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The Challenge of the Re-Imagining God Conference

In their desperate hunger for new and meaningful ways of knowing and worshiping God, thousands of women gathered in Minneapolis in November 1993 at a conference whose theme was “Re-Imagining… God, Community, and the Church” Certainly today’s women have the right to choose their own forms of religious expression. However, they also have a right to understand the antecedents of those forms. Because various conference presentations and liturgies went beyond orthodox Christian faith and practice, we need to examine the historical roots of these so-called “new” ideas.

But just as important, the Re-Imagining conference issues a call to each one of us to proclaim God’s nature more fully, to worship more truly, and to practice more honestly the kindness and righteousness of Christ.

An Unhappy And Unholy Past

All too many in the orthodox churches have been egregiously insensitive to the deep needs and intense yearnings of many of our sisters. As Frances Willard expressed it long ago, women have often been “driven from the altars of Mother Church” Their legitimate and unfilled spiritual desires have propelled some of them down a wrong path, one that has — time and again— been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Where did this path start?

Before the call of Abraham “our fathers worshiped other gods on the other side of the River.” (Joshua 24:2) Since then God’s people have not always been as single-minded as we might hope in the worship of the True and Living One who is revealed to us in the Scriptures.

Moses on several occasions adjured the children of Israel to put away the gods that they had brought with them out of Egypt. These were not deities whom they were worshipping instead of Jehovah but rather in conjunction with the Almighty who brooks no rivals. Recent archaeological evidence points to a syncretistic Israelite practice of worshipping the Lord as an abstract and invisible God while also venerating an accompanying female deity portrayed in sexualized human form.1 This is the Asherah-type goddess, referred to frequently in the Old Testament, usually represented as a pole and worshipped in groves upon hilltops. In the biblical record, we become aware of Israelite worship of Asherah poles only when their erection or destruction is noted (Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 14:23; 18:4; 21:7; 2 Kings 21:21; 2 Chronicles 33:22).2 The Law demanded the extirpation of this heathen practice (Ex 34:12). We further read:

“Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods ...burn their Asherah poles in the fire...You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.”

(Deut. 12:3-4 NIV)

At the time of the reform of Josiah, Asherah’s large pole was removed from the Temple precinct, along with her cult prostitutes and personnel (2 Kings 23:6-7). The prophet Ezekiel refers to this giant Asherah as “the idol of jealousy” (Ezekiel 8:3,5) for God was proclaimed as a jealous God (Ex 20:5; Deut 32:16. Ps 58:78). Indeed, one reason given for the captivity of Israel is that of the inconstancy of the people who “provoked the Lord to anger by making Asherah poles” (1 Kings 14:15)

During the Exile, the tradition of the synagogue was born in Babylonia. Pious folk gathered on the Sabbath to discuss the Scriptures and to make them part of their very lives and thought patterns. In the light of God’s Word, the faith of Israel was purified, strengthened, and ennobled. Never again did she fall into idolatry or give overt obeisance to a female deity. There developed however, on the part of some in post-exilic Judaism, a desire to exalt a feminine concept, whether Glory or Wisdom (Sophia) or Life (Zoe—the Greek name for Eve). Built upon Haggadic traditions,3 the abstractions took on aspects of pagan goddesses, most notably Isis and the Great Mother of the Gods. Soon these feminine entities were embarked upon an existence of their own.

The introduction of this Judaized paganism into Christianity thus embraced a very ancient tradition with its roots in the eclecticism of Egypt, Iran, India, Asia Minor and Syria. Full-blown Gnosticism drew on the figures of great goddesses (Sophia in particular) and the rituals associated with them. Groups who purported to be Christian incorporated the rites of the Great Phrygian Mother of the Gods into their cultic worship, venerated Sophia as mother goddess, and utilized body fluids in their rituals. Both semen and menstrual blood were offered up to the divine Powers.4 Some of the communities were said to have engaged in a variety of sexual activities as part of their worship,5 while Epiphanius describes the forced abortion of Phibionite women and of the ritual meal they made of the fetus. The feast was called “the perfect Passah”.6 Irenaeus, Epiphanius and other early Christian writers roundly condemned not only the theology of these deviants but also the abhorrent practices which they incorporated into their worship services.

During much of the twentieth century, scholars tended to ignore these descriptions as wild hyperbole, but increasingly the evidence grows that the early Fathers of the Church were telling the truth when they spoke out against the terrible heresies. C.J. Dolger was the first to see that there were underlying similarities between known pagan practices, the crimes imputed to the Christians, and the description of certain Gnostic rites.7 When the outside world accused Christians of promiscuity during their love feasts and also of infanticide, the charges may not have been wholly unsubstantiated. Indeed, Justin Martyr had realized the similarities between Gnostic ceremonies and the accusations flung at the Christians,8 while Irenaeus and Eusebius both stated that it was the Gnostic activity which caused pagans to believe that Christians behaved similarly.9

Taking his cue from Dolger, Harvard scholar Albert Henrichs maintained that the Fathers may indeed have told the truth and that the behavior of the radical groups may account for the negative publicity which plagued the early Christians. He wrote, “I believe that even slanderous accounts of ritual performances can be used as reliable evidence of actual religious practices in antiquity if interpreted properly.”10

So I repeat, today’s women surely have the right to choose their own forms of religious expression, but they also have a right to understand the antecedents of those forms. Beside the more flagrant aspects of these cults, there are other negative values that must be considered:

1) Gnosticism frequently viewed the material universe and its Creator as evil.

2) The body was often looked upon as a misfortune, a prison and a tomb.

3) While Gnosticism set forth some strong female figures, Sophia and other feminine deities often appear as deficient, abused, errant and sorrowful.

4) Femininity is viewed negatively as a yoke to be cast off. Salvation involves becoming male.11

In short, Gnosticism does not hold the roots for healthy self-images for women. Those who have borrowed from this tradition have turned to an unhappy and unholy past.

The Church of Jesus Christ is again confronted with persons who would merge Christian and pagan elements and juxtapose the worship of other deities beside that of the Lord our God. There is need for careful research into the sources from which this strange christianization of openly pagan elements has emerged, and there is a need to restate the arguments and strategies by which the early Fathers demolished this threat to me Church’s purity.

Just as those stalwart saints called attention to the aberrant practices and denounced them, so we too need to make the contemporary Church aware of the implication of goddess worship, even in a christianized context. The past has demonstrated its destructive tendencies and associated practices: ritual promiscuity, a spiritualization of sexuality, and the sacramentalization of abortion. But the orthodox believers led those with hungry hearts back to a knowledge of the truth and back to the love of the Savior.

With equal faithfulness, we need to lay forth the Scriptures which have the power to heal and to speak to the marginalized, the victimized, and the oppressed. A crucial question is: How can we lead our sisters to Jesus the Friend of Woman, who offered living water to a marginalized woman and told her about the true worship of the God who is Spirit?

Proclaiming God’s Nature More Fully

Sad to say, many Christians have forgotten what the Scriptures clearly tell us: that God has both fatherlike and motherlike qualities, and the human heart cries out to know both aspects of God. Moses chided the children of Israel because they had “deserted the Rock, who fathered you [and] forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut 32:18). Have we been any more faithful?

I recall one Mother’s Day reviewing for an adult Bible class the Scriptures that picture God as a mother. One irate gentleman declared, “Even if the Bible does say God is like a mother, we shouldn’t let anybody know about it!” But dare we proclaim less than all that is revealed of God’s nature? Jungians tell us that human beings need a mother image to revere as well as a father image, and God has blessedly provided for this need within the Scriptures.

Deuteronomy 32:11 pictures God as a mother eagle who hovers over her young, spreading her wings to catch them and bear them up. The metaphor of the mother eagle carrying her young on her wings recurs in Exodus 19:4, while Hosea 13:8 compares the love and protection of God to that of a mother bear for her cubs. Even Jesus, as he mourned over Jerusalem, likened himself to a mother hen yearning to gather her chicks under her wings, while one of his parables represents God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 13:34; 15:8-10).

In one magnificent simile, God is both mighty warrior and a woman in the throes of labor, for Isaiah understood well that God may be described in both male and female terms:

The Lord will march out like a mighty man,
like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry
and will triumph over his enemies.
“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I will cry out, I gasp and pant.”

(Isaiah 42:13-14 NIV)

Note that God directly says, “like a woman in childbirth I will cry out, I gasp and pant.” If God says this, who are we to deny or suppress this simile which the Almighty has spoken? If our sisters, in their search for God, have turned to broken cisterns, do we ourselves not bear part of the responsibility?

As a young pastor’s wife in Minnesota, I was seeking to counsel a drunk who had passed out inside our house. As I told him of Christ’s transforming power, the old Scandinavian suddenly burst out, “Veil, if God is like a fadder, den I don’t vant Him!” He poured out a tragic tale of his own father’s misconduct, and I was too dumbfounded to offer him alternative images of God.

I wish that I had told him that one may be comforted at the breast of God as a newly weaned child is comforted by its mother, that God will not forget us any more than would a mother forget the baby at her breast (Ps 131:2-3; Is 49:15; 66:13). Yes, I was the one who failed, but through the years the words of that tragic man have stayed with me and spurred me to find other images to explain the God who cannot be seen or touched or contained. Why did I not tell that man of the Bright and Morning Star, the Sun of Righteousness, the Consuming Fire, the Vine, the Righteous Branch and the Heavenly Dove? .

Worshiping More Truly

Nowhere is this balance more important than in worship, where we address God as “you.” Many find problems with other personal pronouns, yet the God who delights in our worship cannot be an impersonal “it”, and this leaves us only the personal “he” or “she” when we speak of the deity in the third person. For both linguistic, grammatical and cultural reasons, the Scriptures employ the male pronoun, but specifically make it clear that masculine terminology may include both male and female (Gen 5:2-3). When we pray “Hallowed be Thy name,” we address a God whose goodness and love are those of both a father and a mother.

The Bible is quite emphatic that we are not to worship God as being essentially either male or female (Deut 4:16), but how often have we proven faithless! Those who have worshipped femininity are no less culpable than those of us who have worshipped masculinity as being the essence of the God who is above and beyond sexuality . Again and again the Bible bitterly denounces worship based on sexual perceptions or practices. God is Spirit, and they that worship God must worship God in Spirit and in truth.

The God of the Bible has no sexual organs, though there are biblical allusions to the womb of God and the name El Shaddai (usually translated Almighty) may well be a reference to the Breasted One, implying the sufficiency of God’s supply. However, we do not believe these mental pictures ascribe to God literal breasts or womb (or eagles’ wings), but rather we understand them as aids in helping us to comprehend the divine Being whom we worship. Admittedly it is hard to worship that which we cannot see or touch, hence the appeal of paganism with its readily accessible idols and images. Yet Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!” (John 20:29) God calls such to enter into the praise of the Altogether Lovely One, the Rose of Sharon, the Mighty Fortress, the Strong Tower, the Great Physician, the Door, the Ever living One, the Light of the World and the Great Shepherd. Above all, let us continue the simple song with which we first lifted our hearts in worship, “Praise Him, praise Him, all ye little children. God is love, God is love.”

But God is a jealous God who will not share worship with any other. “God only shalt thou worship.” People err when they adore the characteristics of the Almighty, such as wisdom, rather than the One whose nature is wise and good and loving and just. Yet at this Re-Imagining Conference some appeared to be calling upon other deities, though God has promised to meet all our needs through the riches of his grace in Christ Jesus.

I believe the Church has failed to provide sufficiently meaningful worship experiences of the True and Living One. There can be no doubt that the Re-Imagining Conference was filled with hungry hearts seeking to reach out to the divine in new ways. How seriously — or creatively — have we taken the call to bring praise and adoration to the Lord our God? And have we been careful to include all who would call upon the name of the Lord? In eternity we shall worship God continually. We shall sing a new song, prompted by our experience and by our ever-growing understanding of God’s mercy, grace and love. Can we not begin the new song now and include those who so desperately need to share in the vision of God’s holiness as we celebrate together the rich biblical imagery God has revealed?

Practicing More Honestly The Kindness And Righteousness Of Christ

Many of the women who gathered in Minneapolis were angry and bitter over their ecclesiastical disenfranchisement. How often we have failed to make a place in the life and ministry of the Church for women who have experienced the call of God! Although there are those who still say that God does not give female leaders to the church, long ago in Micah’s courtroom scene God asked, “How have I wearied you, O my people? Have I not brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery? Have I not set before you Moses and Aaron and Miriam to lead you?” (Micah 6:4).

Others have professed an inclusivity they did not practice. One day we all may stand at the Judgment Seat and hear God ask, “What have you done with Miriam?” Is the disenchantment expressed at the Re-imagining Conference due in part to our rejection of her?

Deborah was called to be a judge over Israel as well as a general and a prophet. The proclamation of God’s Word by the prophet Hulda set off the great revival under King Josiah. Female construction engineers repaired the wall of the city of God along with their father Shallum, son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:12). Presumably these daughters did not worry about whether or not this was a feminine role — they just saw that a job needed to be done to safeguard the city, and they did it. Is not this what God has called each one of us to do: to be faithful stewards, in his service, of whatever abilities he has given us?

We have gifts that differ
according to the grace given us:
prophecy, in proportion to faith;
ministry, in ministering;
the teacher, in teaching;
the exhorter, in exhortation;
the giver, in generosity;
the leader, in diligence;
the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Romans 12:6-8 (NRSV)

The text is not gender specific. It calls all who are willing to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God (see also 1 Corinthians 12:4-31). Let us make sure that we do not hinder others from obeying.

Ephesians 4:15 says that the whole body is built up in love as each member does its work. Some are to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service. God sometimes calls extraordinary people to do extraordinary things, and we can only declare that it is the Lord’s doing. We have no right to deprive the body of the gifts and ministries which our Lord has bestowed as he wills on women as well as men.

God manifested infinite love by coming into the world to redeem us. It is true that the human form was that of man; had Jesus come as a woman in first-century Palestine, the three years of public ministry would not have been possible at all. But have you ever considered that though male disciples were commissioned to go out two by two, women were the major witnesses of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? In each of the four Gospels, the women were specifically commanded to go and tell the men disciples that their Lord was alive from the dead. Even though Peter and John came to the Garden, Christ waited until Mary was alone in the Garden to reveal himself first to her. In the Hebrew legal system, a woman could not be used as a witness, yet Jesus arranged it so that the first witnesses should be women.

He even reproached the Emmaus disciples for not believing the testimony of the women.

If the risen Christ is real to us and has entered into our hearts, then we must ponder his use of women as primary witnesses and learners and disciples. God did indeed use women mightily throughout the events that are recorded in Scripture. There are over one hundred passages which affirm the Lord’s blessing and empowerment of women in leadership positions, and there are fewer than half a dozen passages that appear to discourage women leaders.12

I do not believe that the Scriptures contradict themselves at such a major point as the exercise of the gifts and talents of one half the body of Christ. The Bible brings us a continuous story of God’s marvelous deliverance of God’s people from sin, oppression, ignorance, subjugation and evil. It brings a story of grace and redemption and triumph, and it tells us that the cross has superseded the curse. This is the good news that every Christian, male and female, must share by word and deed with all who long for the reconciling grace of the Gospel.

Notes

  1. J. Glen Taylor. “Was Yahweh Worshiped as the Sun?” Biblical Archaeology Review. May/June 1994, vol. 20, no. 3. p. 52 ff. See also Richard Hess, “Yahweh and His Asherah? Epigraphic Evidence for Religious Pluralism in Old Testament Times,” One Cod, One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism, ed. Bruce Winter and David Wright. Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1991, pp. 5-33.
  2. For a detailed study, see Saul M Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel, SBLMS 34. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988. See also Ruth Hestrin, “Understanding Asherah: Exploring Semitic Iconography, Biblical Archaeology Review. September/October 1991.
  3. See especially Birger Pearson, “Jewish Haggadic Traditions in the Testimony of Truth from Nag Hammadi (CC IX.3) in Ex Orbe Religionum: Studia Geo Widengren (Numen suppl. 210, ed J. Bergman, K. Drynheff, and H. Ringgren, 2 vols, (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 1:457-470 and in Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity.
  4. Epiphanius 26.8.7.
  5. See Stephen Benko, “The Libertine Gnostic Sect of the Phibionites According to Epiphanius,” Vigilae Qiristianae, 21,2.1967. pp. 103-109; Jorun Jacobsen Buckley, “Libertines or Not: Fruit, Bread, Semen and Other Body Fluids in Gnosticism”. Journal of Early Christian Studies 2:1 Spring, 1994. pp. 15-31; and J.C. Goehring, “Libertine or Liberated: Women in the So-called Libertine Gnostic Communities,” in Karen King, ed. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 329-344. Richard and Catherine Kroeger, “The Gnostic Use of Sex,” Appendix in J Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking I Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, pp. 213-214.
  6. Epiphanius, Medicine Chest against All Heresies, 26.5.5-6. Against the more orthodox Montanists, largely dominated by women, there were frequent charges of infanticide. The allegation was known to Filaster (Diverse Heresies, 49,5); Epiphanius (Medicine Chest 48,14,6.5); Isidore of Pelusium (Epistle 1,242; Migne PC 778,332 A); Augustine (Oh Heresies 26; Migne PL 42,30) Praedestinatus (26, Migne PL 53,596); Jerome (Epistle 41,4,10) and Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech 16.8).
  7. C.J. Dolger, “Sacramentum Infanti’tidi,” Antike und Christentum 4 (Munster, 1934) pp. 188 ff
  8. Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 26.7
  9. Irenaeus Ref. 1.20.2-3; Eusebius HE., 4.7.11.
  10. Albert Henrichs, “Pagan Ritual and the Alleged Crimes of the Early Christians: A Reconsideration:”, in Kyriahm: Fest-schrit Johannes Quasten, ed. P. Granh’eld and J.A. Jungmann, Munster Westfalen, 1978, vol. I, p. 33.
  11. In particular, see Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  12. These difficult mandates must be dealt with responsibly, as the Word of God, though space does net permit of that here. Individuals desiring literature on the subject are invited to contact Christians for Biblical Equality, 380 E. Lafayette Fwy, Suite #122, St. Paul, MN, 55106.

 

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