Last week I asked that my Church of Christ readers join in and support One Voice for Change. In this post I’d like to articulate why I, personally, support this movement.
1. It is biblically and theologically sound. Like many, I grew up in a church that denied that women can serve in public leadership roles over men. What this meant in practice was, generally, that women could not lead prayers, Bible readings, or preach in service, and that they could not be appointed as elders, deacons, or paid ministry staff. The Bible verses that are interpreted to support this view are well-known and I won’t rehash them here. The interpretations of those verses that do not support that view are not as well-known, and One Voice for Change has a resource page with links to those interpretations, so I won’t lay them all out here. However, I would like to mention the theological “aha!” moment that initiated me on the journey of rejecting the theology of denying women the opportunity to exercise public spiritual leadership and authority.
I grew up, again like many American Christians, reading the gospels as, primarily, historical texts. By this I mean that I read them as straightforward accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings. Thus, I remember much energy in Bible classes being spent on making certain discrepancies between the gospels cohere together. They were read primarily as biographies or history textbooks. Importantly, they were not read as “doing theology” in the way that Paul’s letters were read as “doing theology.” The church I grew up in took great pains to read Paul’s biblical letters “in context.” I knew a lot about ancient Corinth and Thessalonica as a teenager. Much was made about the culture, history, and events in the cities and churches Paul wrote to. I was taught that to read those letters out of context was to misread them. However, I was never given those same lessons regarding the gospel letters.
In college and seminary, however, I learned that the gospels, too, were letters written to specific churches or people (in the case of Luke). And I learned to read them primarily as theological rather than primarily historical texts. In other words, the gospel writers were trying to teach the churches they wrote to theological truths just as Paul did in his letters. However, they used a different literary form to teach those lessons than Paul used. The form of the gospel was relatively common at the time, and they weren’t used simply to “tell history” but to teach theology. The gospel writers chose which stories about Jesus to tell (did you know Mark totally excludes Jesus’s birth from his story?), in which order to tell them, and how to tell them. For instance, in Luke Jesus reads from the scroll in the temple much earlier than he does in Matthew and Mark. Does this mean he did the same thing more than once as I was taught as a child? Not necessarily. Read as a theological text it means that Luke thinks this incident has a certain theological significance that merits telling it to us early in his story of Jesus. And, if you read all of Luke, you see that Luke is teaching his audience that Jesus really cared about the poor a lot and taught some radical things about wealth and poverty. That is why Luke tells that story so early on in his letter.
Read this way the gospels quickly become theological letters, akin to Paul’s letters, that teach a radically egalitarian theology. It is a woman who is the only one who bests Jesus in a theological discussion (the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman). Jesus treats women as a rabbi would his disciples – a radical departure for his day. He treats women as equals and crosses all kinds of religious and cultural boundaries to do so. And, of course, we can’t forget that it is women who are the first evangelists – the first preachers! – after Jesus’s resurrection. Read theologically, the gospels clearly teach that women and men are equally capable and called to be in public leadership.
It is not just the stories that teach this theology but the way these stories are told. Luke, for example, employs a strategy of pairing parallel stories of men and women doing similar things next to each other. For instance, in Luke 1 both Mary and Zechariah sing songs regarding the miraculous birth of their children. And in Luke 2, when Jesus is presented at the temple, a male prophet (Simeon) and a female prophet (Anna) give praise to God for Jesus’s birth. The rhetorical effect is that women and men are seen as equally capable of speaking authoritatively about God’s work in the world.
Thus, paired with Paul’s theological statements regarding male-female equality in the Spirit, there are many NT resources to suggest that women and men are equally called by God to be in positions of public spiritual leadership. The passages where Paul teaches that it is inappropriate for women to do certain things in certain contexts (pray with their head uncovered in Corinth – importantly assuming women are leading public prayers! – or remain silent in Timothy’s church) must be read in conjunction with those passages that teach women are equally called and gifted by God to teach and preach. Read this way, the NT is a radically liberating text that insists that all – regardless of class, race, nation, physical abilities, or sex – can be called by God to God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world.
2. God is calling women to ministry.Perhaps the strongest impetus for my conversion to a fully egalitarian position is getting to know women called and gifted by God for ministry who have been denied the opportunity to fulfill that calling. It is truly a painful, an injurious, situation to be in to be called by God to God’s service only to be denied the opportunity to fulfill that call by your fellow Christians. Too many women have been deeply hurt by our refusal to recognize God’s call on their life to continue with the status quo. Our churches are doing great spiritual harm to our sisters. This must stop. Now. Many talented women have left our churches to serve in other churches because we refuse to recognize God’s call on their life. That is wrong. It is sinful. And we can no longer be churches who sin in this way.
3. The time is now.One of the constant criticisms of One Voice for Change that I have heard from those who agree, generally, with the theological stance laid out above is that “it’s not the right time” or “it’s the wrong strategy.” Instead, we must continue our hard work of teaching in local churches and convincing people one at a time. I hear this, but it is, in my opinion, gravely mistaken. Some of the greatest movement towards fully equal churches happened in the early to mid-1990s. At that time, several congregations around the country moved toward having women lead prayers, read scriptures, and, on occasion, lead the Lord’s Supper on Sunday mornings. Several churches moved to hiring women to serve as children’s or education ministers. However, twenty years later this is still the same situation. No more progress has been made toward the full inclusion of women in a generation. A whole set of young adults has grown up in a church no more equal than the one that existed during Bill Clinton’s first term as president. Simply put, we’ve waited too long. The time is now. We can’t wait another generation. For twenty years those women who have been called by God to certain forms of ministry have been denied the opportunity to practice that ministry by good-hearted allies who say to them “just a little longer.” And they suffer the pain of being denied, rather than affirmed, the opportunity to fulfill God’s call in their life. This. Is. Wrong. Stated bluntly to those who advocate the path we’ve been taking for a generation: We’ve tried those methods and they haven’t worked. Let us try something new. This doesn’t mean that the methods used over the last generation are wrong or should be stopped. No, lasting change must happen in local congregations at the lived level. But this is not enough. More must happen. Or we will continue to do injustice – to sin against – all our sisters called and gifted by God. This is not an acceptable option.
This is why I support One Voice for Change: it is biblical, it is faithful with God’s movement of calling women to public leadership, and it is the right time. Will you join me?