Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Women, History and the Debate about Leadership

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology and
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at the Charlotte campus

Those who oppose women in leadership in the church continue to assert that egalitarians are capitulating to the culture, bowing to pressures to conform, starting with the women=s movement in the 1960s. According to complementarians, there was no support for women in church leadership until some Christians got led astray by that movement. If we learn anything from a study of women=s history, we learn that this is absolutely false. However, too often, Evangelical Christians are naive about the importance of history and tend to know little church history in particular. When it comes to women in history this is doubly true, because our larger society also tends to ignore women in history. For example, last month, March, was Women=s History Month. Did you notice? February was Black History Month, and there were all kinds of activities, special programs on television, conferences and lectures in celebration of the contributions of African Americans to our history and culture. Women=s history month seemed to go by with almost no notice. Women=s contributions throughout history do not get much play. Sometimes, this is through benign neglect. Other times through active, willful suppression. I got to thinking about this because in March, Women=s History Month, I was in Massachusetts attending the inauguration of our seminary=s new president. As I thought about my first visit to Boston, I got to thinking about Paul Revere. We all know about Paul Revere. Every schoolchild learns about him: Aone if by land, two if by Sea.@ He rode from Charlestown to Lexington, some 15 miles, to warn Samuhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifel Adams and John Hancock that the British were coming to arrest them. His house is a historic landmark and museum dedicated to his story (see http://www.paulreverehouse.org/bio/) and everyone learns his story. But, have you ever heard of Sybil Ludington?

Sybil Ludington was the oldest daughter of Colonel Ludington. On April 26, 1777, he received word that about 2000 British troops, under the command of General Tryon, were attacking Danbury Connecticut. Sybil volunteered to warn people of the attack and alert the militia who were scattered across the countryside in farms and villages to come to Danbury's defense. She rode some 40 miles through the area of New York adjoining Danbury Connecticut in the middle of the night during a rainstorm that turned roads muddy, calling out Ludington's troops. As a result, American troops were able to turn back the advancing British and drive them back to their boats. I only know about her because I lived in Mahopac New York, through which she rode and in which is a historical marker about her ride. In the adjacent town of Carmel NY is a statue of her (see photo). Women in history, like Sybil, are often ignored even when what they accomplished is quite impressive. Other times, however, women are left out, not through benign neglect but through active exclusion and repression.

On my first visit to Rome (Italy), I visited the Church of St Praxida (thanks to Dr. Cathy Kroeger, who directed me to this fascinating church). In this church is a chapel dedicated to St. Zeno. In the chapel, there is a very interesting mosaic, probably dating to the 5th century AD. Four women are depicted (see photo). Three of them are saints (as indicated by the round halos). One was still living at the time the mosaic was made (as indicated by the square halo filled with blue). The inscription around the still-living woman reads Episcopa Theodo. The o on the end of Theodo makes the word a masculine name. However, the first part of the inscription Episcopa is the feminine form of the word for Bishop. This is unusual, to say the least: Gender of adjectives, titles and names always match. Outside the chapel there is a column inscribed with names of patrons of the church. Among them is Episcopa Theodora. Apparently, the original mosaic was altered to make Theodora masculine. But the bishop was a lady! In this case, the evidence of at least one woman bishop was removed from history through active suppression, not benign neglect.

Today, the discussion of women in leadership in Evangelical churches can be not only loud but also harsh and disrespectful. Those who affirm women=s gifts and calling are accused of following the world and the modern women=s movement. This has been disproven by so many so frequently that it is hard not to be wonder about the motives of those who continue to assert this. The voice of Episcopa Theodora suggests this discussion goes back into the early history of the church. In fact, one might argue that the church, following Jesus= example of affirming women (for example, commissioning a woman as the first evangelist), initially welcomed women into leadership and only later excluded them. One evidence of this is the series of restrictions placed on women=s ministries through canons of the Church Councils (see Fore Mothers: Women of the Bible by Janice Nunnally Cox):

Council of Orange (A.D.441), Canon 26: "Let no one proceed to the ordination of Deaconesses anymore."
Council of Epaon (A.D.517), Canon 21: "We abrogate completely in the entire Kingdom the consecration of widows who are named Deaconesses."
Council of Orleans (A.D.533): "No longer shall the blessing of women deaconesses be given, because of the weakness of their sex."

Joan Morris documents the history of suppression of women=s ministries and leadership in her book The Lady Was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops. One aspect of this story I find particularly significant is that, for centuries, women were heads of abbeys with both male and female dormitories, and held authority which extended to the local parishes and their priests. All of these individuals, male and female, vowed obedience to these abbesses. The popes vigorously supported and defended these women=s right to rule, so to speak. This only ended when the power of the popes waned and the power of secular states rose, from which the local bishops derived their power. The bishops could then depose these women with impunity, which they did. In the history of Protestant denominations, one can find this pattern repeated over and over: when a new movement starts with a fresh breath of the Spirit, women=s gifts and calling to leadership are recognized. Then, as the movement institutionalizes, perspectives on power and authority creep in from the world, and women are excluded.

I am distressed when the history of women and their contributions to the kingdom are neglected. We need to study and be aware of how God has raised up these and many other women to leadership positions, and how the church supported and endorsed them. Too much of the history of women in the church is one of progressive exclusion. Despite what people supporting such organizations as Counsel on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood assert, the contemporary movement to affirm women in ministry and leadership did not begin in the 1960s. It began in the 30s when Jesus told Mary Magdalene to go . . . to my brothers and tell them, >I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. (John 20: 17).

"The church in many ways is a sort of potter's field, where the gifts of women, as so many strangers, are buried. How long, O Lord, how long before man shall roll away the stone that we may see a resurrection."

Phoebe Palmer
The Promise of the Father, 1869

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