Many Protestant churches celebrated the Reformation a few weeks ago. The principle event of the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther, a German monk, posting 95 theses to the Catholic Church door on Oct. 31, 1517. He chose to post them this day because he knew several people would attend church for All Saints’ Day, the next Sunday. Since 1517, the church continues to reform itself, including allowing women to take leadership roles.
Other religions have a longer history of women leadership, but I am writing about Christianity because I am most familiar with it.
The Christian Church thrives by having a diverse leadership. When people of different genders, races and sexual orientations run the church, the congregation receives a deeper comprehension of the religious messages. Leaders frame part of their worship styles from their past experiences, and I like seeing their different views. I receive a richer understanding about Christianity when various leaders present. Women contribute to this richer and deeper understanding, and the church blooms with their leadership.
I interviewed two women church leaders to hear their perspectives.
According to The Reverend Robin Biffle, the rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Moscow, Biblical record provides
ample testimony in early centuries that women served as leaders in the church before it assimilated into the Roman Empire. Women served as liturgical leaders, preachers and teachers, they served the poor, opened their homes as places of worship and funded the church, Biffle said. When the church assimilated into the Roman Empire, the empire made efforts to make sure the church did not violate its standards, and the church lost its diversity, she said.
Karla Neumann Smiley, the diaconal minister at Troy Lutheran Church, said some churches see the pastor or priest as a stand-in for Christ, so the leader has to be male. She also said tradition and civil power are why churches did not have female leadership.
Biffle said it is important for the church to have female leadership because humans are created in the image of God.
“God created beings on a spectrum anchored by the forms we call male and female,” Biffle said.
If the only image is an icon of God as male, it unnaturally truncates that image, she said.
Biffle said the church is enriched by the broadness of gifts that both men and women bring. Smiley said the church at best needs representation from the whole community and diversity of leadership.
Smiley said she has not experienced discrimination in the congregations, or churches, she has been a part of, but has over-the-phone. She said people do not believe she is the diaconal minister.
“They assume the female voice on the phone is the secretary,” Smiley said.
She said people have asked her if her husband is the pastor, and receives a weird look when she says no. The pastor of a Lutheran church in my hometown has been mistaken for the secretary as well. I think it is wrong that people assume women are not the leaders.
According to Smiley, women are scrutinized for what they wear, like if they wear flashy jewelry, high heels, nail polish or
short skirts. In my opinion, if female leaders want to wear these items, nothing should stop them because it is a way for them to express themselves.
Biffle said she is not aware of having experienced discrimination. She said she ministers out of the diocese in Spokane. Generally this portion of the country is more progressive and accepting of women and men, according to Biffle.
“In this diocese, there are more women clergy and lay leaders than male ones,” Biffle said.
The Episcopal Church began ordaining women for priesthood in the mid-70s, she said. Biffle said the mainstream Protestant churches started to allow women leadership as a result of larger feminism and civil rights movements in the middle of the 20th century.
Smiley said the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ordained its first woman in 1970. The ELCA recently celebrated its 45th anniversary of ordaining women.
The Bible, or the holy book in Christianity, presents many examples where women take leadership roles. For example, when Jesus Christ first rose from the dead, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and other women. These women are responsible for reporting Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Another famous Biblical woman is Esther, who stood up for her people to the King of Persia against a man who was to kill them. Three important women mentioned in the New Testament are Lydia, who opened her home to the missionaries, Phoebe, the deacon of the church in Cenchreae, and Dorcas, who made clothes for the poor.
Later in time, one prominent church leader was Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, an intelligent nun and the first feminist of America. She was born in present-day Mexico out of wedlock, and learned to read and write. She joined the Convent of Santa Paula and continued to study for the rest of her life. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz fought for women’s rights, and broke societal expectations by studying. One of her most known works, “Hombres Necios” or “Foolish Men,” exposes how men condemn women and she does not excuse their behavior.
Other significant women leaders in the church include Elizabeth Platz, the first woman ordained by a Lutheran church body in North America, Pauli Murray, the first African American woman to be an ordained Episcopalian priest, and Eva Brunne, the world’s first openly gay bishop.
Having women leaders in the church opened the doors for those of other marginalized groups to gain acceptance by mainstream Protestant churches. It is essential for the church to hire women leaders because women bring new ideas to sermons; they create a more diverse environment in the church and can help connect the church’s ideas to members and non-members alike. I prefer to attend a church where all groups of people are welcome and where diversity thrives.