Jesus treated women differently than others would have treated women during his time, serving as a sort of early feminist, says the Rev. Susan Sparks, senior pastor at Madison Avenue Baptist Church. “Maybe you could even say Jesus was sort of the Betty Friedan of first century Palestine, because you look at how he honored and upheld women,” she says. The sky is the limit for what women can achieve, the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary says. “And we see this in that women are in small numbers moving into high-level positions,” Jones said. “I think it’s exciting to see how women lead. And when they take up these positions, they quite often do them differently than men do, and to good effect.”
Serene Jones: For us to have a monolithic view of the role of women in the Church today implies we haven’t read the New Testament because women are doing everything.
Susan Sparks: Jesus actually was sort of an early feminist. Maybe you could even say Jesus was sort of the Betty Friedan of first century Palestine, because you look at how he honored and upheld women. It was so different than other treatment of women in Scripture of the time.
Jones: In Jesus’ resurrection story, in terms of what happens on Easter morning, the woman are all over the place in all of the Gospels. And the men are either doubting or asleep or concerned with other matters. The women have come to the tomb. Their grief compels them to be present to even his body. They know darn well that if they don’t go and take care of the body and prepare it in death, no one else is going to do it. They’re doing the awful, gross work of the society in terms of caring for bodies. So love and care of bodies brings them there. It’s what women still do today.
Sparks: I think the role of women in the modern church today is active, but we have a long way to go. You know, we see all these fights going on right now within the church over such basic things like the Catholic Church struggling whether or not women can be priests, or the Anglican Church struggling whether or not women can be bishops.
Jones: I think we live in a day in which at one level, the sky’s the limit with respect to what women can achieve and do. And we see this in that women are in small numbers moving into high-level positions. I think it’s exciting to see how women lead. And when they take up these positions, they quite often do them differently than men do, and to good effect.
Sparks: And yet, putting women in a position of leadership is so threatening to the Church. I get calls every couple of months, but it’s the same call. The phone will ring. And somebody will say, “I’d like to speak to the pastor.” Now I’ll pick up the phone and I’ll say, “This is she.” Long pause. “Well no, not the children’s pastor, I’d like to speak to one of the senior pastor staff.” “This is she.” “No, not the associate pastor. I want to speak to the senior pastor.” “This is she.” Long pause. And then there’s a click and then the dial tone.
Jones: Women constitute in all faith traditions the majority of the believers of the world. They make up the majority of the people who are doing the work of care for the young and the old and the sick and the infirm, the dying and the birthing. And they are doing it for reasons of deep and profound faith.
Sparks: I grew up in a really strict, very difficult, Southern Baptist tradition. And now, today, even with a law degree, an honor’s degree in seminary and seven years as a senior pastor, I’m still not welcome to preach in my home church in Charlotte, North Carolina. I actually had to leave my own denomination to be ordained in the American Baptist Church. But today I have parish that honors that role and honors those gifts. And you know, I look at it now and I think, well, women who have been given that opportunity need to find strength and find energy so that they can turn back and help the other women who were going through and offering their gifts. Why? Why in the broken world that we have today would we turn down an offer of help based on gender? We need all the help we can get.