Women & Ministry

  

I grew up in a church with a woman pastor.  Indeed most of the ministers and preachers I knew from my youth were women.  My Sunday School teacher was a woman (and also my mother) and included in the doctrines of my church was a clause asserting the equality of male and female before God with the implicit assumption that women could and should function at all levels of service within the church.  If that were not enough, I work for an organization that has a very clear and strong stand on issues of women in leadership; permitting their full participation without prejudice.  I’ve know many gifted women preachers, teachers, and pastors.  I’ve defended the rights of women to do all of the above and more, as the Lord leads 

Why I am then troubled? 

As a historian, I am aware of the countless ways women have been devalued and oppressed by men and by the systems that men have constructed to protect their power and privilege.  I know that these systems have not just been social and political, but theological as well.  And I know that women struggled and still struggle for due consideration as joint heirs of God along with men. 

Still I struggle. 

I struggle because I am aware of history and how readily Christians have shaped by the prevailing winds of culture whether the Church-state alliances of the Crusades era, or the consecration of slave ships and the slave trade in the 18th century.  We find it difficult to mount ourselves on the solid rock of Christ, and too often are carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine.   I struggle because 50 years ago divorce in the church was a blessedly rare occurrence, not because the people were any holier or committed than we, but because it was socially unacceptable and that now divorce is as common or more in Christian communities than in the “world.”  I struggle because what was unthinkable in a conservative Christian church 50 years ago is now becoming commonplace and I fear what “unthinkables” will be common fifty years from now.  

I am troubled by the fact that the discussion of women in ministry is in large part made possible by the fact that in the past fifty years we have embraced unhesitatingly medical and social practices that have freed women from what had heretofore kept them bound to home and heath, that is to say childbirth.   That is not to say that I oppose birth control, but really our attitude towards it is much the same as those who advocate for abortion: it is our body and our choice – it really is only a matter of degree. 

I am troubled that despite my mental assent to the idea of women in ministry, I would find it very difficult to join a church with a woman as senior pastor, and that I would probably suspect that her husband was less than a man.  I am disturbed my own hypocrisy. 

I am troubled that the whole issue of mutual submission is drummed up in any discussion of Ephesians 5 when it relates to the husband and wife relationship but not when it comes to children.  No one is arguing that parents ought to be subject to their children under the “mutual submission” clause even though it falls in the same passage. 

I am troubled by the many women I see who are devalued, or valued only for their looks or lack thereof, or who doubt their God given worth.  Even more I am troubled by the ways I do all of those things to them. 

I struggle to reconcile the godly and gifted women I see who have ministered to me and poured out their lives to others with the somewhat contrived exegesis I sometimes read that justifies their ministry – as if it needed justification.  And yet it often does.  I struggle with that.   

I am troubled by the feeling I sometimes get that if I don’t believe that women should serve in all levels of leadership in the church that I am somehow a theological reactionary and quite possible a misogynist, and most assuredly a chauvinist.  It disturbs me that I feel as if I must edit myself in certain company lest I offend people. 

I am troubled by many things, and most of these things have no easy answer.  I wrestle with them and live with the ambiguity.  For me the settled certainties of women serving at any level of leadership in the church are not so settled anymore.  I am not sure what has changed for me.  Perhaps I have simply grown more prejudiced as I have grown older.  Perhaps I see more broadly than I did when I was young. In many ways nothing has changed: I still support women in ministry.  In other ways everything has changed and still I struggle.

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Intergenerational Asian Church Report

 Our conversation on Sunday about the challenges and opportunities facing the Asian immigrant and Asian American church was a compelling one.  In addition to me, DJ Chuang, Dpark, and John Lamb all participated, which gave a particularly diverse flavor to the mix as all of us hail from different ethnic groups and church experiences. We utilized the 6 hats paradigm to frame our discussion and it was helpful, as it kept the conversation moving and kept us from dwelling too long on the ciritical analysis (Black hat) to which I think such conversations are prone. 

In any event, some of the more intriguing things that emerged from the conversation (in my view) was a sense of optimism and hope that the immigrant church does have a unique function in American society despite the many ways in which it is failing to live up to its mandate.  We discussed the obvious challenges of being merely ethnic enclaves that fail to be as committed to the mission of God as they might be, as well as the ways in which age specific ministry within the ethnic church is sometimes unhelpful in bridging the culture gaps and in being effective in ministry.  The negative consequence of such ministry was apparent to us even as we saw the need (due to language and other barriers) that led to its development.  One such consequence was the possibility that the segmentation of the church was actually working against helping the 2nd generation to own either its culture or its faith in a helpful way. Despite this, the overall tone was that of hope as we thought about ways that each generation can be a blessing to the other – the 2nd generation serving the 1st by helping to bridge the language gap for instance, or the 1st generation being intentional about sharing its own story of faith in such a way that can inspire and instruct the 2nd generation.  We talked about ways that joint worship, prayer, and mission opportunities can be used to increase kingdom witness and also bring the church together.


This discussion was recorded and I believe that DJChuang is going to make it available.  It is unfortunate that a conversation of such depth happen so rarely. Our hope is that the next conversation can include some of the voices of the 1st generation.
 To God be the Glory

Worship & Identity

When your son asks you in the time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the LORD our God has commanded you?” Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of
Egypt with a mighty hand.
Deuteronomy 6.20-21 

This scripture, so ancient and yet so timely, speaks to me volumes about something I have contemplating lately: the place of ancestry in understanding my identity both spiritually and naturally. Recently I had the opportunity to do some research on my family lineage through the website Ancestry.com.  I was able, because of some family stories that I knew and names with which I was familiar, to trace back to the 1870 census on both sides of my family.  Prior to that, the names disappear because during the 1860 census my forefathers were not people but property.  Any hope I have of identifying them beyond that point diminishes rapidly.  I could, if I were a serious researcher, perhaps track back to a particular plantation, look at slave schedules, and research the slave owners – all of which would be very difficult to do.  My lineage disappears because of one simple reality: we were slaves.                         

 This is no shock but it does pain me.  To see the name of my great-great grandfather who could neither read nor write nor properly identify the year of his birth, and to know that he was during his childhood merely a means of production to increase someone else’s wealth is no easy thing.  To know also that for years afterwards his descendents lived on the margins of society, never enjoying the full rights of citizenship until the years just prior to my own birth is likewise no easy thing.  The beauty and the pain of my research is that I and my forefathers are in some sense inextricably linked together.  It is un-American in many ways to say this, because the American identity is intimately bound up with forging a new identity, unencumbered by the past or by the obligations which family and culture may impose.  Yet it is true and is, in my view, much more biblical. 

In the scripture cited above, the answer given through the ages to the children of Israel about the laws and the festivals and the commandments of God was rooted in an always accessible historical event in which the past and present collide; “We were slaves.”  This is no mere rhetorical device, but was a reminder to every generation that no matter how far back the events of the Exodus recede, they too were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt and God delivered them from his hand.  In the same way I can look down my family tree and say that we were slaves in Mississippi; we were slaves in Kentucky; we were slaves, but the LORD delivered us. This historical memory was an integral part of the Jewish identity and to the identity of Blacks in the
United States and in both cases was closely aligned with their understanding of what it means to be the people of God.  Although the connections to this history are less viscerally obvious in the contemporary Black church, the feeling of it, the essence is still evident, particularly in the music and worship legacy.  Indeed one of the most celebrated aspects of Black church is the music which is at once traditional and contemporary, technically complex and improvisational, and characterized by both strong vocal leadership and congregational participation.  It involves the whole of a person – body and soul, and requires, yes even demands the full engagement of the congregation for it to really be done at all.  More to my point however, it emerges out of the full context of the Black American identity as people who can say, “we were slaves.” In some sense every person is invited to make the song or the worship experiences their own; to interpret it afresh and realize its applicability in their own lives. 
 

Here then is the question and the dilemma I face every Sunday at church as I worship with my Korean American brothers and sisters:  how does worship that emerges out of the full experience of the Korean and Korean American identity look?  More broadly: how does the historical reality of God’s working in and through Asian and Asian American people show itself in the liturgical practice of Asian and Asian American congregations?  Many times the worship I hear (and not just in the Asian context to be sure) seems disconnected from the history, culture and identity of the people who sing it.  It is not that Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin is sung that is the problem.  In fact one of the things that I’ve often seen done by Black worship leaders is to take songs they’ve heard in White worship contexts and sing them in such a way that though technically similar are radically different.  They make it their own. The problem is rather that the goal is to imitate as closely as possible the style and technique of the White worship leader with little thought or effort given to making it uniquely Korean or Chinese or whatever.  All too often worship (and church in general) in the Asian American context is simply, “a bad system poorly imitated,” rather than being an authentic expression of the good news made known through the identity and history of Asian people.  My prayer is that I can one day soon come to church and hear good Korean American gospel music… something with a lot of seoul!

What is health?

Day by day our television sets and internet connections are filled with advertisements of products and medicines that promise to increase our health and bring us to a state of higher or better performance.  B list movie stars endorse weight loss products and plans and virtually every month a new supplement or diet plan is introduced all with the aim of making us healthier people.  Most likely the most important issues confronting the United States government today is the large number of uninsured and underinsured persons in the
United States.  Health is clearly at the top of the priority list.

In the areas of health and wholeness, we increasingly look to experts: doctors, dieticians, nutrionists and the like, to give us guidance and leadership in our quest for good health, long lives, and wholesome diets.  These experts offer sometimes conflicting, most of the time confusing advice that so threatens to overwhelm us that we generally respond by picking only a few cherished gems of information and relegating the rest to the back of our mind as so much useless or superfluous information. 

This concern with health, wholeness and well being is not restricted to our concerns  about our physical well being; nor has the reliance on expert opinion and comparative studies.  Over the last twenty years, the language of physical and mental health care professions has entered the church with a vengeance and permeated our understanding of what it means to live and function well as the body of Christ.  We talk of healthy churches and the dysfunctionality of relationships as if this was the preferred language of the New Testament writers.  Further, we employ a type of comparative analysis in our search for health.  We not only compare ourselves and the life of our congregations to those described in the pages of ther New Testament, but we, increasingly compare ourselves with other churches, seeking to find “best practices” in order that congregational health may be achieved.  We read the work of experts who diagnose from a distance our condition and prescribe the appropriate doses of scripture, purpose, and vision to cure our disease. 

While there is nothing inherently wrong and certainly not sinful in utilizing this language or conceptualizing congregational life in this way, it is a method fraught with the same challenges as those found in the ever growing beast that is the American health care system.  Faced with a constant stream of advertising in the form of conferences, books, and yes, even online journals, we have become obsessed with our failure and do not look to the guiding light of the bright and morning star in order to steer our course, but to lesser lights which seem less mysterious and more accessible to us.  For example, while I admire and appreciate the work of Rick Warren in the Purpose Driven Life, might it not just be the evangelical church equivalent of the South Beach Diet – a quicker, less painful way of achieving what we all know can only be really achieved with the steady application of self discipline through diet and exercise? 

Let us also consider the usage of medical terminology and health as applied in the church.  How does one determine something as difficult to pinpoint as health when even within the medical community the term has changed meaning significantly over the past fifty years?  It seems that we have replaced the brutal honesty of scripture in describing life within the body of Christ with unrealistic perfect images of community that are the ecclesiastical equivalent of runway models. Or perhaps we simply aim much lower, succumbing to the temptation that
St. Paul alluded to in 1 Corinthians, “comparing ourselves with ourselves.”  The apostle, of course, warns that doing so is not wise, and yet we persist in our navel gazing, scale watching, calorie counting behaviors in an effort to achieve what might indeed be the unattainable goal of the perfect church.
 

Notwithstanding the need for pastors, church leaders, and congregants to be honest in their reflections about the state of things within the local body, it is important that none of lose sight of the inherent brokenness of any human  community this side of glory.  This is not suggest that we should merely give up trying to live to the best of our ability in accordance with our understanding of the gospel.  It is rather, an invitation similar to that issued in a recent editorial in the New York Times about the issue of diet and health. Instead of obsessing about what we eat, how much, and what vitamins and minerals are being ingested in every meal, the author suggests that we simply eat food and enjoy it.  Similarly, I believe that our near obsession with being purposeful and healthful within the context of the church may be counterproductive to what we actually seek.  Thoughtfulness and prayerful reflection are good; stressing out over every meal served in the context of a worshipping congregation isn’t.