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July 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 3 · pp. 82–84 

Woman's Freedom - The Church's Necessity

Katie Funk Wiebe

Where are we in our attitude toward women? The question implies a goal toward which we are working, or barring that, at least the realization of the need for change.

Though I see no evidence of the articulation of such goals within our Mennonite churches, here and there I notice a few individuals who sense the need for change. I see a faint glimmer of light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Women in Mennonite churches will not always sit outside the inner circle of church life. The gap between what they can do and what they are allowed to do will disappear. The church will not always be afraid to give women the opportunity to develop full use of their talents of love, concern, intellect, spiritual and special skills. They will not always be considered second class citizens in the kingdom of God. I rejoice.

Women’s role is difficult to discuss because attitudes between men and women in the church have become so traditionalized and institutionalized; furthermore, Women’s Lib has made the issue an unnatural bout between men and women, with each group intent on getting or holding onto their rights. Men and women have polarized, and are using the church and scripture to validate their prejudices.

Yet the issue is deeper than whether women will have the right to become delegates to conferences or to sit on church boards. It concerns the rights of a large segment of the church to develop their full potential as persons. It concerns itself with the liberation of both men and women from an unnatural fear of one another as they work in the church setting. It concerns itself with the tearing down of manmade barriers which keeps the church from reaching to other people.

Present attitudes toward women are the vestigial remains of our legacy from many previous generations. For centuries women have been treated, not as a person, but as

  • A force to be feared. Women caused Adam to fall in the Garden, therefore some think she is still a source of temptation and an influence for evil.
  • An object to be used, a chattel, a beast of burden, a servant of her husband and a womb to bear his children. She has been bought and sold, used and abused. Financially she was dependent on man. She had no voice in her own destiny, other than that determined by her reproductive organs. Anatomy was destiny.
  • A body to be played with. Her main purpose in life was related to sex. She was man’s toy, his playmate, an accessory to him and his house which he discarded when he grew tired of her. Her brain was unimportant; to educate her was unnecessary because childbearing did not require book learning.

These myths, which have made man women’s natural enemy, have become so intertwined with biblical teaching that it has become difficult to extricate truth from tradition.

These myths have shaped women’s attitudes toward themselves {83} as well as men’s attitudes toward women. When a whole philosophy of home and church life has been structured on verses like “Let your women keep silence in the churches,” and “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands,” a verse like “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NEB) seems to belong to the Apocrypha.

So where are we today?

Though most Mennonites would disagree strongly that woman’s main role is to provide sexual pleasure for the male, yet some seem to find it hard to free women from a role related mostly to reproduction. Women are expected to become mothers and to restrict their lives to the kitchen and nursery and to activities related to these, even in the church. Career and professional women are considered outside the will of God. To be single, by choice or circumstance is an abnormality, and little room is given for such people to develop.

As we face a world in which small families will probably become the norm, I think the church will have to recognize the multiple roles which a woman can fill today as wife, mother, friend, citizen, creative artist, church worker, professional person. We will have to understand that motherhood may not be in the inevitable destiny of all woman simply because they have the right physical equipment, but should only be taken on as a conscious human purpose for which God gives grace and help.

Secondly, I believe that the emphasis in Mennonite churches is still too much on a woman’s limitations—what she cannot do in the church because she is a woman—which hampers her development and the work of the church. Women fear to step out of what seems to be a God-appointed role and men fear to open the way for them—probably because they have a growing uneasiness this may put women in the pulpit. That missionary ladies have for decades spoken from the pulpit, though always from the side, with one hand resting lightly on it, doesn’t seem to count.

I do not find a desire among women to gain prominence or position—only the desire to make a contribution, to be considered a worthwhile person, not as sex object or as inferior person or to be dismissed or disregarded like a child who is to be told to run and play. Most sensible women agree that church and society function most efficiently when we have good masculine leadership and are grateful for it.

The emphasis on limitations has conditioned women in Mennonite churches to be silent and submissive, in themselves not objectionable traits, but along with this, this emphasis has given them the excuse, with biblical support, to quit growing as persons. “I don’t need to, so why should I ?” The silence some of these women live in is comfortable, and frequently they have little to submit.

Women are their own worst enemy. They miss tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth because they would rather serve tables than join a study group, quite unaware that they are usurping what was originally men’s work (Acts 6:2, 3).

The lack of opportunity in the church has in part resulted in too many women in Mennonite churches, who, as they grow older and their children leave home, lack purpose in life other than as it is related to their kitchen, their clothes, their furniture. Even WMS (Women’s Missionary Society) is merely a hobby because it lacks real decision-making. So they take a job, {84} any job, or shop or watch TV, or attend meetings. They lack encouragement to reach out to new areas because curiosity about religion and life is not expected of women. The church is the loser in such cases.

Third, I believe we need to recognize that women who can run large homes, who function efficiently and effectively in all kinds of secular positions, are also capable of assisting in the decision-making in the church. Basically church work has been a male monopoly. The pattern has been men’s brains, and women’s hands. Women can teach Sunday school, run the nursery, keep the sanctuary decorated with flowers, and direct children’s choir, but other levels are closed to her.

A quick survey before I wrote this article showed that very few Mennonite women sit on boards and committees. WMS is still usually a separate organization, running parallel to the main conference. If her husband is the deacon, she is the deacon’s wife, never a deaconess on her own merits. Prestige is connected with men’s contributions. As one lady missionary said, “Men are interested in knowing that I am a missionary, but not interested enough to discuss my work with me for an hour.”

In the next few years the church will need to disentangle Biblical teaching from cultural accretions. Too frequently are Paul’s words to wives applied to women’s role in the church. To free women will also free men and will break down the walls separating men’s and women’s participation in the church. We have shackled ourselves when truth is unconsciously divided into male and female roles.

One of several things will happen to women of Mennonite churches in the next decade. The church can decide now not to wait for the dust to settle in this revolution affecting women and, with them, our homes. It can rise to the occasion and give understanding leadership and support of women in their various roles.

Or, as women move into greater freedom in all other walks of life, the secularization of our day will claim them completely. The church will mean less and less to them because it is a place of limitations, not of opportunity. It will become a nonessential extra in their lives.

I opt for the former.

Mrs. Wiebe is Publicity Director for Tabor College.

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