As a fourth grader at a local public school, I got into a classroom debate over the rights of women, and in particular, the right of mothers to work outside the home once they have children. The other outspoken Christian in my class, a boy hailing from an extremely conservative home, stated with deliberate clarity that a woman’s place once she had children was at home, tending to said children.
“What if she doesn’t have a husband to help provide for the family?” I asked.
“She should go on welfare,” he said. “She needs to stay home and take care of her family.”
We were ten years old and even then, I knew his ideas were unfair and wrong. That afternoon, I demanded help from my mother. “Where does it say in the Bible that women are allowed to work outside the home?” My indignation flamed.
My mom was folding clothes near the sofa. “There’s a passage at the end of Proverbs about a woman,” she said. “She takes care of her family, but she also buys a field and starts a business.”
Ha! A business. I found the passage, read it several times, underlined it, and hauled it to class the next day, where I proceeded to set the record straight. Here was a woman who took care of her family and ran a business, and they praised her in the courts as an example of a godly woman.
Little did I know, at thirty-nine, I’d still be setting the record straight.
After high school, I moved onto a missionary ship and sailed through the Western hemisphere, selling literature and sharing God’s love with people from all walks of life. I wanted to preach. I had a youthful exuberance and an overwhelming need to get my words out.
Some accepted me as a preacher, but others told me that it was a man’s job. I was supposed to do the singing or share my testimony, something like that. The verses I read in Scripture seemed contradictory to me. One verse said women should be quiet, but the other verses I found exhorted me to use my gifts and assured me that we were all one in Christ.
I read. I studied, I prayed, I questioned. I was nineteen and decided it would be better to err on the side of proclamation than to err on being silent. Despite the external conflicts I experienced around this topic, there was something about God’s character that made it safe for me to take risks and preach.
Later, studying the Pauline Epistles in university, I concluded that those verses needed to be understood in the context of Scripture as a whole. The entire Christian faith is radical, shattering every social and societal hierarchy in existence. One only has to be ever so slightly open-minded to recognize that a woman preacher is indeed a very New Testament concept.
Several years later, I worked at a church, preaching and teaching, doing all the things I felt called to do. And yet, there remained a poignant ache: the withholding of a title. My church didn’t ordain women. They believed a woman could do the work of the ministry, but they weren’t required to call her the same name they called the men: Pastor, Reverend, Minister.
This is where the story gets tricky. Do we, as women, settle for the role and let the title go? We’re told in Matthew and in other places that it’s not so much about the title as it is about the call. We’re told to lay down our lives, to deny ourselves. How do we reconcile the call of discipleship with the ache for equality?
The church is the body of Jesus on this earth. To honor Jesus’ body, we ask and continue asking the church to reflect the whole image of God, male and female. Women were endowed with all the same gifts as men. We honor Jesus when we empower women to pursue and use those gifts.
Tradition has led us in one direction, but in Christ, it’s possible to change our tradition, to become something new. Christianity began as a radical grassroots movement. Its very nature was counterintuitive and counter-cultural. At its inception, it tore down broken systems and institutions and set up love, justice, kindness, and equality.
The gospel offers the certain promise of a future peace, but God insists that we work toward that future now. We must do our work in a spirit of goodness and advocacy, with lovingkindness and truth, not division and hostility. In Christ, all the barriers come down. In him, there is no Jew and no Greek, no male and female. Just sacred unity. May it be so with you and me.