Conference Recap

(Originally posted at ClobberBlog)

Today I attended the Christians for Biblical Equality one-day conference in Chicago, “Women & Christian History: Building on a Legacy.” The event started at 9 AM and lasted until nearly 5 PM with talks being delivered by five different egalitarian scholars. I sat at a table with Mimi Haddad, the President of CBE, and it was a pleasure to see her again. I was also sitting next to Marlys Taege, author of The Heart of Jesus: Women in the Gospel of Luke, and she was a delight to speak with as well. I just came down with a bad head cold on Friday and was still battling it today, so I was a little embarrassed to be nursing a handful of tissues and blowing my nose the entire conference, but thankfully the people at my table were good sports about it.

The conference was titled “Women & Christian History,” but that may have been a bit of a misnomer. Sure, arguably every talk delivered was related to the lives of women in the history of the church or Israel in some way or another, but most of them were not what I would consider “church history” as someone specializing in the subject. If I had to choose a subtitle for the conference that accurately described the content of its talks, it would have been the “CBE Sampler Conference.”

Now, that isn’t a bad thing. A CBE sampler conference is still bound to be more edifying and intellectually stimulating than any number of other religious conferences because CBE has some great things to say and some great people to say it. I just would have went with a different name for it, something that captures a more general egalitarian theme. Then again, I had the opportunity to be involved with planning the conference and I was too lazy busy to help, so who am I to complain?

Here are my notes on the talks that were given:

Alan F. Johnson, emeritus professor of New Testament and Christian ethics at Wheaton, spoke on kingship and priesthood in the Old Testament, namely, why women were never priests and almost never ruling monarchs and whether this is indicative of an absolute pattern of male headship. On kingship, the main reason was that kings were expected to serve as military leaders when needed, an area that women have difficulty conquering even today. He pointed out that the queen mother usually had considerable power and influence. The bulk of his talk was a discussion of possible reasons for why women were not priests in Israel when women priests are known in the surrounding nations. He discussed some reasons I’d never heard of before: professionalization of the priesthood, the heiros-gamos explanation, and the nin-dinger explanation. I do worry that egalitarians in general are too quick to dismiss the idea that the ancient Israelites viewed God as a male and sexual being and that further work is needed in this area.

Lynn H. Cohick, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton, spoke next on the Samaritan woman in John 4 and first century divorce and cohabitation customs among Roman citizens and Jews. It’s often argued that the Samaritan woman was “promiscuous” because she’d had five husbands and was then cohabiting with a man who was not her husband, and that she went to the well in the middle of the day to avoid the other women in the town. Dr. Cohick challenged this, showing that cohabitation was not unusual in 1st century Palestine, particularly for divorced women as the Samaritan woman likely was, so she was probably not a social outcast nor was she considered promiscuous by her culture. She humorously dismissed the argument that she was at the well at noon to avoid other people (“Maybe her goat kicked her water over and she needed more to finish her day’s tasks.”) She pointed out that since the townspeople believed because of the woman’s testimony, they probably saw her as credible.

Initially this talk didn’t do much for me, but keep reading. By the end of the conference, I decided that this is exactly the sort of talk that I’d like to see at these conferences.

Archaeologist Dorothy Irvin spoke next about the archaeological evidence for women’s ordination in the early church. Remember my Sunstone talk in August? This was like that, only from the master of the topic, and truly, this is a subject that I never get tired of. I adore looking at the pictures of these frescoes and wall paintings of early Christian women deacons, bishops, and priests; I seriously want to frame them all and hang them up in my apartment. It makes me feel like I’m catching glimpses of a female spirituality that’s been lost from my religion for so long, something that we’ve only just recently begun to recapture, and I feel such a deep longing for it. This was my favorite talk.

Mimi Haddad spoke next, and her talk was basically about how egalitarians are better evangelicals than hierarchicalists (yes, this had a polemical edge to it). She cited Bebbington’s Quadrilateral on the defining characteristics of evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. She then went through and discussed historical egalitarians who had met those standards. People discussed included Hannah More, William Wilberforce, Frances Willard, Pandita Ramabai, Catherine Booth, Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Franson, Katherine Bushnell, A. J. Gordon, and Jessie Penn-Lewis. She also pointed out examples where hierarchicalists refused to work with and support women in ministry because keeping women in “their place” was deemed more important than spreading the gospel.

I loved this talk. Mimi has a warm wit to her delivery (she even cited a joke that I gave her a few months ago!) and she knows how to be appropriately snarky. This talk also covered quite a few figures in Christian history, if only in a survey format.

The final speaker was Gilbert Bilezikian, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Wheaton and one of the founding elders of Willow Creek, and the title of his talk says it all: “The ‘Servant Leadership’ Hoax.” While them’s fightin’ words, I didn’t enjoy this talk as much as I thought I would, and it wasn’t because it was a bad talk. Perhaps it’s because I feel like I’ve already heard it all before. I mean, I already know that people who try to dress male privilege up in the guise of “servanthood” are full of crap. Sometimes they really do mean it in a benign way, but they’re still full of crap. Dr. Bilezikian then spent some time discussing Mark 9:33-37 and Jesus’s teachings on abandoning power. I’ve had a lot of my own thoughts on this subject which I really need to get around to writing about.

Dr. Bilezikian’s talk was sort of what got me thinking though: is it really worth it to keep devoting so much time and energy to sparring with the advocates of Christian patriarchy? My own feelings are that each side has said the bulk of what they’re going to say and neither is going to come up with any innovative arguments to breath new life into their positions anytime soon. Yes, we can continue to issue perfunctory responses to CBMW as needed, but as I see it, the Rebellion is over and the Empire is scattered. Might as well focus more attention on building a New Republic centered on mutuality and both male and female spirituality.

That’s what I decided that I would like to see from conferences like this. Instead of a sampler of the different areas CBE covers (Old Testament studies, New Testament studies, early church history, historical theology, contemporary issues), why not have an entire conference on Old Testament issues? Or an entire conference on women in early church history, or an entire conference on women in modern church history?

And that was why I changed my opinion on Lynn Cohick’s talk. At first I thought it was too narrow of a topic and did not really speak to contemporary issues of biblical equality like the other talks did. Then I realized that if we really want to build a “New Republic” that includes and expands on female spirituality, reexamining tired interpretations of texts that deal with women is exactly what we should be doing.

Anyways, the conference was fun. Next year, CBE will be holding its annual conference in Seattle, Washington from July 29-31, 2011. I’ll try to plan a trip to see my father that weekend so that I can attend.

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