“We believe these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women, are created equal…” Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned this opening line to the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” altering the United States’ “Declaration of Independence” ever so slightly. Over 300 men and women, predominately Christians, gathered in 1848 for the Seneca Falls Convention and signed the “Declaration” that called for changes both in the laws of the land and the practices of the church in order for women to enjoy the freedom and rights afforded to men. Looking at the document today, we see that the laws of the United States have been changed, but the practices of the church remain largely the same, despite so much biblical scholarship on the shared leadership and authority of women. Many religious leaders are still telling women that their biblical roles in the home and church are to be subordinate to those of men. The majority of churches in America will not accept a woman in the pulpit. While the spiritual landscape of the US is changing rapidly, Christianity is still the predominate religion in America. This presents a quandary for millions of American women who believe in equality but don’t want to abandon their faith.
I believe, as do many Christian theologians (conservative to liberal), that the equality of individuals is part of the gospel message. Jesus taught both women and men and invited them to become his disciples. In Matthew 28:20, he instructs all of his followers: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” Jesus never taught that women were to be subordinate to men, but instead challenged many of the gender taboos of the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of that time.
Rather, it was Greek philosophers who laid the foundation for the cultural devaluation of women that we see as Christianity developed. Plato said, “It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls…obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man.” Early church father St. Thomas Aquinas bought into this idea when he said, “Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex, while production of woman comes from defect in the active force.”
Whenever we entertain the belief that others are inferior to us based upon their gender, the color of their skin, the caste they were born into, or their country of origin, we sanction inequality and oppression. Jesus has not ordained that one person should have a privileged position over and above another based solely on the incidentals of birth. We criticize other religions and cultures around the world that deny women equal authority with men. Until we recognize and address the church’s failure to extend women shared authority with men, which Jesus offered, we will have little impact in our own Christian churches and culture. And, we will have little effect elsewhere. We must encourage and support the changes our Christian sisters and brothers hoped for 163 years ago at Seneca Falls.