Egalitarian Awakening

A few Mormon bloggers have done posts discussing when they became Mormon feminists (here and here). I thought I would ape them by discussing how I became a Christian egalitarian.

I first began exploring the question of women in ministry as a teenager. A skeptical friend had pointed me to passages like 1Co 14:34-35 and 1Ti 2:11-15, and I did not know how to respond. I listened to arguments from both complementarians and egalitarians and eventually decided that egalitarians had the much better case. I ordered and read books like Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity Vol. 1 edited by Carroll D. Osburn and When Women Were Priests by Karen Jo Torjesen, and enjoyed what I was drinking in.

Still, my egalitarianism was a passive one. I had an intellectual commitment to the philosophy, but I did not know how to identify, engage and refute Christian patriarchy when I encountered it in popular Christian literature. I read books like Boy Meets Girl by Josh Harris and The Act of Marriage by Tim LaHaye without even blinking at the heavy patriarchal memes found therein, nor did I question why I had never had a female pastor in spite of having attended denominations which ordained women (Church of the Nazarene, Presbyterian Church U. S. A., Assemblies of God) for fourteen years. So what was it that changed that for me?

In The Act of Marriage, LaHaye insists that having a husband and children and becoming a homemaker is “the natural longing of every woman’s heart.” [1] It is with some irony, then, that I note that giving birth to a daughter was the singular event that did more to convert me to active Christian egalitarianism than anything else ever did. When my daughter was born, I fell into monitoring everything that she was being taught about who she was and her potential before God, and that included her identity as a woman. I could not stand the idea of my daughter having to put up with some of the things that I had put up with: having to learn about Junia as an apostle and Phoebe as a deacon from Web sites because so many translations of the Bible obscure what the text says about those women, few positive examples of women serving as pastors or officiating at Protestant sacraments, people trying to teach her that she need not aspire to become a pastor or elder because she can be a wife or mother, and so forth.

Eventually, this came to mean all of the following:

  • Rejection of any teaching that God’s design for her as a woman means being subordinate to men in general or her husband in particular.
  • Giving her a Bible translation that clearly affirms that Junia was both a woman and an apostle in its main text, as God intended (Rom 16:7).
  • Giving her a Bible translation that notes the existence of women deacons (Rom 16:1, 1Ti 3:11), as God intended.
  • Giving her a Bible translation that offers gender-inclusive renderings of the text where the original languages allow for it or where doing so does not alter the message of the text.
  • Attending a church where she can observe women in a variety of leadership roles: women as pastors, elders and deacons in addition to roles that are more traditionally occupied by women. My current church has a female senior pastor and two women serving on the seven-person “leadership team,” which is basically our board of elders. We also have wonderful women laboring for the Gospel in women’s ministry, children’s ministry, missions, the worship team and hospitality, to name a few.
  • Attending a church where she can hear women preach. My pastor usually delivers the Sunday sermon at least twice a month, and the people who speak on other Sundays are as likely to be women as men.
  • Attending a church where she can observe women officiating in the Protestant sacraments. She takes Communion from my pastor’s hands at least once a month, and this summer we were able to witness a baptism that my pastor performed.
  • Giving her positive examples of women in Christian history who labored for the Gospel in a variety of ways.

I wasn’t necessarily willing to implement all of these changes for myself. But for my daughter? I would do anything to make sure that she grows up knowing how the Father loves his daughters just as much as he loves his sons and how he empowers them to serve the cause of the Kingdom.

[1] Tim LaHaye and Beverly LaHaye, The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998), p. 28-9.

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11 Comments

Filed under Gender, Personal Reflections

11 responses to “Egalitarian Awakening

  1. Ok, so I’m really embarrassed that I’ve never heard of Junia or Phoebe. I suppose I will have to order the New International Version. Thank you for this post!

  2. I don’t think you have to be embarrassed about having not heard of them, Andrea. I remember when I was attending the LDS seminary program in high school, we were studying the Old Testament, and we got to the story of Deborah in Judges 4. There was a girl in the class who had been LDS her entire life, 18 years old, and had never even heard that women could be prophets in the Old Testament. She was very confused by it. The teacher tried to say that the LDS church affirms that women can have the gift of prophecy and Deborah was just a woman with the gift of prophecy, but that is a horrible attempt at dismissing the text, and my fellow student knew it. The most recent version of the Old Testament manual glosses over Deborah’s role as prophet and judge of Israel, focusing instead on the power of a “righteous friend.”

    The KJV of Romans 16:1 calls Phoebe a “servant” and a lot of people think “Junia” in Romans 16:7 is still a reference to a man because they don’t know that “kinsmen” is an old-English common gender noun. Since they try to avoid the OT female prophets, who do show up in the KJV, I’m not surprised few Mormons hear about Phoebe or Junia, whose roles are effectively obscured by the KJV.

    Make sure that you get a TNIV or an NIV-2011, which will release next year in March; the NIV-1984 was the Bible I had as a teenager, and it mistranslates Phoebe as “servant” in the main text (with a footnote for “deaconess”) and Junia as the masculine “Junias.”

    The NRSV also does well with these passages.

  3. Awesome post, Jack! Love it.

  4. While still not fully convinced that Junia was an apostle, I do believe that the passage makes it very clear that she was an incredibly important figure in the early church history, along with Phoebe. But more importantly, I agree with your points that any daughter(s) I have (or sons, which, looking at my family’s record, is much, much, much more likely) need to be taught that woman are not just here to serve men. (I quite nearly threw up when I read the “I Want To Be Your Woman” garbage on BCC.) And since I am quite likely to have more sons than daughters, I plan on taking your last statement and making it applicable to them, too: “I would do anything to make sure that they grow up knowing how the Father loves his daughters just as much as he loves his sons and how he empowers them both to serve the cause of the Kingdom.” 🙂

  5. JB

    Wonderfully put, Jack! For my part, my ‘egalitarian awakening’ was mostly catalyzed when I finally read Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by William J. Webb. Before that, I think I’d been leaning in an egalitarian direction but was still fairly perplexed because I wasn’t sure how to deal with the complementarian arguments. After reading that book, I was a quite persuaded egalitarian. The next major egalitarian influence I got, at least to my recollection, was reading your blog, and eventually also stuff at FMH.

  6. Eric

    Before I get into the meat of my comment, I’m going to quibble about one point: Language aficionado that I am, I’d be reluctant to select a Bible translation solely or almost solely on the basis of how it translates a disputed passage (and those passages are less clear-cut than is suggested above). And I do think that regardless of which side the translators come down, they should include a footnote or other notice that there are alternative readings, as doing so shows the most respect to the reader and the text.

    On the other hand, in this age I couldn’t recommend any translation that isn’t committed to inclusive language where the Hebrew and Greek allow it. Language simply has changed too much since 1611; when a word that means “person” is translated as “man” or “brothers and sisters” is translated as “brothers,” that simply gives modern readers a misunderstanding of what the original writers intended. Because English doesn’t have a neuter singular pronoun that is universally understood as neuter and/or grammatically correct, using inclusive language isn’t without its difficulties (and I cannot excuse any translation that uses the singular “they” in the attempt), but, again, that’s what footnotes are for. The issue isn’t one of political correctness, it’s one of accuracy.

    And now my main point: I’ve observed the evangelical feminist/egalitarian movement since the 1970s when I attended an evangelical college. What I find interesting is how the focus of the movement has changed. Back then, much of the focus of Biblical analysis was on the Pauline passages regarding submission in marriage — although there were a few female pastors back then (most of them Pentecostal and basically never as the head pastor), I’m not sure that the concept of women as apostles or even elders was very much on anyone’s radar except perhaps in academic circles.

    But even back then, passages such as those in 1 Corinthians and Titus were usually understood in a cultural context.

    At the time, it was still possible to get married in a mainline church in a ceremony where the bride would promise to obey her husband but not vice versa (and that’s not even Biblical language). But even in evangelicalism (and correct me if I’m wrong) that would sound quite foreign today, I suspect, except in some of the more blatantly patriarchal churches. So progress has been made.

    Of course, society has changed too. When Margaret Chase Smith had a brief presidential run, that was seen as an oddity, and the idea that a woman could be taken seriously as a political leader was almost unthinkable (although why anyone would take Sarah Palin seriously I’ll never know). In some ways, evangelical egalitarians were ahead of the mainstream at the time; these days they’re arguing within their subculture for something that the rest of society takes for granted.

  7. David Clark

    these days they’re arguing within their subculture for something that the rest of society takes for granted.

    Mormons excepted, of course 😉

  8. Eric

    OK, most of the rest of society.

  9. Eric ~ and those passages are less clear-cut than is suggested above

    Says who? You see, I really do think objections to the effect of “diakonos may have just meant ‘servant'” and “Junia may have been a man” are weak enough to be excised from even the footnotes of the text without me feeling the slightest bit of guilt.

    But, even if I have overstated my case, it’s mostly because, if there’s any group of people that I think I’m allowed to overstate my case to, it’s my own kids. I also wouldn’t use a translation that otherwise blows monkey chunks just because it got my pet passages right.

    Ever read Evangelical Feminism: A History of the Movement by Pamela Cochran? Here is the review that I posted at Amazon.com:

    The history this book attempts to cover is a fascinating one in terms of the internal struggle within the Protestant world concerning the equality of women in the church and home. It describes the rise of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus), the split within the movement over tolerance of homosexuality, and the formation of the more conservative Christians For Biblical Equality. It focuses in on several key figures within these organizations and explores their personal stories as well as the hermeneutics they utilized to arrive at the conclusion that Christianity and feminism were not antithetical to one another.

    While the book is generally engaging and well written, I give it four stars out of five because I think it could have been better. For starters, the title is a bit misleading. I expected this to be a history of the more conservative CBE movement. While that is covered, the author spends more of her time on the progressive figures who formed and ultimately stayed with the EWC/EEWC, admitting at the end of the book that these women are not really “evangelicals” as of the book’s writing. Since it devotes so much time to women who eventually parted ways with evangelicalism, Protestant Feminism or Christian Feminism probably would have been a more accurate title.

    I would have liked to have seen more coverage of the rise of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as a counter-movement and the reactions of male headship advocates to egalitarian arguments. More interaction with contemporary secular feminist thought would have been good as well, and the book’s concluding chapter about how individualism is eroding evangelical Christianity comes off as a rather disjointed, last-minute potshot.

    Nevertheless, it remains a solid read and a valuable contribution to the field for anyone who wants to learn about this movement within Christianity.

  10. Eric

    But, even if I have overstated my case, it’s mostly because, if there’s any group of people that I think I’m allowed to overstate my case to, it’s my own kids.

    I wouldn’t argue with you there.

  11. maybe this is late but I thought that act of marriage book was gross and over the top…

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