Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gender and Ministry: Women and the No Respect Problem

The standard of comedy has slipped extraordinarily within the last 25 years as 'comedians' have shifted from Telling Jokes to Making Observations.  Thank goodness for the Internet!  The greatest comedy routines of the last 60 years are only a few clicks away, so if I need a chuckle I don't have to put up with this sort of rot.

The comedy master that most tickles my funny bone is Rodney Dangerfield.  There was a man who could pack more laughs into five minutes than most of the current crop could manage in an hour.  For those who aren't familiar, Dangerfield's "shtick" was the No Respect Everyman.  In his plain suit and tie he could be any Lower Middle Class Corporate Drone who never manages to catch a break.  It is the catch-cry of so many of us: I don't get no respect!  The system is stacked against us - we can't win and so there is no real surprise when we get a Defeat and an Insult at the same time.  We were suckers for playing the game in the first place.  Everywhere you turn, No Respect!

It is clear that the issue of Respect (or rather the lack of it) looms large for Michael Bird in his new work Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts.  In his introduction he gives several examples from his own experience of women in the Church being particularly disrespected by those with a "complementarian" view of ministry.  He recalls his early years in a 'strongly complementarian' church where women were not only forbidden to be worship leaders (note: I take this to mean 'people who lead the singing' rather than 'people who lead the service' but I am happy to be corrected) but were stopped from leading music during mid-week Bible studies. (p.9)  Bird was told by his pastor that anytime there was any sort of "leading" it should properly be done by a male.  This, Bird felt, detracted from the role of Christ as mediator and led him to doubt the theological system at work.  He also refers to a series of events surrounding the Together For The Gospel conference in 2006, where women (even those in full-time ministry) were asked to give up their places so that more men (who did not have to be ministers) could attend.  Bird labels this as a watershed moment for him in shaking off his 'complementarian' affinities due to the lack of willingness of many to speak out against the injustice of the situation.  As he puts it:

I got the feeling that, in some circles, in order to be a complementarian-approved dude, you had to be willing not only to salute at the complementarian flagpole but also to impale your mother, wife, sister, or daughter on it every once in a while to demonstrate your loyalty. (p.10)

A harsh critique, to be sure.  But is it always far off the truth?  Is it possible that our Sisters are occasionally 'sacrificed' for a Greater Principle, even a Biblical one?  It is worth asking the question.

In his tract, Bird sets out to redress the balance in evangelical practice.  He does this most helpfully in two ways.  First, by setting forth a range of views (as he sees it) on Women & Ministry that currently exist within what might broadly be labelled Evangelicalism.  Second, by conducting a study of the portrait of women and ministry in the New Testament and the picture of Respect that it paints of their endeavours.

One of the great problems this debate often attracts is Name Calling, the vast majority of it inaccurate and highly unhelpful.  An easy way to approach any problem is to separate the Good Guys from the Bad Guys and send out the message that If You're Not With Us You're Against Us!   Such binary divisions don't truly reflect the diversity of opinion which exists in regards to the role of women in ministry.  In order to promote understanding of the range of positions, Bird provides a chart adapted from an earlier version from the Evangelical Theological Society (p.13) that outlines the continuum from Egalitarian to Complementarian positions.  It is possible that some people who would place themselves in one of Bird's categories might quibble with the definitions (e.g. Do Hierarchical Complementarians really believe that women are prohibited from any 'office or function where they would be exercising authority over men' or only those where a particular type of authority is required?).  There might also be space on the chart for the more extreme form of 'complementarianism' that Bird encountered in his early years where women are excluded from roles (e.g. prayer, Bible reading, song leading, etc) that go beyond the boundaries laid out in Scripture (might I propose 'Non-Complementarian Patriarchalism' as a label).  But broadly speaking, Bird's intentions are good ones as he encourages all sides to realise that those who differ do not automatically fall into the categories of Misogynist or Liberal Extremist.  If there is to be progress on this topic then unhelpful labeling of those we disagree with cannot be helpful.  We must employ the Paradigm of Respect which Bird finds in the New Testament and which he sees is often lacking in complementarian culture.

Bird clearly does not consider himself an Egalitarian by the definitions he proposes.  Indeed, he believes that passages such as 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 teach that the husband is the 'head' of the wife in terms of Authority, but that it is not appropriate to apply this to ministry patterns.  As he puts it, 'Family headship is determined by gender, but church ministry is determined by divine calling and spiritual gifts.' (p.21)  In fact, as Bird conducts his survey of the place and role of women in the New Testament, what emerges is a picture of partnership that emphasies Equality rather than Inequality.  Bird finds no significant differences between Paul's descriptions of the tasks of his male and female 'coworkers' for the Gospel. (p.29-30)  He notes that women seemed to perform many of the ministry tasks as men (e.g. prophecy and prayer) and points to the language used to describe several prominent women (such as Junia and Priscilla) as evidence that the Church at that period did not consider their ministry to be second-class'.  In the Pauline material in particular, Bird finds no justification for the pattern of disrespect that he sees embedded in the culture of heirarchical complementarianism which he has come to reject.

There are several points in Bird's wider argument with which I must disagree, but I will reserve that for my next post.  I believe it is only fair to reflect here on the question of Respect to which I believe Bird has been right to draw attention.

It is a terrible temptation for Evangelicals of all stripes to see what happens in our Sunday meetings (and particularly the 20 minute talk in the middle) as the Centre Of All Ministry.  If that is Most Important then everything else (by extension) is Less Important, and those who can't or shouldn't be involved here are necessarily Less Important People.  Of course, such thinking is profoundly wrong.  Our communal times are very important, but they are not the only times and contexts when 'ministry' occurs and taking a lower view of those involved in such ministries (either women or men) is simply not in line with the New Testament view.  For complementarians of the more strict variety the issue is complicated because of the restrictions on our Sisters that are seen as necessary if Scripture is to be properly obeyed and therefore how our Sisters will interpret this situation.  Anything not deemed 'teaching' can filed away in the mind under Non-Important Women's Work, and if our Sisters discover that this is how their labours for God are considered then they can (rightly) interpret this as demeaning and sexist.  Often this labelling is unconscious, but that is not an excuse.  It is therefore up to men to make sure that ministry undertaken by their Sisters in the congregation is treated and spoken of with Respect, for then our Sisters will themselves feel Respected.  Considering the extent to which they are willing to give of themselves to the work of the Gospel (often showing up the men) I think this is the least they should expect.

Next time: Romans 16 and the Problem of Phoebe

1 comment: