Women in Church Leadership Linda McKinnish Bridges

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Women in Church Leadership

Linda McKinnish Bridges*
Carolyn Osiek, Catholic New Testament scholar, poses the question that prompted the creation of this article (and, likewise, my own personal quest ):
When women today in Christian communities become aware of their situation within a patriarchal religious institution, and, moreover, when they recognize that the Bible is a major implement for maintaining the oppression of the patriarchal structure, what are the ways in which they respond and adjust to that situation?1
For those of us, Baptist daughters in particular, who have loved the Church and its sacred writings, and yet who have been disenfranchised because of the laws of the Church and the mandated interpretations of Scripture, this question is very, very troubling.2

To realize that religious institutions have both the power to bless and curse, to heal and to wound, to build up and tear down is a level of spiritual maturity some of us can only pray to grasp.3 Some of us never arrive at that level of insight; some of us defect. Some, however, stay within the walls of the church and try to understand and change the system from within, sometimes called "defecting in place." And of course, for some women, the question is never even asked in the first place, and life is lived without awareness of religious constraints on women=s freedom.

When faced with the reality of the oppressive religious system, whatever that system might be, some Baptist daughters have said, "Just forget it, I will leave." And many have. Many Southern Baptist women, both lay and clergy, have moved on to denominational structures more open to women, such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, or United Church of Christ. Others have transformed their ministerial call from the church steeple to the bustling marketplace, where women are more accepted in the world of finance, marketing, law, or real estate. Others, without clergy aspirations, yet serving as important leaders within the community in medical or legal professions, business owners, government officials, have found closed doors within the walls of the church and have left traditional religion. Who can blame them? The marketplace provides her opportunities for expanded growth in leadership; but when she comes to church on Sunday, she cannot even lead in public prayer, much less serve as chair of the finance committee.

On the other hand, some women have chosen to remain within the system of religious patriarchy and work to establish change from the inside. This is never easy. The Women's Missionary Union can attest to the conflicted demands of that position. To work within the system demands a clear sense of self and a vivid memory of one's calling. To remain spiritually healthy within the patriarchal walls forces reexamination of the issues, such as biblical hermeneutics, the meaning of church, leadership theory, sociological analysis of change, as well as lots and lots of prayer. For women who wrestle with these issues, either from outside the walls of the Church or quietly (or not-so-quietly) on the inside, this article is for you. For men who know something is wrong but cannot place words on the points of gender injustice, this article is for you. For one who needs to create words to match feelings of rage, anger, excitement, conviction, and hopefulness, this article is for me.

The Church and Women
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza began a recent lecture by commenting on the slogan, "The Church in Solidarity with Women," the theme of the World Council of Churches for this decade. In her wonderful German accent, she said, "What I would like to know is: Who is the Church?"4 We, the audience, comprised of both women and men, clergy and lay, laughed. Then in private reflection, I wanted to cry. I really heard what she and this familiar slogan were revealing. When first hearing about the WCC emphasis several years ago, I was simply content to know that at least some religious body was recognizing over half of the world's population. I had not yet realized the dangerously revealing dichotomy of women and church inherent in the seemingly innocent slogan. Are women not considered a part of the Church so that the Church would have to make a point in their public slogan to identify her in relationship to the Church, as if she were a separate entity apart from the Church? Was this seemingly innocent theme revealing the stark and sad reality that the Church truly did not consider women as part of the body of Christ?

Glenn Hinson probes in the same general direction when he titled his1975 Review and Expositor article, "The Church: Liberator or Oppressor of Women?"5 Hinson writes: "Women have exercised leadership in the Christian mission despite the Church's failure to recognize their actual roles." While the institutional Church would not admit women in its ranks ( see the institutional gender requirements found in the Pastoral Epistles), the early Christian mission was organized by women (i.e., Phoebe, Lydia, Junia, and others listed as Paul's co-laborers in Romans 16). The most visible distinction between the Christian mission and the organized Church is that the former includes women and the latter excludes them.

The dichotomy is clear, then and now. On one level, women are very involved in the life of the Church. We organize the social functions, provide educational services, and support the work of missions. On another level, we are not at all involved in the life of the Church. We give money; but we cannot even receive the offering in public worship. We visit the sick; but we cannot serve as deacon. We raise money for mission; but we cannot chair the Finance Committee. We preach; but we cannot pastor.

Why? Are there two aspects of Church, one public and one private? Does the religious code support private religious expressions of women but prohibit public leadership roles? Why? Does that not place the work of God's created giftCthe fellowship of believers--in a tremendously awkward position? To think that God's gift, the Church, is more concerned about its public imageCthe ecclesiastical structureCthan the propagation of the GospelCits Christian missionCis not surprising in many ways, but nonetheless very distressful. It is time for reflection on this painful dichotomy and hopefully, a time of repentance. To tease the conversation into our consciousness and to enlist public discussion, I offer this proposal: The Church intentionally excised women's leadership from religious life in order to be culturally relevant; now the Church must welcome her daughters home in order to be spiritually effective. The first part of this article underscores the Church's transgression; the second half suggests ways of redemption for women and the religious tradition.

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