Gender & Grace

June 15, 2008

Personal assumptions challenged

I have been recently, in another class, concerned with the nature of sexuality and the way evangelicals deal (or do not deal) with it in their churches. My own experience growing up in the conservative South has been a mixed bag, to say the least. When I began reading Van Leeuwen’s book, I hoped she would give me some tools to move forward like a spelunker in the messy realm of sexuality and personhood. Because I have been doing so much reading and studying on the subject in the last few quarters, there are few assumptions I have that have not already been challenged and stretched and re-couched in new terms and with enlightened understanding.

What I did learn from this book is the inseparable interrelatedness of nature and nurture: not only is it nearly impossible to determine when nurture actually begins to affect nature, but it is also pointless to try to determine the extent to which each affects a human being or which affects that human being to a greater extent. Everyone debates one way or the other, but Van Leeuwen argues that there should be no argument at all because “[b]iology and experience are mutually influential” (67). And while “biology…can nuance…behavior” (77), “biology is both augmented and reshaped by learning” (108).

Life circumstances explained/clarified

What I was hoping for out of the concluding chapters of Van Leeuwen’s book was a delving into the issue of sexuality as it relates to personhood, who we are as sexual beings, bodily beings. While she covers some of that concern within the context of marriage (and to be fair, she is speaking as a married woman), she leaves only a chapter for homosexuality and only something like two pages for singleness. Van Leeuwen is not the only author to concentrate on sexuality within the context of marriage. Carrie Miles spends a good deal of time on marriage and parenting in The Redemption of Love, which I read for Dufault-Hunter last quarter, but she also offers no guidance on the single life. Granted, much of the talk about male headship concerns a woman’s place within marriage, but when a husband and wife share a common understanding of mutual submission, that marriage state offers a considerable amount of protection for a woman’s sexuality. Single women (and for that matter, single men) have a precarious place in the church as it is, even more so when in leadership positions. The debate over women’s role in ministry is difficult enough without having the added pressure to get married or the added stigma of being some kind of temptress. If we cannot even deal with our own sexual natures properly, how can we deal with the gender debate?

Of course, it sounds as though I did not enjoy the reading or benefit from it. I actually appreciated the opportunity to read a kind of synthesis of psychology, sociology, and theology concerning the nature and nurture of women and men. Putting ideas and concepts from different areas of study into one critical work helps to get a big picture of the many issues involved in the debate about the authority of women in the home and in the church. I especially appreciated Van Leeuwen’s effort to couch her arguments within a biblical model and under the premise of kingdom work. The missionary principle for hermeneutical approaches and the kingdom model are essential to Van Leeuwen’s argument that there is freedom and grace for human beings to move differently as the Holy Spirit inspires in different times and places but that this freedom must be bounded within the kingdom model and thus within the scriptural model for living a Christian life and glorifying God with one’s talents and gifts. Whether single, married, male, female, suffering, fighting, or free—the best we can do with our fallen understanding is to try to live as consistently after God as possible. The rest is grace.


Strange aspects

In the sense that I do not have a calling to preach in any capacity or to seek ordination for any purpose, the experiences of each of these women included in Riggs’ anthology Can I Get a Witness? are unlike my own. They each offered a profound and undeniable supernatural calling to the work they either accepted or resisted. Whether they responded as confidently as Sojourner Truth who lived true to her God-given name (21), or as tremulously as Zilpha Elaw who likened herself to Jonah or Julia Foote who described herself as “so weak and ignorant” (52), these women experienced the Jeremiah-like burning ( 8 ) to speak publicly and with authority regardless of the consequences. Also unlike my own experience as a white woman who has only ever known freedom, these women suffered and fought against not only sexism but racism, many of them being former slaves or the daughters of slaves. Ironically, their prophetic calling to speak against injustice met with opposition not because of their sex but because of their color: “And if I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t spend so much of my time talking to ninety percent white audiences all over the country…because America must wake up and learn the truth about itself and its racism” (Fannie Lou Hamer 171).

Out of Hogan’s article describing Phoebe Palmer’s ministry, the strangest part of her argument was her conservative insistence that the woman’s sphere was separated from the man’s, that women and men had different natures, but that by the baptism of the Holy Spirit God brought spiritual equality to both men and women. As Hogan sums, “Men and women were different, and yet, men and women were called to the same baptism and the same task, proclaiming the good news” (220). Certainly an unusual approach in light of the argument from personhood that is so much more favored in this debate. I have never heard anyone mix their arguments like Palmer does here, certainly a strange choice.

Familiar aspects

More familiar in my experience of the debate about women’s authority to speak in public his Palmer’s own admission concerning the difficulty of women who are called to preach but unable to find a forum in which to do so: “‘And what a dilemma! The will of the church and the will of Christ in conflict!’ (vi). Before women could obey the command of the spirit to speak, they first had to secure the right to speak (218). While her argument may have some contradictions, people certainly would have been hard-pressed to contradict her ultimate claim to God’s authority over both men and women. Hogan notes, “Spiritual equality, as used by Palmer, was grounded in the God-given equality between women and men….All of this was under God’s direction and command. It was God’s doing, not theirs, and this was the final and crucial distinction between personhood and spiritual equality” (221).

More familiar as well is the constant struggle African American women faced in securing an opportunity to be heard at all. Jarena Lee records that in eight years following her call “I had only been allowed to exhort, and even this privilege but seldom” (8). Virginia Broughton narrowly escaped being thrown from a window (37). I admire Julia Foote’s courage to speak regardless of opposition, asserting that “[m]an’s opinion weighed nothing with me, for my commission was from heaven, and my reward was with the Most High” (57). Another common experience is the jealousy that emerges when women’s ministry flourishes, like that of Broughton: “Ministers and laymen…who were jealous of the growing popularity of the woman’s work, as if there was some cause of alarm for the safety of their own positions of power and honor, all rose up from their churches…to oppose the woman’s work and break it up if possible” (35-6). Even when women are promoting daily Bible study and holy, righteous living, the fact that they are women promoting anything at all is cause enough for many men insecure in their own callings to fight the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Calvin on Women

May 27, 2008

Jane Dempsey Douglass, in her article “Christian Freedom: What Calvin Learned at the School of Women,” suggests that Calvin might be something of a cloaked and even accidental feminist. She notes that the significant mark of his attention to women is his choice “to place Paul’s advice for women to be silent in church among the indifferent things in which the Christian is free” (155). In other words, Calvin thinks a woman’s silence is not an irrevocable command from heaven but rather a “human law which is open to change” (156). If this is the case, then churches have the freedom to decide individually what is and is not consistent with order and decency in worship.

Douglass argues that Calvin makes no remarks in his many works that would contradict her reading of the implications of his classification of a woman’s silence in church as “indifferent.” She notes that the “only mention of women’s subjection I have found is in the context of submission of the church to the Word of God” (160). In fact, in the passage in his Institutes concerning head coverings, Calvin writes, “If the church requires it, we may not only without any offense allow something to be changed but permit any observances previously in use among us to be abandoned” (qtd. 158). Thus, argues Douglass, Calvin is open to changes in church order concerning indifferent issues. She even goes so far as to suggest that “Calvin feels the need to correct the apparent meaning of Paul’s statement lest his readers understand that women lack the fullness of the created image of God” (159). He even allows women to speak in church should God call them in a special situation (164). In light of this evidence, Douglass suggests several conclusions: Calvin argues concerning the subordination of women “in the context of Christian freedom” (165); he labels Paul’s directive as human, not divine, law; he advocates for women being made in the image of God theologically if not in the realm of human order; interestingly, Calvin seems to “relativize the authority of the epistles” because he does not take Paul’s statement or arguments at face value (166). Nevertheless, Douglass must conclude that regardless of the implications Calvin’s classification raises, he “expected women to return to their traditional subordinate roles” (172). This conclusion leaves me with the question: how much good does a proposition like this do if it is unintentional and in any case not capitalized on in general church order during and after the Reformation?

John Thompson, in his article “Polity as Adiaphora in John Calvin: The Strange Case of Women’s Silence in Church,” is less enthusiastic about the positive implications of Calvin’s classification than is Douglass. He argues that in fact Calvin would never have supported women speaking in church and wrote to that effect, because “such an office [of public ministry] does not befit one who is in submission” (2); Calvin was also unaware of the positive implications Douglass attaches to his classification since he never discussed them further; mostly, Calvin was not a man likely to approve any kind of change, much less one so controversial. At best, Thompson asserts, Calvin means by his classification the possibility of “a suspension of the rules, not a change” (4). Thus, there may be occasions when the voice of a woman in church will be called for or at least unavoidable, but these occasions do not permit “ a change in polity but a temporary suspension thereof in circumstances of necessity or emergency” (5), a position Calvin is not the first to hold (re. Vermigli). Thompson also notes that while “polity is a humanly-created order,” there are some rules of polity that “are divinely-instituted” (6). Since Calvin’s only examples for his classification of women’s silence as indifferent concern occasional or emergency situations, and since Calvin does not seem to be aware of any other implications of his concession, it is more likely—Thompson argues—that Calvin is not advocating very much freedom for women at all but rather asserting that one’s lack of decorum in a certain instance will not endanger one’s salvation (8).

Models/lessons from Calvin

Calvin’s example of stressing order and decorum in church worship is commendable. As a Presbyterian, I can at least give him that much credit. His distinction between God-ordained commands and human-devised rules is also a useful model as we try to extricate from its cultural seat the truth of scripture for today’s practical application in our many and various church settings. Even his admittance that indifferent rules may be suspended when necessary (if not amended or entirely altered) shows a flexibility in order and structure that allows one at least to breathe, if not grow. In my opinion, regardless of Calvin’s intention or motive, his classification of the issue of women’s silence in church as indifferent to salvation does have positive implications for women in ministry. He may not have meant to give the kind of freedom Douglass hopes for in her analysis of his humanist background and theological writings, but he did open the door for it. Perhaps it is for later theologians and scholars to build on the foundation Calvin laid for an orderly kind of worship that he would not have been able to see clearly through his own cultural lens. If Calvin, in his context, could make concessions on a temporary basis, perhaps he has paved the way for more permanent changes in today’s context.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice…I considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.”

~ Christine de Pizan

Vile. Abominable. Abode of every evil and vice. Indeed, what woman could feel anything but “most unfortunate” when convinced of her sorry state of existence before the perfection that is held up as man? The querelle des femmes, and later the witchcraze, feature in the great debate about the nature of a woman: is she good (like Mary) or is she bad (like Eve)? With the advent of a wider availability of education for women, a new realization of and outcry against oppression and misogyny arose. Are women really as bad as “they” say, these men who are educated by men and surrounded by educated men and uneducated women, these men who capitalize on each other’s propositions about the female sex and project their own sexual appetites onto them, these men who happening upon a woman of equal or superior learning/courage/virtue, etc can only scratch their heads and pronounce her to have risen above her sex—are women as bad as “they” say?

While courtly love, this ideal of romance, was at its peak, women like Christine began to expose “the attitudes it promoted toward women, and its reduction of romance to sexual conquest—and abandonment” (Kelly 10). Women were nothing more than sexual objects made to feel empowered for the purposes of the game but ultimately losing. A counterpoint to courtly love may be the rise of fear concerning witchcraft; where one’s romantic interest is held to be without fault, the witch is the epitome of fault. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the two authors surmise that witchcraft appeals more to the woman because (as Monter summarizes) “women are more credulous than men; women are more impressionable; also, ‘they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things they have learned by evil arts’…[they have a] greater sexual appetite…[and are by] nature quicker to waver in the faith” (129). So courtly love holds up a woman as the virginal Mary, but only for purposes of conquest. The accusation of witchcraft colors woman as the deceptive, lustful Eve who is vindictive and in cahoots with devils. Whether she is good like Mary or bad like Eve, she is still just a woman, rationally inferior (Kelly 12).

I try not to get frustrated when I read about what men used to think about women, but it is difficult when I realize that it is sometimes still the case today. Arguments from nature may have softened their terms and tone, but they are just as harmful and hurtful as ever. I’m reading Dan Doriani’s Women and Ministry right now for another class, and the gentleness of his tone and the caution with which he steps ever harder on the attempts of women to do God’s work are beginning to infuriate me more than the brash diatribes of these centuries-old documents like the Malleus Maleficarum. I want never to find myself in the place Christine de Pizan once was, despising her own sex, despising her own self, lamenting that God would make her at all if he would choose to make her so deformed and despicable as to suffer being a woman. If such a state is the logical conclusion of the pontification of men over the nature of a woman, there is no good in the reason of such men. God made male and female and pronounced them good. Anything short of that pronouncement is a lie, and one men have perpetuated and built upon for thousands of years.

So I say hurray for the women who “rose above their sex” to the extent that they could recognize their oppression and speak against it. Hurray for the women who would not accept lies about themselves or allow anyone to continue telling them to other women. Hurray for the women who suffered and toiled and even lost for the sake of the querelle des femmes and in the face of accusations with as heavy a price as death by fire. Hurray for women who stood up and said “no” to the insistence that they had less rationality, less virtue, less strength of character, less natural ability, less faith. May I have such courage to speak with gentleness and yet persistence when I face accusations of my own. The way has been paved for me. And that is a blessing.

The idea of referring to God as Mother, or even as Mother-Father, has never sat comfortably with me. I cherish the image of God as Father and attribute much of my relationship with God to the understanding that image has fostered. Nevertheless, I felt no discomfort when reading Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Perhaps that is because it was not my first reading of her revelations using such prevalent maternal language and imagery when referring to God and especially to Jesus. Or perhaps I was not uncomfortable because she is not agenda-driven in her writing. Though Julian often refers to Jesus as our Mother, she continues to refer to him as “he” and just as often pairs the parental reference as God our Father and God our Mother. Particularly, Julian is writing in explication of sixteen visions she had of Jesus revealing something of himself to her. If her explanations include maternal imagery in conjunction with paternal imagery, I am not upset by it but appreciate what her revelations add to my understanding of God in the role of tender nurturer.

Likewise the use of maternal imagery in the writings of Hildegard and Hadewijch, as recorded by F. Gerald Downing, does not bother me for similar reasons. These women are not pushing an agenda, trying to force out the man in favor of the woman or trying to emasculate men or make God a woman. They are simply recording their own experiences of personal encounters with Jesus, using the kind of language and imagery that is both appropriate to their own life experience and to the way in which Jesus chose to reveal himself to them. As Downing notes, “Hadewijch enjoys a fully tactile (and indeed erotic) sensation of being embraced by him [Jesus] during a mass,” and Julian’s less sexually-charged image of “Christ’s motherly suckling care” is just as intimate and personal a description (429). Downing notes also that the images these women draw on in their writings are all scriptural and traditional sources available but not utilized by other theologians like Anselm and Thomas Aquinas (430). This kind of imagery, Downing argues, leads to an understanding of “the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit towards us [as] personal, specific, and interconnected, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word and the response the Spirit enables” (433). The point is not a triumph of feminine imagery over masculine but of personal, bodily imagery of a real and experienced relationship with God over impersonal, abstract imagery of a distant God who is perfect but inaccessible.

Marianne Meye Thompson writes in her article “Speaking of God” that it is important not to lose one’s audience for the sake of pushing a theological conviction that the way has not been prepared for (6). What is the help in praying to God as Mother before a room full of people who have no idea what you are doing? But Julian teaches her readers, in the midst of her sensuous and bodily language, how to imagine God (and particularly Jesus) as relating to us not just like a Father but like a Mother as well: “for God’s fatherhood and motherhood is fulfilled in true loving of God; which blessed love Christ works in us” (chapter 60). I think Thompson would agree that reading Julian out of context would be detrimental to an unprepared audience, but Julian’s unashamed use of maternal language (“[Jesus] feeds us and nurtures us: even as that high sovereign kindness of motherhood [does],” chapter 63) in general draws no particular criticism.

Jewett would probably also agree that Julian’s use of maternal language is appropriate because they are just metaphors. She still uses the masculine pronoun “he” to refer to each of the three persons of the Trinity—“for he [Jesus] is our Mother, Brother, and Savior” (chapter 58, emphasis added)—which is the only thing Jewett is concerned about. She also does not use maternal language to the exclusion of paternal language, so Jewett would not be too concerned about her usage but would probably praise her ability to integrate these images so smoothly into her descriptions. In fact, Jewett actually declares that “the church needs to teach that God is as much like a mother as like a father” (139), and thus Julian does.

Thompson notes that while there is a “predominance of male imagery for God” in the Bible, it is also true that “the Bible does use feminine imagery for God” as well (2). Since “much of our language for God is metaphorical and analogical” (1), there is no grounds for the claim that it is “unbiblical to picture God in analogies from the sphere of women’s experience” (3). What Julian does in her writing is provide a balanced analogy of the parental relationship, both that of the Father and the Mother whenever she deems appropriate. In that way, she is able to elevate from a “second degree” status the part of the woman in the image of God (5).

Jewett echoes Thompson in the acknowledgement that women have been demeaned in the church, relegated to a secondary or “human-not-quite-human” status in relation to men (119). Since God has revealed himself in masculine language through the biblical authors, and since theologians have followed that tradition in referring to God, Jewett argues that it is appropriate to use masculine language, especially the masculine pronoun “he,” to refer to God (123). Nevertheless, it is important to educate Christians that while a masculine pronoun can be more appropriate in some contexts than a feminine one, that usage must be balanced with the recognition that “God so transcends all sexual distinction as to be neither male nor female, yet appropriately likened to both” (124). Julian does just that: likens God to both a Father and a Mother, “as truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother” (chapter 59). Ultimately, Jewett asserts, God has revealed himself not as masculine but as personal, the “personal Subject, saying I am who I am” (127), so while masculine language about God is appropriate because of tradition, “we must not continue to think of the male as supremely the bearer of the image of God” (128). Julian helps us understand God in feminine terms as well with her many references to Jesus as the suckling mother who cares for his children: “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus feeds us with himself” (chapter 60).

From the nature of woman

Plainly, Paul Jewett states in his book The Ordination of Women that this argument is “about as bankrupt as an argument can be” (9). The idea that a woman cannot preach because she will be a sexual distraction from the word of God is nothing short of ridiculous, not to mention insulting. Jewett acknowledges that the root of this argument is actually a “thinly veiled admission that the woman is still regarded as a sex object rather than as a person” (10). Men should use their positions in power to change that regard rather than perpetuate it. Jewett laments that instead of empowering women, “the church sees to it that god never authorizes a woman to escape male guardianship” (12) by creating a convoluted theology that puts a woman at odds with her divine calling (to wifely duties?) should she accept an actual divine calling (to seek ordination).

From the nature of the ministerial office

In Jewett’s estimation, the nature of ministerial office does not limit women from being ordained except by the lack of open-mindedness of the men. If it is “the woman’s relationship of subordination to the man that disqualifies her for ordination” (19), then we are back to the argument from nature that men should rather rise above than perpetuate. If women are capable of receiving “the same spiritual endowment” (18), and if it is true that “in Christ there is a universal priesthood of all believers, female as well as male” (20), then there is nothing to say that women cannot hold the office pertaining to that endowment. The underlying argument that women are unable to receive the sacrament of ordination even if it were placed upon them because they are women has no firm foundation but is merely an assumption based on cultural expectations. The arguments do not hold water theologically or practically, yet the rule stands on a tradition of faulty belief and teaching.

From the masculinity of God

In this section, Jewett calls perpetuators of this argument to account, arguing that “an affinity between maleness and divineness remains the basic assumption” (35). Those who make this argument simply like for God to be more male than female so that “to the male belong the privilege and the responsibility and the dignity in God’s church, because God is a masculine Deity” (35). The problem with this argument, Jewett points out (aside from degrading women), is that it does not jive with the theological principle that “there is only a ‘personal’ distinction in God (Trinity), not a ‘sexual’ one” (36). There may be male imagery for God in the Bible, says Jewett, but there is female imagery, too; there may be condemnation of goddess worship, but there is condemnation of god worship, too (37). Ultimately, “if God transcends human sexual distinctions in his essential being, then one cannot predicate of him either masculinity or femininity in the human sense of the terms” (43). God is like a father, and God is like a mother; “he is not subject to the either/or of fatherhood or motherhood as we are” (43), and both images are necessary to more fully explain the character of God and the manner in which he relates to his children. From a grammatical and linguistic viewpoint, Jewett advocates that when we “refer to God as ‘he,’ [we] should mean only that God is a personal God in contrast to an abstract, philosophic idea,” not that God is male (45); however, that usage must be taught and understood correctly and not allowed to be warped into an argument against woman’s capability to image God equally to man’s (47).

On a side note, I found Jewett’s discussion of the Holy Spirit as female (47ff) really interesting. I had never heard the argument before, always assuming that like the “he” used for God the Father and God the Son is meant to denote personhood and not sexuality, so too the Spirit was described with the pronoun “he.” It is appealing, I must admit, to consider the Holy Spirit in the role of Sophia, the feminine counterpart to all this masculine divinity. But I was convinced by his argument that any persuasion toward femininity comes solely from the fact that the word itself is feminine, not from any discernable specialty of character of the Spirit. Making the Holy Spirit female presents just the same set of problems we are already dealing with by the misunderstanding that the other persons of the Godhead are male. Ultimately, “the Trinitarian fellowship of the Godhead knows no male and female distinction, and the human fellowship of male and female knows no discrimination against the female as bearing the divine image to a lesser degree. Therefore, God’s Incarnation in the form of male humanity [and likewise the Greek word for “Spirit’s” being a feminine word] is theologically indifferent” (55). I can jive with that.

Pages numbers refer to excerpts found in Elizabeth Clark’s Women in the Early Church (1983).

Monica (245ff)

I first read about Monica in college when I was introduced to St. Augustine’s Confessions. I remember being surprised that a woman would be so persistent in her prayers for her son and found myself cheering her on for her perseverance even when he would deceive her and leave the country without her. My great-grandmother went through a similar experience with my grandfather’s waywardness, and in his twenties he converted, went to seminary, and became a pioneer missionary in the Brazilian Amazon for nearly forty years. He always gave credit to his mother’s prayers for his breakthrough into the faith, just as Augustine described: “a mother who…had wept over me for many years that I might live in Your eyes” (257-8). I admire that perseverance in Monica, suffering having an unbelieving husband, a mean mother-in-law, and wayward children, all of whom she “conquered by her submissiveness, persevering in endurance and gentleness” (253). She was so steadfast, never giving up her cause before God’s throne, and God answered her prayers even though she did not see the fruit of it for many years. To have that kind of faith in the power of prayer, to be that persistent and consistent, to endure over decades the abuse of those she prayed for daily—that is what I admire about Monica, about any woman who faithfully advocates the cause of her family before God.

As much as I admire her, I cannot identify with Monica’s submissiveness. I could not willingly marry a non-Christian and pray him into the faith, never seeing the fruition of that prayer until his deathbed. I am too opinionated and too stubborn to submit to someone I know is wrong, as much as I’d like to be able to say I could. A son’s waywardness is one thing, but a husband’s is entirely another. Perhaps I could have been a submissive wife in Monica’s time, when that was just how it was, but with today’s possibility for an egalitarian marriage, I don’t think I could settle for less.

Drusiana (88ff)

Now Drusiana is a woman I can identify with, strong-willed enough to stand up to her husband and convince him “to consider the matter as she did” (89). Even after he entombed her in effort to induce her by force to sleep with him, she remained resolute, and it was he who submitted to her decision rather than have her die. Of course, women only seem to show their stronger side in fictional works like this one.

Perpetua (98ff)

The real-life Perpetua certainly showed her strength of will as she endured a long process of persecution and martyrdom with her slave Felicitas. Both women gave up their duty as mothers of infants in order to die for their confession of faith. Perpetua describes in her diary the events leading up to her death, and someone else describes their final fight in the amphitheater: “as if to Heaven [they entered], with faces composed; if perchance they trembled, it was not from fear but from joy” (103). In fact, Perpetua finally had to help the executioner finish his job. The recorder notes, “Perhaps so great a woman…could not be killed in any other way than unless she herself wished it” (105). Her endurance, perseverance, and strength of courage and will are traits I admire in this true-to-life martyr of the faith.

I have trouble identifying with her ability to give away her nursing child, likewise with Felicitas’ ability to give birth in the prison cell, hand over her newborn, and march into the amphitheater to be executed. I think I might have given in had my father pleaded with me the way Perpetua’s did (99) to think of my child, of my duty as a mother to care for my family. To abstain from wifely duties is one thing, but to orphan a child is another altogether. Would my faith have superseded my motherly instinct?

Marcella (162-3, 205ff)

Of course, most of the models of great Christian women were ascetics who would not have the concerns of children to distract them from their commitment to God’s work. Marcella, one of the earliest female ascetics, provides a wonderful example of chastity and charity, taking care of the poor wherever she went. What I most admire about Marcella is her feistiness concerning the refutation of heretics. Though her brother Jerome takes great pains to note that she never set herself up as a teacher so as to go against 1Timothy, he also depicts her in public debate: “She was in the front line in condemning heretics” (163). In Jerome’s place she was sought after for instruction: “if an argument arose about some evidence from Scripture, the question was pursued with her as the judge” (208). She may have played the part of a dutiful woman, but she was clearly knowledgeable and gifted not only in instructing others but also in living out her beliefs, “because she understood how to please Christ” (206-7).

It makes me sad that women so gifted were forced to choose an ascetic life in order to exercise their talents more openly. While I love the fact that Marcella battled heresy and taught her fellow Christians regarding spiritual things, I cannot so readily identify with a lifestyle of fasting. Marcella only ate every other day, and it is no wonder that she suffered constant illness and stomach trouble on such an insufficient diet. Seasonal fasting is one thing, but a lifetime of such rigorous denial I think brings more detriment to the body God has given than good to the soul. I think I would make a terrible ascetic, but I might try it for the sake of having the freedom to debate, learn, examine, teach, and judge as Marcella did under her brother’s sanction.

I did not, on my first reading of the church fathers Clement and Tertullian, pick up on the different emphases these men have for the proper living of a Christian life. That Tertullian is ascetic and gears his argument on fashion toward that end is apparent now that I am less focused on the absurdity of his various arguments for that purpose. That Clement is greatly influenced by the richness of Alexandria is not a context I was aware of before reading Suzanne Heine’s account in Women in Early Christianity (1987). I can certainly see the differences in value system between the two men. I think Heine has a point that Clement does just as much, if not more, damage than good by advocating for women’s place in the home as designed by nature.

I am less convinced that Tertullian has a positive effect on women’s roles simply because he later becomes a Montanist. Clearly, his comments concerning the place of women designate them to household tasks and relegate them to their husbands’ rule as much as Clement’s comments do. Or how else are we to read Tertullian’s conclusion to women to “paint…your mouth with silence…Submit your head to hour husbands…Busy your hands with spinning; keep your feet at home” (25)? Heine does have a point that an argument from faith as opposed to an argument from nature designates the freedom of choice, that is, women are indirectly empowered to choose the ascetic lifestyle Tertullian advocates for the sake of being faithful wives and faithful Christians. That implicit ability to choose is in itself a significant point. However, the empowerment of women is undermined by the simultaneous advocation that a faithful Christian woman will dress with “the silk of uprightness, the fine linen of holiness, the purple of modesty” (25) rather than with fine clothes and precious stones. Women are thus left with the choice to perform a lifetime of penance for the guilt they have incurred from Eve (by apparently refusing to use popular means of enhancing beauty and also by concealing any natural beauty, which as it turns out is almost as displeasing to God as the unnatural) or, essentially, to leave the faith and forfeit a chance at eternal life.

Heine’s argument that the new feminist interest is to be a non-agenda-driven, objective understanding of history is one that I cannot imagine as a possibility. If we have learned anything from deconstruction and the postmodern movement, it is the realization that one always brings one’s agenda to the text. The best chance we have at anything like “objective” scholarship is to approach a text or time period with the honest acknowledgement of one’s agenda and cultural lens and to remain open to the balancing criticism of other and diverse agendas and lenses. Perhaps that what Heine proposes by labeling her “new interest” as a “feminist interest,” one that—we hope—will refrain from “appeal[ing] only to one side” at the expense of the other (47). One thing I respect about my experiences here at Fuller when we must engage a difficult text regarding women is the careful patience with which professors have laid out the opposing viewpoints and guided students in most frustrating task of wrestling with particular texts that have no easy solutions to translation or interpretation. Somewhere in the midst of exegesis and eisegesis, in the midst of argument and finger-pointing and tears and resignation—somewhere in it all, God is present with us. I cling to that promise.

A Woman’s Place

April 20, 2008

After my initial reading of Ephesians and 1-2 Timothy, I conclude that women led varied lives depending on their economic and marital status. In Ephesians, married women are encouraged to submit to the authority of their husbands as they would to Christ and to respect their husbands as part of the union of two into one flesh. In the Timothy letters, the emphasis is on the widows. The young ones are encouraged to get remarried so that they will be too occupied with household tasks to fall into gossip and idleness. The old ones are encouraged to mentor the younger ones and can only receive aid if they have, in a sense, proved themselves worthy by a lifestyle of service, submission, and obedience. Concerning corporate worship, women regardless of marital state are encouraged to be modest, submissive, quiet…and fertile? I never have discovered how to interpret 1 Tim 2:15. My impression, then, of the lives of women at this time is that women were expected to submit to male authority, behave with modesty and decorum, and serve with hospitality as part of running a good household. They were not expected to take up authority themselves, abandon or neglect their duties, or behave or dress indecently. But the fact that women are being “put in their place” in some of these passages implies that some women perhaps were teaching or asking questions or neglecting household tasks or gossiping among themselves or any number of other expressions of their newfound freedom in Christ that shocked and appalled observers both within the Christian community and outside of it. There seems to be an effort in the letters to recall women to (or to remind them, lest they forget, of) proper etiquette that would bring honor to both themselves and their husbands or families and would keep them from bringing the shame of the world on the early church as it struggled against the world’s accusations and persecutions.

Osiek and MacDonald, in A Woman’s Place, concern themselves largely with cultural and social context in exegeting these texts and other references to women in the New Testament. Interestingly, the authors spend time exegeting the Ephesians text as an extended metaphor for Christ and the church, insisting that the metaphor would have been clear to the early readers or listeners. They label the passage “an important socio-political statement” rather than a concerted teaching on the roles of men and women in marriage (120). The use of marriage is symbolic, not necessarily prescriptive, and certainly reflects an ideal that cannot be realistic in our fallen world (125). Moreover, the authors argue that the text is a central pivoting point for the themes of the letter, marriage serving as a useful conventional metaphor (121). The text turns the convention of marriage on its head: “The husband is head of his wife as Chris is head of the majestic and heavenly church. Human ‘wifely’ behavior within the church becomes an indicator of the community’s dislocation as an apparently conventional but nevertheless heavenly body” (127). Thus, in taking the passage at face value, we miss the point.

Growing up in the evangelically conservative South, I was taught as a general rule that the Bible was to be taken literally, its texts at face value, and its every word as the infallible authority of God. Now, I believe in the authority of the Bible, but its literal interpretation has fallen short of my understanding of who God is and what it means to be a child of God. I appreciate Osiek and MacDonald’s effort to take a more holistic approach to the texts by both reading them in conjunction with each other and by considering at length the cultural context of the day as a lens through which to interpret the women’s issue. They broaden the older scholarly perspective by including what the text does not say, what has been left out or assumed concerning the daily lives of women. The metaphorical interpretation is an interesting approach to the problem of Ephesians 5. I am not sure that I could hold an audience long enough to explain such a position with those who expect a quick, two-punch sound bite or proof text. Nevertheless, the interpretation is a useful reminder that texts should not always be taken at face value or as prescriptive when they are just as likely meant to function as literary or as descriptive. This approach, both to the Ephesians text and in general, does make a significant difference in the reading of scripture because it (at the risk of using a buzz word) liberates the text from its pigeonhole and consequently liberates women from relegation to the older understanding of “submission” and “authority” as ordained by God to keep women under the proverbial thumb of their men.