How we talk about God matters. Pretending how we address the Divine as if it were only a minor issue does a huge theological disservice to us all. God is not male, and yet the preferred pronoun used for God has long been He, with the assumption that this was a wholly accurate title. The exclusive use of male-gendered language excludes the feminine from being considered holy & sacred, and therefore can be used to diminish the role of women within the Church. Women have been excluded, degraded, demonized, abused, and shamed in the name of “tradition” for centuries. This entire charade has only ever been weakly bolstered by claims of divine male authority/appointment by cherry-picked Bible verses used to illustrate the inferior (and often diabolical) nature of women and our bodily existence. It’s our fault we’re in this whole mess of humanity, right? Male hierarchies relish in the power from their self-appointed position of rulers of the universe, yet don’t seem to want to share any of the responsibility for any of the resulting consequences. If you’ve been in charge for the better half of human existence, you can’t really blame the oppressed when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
But I am digressing slightly. The main issue at hand this: Why does the usage of female pronouns and metaphors make so many uncomfortable? What is it about the implication that the feminine can also be sacred that elicits accusations of blasphemy & heresy? What is ultimately so offensive & awful about just being female that it can’t be seen as holy? And what are the larger implications for women in the world who aren’t permitted a God that relates to their experience?
In fact, this aversion to referencing the holy as feminine is not without its consequences. There are so many denominations within Christianity that place undue and unhealthy shame on women’s bodies by convincing them that their only worth is in their sexuality and in the strict control of that sexuality. Phrases such as “modest is hottest” imply that only girls & women who maintain the imposed ideals of sexual virtue through chastity are valuable and godly. No such similar ideals are forced on boys and men. Teenage boys are not pressured and shamed by messages of “protecting” their virginity at all costs. Teenage boys are not discouraged from wearing certain clothes because they might be “distracting” to the girls. Teenage boys are not threatened with ruined reputations and titles like “whore” and “slut”. While men & boys are certainly exposed to harmful and unrealistic ideals of masculinity, it is not equivalent to the level of body & sexual shame that women have instilled in them their whole lives. In many faiths, the idea that women are entirely responsible for how men view & treat their bodies is inextricably linked to the notion that their bodies are more sinful, deceptive, dirty, and tempting, and should therefore be covered prior to being considered acceptable not only socially, but spiritually as well.
These kinds of restrictions also extend to the structure and leadership of the church. If it is believed that women are less trustworthy, less intelligent, less capable, and more prone to sin, then they aren’t going to be entrusted with any power inside the church. After all, it even says in the Bible that women aren’t supposed to teach or speak up, right?
If you bring up the injustice that is presented by treating women as though they don’t matter and are in fact lesser humans than the males in the church, many fundamentalist Christians will often invoke their misogynist mascot St. Paul and treat you to such verses as:
“Women shall remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34
“I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” – 1 Timothy 2:12.
I mean, it says it right there in the Bible y’all! However, I would like to point out a few things that weaken the foundation of the good ‘ol “women in the kitchen” philosophy.
First, let’s discuss the issue of authorship of the Pauline letters. There are, in fact, only 7 letters in the Bible which are universally agreed upon as being authentic letters of his: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Those are what are referred to as the undisputed letters of Paul. Then, there are six letters whose authorship is called in to question and it is not certain whether Paul actually wrote them or not, his authorship is only traditional: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.
Then there’s how these letters were written in the first place. Many of Paul’s letters mention co-authors. That of course begs the question: How much did those co-authors contribute? Consider also the fact that scribes were often employed in the process of letter writing during this time. Most folks who are even remotely familiar with Biblical history will probably be familiar with the notion of scribes, professionals who were hired to do the cumbersome task of putting ink to parchment. Interesting fact though: while some of these scribes took dictation and then copied word for word what they were told, many of them were just given broad topic outlines and left with the freedom to choose the specifics of the composition themselves. Isn’t that crazy?
Now certainly one would think that before an important document got disseminated bearing a certain someone’s mark of approval, that the individual actually reviewed said document and authorized its contents before release. That could certainly be the case. But knowing that the individual doing the transcribing had the freedom available to them in some cases to make editorial decisions, and knowing that we have no original copies of these letters, I think it’s entirely possible (and indeed very likely) that the versions of scripture we have today contain many differences from the original texts.
Secondly, let’s consider Paul’s own actions when compared to the verses quoted above. When trusting a person to deliver a letter to a community, you were choosing someone to act on your behalf. They would have to not only present the letter to the intended recipients, but also answer any questions posed by the community about its contents, and even defend it in debate if needed. Essentially, the person who delivered the letter was delivering the message and served as a kind of instructor for those on the receiving end. Paul chose such men as Tychicus and Epaphroditus to bear some of his letters (Ephesians and Philemon, respectively). However, the person that was chosen to deliver his letter to the Romans was a deacon in the church at Corinth named Phoebe – a woman. Not only was this woman already serving in a position of spiritual leadership in the early church, but Paul even deigned her fit enough to deliver one of his letters of spiritual guidance to a church community he had established. I find it very odd that a man who is attributed to phrases encouraging the silence and invisibility of women would also be a man to recognize and encourage their participation and leadership. One of these things isn’t like the other.
Indeed, Phoebe wasn’t the only woman recognized by Paul. Karen L. King, a professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard points out additional information about the roles of women in the church provided by Paul’s letters:
He greets Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). He tells us that Prisca and her husband risked their lives to save his. He praises Junia as a prominent apostle, who had been imprisoned for her labor. Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3). Here is clear evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian message.
Paul’s letters also offer some important glimpses into the inner workings of ancient Christian churches. These groups did not own church buildings but met in homes, no doubt due in part to the fact that Christianity was not legal in the Roman world of its day and in part because of the enormous expense to such fledgling societies. Such homes were a domain in which women played key roles. It is not surprising then to see women taking leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15) and Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women’s roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the eucharist meal. (A later first century work, called the Didache, assumes that this duty fell regularly to Christian prophets.)
Women having full participation and leadership in the church is nothing new. In fact, without women’s involvement starting from the earliest days of the faith, we may not even have a church today at all.
To discount women as not being important contributors to the church, to restrict them solely to “traditional” roles associated with mothering and childcare, and indeed to actively shame them in to submission does a massive disservice to all parties involved. Not only that, but it’s wholly baseless and dishonest to do so, completely ignoring the historical evidence proving the contrary, and disregarding the rest of the words and actions by the man who’s alleged to support that whole mindset (Paul). If women aren’t allowed to explore and realize their full potential as spiritual and community leaders, then not only are younger girls discouraged before they even try, it also creates a void for the whole community to lose out in hearing the voices and visions of those that are silenced. How can the body of Christ possibly be complete if entire limbs of it are severed and tossed aside?
Both women and men need to be valued wholesale for their gifts. Both the masculine and feminine need to be recognized as being equally sacred and equally worthy of praise. The bodies and minds of women need to be given the respect due to them, their humanity being recognized and honored in doing so. We need to become so comfortable with these things that should someone refer to God as “She” we will no longer go into fits of insolence – we won’t even bat at an eye. Hopefully, one day we will truly recognize that God is present in all of humanity – male and female alike.
+ Katie +