Christian Feminism and the Modern Church

We’ve started attending a new church, still within the flavor of our previous church’s denomination, but one that seems to be doing things Biblically, rather than traditionally. It’s also closer to where we live, so it is easier for us to help out when needed, instead of traveling out to warm a pew for a couple hours on Sunday and leaving before we can talk to more than a handful of people. It is also focused on spreading the Gospel of Jesus to our community, and planting more churches as they grow. The focus is not on filling a building, but on filling people with Good News and Salvation. It’s joyful and wonderful, and I’m so excited that we’ve found them!

This Sunday, a great thing happened: A young woman — raised in the church and currently attending a Christian college — delivered the communion message and prayer. She did it just as any man would, and even more succinctly than some men I’ve heard in the past. Her prayer had many of the same words used by men, and delivered in the same way as a man would. Just one year ago, this might have made me extremely uncomfortable, but Sunday I was thrilled!

I know for a fact that had she gotten up to deliver any message or prayer — or even a confession or prayer request — in our previous congregation, there might have been several people, men and women alike, who would have walked out, some never to come back until they were reassured it would never happen again. There would definitely have been angry letters and meetings with the elders. There might have been immediate confrontations with the leaders of the church and even the young woman and/or her parents. And many more in the congregation would have been upset, afraid their communion was somehow invalidated, and shaken to their core. In a more conservative (read: legalistic or militant) congregation, there might have been talks of (duh-duh-DUUUH!) disfellowship.

All because a young woman — who grew up in the church; who has access to every form of education a man does in our culture, religious or otherwise; who has access to any form of leadership and influence a man does in our secular world — dared present her educated, intelligent, loving message in front of an audience that contained adult males, most of whom we can assume were baptized.

I would wager real money (if I was sure I would not be lectured about the evils of gambling) that if a man brand new to the faith, recently baptized, perhaps even recently acquainted with the Bible, who’s come out of a life of sin (praise the Lord!) got up to deliver the communion message and prayer, not a single person would complain. In fact, he might even be encouraged to continue on a path to leadership, continue in strengthening his faith and knowledge, lauded as brave for being willing to approach the pulpit so soon and insightful for sharing how faith has changed his life.

How about the difference between a man confessing and requesting prayers in the pulpit at the end of the service and a woman doing likewise? You can bet the same problems would abound in some congregations if a woman even tried. As it is, she can go to the front, but she must whisper her request to the person who would be leading the prayer, or give them a note, leaving their requests and confessions open to comment, paraphrase, and editorializing by the man in the pulpit. I’ve seen it done, and it I can tell you it is not edifying to the congregation or the person confessing or asking for prayers.

To sum up my example: In most Church of Christ traditions (and many other denominations who subscribe to the same beliefs), women of every age, who are raised and educated in the faith, who know the Bible back to front and can quote the same theology as men, will never be treated equally in terms of leadership, influence, or even presence as a man (sometimes even a boy). Period. The man doesn’t need to have spent their life in church, their schooling in a Christian college, or much time in the Bible.

Still TL;DR? Women, even with vast Bible knowledge and church history, speaking in front of the congregation = sinful, heretical, unthinkable, even shameful and harmful to others. Men speaking in front of the congregation, regardless of anything = brave, acceptable, encouraging, normal, Biblical.

In light of Galatians 3:28, and our current culture, where women have access to all education and leadership positions in our secular world, this makes no sense.

(Disclaimer: I am NOT saying that a man brand new to the faith, no matter his past, shouldn’t get up to speak. I’m just making a comparison, which in any circumstance should be considered unfair.)

In the Churches of Christ in which I was brought up, even if the female in question was the President of the United States — trusted with making important decisions for the entire country, vetoing laws, and heading up the military — and also a Bible scholar, educated in a Christian college, brought up in the church – perhaps even attended the same one since birth — she would still be relegated to children’s classes 6th grade and under, teaching ladies’ classes, and speaking at ladies-only events. Because she is a woman, and Paul said that women shouldn’t usurp authority from men. So, clearly, she could never be trusted to lead a prayer to God or speak authoritatively on the Bible to a congregation where baptized men are present. Even when some of those men, being in the military, would consider her their Commander in Chief.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The Churches of Christ have always been keenly determined to emulate the “First Century Church”. However, in the process, they have failed to separate the cultural from the imperative, and in fact have considered many vagaries as imperatives while ignoring very explicit suggestions and commands (“sing” = never, ever use instruments upon pain of condemnation; “greet each other with a holy kiss” = wait, what?). In this desire to practice as closely to what Paul wrote as possible, the Churches of Christ (and others that subscribe to the same beliefs) have relegated their women to the very first-century secular, cultural ideals Jesus and His followers were trying to change.

Those who perpetuate these ideals ignore or shrug off the fact that most churches met in homes, growing and spreading exponentially through love, care, and service. They didn’t have electricity, a separate ladies’ ministry, children’s classes, little plastic cups and special crackers (and non-alcoholic wine!) for communion, paid ministers, or projectors. They certainly didn’t have hymnals; they didn’t even have Bibles!

They did have not only Paul’s letters (all of them!), but also the letters sent to Paul, so they had context — which we do not have consistently in our current, modern Bible. Don’t get me wrong! Despite the loving care with which we have translated and preserved the words of Paul in our modern Bibles, we have not been able to recover or preserve the words of the churches to Paul, nor all of Paul’s letters to the churches. (Remember the one he wrote to the church in Laodicea, which he recommended everyone read? Yeah, we don’t have that one.)

What else they had was a culture where women were lower than slaves — and in many cases lower than animals. They were considered by most scholars and teachers of the time to be vessels of sexual depravity, good only for bearing children and seducing men, and not at all capable of the same level of intelligence or trustworthiness as any given male. A man could divorce his wife and doom his children to illegitimacy just for seeing her talking to another man on the street, or even leaving the house.

This wasn’t a world where husbands loved their wives as they loved themselves. This wasn’t a world where women could casually wear their hair uncovered, or elaborately braided and adorned — unless they were trying to show off how unmarried and sexually available they were. This wasn’t a world where women were brought up learning the same things as men — or anything, for that matter, beyond how to run a house. Many of them did understand the ways of false gods and Gnosticism (a rampant belief at the time where you had to have special spiritual knowledge in order to understand God), and women suddenly freed from the bonds of secular slavery into a place where they could be treated equally with the men — as well as some men who were just as uneducated in Christ’s radical message — began to spread false doctrines and turn the churches toward their idol worship (especially that of the Ephesian Artemis, a goddess whose worshipers believed woman was created before man and sought to undermine the Word).

Paul encouraging women to be educated was much more of a scandal back then than encouraging them to be silent. (And, for the record, the word isn’t silent, as in shut up; it’s quiet, as in calm and patient. Otherwise, how would women sing?) His message for men to love their wives and not divorce them was crazy talk. Allowing women to work alongside him was radical – even now! We have ignored all the commendations Paul gave women, who worked hard for the church. We blithely allowed the change of the word diakonos in reference to Phoebe in Romans 16:1 to “servant”, even though the word is no different in any context to its use as “deacon” in Timothy and Philippians (note that Paul used a different word — doulos, actually meaning servant — in Philippians 1:1 to describe himself and Timothy as servants in an actual servile sense, before using the word deacon in its traditional sense). We have ignored the fact that in the covered-head controversy in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul mentioned women praying and prophesying with the men. The acceptable action there was that women were praying and prophesying. The controversy was their uncovered head — because married women signified they were married by covering their hair, which in that time was more sexually attractive to other men than whatever men today find attractive. Married women with uncovered hair were considered scandalous in their culture, and a shaved head was a shamed woman. Conversely, as mentioned before, elaborately braided and adorned hair signified sexual availability, and had no place in worship. But we don’t have those same problems today. In our culture, we consider the prophesying (preaching, teaching, admonishing) to be the scandal — clinging to the idea that Paul thought so, too, because he told some women in another part of the world to listen quietly and learn before they spoke.

What about Lois, Timothy’s grandmother, and Eunice, his mother, who taught Timothy and who are commended by Paul for their great faith (2 Tim 1:5) — the same faith Paul is sure lives in Timothy at the time of his letter? Do they not possess the same Spirit promised to all who follow Jesus, which Paul speaks about in 2 Tim 1:6-7, because they’re women?

The church was very new to almost everyone. The Jews, who’d had the tutor of the Law for centuries, even had to learn a new way of life. Paul and the other apostles (not just the initial twelve, but all who were sent to minister) had a lot of work to do to make sure the churches didn’t deviate from Jesus’ teachings and commands. Somehow the churches grew and thrived, despite only having oral knowledge and the scriptures from the Old Testament kept in the synagogues, even before they had letters from Paul or written Gospel accounts.

So here we are in our society. We not only have some 2000 years since Christ walked the earth in which to practice what He preached, but we also have the Bible in its current form (and many translations thereof), forensic evidence, archaeological evidence, linguistic distinctions and lexicons galore, countless commentaries, endless resources, lifetimes of study — now available to men and women equally. We live in the lap of luxury, as far as religion is concerned.

And yet, we continue to believe that men and women should be treated differently in the churches. Why? Our brains are the same. We have access to the same salvation, the same Bible, the same secular careers and influence. Did Jesus truly wish that women have unequal influence in the churches? Are women dangerous to the doctrine, even now? Can one honestly think, in light of all the evidence, that Jesus could condemn a congregation if a woman approached the pulpit, or merely led the singing? In light of the proper comparisons and knowledge of how mature adults who are One in Christ should act in the church, how on earth can anyone believe that such inequality perpetuates the belief of true Oneness in Christ?

Women who desire to proclaim the Word of God to a dying world and are told they can only do so to children, other women, and unbaptized men (as long as they remain appropriate, or appropriately chaperoned), at the risk of their salvation and the salvation of others, are subjected to spiritual slavery. A new Law. Dare I say, a different Gospel than the one preached by Jesus and the apostles.

This, Paul and other writers of the epistles say when they warn about false teaching, is wrong. (So is continuing to do so because “that’s always how it’s been done”. Let’s think about what Jesus and Paul had to say to the Jews when they trotted out that complaint. Neither should we continue to do so to mollify the male ego.)

I’m sad it’s taken me this long to understand it — and finally write about it! — but I’m thankful that I can now see a woman speaking in a thriving new church and praise God for the freedom He (and that church) has given her — and me. My mouth is no longer chained to a misinterpreted letter directed at a culture that is nothing like ours, and I am free to proclaim Christ alongside my Christian brethren, as many a female did in the first century church.

Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your responses! Just be aware that comments are moderated, so anything not offered in a spirit of love will be subject to editing or deletion. Thank you in advance for being kind and considerate. 🙂

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3 Comments

Filed under Communion, Women's Roles in the Church

3 responses to “Christian Feminism and the Modern Church

  1. I plead with you to reconsider in the name of Christ. Can we not deceive ourselves? Are you open-minded to rethink this? Do a word-study of every use of diakonos and gunaikos.

    Your hermeneutic is foreign to me. Knowledge of first-century culture helps us to understand, but it is not an approach to comprehending God’s Word. The Scriptures command no cultural practices, and knowing culture is never needed to understand Scripture. I would reconsider if you could provide scripture. Using culture as your lenses for comprehension will distort your view replacing sight with a veil. Please, do not be deceived to take this fruit and give to us.

    You ask for comments from love. Do you think “legalists” will hear that? I do not. Please, revise. When you understand our position, then you may able to convince us in some points. You do know that we believe in equality and that we are made in the same image. You case must be made upon gender roles in the church.

    Do you understand the five reasons that God gives for men to lead? Was woman made like man in God’s glory, no longer from man, no longer for men, made first before man, and are women no more deceived in leading (1 Cor 11:7-9, 1 Tim 2:13-14)? These Scriptures must be greatly insulting to the secular mind. Will their response be love and blessing for “insult”?

    Lastly, God’s Word is given to those who can receive it. Can you?

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