The idea that God created men and women with different capabilities and purposes has driven the debate about gender equality for centuries. Yet, while the idea seems fairly straightforward – God created Adam first and Eve was made from Adam; therefore Adam must be the leader because he was created first. The implications behind this belief in fundamentally different gender roles has far reaching and dangerous implication for women who feel called to serve in male-dominated professions. What is most ironic to me about this debate is the fact that in over a 100 years we have not progressed at all on this issue. The same concerns B.T. Roberts expressed about women’s rights at the 1890 General Conference are the same rights we are fighting for today. The opponents to Roberts haven’t changed much over the years either.
Roberts was a radical in his day (Yes, I’ll call him that because he called himself a revolutionary fighter for justice.) At a time when women could not vote, had very few civil liberties, and were not allowed to serve as ordained ministers in the Free Methodist Church, B.T. Roberts called opponents who believed women were not equal to men in every capacity prejudiced. In his opening remarks at the 1890 General Conference Roberts noted:
It is a very hard thing to speak to men’s prejudices. They are stronger than the sense of justice. They are stronger than the lover of truth, even in many good men. We can hardly estimate the power of prejudice, and yet I think as Christian men we ought to conquer our prejudices and adhere to truth however it may be in conflict with our training. Prejudices on this subject (on ordaining women) are the growth of centuries. Truth may be in conflict with our training and prejudice on this subject. We have been brought up to regard women as inferior to man, and are not willing the same rights be given her. (p. 109)
This prejudice and fear of women having authority in the church and in the home is still prevalent in today’s evangelical culture. What is there to fear about complete equality? If we truly want to live as Christ lived – sacrificing ourselves for our loved ones and our faith – then there should be no problem with both partners or church leadership teams sharing the power between genders. Dare I say it? Have we so socialized ourselves to believe that women are incapable of leading that we no longer question the ideas of pop culture Christian psychology and self-help books?
As I noted at the beginning of this post, perhaps one of the most indoctrinated arguments for separate gender roles and leadership is the belief that Adam, being created first, was ordained by God as the leader.
Roberts addresses this fallacy early in his address:
Mr. President, if you will go back to the beginning, you find that in the beginning God made woman in perfect equality with man. In Genesis 1:26, “And God said let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, and let them have dominion.” The dominion he gave was a common dominion. In Genesis 2:18 it says: “And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” The word here translated “a helpmeet” denotes perfect equality. Adam Clarke says on that Hebrew word that is means a counterpart – a being like himself, possessing neither inferiority nor superiority, but in all respects equal to himself. (p.110)
Roberts notes that this complete equality was lost after the fall, but was restored with through Christ. Over the next few weeks I’m going to delve into the 1890 General Conference debate about ordaining women. The issues raised in the 1890s are the same objections to gender equality that I continually hear today. Therefore, if we are to understand why this issue is important and why we should re-evaluate our personal beliefs on gender roles, tracing the course of this historical debate is a necessary starting point.
*All B.T. Roberts quotes are taken from the book Passion of the Founders, Ed. By Gerald Coates for the Marston Historical Society.