Wednesday, August 10

All One in Christ Jesus: A Goal of Complete Equality

*This is a featured article by guest author Jake Waehner, Graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College*

Among the most powerful and radical verses in the Bible is Galatians 3:28. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). This verse is likely the most progressive verse to be found in the entire Bible, and is seemingly contradictory to other statements made by the Apostle Paul throughout his letters through the early churches; some of the seemingly most misogynistic and oppressive statements in the Bible are contained in his letters. Even today, these statements are used to oppress women in the church. Many churches (perhaps even the majority of the Christian circles of the world) still do not reflect the radical equality described in Galatians 3:28, while upholding an interpretation of Scripture that holds women, and the Church as a whole by extension, back.

It is important to see that while Scripture does contain verses that would be considered misogynistic and oppressive to women today, they were actually quite progressive in the first century. Galatians 3:28 represents the trajectory found in the Bible of complete and radical inclusion of all people without preference or discrimination. How does one then justify this trajectory throughout Scripture, and what does a community that reflects Galatians 3:28 look like? Additionally, what changes need to be made in modern Christianity in order to attain this goal? The most important issues at hand is the need for a change in worldview that leads to a radical restructuring of the worldwide Church so that it can be a force for empowerment and progressive change, rather than an anchor holding society back or a global force for oppression of women.

Throughout the Bible, it is evident that the end goal is complete equality. In Genesis 1:26-27, it says that both male and female were made in the image of God. There is nothing in the first chapter to suggest that women were meant to be submissive to men. However, in the second chapter, there is argument that when the woman is designated ezer in Genesis 2:18 that this leaves the male to be the one in the leadership position. However, this cannot be true because God is an ezer in verses such as Exodus 18:4, as well as in Deuteronomy 33 and throughout the book of Psalms. The first time that the women is told to be submissive to the man is in Genesis 3:16 as a result of the curse that brings about the fall of humanity. The patriarchy, then, is a result of the fall, and is something that society needs to actively work against in order to bring about the world that was originally intended by God before a morally corruptible human nature caused sin to distort the social hierarchy. In other words, patriarchy and the subjugation of women is a literal curse on humanity.

After the fall in Genesis 3, there are countless examples of violence and oppression against women. Common examples of these aggressions include the use of concubines, such as Abram’s use of Sarai’s maidservant Hagar in Genesis 16, which is later justified by the law throughout the Pentateuch.  Laws in Exodus chapters 20 and 21 outline how daughters can be sold like slaves, except that female slaves do not get freed after six years like male slaves do. In the Old Testament, women are entirely dependent on men as outlined in Genesis 3. If a married man divorces his wife (which he is allowed to do per Deuteronomy 24:1-4), the woman’s life is essentially ruined; she has no husband to support her and her family will not take her back. She has no rights to property, because she is the property of either her husband or her father. An especially gruesome law is found in Numbers 5:11-31 in which a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery (an offense only a woman could commit in the Old Testament), or is simply feeling particularly jealous that day, is allowed to make a women drink cursed water that will “cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people” (Numbers 5:27 NRSV) if she had committed adultery.

It is clear that Old Testament Law is oppressive towards women, but it is apparent that Old Testament society, while still oppressive, contains examples of strong females who subvert the laws to do good for their society. An obvious example is Deborah, the prophetess and judge who lead Israel into battle with Barak, who refused to go unless Deborah went as well. Her prophecy in Judges 4:9, in which she tells Barak “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the  Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” comes true not through Deborah, but Jael, another woman who drove a tent peg through the general Sisera’s temple as he slept. Another story of female empowerment is the story of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, in which she takes over her household in her husband Nabal’s drunken ineptitude and saves hundreds of people put in danger by his foolishness. Even though the laws in the Old Testament were stacked against them, there is a vein of strong women in the narrative who still do righteous and important things.

In the New Testament, there is a still greater movement towards gender equality. Jesus allowed Mary, Martha’s sister, to study under him in Luke 10:38-42, which was unheard of in Jesus’s society. He even praises Mary’s choice to study rather than to conform to traditional gender roles, saying in verse 42 that “Mary has chosen the better part.” The story in John chapter 4 of the woman at the well is often told as a condemnation for sexual promiscuity, but when Jesus commented on the number of husbands that she has had, he is not saying that the Samaritan woman was a sexual sinner. He was disclosing to the woman that he had divine knowledge, but more importantly, he was condemning the patriarchal system that had failed her. These husbands had left her for dead; Jesus condemns this system of divorce in the Sermon on The Mount (Matthew 5:31-32). The Samaritan woman then becomes the first evangelist, causing her whole village to believe.

While the Apostle Paul might have said things in his epistles that seem misogynistic to modern readers, his writings suggests a worldview that is a continuation of this movement towards equality seen throughout the Bible since the fall. In Romans 16, Paul refers to Phoebe as a deaconess, and to Junia as an Apostle. While he seems to condemn women in leadership in I Timothy, it is apparent that the situation is not so explicitly clear. In other letters, Paul refers to women who are in leadership, like Romans 16. The Christian church offered an unprecedented inclusion of women that was part of the reason that the church was successful despite the persecution it faced. One of Paul’s most powerful points comes in Galatians 3:28 in which he lays out the end goal for a Christian society: equality for all people regardless of status, nationality, or gender.

(Photo credit to Transforming Christianity)
It is apparent, then, that feminism is compatible with the Bible, and anything less than full equality between genders is a moral failure. However, it is also apparent that the church, as well as society in general has fallen short of this goal. Feminist theologian Mary Daly said that “the reformed, democratized Church of the future is not yet here, although the seeds of it are present in the living faith, hope and courage of the Christian community.”1 Daly’s first book, The Church and the Second Sex, contains a message of hope despite the rampant patriarchy in the church. In many denominations, women do not have the right to serve in ministry. Additionally, traditional gender roles are still held by many Christians. Complementarianism is a conservative response to feminism that reinforces gender roles by asserting that some roles are for women and others for men.2 However, even though many complementarians assert that these roles are separate but equal, it is obvious that there is a hierarchy implied. The male roles include the authority to decide what the female roles are, and none of the female roles are exclusively female like the male roles are.3 Even in secular society, casual sexism is still pervasive. The church should be a leading force for equality throughout the world, but it is unfortunately holding society back. Even among feminists, full equality is difficult to attain. It is important for feminism to be intersectional. Women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women of disabilities are just a few groups of women who will inevitably face more and different forms of oppression than a heterosexual, cisgender white woman.4 This often causes conflict within feminism. It is important that all women work together for their common good while acknowledging their differences in solidarity.5

The Episcopal Church is one of the most progressive churches in the United States. In addition to their LGBTQ+ inclusion in recent years, women have been able to be ordained for the past four decades.6 They acknowledge that women are created in the image of God and that they too are called to ministerial roles like men are.7 In a statement to the United Nations, the Episcopal church said “Episcopalians have published, studied, gathered, advocated and campaigned on gender discrimination, domestic and gender violence, sex trafficking, gender budgeting, election advocacy, word studies, and gender parity, both within our Church and at the United Nations.”8 There is an emphasis on women’s issues in this denomination, and many women serve in high ranking positions in the church. The last Presiding Bishop, the leader of the Episcopal Church, was Katherine Jefferts Schori, who was the first female leader of a denomination in the Anglican Communion.9 St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Olean, NY is led by the Reverend Kim Rossi today, but when women were first allowed to serve in ministry in the denomination, this parish had a different opinion. “The Rector of St. Stephen’s Church at that time, The Rev. Richard Duncan, flew the Episcopal Flag upside down and at half mast when the church approved the ordination of women.”10 However, in the span of a few decades, a woman rose to the highest position in the denomination. Additionally, the Episcopal Church has recognized the intersectional struggles of women who are also part of other oppressed groups. The Episcopal Church has come a long way in the path towards a Galatians 3:28 society, but there is still work to do in order to end sexism in the world.11

If the church is going to become a fully equal place, there needs to be sweeping changes not only in practice and doctrine but also in the mindsets of the people in the church. Sexism is something that has become socially omnipresent, so it needs to be consciously unlearned. If the church was able to unlearn sexism, it could become a safe place for women and a powerful force for equality. However, in order to do this, there must be a radical restructuring of the church. Reconstructionist feminist theology argues that more needs to be done than just allowing women to serve in ministry; “reconstructionist feminist theologians seek a liberating theological core for women within the Christian tradition, while also envisioning a deeper transformation, a true reconstruction, not only of their church structures, but also of civil society.”12 This is the stance that Mary Daly took in her first book. She argued that since women were created equal at the start of Genesis, they should then get equal rights as men in the church, but also that the church needed to do much more than what they were already doing in order to get there.13

In order for the patriarchal mindset of the church to be changed, there are a plethora of things that need to be done. Those who are in leadership now need to be convinced that women are equal to men. The problem is that there is no female voice in the church. This is not because there are no women speaking out, but it is because there are no women in power. But in order for women to get power, there needs to be a feminist voice that is actually heard by church leadership. It’s a frustrating cycle that has surely caused countless bright and promising women to leave the church. This is why there must be a grassroots, ground-up, foundational reconstruction of the church. One way to accomplish this would be through protest. If people were to leave the sexist churches behind and rallied around a church that heard the voices of the oppressed, the results could be monumental. It is also highly important that men speak up for women. Since men are still unfortunately in a position of privilege, perhaps one of the most efficient ways for equality to be reached is by the already powerful male voice in the church using his position to speak up for the oppressed. The Episcopal Church has heard the voices of women and has begun the necessary changes to become the Galatians 3:28 community. If all of the bright minds shunned by other denominations coalesced around a church like the Episcopal Church, their voices would become so loud that the greater Christian community would have to listen.

Overall, the Episcopal Church’s stance on women has gone in a positive direction in the last 40 years. Women are allowed to serve in ministry, and their highest position was held by a woman for nine years. It understands the nuances of feminism and of intersectionality while actually doing work to end systematic oppression of women. It has put systems in place to help women, especially women who are affected by other systems of oppression, get the treatment they deserve. Perhaps most importantly, they have the potential to be a light for other churches, and they can be a positive influence on Christianity. As Mary Daly said, “the reformed, democratized Church of the future is not yet here.”14 The Episcopal Church’s efforts are not yet enough. There needs to be a more powerful movement that can speak out against oppression and make waves in society. Moving forward, the Episcopal church should be a more vocal presence in the feminist movement, so people can hear their message and join them in working for full equality. The Episcopal Church’s idealogical shift towards progressive values has shown skeptics that Christianity is not irredeemably patriarchal and is compatible with feminism. People who want equality for all genders can still strive for their goals in a Christian setting without compromising either their Christian or their feminist ideals; in fact, the people who do this will end up changing the world for the better through their efforts.

Works Cited
Clifford, Anne M. Introducing Feminist Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002. 

Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1968. 

Interview with Rev. Kim Rossi. 29 November 2015. 

“Statement by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America to the 59th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.” The Episcopal Church. 20 March 2015.

[1] Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1968.1
[2] Anne M. Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002; 146.2 [3] [3] Clifford, Introducing, 146.
[4] Ibid., 28.
[5] Ibid., 28
[6] Interview with Rev. Kim Rossi, 29 November 2015. 
[7] “Statement by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America to the 59th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women,” The Episcopal Church, 20 March 2015. 
[8] “Statement,” The Episcopal Church, 20 March 2015.
[9] Interview with Rev. Kim Rossi, 29 November 2015.
[10] Interview with Rev. Kim Rossi, 29 November 2015
[11] “Statement,” The Episcopal Church, 20 March 2015.
[12] Clifford, Introducing, 34.
[13] Daly, The Church, 1968
[14] Ibid.

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