We will never change cultural norms around bias or prejudice until we change them in the faith communities that shape our values. This is particularly true when it comes to our views or attitudes about women. All the monotheistic religions have a horrible history when it comes to women. This is why in the 21st century these religions have become increasingly irrelevant. I am amazed in my own religions tradition (Christian, Protestant, Wesleyan, Nazarene) at the lip service given to women’s access but the failure to include women in key leadership positions. My tradition is hardly alone on this issue.
Robin Meyers in his work, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus made the following observation: “How ironic then, that according to our story, women were last at the cross and first at the tomb – yet in some churches they are still not allowed to preach or hold positions of authority. Without women there would be no church. This is not a liberal or conservative position, but rather an historical reality.” (159)
I use to stress with my students in Church History that in the early Christian community, the Church before Irenaeus (c. 130 – c.200) and Constantine (d. 337), women held key leadership positions and were responsible for the most important ministry of the church, hospitality – the care and feeding of the “stranger.” Hospitality in the contemporary church has been reduced to an industry and church suppers. In early Christianity, hospitality was central to the moral foundation of the church. Hospitality equaled Christian morality. If we recaptured the meaning of hospitality it would transform the way we relate to all kinds of different and diverse populations.
Over the centuries, layers of bureaucratic and dogmatic protectionism by men have kept women at a distance – and have excluded them from leadership. Jesus would not recognize his community in the modern church. Nor, interestingly enough, despite our proof-texting of certain passages from the Apostle Paul, would Paul recognize the community. It was Paul, writing in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We have totally underestimated the power of this statement and its ramifications for the life of the early Christian community.
Things we can do today!
- Assess how your church includes women in leadership positions and encourage inclusion.
- Don’t be afraid of thinking in “quotas.” Nobody wants to be a token, but nobody wants to be excluded. In race relations in the United States – quota programs have worked. They guaranteed access and contributed to greater participation by minorities in all facets of life.
- Encourage women to enter the ministry and set up awareness programs with congregations about the historical involvement and important role women play in leadership.
- Don’t talk about equal rights outside the church unless you are prepared to practice it inside the church. Leaders will champion the involvement of women in all aspects of the life of the church.
- Facilitate gender awareness when it comes to abuse, neglect, child protection, and engagement in the broader community. Women are disproportionately victimized by crime, violence, and sexual abuse. The church and its leadership should be a safe place for women to gather and learn.
- Train and equip church boards on how to recruit, nurture, and learn from women in ministry. Be intentional.
There are many other things you can and should do. Many of you are already doing them. It is time we put action behind our words. We hurt ourselves by excluding the majority of members in our congregations – women.
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