I was asked to speak yesterday at a special 'weekend for the women' at our church. The topic was to be "the responsibility of women in building up the church." The dilemma became how to address women who occupy a more gender-stratified society than I do. For example, at churches of this type men are always the official pastors while the pastor's wife is expected to unequivocally support her husband in his role.
Several months ago the pastor told Joe that he wanted to talk to him about a problem he was having. When they met, Pastor Ntapo told Joe that he didn't think his wife was supporting him as fully as she should and that it was holding him back in his ministry. Joe asked him what his wife's gifts were, to see whether there were ways in which she might be unfulfilled and in which the pastor could support her more fully. Pastor Ntapo looked at him and in a moment of honest realisation said: "you see, in our culture, women do not have a will of their own." He loves his wife and wants to support her and his head may disagree with his statement, but his life and instinct have been influenced by this belief.
At the same time, women have a great deal of responsibility within the congregation and society and serve as the backbone which provides the structure from which men can hold the up-front roles. The pentecostal tradition of the testimony, in which there is a slot in each week's service for someone to get up and share a story or a way in which God has worked in her life, has been seen as a great gender and educational-difference equaliser. Women are also asked to pray, to provide counsel, to teach the children, to lead worship, and generally to fill whatever gaps appear on a given day, including preaching.
So how was I to address these women? Do I encourage them to claim their God-given gifts to claim formal positions of leadership? Do I encourage them to exercise their power within the structure available to them?
I took my counsel from the book of Ruth. The book provides a unique glimpse into the ways in which women work within their societal structures to manipulate events to bring about the good of all. Instead of being told from Boaz's perspective (as too many stories are), the book tells the story of how Ruth and Naomi brought about the circumstances that eventually led to the birth of David and, much farther down the line, of Jesus. The book begins and ends with a patriarchal frame--beginning with Elimelech who had a wife and sons, and ending with a male genealogy showing how the union of Boaz and Ruth led to David. In so doing it asks an enticing question--in how many other stories that are told from a male perspective are women the unknown agents of change and control? Is this book the canon's effort to mediate itself and provide a clue to something missing in other parts?
I preached this text and used it to encourage the women to claim the power that they do have and to use it for great good--to be immersed in the Story in order to be properly prepared for the positions of leadership that they hold. When teaching the children, they need to be teaching the stories of the faith that give the children resources for dealing with the real world in the way that television soap operas cannot. When giving testimony, they can be prepared with a week's worth of reflections and new insight instead of relying on the old cliches too common to this genre. When praying, they can know the God to whom they pray by knowing the story. As the standard of their leadership increases, so too can their power within the church. Some women are already doing these things and I am certainly not blaming them for the inequality of their society but it is my observation that they are too often willing to cede the thinking and telling to the men, falling back themselves on cliche and inherited wisdom. Hope and worth are the real needs.
Did I pass by my chance to preach real change to these women? Did I allow myself to preach complacency within an unjust structure?
I hope not.
As I prepared to preach, I looked around and noticed the four men in the building each holding a child. There is a cultural shift happening here and it will be a slow change for everyone. A necessary step will be for the women to prepare themselves and to claim their God-given gifts, no longer seeing themselves as powerless and hopeless, taking their example from Ruth and Naomi who used the structure given to them to bring about change and good.
Mama Goniwe sharing a testimony.
Sis Nandi leading singing.
Multi-generational dancing after church --Zinje, Mama Deleki, Nontoko, and Mama Cengani.
My ideas about the book of Ruth are influenced by Richard Bauckham's Gospel Women (2002).