Women in Church Leadership Linda McKinnish Bridges



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The "Lydia Phase"

Women's leadership in the Church is not a modern, political phenomenon attributed only to the twentieth-century feminist movement. No, women were there in the first hours of the birth of the early Church. These early hours of both the Jesus movement and then later the Pauline mission were energized by the presence of women leaders. As the hours moved into months and years, however, women's leadership was excised, and, for women, that exclusion remains a curse both in the political and ecclesiastical sectors.

The "Lydia phase"Cthat moment in the genesis of a religious movement where women's leadership is valuedCwas short-lived in the history of the Church, in whatever text one is reading, either the New Testament or modern church development.6 The inevitable occurs as the movement organizes; the value of women leaders becomes undermined and sacrificed in order to create a legitimate institutional persona. In the New Testament story of church development, the early Church, who remembered the actions of Jesus and watched the work of church leaders, Lydia and Phoebe, intentionally distanced itself from the role of women by the time of Clement and the writing of the Pastoral Epistles. The inevitable result was that the Church, who has the power to bless and curse, attempted to erase all traces of the feminine in order to gain social acceptance and legitimacy as a masculine church, which in turn, attracted the power structures of society. This moment of capitulation, in effect, cursed women and barred their full inclusion into the life of the Church and society.

Ellizabeth Cady Stanton, leader of the women's right to vote movement in the early nineteenth century, knew the power of organized religion against the freedom of women. She, along with Susan B. Anthony, campaigned for gender equity in the world of politics, organizing the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Even with their savvy political strategies, polished campaign rhetoric, and tireless lobbying efforts, these suffragists acknowledged that women would never truly be free until the Church established her freedom. The early suffragette Stanton wrote: " . . . as I have passed from the political to the religious phase of this question, I now see more clearly than ever, that the arch enemy to women's freedom skulks behind the altar."7

Stanton and Anthony were saying that even if women do vote ( which finally happened in 1920 when the XIX Amendment was ratified) and participate in civic affairs, a shadow still lingers over woman's full freedom in society until the Church blesses her by welcoming her daughters home. To understand that the Church began because of the leadership of women and that the institutional Church excised their participation for political gain and cultural acceptance could be the beginning of this homecoming movement. The Church repents, and then the daughters come home.

Three stories illustrate the transgression of the Church as the religious movement intentionally left the "Lydia phase" behind, excising women from leadership positions, in order to become acceptable by cultural standards. The genesis of the "Lydia phase" belongs to the story of the church (es) as reflected in the New Testament, seen in the transformation from the Jesus tradition to the Church as reflected in the Pastoral Epistles. The history of the Celtic Christian Church also documents a "Lydia phase," where women leaders who led Irish Christianity were excised by the tenth century by a hierarchical Roman Church that demanded only celibate males. Baptists of the South, likewise, have our own "Lydia phase," located in the preacher-woman Martha Stearns Marshall in the Sandy Creek tradition of 1755 that evolved to a male-only organizational structure in 1845Cthe Southern Baptist Convention. These three stories are by no means the only illustrations. Many, many others exist.8


The "Lydia Phase" in the New Testament: From Lydia to Clement
Jesus elevated women. This fact cannot be denied. When one reads the gospel stories of Jesus and women in light of the first-century patriarchal context, Jesus' acts toward women are seen as culturally subversive responses of personal redemption and social change. Jesus opposed the gender constructions of the first-century world. First-century culture denounced women; women announced Jesus' resurrection ( Luke 24:10). First century-culture mandated that women could not converse with men in public; Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well for deep theological discourse (John 4). Menstruating women were considered unclean; Jesus was touched by a bleeding woman and healed (Mark 5:25-34). Stories abound in the Gospels of Jesus' willingness to deviate from cultural conventions and values women.9

The early Christian missionary movement was led by women and men.10 Fiorenza states that "we recognize that the Pauline and the post-Pauline literature know of women not merely as rich patronesses of the Christian missionary movement but as prominent leaders and missionaries whoCin their own rightCtoiled for the gospel."11 The Hellenistic Christians gather in the house of a woman named Mary in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12-17). Lydia is the first convert in Europe and serves the church in Philippi (16:14). Many prominent women listen to the missionaries and are converted in Thessalonica (17:4). The Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in the second century, reveal that Thecla had definite authority to preach, teach, and baptize as an early missionary in the beginning of the Christian movement.

The house church and the theological understanding reflected in Galatians 3:28 foster women's leadership in the early missionary movement. The church meets in private spaceCthe home. The first-century woman is at home here, less comfortable in public arenas. She can lead the church because the movement bears the imprint of family. The physical architecture of the first-century church is domestic, familiar, and closely related to life and family. Furthermore, the theological energy for the movement is summarized by Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female." The impetus for women's leadership comes from the very heart of the movementCwhich is to create a comfortable setting where people can hear the gospel of freedom and be saved. And women could do that extremely well.

The goals would soon change. Soon fear of heresy imposed another structure on the walls of the early Church. The comfortable, familiar surroundings of hymns and prayers of the Christian house church were surrounded by thick, organizational walls of orthodoxy. Read some of the new understandings of church as reflected in the early second century in 1 Timothy 3:1-13: "Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife , . . . he must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way , . . . he must not be a recent convert, . . . ." Even Paul and Jesus, much less Lydia, could not have been leaders in this church, if marital status, gender, and years spent as Christian were to be requirements for the job. The landscape changed. It was inevitable. The demands of the opposition forced a clearer, tighter vision of the faith as the words, "guard," "hold fast," "command," "doctrine," dot the literary landscape of 1-2 Timothy and Titus. Authority originally invested in the community by the Holy Spirit was exchanged for power vested by a few local officers, "whoCin timeCabsorb not only the teaching authority of the prophet and apostle but also the decision-making power of the community."12 The early Church becomes stratified according to the standards of the culture. Gender divisions, never intended to belong to the movement, became codifed in the leader descriptions of the early second-century Church. Traces of the feminine were erased.

The most important feature of the Church as it moves from Lydia to Clement is order, analogous to the Roman military organization and the Greco-Roman cultural organization of patriarchy. Fiorenza notes that this need for order generates a split between orthodox teaching and orthodox practice ( as seen in Acts 6 in the preaching/waiting on tables): "The Pastorals entrust right teaching and transmission of the tradition to men, while they demand from women the 'good works' of Christian orthopraxis."13 Private roles for women and public roles for men denied both women and men the opportunity to express the fullness of their faith and, consequently, marred the early development of a religious structure that would fully embody both orthodoxy and orthopraxis, male and female, order and vision.


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