The Vagenda

What Would Jesus Do?

Yesterday, the synod of the Church of England voted against allowing women to be bishops (bishopesses? Bitchops?) For those of us who see the church as our family (stubborn, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes incredibly hard to live with, but nonetheless family), the results of this vote are akin to your one rowdy uncle falling into the cake and ruining your wedding day for everyone. It’s disappointing, it’s cringeworthy, and you’d all held your breath and believed that it wouldn’t actually happen this time around. I, like most members of the church, had hoped that the result of this vote would signal the beginning of the end of institutional misogyny in the Church of England. And unfortunately, I was wrong.

Just to put my frustration in perspective, this wasn’t a straightforward decision, or even one that seems particularly democratic. The motion was passed by the first two houses of the synod, but not by the final House of Laity. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass, and fell short by just six votes. All seems a bit George Bush and Florida to me, particularly when all but two – TWO – of the 44 dioceses of the Church of England, and three-quarters of the general Synod, had already voted strongly in favour. The hard-line minority opposition seems to have missed the fact that its Supreme Governor (er, yeah, the one over there in the crown) is, inescapably, a woman. The whole rulebook on what trumps what in C of E rock-paper-scissors has clearly been flung out of the stained glass window.

I’m not a theologian, a biblical scholar nor a expert on the C of E. But I am a woman, a feminist, and I have spent a lot of my life involved with churches. And a lot of us out there – not just the teenagers sporting rubber bracelets with the initials ‘WWJD’ stamped on them – still ask ourselves: ‘What would Jesus do?’ Therefore, I reckon there’s a bit of clearing up to do where the actual Bible’s position on women is concerned. Because there are a huge amount of passages in this context which are misread, mostly due to translation or (perhaps more likely) wilful misunderstanding. 

The first example, and ones used most often by gender equality dissenters in the church, is Genesis, right after God makes Adam, when he says (English translation) “I’ll make a helper for him”.  Actually the word ‘helper’ has been mistranslated from the ancient Greek “ezer” which we don’t have a precise word for but means “one who surrounds, defends and nourishes” – a word which is only used elsewhere to describe God himself. He then makes it clear that they are both responsible custodians of all of creation. Funnily enough, in this light the whole thing has new meaning.

Later, in a letter to a church in Corinth, the apostle Paul says that ‘women’ should remain silent in church. There is reason to believe that this was directed at two women in particular, who according to historical accounts, were loud and disruptive. Actually, we know from elsewhere in the Bible and historical texts that Paul was very encouraging of women as leaders in these early churches – as was Jesus himself, who preached leadership equality between the genders, and was often chastised for it. If you’re in any doubt about such messages in the Bible, Galatians 3 also states: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, man nor woman, slave nor free – for you are all equal in Christ Jesus.” Boom.

The twisting of a message of inclusivity into its direct opposite by the vote against female equality this week has been hugely disappointing for those of us who had hoped that the Church of England was about to make the most positive progression it had in years. I don’t believe that God discriminates, or that whether women and men are as good as each other is a complex theological debate. Like most members of the church, I was shocked by the outcome of, er, Bishopsgate – and I think the issue is a no-brainer. By privileging the viewpoint of hardline minority groups, the decision threatens to turn the church into precisely what it fears becoming: irrelevant and unrepresentative.

The winds of change have been blowing hard across Britain of late, and a church that relies largely on sexist interpretations of our central text risks enacting its own undoing. The Bible includes a plethora of women who lead nations, advise kings, run businesses, save thousands of starving refugees and outwit evil dictators. And it’s time for the men at the top  in the big hats to realise that those women weren’t included by accident.


11 thoughts on “What Would Jesus Do?

  1. It’s nice to have a clever and thoughtful look at this issue. Too often, as someone who identifies as Christian (of the not mental variety) and Feminist (also not mental), it can feel a bit lonely and misunderstood.

  2. Such a well-written and thought-provoking piece. I’m very glad that Vagenda decided to have a committed member of the Church of England weigh in on this debate in such a balanced and intelligent manner, as it would have been so easy to have an external scream-fest from a disinterested party (such as myself) criticising the institution of the CofE in general and missing the real issues at stake. It’s very interesting to hear the voice of a feminist member of the Church, as it is a voice that is often forgotten or not heard very loudly but that, not only in light of this debate in particular, but also with regards to how the Church needs to position itself in the modern world if it wants to gain more followers or simply survive, has never been more relevant.

  3. An interesting look at this issue, but I have a few questions:

    Firstly, the Old Testament wasn’t written in Greek but Hebrew. So what does the Hebrew mean? Does it mean the same as the Greek? If not your argument does not stand, I’m afraid.

    Secondly, the whole of your fifth paragraph has some major problems from a historical persepective. We have almost no historical sources for this period other than the New Testament, certainly none that can point us to two particular women whom this passage in Scripture is aimed at. Therefore, what source are you referring to?? And concerning this sentence: ‘Actually, we know from elsewhere in the Bible and historical texts that Paul was very encouraging of women as leaders in these early churches – as was Jesus himself, who preached leadership equality between the genders, and was often chastised for it.’ I would say (along with most NT scholars) that the Bible reveals the complete opposite (about both Paul and Jesus)! What passages are you using to support your interpretation? And, as above, there are no historical texts from this period that tell us anything about Paul, beyond that he existed, certainly not this level of detail. Which texts are you referring to that you think provide this information? And concerning: If you’re in any doubt about such messages in the Bible, Galatians 3 also states: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, man nor woman, slave nor free – for you are all equal in Christ Jesus.”‘ this is spiritual equality which is very different to social & earthly equality, hence why Christians could still own slaves, believed in a hierarchical society etc. Spiritual equality is about salvation being open to everyone and equally available to everyone. Remember that before this time it was only available to Jewish people, and that some Greek philosophers questioned whether women had souls like men’s souls.

    That said, thank you for an interesting article! God Bless you +

  4. Yes! Amen to this (appropriately enough). What LNKruger said. It is important to recognise that those two things (Christian faith and being a feminist) are not at all incompatible. And yes to the bit about family – for better and for worse.
    In absolute fairness, the motion fell at the House of Laity (i.e. non-clergy), so the men in big hats were not at fault – they are overwhelmingly in favour, in fact. But it is of course very sad that what really is a minority in the C of E has managed to wield disproportionate power to hold many brilliant women back from serving as bishops, on essentially a technicality.
    Also, I love the word bitchops. I may have to use this from now on.
    Keep up the good work, Vagenda!

  5. “Ezer” is Hebrew, the word does to the best of my knowledge not exist in Greek, but RA is right that God is the only other “person” described as “ezer”.
    The word is thought to derive from two different roots, one meaning “power” the other “strenght”.
    What is traditionally translated as “helper fit (for him)”, new research indicates should rightfully be translated “power/strenght equal to him”.

  6. Thanks for all the lovely comments ladybros. Jesus would definitely have been biscuit passer (and voice of reason).

    With regards to the theological questions,apologies to Neophita, “ezer” is a Hebrew word not ancient Greek (although the Torah was also translated into ancient Greek). This website (which is actually Jewish) provides a nice explanation of ezer as coming from dual roots, meaning power and strength.

    There is a super good book called Why Not Women, which is written from a Christian theological perspective, by Loren Cunningham, you can get it off Amazon if interested. It puts all this a million times better than I can and is a ruddy great read.

  7. The whole misreading of the bible discussion seems to me like more excuses from Christian leaders so as to not alienate 50% (statistically speaking) of it’s members, while still undermining the position of women within the church.

    Members of the church often blame atheists or those of different faiths of misreading the bible, and that it shouldn’t be taken literally, but my rationale tells me that it is a book rife with misogyny and hypocritical messages on how everyone should “love thy neighbour” but on the other hand men who lie with men shall be put to death, and women should remain silent in church and ask their husbands questions in the privacy of their own home. Speak when spoken to laydeez.

    I hope this doesn’t come across as disrespectful as I respect people of all faiths, but the whole “there are a huge amount of passages in this context which are misread, mostly due to translation or (perhaps more likely) wilful misunderstanding” argument just doesn’t stand in my eyes.

    The church has always been a patriarchal institution.

  8. Thank you for this article!
    I have to grant that the issue is far more complicated than can be articulated in such a short piece and the questions commenters like Neophita and Anon have raised are valid. The Bible is a religious book but it is also a collection of historical documents and therefore we need to take great pains to interpret what it’s message might have meant in the historical/cultural contexts of its original writers and hearers.
    As Neophita notes, many Greek philosophers questioned the existence of the female soul and often described women as deformed men. This philosophy was very influential in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ time. The man of a household had power over the life or death of his family including his wife, sisters and mother. There was little to no recourse for women whose husbands abused or cheated on them. In contrast to this environment, Jesus defends a woman who is about to be stoned after being caught in adultery and speaks with prostitutes openly. Furthermore the early Christians were renown for rescuing discarded female babies and requiring faithfulness in marriage from both husbands and wives.
    From a modern point of view, Paul’s admonitions about gender essentialism and gender-specific order of worship sound stilted and misogynistic but female participation in church services that were primarily educational was unheard of at that time. I believe the message of Christianity is one of equality and redemption but that it is also a continuous project of the Holy Spirit working in real-world contexts of oppression and hierarchy. It involves people and therefore it often fails but what we who identify as Christians must do is exactly what this article says: try to figure out what Jesus would be doing in our contexts. Personally, I don’t think he would be a great leader in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (he was often opposed to the religious leaders of his own time), rather he would be hanging with hookers, drug-dealers, those who are abused and hurting… including women who have been trampled by patriarchal institutions.

  9. I think this is an area in which feminists need to think more clearly. It is a tenet of western liberalism that all faiths should be ‘respected’, and comments like Anon’s above toe that line nicely. RaquelitaDLL goes further and says that feminism and Christianity are compatible – although she doesn’t say why she thinks so.

    Feminists are not in the business of ‘respecting’ any other form of misogyny. We don’t respect men who abuse women in any other way, so why would we respect the fountainhead of global misogyny: patriarchal religions, which universally assign women a second-class place in society? It is like trying to treat the symptoms of cancer while not doing anything to treat the cancer itself. In order to be respected, something has to deserve respect. Women need to get the hell out of patriarchal religions, not keep on kidding themselves that if they read the bible carefully enough, they’ll find that centuries of women being told that God wants them to subordinate themselves to male authority was all a big misunderstanding. Because it wasn’t. The men who wrote the bible, the koran, and the rest of it, thought exactly that. And they’ve been enjoying the benefits ever since.

  10. Why are we talking about bible scriptures as a form of argument? This whole issue has nothing to do with C of E allowing women to be bishops anymore. It’s about equality in our legislature. In the House of Lords, C of E is given 26 AUTOMATIC SEATS which are occupied by bishops. By excluding women from being able to take some of these seats, C of E have broken the law. “Sex discrimination is discrimination on the ground of sex” – and they have done this by not voting for equality. Whilst The Church of England are well within their right to practice their religion how they see fit, this is not in compliance with how the rest of our country is run. Legally, by excluding women from important levels of leadership I think The Church of England should be asked to give up their 26 seats in The House of Lords. I’m sure there would be complete uproar about that but maybe then they’d change their minds, or maybe the seats could be shared out to other representatives of many other religions. I’m an atheist and a feminist. To me, the fact that this particular church has power given to it automatically is completely ridiculous. It should be questioned, especially after something like this.