Biblical Solutions to #ChurchToo

News stories keep uncovering devastating, widespread sexual abuse in Southern Baptist, other evangelical churches and institutions, and churches of other denominations. Many church leaders have rushed to apologize and pledge to put regulations in place to prevent ministers and lay leaders from abusing women and girls. But they have failed to examine the biblical misinterpretations that form the foundation for this abuse.

For years Southern Baptists, other evangelicals, and other church leaders debated what they called the “woman question.” They ignored the fact that this debate over women in church leadership involves not only women, but also men. The whole church has a stake in the answer to the question of who has the right to exercise a call to ministry. This question is not just about women’s rights, but about human rights and the health of the whole church. The current widespread sexual abuse in churches is just as much a men’s issue as a women’s issue, as many men have discovered when they have lost their church positions because of abusing females or covering up this abuse, and when entire faith communities have been damaged.

The #MeToo movement that raised widespread awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence empowered women to break their silence about the abuse they have suffered in churches. #ChurchToo stories are a powerful reminder that sexual abuse isn’t limited to Hollywood or news organizations.

Male dominance in churches forms the foundation for this abuse of women. When men hold exclusive power as church leaders, they are more likely to feel entitled to do whatever they like and females not to question their authority.

This male dominance rests on misinterpretations of Scripture. To support views of only men in pastoral positions, many church leaders continue to take biblical passages out of context instead of using established hermeneutical principles they apply to other parts of Scripture.

Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler, for example, advocated women’s ordination at one time based on his interpretation of Scripture, but now interprets the Bible as excluding women from pastoral leadership roles that require ordination. Prominent evangelical Bible teacher and author Beth Moore responds:

I am compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit to draw attention to the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety and bearing the stench of hypocrisy. . . All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture. Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.

At a recent conference, influential pastor John MacArthur said he thinks Beth Moore should “go home,” that “there is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher.” A room full of men at the conference laughed, but MacArthur’s comments sparked outrage among other male and female Christian leaders. On social media many clergypersons have been posting their photos with a meme that reads “not going home, I support women clergy.”

The interpretations of Mohler, MacArthur, and others who exclude women from church leadership are guided by patriarchal culture rather than the liberating message of Jesus. For decades many well-respected evangelical writers have demonstrated the deficiency of interpretations that limit the ministry of women. They have used a christocentric lens to affirm women in church leadership.

Evangelical professor and writer Paul K. Jewett, who taught systematic theology for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary, used christocentric biblical hermeneutics to advocate the equality of women in the church and in all areas of life. In 1973, at a Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary conference, Jewett supported the equality of women ministers with the actions of Jesus, emphasizing his choosing Mary Magdalene and other women as the first witnesses of the resurrection: “Women were the first to receive the central fact of the gospel and the first to be instructed to tell it abroad.”

Man as Male and Female, first published in 1975, helped launch the evangelical egalitarian movement with strong biblical support for the equality of women. In this book and in The Ordination of Women Jewett backed his egalitarian theology with passages foundational to Scripture: the creation of male and female in the divine image (Genesis 1:26-27) and the new creation of male and female as one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Jewett gave thorough exegeses of Pauline texts that have been misinterpreted to subordinate women, pointing to the Galatians passage as the “Magna Carta of Humanity” through which Paul expresses his theology of gender equality. Jewett states that Paul “surely grasped the essential truth that the revelation of God in Christ radically affects one’s view of the man/woman relationship.”

Jesus “was a revolutionary” in the way “he related to women,” Jewett asserted. Jesus “treated women as fully human, equal to men in every respect.” Among Jewett’s many illustrations were Jesus’s affirmation of Mary of Bethany for choosing the role of disciple and Jesus’s receiving the ministry of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other women disciples who accompanied him on preaching missions. Jewett countered the traditional “argument that since God is masculine, only men may represent him in the office of the Christian ministry” with Jesus’s parable of the lost coin in which “a woman stands for God.”

First published in 1974, All We’re Meant to Be, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, received recognition from Christianity Today in 2006 as one of the top fifty books that have shaped evangelicals over the past fifty years. The coauthors devel­oped their convictions from the life and work of Jesus. They focused their biblical interpretation on Jesus’s message of liberation for all, especially those on the margins. They critiqued the traditional evangelical prescription of gen­der roles as incompatible with Jesus’s teachings: “We became convinced that Jesus Christ came to set us free from restrictive roles.”

In an “extremely patriarchal society” Jesus’s interactions with women were “extraordinary,” Scanzoni and Hardesty emphasized. Jesus encouraged women just as much as men to become disciples. For example, Jesus commended Mary of Bethany for taking the role of disciple-learner, and women followed Jesus, “traveling in the band of disciples, and supporting him financially.” Jesus revealed “some of his greatest truths” to women: “he first declared that he was the Messiah” to the Samaritan woman at the well. Scanzoni and Hardesty underscored that Jesus’s selection of women as the first witnesses of the resurrection demonstrates the importance Jesus gave women as proclaimers of the gospel.

Scanzoni and Hardesty worked through passages that people still misuse, without excuse, to keep women from becoming all we’re meant to be. For example, some use 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as proof texts to keep women silent in churches. Scanzoni and Hardesty applied historical, cultural, contextual, and linguistic principles of interpretation to support their conclusion that the early Christian movement empowered women rather than silenced them, beginning with Peter’s proclamation at Pentecost of the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words: “your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Among the many examples Scanzoni and Hardesty gave of women leaders were the prophet Anna, teacher Priscilla, deacon Phoebe, and apostle Junia.

Equity for Women in the Church, founded in 2014, advocates for gender and racial equality in church and society. Recognizing the connection between patriarchal church practices and the #ChurchToo pervasive and persistent sexual abuse, violence, and harassment that exist within faith communities, the board members of Equity for Women in the Church wrote and adopted s statement on sexual abuse in churches. Below are excerpts:

Equity for Women in the Church is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. Our mission is not only to advocate and network for clergywomen to facilitate access and congregational receptivity, but also to dismantle patriarchal and white supremacist church practices and structures so clergywomen can thrive in pastoral positions.

Through educational programs and publications, Equity for Women in the Church teaches gender and racial equality based on the foundational belief that all persons are created equally in the divine image (Genesis 1:27). Equity for Women in the Church also seeks to model an egalitarian leadership structure with co-chairs and board members, diverse in gender and race, who share decision-making power. . . .

Equity for Women in the Church is committed to changing the patriarchal culture and hierarchical structures in the church that contribute to gender-based discrimination, harassment, exploitation, and violence. Through teaching and modeling inclusive, egalitarian leadership and language we contribute to changing patriarchal culture that forms the foundation for sexual abuse. We help create a culture of gender and racial equality so that clergywomen and laypeople can become all we are created to be in the divine image.

See the full statement published on the Equity for Women in the Church blog.

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