Men, Women and the Bible
Thursday, 16 June 2011
Yesterday I was privileged to attend the Men, Women and the Bible day conference put on by the Sophia Network. Last autumn I undertook Sophia's eight-week theology course on gender in the Bible and having gained so much from it, it was great to see the course finally published as a resource, as well as getting the chance to network, listen to wisdom from three wonderful speakers and just have the opportunity to think so hard about the issues surrounding gender, scripture and the church.
The three teaching sessions - Maggi Dawn on hermeneutics, Howard Worsley on why a theology of gender matters and Lis Goddard on how to engage effectively with those who disagree with us - were very useful in that they gave us plenty of starting points for research, recommended reading and things to consider - in the hope, of course, that we would go away and do plenty of work of our own. There was discussion of particular verses and interpretations and we even had time to have a bit of a chat about privilege. It was so good to discuss the 'dos and don'ts' of debate. As one of those strident wimmin I am a bit confrontational - although I think the same could be said for most people when debating something they're passionate about - so it was interesting to get some food for thought on engaging in a Christlike way.
Overall the day underlined for me just how passionate I am about these issues and how important it is to me to see an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and ministry - or 'restored mutuality' as Lis called it - worked out in a way that can benefit Christian women and enable them to fulfill their true calling, using their unique gifts, in side-by-side partnership with men. An interpretation that takes into account the fact that a hyper-masculine image of God and scripture means that both women and men suffer and are limited. I believe passionately in a Creation/Fall narrative which depicts mutuality, partnership without hierarchy and that we should not live our lives according to the results of the Fall, but strive to emulate pre-Fall male-female relationships.
In an open discussion panel at the end of the day, both panelists and delegates raised incredibly important issues. Over the past couple of years we've heard so much about the 'feminization of the church'. Just type that phrase into a search engine and you'll come across scores of blog posts and articles lamenting what has been happening to Christianity, resulting in men leaving the church in droves, but off by the way it seems to be female-orientated. But Lis said something interesting yesterday. She said that the truth is that the group of people leaving the church fastest and in the greatest numbers are women in their 20s and 30s. And they are leaving because they're disillusioned with church life, confused about what God has for them and burned by being brushed aside.
Let's think about this. Church should be for everyone. But a major challenge for a lot of churches is actually catering to everyone. Women my age are often poorly served in churches where opportunities for women to make friends, get together and grow spiritually frequently come in the form of mum and baby groups, or women's prayer and study groups held on weekdays during working hours. In recent years there has been a big focus on getting men together, hence the breakfasts and curry nights and men's days we see a lot of. And these are good. I do feel that they often rely too heavily on promoting a very stereotypical 'manliness' which is more of today's world than anything and the same could be said for plenty of women's days which focus not just on teaching and worship but also on 'pampering' and eating 'treats'.
It's not always possible to cater to everyone with these sort of events, particularly in small churches with limited resources, but there is a real need to help women find community, a way to serve and a way to develop their gifts. They must not feel that they need to find a husband or have children in order to fit in. They must not become discouraged because they have been told they can't serve in the way they feel called to - perhaps in a position of authority. They must not leave meetings in tears because they've been told they can't speak or make a decision because they are female. They must not feel that it's always right to instantly defer to what men in the church want to do.
They must feel confident in working together with men as a team which works well, not one which is beset by power struggles and dismissive attitudes. And they must feel that if they are worried about one of these things, they can talk to someone about it without being told that it's not important, that egalitarians aren't proper Christians, that gender isn't an issue and that there is no room to discuss it, particularly when this is being said by a man who will not know what it's like to be told that he must limit what he can do for God according to his gender.
Why do I feel this needs underlining? I am part to a church where women are built up, encouraged and given many opportunities to 'do' Christianity the 'mutuality' way, whether that's on a Sunday morning or at home with their husbands. But this is not the case for so many of my sisters. From some churches and groups of churches has come a 'push' towards a more hardline approach to women in ministry and I know for a fact that it is causing hurt and affecting peoples' relationship with God. As I said earlier, this hardline approach doesn't just impact women in a negative way. The stereotypes, the limiting lifestyles it imposes on everyone are not of God and will not, I believe, lead to a fulfilled life.
I can't stand by and watch with an aching heart while high profile Christian leaders say publicly that they would not take a book on scripture written by a woman seriously and while women's concerns are ignored. It creeps in subtly like this, but at the same time we have people believing that God created all women to be subordinate to all men and others using scripture to justify abuse.
So this is me, beginning to take a stand.