Are We Still Majoring on This Minor
Take for instance the issue of women in the Church. Despite biblical evidence that women held positions of leadership in both Old and New Testaments, despite historical evidence that shows women have participated in every facet of Church life up until the 4th century, despite cultural arguments that state that such behaviour is simply discriminatory, there is much antagonism voiced against those championing male-female equality. While other groups have fought for and won their independence we might one day look back with tremendous embarrassment at our present generation.
“Christians are “mischievous” in their handling of biblical prohibitions against women.”
Not much has changed in the struggle for equal spiritual rights since the turn of the century. Fundamentalism’s response to the perceived attacks of biblical criticism and liberal theology was to compel followers to return to the basics of Christianity (the “fundamentals”). Women were asked to return to a Victorian notion of femininity which proclaimed domesticity and motherhood as the ideal.
Thus, when the editors of Spread the Fire asked me to read and comment on Katherine Bushnell’s, God’s Word to Women (1923), I was initially hesitant if not downright scared. At first glance I immediately recognized the fundamentalist writing style (topical verse by verse commentary from Genesis to Revelation), and was worried this reading would put me straight to sleep. I must admit that although having read other works on the place of women in Church ministry, I was not expecting this one to come close. To my surprise Bushnell offers a common sense approach to many complex issues. The work offers insights that will ring true to women finding themselves unfortunately in the same situation the author found herself over 70 years ago.
Having obviously been academically trained, Bush¬nell begins her work with the astute observation that most Christians are “mischievous” in their handling of biblical prohibitions against women. She cautions those who would allow women access to ministry while still having nagging doubts about some of Paul’s statements. If women are to be considered for ministerial roles, reasons Bushnell, this must be done with the full approval of the Bible. If we believe that the Bible is God’s Word, then this is where all our beliefs must be rooted.
“How Paul’s restrictive verses can be true if in other places the Bible openly states that women did fill roles of authority?”
Something that most Christians who have thought about this issue will find helpful is a detailed analysis of Bible verses that seem to exclude women from ever taking a position of leadership in the Church. Well intentioned Christians feel that when they quote these verses they are being spiritually faithful. Most will conclude that they are “just following what the Bible says.” But if they are honest, they will on occasion wonder how Paul’s restrictive verses can be true if in other places the Bible openly states that women did fill roles of authority.
How can the apostle Paul quiet women for all time in I Corinthians 14:34-35 if in verse 31 he has just maintained that “ye may all prophesy?” How can I Timothy 2:8-15 teach that women are never to be in authority over a man when Acts 18:26 reveals Priscilla and Aquila teaching Apollos? In matters such as these Bushnell is helpful. Though no single author can hope to have all the answers to this complex problem, reading such a treatise will help interested parties move beyond proof texting (quoting single verses ripped out of context) to consider the entire counsel of Scripture.
“If this rule was followed, she believes that women would never have been considered pieces of property”
Some of her insights are very creative and bear repeating. Bushnell feels that prolonged disobedience to God’s first marriage commandment was where everything went wrong. As with the stories of Samson’s first wife and Jacob’s dealings with Laban, upon marriage a man was to “cleave unto his wife” (Gen 2:24 My translation) by leaving his own kin home and joining his wife’s family. Since the woman would be living with her own family, this would insure against spousal abuse or mistreatment. The author reads into this verse a divinely instituted system of checks and balances which she claims is the first social law given to guide marital relationships. If this rule was followed, she believes that women would never have been considered pieces of property. In this novel interpretation, mother-in-law jokes emanating from the mouths of griping son-in-laws have deeper (if not outright heretical) roots.
That the issue of women in the Church is causing controversy shouldn’t bring alarm. Many truths, even those now held by the Church, once began as heresies. During the American civil war both north and south used the Bible to claim their views on slavery as God’s truth. As the 1960s marked the coming of age for blacks, angry women also began to protest unfair treatment at the hands of their male “oppressors.” Though feminism and lesbianism should reveal to us the harmful extremities that inequality breeds, I would argue that the Church should have been leading by example. Today we should make every effort to listen closely to the Spirit who wishes desperately to liberate women. Our future together depends on it.