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Gender issues in the church have been a great concern. This is normally the case when it comes to the role and position of women in running church. The women have not been fully integrated into the functions of the church system (Keener par. 2). Today, a first-timer attendee of any church will observe two striking things. One, the majority of the congregation will be women, and second, the leaders will be men. These scenarios are not specific to any denomination but cut across the entire church. In fact, in modern society, it appears that gender equality is a preserve of the workplace where there have been more opportunities for women. However, such attempts in the church are met with resistance and even use of the Bible verses to disapprove of women’s role in the leadership. Was it by biblical design that women were marginalized, or was it make of patriarchal society? This paper will explore this question based on two examples from the New Testament and relate the findings to the current scenario where women are not included in the mainstream leadership of the church.
Women in the Early Ministry
Today’s church is a continuity of the early ministry as constituted by the apostles who experienced firsthand teachings of Jesus Christ. It is thus critical to examine the women’s role in the early ministry and draw parallels with the modern scenario. This should be based on understanding the doctrine of salvation and how Christ intended the whole church to serve Him. In the New Testament, there are many texts where women are shown as partakers in the work of Christ. Apostle Paul affirmed the ministry of women in the early church.
A case example of a woman being involved in the ministry related to Priscilla when she assumed the role of pastor to teach Apollos of Alexandria about Christ. “… He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately (New International Version, Acts 18:26). This shows that women were active and understood the word of God in the early church. Paul introduced Priscilla first against the culture of Jews, where men were mentioned before their wives. Such a scenario portrays the higher status she had in the leadership of the church.
Jewish culture had gender prejudices, many domains of the church were mainly male-dominated. Besides, the scripture is presented in the human language and has cultural connotations that sideline women from the core operations of the church. For instance, the scriptures and the theology express the various issues that define Christianity aspects such as salvation in images and language that enhances patriarchal and sexist society. Despite the culture, Paul remained very progressive in showing the active roles of women; also, it is important to note that Apollos’ acceptance of being taught by Priscilla was a great indication of gender equality in the church as evidenced in this scripture, “Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (New International Version, Acts 18:24). A Jewish man of such stature could have despised the invitation by Priscilla. Also, Paul described Priscilla as another of his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (New International Version, Rom. 16:3). This pointed out that they (Paul and Priscilla) were equal in spreading the gospel of Christ.
Apostle Paul honored women and considered them as equal to men in the work of God and urged church members to respect them; he congratulated the ministry of a woman who took his letter to the Roman Christians and referred to her as a ‘servant’ or deacon. “Personal Greetings – I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of.” Such connotation serves to teach church leaders about the need for equality and allowing women to serve the church as a rightful gift to God (New International Version, Rom. 16: 1, 2). Today, the word ‘deacon’ or ‘servant’ is a designation of people who hold leadership roles in today’s church. Besides, Paul called himself the servant of God; therefore, designating Phoebe the same title shows equality in the ministry of Christ, which the modern church seems to have ignored. In relation to the same scripture, Paul termed Phoebe as a ‘helper of many’ and technically depicted her as the patron of the Cenchreae church, the demonstration of leadership position the woman held. Even though there were cases where Paul called on women to be submissive, it is important to note that it was based on the context of the situation.
Despite the progressive bid by Paul to realize the role of women in the early Church, the aspect of ‘maleness’ dominates the New Testament from the selection of apostles by Jesus to the revelation where God is seen to mainly use men to manifest himself to the humanity. However, these aspects have been contested by biblical feminists who have pointed out that it is through the cultural language used to write the Bible that the roles of women were blurred. In matters relating to the leadership of the church, there is no example of Paul prohibiting women’s ministry. It is important to note that there were many cases of women partaking in Christ’s ministry. The two were just case examples and not exhaustive.
Modern Church and Gender Issues
Paul’s presentation of women in a progressive manner in the early church did set a foundation that the modern church should consider. The implication of the verses denoting some case examples is a depiction that even today, leaders need to accept women as ministers and leaders. The modern church needs to be progressive and allow women to partake in the leadership of the church. The moral equality of sexes, dignity, responsibilities, and community right in marriage should be allowed to flourish in the church. According to Kohm, there should be “mutual fulfillment in communion with one another” (348). Jones noted that women who had been excluded from the church, still suffered oppression and were marginalized (78).
McDougall pointed out that women have not been allowed to engage in the different sectors of the church (216). She advocated for allowing women to thrive in church leadership. The basis for Jones advocacy for flourishing women is due to patriarchal society which is rife in church activities and characterized by men holding power and excluding women from occupying the roles that culturally have been identified as unsuitable for them. In examining the position of women, Jones pointed out that there has always been a sense of fragility and fragmentation as the present setting of the church intimidates any person who challenges the status quo (70). The main argument by Jones is that the revelation of God in scriptures is presented in the human language, and has cultural connotations that sideline women from core operations of the church (73).
The two examples of Phoebe and Priscilla denote that women should be honored in the modern church. There is the need for current ministers to do away with the perception that God did not desire women to participate in church activities. God is ready to reconcile with all humankind to make Christians united as one (Fiorenza 3). With the many vexing issues and the fear of women rising in the church, there is a need to reflectively use the Bible as the liberating text. For instance, Kohm insists on changes in evangelization (348). There should be a shift in the organization of the church; it should show the desire to embrace a more liberal interpretation of the Bible (350). This implies that gender should not be acclaimed as transcendent, but ingrained in the experience of the current society.
It is evident that the present disparities in the church are due to the making of patriarchal society. In order to overcome the challenges, there is the need for leaders to reflect on the past instances in the New Testament where women were considered as equal to men in spreading the gospel of Christ. In summary, there should be the belief in the Bible to accommodate inclusiveness towards women by both using the past teachings and aligning them with modernity instead of resisting the change.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation. University of Notre Dame, n.d.
Jones, Serene. Feminist Theory and Christian Theology. Fortress Press, 2000.
Keener, Craig. “Was Paul For or Against Women in Ministry?” Enrichment Journal- Enriching and Equipping Spirit-filled Ministers. 2016, Web.
Kohm, Lynne. “A Christian Perspective on Gender Equality.” Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, vol.15, no. 1, 2008, pp.101.
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McDougall, Joy. “Sin-No More? A Feminist Re-Visioning of a Christian Theology of Sin.” Anglican Theological Review , vol. 88, no. 2, 2006, pp. 215-217.
The Bible. New International Version. Zondervan House, 1984.