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Misleadership: Prolonging Female Subordination


Now General Conference officers are claiming that “oneness in Christ” forbids union conference initiative, such as that taken by the Columbia Union, to eliminate gender as a factor in pastoral credentialing.  Now the Male Headship Alliance—a plausible enough designation, I would say, for the loose confederation that includes Doug Batchelor—is backing a petition to stop the Pacific Union Conference from taking a similar initiative.

Both seem willfully, almost defiantly, oblivious to Scripture.

A few days ago a new General Conference appeal, this one a response to the Columbia Union constituency’s action of July 29, came out, denouncing “unilateralism.”  Church unity, it declares, means hewing (apparently in all particulars) to “decisions” and “policy” associated with the General Conference.  The document says that the July 29 action endangers the unity of the “worldwide” church; in October, it goes on forebodingly, the General Conference Executive Committee will “determine how to respond.”

The Male Headship Alliance hypes itself on the “Christ or Culture” website, and in its drive for petition support declares that “gender-neutral” credentialing of pastors would be a “departure from biblical Christianity.”  From the beginning, “spiritual leadership” has been for men.  Women must never have authority over men.  The role of pastor—and also of elder—is for men only. 

Both the General Conference leadership and the Male Headship Alliance cite Scripture for their purposes.  But just at a point where superficiality is both appalling and disastrous, neither bothers to dig deep. 

The GC document, “An Appeal for Oneness in Christ,” starts with John 17, where Jesus prays that his followers be “one.”  Then it invokes Acts 15, where apostles and elders at a conference in Jerusalem come to several agreements, including agreement that abstention from food offered to idols is essential.  With a view to unity, conference participants send a letter sharing their consensus to the churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.  But the GC appeal simply ignores 1 Corinthians, where Paul, at a later stage of his ministry, describes circumstances (1 Corinthians 10) where believers can, without qualm of conscience, eat anything set before them

For Paul, no doubt, the spirit of the Jerusalem letter—its passion for unity amid diversity—continued to matter.  But the letter’s authority was not oppressive, not a basis for “lording it over” others in the manner, as Jesus put it, of the Gentiles.  On Paul’s view, local nuance counts.  There is latitude to accommodate specific needs and circumstances.  The church can live with some disagreement and avoidunnecessary insult to either side.  As Paul writes concerning an issue he himself was dealing with, “To those under the law”—those who read the law conservatively—“I became as one under the law,” and to “those outside the law I became as one outside the law.”  What he calls “Christ’s law” holds at every point, but otherwise he is “all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (chapter 9).

New Testament unity, then,does not require uniformity. When the issue involves as much hope and hurt as the matter of women and pastoral ministry, it is irresponsible to overlook this fact.  I allow that difficulties surrounding unity and discord are unsettling.  Harmony is elusive, boundaries hard to determine.   But refusal even to acknowledge the openness and complexity of the New Testament regarding all of this is not leadership but misleadership.

In making its case for spiritual submission on the part of women, the “Christ or Culture” website likewise cites Scripture.  Here, too, however, there is a key oversight.  The leaders of the Male Headship Alliance fail to catch the direction of Bible witness, or even—this again!—to acknowledge the pertinent Scriptural facts. 

Any responsible reading of the Bible sees Holy Scripture as a story. The story has plot, direction and characters.  On the Christian view, the key character is Christ.  He’s the story’s center.  That is we why we take no offense when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the phrase “You have heard that it was said…but I say.”  He breaks with some parts of his own tradition, and articulates what is, to his mind, the proper direction of Israel’s ongoing story. That, in large part, is his work.  Nor do we take offence at what the author of Hebrews says in chapter 1. “Long ago,” the he declares, “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, who…is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…”  Again, Jesus trumps other authoritative figures; that is precisely the point of Christian faith.

I don’t say, of course, that reading the Bible for insight on women and spiritual leadership is easy.  The Male Headship Alliance feasts on New Testament passages (and there are several) that point toward female subordination.  The author of 1Timothy, for example, says in chapter 2: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” 

In light of such passages, Doug Batchelor seems to believe that although God loves women equally with men, God meant for them to have, and to be fulfilled by, a subordinate role.  But does he mean that women have it best when they stay in the kitchen with…Martha?

Well, that’s exactly what Jesus questioned, according to Luke 10.  Despite the role her culture imposed, Mary, Martha’s sister, chose to join the inner circle of disciples.  But Martha, still defined by that role, resented what Mary had done.  Then Jesus chimed in with support for—Mary.  What she had done was just fine; the privilege would “not be taken away from her.”  As for Paul, Jesus’ most famous follower, he too puts a giant question mark behind the idea of female subordination.  Paul has no qualms about the assertiveness of Lydia (Acts 16).  He exclaims with great confidence , moreover, that where there is oneness in Christ there is “no longer Jew or Greek…, slave or free…, male or female” (Galatians 3).

The latest General Conference appeal speaks of “oneness in Christ,” but ignores this latter remark from Paul.  The appeal thus suppresses, at just the point of its greatest relevance, a key expression of what oneness in Christ is about. 

As for the Male Headship Alliance, it acknowledges Galatians 3 on the “Christ or Culture” website but appeals to other passages to defuse its radical spirit.  Here, as I have suggested, zeal for Scripture falls short for its unwillingness to follow the direction of Scripture’s story.  Following that direction may, of course, be difficult.  But on this, too, the Bible offers helpful perspective.  Some implications of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, says the Gospel of John, were so hard to bear that Jesus didn’t even express them to the disciples.  The Holy Spirit would do so later when men and women were better able to bear those implications (John 16). 

             Especially where the Gospel had had the longest influence, people are now ready to embrace the implication that in the community of Christ exclusionary circles vanish.  That is why using gender to exclude people from spiritual leadership now seems urgently, even horrifically, wrongheaded.  

The Male Headship Alliance claims otherwise, appealing to favorite texts as if each line of Scripture may have equivalent authority for Christian practice.  That is what we have learned to call the key-text method.  And the catch, as Shakespeare’s Bassanio knew, is that the devil himself “can cite Scripture for his purpose.”  You can, after all, defend slavery from Scripture.  You can find a prophet rebuking a king for inadequate pursuit of—genocide.

Not even the Male Headship Alliance would pander to proponents of slavery or genocide.  What this means, of course, is its leaders resist the key text method one minute, and exploit it the next.  But mark this well: If your method of Bible interpretation depends on what suits your fancy, as theirs seems to do, then it’s not even serious, and your pronouncements are just reckless opinion, just another form of inattention to what the Bible really says.

Here again is willful, almost defiant, obliviousness regarding Scripture.  That is a problem, surely, for a people called to be the Remnant.  The occasion of controversy about the place of women in our shared life is the right time to do better than this.

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