Saturday, October 11, 2014

Christian women in positions of authority

Women as Religious Leaders and 

         the Morality of Discrimination

This weekend saw the inauguration of a woman as president of a conservative evangelical university in the middle of the United States. Dr.Carol Taylor earned her Ph.D. from Florida State University, gained leadership experience in higher education, and was hired to be the fourth president of Evangel University located in Springfield, Missouri. What makes the appointment interesting is not only that she is a woman heading up what is arguably the flagship university of the Assemblies of God USA (AG) but the fact that she represents an unusual position taken by an otherwise highly conservative Christian group. Unlike many Christian groups, the AG ordains women. Ordained women serve as senior pastors and missionaries and have done so for years. Not surprisingly, many women were encouraged by this move. If you are wondering how it is that the AG can justify women as clergy and leaders, here’s a link to their position paper. As to their Evangelical status, the AG is listed as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the university is one of the members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

Sex Differences and Christianity

Perhaps the best known example of distinct gender roles within Christianity is the Catholic Church’s position that only men can be priests. In the past few decades, many protestant groups (e.g., Church of England, Episcopalians, Methodists) have changed their clergy-gender rules to allow women to hold the same positions as men. An unusual case is the conservative U.S. Assemblies of God, which has ordained women for years although in practice women often had difficulty obtaining senior leadership positions. The Bible contains other rules indicating different roles for men and women. Here are a few examples:

Men and women were not to wear each other’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Women are to submit to the leadership of their husbands (1 Corinthians 11:3; 11: 8-9; Ephesians 5:22-33)
Women are to be silent in churches (1 Corinthians 14:34).
Women should not have a teaching role (1 Timothy 2:11-15).

Following the teachings and patterns of leaders in the Old and New Testaments, fundamentalists view men as leaders within religious organizations as well as in the family. Some denominations are careful to point out that God values both men and women. Men are seen as protectors of women and their families and as leaders they should assume a respectful servant role. Women are to submit to men and help men.

Obviously, some Christians disagree with the traditional limitations imposed on women despite a handful of Bible verses. People interpret the texts differently.

Righteous robes

News accounts often depict Muslim men and women in modest clothes, which cover most of the body. Women’s clothes vary with some cultures requiring a covering from head to foot in public. Christian men and women used to wear modest clothes. But that has changed in the last few decades.

At different points in our marriage, my wife has worked for Christian organizations. When she did, she was required to wear a dress or skirt. Slacks are men’s clothing. As such, women were forbidden to wear men’s clothes. Although conservative Christian cultures changed since her childhood in that they no longer viewed wearing jeans and slacks as sinful, the rule in the workplace did not change until after the year 2,000. For thousands of years religious groups have maintained rules about the right and wrong clothes for women.

Most conservative Christians have moved beyond concerns about women in slacks and men wearing long hair. But ultraconservative groups continue to have rules about different clothing for women and men. Amish women continue to wear dresses and the men continue to wear suits for Sunday dress. LDS women and men have specific guidelines when serving as missionaries. On their website ( , 2014) are pictures of appropriate clothes. None of the women wear slacks.

An interesting aspect to the inauguration of President Carol Taylor is the dress—men and women wore robes distinguished by the degree earned and the school they attended—not their gender. No I am not suggesting unisex clothing but I like the idea of recognizing people for their accomplishments in their chosen field.

So how do Christian groups deal with those pesky Bible verses?

Some groups find ways to reject Biblical teaching by saying some biblical rules related to culture (i.e., ceremonial laws) and other rules had to do with morality. In this view, moral rules are universal. But rules about gender differences, clothing, food, and other matters were ceremonial and no longer apply to Christians. Other Christians e.g., those in the progressive movement, focus more on the  principle of love encapsulated in the famous teaching to love God and love one's neighbor. Luke 10:27 and Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5.

Different Roles at Home- Submission

James and Phyllis Alsdurf retell horrifying stores of abuse in their book, Battered intoSubmission (1989). One woman recalls the advice she got from Christian books and her husband who was a preacher. “Wives be subject to your husbands as unto the Lord,” she quoted from the Bible (Ephesians 5:22). The authors declare, “And her role was abundantly clear.” This battered woman remembers she was expected to stay home with her kids, meet her husband’s needs and obey what her husband said. She believed a Christian marriage was for life with no way out. After multiple beatings, she shot him. The murder trial was in 1984. And Lucille Tisland was acquitted. In their research, the Alsdurf’s found many examples of Christian women who suffered in silence. 

Tragically, horror stories continue. Women are beaten by famous athletes. And women are at high risk for rape in the military and on college campuses. Submission can be deadly. 

Different Roles in Church

In Western cultures, many evangelicals have moved toward equality for women in nonreligious settings. They have slowly come to accept the changes in industry and government. Accepting women in leadership roles within an official church ministry is another matter. Groups that refer to scriptural teaching as the basis for limiting women’s roles are de facto fundamentalists. That is their behavior is based on a fundamentalist way of viewing the biblical texts. (Link to more on fundamentalists).

The group, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) has published a study of which Christian denominations include women in leadership positions (CBE, 2007). In their review, they focused on ordination but clarified other positions. Many groups affirm women by ordination and by placement in leadership roles. Examples include American Baptist Churches USA, Episcopal Church in the USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite Church USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the Vineyard Movement.

The CBE also listed Christian denominations that do not affirm women in leadership positions. The list includes Christian and Missionary Alliance, Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and Mennonite Brethren Churches.

Moral Psychology and Gender Roles

Previously I have discussed the six dimensions of moralpsychology based on the research of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, which can be used to assess how different groups reach conclusions about what is right and wrong—righteous and unrighteous. So I will take a look at how conservative and progressive positions on women’s roles may be viewed in light of the six dimensions.

1  Harm/Care
Women are clearly harmed when their vocational opportunities are limited or they are paid less than men. Given the high number of divorces and the fact that most children continue to reside with their single mothers, harm is extended to children. In Western secular societies, women have made great strides in terms of equality of opportunity and pay but most Christians limit leadership roles for women. In addition to the obvious differential in income and benefits, women can also be harmed by a decrease in wellbeing when their desires are thwarted by religious or social policies.

2. Fairness/Reciprocity

From a philosophical perspective, it is clearly unfair to grant better positions or pay to men instead of women based on differences in biological sex. Because the leaders of any organization are normally paid more than those in lower ranks, and because women cannot hold leadership positions in some Christian denominations, a state of unfairness exists. A conservative might argue for separate but equal roles and suggest that women and men offer different and complementary gifts to a Christian community. It is not known if fairness in pay is also considered by those who hold this complementary position.

3.  Ingroup/Loyalty

Women who wish to hold leadership positions within Christian communities may be forced to leave their current Christian community to join one that affirms women in leadership. This choice can feel disloyal on many levels including not only feelings of betrayal toward the church but also toward family and friends. Leaving a group that has been part of one’s life for years often means exchanging one source of distress for another. The loss of opportunities must be weighed against the loss of relationships for some women.

4.  Authority/Respect

In the traditional view of most Christian groups, a woman is to function under the authority of a man. Over the years, I have heard ways that conservative Christians tried to deal with this rigid interpretation of the Bible. One example is the case of male preachers sitting on the platform when a woman speaks so he could be a spiritual covering for her. In other words, the presence of a man meant the woman was speaking under male authority. The teaching ability of one woman was clearly evident in conversation. She understood the Bible better than most lay persons and had teaching experience. When asked why she did not teach at church she explained it was against the rules.

Clearly, to go against a church’s teaching about a woman’s role is to show disrespect for the authority of the leadership. Although there seems to be a trend toward affirming what women contribute to Christian communities, many will feel ill-treated until they have full equality with men.

5.  Purity/Sanctity

The Hebrew Bible documents limitations on the interaction of women with others. Laws dealing with menstruation and child birth imposed restrictions. It appears that those Hebrew laws persisted into the Christian era and affected how women and men dealt with church attendance. Blood and bodily fluids were associated with the concept of uncleanness. It is obvious that some people have an aversion to blood and respond with a sense of disgust to blood and other bodily fluids.

The recent purity movement is an example of the persistent importance of a special interpretation of sexual purity to conservatives. Of course, this implies that those outside the interpreted boundaries are dirty or filthy. Although the purity message includes guidance to young men, it seems much responsibility is on the young women to be sexually pure. The downside of the movement has been noted e.g., Simon See also the story on purity balls.

6.  Liberty/Oppression

The bottom line regarding liberty is that women have not been as free as men are in most societies for most of recorded history. And the limitations on freedom are also found in Christian communities. Within church hierarchies, women will likely always feel inferior and under men’s rule unless their personal views are aligned with the official views of their tradition. For those who see sex-based leadership as evidence of oppression, bible verse-based sex discrimination policies will continue to incite protests.

The struggle for gender equality among religious conservatives is ongoing.

Congratulations are due Dr. Carol Taylor.

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