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Gender and the Bible: Part 1

By August 17, 2015 No Comments

by Rebecca Koerselman

Are men and women spiritually equal, in the eyes of God? Are the souls of men and women of equal value?

As a young child attending church and Sunday school, when I heard the pastor, worship leader, liturgist, or teacher say “man,” “men,” or “brothers,” I did not think that it meant anything other than “men” and “brothers.” When I read about things that men should do or not do in the Bible, I thought men should do or not do those things. As a young girl, I didn’t think any of it applied to me. After all, there are words that do include everyone, such as “all people” or “brothers and sisters” or “everyone” or “humanity” or “humankind.”

A number of people explained to me that in a biblical context “man” or “men” was really a plural term that meant everyone. I remember thinking, really? That’s ridiculous. Then why not say “everyone” or “men and women”? We have words that mean “everyone.” Why not use them instead? It was very confusing to me that the terms “men” and “man” sometimes stood for everyone, but other times just meant men or man and didn’t include women. How was I supposed to know the difference? Also, a little guiltily, I wondered, does that mean I need to pay attention to all that stuff I previously ignored because I just thought it was only for men and brothers?

Of course I was a child, with primarily concrete thought, and still struggling with abstract ideas and concepts. And yes, as an adult, I have heard all sorts of opinions on the use of gender-neutral language and its appropriateness, especially with regard to the Bible. But this language issue continued to puzzle me into my teen and young adult years.Koerselman 12

My next encounter with gender and the Bible came in my later teen years and early adulthood. I noticed that most of my Sunday school and catechism teachers were female, especially in the younger grades. A number of these teachers were particularly influential in my spiritual development and growth and understanding of the Bible and God’s love. I am very grateful to those many faithful servants who taught me, cared for me, talked with me and challenged me. But as I grew older, I realized that most of the women who mentored me were not in leadership positions in the church. I noticed that the women who were wonderful teachers, knowledgeable about the church and scripture, knowledgeable about the creeds and catechisms, and provided servant-like leadership and spiritual formation to the youth were always in the background. I never saw any of them elected to the Consistory, serving as elders and deacons. As a young adult, I found that strange. Didn’t these women have the same gifts of teaching and leadership, particularly if I compared the women teachers I had with the few men that certainly meant well but didn’t exactly have the gift of teaching?

Years later, a close friend lost their grandmother. I went to the funeral and was struck by the way that my friend’s grandmother’s life was celebrated and remembered. I had never met this grandmother, but heard about her wonderful spiritual leadership and influence on her entire family, children and grandchildren, congregation and community. I also noticed that my friend’s grandfather, a good man, but not given the same accolades, especially with regard to spiritual gifts and leadership, had regularly been an elder in the church while my friend’s grandmother had never held an ordained office in the church. I found this particularly troubling.

Now that I am an adult and have spent time studying the roles of men and women, especially in religious traditions, I am still plagued by many of the same questions. Are spiritual gifts and abilities really valued in the church? If so, then why is it that some people decide what gifts God has given to other people?

Does God value some gifts, or some people more than others? Or are we all spiritually equal?

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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