Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Women Are Not Permitted to Teach" - But Real Life Just Won't Cooperate

I just finished reading How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership:Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, edited by Alan F. Johnson.  In the individual stories, each written by a different evangelical leader, one recurring theme began to stand out in my mind.  Here it is articulated by John H. Armstrong, former pastor and current church consultant, president of a ministry known as ACT 3:
[In my childhood in 1950s America] Mom was a gifted teacher of the Bible.  She was, in fact, the best Bible teacher I ever heard until I went to college.  I honestly think she was the best Bible teacher in our town.  Jealousy among local pastors, who knew how gifted (and popular) she was, surfaced when her Bible classes for teens drew large numbers of young adults from every church background to our home. . . I soon learned that the real question was not whether people like Mom could use their gifts. Most agreed about her gifts and their importance. The pressing troubling question came down to this: How should my mom have used her gifts in relationship to the men in the church? Should she have been encouraged to actually teach men? Many years after I became an adult, she was given a dying Sunday evening women's class in a megachurch.  The class began to grow rapidly. The women then began to bring their husbands, who gladly listened to Mom teach until the pastor stepped in to stop it! [Emphasis in original.]
Here's a similar story by Olive Liefeld, former missionary to Ecuador, author and speaker:
I had been home from Ecuador for a few months after my husband, Peter Fleming, along with four other missionaries, were killed by the Auca (now properly known as the Waorani) Indians. . . [This] was one of a number of incidents that made me realize that there were many inconsistencies and ways to get around some of the strong beliefs about women speaking in front of men. . . Being [Plymouth] Brethren, I was not used to doing public speaking. . . I was asked to speak at women's conferences and at their missionary meetings, but never to the church assembly.  
In some places the men were determined to hear me. After one of the meetings, a door opened behind me and a group of men came out. They were listening to me behind the wall.  At one women's conference several men came and asked me if it would be all right if they listened to me in the lower auditorium. In other places, if they couldn't hear me in the assembly building, then I was asked to speak in a home.
Again and again I saw this as I read. Devoted Christian churches trying to follow what they sincerely felt was God's prohibition against women teaching men.  Women trying to obey the rule that they were only to teach the Bible to other women or to children.  And an odd side-effect, arising out of the simple fact that what these women had to give was actually beneficial and enriching to more people than those they were supposed to be ministering to.

Beneficial and enriching, in short, to men.  And the men ended up as the ones losing out.

In the same book John Stackhouse, Jr., former professor of religion, currently Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, summarizes the issue:
My actual experience with women of faith raised further questions. . . I encountered female Christians who were the spiritual equal of men. Indeed, they seemed the equal of men in every way pertinent to leadership in church and society, and also to partnership at home. . . examples of women who simply were not inferior to men, who seemed to me in their respective ways to possess all that was necessary for full partnership in every social sphere. They were certainly feminine in classic ways-- warm, nurturing, encouraging, patient and gentle-- but also rational, discerning, insightful and pragmatic. So why . . . couldn't we benefit from their leadership? [Emphasis added.] 
You would think, if God really intended women to be limited to teaching their Bible insights and spiritual knowledge only to other women and to children, that the teaching of women would in all practicality be incapable of truly benefiting or lifting up men-- at least, not in those venues where women are apparently forbidden.  Shouldn't God limit the abilities of women to what would suit their proper sphere?  Shouldn't men find, since God never intended women to have anything spiritually authoritative to teach men in a church setting, that they as men don't actually learn anything valuable when they listen in on women teaching in church?

And yet the Father seems to keep on creating women who are so creative, intelligent and capable that they reach, almost despite themselves, outside that supposed proper sphere.  And throughout Christian history, when it comes to divine giftings, the Holy Spirit has just never seemed willing to obey the rules.  As I have detailed on this blog in the past, from Marcella of Rome in 350 AD, to Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, to Margaret Fell in the England of the 1600s and Jerena Lee early in 19th-century America-- a divine anointing for Bible ministry, uplifting people of both sexes, has been apparent in the lives of many women.

In 1711-1712 Susanna Wesley conducted evening gatherings at her home during the absence of her minister husband, which quickly escalated into community-attended Bible services.  As she put it:
Other people's coming out and joining with us was merely accidental.  One lad told his parents. They first desired to be admitted; then others that heard of it, begged leave also. . . With those few neighbors that then came to me, I discoursed more freely and affectionately. I chose the best and most awakening sermons we have. And I spent somewhat more time with them in such exercises, without being careful about [i.e., without paying active attention to] the success of my undertaking. Since this, our company increased every night; for I dare deny none that ask admittance. . . Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred. And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.*
Even in the pages of the Bible itself, Christian women are mentioned who seem to be commissioned for more than just the teaching of other women and children, such as deacon Phoebe and Junia the apostle, both mentioned in Romans 16.**

So what it comes down to is this. Many churches restrict women from teaching men.  But men are finding many women's teachings so good that they really want to hear them.  Who, then, is actually being restricted?  Who has to sneak around and listen behind walls and pretend they're not breaking the rules?

The men.

Has any church in history ever taught or preached that men should be restricted and constrained from hearing good, anointed, life-changing Bible teaching?

Obviously not.  Churches have taught only that women should be restricted and constrained from teaching men.  And women who feel called into ministry have felt the restriction, and wept over it. They have wept particularly when they tried to speak to men and men have turned their backs.  But women haven't stopped teaching those they are allowed to teach.

And when the men won't listen, or are told not to listen, or are shamed for listening, it's the men who are losing out.  Somehow I don't think this result was anticipated or intended by evangelical gatekeepers who thought they were keeping men and women safe from the dangerous consequences of women overstepping authority.

The problem is that the dangerous consequences have somehow failed to materialize, while the real blessings of women's giftings have.

When real life just won't cooperate with the way a religious rule is suppose to work, doesn't that mean the rule has somehow become more important than the people it was meant to help?  And has the original purpose of the rule somehow gotten lost?  Was the Sabbath made for man, or man for the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27)

If even the Pharisees would pull their donkey out of a pit on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), and Jesus used this as a reason to do good on the Sabbath even if it seemed to break the rules, then should male Christians be deprived of good teaching in Sunday morning church just because it's coming from the mouth of the other sex?

God really isn't that schizophrenic and arbitrary.  And if our view of the Bible is making Him so, perhaps its time we found another way to look at it.

*Words of Susanna Wesley quoted by her son John Wesley in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 1, page 386; requoted in Daughters of the Church, Tucker & Liefeld (Zondervan,1986), p. 238.
**Support of Phoebe and Junia as authoritative ministers in the church can be found in Dr. Scott McKnight's book Junia Is Not Alone and Dr. Philip Payne's book Man & Woman: One in Christ.


Anonymous said...

Yep. Superstition inflames the prejudice people bring to the table and justifies their most hateful and irrational impulses. Superstition so disorders reason that even so-called "leadership" find themselves acting bat shit crazy and calling it god swill.

We can be good to each other without the burden of invisible friends and the tricky trappy nonsense that tends to empower the craven narcissists among us.

As your verifier software says, "Please prove you're not a robot!"

Kristen said...

Anonymous, presumably we can also be good to one another by not ridiculing others' beliefs or reducing them to strawmen. As for proving I'm not a robot, I doubt if you'd accept any other "proof" but for me to see the light and become an atheist. Not going to happen, so I guess that makes me a robot. So since you can't have anything to say to a robot, you probably should be done here.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you mistook me, Kristen, though I can see how it would happen. If you'll look back, you'll see I said nothing about the truth or falsity of anyone's beliefs.

The behavior I you and described together is just what it is whether your beliefs are true or false. I'm interested in the behavior, which we can all see and even agree on. Superstition (which may be true or false, since there is no evidence either way) doesn't interest me. But I don't deny any of it. What would be the point of that? I have no more evidence than you do.

But the naked misogyny you describe, and the twisting of doctrine to personal convenience you describe, we have all seen over and over among the faithful. And again, that mess is just as big a mess no matter how good anyone's guess is. You're welcome to yours. It's none of my business.

But if you ever ACT on belief in a destructive way, as the elders you describe do and do and do, I will push back against that behavior with the rest of the good people, because of the behavior. We won't care what you believe. People only care how you behave.

I enjoyed you piece, and I wish you all the luck you can stand. :)

Kristen said...

Anoymous, I'm not sure what to think about this. You claim to have said nothing about the truth or falsity of my beliefs, but you use the word "superstitution" as a synonym for "religion." Then you say a superstition may be true-- but that is against the very definition of the word "superstition," which means irrational belief based on ignorance and fear.

You are surely educated and intelligent enough to understand that using words like "imaginary friend" and "tricky trappy nonsense" is insulting to people who are religious, like myself. That religion may be used as a prop for narcissists and misogynists, I don't deny. But if you really believe that what others believe is none of your business and only the actions count, you might want to stop using insulting and demeaning language about others' beliefs.

Bev Murrill said...

I'm fortunate to be in a church where gender isn't an issue, but I wasn't always... the Church misses out when gifted preachers are only allowed to preach to half the congregation.

Anonymous said...

You do mistake me, Kristen. Superstition is belief for which there is no objective evidence, specifically, "that one event causes another event without any natural process linking the events, a causal relationship that contradicts natural science."

I know the colloquial misuse you mention, but I don't mean that. I mean what the word strictly means. If religion did not find its explanations in magical thinking, it would not be religion, would it?

And if you look again, you'll see I said INVISIBLE, not imaginary friends. Real or not, they are equally invisible, are they not? We agree on this, so I'm not denying anything.

I describe what we all can see and agree on. That's what interests me. I don't deny anything we can't both see and agree on.

But then I don't have to deny your belief to insult you, do I? I only have to describe belief and some of its effects, say what we can all see, that belief is - no surprise - as uncertain and dicey a human endeavor as every other human endeavor.

Which is not insulting to anyone, since it simply affirms our common humanity.

In fact, I have known faith to turn lives around for the better, just as I have known a job or a hobby or a cause or a friend to turn a life around.

An I have known preachers, deacons, elders, choir directors, to be whoremongers, embezzlers, drug dealers, rapists, murderers, even serial killers.

Those people and their crimes don't deny anyone's creed, either. They may be evidence against some magical hopes and expectations. But the facts insult no one, not even when they raise useful questions.

I really do wish you well. I regret you felt insult where none was offered, and I wish I could express myself better about it all.

Happy MLK Day!


Kristen said...

A - you also mistake me. Denying my belief is no insult when it isn't done insultingly. As for my definition of superstition being a "colloquial misuse," it is in fact what online dictionaries define superstition as, and what most people mean when they use the word.

Here's the Merriam Webster online dictionary, for instance:

"a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation."

I apologize for misreading "invisible friend" for "imaginary friend," but based on the other language of your comment, I had no reason to believe you didn't mean what most atheists mean when they speak of God as an "imaginary friend."

If you don't want religious people to respond to you as if insulted, then don't use words commonly understood as belittling and insulting. Whether you deny their beliefs has nothing to do with it.

Mary said...

Great post, Kristen! I have that book too- I bought it to read with my husband when he transitioned to being ok with full participation of women in the church. I really enjoyed it.