Tuesday, May 11, 2010

from JW: Passive Resistance for Gender Equality in the Church

The assumptions about how scripture functions and the ability to “interpret” it within Churches of Christ have produced a number of faulty readings of Scripture. The most obvious example is the staunch stance that (many) Churches of Christ take on not using instrumental music simply because the NT does not discuss the use of instruments in music. However, the NT also does not address the use of technology in worship, but I hear no churches arguing that it is wrong to use microphones. Churches of Christ are inconsistent on the application of such principles as “speak where the Bible speaks, silent where the Bible is silent,” and it results in no small number of problems when describing the idiosyncrasies of our worship.
Some problems, however, do not result from the silence of scripture, but rather from the perceived certainty of what scripture actually does say. For example: the commands for the silence of women in the church (see 1 Corinthians 14:35-36; 1 Timothy 2:11-13). For many churches (not just the Churches of Christ), the interpretation of these passages is clear: women must be silent. However, there are problems with the certainty with which this conclusion is offered.
  1. We do not actually require women to be completely silent. When Churches of Christ sing their characteristic a capella songs, there are female voices as well as male. Clearly, even we do not take this command to its fullest extent to require absolute silence.
  2. The reasoning that a woman cannot teach/preach because the text says no woman can have authority over a man ignores other scriptural witnesses of the authority of women. I offer as an example Phoebe of Romans 16, who is both a patron and deacon of the church at Cenchraea, not to mention that she is likely the carrier of Paul’s letter and therefore the representative of Paul to Rome. So unless we presume that the churches in Cenchraea and Rome were completely made up of females, it is beyond doubt that Phoebe had authority over men and was appointed to such a position by Paul, the presumed author of the above texts in question.
Given these two points, it seems reasonable to conclude that simply referring to 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 as “proof-texts” to not include women within the worship service is problematic. And we can come to this conclusion with a “naïve” reading of the text—that is, it does not require any special approach or interpretation to see that the example of Phoebe contradicts the injunctions against women having authority. It just requires good philological and historical tools. But for those who cannot read Greek, it requires honesty by our Bible translation committees—I’m looking at you NIV.
I do not believe it is possible for any person to arrive at the biblical text “objectively”—that is, without being formed by preconceived notions and experiences. However, this concept does not apply only to the readers of scripture, but also to the authors of scripture. In other words, those who wrote the words that we read as scripture could not help but be influenced by the assumptions of their various cultures.
One cultural assumption implicit within the commands for silence is that women were simply not intelligent enough to have authority over men. It was assumed that women were not as capable as men, and as a result of this assumption, women were not educated as men were in the ancient world. The practice of not educating women only perpetuated the assumption that women were not as intelligent. And thus, we have evidence of an oppressive system based on faulty assumptions of gender inequality that provides the (implicit) reasoning for the silence of women. The explicit reasoning of 1 Timothy 2—that man was created first and woman second—only serves as a “theological” justification of the culturally assumed place of women.
I hope that no one today still assumes that women are in any way inferior to men. If that assumption persists, there is nothing that I could say that would deter such willful ignorance. So, assuming that we all agree on the equality of men and women, we must take this into account when we read scripture. The authors assumed women were inferior, but we do not agree with their assumption. So how can we agree with their conclusion?
So now we come to the practical aspect: given the stance of the Churches of Christ on women, what should I do? Should I just leave and join a more egalitarian community? Should I become an activist and demand change immediately and loudly? Should I stay and patiently try to work it out with those who would listen? My lack-of-confrontation-personality wants to take option one and just leave. But my attempt to remain faithful to the community of faith that raised me and taught me the Gospel makes me fight against the gut instinct to leave. As for the second option, I do not have the personality to be an activist. That is not to say that I don’t think it is a viable option, I just don’t think it is for me. As for the third option, let’s just be honest here: I am not patient. I don’t want to spend 10 years trying to convince one congregation that it’s okay for women to read scripture publicly but restrict them from the “more important” jobs like eldership and preaching.
Given the fact that I have problems with each of the three options mentioned above, I have been trying to think of another option. For inspiration, I think of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, and specifically I think of the examples of passive resistance (like sit-ins, marches, etc…). However, I do not want to stage sit-ins or march to the church house door. So I am still left searching for an expression of my passive resistance. And the more I have thought about this issue, the clearer my answer has become.
My form of passive resistance for gender equality within the church is: silence.
Clearly I do not mean complete silence because you are reading my blog post, so let me explain what I mean.
I think it is wrong for any institution, including the church, to deny someone the opportunity to do something for which they are capable and trained based on gender. For example: my wife, Naomi, has the same ministerial training that I have: an M.Div. from Abilene Christian University. Actually, she has more: an undergrad Bible degree from Rochester College with a minor in counseling. On paper, her credentials beat my own B.A. in Political Science. Moreover, not only is she better qualified based on training, she is better qualified based on gifting: I can write and deliver a sermon, but she can preach. However, despite the fact that she is better qualified on all counts, virtually no Church of Christ (with few exceptions) would hire her over me. This is not just unfortunate or unfair, it is morally wrong.
So, if our churches refuse to let her use her training and gifts, then I will refuse to use mine. Now, those of you who know me may say, well that’s convenient for you since you have chosen an academic career rather than a ministerial career. And I agree. But that does not mean that any church of which I would be a part would not ask me to do things like preach, lead prayer, lead songs, teach Bible class, etc…
To say it more succinctly: I will not work for or serve any institution that would not allow my wife, being equally trained as I, to perform the same job. Yes, this means that I will not work for any university that would not hire my wife to do the same job, but that is not as likely to cause a problem as the church scenario.
However, in order for this form of protest to mean anything, I must take it one step further. I cannot just refuse the opportunity to preach, lead prayer, teach, etc… without an explanation. I must express the reason for my refusal. Perhaps I will respond to any such invitation with a question: “You know, I’m not very good at preaching, but my wife is. Would you ask her to do it instead?” If the response is “No,” then I will decline and explain my reasoning.
I do not propose this as something that everyone else should do. I would be happy for other (especially my male colleagues) to participate in this form of protest, but only if you choose. This is the form of protest that best fits my personality, so it works for me. I encourage every one who reads this to think of creative ways that you can actively or passively call for change within our churches.
In conclusion: gender equality is not a worship preference issue; it is a justice issue. If you disagree, I hope that you will reconsider. If you agree, I urge you to think about what you can do about it.

originally posted here at Jamey's blog

1 comment:

Gina said...

"Should I just leave and join a more egalitarian community?"

In a word: yes. Go where you and your wife are truly welcomed and can both use your talents fully.

This is the only life you get; why waste it tilting at windmills?