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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
Who else has authority in the community?
by Kendra Hotz

There are two important groups who always carry authority in Christian churches, even when official doctrine and polity do not acknowledge them: women and the wealthy.

Women have been active leaders since the beginning of the Christian faith. Jesus violated social norms by conversing with and teaching women. He included them among his innermost circle of followers. Many of the most important turning points in his career were marked by interaction with women. In the Gospel of John, he is first made known as messiah to the woman at the well. In the Gospel of Mark, he begins his ministry among the Gentiles after a woman argues with him.

In all of the Gospel accounts it is women who first attest to the resurrection. Other New Testament writings confirm that women continued to be active in leading the early church. The apostle Paul mentions a number of important women in his letters and even identifies one of them, Junia, as an apostle.

But the status of women in the New Testament is also mixed. In one place women are admonished not to speak during worship, in other places they are forbidden to teach, and in another they are taught to submit to their husbands. Although these texts are difficult to square with the others mentioned above and with the basic Pauline affirmation that in Christ differences of status such as male and female have been abolished, the ambiguity about the status of women in the New Testament eventually led the church, in conformity with its surrounding Greco-Roman culture, to the conclusion that women are subordinate to men and may not serve as leaders in the church.

Most Christian churches still forbid women to serve as clergy. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, together with most Baptists and independent/non-denominational churches, teach that women may not hold ordained office. Other Protestant denominations, however, permit and encourage women to serve in all areas of church leadership. African-American churches were among the first to affirm the gifts of women for ministry. The Methodists, most Episcopalians and Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, most Lutherans, and others followed.

Even in denominations and congregations where they are not permitted to hold church office, however, women still carry a great deal of authority. Sometimes that authority is acknowledged—when they serve as Sunday School leaders for children, organize and volunteer in church ministries, and so forth—and at other times it takes the form of behind-the-scenes influence.

The wealthy also carry a great deal of authority in Christian churches, even though it violates deeply held Christian convictions to privilege them. In spite of the church’s best efforts to uphold the poor and to hold all as equal, Christians have often succumbed to social and cultural pressures that favor the wealthy and give them undue influence on the policies and practices of a community.

It is not uncommon to find that those who can afford to make the largest financial contributions to a congregation are also those most likely to be chosen for service as leaders. Their influence is also felt when congregations deliberate on controversial matters because of fear that an unpopular decision may threaten the financial stability of a congregation if wealthy members decide to leave or to withhold funds because of that decision.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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