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How can I challenge gender bias in religious institutions?

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Brooke Asks:
I am a Christian. As such, I have encountered problems with the idea that I am feminist as well. Where I fellowship, women are held to the duties outlined for them in the Bible, which puts them in the submissive role. Although I recognize not all churches exclude females from their ministry positions, I want to challenge the faith as a whole on their discriminatory policies regarding my gender.

Their main argument is that God did create us equally, but of course, that we are different for a reason and that trying to fit into the opposite's place is going against nature, thus against the Lord consequently. Scripture does agree to this if interpreted very literally, but historical context says otherwise. Unfortunately, raising that issue to them is almost pointless because they want to view it in such a manner, without questioning.

Is there a way that you know of to reach these conservative, religious patriarchs, or should I just give up on altering their beliefs entirely? I should also inform you I want to be a pastor and was rejected on the basis of my sex. Do I need to "fight the power" so to speak or cave and attend another church in order to fulfill my dream? —Brooke

Our Inner Lives team members Amy Richards & Rev. Kanyere Eaton answer:

Amy Richards answers...
Dear Amy,
Thanks so much for reaching out to Feminist.com and one of the lectures I give on college campuses is: Can I be a Feminist And....Be Religious, Date Men, Be Pro-Choice....Your question seems very much in line with that. Essentially -- as you experienced -- many people have a hard time reconciling their feminism and their commitment to organized religion. In past generations, women felt they had to choose one or the other. Luckily over the past 2-3 decades feminist theologians in particular have done a great job of underscoring that it isn't the religions that are inherently sexist, but the interpretation of them -- thus it's feminism’s responsibility to uproot more inclusive understandings of the religions. There are great resources -- such as books by Karen Armstrong, Auburn Theological Seminary, Catholics for a Free Choice and other places that provide a more expansive definition of religion -- and specifically a more woman friendly one.

Starting with those resources might be good and then I would recommend starting something at your church -- a women's group. It's very likely that others feel the way you do and important that they know there is a shared community there for them. And from there perhaps you can use that critical mass to leverage more resources within the church - at least more attention to women as an equal part of that community.
I understand there is a new report conducted by The White House Project: "Benchmarking Women's Leadership" — I'm told that there are some really fascinating sections about women and religion in terms of leadership,

pg 12 and then from page 92-101.

I hope that helps. Good luck.

Rev. Kanyere Eaton answers...
Dear Brooke,
Your letter raises an issue that has been a bone of contention for the Christian church for centuries. Countless women have been silenced from public proclamation, shut out of pulpits, denied ordination and overlooked for positions of leadership for which they were well-qualified because of gender alone. at The Sister Fund, it breaks our hearts to see women kept from answering God’s call on their lives because the patriarchy of our culture is supported by some individuals who choose to interpret particular scriptures using a narrow, literal, uninformed lens.

Brooke, you asked if you should give up. We ask you not to. You are among a great company of feminist Christians who have elected to stay in the church despite sexism, believing that transformation and equality are not only possible, but immanent. These women, who refuse to abandon their faith traditions to those who assert that God only calls and appoints sons and not daughters, are waging a righteous struggle. The church won’t change if those of us who stand for gender justice abandon it to those who prefer the status quo. This struggle calls to mind the theme used by the Lotto: “You have to be in it to win it.” The church won’t change unless we, by our presence, prayerfulness and power, insist that it become a more authentic reflection of God’s beloved community.

We believe change happens when we pray and act strategically. You have several recourses. You can stay in your church and engage those who are against women’s ordination and leadership in dialogue, using the tools for scriptural interpretation we list below. You can also seek ordination in a denomination that has a good track record of appointing clergy women to pastoral posts. An increasing number of Christian denominations and churches are overtly seeking to be more egalitarian and would welcome a gifted, called woman into their ranks. If you are inclined to stay in the church you describe in your letter, you will want to be equipped to talk with those who oppose the full expression of women’s voice and vision in the pulpit by engaging them with biblical literature and interpretation that affirms women’s pastoral leadership.

One of the first tools you might want to consider in your quest to better address the biased interpretation of scripture in your church is the plethora of theological and biblical literature written by feminist theologians and Bible scholars. One resource we have found useful is the Women’s Bible Commentary edited by Carol Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe. It is clear that women played leadership roles as queens, judges, warriors, mystics, pastors, preachers and teachers in the Ancient Near East. However, many women are unfamiliar with Biblical references to women’s influence and power because they are rarely taught from the pulpit.

Among the most valuable resources on the subject is the literary library of the organization, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). They have extensive book lists by male and female authors who write about God’s call on women’s lives. Among our favorites are:  

• What Paul Really Said About Women by John T. Bristow;
• 10 Lies the Church Tells Women by J. Lee Grady;
• Good News for Women by Rebecca Merrill Groothius;
• I Suffer Not A Woman by Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger;
• Women in Ministry: Four Views by B.T. Roberts; and
• Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry by Aida Besancon Spencer

CBE’s periodicals, entitled “The Priscilla Papers” may also be a great help.  And, of course, you can always visit The Sister Fund’s Web site to find more books, organizations, educational institutions and other resources to help you as you walk your path.

All successful social justice struggles are waged over time, by determined people who believe that their cause is worth fighting for. Whether you remain in your current church or transition into a more supportive religious community, we support you in your call to preach and teach and come to full voice in the work of proclamation. Know that you are not alone in this quest for right relationship in the church. God is with and for you, as are countless sisters all over the world.
In sisterhood,
Rev. Kanyere Eaton
The Sister Fund

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