Theology of Women Empowerment
Pr. Emmanuel P. G.
Religions have played key roles in shaping the history of the world and peoples. The liberating New Testament had emancipated the slaves, the gentiles, the women, the Samaritans and set them free from the age old bondages. But in spite of the many positive theological statements about women in the Bible, women could not escape from the clutches of the cultural monster. The Pauline remarks like women should remain silent in the churches…not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says(1 Corinthians 14:34, 35); and I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent (I Tim. 2:11, 12), have been sheer examples of the church succumbing to the evil pressures of the dominant culture, crippling the freedom and full citizenship of women in Christianity for the last 2000 years. The cultural venom of subjugation, deprivation, rejection, oppression, persecution, battering and exploitation have been crippling proper development of the women folk universally from time immemorial.
This article attempts to encourage all sincere Christians to choose between what is traditional and what is right and just; to distinguish between what is theological and what is cultural in the Bible. Theological is the foundational truth which we cannot change; Cultural is what is fitting and practically good to the given situations and requires periodical revisions. Writing an article on feminist theology in the journal of an established /conservative church “is like navigating between Scylla and Charybdis” and the writer is in danger of being stamped as the “enemy” of both camps. I venture to this effort for the sake of truth, justice and the love of God.
Feminist theologians have adopted different radical approaches towards this cause, but this paper adopts a purely Biblical and theological standpoint. The given Bible verses are more often misquoted and used by male chauvinists to subjugate women, without respecting the basic precepts of theology and the Biblical anthropology of human dignity, personality, freedom and gender justice.
There are innumerable ways in which gender violence appears in the society."I believe that the rights of women and girls, is the unfinished business of the 21st century." -Hillary Clinton. A UN study denotes one out of every three women is offended by somebody close to them. In India it is extended from womb to tomb – female feticide to sati, rape, domestic violence, dowry persecutions, abductions, trafficking – some of these even by own father, husband or relatives for example. There is bias, preferences, advantages and privileges of the males over the females.
The Theological anthropology
Male and Female are Bearers of God’s Image
God created human beings in His own image and …. He created them male and female and blessed them (Gen. 1:26-28). These verses serve as the foundation for all theological anthropology. Book of Genesis emphasizes the dignity, equality and universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of all human beings, irrespective of any difference including that based on gender. The international human rights are perfectly fitting to this view. Any gender injustice/bias is an offence against God’s image and thus it rules out the legitimacy of all chauvinisms, belittling or specialty claims. Within the Christian church there is no distinction – Jew/Gentile, slave/free; male/female; all are children of God; and therefore equally heirs (Galatians 3-26-19). This was written particularly to drive away the cultural cancers that were crippling the radical freedom enjoyed by the slaves and women within the church.
In the body of Christ there are no inferior organs, in the branches that fruition there is no gender division, but what is condemned are what do not bear fruit and that do not stay in the vine; there is no sexist selection in Christ.
God’s Image Requires Dignified Dealings
This dignity of human life has been the biblical standard in all dealings with human life. Any humiliation, harassment, shedding of blood etc. of humans are considered as offence against God’s image and therefore against God Himself. See the following verses- ‘For any shedding of blood of humans I will ask an account…for they are created in the image of God’ (Gen. 9:4-7); with the same tongue you praise God and curse the human being who is created in the image of God (James 3:9); whoever is angry with his fellow being will be brought to trial; whoever calls his fellow being ‘you useless’ will be brought before the counsel and will be in danger of going to the fire hell (Mt. 5:22). So any belittling of a person is a criminal offence and against the fundamental right of the fellow being. Loving God and loving fellow being as oneself are not two laws but the other side and the essential reflection of one and the same. ‘Whatever is done unto one of these is done unto me’ -Matthew 25:35 ff. The Golden rule which is the sum and substance of the Law and the Prophets says ‘do to others what you would like others do to you’ (Matthew 7:12).
All gender injustice is to be viewed from this perspective. It is in the light of these teaching of the Bible that we need to formulate our theology and evaluate how we treat the females in our homes, churches and the society, and judge what reward awaits the abusers according to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
New Humanity in Christ: Not of Slavery but of Freedom
Anyone who is joined with Christ in Baptism has put on Christ and in that there is no distinction – Jew/Gentile, slave/free; male/female; all are children of God; and therefore equally heirs (Galatians 3-26-19; Rom 6:1-5). It is not the spirit of slavery that we have received but the spirit of child-ship (Gal. 4:1-7). Galatians 5:1 says Christ has liberated us, and therefore do not allow yourselves to become slaves again. All men and women, slave and master are all free from the chains of sin and the Law. This is the right we need to claim in the new humanity in Christ. So it is time women know their full rights and claim it as mature citizens of God’s kingdom. ‘For the spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead the spirit makes you God’s children and by the spirit’s power we cry out to God Abba, my father’ (Rom. 8:12-17).
No Sexist Reading in Christ
There is no more sexist or racist reading in Christ but only soulist reading; so, it is no more the shame on Eve but the salvation in Jesus Christ that shines over the woman in Christ; and hence no inferiority. There is no second class citizenship in the kingdom of God. God does not show favoritism Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; James 2; Acts 6:1f. Any partiality is sin (James 2:9) and is liable to punishment. In the creation, in the image of God, in the image of Christ, in the granting of the Holy Spirit and gifts of the Spirit there was no distinction shown by God according to the Bible (Acts. 2:1 ff); I Cor. 12 – 14; Rom. 12, Acts. 20:9,1). Jesus teaches in heaven they are like angels both male and female (Matthew 22:30). In the New Heaven and the New Earth they are all saints with Christ. So theologically there is absolutely no ground in denying full citizenship and freedom to the fair gender.
Jesus had women disciples Luke 8:1ff but at the same time he was practically, culturally and morally sensitive not to have them in his immediate company. Jesus accepts the Samaritan woman in full value, appreciates the sinful woman’s repentance and anointing of his feet with alabaster. Mary Magdalene was the first one to see the resurrected Jesus Christ, and was the first evangelist. Jesus never uttered a humiliating statement against women, but rather he encouraged and appreciated their service and worship. In the equipping of the saints for ministry no distinction (Eph. 4: 11, 12); in the body of Christ where each one is member individually there is no bias (I Cor. 12:28). Among the saints in heaven in the book of Revelations there is no division as male female. All are like angels in heaven (Mt. 22:30). So, any claim of theological superiority for the males is absolutely non biblical.
Need for a paradigm shift in the attitudes
Having seen that the reality of gender injustice and inhuman harassments are totally against human rights and against the precepts of Christianity, this needs to be addressed urgently. Gender-based violence remains one of the most universal human rights violations of our time. It harms women, families, communities and society. It constitutes a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security, and dignity, equality between women and men, non-discrimination and physical and mental integrity. Any hurt on another person is the mark of barbarianism.
Gender equality is the mark of a cultured community. In 1995, under the UN the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for Equality, Development and Peace (BPfA) was adopted by 189 Member States meeting in China. International Human Rights demands this.
The notorious Indian Vedic dictum ''Na streeswatanthryamarhati'' (Sanskrit, means woman does not deserve freedom) Manusmriti 5/151 is being shifted by quoting another verse from Manusmriti “yatrnaryastopojyantay, ramantaytatrdevta'' [3/56] (where women are provided place of honor, gods are pleased and reside there in that household).
Historically, the church has joined hands with unjust structures by stereotyping women’s role in the church and family; and emphasizing on the “feminine mystique” to promote ‘virtuous suffering’. But theologically we know that Christianity always upholds and fights for justice and truth; and therefore, it needs to periodically revise its stances. The Bible verse ‘Reign over the earth’ (Genesis 1:28) had been irrationally applied by the Biblical communities to destroy the nature and lay the earth bare, but now the emphasis is shifted to ‘taking care of the garden’ (Gen. 2:15) and thus emerged the Eco theology and Eco justice. See how the divine kingship theories were shifted to prodemocracy. The flat earth concept and geocentricism were all changed as history and culture changed.
20th century has witnessed so many Women’s Rights Movements, and Feminist Theology has been pioneers in this new movement. Recognizing the need Pope Paul VI had stated that “the contemporary effort to promote the advancement of women” is a “sign of times” and he has demanded legislations to protect women’s equal rights “to participate in cultural, economic, social, and political life”. Yet he maintains that they have to be excluded from ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Vatican II had officially affirmed and accepted for the Catholic Church ‘the Magna Carta of Gender Equality’ based on Galatians 3:27-29 –In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile…neither male nor female… Protestants have done so much of ‘lip service’ and writings on the issue, but has not sufficiently conscientized its community against the evil that is practiced by its adherents and the rest of the society. If so, how are they to proclaim ‘the good news to all the creation’ while the majority within their own fold are denied of their legitimate fundamental rights. In this we are no better than other faiths that deny the humanitarian rights of women.
The Task of Theology
The tasks of theology is to bring out the foundational principles of faith, logically explain it, and relate it to the present day realities and to motivate right responses in practical life. The task of theology is thus basically to explain, to rediscover, to empower, to liberate and to establish justice against unjust structures. Justifying the existing oppressive structures or discovering new oppressive formats is not what theology seeks for. The prophetic voice always was contextual, critical, liberating and radical. As double edged swords lifted against unjust orders it shattered the unjust paradigms within the community and society.
The Old Testament prophets theologically challenged the existing wrong theological perceptions and reinterpreted them with paradigm shifts (see Isaiah 1; Jeremiah 7).
Jesus Christ had revolutionized traditional concepts by teaching that doing the good is right, and not mere observance of the ritualistic letter-spirituality - I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Mt. 12:7). The Particularism of the Old Testament where Israel projected itself as God’s own people against the rest of the nations had been revolutionized by Jesus’ command – Go into all the world and preach the good news to all the nations… those who believe and be baptized will be saved. Birth as a Jew was no more the criteria for being God’s child, but faith. The old images got shattered in the proclamation of a universal salvation. A similar paradigm shift is required for those who foolishly believe that by being born male is something theologically superior. It is faith and the spirit, and not birth/gender that counts, in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In the same way a theological appreciation of the pressing need of gender justice is sure to do miracles in the society. Blind conservatism which is not founded on theology nor on spirituality, but absolutely on cultural bias needs to be opened up following the revolutionary justice purposed by the Bible.
A Theological Magna Carta of Female Liberation
The Magna Carta was a bridle on the unrestrained use of power by the King- where the king also was brought under the rule of law as King John of England had signed the “Great Charter of Liberties” on June 15, 1215, assuring free functioning of the parliament, and the people.
Similarly, there is a need of all men signing a Magna Carta of women’s freedom and the government and the church alike upholding it through stringent measures against lawbreakers.
'Freedom is my birth right. So long as it is awake within me... No weapon can cut this spirit, no fire can burn it, no water can quench it…' Bal GangadharTilak (Indian freedom fighter).
In the modern cultural, educational, political and social context what is natural and spontaneous, what is required by psychology, physiology and biology, and what is absolutely theologically right, let it happen without any external force demanding adjustments, in the name of cultural prejudices. There is nothing illegal about women enjoying equal freedom in the church and family as men do. It is foolishness to force a mentally challenged husband to be the leader of a wife who is a district magistrate. The church has no right to make ruling in such civil matters, and against the natural adjustments persons make in their private life.
The Biblical view of male female status adjustment is one of perfect natural blending in the bond of love where they honor each other (1Pt. 3:5-7), submit to each other (Eph. 5:21); where there is no superiority or inferiority questions. What are theological here are mutual respect, care, and happy family making. Apostle Paul himself says patriarchy is actually an unjust fetter by which women are hampered. When he said “you will be saved through child bearing” actually denotes how a virtuous woman who lives in patriarchal humiliation under the husband will be liberated and honored later by her children. So salvation here means liberation from patriarchal humiliation and honoring of her full humanity (1 Tim 2: 11-15). Let that happen within the family bond.
Therefore, the Pauline ruling on women need to be viewed as temporary, practical and fitting to that particular context, and basically cultural, and a requirement of the Law, from which the saint in Christ is free. But this freedom is not to be a license for evil, but to be more virtuous, decent and responsible. There is nothing doctrinal or theological about it. It is cultural, contextual and every gender injustice on the basis such verses must be stopped immediately.
Women in Christian Ministry: A Holy Spirit-centric Approach
The call to ministry is given by God, and we are nobody to question that. All ministries are given so that the entire body of Christ/the church may be equipped for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11ff.). In the body every limb has a function and it is unique. The commission to preach the gospel and to be witnesses is given to all alike. Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the ministry are given by God, both in Old Testament and in the New, irrespective of gender. There were women judges, and prophetesses. If a ministry is given by God let them do it; there will be no confusion.
People questioned Jesus’ right to minister because a minister from the tribe of Judah was not their tradition. Jesus said his authority is from above. Even today there are lots of women in ministry, and they are acceptable. But if a culture thinks that it is not good for women to be in certain ministry let that be considered by the church, because it is the acceptability of the people that is a major proof for ministry (Acts 6:1ff). Cultural adaptation is not theologically wrong, but theology has a responsibility to redeem cultures from wrong perceptions. For God all saints are living stones… built into a spiritual house and together they are a ‘royal priesthood’21Pt. 2: 4-9. Apostle Paul had women coworkers in ministry, 2 John is addressed to a woman elder. Jesus had with him women who were ministering as the gifts they were blessed with (Lk.8:1ff)….. But Jesus avoided choosing them to be an apostle is a practical one by which confusions and cultural shocks were avoided. So I personally believe this should be our standard in every culture to avoid possible confusions and unnecessary cultural criticisms in selecting people for various offices in the church. A resident male chaplain for a ladies hostel or a convent is practically a wrong choice and a woman chaplain will be the right choice. There is absolutely nothing theologically wrong about it.
The purdah, polygamy, threat of divorce, the no social, political or economic freedom, illiteracy, the sati, domestic violence,the fear, the tear, the burden of work they bear, the child bearing, and rearing, the worst hit victims of all wars, abduction and sexual abuseeven by one’s own father or close relative, even of minor girls and the handicapping sexual fear. How can the women folk be liberated from these?
The role of culture is to refine as the rules and culture are developed to better living.
Women empowerment for positive results is therefore the task of theology and is absolutely Biblical. The cultural venom of subjugation, deprivation, rejection, oppression, persecution, battering and exploitation have been crippling proper development of the women folk universally from time immemorial. At the same time let us be extra sensitive not to make our assemblies places of tale bearing and meaning less chatters for which some have interest.
The church needs a different theological culture where women are assured liberty, equality of status, and opportunity that would ensure their full growth. Joining with the UN, international human rights and all other national and local organizations that stands for the right of women
Let us work together for their social, educational, economic, and political excellence. Whatever is done unto one of these is done unto me (Matt. 24:35).
At the same time let people be trained to make any kind of sacrifice to build up a blessed home with regard to husband and wife relationship inside the family. Let us respect local cultural values and show concessions to be decent, in the society, in spite of our theological enlightenments. I want to repeat the family rules laid down are absolutely psychological, cultural and natural and there is nothing theological about it.