Exploring the Role of Women in the Church | Religion

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I started reading the writings of the late Rachel Held Evans when I was a student at Lee University in Cleveland. I was a good church kid who had gone to college hoping to find a calling. What that meant, I couldn’t be sure.

I grew up in a religious environment that didn’t ordain women, and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with Pentecostalism. As a young adult on a journey of faith, my mind asked a thousand giant questions about God, but it seemed only a few roles and questions were allowed to me as a woman.

In Rachel’s writings, I found a kind of sympathetic older sister and was delighted with the questions about faith she was willing to ask. Her research was grounded in a deep love of God and thoughtful study of the Bible, but she seemed uninterested in conforming to the limitations of faith imposed by traditional Christian gender roles. When I finally read her bestselling book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” I had made my way to The Episcopal Church – a denomination that affirms the full inclusion of women in leadership in all roles.

Although my faith community no longer limits the questions and callings available to women, this book was essential in my faith. It was a love letter to my younger self, encouraging her questions, her love of scripture, and her refusal to read only the assigned script or accept the limitations of how God could speak to women.

“A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” now ten years old, was Held Evans’ studious and playful experiment in taking all of the Bible’s instructions for women, as literally as possible, for a year. From instructions on menstruation to her husband’s call “teacher,” she delved into the Bible to explore what biblical womanhood really means. This led to meaningful encounters with God, as well as some frustration and stupidity around the application of ancient texts to today’s Rhea County. But in exploring the theme of “obedience,” examining stories of obedient women in the Bible, Held Evans found many disturbing examples.

Identified by scholar Phyllis Trible as “terror texts,” some of the stories of women’s obedience to men placed women in terrifying danger, objectification, physical harm, and death. These include Hagar’s desperate flight from abusive slaveholders in the wilderness in Genesis 21; Jephthah’s daughter, foolishly and needlessly sacrificed in Judges 11; the woman who, trying to flee a terrible husband, was abandoned, abused, killed and desecrated in Judges 19; and Princess Tamar, raped, rejected and humiliated by her brother and his family in 2 Samuel 13.

These stories are often glossed over in Sunday school lessons and pulpits. They are hard to preach and leave us with many open questions about God’s will and God’s people. How can we find hope or a hero in stories like these? And yet they are part of what we have inherited as scriptures, part of the library of books where Christians believe we encounter God.

The biblical authors, rabbis and early church fathers who determined the biblical canon were led by the Holy Spirit to preserve these horrific accounts, to remind us that we must reckon with the worst atrocities and bear witness to the suffering of our sisters. If we are willing to reckon with them, to read these texts with attention and curiosity, these stories can break our hearts. They can invite us to be loving and courageous witnesses to the suffering of women, for they remind us that many women and girls today continue to suffer from trafficking, parental violence, domestic violence and incest. They can offer us recognition for the abuse we have suffered, or call us to repent of the wrong we have done. As we read and consider these scriptures, we turn our ears to the voices of women who have too often been silenced.

In honor of Women’s History Month and inspired by “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and UMC Keith Memorial are listening to the stories and questions of these and other women in the writings. On March 27 at 7 p.m. in Keith, all are invited to “The Sisters Speak: A Service of Scripture and Prayer”. In this special worship, we will remember these stories of women in the Bible, pray and reflect together. We will refuse to read only the assigned script or accept the limitations of how God might speak to women, remember these heroes of our faith, and hear their voices speak.

Reverend Claire Brown was called rector of St. Paul’s Athens in 2021 and previously served at St. Paul’s Chattanooga and St. Augustine’s Nashville. She is a graduate of Lee University, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Sewanee School of Theology, and trained as a retreat leader and spiritual director through the Shalem Institute and Still Harbor. Claire is co-author of “Keep Watch with Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers, and New Directions for Holy Questions”.

Reverend Claire Brown was called rector of St. Paul’s Athens in 2021 and previously served at St. Paul’s Chattanooga and St. Augustine’s Nashville. She is a graduate of Lee University, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Sewanee School of Theology, and trained as a retreat leader and spiritual director through the Shalem Institute and Still Harbor. Claire is co-author of “Keep Watch with Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers, and New Directions for Holy Questions”.

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