Thursday, September 25, 2008
Originally published September 25, 2008.
Women receive a lot of mixed messages from society. These days, we encourage women to see themselves as a variety of things that were once discouraged: businesspeople, politicians, astronauts, soldiers, breadwinners and independents. We then appallingly show more of women’s bodies in advertisements, television shows, films and music videos than we ever have.
We tell women they can reach for whatever they want to be in life, and that they can literally bare almost all for the world around them. It’s OK to be the first female president, we say, and it’s OK for your body to be exploited for entertainment. It’s even OK for us to be offended by your nakedness after we’ve used you for it.
But according to the Southern Baptist Convention, fully clothed women can be just as offensive – particularly when they are pastors.
The SBC owns and operates Lifeway Christian Stores, which sell a number of books and periodical publications related to Christianity. Gospel Today resides among that number, and when the most recent issue of Gospel Today hit Lifeway shelves, the SBC wasn’t having any of it.
They pulled the issue of Gospel Today from the shelves and relegated it to sale from behind the counter, analogous to purchasing the current copy of Playboy at your non-Christian bookstore of choice. Why?
Because, as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Web site explicitly states, “pastoral leadership is assigned to men.”
That’s right. Gospel Today’s cover for their September/October issue features five smiling, immaculately dressed (gotcha!) female pastors. The piece within relates their experiences while trying to “break the stained-glass ceiling,” as the Atlanta Journal Constitution stated appropriately in an article on Sept. 18.
Some of you might be thinking, “You’re an atheist, why do you care?” Well, here’s the straightforward answer: We’re allowing people to condone sexism because of the use of religious justification.
Here’s the quote I used earlier from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Web site in its entirety: “While Scripture teaches that a woman’s role is not identical to that of a man in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men.”
What the SBC tells us, then, is that Scripture can be manipulated to keep women out of pastoral leadership roles. Conveniently, no specific reason is supplied as to why women are inadequate, which means men can supply reasons until the Second Coming – and they’ve already been doing that for quite some time. We’ve heard all the things that we are, apparently, according to supporters of the status quo: overly emotional, lascivious sex fiends, intellectually inferior; you name it; we’ve been called it. None of these description makes women sound as though we are of equal value.
But let’s go with it for a minute. Let’s say that women’s social roles are not entirely identical to those of men. We imply a degree of difference, or a separation, between men’s roles and women’s roles. Does anyone remember another time in which we decided that separate did not constitute equal? It’s impossible to assert that women and men are of equal value when even a partial separation in social roles exists.
Women’s inability to serve as pastors in the eyes of the SBC may seem like a small and specific insult, but it is only the tip of the inequality iceberg touched upon in the Convention’s statement on gender roles. And certainly the SBC is not the only propagator of such deeply rooted gender discrimination when it comes to religion (not just Christianity, by any means). We need reformation.
When I say “we,” I mean it – atheists like myself included. Just because I’m not personally religious doesn’t mean I condone the “scriptural” justification of any faith to diminish the value of women by rendering them unequal (and that is exactly what separating men’s and women’s roles does). If a woman feels called upon by God to lead a congregation, I support her right to do it. Solidarity extends past religious boundaries.
To these five women on the cover of Gospel Today, I offer only half-congratulations.
While I’m excited to see only a few of the faces of the growing number of female pastors, I also feel that congratulations are unnecessary, because they belong in the public sphere.
They belong in the mainstream. Most of all, they belong on bookstore shelves in full view, not behind the counter or shamefully tucked away in a brown paper bag.
Chelsea is a senior in English and music and has got to get this bookshelf sanded.