by Rev. Laura Barclay
Former President Jimmy Carter stated in a recent video appearance at the Parliament of World Religions meeting in Australia, “Every generic religious text encourages believers to respect essential human dignity, yet some selected scriptures are interpreted to justify the derogation or inferiority of women and girls, our fellow human beings.”
Carter has become a champion of women in religion over the past decade since his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention, and his humanitarian record is impeccable. His comments made me reflect about the global state of women in religion. Carter said, “It is ironic that women are now welcomed into all major professions and other positions of authority, but are branded as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership. The plight of abused women is made more acceptable by the mandated subservience of women by religious leaders." This is an incredibly astute observation. While American women are slowly closing the pay gap in the secular world (MSNBC reported recently that women in DC make 92 cents for every dollar a man makes, though they lag far behind in the South), women are far from having equal representation in the pulpit.
Perhaps a perusal of Southern Baptist literature may tell us why. As America’s largest Protestant denomination (though their numbers are declining), their view on women says a great deal about conservative religion and women’s representation therein. The December 2009/January 2010 issue of SBC Life, Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention states:
“The Bible clearly teaches that men and women are equal in value and dignity and have distinct and complementary roles in the home and the church…If families do not structure their homes properly, in obedience to the teachings of Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, and Colossians 3, then they will not have the proper foundation from which to withstand the temptations of the devil and the various onslaughts of the world. This in turn impedes the husband and wife from modeling redemption in their home God has called them to (Ephesians 5:22-33).”
The SBC believes that women are separate, but equal to, men (they call it complementary equality). Women’s domestic duties are just as important as those of the men who run the church, and those who violate this teaching invite the devil into their homes. They clearly ignore Galatians 3:28; Jesus’ attitude toward women; Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene before any other after resurrection, making her the Apostle to the Apostles; and all of the women who are cited as church leaders in Paul’s letters, including Phoebe (a deacon), Priscilla (church leader), Junia (a prominent apostle), and others (10 female leaders in Romans 16). SBC leaders are threatening that the devil may take hold of your household if you violate their view of female subservience. They also ignore the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, which showed separate can never be equal. But, I don’t wish to get in an argument over prooftexting. That rarely serves any purpose but to find and distort passages to fit one’s own ideology, as demonstrated by the above excerpt from SBC Life with Ephesians 5:22-33.
Rather, I agree with Carter’s view that the entirety of scripture is liberating. While you can prooftext and distort passages out of their historical context, the Bible as a whole has a bend toward freedom, love, and hope. In the Old Testament, Moses frees his people with God’s help, God watches over his people in exile, and God sends prophets and leaders to proclaim social justice (Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 22:3, Amos 5:24, Isaiah 1:17, Nehemiah 5, etc.) as an exhibition of the love of God toward all God’s children. In the New Testament, Jesus comes to declare that the poor are blessed, spends time with the social outcasts (tax collectors, lepers, and women), and has a large following of female patrons and supporters who funded Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus was politically dangerous to the Romans because he served a higher power that demanded love, social justice and obedience to God’s way, not Caesar’s. I take comfort in the liberating and logical words and deeds of Jesus over the fear and ludicrous suggestions espoused by the SBC that my husband and I might embrace the devil because we are both ordained and share housework. I love my God, and 400 years of Baptist history has taught me that personal experience and the priesthood of all believers make my love and testimony valid before my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
Carter promotes women in ministry in his words, as well as religion being used faithfully to follow God’s liberating call in the world rather than to restrict and build hierarchies. I think Carter is trying to say that if the glass ceiling is broken at the top, and women can be seen as pastoral models and leaders, then our view of God and society will be transformed. If a woman’s perspective in religion is valued, than perhaps Ephesians 5:22-33 will be seen less as a justification for the devaluation of women and more of a treatise on loving understanding between the sexes.
I’d like to close with Carter’s most powerful words: “At their most repugnant, the belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo. It also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair and equal access to education, health care, employment, and influence within their own communities.”