Expanding Women in Ministry (in other cultures)

Another letter about women in ministry … and this letter illustrates a very important point we all need to be aware of in “applying” the Bible: each culture summons us to live in ways appropriate to that culture. But, and this is important too, the Christian will work for kingdom conditions to work like yeast in each culture so that God’s ways of justice and peace and love will become living realities. But, it means beginning in different places in different locations. Here’s a letter from one of our former students, now in Burkina Faso. How would you advise Ben?

Dr. McKnight,


I hope the school year is
going well for you and I’ve been keeping up with your blog as much as I
can here.  I’m still in Burkina Faso Africa probably until May or June
and I’m still wrestling with a ton of issues.  One of them is the issue
of women in ministry and a woman’s place in the church. 

I know I have
written you a while ago on this same issue, but now my plight doesn’t
come so much from a disagreement as much as my own thoughts.  I know
that God is calling us to an ultimate ethic of equality between
sexes/races/classes and the like.  I also know that that is more of a
reality in some churches in America and not nearly as close here. 

My struggle or my question is along this line: If
Moses/Jesus/Paul and many others in the Bible advanced woman’s status
in their own culture, yet not necessarily going for the ultimate ethic of equality,
how do I in a culture that is closer to theirs than ours treat this

Back home it seems reasonable enough in most if not all
circumstances to call for and work for the ultimate ethic back home,
but here is clearly not the case.  Woman do ALL the house work, cook
ALL the food, wear headdresses in church, not
just the Bible says so, but because women generally just wear
headscarves anyways. 

So since I have to assume that while the Biblical
characters did not usually treat women the way they will be treated in
the Kingdom of God after the resurrection, can I still assume they
weren’t sinning? 

Likewise, I know I should be encouraging movement
towards equality here, but if I had those same expectations just 6,000
miles West of me, that might be an unacceptable way of treating a woman
and a sin.  I’m not so caught up with me personally sinning over the
whole ordeal, just more I guess would/could you presume that this type
of issue is something that Burkinabe or Africans as a whole will be
judged for just as Americans may be judged for not taking up the plight
of unborn babies or a continuing destruction of the planet?

It is weird that although
we can’t travel through time, sometimes a long flight from America to
Western Africa feels like jumping in a time machine.
"Haven’t read Putnam. It will be interesting to see if it’s addressed."

The Death Of The Church 2: ..."
"While we’re quibbling, doesn’t the car combine with resistance to the civil rights movement the ..."

The Death Of The Church 2: ..."
"I a little confused when it comes to choice of terminology. If “evolutionary creation” is ..."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma
"Venema, Dennis; McKnight, Scott. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Baker, 2017.Giberson, ..."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RJS

    It seems to me that the place to start is not “equality” and changing roles and expectations, teaching or preaching – but Galatians 3:28 and James 2:1-13
    By this I mean – always treat everyone as a valuable person, equal before God. Asserting personhood without exception – and refusing to “other” anyone is the best way to start change and live the intent of the gospel. If we demand or expect total change instantly we will lose – and we will lose the ability to influence. Certainly neither Jesus nor Paul demanded total change instantly in social convention or culture – but they did treat all as people before God.

  • I’m with RJS. I think it is often divisive and counter-productive to focus on what what is wrong, in this case “inequality.” Instead, call to a new vision. Emphasize Jesus’ and Paul’s prime metaphor of fictive family where we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and children of God, each called to ministry at baptism. Resist dwelling on who gets to be in charge and dwell more on the suffering servant. Help people understand the context of the NT and help them see what Jesus and Paul were doing in word and deed. Stay on these themes and walk with people as they wrestle through the implications.

  • I think it’s a fine line between calling out what it wrong and setting that positive vision. If women are being abused because of the hierarchical system (i.e. men think they are superior and so beat their wives into submission, or mutilate them…) then I do there is reason to call that out as unchristian behavior.
    Other issues will take more subtle tactics. Treating everyone equally as a beloved of God, providing women with opportunities to step outside their boxes (education, microloans for businesses). Inequality both causes and is caused by this disparity of opportunity – change these basic building blocks and the culture will follow (to some extent, eventually the philosophical argument will have to be raised).

  • I agree with RJS and Michael. The Incarnation means God starts with people where they are. I’ve spoken to missionaries in Brazil (which has an extremely macho culture) who say it’s taken them years to get men there to realize they shouldn’t cheat on their wives. While God will ultimately settle for nothing less than perfect holiness, he’s thrilled at the tiniest baby steps we make.
    And of course, you can never go wrong by treating people as Jesus treated them.

  • Ben,
    I suggest praying through Philemon and let it shape your concerns. By example Paul blows open the gates for cultural change regarding slavery. You and your wife are free to live creatively and discerningly in your African context. There is, as Julie Clawson remarked, a fine line between cultural conventions and sinful behavior. Shaping the hearts of the people around the huge field-leveling power of the Gospel will in time produce behavioral change. Be what you desire the people to become.

  • We have to pick which field we want to die on. Paul seemed to think our freedom in Christ was a huge thing, but it wasn’t the ultimate good.
    If telling women they don’t have to wear headscarves (or whatever) is going to get either you or them killed, it’s not worth it. More, if it’s going to be an impediment to the gospel for the people in that area, it’s not worth it.
    We often have to start slow. We preached the equal value of all human beings in the sight of God for a long, long time before people finally applied it to slavery. You can teach the whole truth and let that culture work out the application in time as it grows.

  • Julie #3
    “I think it’s a fine line between calling out what it wrong and setting that positive vision.”
    I agree. Seems to me that our challenge is always for us to see ourselves through lens of the biblical narrative and bring others in to confrontation with it as well. But some things are simply not tolerable.
    I think another challenge confronts us. We can unconsciously substitute Western standards for Kingdom standards. Two things can happen. We wrongly expect compliance with our Westernized (and excessively individualistic) views and we fail to learn valuable insights from other cultures.

  • I just have to comment on the irony of discussing freedom for women as a flash ad asking us to vote which version of Britney Spears we like best plays at the top of the page. No of course women aren’t objectified in our culture…

  • RJS

    OK – there is work to do in our own culture as well.

  • joanne

    I think that what Paul did in scripture was interesting. He set forth the vision for equality in Galatians 3:26-29. However History tells us that Romans were somewhat suspicious of Christians because of the way they were in community with slaves and women. I think Paul, in the interest of quieting the suspicions invited Husbands to radically love their wives and wives to submit themselves… of their own free will that the church would be less vulnerable to the charges leveled at them by society. The household codes were foundational to the Roman system of order and the Christians could have been suspected of promoting disorder. They had to walk a fine line between fully living the vision in the new community and navigating within the world system as it was.
    If we think in terms of the new community in Christ, the church, and the world systems it is easier to see that in the community they lived out the gospel more fully creating a vision and esteem for women and what they could become in Christ. It could not be a complete reality in the social world.

  • Your Name

    amen Julie. Just that fact that we are till having these discussions shows the inequality of women still today.
    That being said, Jesus’ example of bringing the culture around to God’s way of thinking was done much more by action than by word. Ben, I think your actions in the treatment of women would be a far greater example than preaching or teaching it.
    And will the people of any culture be judged for their treatment of others? Ours included.

  • Dianne P

    I’m all for living the Word, not just preaching the Word, but I fear that good actions without good teaching may go unnoticed. It’s the good teaching that gives us the framework for seeing, understanding, and ultimately integrating good action into our very being, and ultimately living out kingdom values in every part of our lives. So I cast my vote for both/and, NOT either/or.
    When attempting to live counter-culturally (in a biblical way), whether in Africa or good ole Britney-saturated US of A, we need to remember that Jesus called ALL to himself who were invisible, for whatever reason. Women, children, lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, thieves hanging from an adjacent cross… We don’t have a feminist gospel, but rather a gospel of love that extends to every single being. I think when we remember the big picture and not focus on any one group, then it’s a tiny bit easier to position the gospel into every culture.
    Julie, many thanks for pointing out that bit of irony. Yep, cultural issues abound, even here, but I really didn’t expect to encounter the Britney issue on Beliefnet. Maybe it’s an “opportunity” for Beliefnet to take a closer look at what is popping up in those ads;-)
    OMG, I hit the refresh captcha and it did NOT lose my text. !Gracias a Dios!