Thursday, July 10, 2008

Women, Men, and the Church

This is what I have written for the next edition of our church newsletter:

As I write, a debate is raging in England over the role of women in the church. After more than a decade of discussion and debate, the General Synod has agreed that women are eligible to be ordained as bishops.

This has been a reality on this continent for many years. But in England the press are reporting that as many as 1300 clergy are threatening to leave the Anglican Church over the issue. Of course there is nothing the media like better than a good fight, and the numbers may prove to be much smaller than that. Nevertheless the issue has resulted in serious acrimony, and we need to pray for healing and a softening of positions on both sides.

Earlier this year Messiah’s vestry also spent a good deal of time discussing this same issue. Not that anyone was about to consecrate a bishop! The issue for us was whether to list ourselves as an “egalitarian church”: that is, a church where “spiritual gifts of women and men are to be recognized, developed and used in serving and teaching ministries at all levels of involvement”, where “public recognition is to be given to both women and men who exercise ministries of service and leadership” and which “will dissociate itself from worldly or pagan devices designed to make women feel inferior for being female”.

Our concern was to reflect, in a formal manner as a parish, a truly biblical and God-honoring approach to this important subject. Certainly a single newsletter article cannot give anything like adequate coverage to the vestry discussions—and even less so to what the Bible has to say on the matter.

While much attention is given to the passages of Scripture that appear to give women an inferior role, we do well to begin by looking at its central themes and overall direction, and only after that to examine specific cases.

Reading the Old Testament more than three hundred years ago, for example, Matthew Henry saw in the story of the creation of Eve, “that the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal to him…” And of course from there follow the accounts of remarkable women such as Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, and Esther, to name but a few, whose pivotal place in the unfolding of salvation history is undisputed.

When we come to the gospels, we see Jesus treating women with a respect that was uncommon, if not altogether non-existent, in the ancient world. Just think of his conversations with woman at the well, the Canaanite woman who pleaded on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter, Mary and Martha, and even the woman caught in adultery. Think of his parables, where women are invariably depicted as positive examples (not so with men!). And think of the fact that the first people to bear the good news of Jesus’ resurrection were women.

In the epistles, we are introduced to a community where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. And, while there are verses that adjure women to be silent and not to teach, I would argue that these are not programmatic, but are intended to address specific situations that had arisen in Ephesus and Corinth. Overall, in the nascent church we find women taking their place next to men as equal partners, possibly even to the rank of apostle (see Romans 16:7).

I recognize that Christians have legitimate differences over this matter, and that my interpretation of Scripture is not the only one. Yet I do believe that our identifying ourselves as a church where women and men are equal partners in the gospel of transformation through Christ can only strengthen our witness to it.

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