Saturday, February 25, 2012

"I'm in Charge Here: Don't Disrespect Me with the Facts"

I’d like to continue looking into this issue of authority and hierarchy in Christianity. Roger E. Olson wrote a blog post last month on “Truth, Authority and Roles.” In it he raised the very valid point that the problem with human hierarchical authority structures is that they are so prone to misuse of power—because deference to power becomes an end in itself, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the issue at hand. As he puts it:

Hierarchy. . . emphasizes roles and “authority over” and “submission to” based on them. In other words, to put it bluntly, hierarchy is the manner of organization of a social unit (especially the family) so that assigned (or assumed) roles matter more than truth. When I was growing up. . . [p]eople who dared to criticize or question those “in authority” were labeled “negative” and ostracized. It wasn’t just a matter of how one did it; simply doing it was considered unspiritual. This mentality led to all kinds of abuses in our church and denomination and movement.

Olson uses Galileo and Luther as examples in church history. The issue the church leaders had with both was not so much about whether or not they were right, but whether or not they were in sin by not submitting to the ecclesiastical authorities. The rightness or wrongness of the actual issues at stake (the fact that the earth actually revolved around the sun, or the sale of “indulgences” so that forgiveness of sins was based on who could pay) took a back seat to whether or not Luther or Galileo had the right to confront their superiors. This was the moral problem in the eyes of the authorities: speaking in contradiction to an authority was rebellion, and rebellion was sin. Whether or not the underling was speaking the truth ultimately didn’t matter.

This is also what often happens when a woman in a hierarchical church tries to get help with her oppressive marriage. Her legitimate concerns are often left by the wayside, while the church focuses on whether she is being properly submissive. It’s not that they don’t care about her—if asked, the church would strongly deny that they didn’t care about the woman. It’s not so much that “is she making a legitimate point?” is intentionally ignored—but it’s subordinated to “who’s in charge?” Because the issue of proper submission is nearly always the first issue raised, it trumps the lesser point of “who’s in the right?” And the underling is effectively silenced.

So when husbands are given unilateral authority over wives, this is the situation. If the man is gentle and humble, as Christ commanded– then he’ll listen to his wife and concede when he perceives truth. If he doesn’t perceive truth, though– even if she’s still in the right, her voice is often hard to for him to truly hear. He is aware, deep down, that his opinion is the one that ultimately matters.

And if he’s not humble and gentle-- not inclined to listen to his wife— eventually she will get weary and discouraged from not being heard, from having her personhood overridden by his in the name of “submission,” from the injustice of having her truth not seriously considered as to whether or not it may be truth, and she may leave him. And then, of course, she will be the one who gets blamed.

Similarly, when a person or a couple with low status in a church hierarchy leave a church, they may have a legitimate complaint which ought to be listened to by the church authorities. The authorities ought to be able to say, “Hey, they’re right and we’re wrong. We need to make some changes.” But often the very existence of the hierarchy renders this impossible. They can’t hear, “Your leadership practices, or the policies you’ve implemented, are hurting the congregation.” All they can see is a church member “in rebellion.” So when the member leaves, who gets blamed? The member— who may even be disfellowshipped for causing strife. Even if he or she was actually in the right.

I saw it too many times when I was in the hierarchical church I attended in college. How much better it would have been if the church authorities could have practiced the wisdom set forth in James 3:17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering and without hypocrisy.” (Emphasis added.) But instead their leadership was full of “jealousy and selfish ambition,”(verse 16) as they held onto power and insisted on deference as their God-given right.

None of these are intended results of hierarchy. But when you have a system that is inequitable by its very nature, and then you set it up as the divine plan of God– this is what can happen. And no one stops to ask, “are we sure this inequitable system was really being endorsed by God in the Bible, or is it just that the Spirit was helping people already living under an inequitable system in the first-century Roman Empire, to work around it?”

So having said all that, I’ll say this. Many churches today blame "worldly feminist culture" for the increase of divorces in evangelical marriages. But here’s what I think is really going on in many cases. Women once believed they really were inferior to men. When their legitimate concerns were ignored or silenced, they accepted it. What else could they do? They had no power, and it was their lot in life. But the evangelical church as a whole is putting forth a new doctrine, even while claiming it is what Christianity as a whole has taught through the ages. The traditional doctrine, taught by Jerome, Origen, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and many others, said point-blank that women were by nature inferior. Today the evangelical church generally teaches that men and women are equal in nature, but have different “roles,” with women meant for the subordinate roles and men meant for the roles of authority.

Today, then, an evangelical woman may say to herself, if she is in an oppressive marriage, "I have chosen to be submissive, but I’m not inferior. I deserve to be listened to and heard. And if I am speaking the truth, it is not less true because I am the one who has it. If my husband’s perceived ‘truth' is weightier and more important than mine, that isn’t right."

This feeling of injustice, of not being heard, will eventually affect her feelings about the marriage, and if things get bad enough, she may in self-preservation seek divorce. But is this truly “worldly feminism”? Or is it a correct understanding of her worth and value to God, and her responsibility of self-stewardship as a temple of the Holy Spirit?

So what is the answer? Go back to the easier time when women knew they were inferior, and so did not expect to be heard and listened to? When it didn't bother them as much when they were overridden by their husbands, because they accepted it as a matter of course? But in that case what do we do with the truth the church has now embraced, because it is, manifestly, the truth, spoken by God in Gen. 1:26-28 and proven by the blood, sweat and tears of women over the last hundred years-- that women really are equal?

If we want to lessen the divorce rate in evangelicalism, we need to address the problem of deference towards authority trumping legitimate truth. And the best way to do that is to finally implement the policy Jesus set forth: “not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Matt. 20:26-27.

The purpose of human hierarchy ends up being to uphold human hierarchy. In the kingdom of God, it is of no ultimate help to those it purports to serve.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My grandmother has passed away.

Well, she wasn't exactly my grandmother; she was my husband's grandmother; but I never really knew my own grandmothers well-- and this woman was more like a real grandmother to me than anyone.

So sad.

I will be taking a short break from my weekly posts on this blog. I'll be in touch again as soon as I am able.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why Did Jesus Choose Twelve Men?

One of the main arguments used against the full participation of women in church leadership is that the twelve Apostles were all male. Jesus chose twelve males, it is said, because Jesus intended that the leaders of the church should be male.

But could there be other reasons why Jesus chose twelve male apostles?

Kay Bonikowsky, on her blog “The Happy Surprise,” has written a very good piece about the symbolic nature of Jesus’ choice: not just that they were male, but that there were twelve of them and that they were all Jews. Pointing out that Jesus’ choice was a fulfillment of Isaiah 1:26: “I will restore your judges as of days of old, your rulers as at the beginning,” she writes:

As twelve Jewish males, they were symbolic for the twelve tribes and their patriarchal heads. In this role, their number and gender is not an example for the new church to follow, but indicative of the closure of the Old Covenant.

Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 show that Jesus did this deliberately, so that the twelve Apostles were to “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant even as it looked forward to the New Covenant. Jesus was not saying all church leaders afterwards had to be male any more than He was saying all church leaders afterwards had to be Jewish.

But there was also a very practical dynamic that we can easily overlook from our modern mindset. The twelve were the main witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In the Ancient Near East and Roman cultures, the testimony of women was considered invalid. It was not accepted in court; it was not legally binding in any way. The world was simply not going to listen to women, and Jesus knew it.

So here’s what He did. His very first act upon Resurrection was to appear to the women. In fact, John tells us that though Peter and John ran ahead of Mary Magdalene on the way to the tomb, they saw nothing. Then after they left, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the Resurrected Christ. John 20:3-14. Other women also saw Him shortly afterwards– but no male saw the Lord, revealed for who He was, until that evening, eight hours or more afterwards. He walked with the disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), but they did not know that He was Jesus. Only Mary Magdalene and the other women knew.

The significance of this would not have been lost on the male disciples in that patriarchal culture. They knew that they themselves had refused to believe the women’s testimony that morning. Then when Jesus appeared to them, they realized the women had been telling the truth.

Jesus was communicating this very clearly (the fact that we miss it today is a product of our culture): “The world will not accept the testimony of your sisters, but I have just forced you to listen to it. My kingdom is to be different from the world. You are to listen to your women and allow them to testify of Me.”

And that’s just what they did. That’s why when Saul began persecuting the church, he “dragged away men and women” to prison. Acts 8:3. At the Crucifixion, the women were safe. They knew they didn’t need to hide like the male disciples, because the authorities considered them negligible. But what women began doing after the Resurrection proved they were no longer to be considered negligible. That’s why they began to be persecuted as well.

The world still did not believe the testimony of women. This shows clearly in the oral tradition that began to circulate immediately after the Resurrection, which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred at the same time. . . .” The appearance of Jesus to 500 witnesses together was the evidence the disciples gave publicly, to prove Jesus was indeed risen. But they didn’t mention that He had appeared to the female disciples first. This would, in the eyes of the world of that time, have detracted from the weight of the message rather than added to it. In fact, there was only one reason why the writers of the Gospels would have put this embarrassing detail into their accounts: that it actually happened that way. This is one of the points that textual critics use to determine whether a story is factual or not: if it includes embarrassing details that would not have been put into a story if it were fictional. The appearance of Jesus to the women first, was an embarrassing detail in a factual account, which had to be included in the written text because that was what had happened.

But because Jesus had in fact appeared first to the women, the apostles simply could not just tell the women to be quiet, go home and serve their families. Jesus had made them witnesses, and so witnesses they had to be. The acceptance by the male apostles of the testimony of women, allowing them to actually preach (and to become a threat that persecutors took into account), was one of the first steps in the elevation of women that Jesus intended in His church.

Jesus chose twelve men as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. But Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the New Covenant, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is not male and female.” Gal. 3:28. If we are going to give weight to the maleness of the twelve Apostles, we must also give weight to the femaleness of the first witnesses. And we have to look at it the way the original readers would have seen it, in order to understand how very important that simple fact was.