What We Think About Women
One of the suggested lectionary passages for today is about women. What do we think about women?
Are women less intelligent? In many countries and homes today, women are considered the weaker sex; not only weaker physically, but intellectually as well. Historically, men didn't think women had the intelligence to participate in a democracy, but women used their intelligence, discovered their power, and won the right to vote.
Are women persons or things?Historically and in many places and homes today, women are treated as property, subject to the whims and dictates of their husbands. In Modesto, a woman came to my office and described the physical abuse she endured from her husband. She had gone to her pastor for help who told her that her husband was the head of the house and could do as he pleased. Her role was to submit, suffer and endure, like Jesus did on the cross! I told her to get out of the marriage. She did and joined our church! Thankfully, women have now won the right to charge their husbands with abuse, and receive protection from shelters, police and courts.
I received a brochure announcing a new women's movement that was holding huge rallies. It sounded interesting until I read the sentence, “We have received permission from our husbands and pastors.” I threw it in the wastebasket!
Are women fit to be ordained? Historically, women were denied the right to serve the Lord as pastors. I'm proud of our denomination. In 1761 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, a man way ahead of his time, authorized women to preach. In contrast, there are many denominations today that still do not allow women to serve as clergy, and some don't allow women to serve on administrative committees.
In Modesto, I was visited by a group of Episcopalians who asked to use our chapel to start a new church. I asked why they were leaving. They replied, “Because the Episcopal Church is now ordaining women.” I told them our church was not interested in helping them. Ironically, one of our associate pastors was a woman!
The Methodist Church began ordaining women in 1956. In 1961, I was appointed to the newly formed Central Minnesota Methodist Parish, consisting of ten churches and four pastors. One of the pastors was Mary MacNicholl. Formerly a deaconess, she was one of the first women to be ordained. Mary was classic! She wore a black dress in the winter, a gray dress in the summer, rimless glasses, her hair in a pug, and a hat. With the Bible under one arm, and the Methodist Book of Discipline under the other, those rural Minnesota Methodists didn't know what hit them!
Are women deserving of salary discrimination? The law of the land thinks so. Many companies and institutions compensate fairly with equal pay for women, but the current law has loopholes that make it difficult for women to address inequities legally. The struggle for equal pay for equal work continues.
What does the Bible think about women? The passage from Proverbs is a beautiful tribute to women in the male dominated culture of that day. An acrostic poem, it was written in Hebrew, with the first letter of each line in Hebrew alphabetical order. The woman described is a good wife, far more precious than jewels. She is a hard worker in the home, and a business woman. She buys fields, plants vineyards, makes and sells linens. She is a loving mother; strength and dignity are her clothes, and she is wise. Her children call her blessed and her husband praises her, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
In the Old Testament (politically correct now called the Hebrew scriptures), some of the leaders were women.
What did Jesus think about women? Jesus interceded for the woman who was being stoned for adultery. Notice, the man had no such punishment. It was the victim's fault, which is still a common theme held by some today.
Jesus denounced easy divorce. In his day, all a man had to do was issue a certificate saying he was no longer married. The woman was out on the streets with no rights.
There were no women among the original twelve disciples, but women helped support the mission and played a major role in Jesus' inner circle. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus died on the cross, only a group of women were there to support him. The men were afraid of being arrested. Was Jesus married? A fragment of a scroll has been found, indicating he had a wife, but it is not yet authenticated.
Following Jesus' death and resurrection, women played a prominent role in the early church. Jesus' mother was a major player. When Paul sent greetings to the churches, the lists included women. In Romans 16:1, Paul wrote, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a minister of the church at Cenchrae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”
From that high point of women's leadership, things went downhill rapidly. Evidently the men were threatened, quickly took the reins and put women “in their place”. 1 Timothy 2.9-15, “Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I (and we don't know who the author is) permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Whew! Did the men take control or what!
I don't understand how the author exonerates Adam! After all, Adam ate the fruit. It is also interesting to me that those today who deny women the right to teach or have authority choose to ignore the rest of the verse, “dress themselves modestly, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes!”
Women were not allowed to be priests, and they were not even allowed to sing! So, women organized their own movement and lived together in convents where they prayed, sang to their hearts' content and did mission work. In the Church of England to this day, women do not sing in the cathedral choirs, only men and boys.
In the early Methodist church, women organized their own ministry, and today the United Methodist Women is the largest women's organization in the world! Before women were ordained, the Methodist church consecrated women deaconesses, who like Catholic nuns, were single, taught, did mission work, and started hospitals.
In fact, Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix was started by a Methodist Deaconess. In 1911 Lulu Clifton arrived in Phoenix to recover from tuberculosis. She only had $12 to her name but she was convinced that Phoenix needed a new hospital. She began in an apartment building, called it the Arizona Deaconess Hospital, which today is known as Good Samaritan.
Now, what about the head of the house? A least understood passage on marriage is Ephesians 5.22-23. Paul wrote, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” So, the husband is the head of the house and the wife is the foot? A 90-year old woman in my Modesto church liked to say, “He may be the head, but I'm the neck and I can turn that head any way I want!”
I was pastor in Manteca, California, when a married couple joined the pastoral team. Marilyn was very controversial, as no other church in the city would even consider having a woman pastor. Besides that, she did not take her husband's last name! I sang in the choir and during one practice, Vernon, with another man between us, leaned over and asked me, “What do you think of her not taking his name?” I answered, “It doesn't matter to me.” He said, “Doesn't the Bible have something to say about that?” I said, “In the Bible, there are no last names.” “Well,” he said, “doesn't the Bible say the husband is to be the head of the house?” Knowing his wife to be a strong, forceful woman, I exclaimed, “Do you mean to tell me you are the head of your house?” He stuttered, hemmed and hawed, and said, “Well, I would if I had to!”
But, let's look at the Ephesians passage in greater detail. Most miss the point. Most begin with verse 21, “Wives, be subject to your husband,” ignoring the preceding verse, verse 20, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” A mutual relationship.
Verse 25, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church.” How did Christ love the church. Quoting from the Message translation, “Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting.” Husbands are not told to dominate, or rule, or abuse; but, following the example of Christ, go all out in love, giving not getting.
Paul continues, vss. 28 and 29, “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” As a husband nourishes and tenderly cares for his body, so he nourishes and tenderly cares for his wife.
In a Christian marriage, each are equal, using their unique gifts and graces for each other. When each puts the other first in priority, both are winners.
What do we think about women? This is what I think, and I believe it is biblically sound and in accordance with United Methodist tradition: A woman is a child of God, unique, but equal in every way with men. She deserves equal respect and equal opportunity to serve God in the home, church, workplace and society. A woman has the right to make her own decisions, live her life as she sees fit as a disciple of Jesus, and in marriage, be devoted to her husband as he is devoted to her.
But, more importantly, to summarize, what does the Bible think about women? The decisive, over-riding answer: Paul wrote in Galatians 3.28, “There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
© 2012 Douglas I. Norris