Second-class children: Women in church leadership

"Mary Magdalene," El Greco

I am not a theology blogger, so go easy on me here. This is just something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.

I grew up in the company of strong, intelligent Christian women, my mother especially. It is fair to say that most of what I know about God has come from women. Yes, our pastors were always male, and from them I learned the tenets of theology, but I really learned about Jesus–his ministry, grace, and compassion from women, whether from doing morning devotions with my mother, from watching the many women quietly and tirelessly serve our church, or from small groups with other women in high school and college.

When I was old enough, I marveled at the injunctions in the Bible that said women were not permitted to teach or hold any authority over a man. How could that be? All of my best teachers in my faith had been women. This seems appropriate. I was, after all, a girl. But it seemed strange to me, even then. Women can teach other women, but women can never be permitted to teach men in the church. This is odd. No Christian I know is upset by the fact that 76 percent of public school teachers are women. Women can and do preside over men in the workplace (finally). The famously misogynistic Liberty University has Michele Bachmann, candidate for the U.S. presidency, give their convocation speech, and yet they won’t permit women to graduate from their university with degrees in biblical teaching. (Liberty, therefore, seems fine with the idea of Bachmann running the entire country, but she can’t give a sermon at a church. What superb logic.)

So, what gives, 21st-century church? At long last, women can teach and “hold authority over” men in every other segment of society, but as soon as they step inside a church, they become subjugated again, not fit to teach a man anything. We are told that we are all children of God, but as a woman, I often feel like the second-class child of God.

Scripture does plainly say that women should not be permitted to teach over men. I know it does. But it also says that women have to wear veils in church, because they’re a symbol of a woman’s subjugation to her husband. Scripture also says that women aren’t allowed to pray, speak, or even ask questions in church. Mercifully, most churches today do not force women to wear veils or keep silent. These Pauline rules are now interpreted as culturally specific mandates. So, yay, we don’t have to follow them anymore, because we’re living in a supposedly post-patriarchal age!

My question is: Why aren’t we interpreting the passages about women in church leadership as culturally specific mandates? These anti-women-teaching rules for churches were handed down by a man in an undeniably patriarchal society–at the same time as these other rules on veils and speaking. But the vast majority of churches are still keeping women from any teaching or significant leadership roles today.

I’ve really appreciated the perspective of Guion’s aunt on this topic. Dr. Jane Tillman is a well-respected clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, but she is also ordained in the Episcopal church. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails on this topic and I’ve deeply appreciated her perspective, as a woman, believer, and seminary graduate. I did a lot of research on this subject but had such a struggle finding a woman’s input. All of the opinions I read were written by men who were in favor of keeping women out of teaching roles in the church. Until I heard from Aunt Jane. After providing a thorough historical perspective on this issue, she wrote this to me:

The role of an ordained person is 1) to teach; 2) to provide pastoral leadership, 3) to exercise sacramental authority.  I don’t see that women, by virtue of being women, are to be excluded from any of these practices.  Of course there is SOME scripture and certainly the weight of tradition arguing against this, but if the Kingdom of God on earth means that we are growing, dynamic, people then change over time is part of the plan.

Preach it, Aunt Jane! I can’t say it any better than she can, but my last word is this: If Jesus should be our model for how we treat people, I think we’re a far cry from what he practiced. Jesus was radical in his approach to women. He welcomed them into his community and named many of them as his disciples. He reached out to them; he sought their company. Women are recorded as starting and hosting some of the first churches in their homes. Then patriarchy crept in and kept women out. I think it’s time for the modern church to reverse its antiquated and discriminatory policies against women. I can’t help but think Jesus would have pushed the religious institutions of his day to do the same.