Monthly Archives: March 2012

Forward Friday: The Question of Women

This week was Blast from the Past Week during which I posted a few of my theological reflections on readings from a class on “Women in Church History and Theology” back when I was in seminary.

For today’s Forward Friday, let’s engage theologically with some of the following issues.  What resonates with you? What makes you uncomfortable?

Remember, it’s important to know what we think about things and where our opinions and beliefs come from.  It’s also important to know what other people think and where their opinions and beliefs come from.

Iron sharpens iron, people, so let’s get to rubbing!

  • what does the Bible say about “a woman’s place” and how should we interpret it?
  • are women good like Mary or bad like Eve?
  • is God feminine?
  • what is a woman’s true nature and does it preclude ministry and leadership?
  • is the silence of women contextual or prescriptive and is there room for exceptions?

Come back by and leave your thoughts in the comment box below.  If you blog about it, be sure to share a link!

Advertisements

Was John Calvin a feminist?

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted May 27, 2008 as “Calvin on Women”

Was John Calvin an accidental feminist?

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?

Human vs. divine rule in Calvin’s theology

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.

The “Real” Point of the Argument About Women

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted May 16, 2008

Christine de Pizan and the question of women

“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?

Malleus Maleficarum, objectification, and witchcraft

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).

Dan Doriani, Women and Ministry

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–one men have perpetuated and built upon for thousands of years.

Choosing the harder path

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.

Maternal Language for God

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted May 9, 2008

Julian of Norwich, Showings

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. (Note: I’ve come a long way since first writing this post.)

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.

Hildegard and Hadewijch

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.

Marriane Meye Thompson, “Speaking of God”

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.

Paul Jewett, The Ordination of Women

Paul 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.

Is feminine imagery for God “un-biblical?”

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).

A Woman’s Place

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted April 20, 2008

First impressions of Ephesians 5 and 1-2 Timothy

After my initial reading of Ephesians 5 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 new-found 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.

A Woman’s Place, metaphors, and symbolism

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.

Literal interpretation vs. historical-critical method

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’s 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 issue of women. 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.

Forward Friday: What’s Yours?

This week I reflected on four aspects of body theology that are important to me: gender, sexuality, community, and body image.

This weekend, try reflecting on one aspect of body theology that is important to you.  Choose from the list below or make up your own.  Share what you reflected on in the comment box below.

  • identity
  • image of God
  • incarnation of Christ
  • physicality
  • sexuality
  • body image
  • media literacy
  • cultural discernment
  • community
  • body of Christ
  • equality
  • service
  • social justice
  • creation care
  • spirituality

Reflections on Body Theology: 10 Lies I Believe about My Body

1) I’m not pretty.

2) Even with makeup, I’m not pretty.

3) I need to lose weight.

4) I have too much hair in the wrong places.

5) I am responsible for how men react to the way I look.

6) Dressing in clothes that aren’t baggy is immodest.

7) Showing my legs or arms is immodest.

8) I should be ashamed of myself for wanting to look pretty.

9) My husband is not really attracted to me.

10) I’m not feminine enough.

Reflections on Body Theology: 10 Realities of Christian Community

1)  It’s not good for us to be alone.

2) We were created for relationship.

3) We need physical touch, eye contact, and attention to bond with others.

4) Unsafe community is toxic at the least and abusive at the most.

5) We react out of fear or jealousy when we feel unsafe or ashamed.

6) We find healing–physical and emotional–through safe, consistent community.

7) We won’t be honest about our struggles when we don’t feel safe.

8) True, safe, trusted community is organic and cannot be contrived.

9) Community is not Christian unless Jesus is the mediator.

10) There is no perfect community.

Reflections on Body Theology: 10 Things I Appreciate about My Sexuality

1) The way getting my period routinely reminds me of my ability to create a new human being inside my body

2) The ability to experience such unique pleasure and intimacy with another human being

3) The give-and-take involved in shared sexuality with another human being

4) The ability to emotionally bond with another human being through a physical act

5) How our sexual nature unites all humanity in basic human experience

6) How my sexual nature unites me with the sexual nature of Christ who took on human form to be with us

7) How sexual experience–like eating and drinking, hiking, or even bathing–can be at once physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual

8) How sexual experience–like contemplation–engages all my physical, emotional, and mental energy

9) The way sexual experience is both a release and a gain

10) The way sexual experience is creative in its possibility for new life–figuratively and literally

Reflections on Body Theology: 10 Things that Annoy Me about Being a Woman

1)  Getting my period

2) Gynecological visits

3) Birth control

4) Bearing all physical responsibility for having a biological child

5) The prospect of going through menopause one day

6) The way men react when I cry because I’m angry, upset, tired, frustrated, or stressed

7) Being told what I can and can’t do or what I should and shouldn’t do by gender-specific culture and then being judged by both men and women for making my own choices

8) The assumption that I must enjoy fashion, shopping, makeup, and the color pink and that because I don’t, I’m somehow less woman-y than women who do

9) The pressure to break all gender stereotypes, even when they actually do apply to me, not because I’m female but because I’m me

10) Longer lines for public restrooms

 

 

%d bloggers like this: