woman-wearing-burqa-in-iranFormer President Jimmy Carter at a conference on women and religion said that when it comes to the mistreatment of women around the world – Christianity and Islam share the blame.  He made these remarks on Friday during a Mobilizing Faith for Women event sponsored by The Carter Center.

AP reports that 60 representatives from 15 countries attended the event.  He noted practices of the Catholic Church not allowing women to be priests to young girls having their genitals mutilated.  He said doctrines which he described as “theologically indefensible” contribute to a political, social and economic structure were violence against women, sex trafficking and educational and workplace inequity are overlooked.

“There is a great aversion among men leaders and some women leaders to admit that this is something that exists, that it’s serious and that it’s it troubling and should be addressed courageously,” Carter said.

He cites the problem as being “gross abuses of religious texts in the Koran and in the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament.  Singular verses can be extracted and extorted to assert the singular dominance of men.”

He said that the early church prior to the Catholic Church’s existence included both male and female leadership.  He and his wife Rosalyn recently left the Southern Baptist Church citing not allowing female leadership as one of the reasons.  AP reports that his independent Baptist Church has a female pastor and that the Deacon board is divided equally between men and women.

There are several ways this can be addressed.  First, yes there has been abuse of women by Christians.  I remember reading examples of this when I read Battered Into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home.  So it exists, and the reasons for it probably have more to do with the personality and personal history of the abuser than their theology.  Meaning they’d probably have a proclivity toward violence whether or not they were in the Church.  There are some men who do misinterpret the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5 when he writes:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands, (Ephesians 5:22-24, ESV).

I addressed this passage back in 2009.

Now I know there are feminists who would love to rip this passage out of the Bible.  “That’s sexist!” they cry.  “You are a male chauvinist if you interpret that literally,” others may say.  At best some would just look at those of us who teach this as being old-fashioned.

On the other hand there are men and pastors who have interpreted this to mean that women are to be doormats and subservient to the wishes and desires of the husband.  That interpretation of this passage is, I’ll put it nicely, flawed.

The Greek word for “submit” seen above (or “be subject” in some translations) is “hupotasso.”   It is a Greek military term that means, “to arrange troop divisions in a military fashion under the command of a leader.”  When used in a non-military sense it means, “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”  Submission isn’t something to be demanded, but freely given.  It is voluntary, not forced.

Wives are to voluntarily cooperate, voluntarily “give-in”, put your husband’s needs before your own.  Carry his burden so to speak.  Not because it is demanded of you, but because of the love you have for him.  Just like the church does this for Christ, we certainly obey yes, but we do this out of love because of what Jesus did on our behalf, (Romans 5:8).

Now something that is often overlooked by those who demand submission is the verse that precedes the passage above, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:21, ESV).  Same Greek word – “hupotasso” applied to everyone, at least those who claim to follow Christ.  So husbands we are also to carry a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, etc. to our wives.

The Apostle Paul wrote then for husbands:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, (Ephesians 5:25-29, ESV).

I followed and noted:

Gentleman we are to love our wives by giving ourselves up for her.  To watch over her and guard her.  To encourage her and pray for her.  To love her as we would our own selves.  How did Christ love His church?  By dying, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8, ESV).  Men who would do this would not abuse their wives, cheat on their wives, lie to their wives or exercise a dictatorial style of leadership over their wives.

So I agree with President Carter when he says there has been some proof-texting going on.  I disagree with him in regards to male leadership within the church.  It isn’t a theological hill that I will die on, but I believe a pretty strong case can be made from Scripture.  Jesus’ apostles were male.  Ephesians 5 does discuss male leadership.  Paul then giving the qualifications of an elder (and pastor) wrote:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless, (1 Timothy 3:1-10, ESV).

He repeats this again in Titus 1:6-9.  While in Acts you see some examples of women deaconesses, you do not see women mentioned as pastors or elders.  So President Carter isn’t correct in his assertions about the early church.  Now there are plenty of differences of opinion of how these verses are applied.  Some churches only allow women to teach other women and children.  Other churches allow women as ministry staff, but they do not ordain or at least have them as Senior or Preaching Pastors.  There are other churches that believe Paul was just addressing cultural norms at the time and that particular reference doesn’t apply today.  Some won’t allow women as worship leaders or allow women to speak in any capacity during a worship service; some do.  It’s one of the reasons why different denominations exist.

There are also instances within the mission field and other settings where women are in leadership because there are no qualified men.

My wife and I will not attend a church with a female pastor.  She actually has stronger feelings about it than I do, but that is where we land.  I do believe that women can and should serve, if gifted and called, in a variety of ministry roles with the exception of the role of elder.  I know many female pastors and they obviously feel differently.  I’m not going to question their call or role within their own local church provided the Gospel is proclaimed.

I would also like to be clear that Paul addressed leadership within the home and church.  He was not addressing civic and business leadership.

My point, bringing this back to President Carter, is that even though many Christians do not believe female leadership within the Church is appropriate does not mean we condone violence against women or inequality at work and in school.  We just reject the concept of “sameness.”  We believe God made us equal, but different, and He gave us different roles to fulfill.

Also I believe to put Christianity on the same level as Islam when it comes to the mistreatment of women is irresponsible.  While yes there are instances of abuse within Christian homes as noted earlier, it is not systemic.  While there are Muslim men who I’m sure treat women with respect and are loving husbands and fathers you unfortunately see systemic abuse in predominantly Islamic countries – especially where they have implemented Sharia law.

So I’d like for President Carter to point out where Christians have systemically:

  • Treat women as property.
  • Not allow women to attend school.
  • Condone the beating of women.
  • Stone women accused of adultery.
  • Practice honor killings.
  • Compulsory wearing of headscarves or in some regions a burqa.

We could go on as I have read story after story after story about how women and girls are mistreated within the Muslim world, I can’t say I’ve seen the same within Christianity both in the present and the past.  Not even remotely close to the same level.

Photo credit: Kamshots via Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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