Women, the Church, and Wholeness

This speech or article has had different titles. At first in January of 1975 when titled “Women in Church Vocations, Institutions, Structures” it was presented at the annual meeting of Mennonite Central Committee. As a result of that talk, the Executive Committee took action to form an Advisory Committee on Women of MCC, of which I was a member. We outlined details of recommendations for the Executive based on 150 questionnaires return from a sampling sent to 440 MCC past and then present personnel. The version titled “Prophet, widow, deacon, wife? Women in church Vocations” appeared in MCC’s Intercom, vol. 15/3, March 1975 edited by Gayle Gerber Koontz. October 1975 versions with the title used here appeared in MCC’s “Women’s Activity Letter” edited by Sarah Ann Eby and WMSC Voice edited by Lois Gunden Clemens, 8-9, 14. Consider the radical effort needed decades ago.

We as Mennonites are known for healing wounds. We support attempts to curtail offenders’ repetition of previous circumstances. But how free have we become to reshape society so that all can participate fully?

Scriptures stress a unity and oneness for people if we choose to hear them. In both creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, the creation of humanity brought completeness. Each was part of the other; aspects of each were incorporated within the other. Fallenness, entered and reenters when this unity is altered, when relationships break down through persons denying God’s sole authority through the imbalance of one sex having power over the other, or through exploitation of the created universe.

Jesus came to bring order out of chaos making oneness again possible. Singleness is whole. Relationship repels priority or privilege. Death is overcome. We live in the resurrection that obliterates past barriers of race, class, and sex. We are not created or delivered for isolation, exclusion or exception. Only together can we be the Body of Christ.

My intent is lot to exaggerate the involvements, assignments, or vocations of women recorded in Scripture, but to take them out of hiding. We sanction the absence of a group by overlooking or intentionally ignoring their presence. Or we glorify the motherhood of Hannah, Ruth, and Mary, instilling guilt for women who choose from among career alternatives, and perpetuate women’s vicarious “nature”—achieving satisfaction or identity through another. We give names to the less desirable Jezebel, Bathsheba, or Athaliah—and keep anonymous the wise woman of Tekoa (II Samuel 14:2-20) and the wealthy Shunamite woman (II Kings 4:8-38). How alert to subtle shifts in recording and translating history are we? What differences might exist in church vocation opportunities for women if Psalms 68:11, and subsequently the great Messiah chorus, had been literally translated, “The Lord gave the word: Of the female preachers there was a great host.”

“Jesus treated all daughters of Eve as persons created in God’s image and likeness” say Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty in All We’re Meant to Be. In considering the Samaritan woman at the well we tend to gloat over the mire of her multiple divorce or illicit relationships. We fail to see, hear, or feel her penetrating light. Not only was she fully expecting a Messiah figure (Taheb), she dialogued with Jesus at a level many of us might excuse as “too deep for me.” Jesus quickly credited her intellectual capacity coupled with sincere eagerness and concluded by honoring her with his first self-disclosure: “I AM HE.” (John 4:26)

Further, women still bleed. Perhaps some hemorrhage, their faith tugging at the robes of the church whose institutions prove insensitive to the touch because of the crowds, society. The pattern Jesus set (Mark 5:21-24 and parallels) included “interrupting a mission of crucial importance to a man in order to identify the woman, to elicit from her a confession of faith, (Elsie Gibson, When the Minister is a Woman), a call to repeat the good news to those she encountered. Here is restoration for a mutual task.

In I Corinthians 12 and Galatians 5 Paul discusses the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. Gifts are talents and offices, the ability to do certain jobs and the call to perform them. Elizabeth Hambreck-Stove suggests that what the church has done too consistently is designate the gifts to men while assigning the fruits to women. Women, in the security of low-risk routine living, have assented, not expecting each one to fully exercise her gifts. But Paul describes people in jobs—all using skills in the common life. Attributes and qualities of the Spirit are applicable to whatever gifts a person has. What is desired is the combination of gifts and fruits within each given, whole person.

Do we have presuppositions about women as workers that are not valid? How instrumental are church institutions in channeling competent, committed Christian women into church-related employment? Might not a Person Resource Pool assist with this process? The Peace Section Task Force on Women, because of its belief in MCC and church offices, would like to invite you to reassess personal organization attitudes toward women, men and work. Our reasons for considering this important are:

  1. The church undercuts its strength and effectiveness by limiting the involvement of women.
  2. A study of the positions held by men and women on the staff of MCC and conference offices reveals that decision-making power rests almost solely with men.
  3. The church should be a model employer, taking the initiative to promote wholeness and justice and pointing constituents in that direction.
  4. The church, as an employer, must be cognizant of the impact its practices have on the welfare and stability of its employees and their families.
  5. Women and men who might be interested in serving with the church will look for other employers if the church does not make use of their talents or adapt to new lifestyles.

Although we have all grown up in societies that expect women to sacrifice their personhood so that men can become, that expect men to sacrifice their nurturing nature to accentuate this quality in women, by now we should recognize these divisions as characteristics of fallenness. Patricia Worden writes:

Motherhood and virginity have been extolled, and they are good values to have, but they are only facets of a woman’s life, high in a hierarchy of values, but still only part of the expression of the person, not its totality. The primary factor which gives women their dignity is that they were created by God and redeemed by Christ, just as man has essential dignity from such facts rather than because he is a father.

“Not all women will eventually work for remuneration through their adult lives as men (now) do,” notes Valerie Oppenheimer in Huber’s Changing Women in a Changing Society, “But women’s family status may be becoming less important as a determinant of their labor force statues than other factors such as economic aspirations, marketable skills, occupational commitments and the like.” Wives having fewer, if any, family producing years cannot be expected or encouraged to give full time to household routines. As Suzanne Keller writes: “All [women] will need to plan for nonmaternity/nondomestic activity since this will constitute the larger part of their lives.”

Are we preparing both girls and boys for such near future realities? Are church institutions planning accordingly? Consider for example these facts:

All such details have an impact on options available, on the employment situation, on whom we expect men and women to become. The longer that we delay comparable opportunities, the more generations will come and go unaware of what teamwork and greater wholeness might have been.

Dr. Helene Aronson, who trains professional people to be more successful, feels the point is not only to change men, but to help women change themselves. “The only way to become an equal is to begin to feel equal,” she says. At least four studies since 1957 supply evidence that women have a more negative image of themselves. In addition, their perceptions of possible goals and accomplishments are limited; too often they are deprived of belief in their own abilities.

Granted, the more common our experience and expectations become, the less distinction will characterize men and women. What we can hope for is that neither sex will monopolize or predetermine what the other must become. Both together will develop qualities, insights and skills that are not now available to either in our separation. Women do not want their advances to come at the expense of men.

What is important is that we together plan for the future, noting candidly what problems may arise. As Elsie Thomas Culver in her book Women in the World of Religion suggests: “Attitudes of men must not be grudging, women not greedy or vengeful. Neither can be relegated to or satisfied with the role of observer.” We are not to blame for what has come to us through history; we are, however, responsible for future progress in cooperation. Before increased assignments for women or equal opportunities can be realized, we need to rethink who “we” and “the others” are as men and women. And that will lead us, I believe, to new depths of awareness, new affirmation of redemption from the confines of fallenness to the openness of unity.