Last month I preached -- in South Africa -- in Johannesburg -- in a township -- in a Pentecostal church. In Pentecostal worship, preaching is giving your testimony. So how do I translate my life into a testimony, find the threads that connect to their experience, speak in a spiritual vocabulary to these human needs, and be honest about the depths of my unknowing? I am an American academic, a historian of the early church, a professor of Women's Studies. Where would I find the points of connection?
I could speak of my own struggling with what it meant to be a woman -- inferior, valued less, silenced, excluded, constrained, exhorted to be submissive--and my discovery of the American women's movement. However, for the context of African Christianities, where traditional tribal patriarchies merged with colonial European patriarchies, there would be little resonance. I would need an alternate framework to human rights feminism. Western notions of equality, individualism, and rights have little resonance in cultures with a strong sense of kinship and communal identity and of responsibilities based on age and gender rather than rights based on citizenship.
Can the Biblical tradition provide a framework that affirms women's value and worth, their contribution to community and their capacity for leadership? From the letters of Paul it is clear that there was conflict and controversy over gender roles in emerging Christian communities. Tensions surfaced between Christian teachings on a new birth and new identities in Christ and the inferior and subordinated social identities of barbarians, women and slaves. The rallying cry was "In Christ, there is neither Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free." (Gal. 3.28)
When women assumed the leadership roles of prophets and teachers at Corinth, Paul reasserted the patriarchal gender roles of Roman society in his correspondence with Christians at Corinth. He appealed to the creation story of Genesis 2--men had priority over women, man was created first, woman was created from man, a woman sinned first. Paul rebuked Corinthian women for not wearing their veils. He insisted that they wear their veils to make clear that they accepted their lower status even while exercising leadership.
Of course the Corinthian women understood the cultural significance of the veil as a covering of their sexual nature and as a symbol of their subordination. But because their understanding of the meaning of their femaleness had been transformed by the teachings on the new life in Christ, they prophesied without them. The creation story of Genesis 1, the first creation story, laid the foundation--God created male and female at the same time and created them both in the image of God. (Gen. 1.28)
The Corinthian prophets understood their baptism into Christ to be the entry into a new humanity, united with Christ, capable of mediating the divine. The spirituality of the women prophets celebrated women's identity with Christ, their possessing the mind of Christ, and their representing Christ's glory. Women created in the image of God -- here was the Biblical framework for affirming the dignity and value of women.
During my semester at the University of Botswana I attended different churches each Sunday--Pentecostal, Baptist, Apostolic, United Congregational Churches, Anglican, Zionist. Although women constituted the majority by nearly two thirds of every congregation, it was only in the Pentecostal and Apostolic type churches that women's leadership was accepted. The authority of the Spirit in the African prophetic churches is not mediated through ordination or hierarchies, thus women were also recognized as prophets, pastors and teachers.
My research on second century Christianity has impressed me with the vitality and creativity of the house churches where spiritual and prophetic authority held sway. Women prophets, teachers and evangelists were valued leaders, so much so that an early detractor of Christianity, Celsus, ridiculed the cult as a gathering place where women and children imagined themselves as dispensing divine wisdom. I see a similar vitality and creativity in the African churches.
Talking to southern African feminists has shown me how women here are also defined by patriarchal practices. State officials and kgosi (trial chiefs) are mostly men. Authority is mostly a masculine prerogative. Marriage traditions require a bride price, which implies that husbands own their wives' sexuality. Though different in so many ways, our respective cultures define our womanhood similarly. We are defined by our sexual and reproductive functions, we are valued less than men, and our voice and judgments are not sought in decision making. However, for Pentecostal women there is an alternate scriptural tradition which provides a different vision of what it means to be a woman.
So this is what I preached in the township after telling the story of my own struggle with the way American culture of the 1950's defined my womanhood--the spiritual transformation of gender identity in Christ. Becoming one with Christ creates a new identity. Participating in the image of Christ transforms old social identities, grants authority to speak, and bestows worth and value. Women in the image of God means that a woman's face reveals the face of God, that God speaks to women and through women. Their new spiritual nature means that women have authority to mediate the divine.