difficult to have (especially around these more "central texts") for a couple of reasons:

    1. Too often people aren't interested in dialogue but in winning the debate/argument. (Something that I myself have too often done.)
    2. There are a number of important historical, cultural, and theological factors that are often unknown or ignored when studying this text.
    3. This conversation takes time, and we have too often valued brevity and "simplicity" over ambiguity and complexity.

    So let's spend some time exploring one of the texts in this conversation that gives many people a case of theological heartburn...

    Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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 14:34-35, NIV)

    So in the next few posts I want to highlight the following issues and questions…

    1. Textual Considerations
    2. Who are the "Women"?
    3. Cultural and Historical Background
    4. Key Words: "Silent, Submission, Disgraceful"
    5. Implications for Theology and Practice

    Are there any questions that you want answered surrounding this passage? Leave them in the comments and I will incorporate them into this series!

    An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of Christ...

    This week has been a fascinating one for an important conversation in my tribe. On Tuesday, Wineskins posted a video interview with Lauren King who serves as the Preaching Intern at the Fourth Avenue Church of Christ where Patrick Mead serves as the Senior Minister. (At last check the video had 31,000+ views, which in our tradition is highly viral.)

    The reaction to this news was swift, strong, and pointed. 

    Blogs, open letters, social media comments, and aggravated conversations long dormant were revived. Words of affirmation, condemnation, disappointment, curiosity, and excitement flew far and wide. Different sides rallied the troops, tired rhetoric about "liberals" and "legalists" were brought back into use, and few (if any) had their thinking deeply engaged much less changed. I tried to follow the conversation, but after a while I lost track of whether there were more accusations of heresy or the suggestion that Churches of Christ finally understood the Gospel.  

    So what are we to do?

    I find myself in a strange place about this conversation. 

    I grew up in a loving congregation in which so many godly women wielded immeasurable influence on my spiritual formation as a child. But at a certain point in my life the voices of those godly women all but vanished from my formal and intentional formation. 

    In college, as I sought to learn and articulate my own beliefs I would have been immensely uncomfortable (although not entirely certain why) with the idea of someone like Lauren preaching on a Sunday morning or even studying to be a preaching minister. It would have been difficult to articulate why I took issue with this, but it just didn't "feel right." I knew that there were a couple of texts that I had heard on occasion, but I had not taken the time to learn for myself.

    It wasn't until sometime later as I began an intense season of personal growth and study about most of my convictions that I started to ask the question about "women's roles" (which, by the way, a phrase coined in the 1970's, not the first century). After four or five years of studying the textual, historical, literary, linguistic, and interpretive history of relevant biblical texts did I come to my current position: In Christ, gender is not a distinction that circumscribes an individuals ability to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom of God. What matters is gifting, calling, and a holy life. 

    So at some point in my spiritual journey I have subscribed to virtually every interpretive position on this question as it has been expressed in our movement.

    • That women are not to teach men (or boys who have been baptized), and that leading in public worship would constitute "authority over a man" and is forbidden.
    • That women could serve in more capacities than we currently allow, but not as the preaching or education minister (youth or children's minister perhaps) or as an elder. 
    • That women could serve in all capacities but that of an elder. 
    • In Christ, gender is not a distinction that circumscribes an individuals ability to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom of God. What matters is gifting, calling, and a holy life. (My current position.)

    But the real reason that this conversation is important to me now, and the reason that it is a CONFESSION and not an argument // apologetic // diatribe against those who disagree with me is because, no matter the place I was at the moment, I often failed to act and speak towards the "other" (meaning the person who interpreted Scripture differently) in a way that honored God, built up the church, and enhanced its witness to the watching world. 

    My hunch is that if all people on this issue (and any other issue for that matter) could start with a similar confession, our churches and our witness to the world would be radically transformed. So without further preface, here is my confession...

    For the times when i have held to my convictions with suspicion of the other instead of love and discernment...

    I humbly confess that this is counter to the central call of jesus to love the other and especially one's "enemies."

    For the times that I have conflated my interpretation of Scripture with the exact words of Scripture, refusing to admit the possibility that there was more to consider or that I was fallible and limited in my understanding... 

    I humbly confess this as idolatry parading as certainty and maturity.

    For the times that I have thought or spoken of someone in derogatory words, whether "religious" or ordinary, whether labeling someone  as a legalist, liberal, misogynist, feminist, ignorant, arrogant, or stupid...

    I humbly confess that this is ungodly behavior and reflects my lack of obedience to jesus' command not only to not murder, but to not have and harbor hatred toward my brothers and sisters. 

    For the times that I have isolated myself from those who were theologically "other" from my current position (whatever that was at any time in my life)...

    I humbly confess that it was not "them" who were dividing the body of Christ, but me and my choices to insulate, isolate, and reinforce functional and literal barriers between our congregations and between myself and other individuals.

    For the times that I have allowed "distance" on some issue to translate into some form of universal distance, and where I have avoided or been indifferent to the gatherings, events, ministry, and general welfare of the "other" in my tribe...

    I humbly confess that this form of exclusion is both unbiblical and utterly destructive of the church's witness in the world. It reflects a great failure on my behalf to take both the roots of our tradition and the teachings of Jesus seriously. 

    For the relationships that i have strained or severed because of my position on this issue at different times in my life...

    i humbly ask for your forgiveness and that you communicate to me the ways in which I have harmed you and the possibility of us being in a god-honoring relationship so that i may begin to respond in ways that are redemptive and reconciliatory. 

    Based on this confession I hereby resolve to the following postures and practices:

    1. I will seek to shape my language and my tone in such a way that I am able to articulate my understanding in a way that is both humble and conditional, admitting that I don't have all the facts, that I could be wrong, and that in the end I stand in desperate need to God's forgiveness and grace. 

    2. I will seek to minimize the distance between people at a different place on the spectrum in our tradition whether through individual relationships, attending events at other congregations, and finding tangible ways to contribute to the flourishing of those communities whether in prayer, service, or some form of participation. 

    3. I will seek to understand the perspective of one who disagrees with me long before I seek to offer an answer of my own. And in this regard I commit to speaking in terms of questions, reflections, and hunches, avoiding language that could be taken to equate my words with God's words. 

    4. I will begin to reach out to those whom I have alienated, frustrated, or confused by my interpretive stance on this issue. I will seek to do so in a way that prioritizes reconciliation far above agreement or even dialogue. 

    5. I will seek to embody the kind of generosity of spirit, careful use of words, and motives driven by love not anxiety, power, or fear that I wish to see in others. 

    In doing all this I seek to live out and embody the Prayer of Peace (a prayer often attributed wrongly to Saint Francis of Assisi):

    Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    where there is sadness, joy.

    O, Divine Master,
    grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood as to understand;
    to be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    t is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.