As friends and I met for dinner to enjoy pictures of mutual friends' wedding, their four-year old joined in the fun. At one point I asked this child which picture was her favorite, and she quickly pointed to one saying, "This one!" When I asked why, she pointed again and uttered the name of her best friend. Her parents and I strained our eyes to have another look. We'd been focusing on the images of adults and failed to observe a little girl-her best friend-poking her head just slightly around her mother's knee. We all broke into laugher realizing we had missed something very precious to this child. It took another little girl to observe what had been invisible to us adults. It was one of those profound moments when you suddenly realize how experience shapes observation.
This was what happened in the 1800s, as slaves began to read and interpret Scriptures. When slaves learned to read the Bible, they saw themselves in the Exodus story. Their experiences of slavery greatly informed an understanding of Scripture that is beneficial for all of us!
The same is true of women. As women entered universities in the 1800s, they began making significant theological contributions, interpreting astutely those texts that concern gender. Consider the seminal work of Katharine Bushnell (1856-1946), a medical doctor who learned Greek and Hebrew in order to understand God's message on gender. Her groundbreaking scholarship, God's Word to Women, informed by her medical work among abused women, continues to enlighten the work of egalitarians today!
Because women bring specific and different insights to Scripture, it is important to include their voices in the decisions we make as the church. A recent example makes this point clear. Invited to participate in a week's discussion on evangelism, 24 male and 3 female delegates gathered to explore key issues impacting the church, including gender. It was a woman in the group who noticed that the version of Scripture selected often rendered women invisible, interpreting words like anthropos-Greek for "people"-as "men." When it came time to review proposed speakers for a future conference, it was a woman who noticed a total absence of female speakers. It was a woman who resisted the request that a woman serve as their secretary. When the group selected articles to publish, a paper on gender-written by a woman-was declined. Who will notice? Women and those who support them. This experience highlights the challenges women encounter when working for change within the churches and organizations they serve.
If our experiences as women bring awareness, insight, and wisdom to our understanding of God's Word, and if only men are permitted to teach and interpret Scripture, we deprive the church of the insights of more than half its members! Is this a wise practice, and does it engage the contributions God intended women to make?
Consider how differently Christ behaved! Is it not interesting that our Lord (who lived in a very patriarchal society) used females as key figures in many of his parables and other teachings? Clearly, Jesus loved and valued women, and he made this clear by including their voices and experiences throughout his work. If we are followers of Jesus should we not be doing the same? And should we not be demonstrating it in our churches and Christian organizations?
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. Join her this July 24-26 and consider these themes more closely at CBE's 2009 conference, titled "Are Men from Mars and Women from Venus? A Biblical Response to Gender Difference."