November 4, 2015

The Reformation and the Role of Women

With the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation coming up in 2017, I was thinking about a topic that might not get a lot of consideration: How the Reformation altered the role of women in Christianity.

Before the Reformation, the Church recognized that there was a need for women to have a full-time religious role - these were the convents where abbesses and nuns lived and served God by serving the community. When they weren't helping to feed the poor, care for the ill, and praying, they were immersed in study and writing. When the Reformation occurred, their convents were destroyed and many books they had written were burned. The reason was that there was this one verse in the Bible that said that women ought to be silent, and so the Reformers decided that 'silenced' and 'not permitted to teach' meant that the materials that women had written had to be destroyed.

This meant that without an alternative, the main teaching would be that women ought to be married, ought to have children, and ought to keep the house in order. To this end, the clergy were allowed to marry. In keeping with Scripture, the wives were expected to live in a subordinate status to their husbands and obey them as the husbands model Christ-like headship.

In the five hundred years since the Reformation, women in the secular world have had their rights transformed. They can now be the C.E.O.s of powerful global corporations, presidents of entire nations, and leaders in their own right in various branches of the military. And yet, the numbers of women in leadership in Christianity are quite few. To this day, the role of what women can and cannot do is in a state of flux. Some churches allow for women to be pastors, while others would not.

Biblical Womanhood teachings these days mirror what the Reformation taught, that women ought to be wives and mothers who keep their houses and that there is no full-time religious role for them. Women are allowed to publish materials, but some fear that they're breaking the 'not permitted to teach' verse if men learn from their materials; though they often aim to keep the lessons limited to things that women would benefit from - relationships, being a wife, being a mother, controlling emotions, and often limit Bible verses to the 'safe' topics of: Esther, Ruth, The Proverbs 31 Woman, and Mary.

I find it to be an incredibly narrow way of thinking that such an emphasis on gender roles is what will fit everybody. At some point, the church recognized the need for nuns and abbesses to have a role in the church other than being a wife and a mother. Women were taught the Bible - in Latin - and were allowed to study and write in such a way that their materials gained the approval of the monks and abbots as beneficial works for all to read. The Reformation took that away. Today, there are more single individuals than couples in the world; more men and women who haven't opted for marriage and parenthood, at least, not quite yet. They shouldn't be sidelined in Christianity just because they're not living their live the way everyone else has.

In many ways, we are a whole other world from the one that existed five hundred years ago. We can work full-time or part-time, we're not limited to an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to spirituality. So we do need a greater role for women, full time and part time that recognizes that they contribution they can and have historically made. Opting to silence them seems like a misuse of Scripture given that history shows that when women were allowed to speak and teach, Christianity was a whole lot better for it. One thing is for sure, we can't wait another five hundred years to correct this injustice, Christianity is suffering because of it.

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