Laura Fischer, Box 189
Biblical Literature 2
2 May 2004
In the past two years of attendance at a Christian university, my perceptions have been challenged. I have observed all sorts of Christians living out their lives, serving God or serving themselves as may be. I have taken Bible classes and have been exposed to different views of doctrines I have always taken for granted. One thing that has been challenged is my view of the role of women in the church.
I am a member of a very conservative denomination, called the Apostolic Christian Church of America. I love my church family. We are a warm, generous community, living with an emphasis on Christian charity, which we define as love which shows itself in our daily walk. Hospitality, giving, singing, cooking—we are very good at all of these.
I’ve taken a moment to explain because I do not want to devalue my church, and I don’t want to appear to approach this subject with hostility or bias. I’ve never been a “feminist,” and rather smirked at ladies who considered themselves in that camp. I’ve always been pretty content with the traditions and culture of my church, outside of a couple of weeks of self-questioning soon after I made my commitment to Jesus, which was almost eight years ago.
Some of my relatives would have preferred I go to a secular university, rather than a Christian one, precisely because they thought I would question our church and perhaps leave. But I think this challenge would have come, no matter where I went. And I have no intention of abandoning my church family, not without some sharp prompting from God.
The Apostolic Christian Church takes the Bible very literally. (More specifically, the James Version is taken very literally.) Mostly, I am grateful for this. Our Statement of Faith includes much of the classic Apostle’s Creed: the Bible is the inspired Word of God, there is one God who is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ lived a sinless life and died for our sins, and so on (Klopfenstein 616). The same statement also makes mention of greeting with the kiss of charity and the use of head coverings or veils for sisters (Klopfenstein 617).
Other hallmarks of our denomination are not mentioned in the statement of faith, such as women wearing skirts, men shaving, and the eschewing of jewelry by both sexes. I am left to guess which of our peculiarities are doctrine, which are tradition, and which are simply cultural. We are a relatively closed society, almost as isolated as the Amish, in some ways. The long-standing emphasis on not being “conformed to this world” has definitely influenced our way of life in the Apostolic Christian Church (King James Version Rom. 12.2).
The literal interpretation of scripture is certainly what has led to the exclusion of women from leadership roles. In Marching to Zion: A History of the Apostolic Christian Church of America, historian Perry A. Klopfenstein notes in an essay on the custom of “singings”: “Sisters do not participate in the act of reading aloud from the Bible, nor do they lead the group in prayer. The Church abides by the Biblical commandment that women are to be silent in church” (478). This is from I Corinthians 14.34. “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” (King James Version). Paul seems to contradict himself, as Elizabeth A. Clark and Herbert Richardson point out in Women and Religion. “In I Corinthians 11:5, [Paul] acknowledges (without complaint) that women are praying and prophesying along with men in worship” (12). This seems to negate the passage that orders women to be silent.
In Women at the Crossroads, Kari Torjesen Malcolm looks to the Greek word for “silence” in I Corinthians 14.34, sigao. As used in Acts 12.17, 15.12, and 21.40, this indicates a quiet to listen to a speaker. The Greek word for “speak,” laleo, was sometimes used to mean gossip or prattle in contemporaneous Greek literature. “Paul, it seems, was telling them how to behave while others were speaking; he was not prohibiting them from sharing” (74).
I recently attended a College Weekend, a conference for college-aged members which involves several different talks. At one point sisters and brothers were separated and had different speakers. We sisters had a couple speak to us, Jeff and Brenda Thames, but before we started, Jeff Thames explained that they were not acting in defiance by having Brenda speak.
Though I Timothy 2.11-15 prohibits women from teaching men, and this has long been a tenet of our church, preventing women from teaching Sunday School above 1st and 2nd grade, another passage states that the older women ought to teach the younger (King James Version Tit. 2.3-5). Jeff had consulted three elders (leaders in Apostolic Christian church government) before coming. It was a very good talk, about how we young women are princesses, daughters of the King of kings, and I was glad they had made the effort. Still, it bothered me that we feel the need to go through such convolutions, just to edify each other as sisters in Christ.
Malcolm offers several different interpretations for I Tim. 1:12 (78). One, put forth by Berkeley Mickelsen of Bethel Seminary, is that Paul did not want the women in Timothy’s church to be taken in false teaching, as Eve was, and so preferred that they not “try their wings” in that particular situation. Catherine and Richard Kroeger found evidence that the verb in verse 12, authentein, actually translates as “’to involve someone in soliciting sexual liaisons’ rather than as ‘to usurp authority, domineer, or exercise authority over’” (Torjesen Malcolm 78).
Clark and Richardson note another apparent contradiction in Paul’s teaching. Several texts emphasize a prescribed order for Christianity: Christ over everyone, husbands over wives, parents over children, masters over slaves (King James Version Col. 3.18-4.1; Eph. 5.22-6.9; I Tim. 2.11-15, 5.3-8, 6.1-2; Tit. 2.2-10, 3.1-2). Yet social equality seems to be encouraged in Galatians 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (King James Version). “The ambivalence occasioned by the presence of both progressive and traditional currents within the canon of the New Testament had serious consequences for Christianity . . .” (Clark and Richardson 14).
However, though these currents seem to be at cross-purposes, in a true church both may be present. We are all equal in Christ, forgiven and cleansed by His shed blood and bound for heaven. Yet, while we are on earth, the body of Christ is organized into parts, with head, hands, and feet. No one can deny that a body works better that way. Wives are told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, as his own body, willing to die for her cleansing (King James Version Eph. 5.22-30). This does not stop women from serving, too.
As Patricia Ranft notes in Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition, “[within] Christianity there is a strong and enduring tradition that maintains the spiritual equality of women” (x). Christianity has a rich heritage of women who stood for Christ and served with their lives. Paul sent greetings to women who led early Christian churches (Clark and Richardson 12). He praised widows for their “good works” and good teachings (Ranft 6)
According to Malcolm, “The women of the early church found liberation as they shared in the agape feasts, in worship, in Holy Communion and in the proclamation of the gospel to a pagan world” (59). Malcolm goes on to chronicle a few of many women martyrs who gave their lives in the first few centuries: Thecla, Blandina, Perpetua, and St. Lucia (88-93). Women continued to lead the growing church: Marcina, Marcella, and Melania (96-101). Ranft covers even more in her study of wide-spread attitudes toward women’s spirituality throughout history.
Interestingly, there is a strong female figure in the history of the Apostolic Christian Church. Klopfenstein writes about Baroness Juliane von Kruedener, who was born in the Russian town of Riga, and found God in 1804, at the age of forty (467). She attempted to convert the czar of Russia, decided to be an evangelist, and identified herself with the Anabaptist movement (468). Kruedener became a woman minister and held religious meetings outside of the legal Reformed Church, both of which were “anathema” at the time (469). Completely unashamed of the gospel, she participated in public debates on differing religious views. She also financed and oversaw the gathering and printing of many early Anabaptist hymns, which were passed down to our hymnal, The Zion’s Harp, and are still sung in my church today.
Lesly F. Massey chronicles more controversies in Women in the Church. Looking at the societal changes occuring rapidly in the culture around us, she writes, “the continuing debate on the status of women has monumental implications, and is clearly relevant to the credibility of the Christian message as a whole . . . . [The] most urgent and pressing need is for an immediate and long-term strategy for change at the level of each local church” (5). This has not been very successful. Some churches have changed, with greater or lesser degrees of difficulty. Others have resisted, either because of a constructed tradition, or “out of allegiance to biblical authority and a literal application of its doctrines” (158).
My church falls into the last category, and I doubt it will change in my lifetime. There are strong warnings in our literature (what there is of it) against apostasy and falling away from doctrine, which many of the old guard take to mean the extra-biblical traditions we’ve slapped onto our church, as well. Also, our ministry is exclusively lay-brothers. There are blessings in this system, but it means that few leaders will ever see the research I did for this paper. And really, there’s nothing wrong with clinging to the scriptures. All things considered, I’d rather be with a church that was afraid of betraying God’s word than with one that was afraid of offending the culture.
Clark, Elizabeth A. and Herbert Richardson. Women and Religion: The Original Sourcebook of Women in Christian Thought. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
King James Version. El Reno: Rainbow Studies, 1986.
Klopfenstein, Perry A. Marching to Zion: A History of the Apostolic Christian Church of America 1847-1982. Fort Scott: Sekan, 1984.
Malcolm, Kari Torjesen. Women at the Crossroads. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1982.
Massey, Lesly F. Women in the Church. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
Ranft, Patricia. Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.
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