It is true that you will find patriarchy in the Christian scriptures, but you’d be hard pressed to find Jesus promoting it. While we have few of the actual words of Jesus in the gospels, the picture that emerges is of someone who consistently breaks down barriers between insiders and outsiders, including the role of women.
My particular interest is language because I strongly believe that words matter. Words we use for ourselves and for the Divine matter. One of my primary calls to action is to use inclusive language for humankind and expansive language for the Divine. Expansive language simply means that while we don’t eliminate references to Father, Lord, King, etc., we do include a wide variety of other names, words, and images, too.
But as the timeline progresses in the writing of the books Christians call the NT, we can see patriarchy creeping back in and becoming institutionalized. And while many Christian denominations, including my own, do have women in leadership, there is still a lot of work to be done. We’ve made some progress with humanity. For example, one of the creeds we regularly use changed from speaking of Jesus as one “who for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven . . .” to who for us and our salvation . . . and hymns like “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” became “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.”
We also do have to pay attention to how words are translated. For example: Junia, who was a woman who served with the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Romans, he commended both Junia and her co-worker Andronicus as “noted among the apostles.” In early Church history, Junia was widely accepted as a woman apostle, but in later translations an “s” was added to the end of her name, making it into the masculine form, Junias. Why? We don’t know. The Revised Standard Version editions read, “Junias (and compatriots) . . . “they are men of note among the apostles.” The inclusion of “they are men” is an addition to the original text. The New Revised Standard Version now reads, “Junia (and compatriots) . . . are prominent among the apostles.” However, a footnote by Junia reads: “or Junias.”
This is a perfect illustration of why we need to read biblical texts with a hermeneutics of suspicion. That simply means that we’re mindful that these texts have been largely shaped by male perspectives. So we’re curious about the origin of a text, as well as about the biases of modern interpreters, like those who added “they are men” to the original text.
Phoebe is another example. In her case, the Greek word diakonos has traditionally been translated deaconess,while in other places the very same word is translated as minister. In the NRSV, the passage from Romans says: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon* of the church” (in footnote: or minister). Better, but we’re not there yet.
Language for the Divine has been even slower to change. For example, I recently came across an article, in which the author wrote: “I have found that the more I learn about God, His Word and theology which describes Him, the more I can love and worship Him, because now there is that much more to adore and be amazed by. If my ability to worship God is a fire, learning more about Him only adds more wood to the blaze. After all, if you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to learn as much about Him as possible?”
At that point, I was gone. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not picking on this particular article. It was just the latest example that set me off. When the only pronouns we use for God in church and in our own speech are male, what image do we convey? When we use only “Father” to name the Divine, what are we promoting? It’s obvious; God is male.
And the patriarchy that is inherent in much of our sacred texts is reinforced by our refusal to dismantle the patriarchy lodged in our church’s hymns, prayers, sermons, and everyday speech.
As a pastor who leads worship in a congregation almost every Sunday, I’m responsible for putting together the order of the service. That means choosing scripture texts, prayers, and other parts of the liturgy. Since liturgy literally means “work of the people,” shouldn’t the language of our liturgy include all the people?! The words we use really do matter.
And along with “words matter” we have to also recognize that meanings and usage of words may change. For example, it was a major advance when we began saying “brothers and sisters” instead of just “brothers” when reading a passage. Then we had the audacity to reverse the order to “sisters and brothers.” Now, though, we’re learning from our LGBTQ+ friends that it would be better to avoid binary language. So, “siblings” is often used, or “friends,” or my favorite, “beloved.”
It’s a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21st century in the midst of the issues of our day. If we’re going to be truly committed to dismantling patriarchy by paying attention to language, then those on the ground planning, writing, and leading worship have to be much more intentional about it.
And even if you’re not responsible for creating the worship service, you can ask, suggest, demand that those who are to be more aware of the issues involved.
Here’s what you can do:
- Recognize the spiritual, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated by an entrenched patriarchal system, both within the Church and society in general
- Recognize the misogyny of many of the early Church leaders and their ongoing legacy.
- Encourage the reading of scripture with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which questions traditional interpretations.
- Commit to the revision of theologies, teachings, liturgies, and practices to reflect the goodness of all people especially those who have been most impacted by patriarchy
- Use inclusive language for humankind and expansive language for the Divine in church publications and worship materials.
- Lift up the true stories of women in the Bible – like Phoebe and Junia.
“God Is Male” by Nina Paley is made available under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication