Earlier this week we remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. and in his honor I re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King’s prophetic words ignited the brushfire of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, but still smolder in the hearts of Americans living with unrest in Ferguson and New York City. I was only a baby when King wrote this letter. As a white girl growing up in Tennessee and Indiana, I can’t remember witnessing any overtly racist situation. But because of King’s words (and even movies like The Help, The Butler, and Selma) I’ve learned to read our nation’s history with a broader perspective than my own limited experience would allow.
My perspective today includes experience with and reflection on the injustice often faced by women in ministry. I confess that perspective caused me to note with special interest some of the statements King made in this 1963 letter, and I was reminded of some similarities between injustices faced by black people with those faced by women. Even last week, a friend shared another woman’s story of growing into her belief in equality in light of what she learned about the Civil Rights struggle in the 60s. Her piece is worth the read, and I credit her with being the spark to my own current brushfire of indignation.
Consider with me the following quotes from King’s letter1, and my musings after each. What can church leaders (and female ministers) learn from King about current dialogue and practice facing women in ministry?
I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas…[since] I would have no time for constructive work.
For women in ministry, particularly those whose calling is to preach or pastor, there will always be critics. In some denominations, these critics are more vocal than others… consider a recent attack2 on the Fourth Street Church of Christ over hiring a female preaching intern. In some denominations, women serve at all levels of leadership, but women still experience an undercurrent of subtle prejudice. And yet, when God calls us to serve, our obedience requires response and action. Our addiction to getting more “likes” on Facebook has caused us to be far too concerned with what other people think, and far too quick to abandon our calling. Are we serving according to the Holy Spirit’s gifts? Are we speaking prophetically when God urges us to do so? Let us do the constructive work to which God has called us, and for which doors have swung open wide.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…
The church is a body, and Paul describes this community of mutuality in 1 Corinthians 12, stating “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…if one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” When women are asked not to use the Spirit’s gifts, not only does the woman herself suffer, but so does the common good of the community. This theology of gender specific roles is damaging to both women and men. Let us acknowledge our mutuality and interdependence.
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” This “wait” has almost always meant “Never.”…The greatest stumbling block [in their stride toward freedom] is the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
Over the last 30 years I have known of efforts in various churches of Christ/Christian churches (non-Disciples) to reassess their theology about women in ministry. I have known women who asked why their particular (public speaking or leadership) gifts could not be utilized in the church, only to hear “Wait! The timing is not right yet. Wait! We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Wait! We’ll have new leadership on the elder board next year. Wait! We’ll discuss women’s ordination at next fall’s planning meeting.”
The greatest stumbling block to these conversations seems to be leaders who prefer a negative peace (the absence of tension) to having any dialogue at all. In many churches, the status quo of moderation is more important than the full inclusion of women’s voices and giftedness in the life of the church. Some women choose to utilize their leadership gifts in the marketplace, and cook for potlucks at church. Some women are able to fully develop their gifts in an academic setting. And still others choose to leave conservative denominations altogether, joining worship communities where they are encouraged to use all their God-given gifts. Let us seek justice—or at least let us seek to have dialogue—with those who have been unjustly criticized for following God’s will in their lives.
When I was suddenly catapulted into leadership…I felt we would be supported by the white church. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
I am thankful for both men and women who have supported me as I’ve developed my gifts in ministry. But I’ve also been surprised at the number who were outright opponents, and many others who were simply more cautious than courageous. I was one of those cautious women myself, once. Unfortunately, church leaders are often driven by fear of change rather than by faith in the One who can change us! Let us be willing to encourage those who are following God in courageous ways, even if we don’t agree with or understand their theology.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a powerful voice in the conversation for racial reconciliation, but it also speaks to our call for justice and equality in the dialogue about women in ministry. May we listen well.
1. All quotes come from Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Literature: The Human Experience, (Bedford/St. Martins: Boston, 2013), 533-545.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society on Flickr.