We often refer to the conversations around women in the church as “the women’s issue.” Churches are studying “the women’s issue.” Churches are dividing over “the women’s issue. Men and women, myself included, have emphasized the importance of “the women’s issue.” But is “the women’s issue” truly a women’s issue? Does it belong to women? Is it about women? What do we mean when we call it “the women’s issue,” and is that an accurate label?
In the Churches of Christ we seek to pattern our communities and worship after the New Testament church. We read the Bible with an eye toward direct commands. It is easier to enforce a command than it is to imitate biblical examples or mine the Scripture for timeless principles. Unfortunately the few New Testament commands regarding women stand in stark contrast to the New Testament’s examples including women and the gospel’s principles that affect women. Churches have followed the few commands that silence women, but ignored the large amount of material that would lead one to believe that God intends for women to have full and complete involvement in every aspect of church life.
When people ask for changes to be made with regard to women in the church, one of the issues at stake has to do with the Bible being taken seriously. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the desire is not that Scripture be ignored or taken less seriously. It is rather that Scripture be read fully and that attention be given not only to direct commands but also to biblical examples and gospel principles. The process should not begin and end with the proof-texting of a few verses. While these discussions may focus on women, one of the main issues at stake is how we read the Bible. This is an issue that is important for the whole church, male and female alike.
The second issue is one of character. A church that discriminates based on physical characteristics is not a community that is shaped by compassion or reconciliation. A church that holds on to a worldly system of power is not following the ways of the kingdom of God, where the first are last and the greatest are servants. Modern Christians are painfully aware of our history. The church has not always stood on the side of justice. Unfortunately the church has been party to devastating harm and has perpetuated injustice in significant ways. Those who are asking churches to examine their restrictions on women are asking that the church renew its commitment to compassion, justice and cruciform leadership. This issue is about much more than women and it affects the whole church.
The third issue at stake is about being open to the Spirit of God. Jesus described true worship as marked by spirit and truth. Any worship gathering that is not open to the Spirit of God is lacking in this distinct characteristic of Christian worship. The church we find in the New Testament was keenly aware of the gifts the Holy Spirit was giving to each member of the church. In fact, Paul compares the church to a body, emphasizing how each member has fully unique yet equally significant functions depending on how that member has been graced by the Spirit of God. The fullness of Christian worship is experienced in the unity of these diverse members, coming together and courageously offering their gifts in service of the church — each in their own way as God has called and gifted them. So the concern is not for women alone. The desire is to be a community that is welcoming and embracing of the gifts, talents, skills, and interests God has given to each person. This Christian community will reap the spiritual benefits from empowering each and every person to speak words of edification and blessing as they have been called and gifted. The discussion centers on women but the issue is truly about everyone.
One final issue that is at play when women in the church are being discussed has to do with the role of fear in the decisions we make as church leaders and as disciples of Jesus. Is it better to play it safe or is it better to take risks? Often leaders resist changes because they fear the fallout. People might leave the church. People might stop contributing money. People might criticize the leaders and accuse them of having impure motives or making wrong decisions. It is always scary to make changes. What is known always feels safer than the unknown. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” Thus the issue at stake is the priority of love over fear. Knowing our fearful ways, Jesus commanded us again and again to not be afraid. The request is that church leaders not resist change because they are afraid, but make courageous decisions out of love. This is a defining characteristic of the Christian faith. It is a core principle that will certainly affect women in the church, but it reaches into every area of Christian discipleship and church life.
It is worth mentioning that we do ourselves no favors when we assign a problem in the church to one gender or the other. The body of Christ is made of many members who are completely dependent on one another. If one part of the body is compromised, the whole body suffers. While men may feel tempted to downplay the importance of discussions about women, they would do well to remember that there has never been a man who has walked the earth nor stood behind a pulpit who does not have a mother. Men also have daughters, sisters, wives, and female friends. The wellbeing of men is inextricably tied to the wellbeing of women. Needless to say, the reverse is true as well. We are all parts of a whole. Our sinful nature is to divide and compete, but the gospel of peace reminds us that we were made to love each other and worship with one voice.
As you can see, “the women’s issue” is not simply about women, for women, or because of women. It has to do with far more than women. Identifying it with a marginalized group functions to diminish its importance and fails to communicate the far reaching implications of the discussion. Likewise, it is not one single issue. This label, while perhaps convenient, tragically simplifies the complex and critical issues at stake. All of these issues are important; in fact, they are central to the faith and the authenticity of the Christian witness.
Amy Bost Henegar a minister for the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York City. She is a graduate of Pepperdine University and Fuller Theological Seminary, and recently completed a Doctor of Ministry degree at New York Theological Seminary. She spent the first part of her ministry in hospital chaplaincy and has been in congregational ministry since the early 2000s. She is one of the leaders of the Community of Women Ministers, a group that provides support and friendship for Church of Christ women pursuing vocational ministry.