The Transformational Need for Women
in a Christ-focused global United Methodist Church
By M. Garlinda Burton**
From the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7, beginning with verse 24
A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged Jesus to chase the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered Jesus, saying, “Lord, even the dogs under the children’s table eat the children’s crumbs” Then he said to her, “Daughter, for saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the children lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
This is a familiar story of healing and miracles so familiar perhaps that we miss how transformational this story was and is, not just for the woman, but for Jesus, his future ministry and the ministry of the Church universal.
The Syrophoenician woman was “off limits” to Jesus because of her cultural, gender, race and physical disability. It was literally a violation of the cultural norms of his nation for Jesus to interact with her. She was considered unclean because of her mixed-race and her religious practices.
Additionally, the fact that this unnamed Syrophoenician women’s daughter was possessed by a demon was likely considered a just punishment for a mixed-raced, non-Jewish, foreign woman. Because, remember, to have a disability in Jesus’ culture was believed to be a punishment by God for your sins or your parents’ sins.
As a product of his culture, too, Jesus of Nazareth was not expected to have a theological discourse with any woman. At this point, as a teacher and rabbi among many of his followers, he was in fact expected to make pronouncements about the lives of women, to impose a patriarchal religiosity upon her, and she would just have to deal with it. Women, up to this point, were not so much partners in the ministry of bringing God’s reign on earth: They were simply there to serve, stand aside and shut up.
So when this presumptuous, unclean Syrophoenician woman asked for healing for her unclean Syrophoenician daughter, Jesus the man of his culture dismisses her and insults her, calling her a “dog.” And yet, she persists in challenging his cultural biases and the institutional and historic sexism under which he has operated, saying to Jesus, “If you are the Messiah, the bringer of Good News, the fulfillment of prophecy, the Son of the Living God who made both you and me, then act like it. Heal me, touch me, claim me as a sister and a daughter of OUR God.”
And in that moment, Jesus is convicted, his true calling is claimed, and he is transformed. He goes from acting like just another prophet to being the Son of God, anointed Messiah, change-agent, Redeeming Prince of Peace, bringer of new heaven and new earth. And this woman, now a follower of the Living God in Christ, is no longer “dog,” but “daughter.”
The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women was created in 1972, by a process begun by the United Methodist Women’s Division. The Women’s Division had challenged the institutional church to examine where women were—and were not—present as clergy, as superintendents, as lay leaders, as delegates to General Conference, as agency executives, and as bishops. And what the church discovered about itself was that we were not living as people of a transforming Christ when it came to including women at all levels of church life.
The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women was created in response to a study by the Women’s Division/United Methodist Women. That study found that while women were and still are the most prolific givers to the church and the most likely to volunteer—and while we as the United Methodist Church claim the ministry and Gospel of Jesus Christ as our central value—that women were and still are under-valued as equal partners in the ministry, mission, administration, and proclamation work of this denomination. The Commission was created to challenge our institutional church to insure the presence of women, the voices of women, the leadership of women at all levels of church life, and to ensure that in our bottom line ministries, our four areas of focus, our missional priorities, and our primary tasks, that the perspective, theological understanding, needs, and gifts of God’s women matter and have impact on how we ARE the United Methodist Church.
In 1972, women were 54% of worldwide UMC membership, yet:
- There were no women bishops
- Women were less than 1 percent of all United Methodist clergy.
- Less than 13 percent of General Conference delegates were women.
- Less than 22 percent of voting members of general church and annual conference board members were women.
Glory be to God in Christ, though, we have come a mighty, mighty long way:
- Women are 57 percent of church members around the world.
- Women are more than 25% of pastors serving United Methodist congregations in the United States.
- Women are more than one-third of annual conference and district lay leaders.
- Women are 16 of the nearly 70 active United Methodist bishops currently serving around the world
And as we stand on the threshold of claiming all that it means to be a worldwide United Methodist movement for Jesus Christ, we dare not turn back on our ministry of empowering and raising up women disciples, preachers, teachers, healers, bishops, lay leaders, and treasurers. Because we still have a ways to go.
And the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women wants to ensure that we, as the United Methodist worldwide witness to the transforming, saving power of Jesus Christ, do not abandon our forward movement in the name of culture, of “getting along,” of not offending one race or one clan. We believe in order to be the church God would have us to be that we need to stay true to the declaration of Galatians 3:28 that “there is no longer male and female, for all of you are on in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, the church—national, global, or intergalactic—will not be the church of Jesus Christ unless and until we declare unequivocally that discrimination, abuse and marginalization of women in any church agency, structure, function, policy or perceived practices is antithetical to the Gospel and to our call as the Body of Christ called United Methodist.
Let me make it plainer. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, as an agency not only of the United Methodist Church, but as one called to do God’s will, is saying that we must agree as a global church:
- That women, just like men, are called and are qualified to be ordained ministers, preachers, superintendents, and bishops all around the world wherever a United Methodist cross-and-flame is seen. At least one annual conference in Europe has not one ordained woman. Elsewhere in the world—including the U.S.—the number of women in clergy leadership is much less than the number of laywomen filling the pews, paying the freight, and serving the world through the church. If we want to reach women, and minister with women, and walk with poor women, young women, new-to-church-women, wounded women, and seeking women, then we need leadership that loves, respects, understands, values—and are—women.
- We must agree that a married woman, a woman with children, just like a married man or a man with children can, if called by God, lead a congregation, complete the requirements for ordained ministry, be appointed, grow a church, count money, superintend, be a lay leader. She should not be precluded in the name of region, tradition, or culture. Sexism is not a cultural right in the Church of the Living, Transforming Christ.
- We must agree that women, no less than men, should have the right to marry or not marry, to leave an abusive marriage, and to have a pastor and a religious community that will speak against domestic violence as sin and be a witness for healing and justice.
- We must agree that clergymen and clergywomen should be held to the highest standard of moral and ethical behavior, and this includes the understanding that clergy do not have the God-ordained power to sexually abuse people in their parish and violate their marital vows by engaging in sexual behavior with others, be they male or female. Recently, women from the Philippines who are members of GCSRW’s board of directors reported on challenges stemming from sexual misconduct by clergy males in their country. The women claimed the complaints and allegations by Filipino women and girls are often ignored. If this is true, I contend that a global Body of Christ must say and live the Gospel message that all people are valuable, precious children of God who should not be victimized by anyone, especially not in the church.
I do not mean that culture is not relevant in our work as a church. Walking with Christ in the context of our own languages, histories, colors and cultures is a witness to the universal love and power of our God. I am a product of a people who and a culture who have helped define Liberation Theology for the world. That is a cultural reality that has deepened my personal relationship with Christ and the way I do Christ’s work in the world.
But, again, as we seek to understand the various cultures that define and enrich our global church, we should make sure that we are hearing from women in the global culture.
A lot of what we’re deciding in the Western church with regard to engaging global Christians is being informed by men only. Women are also products of their cultures, and they have something to say about what a global church and a church that is attuned to their cultures should look like. I heard a lot of talk at the 2008 General Conference from men saying things like, “We don’t do this in Africa,” and “This is the Filipino way.” And we heard many White people from the U.S. church presume to interpret a Central Conference ethos based on their interaction solely with Central Conference men in church leadership. But African and Filipino and European United Methodist laywomen and clergywomen, tell me, “There is more than one voice and perspective, and not everyone who is speaking for Africa is speaking for me.”
In an article about United Methodist Women’s cutting-edge mission work in the refugee camps in Sudan in the April 2009 issues of Response magazine, a United Methodist clergyman is quoted as saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to be pastors because, “they are not even-tempered.” He says this even as United Methodist Sudanese women are building grass-roots peace-keeping ministries and agricultural endeavors that are saving the Sudan from death after years of brutal war.
I say we should not be ordaining pastors who do not believe in the Gospel of the Jesus Christ who preached and performed miracles among women at wells and weddings, and gave the first sermon of Good News to Mary Magadala, Mary and Joanna at the tomb. That Jesus who rose from the grave is THE message; and the message was first given to and proclaimed by women. That we still have some annual conferences that have no women preachers or ordained pastors is not something to be celebrated as being faithful to culture, but is to be lamented as unfaithfulness to the God in Jesus who gives the gifts of preaching, teaching, exhorting, prophecy and healing to women and men. We all are products of our cultures. Although there is much to be celebrated and much that defines each of us from our respective cultures (and we ALL have culture from which we draw strength, definition, values, and love of heritage), culture cannot be accepted as an excuse for sexism, racism or classism in any part of the United Methodist Church in the Body of Christ. That must be non-negotiable.
When our Book of Resolutions, which is voted on by delegates from Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States, alike, is available only in English and not widely distributed beyond the U.S., the voice of General Conference, which unites us as a worldwide denomination, is silenced. Resolutions such as “Every Barrier Down: Toward Full Embrace of All Women in Church and Society” (BOR2008, page 517) and “Eradication of Sexism in the Church” (BOR2008, page 525) must be heard across the globe and must apply to all conferences and cultures in which the United Methodist Church claims presence.
Nowhere in any corner of the global United Methodist Church of Jesus Christ should it be acceptable to reject a woman pastor or bishop, keep a woman from being a lay leader or church finance chairperson, or for the church to remain silent in the face of sexual and domestic violence against women and girls in the name of culture.
The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women—an agency of our denomination and an international body of United Methodist laity and clergy—are excited about the conversations and energy around our “global nature” as the United Methodist Church. And we will be watching to ensure that, in our zeal to be “united,” we do not sacrifice what has been hard won among faith-filled Christ-focused women in this denomination. Our vision for God’s church is one where all cultural, political, and traditional barriers to full participation of women are trampled under the feet of those who are in love and charity with all our neighbors, and who are so moved by the Holy Spirit residing in our own hearts and our own sanctuaries, that we become a wave of love and redemption sweeping the sin of exclusion off the face of this earth. Our global nature, we believe, is to be centered in our repentance, redemption, and reclamation of all those we have excluded whenever we have put culture and clan above the name of Christ.
**M. Garlinda Burton, a United Methodist laywoman and member of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., is the general secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women in The United Methodist Church. This paper was presented to the Worldwide Nature of the Church Task Force, Nov. 9, 2009, at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
- Kumalo, The Rev. Simangaliso R., Turning Deserts Into Forests Through Mission: A Model of Ministry and Community Development. Pretoria, South Africa: C.B. Powell Bible Centre, 2003. ISBN 1-86888-282-9.
Myers, Bryant L., Walking With The Poor. Principles and Practices of
Transformational Development. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books and World Vision,
2005. ISBN 1-57075-275-3.
- Ng, David, People on the Way. Asian North Americans Discovering Christ, Culture, and Community, Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1996. ISBN 0817012427.
- “Women In Southern Sudan: Claiming A Peace Dividend,” by Paul Jeffrey, pp. 21-25, in Response magazine, April 2009, Vol. 41, No. 4. Copyright 2009 by the Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church.