A question with ancient roots distracts modern Christendom with revived potency: what shall we now do with the women?
Spurred by modern brands of the Patriarchy Movement, some wonder: is church policy clear enough on women teaching only other women and children, and not men? Are policies unambiguous regarding women cooking, cleaning, counseling, and praying, but not leading? Others argue over which of the gains, if any, women have made in the secular world are applicable to Christian women. A few debate whether or not women’s roles are culture-specific or universally applicable. Still others ask, simply: is all this newfound (secular) freedom from Satan, or is it from God? Should we just insist women go back home, serve men and breed God’s seed, or shall “we” set them free, indeed? (The editorial “we,” male of gender, still searching, not yet having found…apparently…)
Both truth-seekers and power-mongers continue to ponder and pontificate while, as from primordial days, women believers await their release from the curse pronounced at Eden’s gate while in the minds of some men, women’s bodies, tied to their reproductive function and gender status, continue to be, as it were, the mediation of the ills of the world.
Other women, understanding that Jesus took their curse, too, on the cross in His own body (pause here, in awe), quietly step away from the weary conversation once and for all and, freed in Christ, go out and serve in giftings administered “severally as (the Holy Spirit) wills” (I Corinthians 12:1-12), some, by helping to free other women.
I represent the latter group. I yield to Christ alone for my “assignments.” At times, I represent traditional “women’s roles” as wife and mother. At other times, I preach, teach, evangelize and so on like all Christians, as the Holy Spirit, Who, like the wind, “blows where He wills,” drawing hearts to Jesus (John 3:8). I lay both successes and failures at the foot of the cross.
But, back to the discussion and the foundational question: whence the conflict? In part, the writings of Paul, New Testament commentator. In part, Jewish law, Old Testament mandates. In part, I think, a narrow read of Scripture. By that I mean, I wonder often if people caught in the crux of this controversy have considered the grand scope of metaphor, the themes “between the lines” in Scripture that are also supported by Christ’s substitutionary role? I wonder if they understand the redemption graced there in poetry, psalm, and discourse? The metaphor that points in each book to another type of woman, another “female role” altogether. But first, a few thoughts on women’s types and roles.
GODDESS, WHORE, OR EARTH MOTHER?
As a college freshman in English lit, I was taught the professor’s concept of women’s roles in literature. According to him, women are represented in only three “types” representing certain behaviors: goddesses, “earth mothers,” or whores. (This was some years ago, incidentally. He’d not get far these days outside the world of literary esoterica.) Professor X had published a hefty doctoral thesis on all of the ramifications of this concept to justify his theory. Meanwhile, his students where schooled in how to spot evidence to support his notions in the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, and so on.
I took the professor’s ideas for simply what they were: his ideas. I read the works, answered the study questions through the lens of his paradigm, and moved on, knowing the limitations. I am reminded of the experience today, however, as I consider the controversy surrounding the role of women in the church.
MEDIATRIX, (VIRGIN) MARTYR, OR MOM?
Long before I entered Survey of English Lit 101, I had gleaned other “types” of and roles for women from my Roman Catholic background. Perhaps the most extraordinary, was the “Mediatrix” role. However, this was a role reserved for one: Mary, Jesus’ mother. This relatively new doctrine is based on the belief that Mary was also born sinless like her Son, and that she was/is somehow involved in our redemption along with Jesus, the sole Mediator the rest of Christendom recognizes. But if this woman came to represent somehow a feminine savior, the subtext was that there might also be, for women, some unique part in the suffering of Christ for mankind, too.
Another popular type of woman was/is “virgin, martyr.” This condition is listed as one of the pre-requisites for female sainthood in the Catholic tradition. While male saints may be martyrs, there is no virgin requirement for them.
And, of course, attainable for every woman, was/is the role of motherhood. This is the primary role for women reflected in most cultures and in most religious systems. Catholic moms, however, were encouraged to have as many children as “the good Lord allowed,” and childbirth was somehow, as we were taught, tied in with the “she shall be saved in childbirth” scripture (1 Timothy 2:15) although the exact extrapolation of this was not as clear as one would like. But Catholic women, indeed all members of the church who have not attained priesthood, are taught that only the priests can interpret Scripture, so we were not likely to question what the Church pronounced. Even nuns, who enjoy a role somewhere between motherhood and priesthood, still minister within parameters assigned women, and they are, of course, subject to priests.
PRAIRIE MOTHER OR LADY FAIRE?
After leaving the Roman Catholic religion and entering, for lack of a better term, Protestantism, I was surprised that there were also roles for women there, too. However, I was primed for it, having just come from the “Mother of All Patriarchies,” so I didn’t pay much attention at first.
Women, according to the hierarchy in that many-faceted denomination also had lesser roles in the Body, I learned. It didn’t concern me, however, as I had an ever-strengthening faith in and intense gratitude for Christ Who had redeemed me. I came to understand my freedom in Him in a potent way, as do people who’ve been in bondage, and little else mattered for this growing Christian. And I had no sense of any inclination to pursue a leadership role in the local church I attended. I was just glad for the “watering hole” of Scripture and fellowship while I realized enough “assignments” at home, in the workplace, and in the circles of my associates, family, and friends. But as I came to understand the Patriarchal influence, Protestant version, among certain men’s organizations in Christendom, I began to wonder what’s going on there, too.
This realization led me to research the modern day Patriarchy movement, also known as Complementarianism. Only in this brand of the theory, especially in its extreme forms, women are reared in the most restricted milieu of all, parallel in certain aspects with some of the limitations imposed on Old Testament-era women who were regarded culturally as property.
I marvel at this notion in the twenty-first century. I marvel more at this notion in light of God’s plan of redemption as threaded through scriptures, both Old and New Testament, stained, all, with the blood of Christ.
Popular role models for women in some of these groups seem to resemble the prairie women of nineteenth century America, a few in dress as well as demeanor. The mythology of the American westering movement presents pioneer women as strong, fertile, and working the American dream alongside their husbands while also producing the seed of a new country manifestly destined, as believed, to be the light on the hill, the New Jerusalem. (Some, in these groups, subscribe to the parallel belief in Dominion Theology which ties in nicely.)
Other groups incorporate the Knights of the Round Table and their “Ladies Faire” themes. Women are to be protected, rescued–and subservient.
WARNING: SOAPBOX INTERLUDE
As a side note, I glance aghast at the kinds of popular Christian women’s fiction books that crowd Christian bookstore shelves. They invariably feature young women of the western prairie or Elizabethan ladies faire but all with the attributes of women of these heavily romanticized by-gone eras who, though starting out independent and strong-minded, eventually submit to the expectations of their gender and rank as determined by men.
The reality of life for women in both of those eras was far, far less romantic. Life expectancies were drastically short (in The War of the Roses historian Alison Weir cites the life expectancy of a man in the fifteenth century to be 50, while women averaged 30 years largely due to constant childbirth starting at very young ages. According to historical data, the Oregon Trail pioneers lost family on the route west at least every eighty yards, not to mention the loss of life while carving out lives in the often hostile wilderness). Not to mention, of course, the status of women as near and actual chattel in most of history, with no rights of self-determination, property, or even rights over their own children.
I posit that one day stories of women in our era who fight the oppression and suppression of Christian women will sell very, very well, in the “inspirational market” as well as will the stories of the men who work beside them.
All of this mythologizing reminds me of a former student whose family is involved in Civil War reenactments. A few years ago, he did a military tour of duty in Afghanistan. He came back with serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He can’t sleep. He has frequent nightmares. He finds it hard to engage at work. He may process his experiences the rest of his life. It was not at all like the romance of the reenactments…
Thank you for your patience. Now back to the topic.
ANOTHER TYPE OF WOMAN
For a movement that claims the basis of men’s and women’s roles for all time is evidenced in no nonsense black-and-white terms in the Scriptures, leaders certainly seem to depend heavily upon the metaphors rampant in the idealized lifestyles of days past which, when the veneer of the ideal is scraped off, were exceptionally hazardous to women.
But there is a metaphor that is appropriate and safe for women—and men, too—one that mirrors redemption. It is the metaphor that sings out from Genesis to Revelation, presented in the feminine, the very “female” for which Jesus, donning flesh, became Himself “the body of mediation” on the cross. “She” was/is the “woman” for whom Jesus paid the price of sin which enabled her to enter the throne room and plead her case with the King like Esther of old, who was a type of the Church. But unlike Esther, Jesus satisfied the demands of “preparation” for entrance into the throne room, on Calvary, with His blood. He satisfied the sin-debt accrued when God’s people of both genders of all eras whore(d) after other gods. He satisfied the debt for all sins stretching back to Eden’s gate and forward to the pearled gates.
I speak, of course, of God’s people called today the Bride of Christ, us. I speak, of course, of Jesus Who sings to us redemption’s song, Who became the curses that were set in motion at creation’s first light (Galatians 3:13), Who is our one and only means of salvation—not by flesh but by faith.
THE BRIDE OF CHRIST
In all of the debates, declarations, and dogmas concerning what to do with the half of the Church that, via the luck of the genetic draw, inherited female body parts, where is talk of the Bride of Christ? Where is she discussed as our ideal, and not just for women but for men, as well? Where is the Bride of Christ in all this strife, while, sidetracked by seekers and mongers, we waylay the Great Commission by the Great Controversy?
No doubt, since the enmity between “her” and “it” first surfaced near Eden’s east gate, there will always be this conversation, this argument, this debate—at least this side of eternity. My questions and others’ will remain relegated to secondary status by the framers of the debate who also, for the time being, wield most of the power.
But at least now there are more voices at the table, both men’s and women’s. Perhaps more importantly, there are more who have left the table and are leaving now for the fullness of redemption in Christ Jesus, and who now wait in the wings to serve those weary of the strife and longing for salvation. And who are not afraid to speak up.
For my part, to serve you who may have come recently from the fray or who are still engaged there, I offer the encouragement of Scriptures that ministered to me and minister to countless other women as we press close to grace. I pray you will ponder them, even as the real Mary pondered the angel’s pronouncement of the Savior she would birth, the One Who would free her from sin’s—and mankind’s—recompense. The same Who frees us from the punishments due us, no matter our gender, status, “type,” role, or era. (Pause here, in awe.) May you find rest and encouragement here:
“The flesh profits nothing; the spirit gives life” (John 6:63).
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
“It is finished” –Jesus (John 19:30).
Update: I continue to be deeply touched by the video, below, that I cited as an “inspirational view” at the end of my previous post, “Lively Epistles.” It features Derek Redmond, the 1992 Olympic runner who, after tearing a hamstring but insisting on continuing his race, was assisted to the finish line by his father who ran down from the stands. Not only is the view a reminder of those who come alongside us in trouble (types of Jesus), the music accompanying, Josh Grobin’s rendition of “You Raise Me Up,” holds a special place in the discussion, here, and a special place for me. Note: the presentation of this video here is not meant as an endorsement of the organization featured.
beautifully stated case for gender equality……thank you
Thank you! And thanks for our many in-depth conversations on this and related topics over the years. Nice to “hear” from you here. 🙂