In the late 1970’s the Georgia church I served as Minister of Music decided to host a Sunday School Leadership weekend. Someone from the state convention office recommended a motivational speaker from a large Atlanta church. His visit with us was memorable.
The man was highly polished, physically fit, disciplined and certain that his method was the only way to increase Sunday School attendance significantly in any church. Everything about his presentation was regimented. No church was supposed to begin step G without first completing steps A through F in exact order. He even advocated a precise way to distribute Sunday School records. When someone offered a suggestion for adapting his ideas to our church situation, he dismissed them with (sic) “Do you want to grow a Sunday School or not? My way works.”
He and I were invited to join the pastor’s family for a meal at the parsonage. The table conversation drifted towards his personal health regimen, a program that included not drinking any beverage at the table until after he had consumed all of his food. (I have no idea the health or digestive benefits of that practice, but I can’t imagine enjoying any meal under those circumstances!) There were also some tense moments as the pastor's youngest son had a behavior meltdown during dinner, requiring strong parental intervention under the ever-intimidating eye of our guest.
Mostly, I remember him standing in the center aisle of the sanctuary after the final session. Expressing his appreciation for the weekend, he shook hands with the pastor and me. Then he turned to the pastor’s wife, a diminutive woman with a quiet smile and sweet spirit--also a highly competent high school math teacher. Putting his hand on her shoulder he leaned down to her and said, (sic) “I really like you. You’re the perfect pastor’s wife--so ‘teachable.’”
She flinched but kept smiling graciously and didn’t offer a reply. He certainly struck a nerve with all of us. The next day as the pastor and I reflected on this man’s arrogant, condescending nature, we realized that our church likely experienced more negative than positive outcomes after his weekend with us.
Fast forward a decade or so.
Sometime around 1990 I attended a conference at Kentucky Baptists’ Cedarmore Assembly, near Louisville. At breakfast I sat with a group of women--mostly church musician friends from moderate KBC churches--around one of the long tables in the dining hall. We introduced ourselves to the other women around the table as we ate.
At some point the conversation turned to the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) controversy over women’s ordination and women’s “place” in church life. The controversy was hot and heavy at the time, receiving lots of national press. My friends and I began grousing aloud about the unbelievable statements making headlines from SBC leaders and conservative pastors.
We had already been introduced to a younger woman sitting at the end of the table; she had come across the river from Indiana to attend the conference. As the conversation evolved about our moderate churches’ stance on women’s inclusion, she suddenly blurted out, (sic) “You’re kidding!! Why, at my church we women don’t even give our own WMU (Women’s Missionary Union) report in business meeting. We have to give a written copy to one of the men to read aloud!”
I’ll never forget the wide-eyed, teary look on her face as she spoke. She was having an epiphany, a life-changing revelation about the world she thought she knew, an awareness that was simultaneously upsetting and mind-expanding for her.
The irony was, my friends and I were having a similar epiphany as we listened to her outburst. We'd had no idea that extreme situations like hers existed in churches today.
Fast forward another decade or so.
Several years ago a friend recommended to me a book about women and the church: Leading Women: How Church Women Can Avoid Leadership Traps and Negotiate the Gender Maze (Carol Becker, Abingdon Press). At first I was put off by the title, thinking disdainfully, “Oh, here we go again. Still another author is telling women we must keep a good, submissive attitude so we can be ‘led‘ by men in order to stay in the center of God’s divine plan.”
Was I ever wrong! Becker’s book is not about women being “led” or “taught” by men in church and home, but more about women who lead, despite having to maneuver in a patriarchal church environment. I found her book totally captivating--read all 206 pages in one long sitting. Her experiences and observations as a woman minister so closely paralleled mine, at one point I found myself musing that I could have authored her book.
Through Becker I was first introduced to the term “church wife,” a paradigm of a typical 1950’s woman who does the main work of keeping a home or church running efficiently, but is never allowed a leadership role or title--head of household, deacon, ministerial staff, pastor--all of which are reserved for men. If one looks around, congregations everywhere are overflowing with “church wives.”
Some churches allow, even encourage women to do all sorts of volunteer ministry tasks, but only if they are overseen officially by men. Other churches pay female nursery workers or kitchen staff or janitorial staff, but all other positions filled by women are volunteer, only. Still other churches hire women as “directors,” even those with seminary degrees, while men with similar credentials and responsibilities are hired as “ministers" (with higher pay, of course).
A Georgia Baptist church once told an acquaintance of mine, a female musician with an advanced music degree, “You can direct the children’s and youth choirs because that’s just girls and boys, but not the adult choir, because there are men in there, and a woman shouldn’t be over a man.” A Methodist friend resigned from teaching her Sunday School class because men started attending, and she believed that “a woman shouldn’t be over a man.”
Fast forward to the present.
A couple of weeks ago I saw an article in the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader by Catholic activist Janice Sevre-Duszynsky in response to a recent Vatican ruling. Apparently Catholic priests “involved in the ordination of a woman will now suffer greater penalties than priests who abuse children. Anyone involved in the ordination of a woman will be automatically excommunicated. …The new edict places the ordaining of women called by God to priesthood on the list of grave sins next to pedophilia, heresy, apostasy and schism.” Patriarchy is alive and well in Catholic circles.
Then, while channel surfing last week, I stumbled upon a Lexington cable TV broadcast of “The Bryant Station Baptist Hour.” The church choir loft was filled with women and men, young and old, all wearing modern clothing and sporting stylish haircuts. Yet the women all wore head coverings, either scarves or hats. I was intrigued that several even wore wide-brimmed hats as they sang.
The stout young pastor--wearing one of the worst toupees I’ve ever seen--was preaching that day on “The Christian Home.” Mostly his sermon was directed to the women. After a few minutes of astonished listening, I found a pencil to write down several quotes from his sermon: “Ladies, you have an obligation according to the scriptures to have a well-kept home.” “Older women have a calling to teach younger women to submit to their husbands.” “Husbands, you must love your wives into submission; wives, you must submit to your husband until he loves you more.” Patriarchy is alive and well in Baptist circles, too.
Now take a leap backwards to the time of Jesus.
Once again, we look to Jesus to help us understand what God really intended for human relationships.
Through the years I’ve heard numerous sermons based on the story of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10; Jn. 11 – 12). In every one of them the only person who always ends up looking bad is Martha, the one whom Jesus gently reprimands for not keeping her priorities straight.
I’ve always felt a little sorry for Martha. After all, she was just doing her best to fulfill the role that society expected of her: housekeeper, cook and waitress--all "wifely" tasks. For all we know, her sister Mary may have been a "flower child," a wandering airhead like Prissy (Butterfly McQueen’s character) in Gone with the Wind, who had to be monitored constantly in order to keep her on task.
Nevertheless, Jesus elevated the social status of both Martha and Mary. We don't know if other men were present every time Jesus visited in their home, but Lazarus was their brother and likely lived with them. And the disciples usually traveled everywhere with Jesus.
Hospitality to guests was (and still is) an important part of Middle Eastern culture. Society typically relegated household tasks to the women while the men sat and socialized together in a separate area. (Reminds me of some Southern dinner parties I've attended.)
Jesus defended Mary on more than one occasion when she (gasp!) forsook her "wifely" tasks and boldly entered a roomful of men to be near Jesus. He invited her to have conversations directly with him, and, in a culture that didn't allow women to be disciples of any rabbi, he even made her one of his disciples. A middleMAN was not required for her to have a personal relationship with Jesus and become his disciple.
And—I love this!—Jesus freed Martha from the kitchen. He invited her also to be daring, to abandon society's "wifely" expectations of her so that she could have a direct, personal relationship with him and be his disciple, too.
The scriptures don't relate any of the men's responses to Jesus' bold moves. Perhaps they were too stunned to respond. I can just imagine them thinking, hungrily, "Now wait a minute, Jesus. If both Mary and Martha are sitting here talking with us men, who's doing the cooking? Who's going to serve us some tea?"
Jesus was willing to wait on his dinner as he taught important relationship lessons to everyone in the room...and to us:
To the men: The world does not revolve around you; it revolves around the kingdom of God. Your assumptions of superiority and entitlement are not pleasing to God. Let go of some of your power and become real men—you will be much happier.
To the women: Be bold, but without malice in your hearts. I will give you courage to challenge those who try to stand between you and me, or try to keep you from following me. I am your teacher; you learn directly from me; I will lead you. Keep working to become all that God created you to be.
“Women’s place” in church and home has been an issue far longer than just the past few decades. Despite Jesus' influence, patriarchy continues to exist after thousands of years. At our current rate of progress, it may take another thousand years for all women to be fully accepted as equal to men in both church and home. That's discouraging sometimes, but it doesn't prevent us from pressing toward such a worthy goal. May God bless our efforts.