By Jenna Sullivan
I think that John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople and well-known preacher of the late fourth and early third century, would have been a bit perplexed if he met me. If time travel was possible, and Bishop JC arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C., today in 2015, he probably would have been surprised to find a young woman beginning a journey in theological education.
In one of his homilies, The Kind of Women Who Ought to Be Taken as Wives (yes, that is actually the title), Bishop JC writes that “a wife has just one purpose: to guard the possessions we have accumulated, to keep a close watch on the income, to take charge of the household.” And as much as this verse makes me want to develop a bodily twitch of some sort, I have to also smile a bit.
Bishop JC, as an early church leader, was struggling to interpret the words of Genesis in a way that made sense for his time. He just couldn’t fathom why women, daughters of Eve, the “first sinner”, could lead other Christians with purpose, passion and even faithfulness. His words remind me that the world around me is very much a product of thinkers long ago.
Often we might feel that our theology just plopped down from above as Truth today in its current form. If I learned anything in my first semester at Wake Forest School of Divinity, it is that that is far from the reality. We can sometimes forget that the ideas that shape our faith, realities have deep roots in a particular historical context: an early tradition that struggled to define itself and its own institutional structure. Whether we like it or not, the ways in which our Church Fathers like Bishop JC interpreted scripture lies all around us.
So what do we do, then, when scripture itself seems to speak a voice that offends us? In my Old Testament Class, we have read the words of the Hebrew God mandating that women will be submissive to men. We are desperate to make sense of these words—maybe, some feminist thinkers have said, this was not a mandate on the part of God but a natural result of human sin. But there is a hesitant part of me that knows that sometimes the text before us is just offensive. Sometimes it just really is patriarchal and harsh. That is just the reality of looking at ancient Near Eastern scrolls from an early Israelite culture we find ourselves mysteriously connected to.
The holy mystery of God cannot be limited to the words of scripture or even the words of good ole’ Bishop JC who worked to interpret them. This may be hard to hear, but we must be bold enough to experience God in the gaps of Scripture, and in the gaps of the institutional church today. I can already feel the twitches and panics of others: “you mean, listen to the gaps? What does that even mean? Gaps are ambiguous and could take us anywhere!! They can’t be trusted. Scripture has all we need.”
Some of my female peers in divinity school have mentioned that there is a part of them they just can’t shake off that which says they are doing something wrong by doing ministry. That shows how deep in the bones fear, shame and patriarchy can get in each of us.
As a young woman excited about the possibilities of ministry, I am also afraid of the road that lies ahead. I know my options may be limited in some ways, but I also know that God is present and working in our midst and in a new generation of hopeful, justice-oriented, faithful Christians. We must not just “like” Facebook updates about women in ministry. We as a community of churches and friends must also actively work to support women in ministry in our daily lives.
Jenna is a first-year student and CBF Leadership Scholar seeking her M.Div. at Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. She is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and hopes to be ordained within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and serve as a congregational pastor.