Why I’m an Advocate for Women’s Equality

I grew up in a home where male authority was the norm. My father learned from his father that men are supposed to be “leaders.” The denomination my father was raised in also taught that men alone should teach and lead in the church. When I first embraced Christianity, I faithfully attended a “complementarian” church. Like my father, they taught me that men should be leaders, and that women should submit to this leadership. They not only taught this verbally, they lived it every Sunday. Only men could teach and preach from the pulpit. Only men could be elders. Only men could be ushers. Only men served communion. I was asked to lead Bible studies; not because I knew the Bible (I didn’t), but because I was male. I was also encouraged to pursue a career in “ministry.”

I was taught that men are supposed to be “servant-leaders.” Feminists, I was told, simply didn’t understand that men were actually serving women by providing them with godly leadership. In a strange kind of way, this seemed to make sense. I was encouraged to guard my faith against the “sinful ways of the world;” namely, “women’s liberation.”

So why in the world do I now advocate the equality of women in the Christian faith?

It all started at a leadership conference I attended with representatives from churches all across Canada and the United States. It was big. One of the speakers challenged us to respond in faith and obedience if we believed God was calling us to full-time ministry as pastors. Many young men went to the front of the auditorium to answer this call—along with one young woman.

What I saw that day made an impact. The young men at the front actually began yelling at her. She was accused of heresy and rebellion for daring to think that God would call a woman to be a pastor. In her defense, she mentioned something about a verse in Galatians that said there is neither male nor female in Christ. She was asked to provide the exact chapter and verse number, and when she could not, she was mocked for her lack of Bible knowledge. She left the conference in tears, and I never saw her again.

What in the world was I witnessing? I couldn’t help thinking of a Bible story concerning a woman caught in adultery and the crowd of religious men who wanted to stone her to death. The woman at the conference, however, simply wanted to obey God and preach the gospel! The religious men in the Bible story were rebuked by Jesus. What would he say to my male friends and colleagues who shouted accusations at this women, mocked her, and drove her from our meeting? I began to wonder.

Shortly after this troubling experience, I went to Bible College. Here I met dozens of women who claimed that they had received a call from God to lead and/or teach in the church. Some women felt called to be pastors; one felt called to be a priest. They shared their stories and pointed out passages in the Bible where women were clearly depicted as prophets, teachers or leaders. One of these women explained to me that a woman named Junia was even an apostle! She further explained that hundreds of years after the New Testament was written, translators began to change this female apostle’s name to a man’s. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t believe it. My church taught me that the inerrancy of our English Bible had been providentially preserved by the sovereignty of God. My church certainly wouldn’t lie about something that important; and they couldn’t possibly be mistaken, could they?

I became troubled. Firmly believing that we should bring our troubles to God in prayer and ask him for guidance, I did just that. I told God that I was bothered by what I was seeing and hearing. I asked him to help me understand his heart for women, and sort through the conflicting messages I was getting from other Christians.

In answer to this prayer, I believe God responded. At first, it seemed that he asked me if I really wanted to know the answers to my questions. He seemed to be saying that I would find the answers difficult. Not knowing what to expect, and truly wanting to learn, I said, “Yes Lord, please teach me.”

There are two large universities close to my home. Each has a number of church colleges and/or a seminary on campus. I felt compelled to access the library resources there concerning the Bible, church history and women.

I’ll never forget what I found, or how I felt when I first discovered it. It began with a review of what the early church fathers said about women:

”For it is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly, no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman.” (Origen, 258 A.D., Fragments on First Corinthians)

“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” (Saint Augustine, 354 – 430 A.D., De genesi ad litteram)

I then read similar comments from Protestant Reformers, who were strongly influenced by the church fathers who came before them:

“[A woman] is formed to obey; for gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach.” (John Calvin, commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12).

“The word and works of God are quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” (Martin Luther, Works)

Then I came across a historical book that continues to haunt me. It contained court transcripts of all of the women killed by men, acting on the authority of the church, during the Inquisition. It had their names, and the charges against them. Many of the women were found guilty of “witchcraft;” specifically, something called “love magic.” This meant that a man had allegedly been so bewitched by a woman that he couldn’t help committing adultery with her, or perhaps even raping her. Sexual sins committed by men were blamed exclusively on their female partners or victims. I read hundreds of names, maybe thousands. I lost count. I became dizzy. I didn’t realize it at first, but I had stopped breathing. I felt like I was going to die. Something inside me broke.

This notion that women must be subject to men had nothing to do with God, the gospel, servant-leadership, or the love of Jesus Christ. It was born of fear, hatred, and a felt “need” for control. It was prejudice, and it had led to subjugation, oppression and even mass murder.

“Now do you understand?” I felt the Spirit of God say to me. I was speechless. “Teach what you have learned.”

Since those early days, I have learned that many of the church’s most influential theologians had a profound prejudice against women. It shows itself in their commentary work, and even in their Bible translation. Old Testament passages have been changed by the addition of vowel marks. Verses that once condemned excessive taxation now criticize the leadership of women (c.f. Isaiah 3:12, LXX vs. Masoretic Text). Greek words used to prohibit violence or murder now prohibit women from “exercising authority” (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:12, “authentein” in New Testament Manuscripts & “authentas” in the LXX vs. English translations). Phoebe, a woman who was a “leader” in the early church (prostatis), is now referred to as “a good friend” (Romans 16:2, Good News for Modern Man). “Junia” the apostle, or “Julia” according to the earliest Greek manuscript, became Junias—a man. Commands such as, “Wives submit to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22), are not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. They are only found in later manuscripts and today’s English translations. In the earliest manuscripts the only command in this passage is addressed to all Christians, regardless of their sex: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Today’s complementarian theology is built on a legacy of fear, control and prejudice. Terms like “servant-leadership” have a pleasant sound to them, but Jesus did not use them. Rather, he told all of his followers, “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (Matthew 23:10).

The young woman at the leadership conference, who said “yes” to the Lord’s call to be a pastor, was right: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

My male friends, who mocked and shouted at her, were wrong. More to the point, I was wrong. I had unknowingly been influenced by the patriarchal norms of a prejudiced and fallen world. These norms had found their way into my home as a child, into our society, and yes even into the church. Paul wrote to the church in Rome concerning this very influence: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

Why do I advocate women’s equality? The love of Christ compels me.

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How Prejudice Can Distort the Bible

What does it look like when the Bible is taken out of context, and seen through the eyes of prejudice…against men?

It might look something like this:

We can see in the Genesis account that God’s creation progresses from those things that are more basic to those that are more complex and beautiful. Thus we see God begins with creating such basic things as light and dark, land and water. He then creates plants and basic animal life. Finally, he progresses to humanity, beginning with the man and finishing with the pinnacle of his creative work: woman. (Genesis 1:1-27)

The notion that God’s creation progresses from the lesser to the greater is affirmed in the writing of the apostle Paul. Specifically, he refers to the first man as “the glory of God,” whereas he refers to the woman as the glory of this glory. By this the apostle indicates that the woman is twice as glorious as the male! (1 Corinthians 11:7)

That women are the pinnacle of God’s creation is also demonstrated in God’s choosing a woman, without the involvement of a man, to give birth to the Savior. “And of Jesus Christ, the birth was thus: For his mother Mary having been betrothed to Joseph, before their coming together she was found to have conceived from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). It is clear that a man would not have been worthy to play a role in God’s redemptive plan, because it was the man—not the woman—through whom sin and death came to the whole world: “through the disobedience of the one man, the many were constituted sinners” (Romans 5:19).

We see, in fact, the cowardly and unbelieving nature of men (in general) by looking at the story of Barak and Deborah. Barak, a man, was unwilling to obey the Lord’s command to go into battle. He would only go if accompanied by Deborah. Deborah, a woman, had faith and courage. Therefore she enjoyed the Lord’s blessing and was appointed a leader over Israel. (Judges 4:4-8)

The fearful and unbelieving nature of men is further demonstrated in the New Testament, when Jesus entrusted the news of his resurrection exclusively to women. They bore witness to our Lord’s victory over sin and death. The men who first received the good news–even though they had spent much time in the company of the Lord, and had seen many miracles–did not believe: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women” (Luke 24:9-11).

What have I done to achieve such a monumental distortion of the Bible’s message? I simply began reading with the underlying assumption that men are inferior to women, and that Adam (because of his inferiority) was ultimately responsible for humanity’s fall. This assumption has reframed each and every text I’ve cited, removing it from its original context, and distorting its meaning.

Throughout church history, the same process has been used to distort the meaning of the Bible as it relates to women. The following influential theologians began reading the Bible with the basic assumption that women are somehow inferior to men and that they are ultimately to blame for humanity’s fall:

Origen: “It is not proper for a woman to speak in church, however admirable or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips.”

Tertullian: “You are the devil’s gateway, you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.”

Augustine: “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.”

Calvin: “Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”

and

“Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.” (https://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/must-women-keep-silent-1-corinthians-14-the-apostle-paul-and-the-traditions-of-men/)

Today, the interpretive framework laid down by Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and John Calvin continues to lift the biblical text out of its original context, and make sense of it as if there is something inherently wrong with women. One prominent complementarian, for example, explains that women may not share leadership authority in the church or the home because of their “characteristic weaknesses” (http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/affirming-the-goodness-of-manhood-and-womanhood-in-all-of-life). Another has said that women are simply more gullible and more easily deceived than men (http://www.dennyburk.com/mark-driscoll-on-women-in-ministry-2/). Ignoring the context of various biblical passages, these and other like-minded leaders in the church, infer a doctrine of male authority and female subordination.

As a result of reading the Bible through the lenses of systemic prejudice, women have been given lists of what they may not do in the church or in the home. Essentially, they may not lead or teach. In other words, they are prohibited from sharing decision-making authority and/or teaching the Bible…because of alleged characteristic weaknesses.

This article is an attempt to highlight how prejudice can affect our interpretation of the Bible, and how this kind of prejudice still affects women in the church today. It is also a call for humble reflection, and—I hope—repentance. My prayer is that the church would lay aside the distorting lenses of prejudice against women once and for all, in Jesus name.

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