What if I disagree with someone who professes to be a Christian?

Disagreement is a fact of life. There is no family, and certainly no church family, free of disagreements. The question should be, "How can I strongly disagree in Christian charity?"

What if I am troubled by the negative attitudes toward women that I find in the Bible and in some churches today?

Written By Tom Ehrich

For reasons that I think we are still straining to understand, the Bible and its attendant institutions—Judaism and Christianity—are highly conflicted over women. Some of that has to do with the power of sex to claim and often to corrupt human lives. Some is males' fear of that which makes women unique, such as menstruation and childbirth and the intuitive dimension of faith often credited to women. Some has to do with power and control. Some has to do with an ancient habit of seeing the masculine as good and the feminine as evil.

On the one hand, the Old Testament seems to fall into those conflicts, devoting much of Torah to regulating lust and property by regulating the sexual behavior of women, assigning women a fundamental inferiority, and blaming women for some evil. On the other hand, some of the early judges were women, indicating that women were fit to rule; God dealt graciously with Sarah and the various women associated with her offspring; some women like Ruth were held up as models of integrity; and the sight of the daughters of Zion welcoming their men home from exile suggests partnership, not subservience.

Jesus clearly intended to break through ancient hierarchical practices concerning women. He welcomed women to his inner circle, treated women as disciples on a par with the male disciples, had close relationships with several women and, it appeared, a special relationship with Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection in John's Gospel. His mother was a leader in the apostolic community and probably was the source of Luke's Gospel.

It seems highly unlikely that Jesus intended the male-dominated institution that arose in his name. Why did it happen? Male dominance reflected the attitudes of Paul, as well as the traditions of Judaism (in which Christianity began) and the Roman world. Fear of women replaced Jesus' openness to women. Accompanying that was fear of sexuality, fear of the intuitive (as in Gnosticism) and fear of power dispersed among the people.

In recent years, arguing about women's roles in church has been a convenient way to argue about change, modernity and questions about hierarchy and power. One way for any institution to sell the concept of control has been to establish the necessity of controlling certain groups. In the church, that surrogate for all control issues has been women.

Some Protestant denominations are making a noble effort to move away from ancient hierarchical patterns. It is tough sledding and probably will require several generations to achieve. My suggestion is that you explore those congregations that are trying to move forward, that you not get hung up on past practices (which can't be redone), and that you accept responsibility for developing a relationship with God that doesn't depend on harmful assumptions and practices. In the end, what Christians did in former times has little to do with you. Your time is now.

—Tom Ehrich