One Last Sermon

OK, this will be the last sermon I post for awhile – I don’t intend to make a habit of it. However, I thought the content of this series would make for a good series of posts. We’ve worked through a six-week series really of philosophy on what was hopefully a practical level. This final installment was intended to be a case study through the series of topics we covered in the earlier weeks. It seemed to me that the best topic that would make this as real as possible is one as controversial as the role of women in the church.

I find this an incredibly difficult topic to maneuver in the existing church (at least those churches like ours that have a patriarchal tradition so in-grained in their psyche). Something that seems to fundamental to me is so incredible offensive and troubling to many. I suppose the easiest thing to do is to find a group of people who agree with me and move on to somewhere else. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem Christ-like. So, we plod on in our efforts here. Our folks were generous to hear these words, words that were contrary to the thoughts of a good many of our folks. Hopefully you find these words helpful to you.

I knew it would take some time to work through this material (which it did), so I ended up cutting out my personal examples of women in the church early on in the sermon.

Deconstructing Theology #7
Alum Creek Church – February 14, 2010

Women in the Assembly: A Case Study

When it came time to choose a topic as a case study for a postscript on this series on deconstructing church, I don’t know if I chose the topic as much as the topic chose me. There are a number of different “controversial” topics of discussion that we could have chosen in our attempt to engage in our past few weeks’ study, but one stands above the others in scope, diversity of thought, and the breadth of its implication.

Mary Beth and I have been a part of this church for six and a half years now, and this topic has been a constant source of conflict and disagreement since we arrived. We have had small group discussions, Sunday school classes, surveys, numerous private conversations, the elders have been studying the topic for a year . . . and as far as I can remember, we’ve never addressed it through sermon. The topic, of course, is the role of women within the church, and, primarily, in the church service. What else could we talk about this morning? As best I can tell, we pretty much are divided down the middle on this topic. There’s probably as many of you who think we should expand the role of women in the life of the church as there are those of you who think we should keep it as it is, or even pull it back a little.

This morning, we’re going to take a little more time than usual because of the scope of our study. Let it be said first and foremost, this is not some type of official statement leading way to everything changing next week. I am not as interested with the conclusions we draw, as much as I am with the process that we explore together.

This morning there are people here from a diversity of backgrounds. Some of you are thoroughly “Church of Christers” – born and raised, and others of you are probably not overly familiar with the Churches of Christ. It’s rare that you’ll actually hear our beliefs laid out specifically in the Churches of Christ – partly because there isn’t a lot of agreement about them, and partly because we like to keep it nebulous and by default are guided by tradition. If you aren’t from the Churches of Christ, here are a few examples from my experience in the Churches of Christ in regards to our stance on women and their role in our churches that I think seem humorous to anyone from the outside.

· I was baptized at the age of 12 and began attending men’s business meetings soon after (our church didn’t have elders and the decisions were made by the men of the church – as the Bible commands????) So, there I was a fifteen-year-old men with a stronger “vote” than my mom.

· Later I remember a woman of the congregation who taught the young teenagers in Sunday school who felt she could no longer teach the class because her son was in the class and he had just gotten baptized.

· There was a blind woman at our church in Defiance who had a wonderful singing voice – better than anyone else in the congregation. She sang loudly and led every song from her seat, but would have never been allowed to stand up and lead the congregation in worship.

· There was a woman at our church growing up who kept all the books for her husband’s business – was much more qualified than the man who kept the church’s books – but she was not allowed to keep the church’s books because she was a woman.

· At a church I worked at in Nashville we had a preschool ran by a woman. She could make announcements in front of the church regarding the preschool but was not allowed to be part of the regular announcement rotation.

I’m not trying to make fun of anyone’s beliefs, and I’m not trying to be trite about
a very challenging situation. I’m simply trying to give some specific examples of the implications of our teaching on the role women have within the Churches of Christ.

As I stated before, there is a developing diversity within Churches of Christ. There are a few who have women elders. There are a few that have women preaching ministers. There are some where women serve publicly. This is not common or usual. This is not what you have experienced here at Alum Creek. We fall in a very patriarchal tradition, and we have, by and large, maintained that tradition – for better or worse.

If we were to summarize our beliefs, more or less, for better or worse, here is what the Churches of Christ have taught . . . and what Alum Creek has followed.
1. Men are the spiritual leaders of their families
2. Men are the spiritual leaders of the church.
3. Elders are to be men.
4. Deacons are to be men.
5. Men conduct all parts of the public service done in front of the congregation.
6. Women are not to teach men (at least men who are baptized).
7. Women are not to lead public prayers in front of men (again, men who are baptized).
8. Women are not to lead men in worship.
9. Women may teach children who haven’t been baptized (with children who are baptized there is some uncertainty)
10. Women may pray in front of other women and children (and here we allow for women to pray in front of baptized men, but not on Sunday’s during our public services).
11. Women may not read Scripture in front of the church during its assembly.
12. Women may prepare communion, but may not serve it.
13. Women make announcements only on rare occasions and do not do so regularly.

The list could go on and on as we’ve confronted an ever-changing world. Circumstances and situations are constantly changing presenting new challenges and new understanding to our foregone conclusions on these matters. We’ve created new jobs that women are allowed to do. We’ve come across various exceptions and hypothetical circumstances that open some opportunities and close others for women.

This is one of those topics that everyone’s got an opinion on . . . and almost always a pretty strong one. Some of you stand diametrically opposed to the case I’m going to lay out this morning. Some of you are right there with me “Amening” and “That’s righting.” I don’t want to cause division. I don’t want to cause a fight. I don’t particularly like conflict. But this is an issue that cannot be avoided. I don’t like conflict, but I’m not afraid of it, and I believe that it is often the path that leads forward to the brightest future.

In order for this morning to be productive and beneficial, you must be able to see through your bias and strong opinions and listen to the approach. Watch how we go about this. The conclusion is not the objective today – it’s the process. When we’re all done today, I don’t care if you disagree with me or not – sure I’d like to think I will convince all of you. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about learning to live together amid our differences. It’s about allowing for diversity – diversity not just in thought, but in practice and action. I want us to learn from the process and help guide us into a new way of addressing disagreements and division attaining a new reality of unity. That’s why we’ve chosen to talk about something so divisive and controversial.

This directly affects half the world, and since there’s almost always more women in church than men . . . more than half in churches. And since we’ve all got mothers and wives, sisters and aunts, nieces and daughters . . . it affects us all. So . . . yeah . . . it’s kind of a big deal.

Through our time together this morning, we are going to attempt to work from the groundwork we have laid over the past month and a half. We’re going to go through the work we’ve done, week-by-week, and discuss how we address this specific issue and the implications each week has for this particular topic.

Confronting our Belief Structures

The first thing we talked about in this series is that we must come to terms with the reality that there are a number of elements that help predetermine our thinking on certain matters. In some ways, this may be the most challenging part of our journey together. It’s here you have to come to terms with why it is that you think the way you do.
I want you to do that right now. Just quietly, to yourselves. The first question you’ve got to ask yourself is: Am I a man or a woman? Pretty simple, but the more challenging question is – how does this impact your perspective?

· If you are a man and you believe women should not have a place in public worship
o Is it because you are afraid of listening to a woman?
o Are you intimidated by women?
o Do they make you feel insecure? Do they intrude on your machismo?
o Does that go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?
o Would you be open to giving up some of the power that has been given to you because you are a man?

· If you are a woman and you believe you should have a more open place in public worship
o Are you just envious or jealous of the men empowered to make decisions?
o Is this really about getting more power for yourself?
o Are you just succumbing to the prevailing winds of culture that tell you you can do anything a man can do?
o Does being kept from leadership positions go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?

· If you are a man and believe that women should have a more open place in public worship (as I strongly do), I’ve got to ask myself some pretty tough questions myself:
o Are you just trying to get out of a very important role that God has called you to?
o Are you being sidetracked by your desire to open doors for your wife and daughters and taking your eyes off of God’s desire for you?
o Is this really just a rebellion against the establishment? Are you against it just to be against it?
o Are you just succumbing to the prevailing winds of culture?

· If you are a women who believe your place is not in the public service:
o Is this your personal belief because of your preference? Is it just not your personality?
o Does this go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?
o Are you afraid of an “Uncle Ben” like God will damn you to hell if you expressed a desire to be part of a public assembly of faith and thus paralyzed by fear?

Listen to the importance of all these questions. Hear how our experiences and
our education and our personality help shape our understanding of the world around us.

Consider how differently an ivy league-educated world-class lawyer would understand this topic versus a high school drop out who lives on the family farm out in Boondock, Iowa. Has God given the farmer special spiritual insight because of his maleness? Is there a “right” way for these two to understand this topic? How can the two of them ever agree about this? How he ever let her lead him? How could she ever let him lead her?

Our personality, our family situation, our education, our background, the culture in which we were raised – all this is going to heavily jade our thinking on this matter. It all impacts how we understand women. It all impacts our understanding of authority and power. And before we ever read a Scripture or enter a Bible class, all this is already at work within us.

So now, we’ve got to ask the question that we introduced that first week . . . what if I’m wrong? Your upbringing and education and family life has helped predetermine what you believe about this matter – so what if you’re wrong. I had to go through this process. I didn’t always believe that a woman’s role should be expanded, but I had to wrestle with this – my mom was wrong, my church growing up, and preachers I knew growing up – they were all wrong . . . and maybe I’m wrong now.

Pursuing Biblical Humility

We have to be able to chill out sometimes. We can very easily assume in churches that the stakes are so high that there’s never a time to laugh or joke or have fun. Even on vitally important matters like this, we’ve got to enter into discussions with the mindset, “I don’t have all the answers.” We have to be willing to look like a fool on occasion. To laugh at ourselves, and to be wrong from time to time.

In the second week of our study, we saw how Job’s prepackaged understanding of God was completely undone when his family and fortune were taken from him. We saw that God is often not who we had in mind. He doesn’t always work the way we’d expect.

In our discussion of women today, there are some unsettling aspects of our study. No matter what perspective you are bringing to the text, you are going to have some issues to deal with. There are two pretty critical texts that have to be dealt with if you believe women should have an expanded role in the church – both from Paul.

Read 1 Corinthians 14: 33b – 35.
Read 1 Timothy 2: 9 – 15.

Can I be honest for a moment? I hate these verses. I don’t know it if is OK to hate anything in the Bible, but I really wish these weren’t here. I get so tired of studying them. I get so tired of them being misused. And I have to be honest; I’m not sure what they mean. I have some ideas, but nothing I’m so convinced of I would die for.

I know those of you who really believe in male leadership and male dominance in the public worship assembly have lots of trouble getting past these passages. You hang a lot on them – especially the Timothy passage since Paul ties his argument to creation –though I don’t usually hear too many men argue very loudly that their wives are saved through childbearing, and I’m not sure anyone is ready to argue how this applies to our wonderful women here who don’t have children. I understand your apprehension. I respect your desire to be biblical.

However, I think your inability to get beyond these passages shows a bit of myopia. The biblical witness is much larger than these two passages. In the Old Testament, women were very much submissive to man, and yet Judges 4 tells the story of a woman leading the entire nation of Israel – she was the most powerful person in Israel. That’s not a prepositional statement like the ones we just read, it’s a reality that has to be dealt with.

And as for a woman teaching or having authority over a man, the Book of Acts tells us that the evangelist Phillip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21: 9). The closest thing you are going to find to prophesying to what we do today is preaching. These daughters no doubt taught and preached the Word of God. And then, earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11, a few chapters prior to what we just read above, in the midst of a discussion of headship (which is another passage many of you like in stating male leadership) the assumption is women prayed and prophesied (1 Corinthians 11).

There is so much study and more to be said here, but for our purposes this morning, I simply want you to see that it isn’t a black and white issue – that folks on both side of this issue have to acknowledge there are some things that you just don’t know.

Questioning Uncle Ben

In week #3, we talked about the Uncle Ben like God who paralyzes many with fear. If this is the picture you have of God, it makes this issue incredibly difficult. Decisions to change anything will be riddled with fear. “If we change our practice or our thought, he might damn us to hell.” Hopefully, we’ve been able to show through this series that this is a false idol that some serve, and is not the true picture of God.

The God that we serve is not afraid of our questions. As we experience new realities in our world, it forces us to ask new questions of our traditions and our belief structures. In regards to our understanding of women in society, culture has changed immensely. Less than 100 years ago, women could not vote in our nation. The women’s liberation movement continues to fight for equal pay with men and overcoming prejudice in hiring processes. For the first time ever, there are more females in the workforce than males.

We are crazy if we don’t think this doesn’t impact our understanding of God. As I typed out this sermon I asked myself, “What would it be like if Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice went to my church?” These world leaders, two of the most powerful women in the world . . . but they wouldn’t be able to make decisions here. They wouldn’t be able to make announcements here or pray in front of the group, or ever address the group publicly.

I don’t have the answer . . . only more questions. How does a widow feel in our churches? Or a single mom? Or a mom whose husband isn’t a Christian? How do they find their place in our churches? Don’t they have some place at the leadership table? Are they really restricted simply because they are a woman? Our culture tells women they can do anything that a man can do? I happen to believe that and intend to teach my daughters that . . . but does the Bible teach that?
And the questions abound as we consider the structure of our churches. Is reading Scripture publicly really a position of authority? And serving communion? Is there ever a time to restrict anyone from praying in front of others – especially because of their gender? Where does our structure come from? So many questions remain – we must stop pretending as though we have all the answers or that we are even consistent.

Dealing with Disagreement

In a perfect world we could all agree on this issue. In a perfect world, we would simply have each person offer their arguments, we’d vote on the better choice, and move on. That’s not the way this is going to work. As I stated at the beginning, it’d be great if I could stand up here and convince you of my opinion, but we’re all pretty set in our ways.

When we discussed the topic of disagreement, we read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that demanded unity of the Spirit. The topic of women and their role in the church has divided just about every denomination. Some people have wanted to allow for women pastors to be ordained and lead the church, others have felt this to be unbiblical – and so divisions have prevailed.
We could allow this to divide us. We can say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see what’s going to happen and then we’d decide if we can stick around.” Or, we can say to ourselves, “This is my church family, I must figure out a way to make this work.” We stated that our source of unity in the Spirit can be found in the Apostle’s Creed – a creed we read aloud together. The tenets of that creed have united Christians for centuries. Missing from that creed is any statement regarding women and their place in church. This is not something to allow the church to be torn apart over.

Growing Pains & When all Structure is Gone

Disagreements, however, will come, and they will be incredibly difficult to deal with. In our fifth week, we looked at how early division and disagreement led to the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The Jewish-Christians were met with some new information as they interacted with the Gentiles. Here, the apostles Paul and Barnabas stood up and told the people what they had witnessed.

In the same way today, I believe we must stand up and share what we have witnessed as of first and foremost importance – even when it doesn’t fit into our structure. I have heard women preach the Gospel and been encouraged. I have seen women lead churches and have felt the Spirit upon them. I have heard women pray and read Scripture aloud – and been immensely blessed from it. I have seen their gifts of the Spirit . . . and as Paul stated to the Thessalonians, we must not allow that Spirit to be quenched.

But God would not contradict himself, you say. We saw last week that he has done just that in the past. He has allowed for new movements of the Spirit. He has allowed for exceptions in faithfulness. I know many of you believe this goes against the very order God has made . . . that’s the proposition that you see embedded in the text. But I am here in front of you as Paul and Barnabas was in front of the people in Jerusalem to tell you that as we saw last week, it hasn’t always happened the way you would think.

· In Genesis 1 – 2 Adam and Eve were created as equals, side by side, Adam not perfected until Eve was made from his side. It wasn’t until the curse entered the world in chapter 3 that Eve’s “desire will be for the man.”
· In Exodus 15, it was Miriam a prophetess who led the entire nation of Israel in worship alongside her brother Aaron and Moses. Miriam was a spiritual leader.
· In Judges 4, we’ve already mentioned how Deborah was the ruler of Israel – political leader over all Israel.
· In a story similar to what we read last week when Josiah found the Book of the Law in the temple, he went to the prophetess Huldah to affirm its content – this was at the same time the better-known prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk were working. But he chose a woman.
· In Luke, it was Jesus’ mother Mary who receives all the attention and blessing from the Most High.
· In the list of thanksgiving at the end of the Book of Romans, a name listed as Junias is almost certainly a woman whose name was actually Junia but was changed to cover her women-ness.
· Priscilla is quoted as teaching with her husband Acquilla taught Apollos together.
· Phoebe is listed as a special deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

Perhaps in our desire to maintain our structures, we’ve become so concentrated on
our structure that we have missed the Spirit of God moving all along through history. God has not created a hierarchy in this world of men over women. We have seen throughout Scripture women have served as political leaders, spiritual leaders, and even the very bearer of the Savior in Mary.

On the one hand, there are those of us here who believe the Bible is very particular about the ordering of men and women. We want to be biblical. On the other hand, there are those of us here who believe the Spirit of God is calling us to move beyond archaic structures that have been the work of sin working within social structures. Both perspectives have worthwhile objectives.
What we’ve tried to do this morning is work through a series of challenging steps to help open our eyes to what we’re bringing to the text, seeing the ambiguity that is there, and beginning conversations in how we move forward.

As I stated earlier, this is not statement as to what’s going to happen next week. Actually, I’m doing the best thing I could think of after preaching this sermon – getting out of town! Ha. I hope this is the beginning of a renewed conversation. There are many among us who feel passionately about this topic. As the father of two daughters I have become even more committed to changing our practices here. However, as soon as I state that, I realize how challenging this is for so many of you. I understand how much you have vested in this. I hope the things we’ve covered over the past few weeks have been helpful to you. I hope that they’ve made you think. I hope they’ve challenged you. And I hope, more than anything, you’ve been blessed with them. I don’t know where we go from here. All I know to do is to press on in what I believe in . . . just as you press on in what you believe in, and somehow, through the amazing providence of God, he will bless our endeavors. [End with a prayer shared with Mary Beth.]

I ended up leading the prayer sans Mary Beth. She felt uncomfortable leading unless the elders were fully aware . . . and I didn’t think it was worth the long conversations and discussion. I figured the women prayed in Corinth (as we just read in this sermon), so they can pray here . . . but the conversation continues I guess.

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On Women (not that way!)

Well . . . the Buckeyes lose another big game behind archaic play-calling and a brand of conservatism that makes Rush Limbaugh look like a Rachel Maddow wannabee followed up by the train wreck that is the Cleveland Browns (but did you catch that small smile that parsed by lips as I changed the channel just long enough to see the Bronco’s long tipped bomb sink the Bengals!) . . . let’s talk theology!

I have not blogged on the issue of gender in awhile, and it has been hitting my heart especially hard lately. I come from a heritage that has been extremely traditional in their teaching and practice of a woman’s place in both the home and the church. In the ten years or so growing up at the Defiance Church of Christ, a woman never graced the front of the congregation. Never. They were “permitted” to speak out if asked a question, but their role was limited to teaching children’s Bible classes (until a male was baptized) and pretty much run the church behind the scenes. They organized the potlucks, cooked the food, set up and clean up. The church had no elders and the minister was a lay-volunteer (paid, I think) and all decisions were made in closed door “men’s business meetings.”

It has become my belief that “men’s business meetings” are the absolute worst idea ever created for church leadership. It required a terrible misreading of Scripture for the idea to ever have become a reality, and it permitted ungodly oppression and misuse of power. Certainly, God works in mysterious ways and created good from evil, but as we analyze and reflect on practices, this is one that begs for rebuke.

My dad has never really come to church (he had what I call a “marriage baptism.” So, for the most part, it was my Mom draggging the three of us to service. My aunts also went there dragging their husbands along (that’s overstating it). Something that I will always remember is that my mom was never permitted a “say” in the business of the church because of the “men’s” requirement for permittance in a “men’s business meeting.” My mom, like yours, wasn’t a man (still isn’t as a matter of fact!) This left us without a family representative at the business meetings. That is, until I was baptized (at 14), then I counted. Now . . . that’s messed up.

You don’t have to turn to a book, chapter, verse to realize the fallacy here. However, to be fair, this practice shows the hermeneutical flaw of those who continue to press a male-dominated agenda in Christianity. If women aren’t equal, there not equal. If the man is the head of the household – he’s the head. As the traditional understanding of marriage and gender roles continue to be challenged, this dilemma continues to endure onslaught.

I recently heard on the nightly news that, one of the results of the reduction in manufacturing positions in this country, for the first time ever, we are approaching a time when more women will be working than men. Women’s wages continue to be a great deal less than men’s (a discussion for another day, but a reality no doubt reinforced by the traditional Judeo-Christian male prejudice), but the reality remains: more women will be working than men. Women continue their fight to the top of some of the most important and powerful companies and positions in all the world. It won’t be long, surely in my life time, that a woman will assume the role of President and the barrier thrown asunder for African Americans will also be cast aside for woman.

So . . . picture this, Hillary Clinton now President of the United States, unable to serve communion in my congregation – and not just because she’s a Democrat 🙂 Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, unable to offer a prayer publicly in our service because of her gender. If Taylor Swift placed membership she would be relegated to our praise team, and not allowed to lead the congregation in singing because she was born with the wrong chomosome.

I’m afraid that in the minutia of our discussion in regards to the role women are to play in the kingdom of heaven, we get so caught up in minor points that we fail to step back and consider the implications of our teaching and beliefs. I don’t know have all the answers for some of the more challenging texts about women remaining silent any more than those on the other side don’t have the answers for the texts challenging their perspective (Deborah, after all led the entire nation of Israel in Judges, Phillip had four daughters who prophesied in Acts – seems as definitive as 1 Tmothy 2, and on and on), however, perhaps the best argument is to provide some big picture biblical common sense on the issue. That can only be done by considering the story.

What is wrong with a woman leading a man? The onus in on the other side to deal with this question. Are we arguing for something evil here? Are we inciting the rage of God by imporing others to do something contrary than what he has created us for? If this is the case, then we need to go on a crusade against the rising numbers of women in the work force – they are slowly taking us over! We must overcome this sacred/secular divide that is NOT biblical, as if leadership outside of church is ok, but forbidden inside of church. That doesn’t even make sense. How many of our men come home from being led at work by women and then maintain a priveledged position of leadership over them in the church? Why? Because they understand spiritual things better than women? Because she ate the fruit from the forbidden tree? Because she was cursed through Eve? We better have some better theology than that.

This issue is of primary importance for me. I have two daughters that will challenge my action in this area for the rest of my life. “Daddy, why can’t I lead a prayer?” “Daddy, why can’t I share my testimony?” I am not prepared to answer those questions because I do not have an answer. Perhaps I am being duplicitous remaining at a place that cannot move forward in this area, but, patiently and faithfully I stick it out, hoping God’s grace can fall and change hearts and attitudes. My wife has the gift of prayer and intercession. She is unable to share that gift as freely as she should due to traditions and oppressive ideologies – and these from good people.

So what are we to do? What is she to do? O the raw talents that go unused each and every day because of oppressive thoughts and practices and staunch rejection. They are waiting. God is waiting. I am impatient . . . my prayer is that His patience will endure . . .