Women in the Church: The Search for Equality Continues

Maria LaSala

As I write this, people across the country are rallying in protest against the latest attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the so-called “fetal heartbeat” laws that now plague the states of Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Missouri, and Louisiana, with likely more to follow. Only God knows how far this cruel war against women will continue.

Many of us women of deep Christian faith have had just about enough of being dismissed and abused by men in power. Many such men will justify their power by claiming the Bible tells them so. Just take a look at the Genesis account of the creation and hierarchy of humankind, they will say. First came Adam, taking pride of place in the order of things. Only then came Eve. Then the serpent. Add the notorious fruit of the tree, which so many still think was an apple used by Eve to tempt Adam and, well, the rest is history. “His-story” indeed. Women – with their power to procreate – have been a threat to men since the beginning. Some men haven’t even figured out exactly how a woman’s reproductive system works! Such men continue to legislate against women. 

The church unfortunately stands in a long line of institutions that have kept patriarchal rules in place, keeping women down, and rewarding men, even when they don’t deserve reward. 

Groans of Protest 

As a Presbyterian pastor, I can remember one meeting of my presbytery about 25 years ago. A congregation was seeking an interim pastor who would serve for a time as the head of staff. The congregation already had an associate pastor who was a woman. The church’s governing body, the session, was ready to invite a woman to serve in the interim position. According to Presbyterian policy, the ruling elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament of the presbytery must approve the call of a new pastor to a congregation. 

The woman candidate was interviewed on the floor of the presbytery by these elders, with questions posed to her about her vision for the congregation, her theology of grace, her relationship with Jesus Christ. When it came time to vote, the woman was escorted out of the room. Debate followed. One hand went up: “I am a bit concerned that this congregation will suffer because they will not have the chance to hear a man preach from the pulpit. The congregation will only be served by women. This might not be a good thing for a congregation.” 

A loud moan came forth from those of us who identified as women, along with our allies in the room. This was 1993, 37 years after the first woman, the Rev. Margaret Towner, had been ordained in our denomination. Until that historic moment, the only voices coming from the pulpit were men’s. And long after that pivotal moment for Presbyterian women, male clergy continued to dominate in congregations. And yet now solicitous concern was raised that a congregation would hear only the voices of women and not men? 

To be fair, most mainline denominations have seen the light and deem it appropriate to invite women into senior positions. But others still rebuff any idea of women’s ordained leadership. On whose word does this opposition stand? Biblical scholarship and theological ethics offer us insight into why it’s no longer defensible on biblical and theological grounds to restrict women’s leadership in the church.

A History Ignored

In all four Gospels, Jesus after his resurrection appears first to women. The women are the first to go and tell the others of this amazing and wonderful turn of events. Jesus’ trust in the women – his invitation to them to be bearers of this good news to others – was soon conveniently ignored. Women were silenced and men took over.

How is it possible that the scriptures say one thing and the church leadership for thousands of years has said another? How is it possible that we are still arguing over whether women have the authority to teach the Bible and preach the Holy Word? Yet here we are, asking the same questions that were expertly challenged more than 30 years ago when I was a divinity school student. Clearly some unfinished business remains.

I’ve been a parish pastor, a teacher, a chaplain, and a women’s rights activist all my adult life. I have heard the stories of scripture’s women – the feisty, the bold, the courageous, the intelligent, the compassionate women, named and unnamed in the biblical text. From the beginning of creation, women have been given voice by their creator to question and to affirm the ways of God and the ways of humanity. Sometimes they have gotten into trouble – Eve for wanting more out of her life, Sarah for oppressing another woman, Miriam for questioning her brother Moses’s sole authority to lead the people into freedom. These women have been role models for other women, inspiring us to question and reform and reflect on life and love and loss.

A Biblical Roll Call

We shouldn’t stop with just those women … Imagine what would it mean to the church to lift up the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, or Rahab and Deborah and Ruth? Or the daughters of Zelophehad, who challenged inheritance laws and won. Or the women of the Gospel including Anna the widow who on first looking upon the baby Jesus and his mother Mary knew her life would never be the same. What of all the other Marys – Mary the sister of Martha, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and what of Joanna and Susannah, Phoebe and Dorcas?

Each of these women and the many others unnamed demonstrate how God values their very beings, and especially their minds. So how is it that many people of faith still question whether a woman could lead a congregation? How is it that many people of faith still question whether a woman could lead a congregation? How is it that we wonder whether a woman could win a presidential election? Surely God’s story holds some weight as we argue about women’s rights and leadership. Surely it’s inadequate for people to say about a woman candidate, whether in ministry or the White House, “Well I don’t know, I’m not against women, there’s just something about her … I just don’t like her.”

Redefining the Conversation

Women of my generation looked to the historic voices of Yale Divinity professors Letty Russell and Margaret Farley, as well as to scholars elsewhere – Phyllis Trible, Rita Nakashima Brock, Kwok Pui-Lan, Chung Hyun Kyung, Beverly Harrison, Delores Williams, and Katie Geneva Cannon, to name just a few – as women who made a way out of no way, inviting their students to challenge the patriarchal status quo of biblical and theological scholarship of the day.

At YDS, Letty Russell’s picture hangs in the Common Room, next to that of Margaret Farley, so that current students recognize the importance of these women who changed the way we think about church and leadership. Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Westminster John Knox, 1993), one of Russell’s groundbreaking books, encourages seminarians to imagine and embrace themes of justice and hospitality in the church in our day. Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006) has redefined the theological conversation about human sexuality for more than a decade.

To Know and Be Known

The theological project of expanding ways of knowing and being known in church and world continues. At YDS, powerful voices of biblical scholars like Michal Beth Dinkler, Jacqueline Vayntrub, and Yii-Jan Lin, the writings in theology and ethics by Jennifer Herdt, Teresa Berger, Chloë Starr, Kathryn Tanner, Linn Tonstad, Melanie Ross, Erika Helgen, and Eboni Marshall Turman, the historical writing of Tisa Wenger, the sermons of Donyelle McCray and Carolyn Sharp, and the radical pedagogy of Almeda Wright, Janet Ruffing, Mary Moschella, and Joyce Mercer are all transforming the way the church is seen and heard and known in the 21st century.

My hope is divinity students today will risk taking the words and ideas of our current womanist and feminist theological thinkers and work for changes so that hierarchies come tumbling down, the haughty are removed from power, and those who have been kept down have a chance to rise up.

All God’s Children

Barriers persist. Debate continues about language we use to speak of God. All these decades later, feminine images of God are resisted in liturgies meant to speak to the mystery that is God, who is neither male nor female and whose attributes – whether gentle or harsh, distant or approachable – are not gender specific. And all of us must come to terms with the truths that queer folks present to us, reminding us, demanding that we honor and respect the pronouns which identify us all as God’s beloved children. All this is necessary as we work to redeem humanity and be a part of the transformative ways of God.

Writer Elena Ferrante in a recent opinion piece talks about how power has been “conditioned by male attitudes toward the world. To women, then, it seems that power can be used only in the ways that men have traditionally used it.” (The New York Times, May 17, 2019)

Letty Russell used the image of the round table to talk about theological reflection and leadership. For Russell, all theological reflection is “table talk,” whether it is around a kitchen table or a communion table. Russell knew that when people come together to read scripture, speak from their truth, and reflect on their lives, hearts could be changed. This type of leadership model, one of partnership rather than hierarchy, one that is shared with many whose voices have long been silenced, is a far cry from most of the leadership models at work today.

But what if we took a risk and invited this kind of model into the church? What if we encouraged our church leaders to invite more voices to the table and to lead from the margins? This is the kind of leadership that Letty Russell and her feminist/womanist protegees now counsel.

What if we forge a female vision of power and of leadership? Would we, as Ferrante asks, have “done any better than men?” She seems to think so. Our task in these years ahead is to get more women into leadership positions with all the variety of their gifts. Given the world’s chaos these days, led primarily by privileged men, there is much reason to believe that women’s leadership styles might offer something new and, dare I say, something better.

I look forward to that day. Equality for all just can’t wait any longer. 

Maria LaSala, a Presbyterian (USA) minister and former pastor, is the Director of the Reformed Studies Program at YDS, where she has taught Presbyterian Polity and Preaching for more than 20 years. She is also the Spiritual Care Coordinator at Whitney Center in Hamden, CT.