I have spent quite a lot of time in the past two weeks writing about Rev. Darlene Grega and her impact as the first female University Pastor at Valparaiso University. That said, I would like to devote a post to raising up strong women of faith and also some of the barriers that are still in place 2000+ years after Christ had welcomed women to be an integral part of part of his ministry.

We have come a long way in 2000 years, but there are still many barriers to gender equality, some of which are still are used as weapons today. Grega shattered the glass ceiling at Valparaiso, and I am hopeful that other women will continue to follow her lead both at Valparaiso and in other congregations.

Progressive Lutherans have never shied away from controversy. The Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor to the ELCA ordained Rev. Elizabeth Platz on November 22, 1970–an era where the idea of women even voting as church members was forbidden in the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod.  She was the true trail blazer. She was ordained where the pinacle of a woman’s career in the Lutheran Church was either a deaconess, a pastor’s wife or the director (or as the LCMS church where I was raised referred to one as a “directress”) of the altar guild.

But that’s not to say journey toward that glass ceiling has been an easy one.  At a 2005 ELCA celebration of Women in Ministry, Bishop April Ulring Larson–a woman I can proudly say was the former bishop of my synod–pointed out that the call process is still arduous for women:

“More than half the time, when the candidate is a woman, there is a somber tone to their meeting. They never say, ‘we don’t want a woman,’ but it’s somber and mysterious,” Larson said, saying this is more notable if the woman is a candidate for a solo or senior position but not for an associate pastorate. “We’ve got some work to do,” she said.

I suspect that Bishop Larson can accurately attest to this. After all, when she was elected in 1992, she was the first female to become an ELCA bishop.  Moreover, she was only the second woman in the entire world to become one. Sixty-four percent of the ELCA’s members are women, yet female bishops make up about 10% of the leadership of the ELCA’s 65 synods. We’ve made great strides, and compared to the LCMS and WELS, we are still light years ahead. Nevertheless, there is much work to be done.

This attitude toward women is not unique to the church. Many women can recall specific incidence where a job interview turns rather cold. The words but you’re a woman are never uttered, but the actions speak louder than words. When I was applying to medical school, one of the universities–not the one I matriculated, but another that shall remain anonymous, played the white male privilege card and was more interesed in what my father did for a living than my aspirations to be a physician when the interviewer asked me, “So, is your father a doctor…”

Girls are told all the time that they can’t be something because they lack the requisite Y Chromosome. When I was in first grade, my class toured a local Emergency Department. At the end of the field trip all of the boys received a doctor kit, all of the girls received nurse kits. By then I had already set my sights on medical school (yes, I was goal directed even at that age) and I was absolutely horrified with the excuse: but you are a girl.

And that is the biggest reason I fled the Missouri Synod when I was in college.

For record, women gained the same rights as men to vote in Great Britain in 1928 (women over the age of 30 could vote in 1918.) . In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in the United States which affirmed the following:  the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Yet it wasn’t until 1969 that the Missouri Synod finally allowed congregations to let women vote (though I seem to recall that my own childhood congregation not allowing women to vote until the eighties–*shrugs* I could be wrong.)

And in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), women are still denied the right to vote as members of a congregation.

I’m going to skip to a post-Christ era of Christianity where the role of women can be diminished. The Apostle Paul can take a lot of credit for this. And it his specific writings that the LCMS and WELS use to deny women both the pulpit as well as the vote.

In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, Paul talks of proper rules for orderly worship. This is a verse that denominations use to keep women out of the pulpit:

As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul asserts that women must submit in every way to their husbands (Eph 5:22-25):

22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

(For the record, this passage has been wielded as a weapon for husbands to force themselves sexually on their wives.)

Paul’s letters to Timothy are cited by both the LCMS and WELS for upholding a male-only clergy (1 Timothy 2:11-15.) Furthermore, it is used as a weapon to go one step further–banning women from even teaching men in the church as leading a co-ed bible study. It would put a woman in a position of authority over men.  And while we’re at it, let’s blame Eve and every woman who followed her for casting the condemnation of sin on all of humanity:

11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Penance through sexual submission. Barefoot and pregnant. Apparently that’s the role Paul saw for women. We were no better than mobile condos for babies. Sigh.

Other more fundamental denominations (eg, Pentecostals)  uses these passages to define an “apostolic woman,” an image of submission and humility. Revisiting Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he defines the role of women even further. They are to show their submission to the head in both dress and head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:3-10):

3Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. 6If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

This often translates into edicts of long skirts, covering of the legs and arms, uncut hair, no makeup. Granted, many of these concepts are embraced by other ultraconservative Judeochristian religions. But in some fundamental sects, it goes one step further in the apostolic dress code. It is branded as “wholesome” or “modest.”

Of course, such concepts usually evoke images of the classic prairie dress that has become synonymous with FDLS and shows like Big Love.  But one  website really stands out about others: WholesomeWear swimwear. For any of you have have ever taken a lifeguarding class and have had to swim full clothed, it is easy to point out how ridiculous this type of swimwear can be. Is modesty that crucial that you would trade form over function? Such a swimsuit would create an enormous amount of drag and would make swimming quite an arduous chore.

Enough of the hyperbole. I want to now switch gears and explore what Christianity has to offer to women in his ministry. As much as I have some major issues with Paul’s rather severe edicts for women, there are many instances where he acknowledges women as leaders in the early church. He refers to Tabitha/Dorcas as a Christian disciple in in Acts. Many translations of 2 Corinthians describe the equality between spouses Priscilla and Aquila, perhaps each functioning as a pastor. In Romans, was Phoebe a minister (diakonos) of the church in Cenchrea or was she just a “helper” as some translations assert?

Perhaps the most hopeful passages for girls and women are in Galatians. For every bit of misogyny that Paul’s writings have  created over the centuries, he gave women who hear the call to the ministry a kernel of hope in Galatians 3:28 that we are all equal in God’s eyes:

27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Where some denominations will use scripture to hold women back, I am thankful that there are others that raise them up to be leaders. Quite frankly there are not enough April Larsons or Phyllis Kerstens or Darlene Gregas in the world. But I am hopeful that these pioneers will make the call easier for women of future generations.

A month ago, I was dropping my netbook off at a friend’s house. Her laptop was in the shop and needed something to hold her over until it was repaired. My daughters were in the car with me. The eldest had her violin lesson. As we pulled up to my friend’s name, my daughter asked what we were doing, and I told her that I was lending my computer to Pastor M.

My daughter’s eyes widened as she took it in. M is a rostered ELCA pastor. My six-year-old said, “Girls can be pastors?” (She obviously doesn’t remember that our former assistant pastor–the one who baptized her–was a woman.)

I couldn’t help but smile when I replied…

Yes, honey, girls can be pastors. They can be anything they want to be when they grow up.

I think she summed it up correctly when she replied, COOL!

Moments like this are what forge strong women. Pastor M doesn’t realize it, but she left a very powerful impression with my six-year-old.