The event I’d like to reflect upon is actually a series of occasions in which I noticed a pattern. While assisting in the facilitation of youth group, I noticed most of the young women in the group tend to refrain from leading discussion or even participating much while connecting biblical principles to their own lives. Something I’m very interested in is encouraging young women to take a bigger role in church life – not just as active participants, but as leaders in their own right. This reflection will attempt to address some of the obstacles in achieving that goal and concrete ways in which that goal might be realized.
For women, taking the steps towards inhabiting a leadership role within the Church is incredibly intimidating because of lack of representation and the social views held by some within the realm of Christianity. Historically speaking, there have always been far more male religious leaders than female and that continues to be norm. Of course, there are many denominations which ordain women and many women lead ministry operations in a less official capacity. Additionally, in some congregations, women are either equal in number to their masculine counterparts or they make up the majority. However, there are still ways in which women are prevented from fully participating and realizing their theological potential.
There are several biblical verses which might be interpreted in ways which exclude women from spiritual leadership roles. These interpretations go hand in hand with old fashioned ideas about the proper place and behavior of women. Specifically, the prescribed nature of women involves silence and submission whereas men are tacitly encouraged to engage with biblical material. It doesn’t help that there are so few women endowed with prominence in the Bible, let alone among the apostles of Jesus. Further, centuries of male-dominated discourse and interpretation of biblical writings have marginalized women from contributing the scholarly theological tradition. Frustratingly, some men still hold outdated views about the efficacy of women leaders within a religious environment. Their prejudice alienates women who might be interested in pursuing leadership roles.
Make no mistake, there are several off-putting passages within the Bible which deter women from doing so much as speaking during spiritual meetings. From Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.” This frustrating position is reiterated in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians as well. Although the sentiment is certainly reflective of a time when women were not educated beyond ensuring they could perform domestic duties, this is no longer the case. Women in developed nations receive the same level of education as men and, in every other aspect of life, are invited to pursue the same leadership opportunities. It should not be different within the Church.
Luckily, there are other textual examples in which women can occupy the same space as their male peers. Within the Old Testament, some of the most integral prophets are women: Miriam, Deborah, and Esther are but three. Some of Jesus of Nazareth’s most important disciples were women – “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joshua, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Jesus ministered to and interacted with many women throughout his ministerial career and women held important leadership positions which helped in the formation of the early Church. It would be ridiculous and shortsighted to discount these passages and adhere exclusively to the parts of the text which reflect gender roles within the milieu of the Near East at the beginning of the Common Era. Further, we are all created in the image of God – women hold the same leadership capacities as men because of this gift.
To embrace the teachings of Christ, it is difficult to resist the urge to read the Bible literally. The timelessness of the text, however, requires active, engaged, and thoughtful interpretations to fully understand the word of God. It is necessary to carefully adapt one’s interpretation within a modern context to retain relevance. With regard to the question at hand, there is no question that there is textual evidence which supports a modern Christian woman’s place within a leadership role.
Theoretically and practically speaking, there are several ways to lay the groundwork for extending spiritual leadership opportunities to women. These methods include sermons about the importance of women and their contributions in Church history, encouraging equal participation among young women and men, and installing women within education or fellowship roles in a congregation. The goal is to encourage girls and women to engage both with biblical texts and fellow members of their church group. These steps allow women to fully embody the theological spirit and enter a position which will help others realize that spirit as well.
Overall, this seems to be a challenge of confidence. A woman interested in taking on a leadership role must have confidence in herself in order to continue this important tradition, even if perhaps a woman had never led her church before or if she’s facing outright prejudice from those who say women cannot possibly be spiritual leaders. But the success of a woman taking on a leadership role also depends upon the confidence of her congregation. Church members must be confident in their ability to receive guidance and support from a woman as well as encourage and sustain their leader. This may be a difficult thing to contemplate for many who traditionally view leadership as the purview of men. However, there are several ways in which those ideas can be preempted by carefully laid groundwork which elevates the position of women and girls.