November 10, 2006

“God's People. Amen.”

2006 1531 page30 capomehow we got to talking about famous and favorite opening lines to books. As the conversation evolved, this was pared back to comparing the first three words of literary works.
Eventually we got to the Bible and, despite her lack of religious background, she proudly told me she knew the first three words of the Bible, “In the beginning. . . .”
Then she asked, “So, what are the last three words?”
As I retrieved a New International Version from a nearby bookshelf, I had to admit I didn’t know. I flicked to the last page and unwittingly read: “God’s people. Amen” (Rev. 22:21).
“What?” she almost exploded, hearing four words in place of the three I had read.
It took me just a moment to figure out what she had heard.
“How can it say that?” she continued, her outrage belying her distinct lack of belief.
2006 1531 page30After a few moments I was able to placate her indignation with assurances that what I had read and what she had heard were two separate things and that the Bible was not as misogynist as it appeared.
But as I did so, I was wondering how often we—either intentionally or unintentionally, individually and corporately—send the message that “God’s people are men.” Whenever women are underrepresented in our church’s decision-making processes, whenever they are denied opportunities and recognition in ministry roles, and whenever the language we use as a church fails to include both genders, that message is repeated.
And it is not that our church doesn’t have a tradition of women in leadership. In The Silent Church, Zdravko Plantak charts the decline of women’s involvement in leadership roles. The number of women in conference leadership positions reached a highpoint about 1915—notably the year of Ellen White’s death—then fell away to almost zero by 1950 with only slight recovery since that time. While we have never as a church had this issue settled—despite the prominent role of women among our church pioneers—it seems incongruous that we seem to be doing worse in more recent times than we may have done in the past.
Unfortunately, the institution of women’s ministries has not always been helpful in this regard. While a specialized ministry by women for women as a safe place for addressing specific issues of women’s experiences and faith is important, the continued marginalization of women into such a specialized ministry can be a frustrating distraction and, at best, a temporary stopgap measure. If women had more voices and greater leadership opportunities in the wider church, there would be less need to create these artificial distinctions.
The difficulty, of course, is that this is largely a cultural issue and that relevant biblical references are open to such divergent readings. Various—generally male—voices rely on a superficial reading of texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:34 and Ephesians 5:21-33 to argue that women should be kept “in their place.” But, urges writer Charlie Peacock, “the fact that these verses and others from 1 Timothy have caused women, in particular, so much pain is a sad commentary on our failure to be the people of God. The whole assembly of followers has suffered as well, and God and His Word have been maligned” (New Way to Be Human).
If we consider that Paul was urging Christians to conduct their public meetings and family relations in a manner appropriate to the culture in which they lived, these texts might be best read as endorsing equality of opportunity, voice, and standing for women in churches in societies where this is culturally appropriate—even culturally demanded. This makes even more sense when we consider other statements from Paul calling for a more egalitarian social organization within the kingdom of God in light of the unifying reality of salvation: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NLT).*
As we write new chapters of the story of our church, we need to focus on the unifying and inclusive reality of “God’s people” and stop misreading, mishearing, and misstating the “amen,” particularly in a church community in which women most often constitute the majority of active membership. The church as a whole, the experiences of many faithful women, and our witness to the society in which we work will be stronger and healthier for it.
*Taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.