Today is the annual observance of International Women's Day. Since March 8th falls on a Sunday this year, it seems especially appropriate to reflect on the issue of women's rights in regard to the Christian faith. Of course, I probably would have done this (and have) in other years anyway.
This is the first International Women's Day to pass without David Scholer, who was very outspoken in defense of the ability of women to serve in all ministries of the church. As he himself observed, it seems "especially true" that feminists thrive on sharing personal stories. Here is David's story of his association with this issue, as he wrote it for Christian Feminism Today a couple of years ago.
There is a common criticism that sharing such stories can be too "irrational," or not "impartial" enough, and thus should not be allowed to affect one's interpretation of Scriptural teachings, especially when it comes to issues of what women are allowed to do as Christians or what church offices they are allowed to hold. There is something I want to affirm in that criticism, in that the temptation to read into the Bible only those teachings one already believes in (and "explain away" the ones one doesn't) can be very strong. Indeed, it is a temptation that all Christians face. But I cannot affirm the conclusion that to share one's story is inappropriate. The Bible itself is full of such stories of personal experiences with God. I would go so far as to argue that most of the Bible is, in fact, story. A comparatively small portion of the Bible is straight "teaching" (or "doctrine," if you prefer) or some other genre (such as poetry and song). There is a good deal of overlap, to be sure. Prophecy, for example, often occurs in the context of the prophet sharing his story. Doctrine occasionally is taught within a "story" context. The point is, studies of the Biblical texts definitely suggest that telling the story of the people of God is a primary, if not the primary, method of how the text communicates who God is and what God has done for us, both in ancient times as well as today.
Within those Biblical stories, often set in a patriarchal culture, are many stories of women who went against the grain of that patriarchal culture. More often than not, these women are not chastised for this action, but are in fact praised for it. To suggest that these stories of women doing acts of ministry, proclamation and, yes, obedience are mere exceptions to the rule God would have for us today do not take these stories seriously enough, it seems to me. It is Deborah's story that is told in the book of Judges, not her husband's, and she who held the office of "judge" and is said to be "leading Israel" (or "judging Israel," depending on your translation). The book of Esther tells how one woman risked death by performing a very non-patriarchal action (going to speak with the king without his request to see her), and was rewarded for her bravery. Jesus affirmed Mary's choice to sit and listen to his teachings, not Martha's choice to prepare supper. Even Timothy (who received a letter of which much has been made against the idea that women should be allowed ministerial positions) is said to have come to faith as a result of his mother and grandmother, not his father.
Certainly, there are many more stories of men to be found in the Bible. This is to be expected, given the patriarchial culture. The existence of the stories of these women, told without negative judgement, is an indication that the culture of partriarchy is not intended to be normative for us today. Faithfulness to God's will is the important thing, and far from being criticised as being against that will, women's activity on God's behalf is affirmed as part of what God wants to do for God's people, whatever culture women (and men!) of God find themselves in. Praise be to God for the testimony of these faithful women!
UPDATE: 3/9/09 - I haven't been very good about linking to other people who have participated in the International Women's Day blog event. My apologies. You can get a list from Julie Clawson's site. In particular, I'd like to call attention to Scot McKnight's post (which was posted fairly late in the day, so I think a lot of folks missed it), which details biblical evidence for the existence of Junia, a female apostle.