Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men (Mennonite Church, 1975)
Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men (Mennonite Church, 1975)
Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men: a summary statement adopted by Mennonite General Assembly August 5-10, 1975
Facilitating Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men in the Church
A Summary Statement Accepted by Mennonite Church General Assembly August 5-10, 1975, Eureka, Illinois
In response to a request from the Mennonite Church General Assembly 73 Arrangements Committee, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries (MBCM) prepared a study document for congregational use entitled "Role of Women in the Church." This document was discussed at Assembly 73, and the delegates authorized revision and circulation to all Mennonite congregations. A task force of four men and four women appointed jointly by MBCM and the Women's Missionary and Service Commission (WMSC) revised the study document, "Women in the Church." it was then made available to congregations and women's groups for study, action, and response. At the request of the Mennonite Church General Board, Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries prepared a proposed statement on this issue for the General Board to review and refer to Assembly 75.
Using the responses it received, the task force prepared the statement "Facilitating Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men in the Church." This statement was presented to Assembly 75 delegates for discussion.
Following extended consideration, the document was accepted as an accurate summary of attitudes and understandings within the denomination today and a helpful guide for further study and search to enable greater commonality of understanding and practice.
Responses to the Study from Congregations
Responses regarding use of the study document were solicited by Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries and Women's Missionary and Service Commission, from pastors and women's groups respectively. Most women's groups had not studied the document; a few planned to do so later. Approximately 12 percent (133) of the 1,100 questionnaires sent to pastors were completed and returned to MBCM. In the short time available for congregational study, only 15 reported having used the document. Responses reflected a wide range of views and understandings:
1. Some felt studying this issue and questioning our understanding of Scripture are wrong. The traditional views and understandings of the Mennonite Church on this issue are scriptural and should be practiced,
2. Some felt this is not an issue or a problem for our people and, therefore, is not a priority concern for attention by the congregation; everyone is satisfied with the present understanding and application of the Scriptures.
3. Some reported the study of this issue brought them to "an open recognition of our failure in this area, a new interest in the cultivation (and implementing) of the spiritual gifts of all members.
Most congregations that studied this issue in depth reported they are experiencing more freedom to develop and exercise the spiritual gifts of all members.
Observations Growing Out of the Responses
The following observations emerge from the responses:
Although a wide variation of opinion and practice exists within the church, two basic ways of viewing the relationships between men and women emerge.
One view interprets the Scriptures dealing with the relation of men and women (such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16; 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Peter 3:1) as calling for mutuality in Christ, but for functioning and decision-making, man is to be the leader (head) and woman is to be submissive to him. Paul's teachings are not sufficiently conditioned by the cultural situation in which he gave them to remove their literal bindingness upon all believers in all cultures today.
The second view sees the mutuality of men and women in Christ necessitating equality in worth and function as the Spirit gives gifts to the church, This equality is affirmed by the teachings of the whole of the Scriptures on the meaning of creation and redemption. Paul's teaching is not counter to this but helps believers to work out the gospel in their cultures without making it unnecessarily offensive to nonbelievers. Perhaps Paul's approach to slavery and its outworking in history are instructive to us in applying the gospel to man/woman relationships in varying cultures.
We need to respect the integrity of persons holding either view (or some modification of them). A basic issue behind these views is the matter of principles of biblical interpretation. Hopefully the study of the principles of biblical interpretation by our congregations during the next two years can help persons who hold differing views on this particular issue to understand and accept each other.
Does the above indicate a further way of working at greater mutual understanding between the proponents of these two views? Could it be that the outworking of the quality of the relationship between husband and wife as envisioned by those who hold to a divine order of the husband as the head of the wife is as mutual and respecting of personhood as that of those who see the relationship as essentially a mutual one? On the other hand, could it be that authority and decision-making are handled just as responsibly by those who see the husband/wife relationship as essentially a mutual one as by those who believe these areas are the final responsibility of the husband? Perhaps in the practical outworking the proponents of the two views are not as far apart as their statements and terms may tend to indicate. Could there be more willingness to see the questions through the minds and feelings of those who hold a different view?
Some further observations are:
1. In most reporting congregations, the study document was not given serious enough consideration by the congregation.
2 The opinion of the congregational leader, based on his comprehension of the congregation's view, is expressed in most statements.
3. Many responses indicate that there are deep emotional attitudes and feelings about this issue.
4. Everyone reporting expressed the desire to be faithful to the Scriptures, although opinions vary as to the meaning of various teachings.
5. Some congregations are making an intense study of the total scope of Scripture in order to better understand God's plan for man/woman relationships.
6. Congregations may face either of the following dangers: (a) an unquestioned adherence to past understandings which prevents gaining new biblical truth and acting upon it; (b) a rejection of past understandings in favor of a desired practice, not taking into account biblical teachings in the process.
7. In many cases, small congregations more fully recognize and utilize the personhood and gifts of both men and women than do large ones.
8. Congregational leaders (men), in a number of instances, seem to assume that all men and women are happy and satisfied with the status quo, and therefore feel that present attitudes and practices need not be examined or questioned. There is also evidence that some men and women are not happy with the status quo.
9. Some congregations are fearful of opening the issue for study because of the possibility of strong differences of opinion and the painful process which a change might bring.
10. The recognition, development, and release of gifts in the congregation are often determined according to sex, thereby limiting the use of gifts which the Holy Spirit gives.
11. The church lacks awareness of the extent to which secular culture (over the centuries and today) has influenced Christian attitudes, including what is called our "traditional practice," regarding man/woman relationships.
12. The church needs to examine the underlying assumptions and attitudes about man/woman relationships; it needs to go beyond women merely being active in congregational life and decision-making.
13. Some groups identify distinct spheres for men and women; others see validity for both working together at any task, each learning from the other, each focusing on oneness, on unity in the kingdom of God.
14. Frequently men expect women to initiate concern for or discussion of the subject of women in the church, rather than encouraging men and women cooperatively to discover new insights and grow in understandings.
15. Many people feel that the proposal to study this issue is an endorsement for the "women's lib" movement. However, it should be seen as a way to discover a biblical stance for Christian women and men in a world which has a women's lib movement.
Basic Assumptions Undergirding the Study
This study is based on certain premises and assumptions.
1. We believe that it is the church's goal to discover the will of God through a faithful interpretation of the Scriptures. This requires: (a) the use of sound methods and principles of interpreting the total biblical witness which are in harmony with our Anabaptist tradition; (b) an openness to the Word of God which is alive and powerful (Hebrews 4:12), so that the Holy Spirit can guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
2. We believe that the intent of the gospel and the church's goal are to enhance the building of God's kingdom. This can happen: (a) When all persons are given freedom to realize their full potential in Christ by developing their gifts and exercising them in the kingdom. Failing to do so limits the vision and effectiveness of all persons. (b) When both men and women actively commit themselves to be God's persons to do kingdom work. No one is to be excluded through listings of priorities, through language, or through assignment. All are to be included in the oneness of the body of Christ where "there is neither Jew nor Greek ... bond nor free ... male nor female. . . " (Galatians 3:28). (c) When all persons live in responsible relationship with God and with others as a result of creation and redemption. Wholeness, which God intends for women and men, is a priority concern in kingdom relationships.
3. We believe that the church's intention for this study is to strengthen Christian family relationships, to give integrity to the functioning of each member in any household (family, extended family, persons alone), and to enrich and strengthen relationships within congregations.
Some Guiding Understandings Emerging
In dealing with this issue, we must continually seek to understand more fully the total scope of biblical teaching regarding women and men functioning interdependently in the church under the lordship of Christ. We suggest eight principles to be kept in mind in our search.
1. Scripture is inspired and is to be personally appropriated. We believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through the Scriptures to believers but that our understandings do involve interpretation. Open examination of Scripture, including cultural contexts during which it was shaped, assists the serious seeker to expect and be ready to accept insights not noticed before.
2. Scripture affirms the uniqueness of maleness and femaleness, viewing both with equal value. The uniqueness of each contributes to the enrichment of the other.
3. We need to view each other as persons first, remembering that we have value because of who we are as children of God rather than because of the functions we perform as women or men. Social relationships and cultural values tend to move us to value each other on the basis of our roles and work.
4. The body of Christ is corporate, each person without special privilege or priority, each personally accountable to our one Lord. In a priesthood of all believers, no person is lord over another; each is servant to the others.
5. Our experience of mutuality in relationships and decision-making (e.g., in family or congregation) determines our comprehension of its potential, its effectiveness, its reality. Responsible care for each other is the meaning of mutual submission and of corporate dominion. Paul's directive for mutual submission out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) calls for turning away from selfish and self-willed decisions to loving and respecting one another.
6. Redemption destroys barriers--distinctions brought on by sin. Redemption restores the unity of creation where women and men in their uniqueness and togetherness reflect the one God.
7. All gifts given to persons by the Holy Spirit need to be discerned and allowed freedom of expression, irrespective of sex. Because God's kingdom is built through people, it is therefore urgent to mobilize the gifts of every member to carry out the commission given to Christ's body, the church. Individual members of the body are to exercise their God-given gifts for the good of all as they feel called and are affirmed by the body.
8. Anabaptist history recognizes that both men and women have been martyrs for the faith; together they have been active in the mission of the church. Works such as The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman J. van Braght, and Women of the Reformation by Roland Bainton indicate that among the Anabaptists the man/woman relationship was enhanced because of their common loyalty to a religious faith. Their life centered upon common endeavors in the work of the Lord, even in the marriage setting. Every member of the Anabaptist community, whether man or woman, was considered a missionary. Putting God first enabled these men and women to work side by side in the church.
Suggestions for Further Work in Congregations
Recognizing that our human limitations preclude ever arriving at a complete understanding of the truth, we encourage a beginning list of suggestions to congregations.
1. Engage in serious, disciplined study of the Scriptures as they relate to male/female interdependence and family relationships. Considering the entire message of Scripture is essential in order to properly understand God's intention with regard to relationships among the people of God and to discipleship for all of Christ's followers.
2. Approach the Scriptures with openness to perceive new insights the Holy Spirit may want to teach us, as well as to clarify present views and understandings. Expect to be taught by the Holy Spirit, even though insights are new and may effect changes.
3. Study and discuss the Scriptures as a congregation, with openness to the counsel of other congregations,
4. Study and discuss the aspects of the subject together as men and women This is not a concern unique to women. It speaks to the meaning of the wholeness of persons, both male and female.
5. Acknowledge in word and deed the wholeness of singleness. This begins through instilling within children, from infancy on, positive principles and a valid range of adult alternatives. Delete from our thinking and vocabulary dehumanizing identities, such as "old maid" or "bachelor," and demeaning sexist jokes.
6. Be alert and sensitive to how single persons are included in or excluded from congregational life. The frequent couple- or family-oriented emphases often push single persons to the periphery of congregational life.
7. Recognize, encourage, expect, and accept varieties of gifts in all persons, beginning with oneself. Burying talents incurs judgment; denying for oneself or for others the responsibilities of "call" limits what persons can become, limits kingdom-building efforts.
8. Encourage women to see themselves as having worth and gifts which are valued and needed in the life of the congregation. Recognize and accept women as equal heirs of the grace of God with men (1 Peter 3:7); help them to discover and develop their God-given gifts; release them to exercise their gifts for the upbuilding and enriching of the people of God.
9. Take initiative in identifying leadership potential and call in both men and women, and in supporting them in further development and training.
10. Study biblical examples of leadership roles to which women were called. Find role models in women throughout church history who were active in response to the call of God.
11. Set goals for yearly increases in the extent to which women and men cooperatively fill assignments and make decisions; evaluate progress made toward reaching the goal.
12. Review curriculum materials used in your congregation -- those provided by the congregation and those supplemented by teachers -- noting whether they reinforce and perpetuate traditional stereotypes, or whether they reflect wholesome views of male/female interdependence at work in a variety of roles and settings. Materials teachers use should include a balance of male/female role models from biblical materials, from church history, and from contemporary experience.
13. Grow in willingness to practice appropriate inclusive language when both male and female are intended. When both women and men, girls and boys, are comparably significant to us, we will be unsatisfied with terminology that excludes one or the other, or what credits one in excess of the other.
14. Encourage and enable husbands and wives in developing wholesome relationships and interdependence, in working through role changes necessitated by new work patterns, and in accepting mutual responsibility for nurturing children.
15. Use available resources in the study of the Bible. Maintain and update resource lists: printed materials, audiovisuals, and persons.
16. Commit one another to have the reconciling love of God bind us as brothers and sisters in Christ, even though differences in views may be present among us.
The task force sees this study as an ongoing one, with openness to learn from each other both within and between congregations.
We do not have simplistic answers to all the theological issues involved in these findings, but we do desire to make this twofold declaration: (1) our desire to be led of the Spirit in the interpretation of God's Word and (2) our confidence that Christ can and will lead our families and congregations in the discernment of His holy
and blessed will.
"It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God" (Philippians 1:9-11, RSV).
Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Publishing House, 1976.