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Female Leadership in the Church – What’s gender got to do with it?

Is the Bible an oppressive document written by men from a patriarchal age? Many modern scholars believe the Bible reinforces the subordinate status of women. But how did the original writers and teachers of the ancient text view the different gender roles? We are living in a time of radically developing social and political movements that aim to redefine and change the ideologies behind the inequality of the sexes. These movements have cast a greater spotlight on the church and called to question whether the perception and role of women in the church today is as God intended it to be. The #metoo movement has given birth to #churchtoo and #catholictoo, two movements that are “dedicated to recording the experiences of women in ecclesiastical structures dominated by men.” [1]

As this great cry to liberate the female population goes out, we must ask ourselves if bringing awareness to female biblical figures is truly enough to change the view of women in the church today. The answer does not lie in simply celebrating the honourable deeds and accounts of female leaders of the bible. We must reassess our interpretation of scripture and question how these women were even permitted to lead despite the perceived limitations on them in their time. 

The founding matriarchs in the Bible are named as prophetesses, judges, teachers, queens, and heroines. Although women in ancient biblical times were under the authority of a man and subject to strict ritual and moral laws, we find women like Deborah and Huldah who were used by God and broke these “societal limitations” in order to do so.  

The book of Judges introduces Deborah as a prophet of God and a judge of Israel. The Song of Deborah found in Judges 5:2-31 celebrates the military victory helped by two women: Deborah and Jael. Huldah was also regarded as a prophet who spoke the word of God directly to high priests and royal officials. When King Josiah heard the Book of the Law in 2 Kings 13, he tore his clothes in distress and summoned his priest and closest officials to “inquire of the Lord.” They immediately went to Huldah the prophetess to hear from the Lord.  

Clearly God entrusted both females and males to bring His will to fruition in the Old Testament.

Clearly God entrusted both females and males to bring His will to fruition in the Old Testament. But what about the New Testament? There are several accounts of Jesus breaking societal norms to both give and receive ministry from women. The first witnesses and evangelists of His resurrection were women. Many of Jesus’ disciples did not believe their account and were later shamed and rebuked by Jesus for their doubt and unbelief (Mark 16:14). 

Mark 16:9-11 “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.” [2]

Our eternal hope rests on the authenticity of the resurrection of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 15:17 “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” [2]

So, why would Jesus entrust the most important testimony of the faith to women if He truly saw them as untrustworthy? 

The church has a monumental responsibility to correctly interpret the scripture.

The church has a monumental responsibility to correctly interpret the scripture.  The wrong interpretations of scripture have had long-lasting and detrimental effects that not only impact women in the church today but also on the body of Christ in totality. 

There are countless contradictions within the Old and New Testaments when the Bible is understood and interpreted by face value.  If we go back to the understanding of Scripture that was revealed by Jesus and carried on through the early church, we find a united understanding of the symbolic language used in Scripture. 

The early church father Origen is one of the most influential figures in early Christian apologetics and asceticism and is regarded as one of the most important Christian theologians of all time. 

Origen had this to say about the creation of man and woman:

“But let us see also allegorically how man, made in the image of God, is male and female. Our inner man consists of spirit and soul. The spirit is said to be male; the soul can be called female.” [3]

The spirit is said to be male; the soul can be called female.

Origen

Origen explains how all human beings have both male (spirit) and female (soul) within themselves. The separation of Eve from Adam was not portraying a physical separation of genders but the difference between the soul and the spirit inside of every being.

God also reveals Himself as both male and female in character. Wisdom is portrayed to be a woman. Proverbs 1:20-21 “Wisdom calls aloud outside; She raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out in the chief concourses, at the openings of the gates in the city she speaks her words,”[2]. The Holy Spirit is portrayed to be a male. John 14:26 “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” [2]

In Genesis 7:1 God said to Abram, “I am El Shaddai. Walk before me and be perfect.” The name El Shaddai is translated by the Jewish sages as “many breasted,” indicating sufficiency and nourishment. This reveals another facet of God’s character as a nurturing mother who sustains and loves their children. 

Another place where gender is found to be symbolic is when God told Abraham that every male was to be circumcised in order to enter into an everlasting covenant with the Lord. If this circumcision was solely physical, this would exclude all females from this covenant. Circumcision is defined in the Thayer’s Greek dictionary as “the extinction of passions and the removal of spiritual impurity.” [4]

Circumcision is defined in the Thayer’s Greek dictionary as “the extinction of passions and the removal of spiritual impurity.”

Jeremiah 4:4 further reveals that this circumcision was symbolically speaking of the state of our hearts. “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your hearts.”

This is afterall the place that God will write His Law. Hebrews 10:15-17 “But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,’ then He adds, ‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’” [2]

Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” [2]

Regardless of our gender, God created both male and female to equally reflect the different facets of His image.

Regardless of our gender, God created both male and female to equally reflect the different facets of His image. Finally, Origen makes the distinction that God is not reflected in our human flesh, but in our spirit as He is without a body.

“But it is our inner man, invisible, incorporeal, incorruptible, and immortal which is made ‘according to the image of God.’ For it is in such qualities as these that the image of God is more correctly understood. But if anyone supposes that this man who is made ‘according to the image and likeness of God’ is made of flesh, he will appear to represent God himself as made of flesh and in human form. It is most clearly impious to think this about God.” [3] 

References:

1. Was Jesus Christ a feminist? By Brian Bethune March 29, 2018, (https://www.macleans.ca/society/was-jesus-christ-a-feminist/.)

2. The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.

3. Origen Homily on Genesis Homily I (pg. 68)

4. Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon

Keywords:
#churchtoo
#catholictoo
Equality
Feminism
Women in the church
Female leadership
Gender roles




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