There is a line of women

In Anabaptist churches, patriarchy persists, even as its power has diminished

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Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For centuries, these three names stood alone in sermons, songs and scripture. God was the God of the patriarchs, the forefathers who mattered most.

But without Sarah there would be no Isaac, without Rebekah no Jacob, without Rachel and Leah and their maidservants no 12 brothers to root Israel’s family tree.

Today we are learning to honor the matriarchs, the foremothers who begat God’s chosen people.

Today we sing, from the Anabaptist hymnal Voices Together, “There Is a Line of Women”:

There is a line of women

extending back to Eve

whose role in shaping hist’ry

God only could conceive. . . .

So sing a song of Sarah —

to laughter she gave birth;

and sing a song of Tamar

who stood for women’s worth;

and sing a song of Hannah

who bargained with her Lord;

and sing a song of Mary

who bore and bred God’s Word.

Today we are learning — perhaps as we read from The Peace Table, the new Anabaptist storybook Bible, with our children or grandchildren — that women like Sarah’s servant Hagar, the brave midwives Shiphrah and Puah and the peacemaker Abigail deserve no less esteem than the patriarchs we’ve traditionally honored. 

In Mennonite churches today, patriarchy persists, even as its power has diminished. In the mid-1970s, the denominations that preceded Mennonite Church USA began ordaining women. Today women make up almost 35% of active, licensed MC USA ministers. Their experience reflects both progress and problems. According to a new study, which Amy S. Zimbelman describes on page 10, 96% are moderately or very satisfied with their work as a pastor (compared to 59% in 1992). Yet they also identify gender inequality as their top challenge. Examples include having their voices taken less seriously than men or encountering hiring discrimination when they learn that women need not apply for certain pastoral positions.

The 50-year struggle against patriarchy is far from over, say two women who’ve seen all the progress and disappointment of the era. In Proclaiming the Good News: Mennonite Women’s Voices: 1972-2006 (Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2023), Dorothy Nickel Friesen, co-author with Lois Y. Barrett, says Mennonites “share longstanding traditional attitudes toward the role of women in the home, church and society.”

These attitudes still shape some denominational policies. The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches does not permit women to be lead pastors. LMC, the Lancaster, Pa.-based denomination, opened the role of bishop to women in 2021 but only as part of a team, not as the sole overseer of a district.

At a USMB study conference on women in ministry in 2019, people said they had lost women leaders to MC USA, which doesn’t restrict women pastors as a matter of denominational policy, though congregational practices vary.

The study conference showed the benefits of airing different views. Complementarians (who believe scripture mandates different roles based on gender) and egalitarians alike found value in hearing the counterpoints.

“I know this teaching is unpopular,” said Dan Doriani, a professor who made the case for complementarianism. “But so are a lot of things in Christianity.”

It is in this same spirit of hearing diverse voices that we are publishing an article by a woman who holds the complementarian view.

Debates about gender roles raise issues about the weight of scripture and experience in discerning what is right. Was Jesus egalitarian? Perhaps not; full equality is an approach to gender that did not exist in the ancient world. Yet Jesus treated women with great respect, far exceeding the typical behavior of his time.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that women should not speak in church but “ask their husbands at home” if they have a question. What would Paul say to a female seminary graduate who knows the Bible better than anyone else in the room?

Alongside scripture is the voice of experience: of congregations blessed by women pastors gifted to preach with authority and give care with compassion. And of women who’ve heard God’s call, as Marilyn Miller (one of the first ordained Mennonite women) did in her youth when she heard a preacher encourage the congregation to pray that God would “open more young men’s hearts for the ministry.” As Miller told Laurie Oswald Robinson (a dear friend and colleague who died tragically on April 8) in a 2013 article for The Mennonite: “After that service, I went to our backyard and looked up at the sky and said, ‘God, if you needed pastors so bad, why didn’t you make me a man?’ ”

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. He lives in Newton, Kan., attends First Mennonite Church of Newton and is Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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