Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Women are Not a "Secondary Issue": Revised Edition

Is one's view of women's "proper place" a secondary issue?

I've written about this question before on this blog and that post was picked up by Ethics Daily here. But, the matter was raised for me again this week when I watched this book trailer for the new release, Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church by Pam Hogeweide (Civitas Press, 2012). (You can read and learn more about the author here.) I have not read the book yet and I look forward to doing so. But, for this post, I want to comment on something that Hogeweide says in the book trailer.

In response to the common assertion that we shouldn't focus too much on non-essential issues like women in ministry, she says: "I think that women are not non-essential." My first response to this statement was a heartfelt and relieved, "Yes! Amen, sister!" And, indeed, she is absolutely right. Women are not non-essential. They are co-bearers of God's image, full recipients of the Holy Spirit, and full members of God's royal priesthood. Thus, the matters that pertain to them should be matters of import to the entire church. As I said recently in another post, "Women's issues are human issues."

Still, as I have mulled over her statement more, I can't resist the urge to nuance her point just a little bit. This doesn't mean I hesitate to support Pam Hogeweide's cause (or the cause of my others sisters working for the full equality of women in the church), but I think there is an important theological qualification that needs to be made. In what follows, I will make this qualification and then follow up with a couple more observations that (I hope) will fully explain my stance.

There is a sense in which one's view on the "proper place" of women (in the home, church, and world) is non-essential. This sense is when we are speaking of "essential" in such a way that it refers to the most central aspects of the apostolic faith, handed on to the Apostles and from the Apostles all the way to us. These central aspects of the faith are summarized briefly in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and then, later, in the Apostles' Creed (and, if you like, even later in the Nicene Creed). The things expressed in these creedal statements are the tenets one would be expected to profess upon one's baptism--the truths that one asserts as one identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and is then accepted into the Christian community.

These tenets do not include the place of women and, I think, rightly so. If we're talking about the minimum standard for orthodox Christianity, women's "proper place" need not be included. Ultimately, whether you believe Christ is "the Word became flesh" is more important than whether you believe women should be ordained. In this way, you might say that I can agree that the view of women's place in the church is non-essential when we are standing by the baptismal font. As it pertains to one's entrance into the Kingdom of God and the church, Christ's bride, one's view of women is non-essential.

Now, on the other hand, there is a sense in which one's view of the "proper place" of women really is essential. This sense is when we are speaking of "essential" in such a way that it refers to the immediate outworking of the Gospel of the Kingdom by the church. The way the church lives as the people of God on earth, seeking to abide in Christ and make his Way known, is no small matter. And, the way women are instructed to live as the people of God, and exercise their gifts within the Body of Christ is not non-essential, either. The confession of faith one makes at baptism must immediately work itself out in the world, on the ground. Like it or not, where women stand in the home, church, and world is a major part of this outworking in Christian discipleship. In this way, I can agree that the view of women's place is essential when we leave the baptismal font and proceed into the work of being the Church.

So, with these qualifications in mind, I want to illustrate my second assertion--that one's view of women is, in fact, an essential issue--with two points.

But, first, a personal (and true) anecdote to help with my illustration. Ronnie and I have a very good friend who is a long-time pastor and scholar. He is one of the most faithful and godly Christian men that we know. (No exaggeration!) We look to him for counsel in making major decisions, follow his (and his wife's) example in raising our children, and enjoy spending time with him and his family whenever we can, sharing, praying, and discussing the Kingdom of God. But, he and I have different views on the matter of male headship and women's place in the home and the church. While I affirm mutual submission in marriage and women's full equality in the church, our friend affirms male headship in the home and male-only elder/pastor leadership in the church. Does this disagreement affect our friendship or fellowship as Christians? Not at all. Does this disagreement have major consequences for our corresponding theology and worldview? I think it does.

First, our views on women lead to divergent approaches to the narrative of redemption. The truth is, my friends who believe in hierarchy tell the story of redemption differently than I do. While I characterize the subordination of women in marriage and society as a destructive and deleterious result of the Fall, they will characterize it as an often abused, but no less divinely ordained plan for the relationship of men and women. For me, the restoration of all things in Christ leads to a "new creation" in which male-female hierarchy is abolished (under the sole lordship of Christ) and all are free to function in the power of the Holy Spirit. For them, the restoration of all things in Christ leads to a Spirit-inspired ability to live out the divine plan of male-female hierarchy in a way that is loving and God-honoring. For me, the examples of female leadership in the Old and New Testaments are shining examples of what God intended to do all along--restore women to their proper place alongside men in God's Kingdom. For them, the examples of female leadership in the Bible are either places where godly male leadership failed to emerge or they are glaring exceptions to the general rule. I could go on and on, but I think my point is clear. One's narrative of salvation history differs significantly depending upon one's view of women's "proper place."

Second, our views on women lead to divergent approaches to the Christian tradition. Going back to my good friend, it is clear from our numerous conversations about theology and ministry that he and I take very different stances in relation to the Christian tradition. For him, the proper posture in relation to almost 2,000 years of church teaching is one of humility and thoughtful deference. Although he certainly wouldn't say that simply because Augustine or Aquinas said it, it must be right, my observation is that he proceeds with great caution when presuming to take issue with hundreds of years of church teaching on a particular issue. In contrast, because I have taken the stand that the Christian tradition has, by and large, been wrong about the matter of women, I do not have the same level of deference to the tradition and the "great thinkers" of the tradition. Certainly, I am not flippant with regard to the theologians, mystics, and other teachers of the church that have gone before us. Yet, because I have accepted the fact that they were mostly wrong about women (not to mention slavery!), I have allowed into my approach the very real possibility that they are wrong about other things, as well.

And so, there are theological "moves" that I make in my work that will make our friend uncomfortable. He may think I'm playing "fast and loose" with the tradition. And, there are theological stances that he takes in his ministry that will make me uncomfortable. I may think that he's being "too rigid" with regard to contemporary applications of the tradition. All of this is because we take our stand within the Christian tradition with two different postures. One you might say is characterized first of all by trust, while the other, you might say, is characterized first of all by caution. In the end, I don't think these differences necessarily mean that we end up looking all that different in terms of our overall theological perspectives. But, the way we arrive at our conclusions, the voices we consider in our argumentation, and the certainty with which we affirm our points of view differ significantly.

So, getting back to the original question: "Is one's view of women's 'proper place' a secondary issue? " My (revised) answer is, in short, when we are standing at the baptismal font, one's view of women's "proper place" is, in fact, secondary; but, when we proceed from there into the church and the world, one's view of women's "proper place" is most certainly not secondary, but essential to the outworking of the Kingdom of God. Moreover, the position one takes on the matter of women's "proper place" will have a significant impact, both on the way one narrates the story of redemption in Christ and the stance one takes in relation to the Christian tradition. As someone working for the full equality of women in the church, I hope neither to maximize or minimize the real difference my perspective makes on the way I do the work of theology and church ministry.


Gary Snowden said...

As always, Emily, you present your case convincingly and with conviction, but not bombastically. Thanks for being a voice for many who cannot speak for themselves.

Paul Burleson said...


I agree with Gary and would also just add my appreciation for the very clear and NEEDED distinction you have articulated.

Without this understanding, I'm fearful the need and importance of the issue of women in ministry and their freedom in Christ would be, if not lost , certainly diminished. That must not happen.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Gary and Paul, thank you both for reading and for your encouragement. Blessings to you both!