|"Separate but equal"|
If you've spent any significant amount of time in a conservative church in America in the past century, it's likely you've heard some reference to the idea that God made men and women "different but equal." This phrase is usually thrown out to reference the idea that men and women are made equal in worth but given different roles by design and different tasks to complete. On a practical level this typically plays out something like this on a church level: Man's place is to learn, teach, and discuss theology. Woman's place is to work in the home, take care of the man's physical needs, and raise his children for him. Often this results in women's functions at church centering on how to make crafts or how to be a better mother or wife, while men's functions focus more on actually teaching theology and the Bible. While I have not yet landed on what to make of the idea of "different, but equal" I do have to take some issue with how it's being applied in many contexts across America today.
It is not enough to simply say women are equal and not treat them as such. Equality is more than a buzzword, it must also be a reality. Spiritual segregation is just as inherently evil and unjust as the physical segregation of the pre-Civil Rights Era was, and it is rampant in the Church today. As of the writing of this post:
- Women are consistently shut out of global theological discussion and debate (both in educational and in cooperative contexts; such as conservative seminaries and meetings, etc.)
- If the roles are "equal" why is it only the men of the global church who are allowed to determine what those roles are and how they should be fleshed out? This is akin to the age-old "I cut the cake, and I choose my piece first" philosophy. Women are left with the remaining piece, and questioning the given reasoning only invites further criticism and condemnation.
- Women are relegated to church ministries that are considered traditionally "feminine" but excluded from church ministries that may be better suited to their gifts and are not restricted from them in the Scripture. (We should be allowed ministry opportunities beyond cooking, working in the nursery, teaching the children's classes, and playing musical instruments...)
- Women who have any theological education are viewed with skepticism and often treated as a threat in church circles simply for discussing theological issues with passion. Engaging in theological discussion and debate should not be viewed as rebellion or insubordination by the leadership. It should be encouraged and taught, to men and women alike. Women who are gifted in this area should not be shunned for caring about biblical truth.
- The church should be the first in line to show the world how Jesus stood up for the protection of women and their worth as people made in the image of God, but instead it was dragged into the era of civil rights and equal rights kicking and screaming. Male-dominated organizations have complained bitterly since the first days of women's equality and have blamed most of America's moral failures on women having better access to healthcare, more options in the job market, and overall having more options for their life choices. What the church seems to forget is that it used to be commonplace for men to beat their wives while the police turned a blind eye to that "private family matter" and women were endangered by those who should have been protecting them. Is that the church's definition of "different but equal"?
- Male leaders of the church treat issues relating to women both culturally and within the church about as sensitively as bulls in a crowded china shop. Treating traumatic personal situations like abortions and sexual assault as casually as other "issues of national policy" like the environment or the economy--is that treating women as "different but equal"?
- Modesty culture within the church places the blame for men's thoughts and lust squarely on the shoulders of the women and their clothing choices, all the while simultaneously sending out the mixed messages of "Modest is hottest, but you don't really want to be hottest, because then you might be immodest." Ultimately telling women to be attractive to men, by not attracting men. Confusing, yes? Perhaps the focus for how women dress should not be all about men at all.
Taking Our Place at the Table
This list could go on indefinitely, but the point is, it is not enough for the church to tell women they are equal and then treat them like they are not. If women are truly joint-heirs with their brothers in Christ, it is time for those brothers in Christ to stop cordoning them off into "Ladies' Retreats" and "Women's Conferences" where they will be taught to be good, cooperative homemakers. It is time to accept them into the same body of Christ that the men are a part of. It is time to welcome them to the theological discussion table. It is time to hear their thoughts and prayers. It is time to invite them to serve where they are able. It is time to teach them the Word (Not 5 steps to Bible study for a busy mom). It is time to teach them the Biblical languages. It is time for the women of the Body of Christ to step up and say enough is enough. We will not take a shallow, watered-down faith that says I am only here to do the things my husband is too busy or too important to do. I am here to serve Christ too, and part of that involves loving God with my mind, not just my hands.
Some readers may find this idea scary or threatening, or just plain offensive. I am sad about that. I am sad that some Christians would be offended at the idea that Christian women are equally human made in the image of God their Creator and deserve the chance to deeply study the Word and to think deeply about that Word and to share their thoughts with others. I am not advocating women as pastors, and I do not dispute the fact that many women find complete satisfaction and joy in serving God in their own homes with their own families. What I am saying is it's time to take back the position on women's equality that Jesus had. He elevated them beyond where society had dragged them down in his day.
Jesus' View of Women
Society (and the church along with it) has once again dragged women down to objectification and inferiority. Women are either considered poisonous objects of sexual temptation or good, virtuous housekeepers who are too busy to know the most important things God has ever given us to know. Let us follow the example of Jesus when he broke society's customs and spoke with outcast women about theology in the middle of the workday. Let's take his lead when he accepted and embraced with the loving title "daughter" the chronically ill and unclean woman in Mark 5. Let's embrace the women in his church and stop using proof texts to shame them, silence them, verbally beat them into submission, or anything else we have found effective in trampling their voice for the Cross.
Let's stop treating educated (particularly in theology) women as social lepers and start inviting them in to use the gifts God's given them and the passions God's put in their hearts for the mission he's given all of us to do until he comes back for us. And, sisters, let's stop settling for a Christianity that sounds like a "How-to" book on parenting or crafting or cooking or anything else. Our faith runs much deeper than that. Jesus has not brought us into his kingdom to be his housekeepers, but his daughters. We are not just his slaves, we are his sisters. Let us study. Let us read. Let us write commentaries and well-researched books. We should not have to choose between raising a family and reading the Word. We should not have to choose between marriage and seminary. We should not have to sacrifice theology for house-wifery. Why are those mutually exclusive? Why can't women love their homes and love their Bibles at the same time with the same level of passion? Let us share the things we are learning with those around us. Let's stop making women's Bible studies a joke, and start digging in to the real meat. We can handle it.
It's long past time for the church to stop lagging behind and take a lead in showing the world how Jesus treats women--with dignity and respect, with love and compassion, with protection and leadership, with support and encouragement. He is not harsh and dictatorial. He is a good leader who helps his children grow and develop and serve with the skills and gifts he gave them. He is not insecure and threatened by honest questions. Why are we?