Since the beginning of Lent this year, almost every single Sunday worship at Old South has focused on a scripture passage that features at least one woman. In Lent, we considered the “Women Around Jesus.” For the Easter Season and now into Pentecost, it’s “Women of the Early Church.” While many New Testament women are mentioned only briefly, there’s a veritable treasure trove of new things to learn about Jesus, his followers, and the early church.
Except that not everyone is interested.
A few weeks ago, one of Old South’s most faithful parishioners came to tell me that it was time to take a “vacation” from the church. And, that vacation would likely become permanent. A long list of complaints was shared. The first bunch were about the church in general. And, then, we moved on to me. While my prayers are very good, I was told, this parishioner was tired of the focus on women and my feminist claptrap. To be fair, the word “claptrap” wasn’t used, but the word feminist was used, and it was used in a derogatory fashion.
That this particular parishioner happens to be a woman has left me feeling deeply unsettled. Her words roll around in my head almost every day. While I’ve certainly taken what can fairly be labeled a “feminist” attitude in dealing with these women and their stories from the New Testament, the stories I’ve highlighted are stories from our holy book, clearly laid out and right there to see, to read, to consider. I’m not making anything up or trying to introduce non-canonical texts. I’m just trying to illuminate stories that are too often ignored.
How can it be that a good woman of faith, a lifelong parishioner in the “mainline” Protestant tradition, can look at these stories and simply relegate them to the category of “feminist claptrap”? Quite simply, it’s heartbreaking. And frustrating.
Among the several reasons I took up this long stretch of focusing on New Testament women, is that as mainline Protestant denominations decline, one of the things that is fading away is the pastoral leadership of women. As someone who felt the call to ministry as a young woman and who has mostly experienced welcome (though not always), it is alarming to think that the Church Universal could very well lose the voice of women in pastoral leadership, in preaching and teaching, that the Church may very well slide into those dark days of consigning women to support roles, since so many of the dominant expressions of the faith do not allow women in pastoral leadership.
It’s hard to get my head around how we got here, especially since women clearly held positions of authority in the circles around Jesus and in the early church. Christianity would not even exist had it not been for the telling of the good news of resurrection by a woman. Mary Magdalene was the first Apostle, even recognized by Augustine in the 4th century, who declared her “Apostle to the Apostles.”
The earliest church communities included important female leaders and benefactors. The Gospels contain many stories of prominent women and Paul refers to and names many women who were leaders and co-workers in ministry with him. Paul may have written other material that diminished the status of women (much of that material was likely not actually written by Paul, but that’s a subject for another day). At the very least, we have a decidedly mixed perspective.
So many of the women of the New Testament, though, have been ignored or discounted. Take Phoebe, for instance, who is named in Romans 16 as a “deacon.” The passage that contains her name never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary and therefore, is not ever read in Roman Catholic churches and in Protestant churches that follow the RCL. And, then there’s the problem of translation. Phoebe is clearly labeled a “deacon” in the Greek text. In English translations of Romans, though, she is called: a “key representative” (The Message); a “servant” (King James); or, a “dear Christian woman” (The Living Bible). Even if one is reading on their own, it may seem that Phoebe is not a person of much significance, since the word that Paul used, “diakonon,” is translated in such a way as to lessen the meaning of her role. What’s still worse in ignoring this passage is that the text itself may very well convey that Phoebe herself had been the person entrusted by Paul to deliver the letter to the church in Rome.
For me, focusing on these women has been especially meaningful and empowering. And I have found myself captivated by this material in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. But, now I hear this other voice— the voice of a significant woman, no less— who seems much more interested in leaving these women of the New Testament to their oblivion. I realize that this is just one voice, but I hear it over and over again. And, I feel the voice now in other ways, like when I consider our diminished worship attendance over the last several months.
I will continue on, lifting up these important women, for their names and their ministries are worthy of consideration— and not just for feminists. These women have much to teach and much to show, as they cast new light into the truly remarkable things that were introduced through the ministry of Jesus and in the beginnings of the Church gathered in his name. I can only pray that those women (and men) who claim, or seem, not be interested in the women of the New Testament will find their way to opening their hearts and minds just a bit to something new, something significant, in the ongoing work of the Church, in the continually unfolding story of God and God’s people.