The Moravian Church was the first protestant denomination to educate its girls and women alongside its boys and men. In the Renewed Church of the18th Century, we had women in positions of leadership. Then, over the years, the church allowed society at large to affect our prophetic stance. When I was a boy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s all the pastors in the Moravian Church were men, as were all the elders and trustees in most of the local churches.
In those days, the only denominations that regularly permitted women in rolls of leadership were Quakers and Pentecostals. One of my professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Harold Kuhn, was a Quaker. Dr. Kuhn was his denomination’s representative to the National Council of Churches. In the early 1960’s at one session of the Council, he was asked if he wanted to serve on a committee to study the issue of women in the ministry. He said, “It is not an issue for me. I belong to a small, obscure denomination that has been ordaining women for more than 300 years.”
I think it is interesting that the first denominations to ordain women, like the Quakers and some Pentecostals, had an emphasis on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the church. They took seriously the word of Jesus in John 16:13 that he would send the Holy Spirit to lead his disciples into all truth.
Today, Moravians are firmly behind the tradition of women in leadership and ministry. For instance, our board of Elders is made up of the pastor and 11 elders; at present six of the Elders are women. Likewise, our denomination has been ordaining women for decades. The Rev. Christy Clore is an ordained Moravian minister; and we now several women who have been consecrated bishops, including Bishop Blair Couch and Bishop Kay Ward. The past president of the Unity Board is a woman from South Africa, Sister Evangeline Swart; and the president of the Northern Province Provincial Elders Conference is a woman, the Rev. Betsy Miller.
Many of my friends in the fundamentalist churches have asked me how we Moravians can read the same New Testament they do, and permit women in leadership, even ordaining them?
There are at least three answers to that question.
First, as we have said in prior weeks, we recognize that some texts of scripture take precedent over other, primarily because they are more Christlike. For instance,when we read in 1st Corinthians 14:35 that “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church,” we balance it against texts like Galatians 3:28 wherein the apostle writes:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When we compare those two texts we simply know that the text from Galatians represents the highest and best the apostle had to say, and that the text from 1st Corinthians is inferior to it.
Second, Moravians, like Quakers and Pentecostals believe in the continual activity and leading of the Holy Spirit. Though we acknowledge that some texts of scripture forbid women from speaking in church and having authority over men, we also acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has continued to call women into God’s service. In the Moravian Church, it was as teachers that women initially demonstrated that they first class citizens in the Kingdom of God.
I shall never forget the honesty of a woman who was a member of my mother’s Sunday School Class at Pine Chapel Moravian Church where I grew-up. One day, after church, she told my father that my mother was a better teacher than he was a preacher. This gave rise to my father’s famous, and oft quoted exclamation, “She will never teach in the church again!” The truth is that by her own conviction my mother would only teach other women. She refused to teach men. Another woman in our church, Mrs. B___ E_______, was not so reluctant. B__ was the first woman to teach what was then known as “the Young Adult Class.” I used to attend that class when I was home from college. By that time, most of its members were in their forties and fifties, but I was attracted by B__’s teaching. She held this once young man’s attention in ways that even my father could not. Once Moravians allowed women like B__ to teach men, the future of women in our church was written large and clear: “There is no male or female, but we are all one in Jesus Christ.” Small wonder that we ordain women today!
The third reason Moravians have come to fully accepted women in leadership is our careful study of the texts of scripture itself. A careful study of these texts often sheds new light on them. Remember, our Bible did not drop down from heaven whole. There are 27 books in the New Testament alone, and we possess thousands of manuscripts containing one or more of these books. There is much to learn by comparing these manuscripts.
Sometimes, text criticism provides us with some low hanging fruit, that is easily picked and digested. Take the long ending of the gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). The King James Bible (1611) includes the long ending, where in Jesus asserts that his disciples would speak in tongues, handle serpents, and drink poison without harm. The RSV (1952) still includes the long ending, but it also includes a note that the long ending is missing from the oldest manuscripts, all of which had been discovered since the King James was published. In the original text Mark’s gospel ends with verse 8, and the final word is the Greek preposition “gar,” which is translated by our English word “for.” This word cries out for an additional phrase, and it is not there. “For” is not a word on which to end a book or a gospel. Therefore, many scholars believe the original ending of Mark was lost. I agree. So did scribe who lived long after the Gospel was first published, and added the long ending we have now. (Note 1:) The scribe meant well, and his ending may have served the needs of its day; but, in our day, it has given rise to the churches of the southern highlands that pick-up snakes and drink poison. That kind of religion may be attractive to some, but it is not attractive to me. When I was in Seminary I saw a film that followed the career of a snake handling pastor. He said that those with strong faith need not fear the serpents, and the film showed actual footage of him taking up serpents, caressing and even kissing them. As the film closed, the narrator told us that, this particular pastor ultimately died of snakebite. Evidently, if we are to believe his own words, his faith wore so thin that it became too weak to save him. I left that film knowing that the faith of the snake-handlers was foreign, albeit certainly kin, to my own. We are all followers of Christ! That realization made me pray that the snake handling churches would produce just one good text critic who could then tell them that the long ending of Mark was not a part of the oldest and best manuscripts. Of course, that is not likely to happen, for as one of their number said on another occasion, “The King James Bible was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it is good enough for us.” Of course, this is completely ridiculous. Jesus and Paul lived in the first Christian century, and the King James Bible was not translated into English from the original languages until the 17th Christian century. Even the King James Bible is based on the best text criticism of its day.
Text criticism has provided us with some low hanging fruit. At times it is easy to apply its rules. At other times, we simply have to trust to the internal evidence of a text. That is the case in 1st Corinthians. In chapter 11 of 1st Corinthians St. Paul assumes that women are praying and prophesying in the church at Corinth. He accepts this, with one proviso: He says that women should only pray or prophesy with their heads covered. So far, so good. Women can teach in the church. Then, In chapter 14 of 1st Corinthians, St. seems to contradict what he says in chapter 11.. In chapter 14 he says that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church, and even orders women with questions refrain from asking them until they are home alone with their husbands. Noting this glaring contradiction, many scholars have been quick to point out that chapter 14 reads just as well, and perhaps even better, if we leave out those verses that seem aimed at silencing and subjugating women. (verses 34-37) The same scholars have concluded that these verses, like the long ending of Mark, are not original to the text; but added by a disciple of Paul, or perhaps by a scribe copying his original letter. They argue that the idea that women should keep silent in the church was not Paul’s idea at all.
I am in 100% agreement with this position, and it is vindicated by internal evidence that we have gathered from Paul’s other letters. We know from Romans 16 that Paul named at least one woman, Phoebe, as a deaconess in the church, and another woman, Junia, as an apostle. (Note 1) We know from 1st Corinthians 9:1 that Paul defined an apostle as “one who had seen the risen Lord.” Therefore, it is not Paul and the church, but the risen Christ himself who appoints women to the apostleship, beginning with Mary Magdalene in the Garden, on that first Easter Morning.
There are other texts attributed to Paul that seem to be against women in leadership and ministry. And we must also deal with those. In 1st Timothy 2:11-12 the apostle writes that women are to keep silent and learn in silence, and that he never permits women to have authority over men. Like my professor at Princeton, Dr. Bruce Metzger, I believe that some of the content of 1st and 2nd Timothy must be traced to Paul, but in their final form, these pastoral epistles reflect a later time in the church. They don’t concern themselves with the apostles and prophets of the early church, as much as they concern themselves with the deacons, and elders, and bishops of a later era. They treat the church more like an organization that the organism it was in the beginning.
Some fundamentalists will have fits to think that the writings of Paul were edited by another; but it really not such a big deal. In point of fact, in Romans 16:22 we learn that Paul did not even write the book of Romans. There we read:“I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Of course, Paul is the authority behind the letter to the Romans, and Tertius only served as his amanuensis or secretary. However, it illustrates a point. It is not so big a jump from being Paul’s secretary, to being Paul’s editor. Similar things happen in our own church office all the time. The fact that scripture has both authors and editors is to be expected. It is hardly a threat to the integrity of the Scripture.
Now at this juncture, some of you may be tempted to throw up your hands and say, “How can I ever be competent to judge things like this?” The answer, of course, is that not everyone has to be. The church sets aside scholars to study these things for us; and to communicate what they have learned. Some of us will want to pursue the questions. I have been doing so for forty years. This does not mean that we have to put our discipleship on hold. The important thing for each of us is that we remember that every text of scripture, as every decision in life, must eventually measure up to the person of Jesus Christ, for he is the Word of God which is living, and active, and it is with Him that we have to do. (Hebrews 4:12)
Consider once more the example of women in the church. Think about how important women have been in the whole long history of the church, reaching to the present day and beyond. I would not want to be a part of a church that denied itself the talents of more than 50 percent of its membership, yet some people are content to be. Not long ago Clyde and I met with a woman who was about to join New Philadelphia for lunche. She was a professional, not a Bible scholar, but she well understood the principals that we have been talking about. Before coming here, she was about to join a large successful church, and was attending a course of instruction that would lead to membership. As the final session drew to a close, she noted a great omission, and asked, “What does this church have to say about women in leadership?” The person leading the class told her that, at present, there were no women in leadership in the church. “But,” he said, “if the right woman came along, it might be possible.” Ouch! Aren’t you glad that Moravians believe that any woman who is obedient a disciple of Jesus Christ, and obedient to his Spirit is is the right woman, as many of you have proven.
Note 1: There is yet another “Shorter Ending,” occurring in some manuscripts after verse 8. There are variations, but it may be summed up as follows: “But they (the women) reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself (appeared to them and) sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
Note 2: Some translations of Romans 16, including the KJV and the RSV read “Junias,” indicating a man. We now know this to be wrong. The NRSV reads “Junia.” In translating the NRSV scholars took into account that though there are lots of Junia’s in literature and correspondence contemporary to Paul’s letter, there is not one Junias. Juntas was never a masculine name. Paul was talking about a woman apostle; not a man.