I recently participated in an adult education class led by a CBE intern. The class was promoted as an opportunity to explore the biblical basis for women’s Gospel service. We were delighted to have a diverse group attend.
Each person was asked why they believed gender is an important issue for the Church. One woman, a medical doctor, said she found it confusing that God had gifted her as a leader and critical thinker in the medical field, while her thinking and leadership abilities were not highly valued by some Christians, simply because she is a woman. One young couple expressed regret for having invested so much energy in adapting their marriage to prescribed gender roles. They longed for a more biblical approach to marriage that engaged them as individuals with person-specific, rather gender-specific abilities. One man admitted that his motivation for attending the class grew out of his concern for the feminization of an organization that had been, until recently, largely male. Thinking about his comment later, I wondered why we do not hear people talk about the feminization of disenfranchised groups. What do I mean?
We often hear people complain of the feminization—the inclusion of many more women leaders—in the Church, or law, or any historically male-dominated profession. Yet how many of us are equally disturbed by the feminization of poverty, illiteracy, disease, and abuse? Why should women be invisible when they represent the majority of the world’s poor? And, when women move into privileged positions of leadership, their visibility proves offensive.
Even devout Christian people dedicated to missions, evangelism, and the elimination of poverty can behave inconsistently. For example, many of us attend churches that spend thousands of dollars on missions so that women can preach, teach, and evangelize around the world. Yet, when these same women return home on furlough, we insist upon the invisibility of their leadership by granting them only a moment to “share” their ministries. Why not invite them to preach from the pulpit, like we do male missionaries, so that the entire congregation might enjoy the ministry they offer men, women, and children in other countries?
Here is another example. Several years ago I was invited to join a group of Christian leaders concerned for the poor. More than twenty prominent leaders including six women were seated around a large table. As we discussed poverty and its remedies, I noticed that the women in the room remained mostly silent. Several hours passed before the group began talking about the fact that the poor were mostly women and children. Yet few men at that table were intentionally inclusive of the women seated next to them. I returned home thankful for the men involved in CBE who gladly share ministry and leadership with women. In doing so, they model our Savior and the apostle Paul, both of whom made women’s participation in the New Covenant abundantly visible.
Women were visible gospel partners in Christ’s new covenant community. By including women among his inner circle of followers, women proved integral to Christ’s mission (Mark 3:31–35, 6:1, 10:10–12, 32, 14:13, 15:40–41; Luke 8:1–3, 10:40–41, 11:27–28; see John C. DelHousaye’s article “It will not be taken from her: Jesus’ inclusion of women in his circle of disciples” in the spring 2006 issue of Mutuality). Women’s participation in the new Covenant community is likewise noted at Pentecost (Acts 2:9–11, 17–18), for as Jesus promised, he sent the Holy Spirit through whom the Church is quickened and empowered for service (Acts 1:8, 2:4, 17–18). The Apostle Paul also advanced women’s leadership through the many women who worked beside him. Women such as Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, the Elect Lady, Junia, Lois, Eunice, Euodia, Syntyche, Chloe, Nympha, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus, Julia, and the sister of Cereus.
Christ also fought the feminizing of poverty by healing the woman whose twelve-year hemorrhage not only depleted her financial resources, but also denied her access to religious and social support. By openly acknowledging her suffering, Christ made visible her faith and her need for physical healing. By allowing her to touch him in public and by declaring her ill rather than unclean, Christ challenged the disdain associated with women’s bodies.
Christ opposed the feminizing of poverty not only by raising women above the status of unclean, but also by reframing divorce and adultery laws that made injustice and poverty all too common among first-century women (Matt. 5:27–30, 31–32). Perhaps it is time for us to set the record straight.
In Christ, holiness, justice, and righteousness (all related words in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) are offered to all people, and all people are invited to join Christ’s new community of faith. And because of this, the life and ministry of Christ (and Paul) was an affront to those who sought to separate and exclude people based on gender, ethnicity, and class (See All of God’s People: An Exploration of the Call of Women to Pastoral Ministry, by John E. Phelan Jr.).
It may be tempting to view the potential of individuals through categories such as gender, like those who said to Christ: “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” But like Christ we can insist that: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27–28). As men and women, we serve God not as distinct and separate groups, but as unique members of Christ’s body—created in God’s image—gifted through the Holy Spirit, obedient to God’s Word, and called to Christian service.