[Vision2020] Having faith in women
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Fri Apr 20 11:44:22 PDT 2007
Having faith in women
By Oliver "Buzz" Thomas
Chicken Little was wrong. The sky isn't falling, but the glass ceiling appears to be. In February, Harvard announced the appointment of its first female president. The month before, Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. Bigger still, Sen. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front-runner for the presidency. In politics and academia, women are finally getting their due.
Meanwhile, back at the religious ranch, the Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest Christian organization, still hasn't ordained one female priest, much less a bishop or cardinal. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the world's largest graduate school for ministers, recently sent packing its only female professor who was teaching male students in the school's department of theology. The seminary's board chairman said hiring a woman to teach men theology had been a "momentary" lapse.
Not all is gender-remiss in the world of religion. The Episcopal Church recently installed its first female presiding bishop. Sunday, hundreds, if not thousands, of female clergy preached to America's faithful. What's puzzling is that the nation's two largest denominations (Catholics and Southern Baptists) have managed to keep women down on the farm this far into the modern era. It's even more surprising given that women perform the vast majority of work in churches. (Stroll through the kitchen, choir rooms, offices, library, nursery and Sunday school rooms of your own church and see what you find.)
Does the New Testament really justify the church's shabby treatment of women? On the surface, it would appear so, at least if we listen to St. Paul:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. I Timothy 2:11-12
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Although this verse seems to give a clear explanation of the role of women in the church, things aren't always what they seem when it comes to interpreting the Bible. The first rule of good biblical interpretation is always to examine the historical context in which a passage was written. If we don't know why the verse was written then, we stand little chance of understanding what it means now.
A first-century perspective
Paul's letters were written in the first century to an audience of Jews, Romans and Greeks. Again, this was not the 21st century. It was the first.
First-century life was much like it had been in the previous millennium. That is to say that in most ancient civilizations, women had no rights. Under Hebrew law, a woman was a thing to be bought, sold or coveted like a piece of property or a neighbor's goat. Old Testament laws against rape and adultery gave no recourse to the woman who was violated. Any fines that were levied against the perpetrator were paid to the woman's father or husband who, for all practical purposes, owned his daughter or wife. Marriages were business transactions, with a young woman being the commodity over which men bargained. Whether she brought 50 cattle or 500, all women were chattel. The only thing folks haggled over was the price.
Things were little better in Greece and Rome. Under Roman law, a woman had no rights. As a child, she was her father's; as an adult, her husband's. Both had the power of life and death over her. Little wonder the Apostle Paul instructed women as he did, since most self-respecting Jews and Romans of the first century wouldn't have allowed a woman to teach them anything. She would have enjoyed about the same reception as a slave or a child. Had a woman done otherwise than submit to her husband, she could have been killed. In fact, it is remarkable that Paul gave women the recognition that he did. By first-century standards, he was a liberal.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes provision for women to prophesy (i.e. preach) in the church. In Romans, he sends greetings to his friend Phoebe, a deacon. And, throughout his missionary journeys, he worked collegially with many women, some of whom the New Testament mentions by name (such as Euodia and Priscilla). Most notable is his reference in Romans, chapter 16 to "Junia" as an apostle of note. Conservative scribes could never let this pass, so some early manuscripts were changed to read "Junias" or "Julius," both male names.
Today's Greek New Testament (the language in which the New Testament was written) as well as more recent English translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, correct the problem and acknowledge Junia as having been called by Paul as an apostle.
This unusual level of respect within the church for women didn't originate with Paul. Jesus had publicly associated with women - even outcast women such as prostitutes and Samaritans - at a time when few rabbis would be caught speaking to any woman outside of his own family. No, the Apostle Paul did not give the church license to dominate women. Paul's ultimate hope for both men and women was that there would be no distinctions within the church. As he put it in his letter to the Church at Galatia, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Now that's radical stuff.
How to justify past sins
This is not the first time the church has had to escape the clutches of biblical injunctions that have no place in today's world. St. Paul ordered slaves to submit to their masters and masters to be good to their slaves. He never even hinted that a better option for masters would be to free their slaves. Even the most literalistic interpreters of Scripture now concede that for one person to enslave another is sin. Yet, during the 19th century, Southerners, of whom I am one, used the Bible to justify their sin. Two centuries and a bloody civil war later, we should know better.
So, I ask the male leaders of our religious institutions: Will we do the same? The secular world is ready to confer upon women the loftiest mantles of leadership. Will God's own people stand in the way? When church leaders quote texts written in the first century to people living in the 21st century, do we not sound like my Southern forebears who tried to stop the abolitionist movement (and later the civil rights movement) by quoting the Bible?
The irony here is palpable. An institution that prides itself on being the conscience of society has become a barrier to half of its members reaching their full potential. It's even worse than that. What many churches are doing would be illegal were it not for the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause shielding church from state. Perhaps the saddest thing is that by subordinating women in this fashion, churches are cutting themselves off from a huge talent pool. In a world run amok, can we really afford it?
Oliver "Buzz" Thomas is a minister, lawyer and author of10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).
CENTURIES OF PROGRESS
>From the biblical time of Eve, women have had powerful roles in Western religious theology, history and institutional life. Though it has been a slow climb, women have risen to official religious leadership positions throughout the world and specifically in the USA.
1136: Hildegard of Bingen, a great German mystic and one of the most prominent women in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, becomes head of the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg in Germany. She traveled in powerful circles and eventually founded a convent. Her writings still hold sway today.
1431: Joan of Arc, who believed that God had ordered her to save the French from the British and led French troops in battle during the Hundred Years War, is tried for heresy and witchcraft. She is burned at the stake at age 19 in the town of Rouen. She is later found innocent and canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
1637-38: Anne Hutchinson, a religious leader who openly shared and taught controversial views that an individual's faith alone can lead to salvation, is tried for heresy and exiled from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony.
1769: John Wesley, a founder of Methodism in England, writes to Sarah Crosby, a female preacher: "In public you may properly enough intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can."
1853: Antoinette Brown Blackwell is accepted as a minister at the First Congregational Church in Wayne County, N.Y. She is the first female minister of a major U.S. denomination.
1922: The Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform Jewish rabbinical group, adopts a resolution as its official position that says, "Women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination."
1956: Presbyterian Church (USA) votes to ordain women as ministers.
1970: Two of the three church bodies that would later go on to merge and form the present-day Evangelical Lutheran Church in America vote to ordain women.
1972: Sally Priesand is ordained as a rabbi the USA's first by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform Jewish institution in Cincinnati.
1976: Episcopal Church in the USA votes to ordain women as priests and opens the way for them to become bishops as well.
1976: Pope Paul VI approves the publication of "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood." It states that the church does not consider itself authorized to allow women to be priests, for Christ called only men to be apostles.
1977: The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches votes to ordain women as ministers.
1985: The first Conservative female rabbi, Amy Eilberg, is ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
1992: Church of England's national assembly, the General Synod, votes in favor of the ordination of female priests.
2004: Mary Ann Glendon, law professor at Harvard University, is named president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. She is the first woman to be named president of one of the 10 pontifical academies.
2006: Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada becomes the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the first woman to head a national or regional church in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
By Victoria Shapiro
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