One of the primary reasons women and men around the world ignore organized Christian religion is due to a perceived disconnect between who Jesus was and what churches of the 21st century have become. In other words, there are many who are incredibly fascinated with the way of Jesus, yet the same individuals refuse to participate within churches due to observed levels of hypocrisy, closed-mindedness, and self-righteousness among Jesus’ (supposed) followers. As I have been told on countless occasions, there are many who love Jesus, but just as many who dislike – or even despise – the Christian church. While my first reaction as an ordained pastor is to defend churches, I have come to the harsh reality that many of its practices are quite different from what Jesus taught and embodied through his earthly actions recorded in the Bible.
I was reminded of the disconnection between Jesus and Christian churches a few weeks ago when I was given an opportunity to spend an evening with one of the first ordained women within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). As she and I spoke about her rise to leadership and the response she received from local congregation members, I was thankful to hear of those who offered support, yet also astonished to learn of the massive resistance she experienced. As we closed our conversation that evening, I was reminded of a similar interaction I had years ago with one of the first ordained women within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and how she also experienced (and continues to endure) opposition. Through it all, as I thought about the numerous women who currently serve as leaders in Christian churches throughout the world, my first reaction was a sense of admiration for their persistence and willingness to endure struggle. However, similar to those whom criticize the divide between Jesus and Christian churches, I also wondered why such considerable differences exist.
When I examine the four Gospel narratives which serve as the foundation for Christian faith, I am confronted with a Jesus who promoted the equality of women with men, a person who not only spoke empowering words about women, but he also accompanied women as human persons and willingly risked his life through disobedience of social customs in order to promote a prophetic stance. Among other things, Jesus entered into theological dialogue with women and empowered them to serve as disciples alongside him, Jesus challenged commonly held notions about women and their unjust sexual exploitation, and he continually violated common cultural codes which were put into place in order to keep women as second class citizens within a sexist and patriarchal system. Through it all, according to the Gospels, even in the midst of a culture which often treated women as inferior to men, Jesus displayed value and dignity toward women through his words and actions.
And so, if Jesus was so openly supportive of women, then why do churches which claim to follow Jesus continue to treat women as second-class citizens? While various studies have shown that Sunday morning worship attendance usually incorporates twice as many women (65%) than men (35%), the ELCA reports that only 19.9% of its clergy are women, and various congregational, regional/synodical, and national councils are often disproportionately slanted toward men.
On a positive note, the ELCA has reported dramatic increases in the amount of female students in its theological institutions, to the point that many have a 50/50 ratio between women and men. In addition, as numerous Christian denominations and other religious traditions around the world do not even allow women to be public leaders, one needs take a step-back and acknowledge the significant progress made within the ELCA and other progressive religious bodies. However, the mere fact that the ELCA is moving forward does not mean that it cannot push harder or transform with greater urgency, not only within itself, but in greater society as well.
While much growth and development has taken place over past generations, a quick examination of national statistics would allow North Americans to realize that gender equality is nowhere near to being fully realized. For example, according to the 2003 Census, women earn only 77.5 cents for every dollar earned by men with similar education levels. More specifically, women in professional specialty occupations were found to earn just 72.7% of what men in the same positions earned, and women in upper level executive, administrative and managerial occupations earned even less at 72.3%. In addition, whereas places such as Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Liberia, Indonesia, Panama, and Guyana have all sworn-in female Heads of State, the United States of America has yet to elect a female President, only 17 of the current 100 U.S. Senators are women, and there are currently only six women governors amongst the 50 states.
The promotion of equal rights amongst women and men is crucial for the development of human civilization. As a result, churches which claim to follow the way of Jesus are called to exemplify his value of women by offering concrete plans that promote women into leadership – not only in Christian churches – but in all realms of society. While income statistics and other tools may reveal evidence of inequality, perhaps the real indicator is whether or not women truly possess the God-given freedom to utilize their gifts and talents in order to serve God and humankind throughout the world. There are many women who wish to be church leaders, yet there are many women and men who discourage them from doing so. In addition, there are countless women who wish to be vehicle mechanics, firefighters, roofers, construction workers, priests, and of course, President of the United States. If women and men were to encourage women of all ages to pursue such reachable goals, the embodiment of Jesus’ words and deeds would be more faithfully realized, and the overall development of the global community would benefit as a result.
Margaret Mead once stated, “Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man." With this thought in mind, one is reminded that being “pro-woman” and/or “feminist” is not in any way “anti male”, but it is to be in favor of created life in its fullness, not only for women and men within the realms of organized Christian faith, but for the liberation of women and men throughout global society. And so, as we all reflect upon the numerous women around the world who have shaped our lives through their love and leadership, may we as citizens of the current generation and stewards of the future shape the world in a way that models Jesus’ respect of women through both word and deed, so that all people receive the credit and opportunities they deserve. If Christian churches take their rightful place as leaders in the global movement of gender equality, not only will respect for and attraction towards Christian churches increase, but the world in which we all live will more faithfully represent the life of Jesus: an inclusive global community which promotes open opportunity for all people through continuous acts of love and sustained faithfulness.