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This Is a Question of Culture, Power, and Value, Not Role

by Sheri Bradley | July 07, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Honorable Mention. Enjoy!

The American church is embroiled in debates regarding what positions women may hold or what roles they may play in the corporate worship gathering. Influential scholars and denominational leaders hold up select verses from Scripture in defense of their position on the subjugation and silencing of women, but when I seek to determine the true, core nature of the discussion, I do not believe we are asking the right questions. Is the debate over women’s function in the church really an issue of theology and hierarchical roles assigned by God the Creator, or is it an issue of culture, power, and value? Do men maintain authority over women in obedience to God’s holy law, or out of cultural power struggles and ensuing attitudes of devaluing others?

Culture: The Prayers of Men

The Talmud contains a second-century prayer, attributed to Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, that Jewish men voiced to God every morning upon awakening. In this prayer, men thanked God for not making them a woman, a Gentile, or a slave. This sentiment bears great resemblance to (or was borrowed from) an ancient Greek saying attributed to either Thales, Socrates, or Plato in which men thanked God for not making them beasts, women, or Barbarians.1 

We should look with great disdain upon statements that perpetuate the belief that certain categories of human beings are less valuable. In Luke 18:9–14 Jesus tells a parable to those who “looked down on everyone else.” Jesus weaves a tale about a Pharisee who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). This Pharisee is looking down his nose at “those” kinds of people—the ones he thinks are not as good as he is, who he thinks are not worth as much to God as he is. Is the Pharisee worth more to God than anyone else?

These prayers recorded in the Talmud and in Luke are examples of diminishing others in order to elevate one’s own status rather than expressing thanksgiving and wonder at the diversity of God’s creation. 

Power: Learning from Another Discriminated Group

Are there groups of people that God likes better or values more? Did God design some categories of people to be innately substandard, subservient, and less valuable than others? For example, are Black people less valuable to God than White people, based solely on their race? Did God design one race to be subservient to another race? We would all vehemently answer, “No! Of course not!” So why is it that we continue to perpetuate the myth that women are innately designed by God to be subservient to men, based solely on their gender?

My thinking here is informed by Floyd Rose, an African American preacher who observed the similarities between the struggles of racism and sexism in the church during his many years of ministry. In his book, An Idea Whose Time has Come, Rose says:

Through the years, sexism, like racism, has given men the right to define, confine, and control women. We have determined what they are, what they can and cannot do, and where they could and could not go. We have created a brotherhood, which not only emphasizes the difference, but gives men the advantage based on that difference. There is a frightening parallel between how blacks have historically been treated by a white dominated society, and how women are treated by a male dominated church.2

In order to achieve and maintain domination over Black people during the years of American slavery, White slave masters sought to convince Black people of the need to respect, fear, and depend upon them. Alongside tools of violence, punishment, and intimidation, White slave masters also used Scripture as a weapon to support their beliefs that God intended Black people to be subjugated to White people. The church supported this use of God and his Word, using passages such as Ephesians 6:5–6; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18; and Titus 2:9, to justify this view. They perpetuated the belief that this was God’s ordained order for creation. Fortunately, most Christians have reinterpreted these passages to understand that while slavery was a part of ancient culture, these verses do not justify or prescribe slavery.

Value: Taking Another Look at Women in the Church

Today, many men in the church follow the White slave masters’ practice of citing Scripture passages written to a specific cultural issue to support their view that women are unfit for leadership or public service, so they should always submit to the leadership of men. For example, John MacArthur has endorsed these views on the role of women through his dismissive comments to Beth Moore.3 On his website, MacArthur claims that men and women are equal before God, but God has given them different roles “without making one inferior to the other.”4 However, doesn’t the practice of trusting only one gender to lead while the other gender must submit mean, by definition, that they are unequal and one is inferior to the other?   

Rose keenly observes:

Slavery in America was built on the premise that the worst white man was better than the best black man. Male chauvinism in the church is built on the premise that the least qualified man is more qualified than the most qualified woman.5

Jesus does not teach anywhere that some people are better than others, based solely on their race. Neither does he teach that men are better than women, based solely on their gender. Jesus calls us to love one another, to love our neighbor, whomever they may be, regardless of their race or gender. When we look down upon another human being or seek to subjugate them based on their gender or race, we are not treating them as a fellow child of God, but as someone of lesser value who needs to be controlled and oppressed.

Consider the words of Galatians 3:28–29:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This passage equalizes all races, all socio-economic classes, and both genders. Perhaps we should all pray more like the tax collector in Jesus’s parable, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” (Luke 18:13) rather than looking down our noses at those who are different from us. When we approach the question of women’s roles in the church, let us do so from a place of humility, valuing the diversity of God’s creation.   

Photos by Jabari Timothy on Unsplash.

Notes:

  1. Eliezer Segal, “A Dubious Blessing,” Jewish Free Press (Calgary, AB), 21 October 1999, http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/991021_DubiousBlessing.html.
  2. Floyd E. Rose, An Idea Whose Time Has Come (Columbus, GA: Brentwood Christian Press, 2002), 18.
  3. For a brief summary of MacArthur’s comments and Moore’s recent response, see Jesse T. Jackson, “Two Years Later, Beth Moore Addresses John MacArthur Telling Her to ‘Go Home,’” ChurchLeaders, 4 February 2022, https://churchleaders.com/news/416530-two-years-later-beth-moore-addresses-john-macarthur-telling-her-to-go-home.html.
  4. “The Role of Women,” Grace to You, 2002, https://www.gty.org/library/articles/DD08/the-role-of-women.
  5. Rose, An Idea, 12.

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