Volume 22, Number 5
The most frequent question directed to BRF personnel at this year’s Annual Conference was, “What do you think about a woman being elected as the Annual Conference Moderator?” It is our desire to be cautious and benign in our response, but also to be clear in expressing the concerns that we believe are associated with the action of the delegate body in choosing a female moderator-elect.
It has indeed been “The Year of the Woman” in terms of the number of women being brought into positions of leadership in the Church of the Brethren. After two hundred recorded Annual Conferences, for the first time, the Moderator-Elect is a woman. Also, the chair of the General Board is a woman. The Annual Conference Secretary is a woman. The Annual Conference Central Committee has a majority of female members. Thirteen of the twenty-five persons on the General Board are women. Seventy-five percent of the nominees on this year’s Annual Conference ballot were women. We are reminded of the words found in Isaiah 3:12, “…and women rule over them.”
The issue for many of us is not just the matter of a woman holding a certain office. Another important question is this: “is the woman ‘in order’ according to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11 ?” It is interesting to observe that the women who push hardest for women’s leadership roles, or who allow themselves to be carried along by the current wave of feminist ideology, almost entirely disregard the headcovering symbol which is taught in the Scriptures. (At least this symbol bears silent testimony to the fact that the sister recognizes God’s higher authority in establishing headship, and shows reverence for His concern about order within the realm of human functions).
The article in this issue of the BRF WITNESS offers further comment about the Biblical teaching concerning the role of women in the church. We wonder why any woman would want to be in the position of Moderator, only to find herself in the awkward spot of finding it necessary to declare some ordained minister “out of order,” or to have to say, “You no longer may debate the issue.”
A Woman Conference Moderator
By Harold S. Martin
The Church of the Brethren made history at its Annual Conference in Cincinnati by electing a woman to moderate the convention in 1989 at Orlando, Florida. In light of the emphases on the widening role of women in the Church of the Brethren during recent decades, one can hardly say that the choice of a female moderator is a precocious idea. In 1971 already, the Annual Conference Moderator said that he did not believe it would be too long until we speak from the Conference floor and address the person who presides over the meeting as “Sister Moderator” (May 15, 1971, Messenger). General Board, more than a decade ago, created a staff position called “Person Awareness Coordinator” -whose task it has been to enable women to be liberated from “these oppressions that happen among us” -as one staff person described it (October 24, 1978, Statement to General Board).
There are some reasons why in good conscience many of us cannot shout!! Those Christians who accept the Bible as true-without letting it be torn apart by the form critics, the redaction theorists, and the acculturationists– believe that the concluding verses of I Timothy 2 teach that women are not to assume either leadership or teaching offices in the gathered assembly. Though men and women are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), they have differing functions in God’s plan. When we disregard the clear teaching of the inspired Apostle in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, then we open the door to rejecting any part of the Bible that we happen to disagree with.
It is true however that equally committed Christians sometimes differ as to what constitutes a valid ministry for women in the church, but there should be no disagreement about the fact that the woman should pray or prophesy with her head veiled (as taught in the first half of 1 Corinthians 11). The Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Minutes in 1926, in fact, say that “the woman ought to have her head covered” and that the teaching in I Corinthians 11:3-16 is not local in its application, but applies “to the churches throughout all Christendom” (pages 35, Minutes, 1926). That action of the Annual Conference has never been abolished nor superseded. Why do brethren and sisters not take seriously this action of Annual Conference? Most members of the Church of the Brethren who consider female leadership roles to be appropriate, say that Annual Conference decisions are “the highest authority” in the church. Then why not abide by the Annual Conference decision regarding the veiled head? To quietly omit any consideration of the headship symbol (the “veil” named in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16), is a lopsided understanding of the Scriptures to say the least.
The New Testament contains two distinct strands of teaching concerning the status of women. The redemptive strand declares the full equality of the woman with the man as an accountable individual before God. The creative strand calls for a functional position of subordination in the social context.
The redemption wrought in Christ Jesus is available equally to the entire human family, regardless of the vast distinctions among the recipients (Galatians 3:27-28). The equal status of male and female members of the church is reflected in the Apostle Peter’s portrayal of the entire church as a holy and a spiritual priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9). In His public ministry, Jesus revealed a completely impartial attitude toward women and men. Jesus never gave any hint that women were to be regarded as spiritually inferior to men. Likewise, the Apostle Paul bore glad testimony to the valued assistance that certain Christian women had given him in the work of the Gospel (e.g. Philippians 4:3).
The creative purpose of God for men and women, however, indicates a functional distinction between the sexes. Jesus himself, when choosing the apostles, chose twelve men. The Apostle Paul explicitly prescribed functional restrictions upon the women. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul instructed that the woman, unlike the man, should not pray or prophesy with her head uncovered. For her to do so, is dishonoring and irreverent. And in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, the Christian woman is not to assume an executive position of authority (authentein) in the church.
Two reasons are given for the limitations placed on women.
1) The order of creation (1 Timothy 2:13). Adam was created first, and the woman was formed to help him. From the beginning, God had divinely arranged that the man should lead and the woman should assist. This is simply God’s purpose in creation, and we should honor it in the church today.
2) The history of the Fall (1 Timothy 2:14). In the Garden of Eden, Eve was the one who was deceived. Adam was not. The woman did not deceive the man; she persuaded him. Eve was beguiled and deceived. Adam sinned with his eyes open -and Adam is held seriously responsible for the entry of sin into the world (Romans 5:12-19). The woman proved by her trusting nature to be more easily led astray than the man, and according to God’s revelation, this is one reason why she should not be an administrator and a teacher of Christian truth at the head of an assembly.
Examples of women participating in leadership roles among God’s people are frequently cited from various parts of the Bible, but the context is often ignored. It is true that some (such as Philip’s daughters, and Priscilla) prophesied in private, but there is no evidence that they ever prophesied in the public services of the assembled church. And in Old Testament times, Deborah ruled among the people of Israel, but that was during a time of spiritual decay, and could hardly be a pattern for the church to follow today. There is only one sufficient reason to take a position against the woman’s assuming authoritative leadership roles-and that is the Scriptural prohibition. The case against women’s leadership should not be based on church tradition, nor on speculation about the nature or abilities of women, nor on extra-biblical observations about God’s nature, nor on certain examples from Scripture that are often lifted out of context. The New Testament specifically forbids women to participate in the administrative work of the church.
According to the Mennonite writer, Sanford Shetler, one of the latest arguments being advanced (to support the leadership roles of women in the church)-is the result of the impact of process theology. The theory says that the church in our time is called upon to fulfill what Jesus himself could not accomplish during His earthly life. Jesus, they say, dreamed that women should be freed to occupy what had previously been considered only men’s roles, and that now it is the church’s task to fulfill Jesus’ dream. (This is, of course, the same theory as that used by the “Moonies” to support several of their heresies).
It seems that very few persons in later generations learn the lessons which history can teach us. For example, after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Jeremiah the prophet sat on a hillside overlooking the heap of ruins which once was the City of Jerusalem. Judah was no longer an independent nation, but had now become a province of the Babylonian Empire. The Temple was gone, the palace was gone, and Israel’s national existence had come to an end. Jeremiah mourned the devastation.
After a period of instability under Babylonian rule, many of the people who still lived in Judah thought it would be best to migrate into Egypt. They were afraid that the Babylonians might take reprisals because they had murdered Gedaliah (the governor who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to rule over Judah).
Jeremiah received a word from the Lord, and explained that the people should remain in Judah (Jeremiah 42:7-10). They were not to fear Nebuchadnezzar, but were to trust God for protection (Jeremiah 42:11-12). But the people did not accept Jeremiah’s answer. They set out for Egypt and forced Jeremiah to go along.
With one voice they rejected Jeremiah’s word, and defiantly insisted upon going their own way. “As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee” (Jeremiah 44:16). And then with stinging words, they went on to say that it was their deliberate intention to intensify their worship of idols down in Egypt (Jeremiah 44:17-19).
The closing words of Jeremiah 44:19 indicate that it was the women who had taken the lead in speaking to Jeremiah. Verse 15 indicates that the women were the most active in idolatry. The men were aware of it but had let it go! (Just so, much of the push in the Church of the Brethren for women in leadership positions, is due to the fact that men sit back and do nothing, and thus if the Lord’s work is to move forward, women are almost coerced into doing that work). Anyhow, Jeremiah took extra pains to include the women in his final reply to the people (Jeremiah 44:24). Deliberate rebellion against the truth, he said, is going to lead to their being consumed by the sword and famine (Jeremiah 44:25-27). The prophecy was later fulfilled.
Rejecting God’s truth and making light of His mandates is always a very dangerous thing to do. Further departures from God’s standard may very well lead to further decline in Church of the Brethren membership, and may help erode other practices which are important to Brethren. See Messenger, May, 1986, page 24.